The Rio Chama, near Abiquiu, New Mexico.

I went to the desert seeking Georgia O’Keeffe. Not the person — she died more than a decade ago. Not her home or studio — they are privately owned and inaccessible to the general public. But the landscapes that O’Keeffe loved, the sources of her inspiration.

I’ve been a fan of O’Keeffe’s artwork for years, but it’s her persona — who she was and what she represented — that fascinates me. This strong, individualistic woman was a maverick in the art world, refusing to adhere to any of the established schools of painting. She wasn’t afraid to stray from the norm; she expressed herself with images that were unique at the time, and clearly her own. She created art for her own satisfaction, not in order to please a certain audience, or the critics, or anyone other than herself.

In 1929 O’Keeffe began making annual pilgrimages to New Mexico — first to Taos, later to Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu. She would spend up to half the year there, often alone, exploring and painting the red rock mountains, dusty arroyos, and sun-bleached animal bones that she found there. Although this work brought her “far away from most of the people (she) cared about,” it was vital to her as both an artist and a person.

At the end of each desert sojourn O’Keeffe would return to the east to show and sell her work. But this was often a bittersweet time, for in order to be reunited with her husband and friends, she had to tear herself away from her chosen landscape. “I feel smothered with green,” O’Keeffe once remarked upon returning to the east at the end of July.

This comment in particular is striking to me because it runs counter to my own feelings about landscape. For me, that “suffocating” green is like a breath of fresh air. It’s the dry brown desert that leaves me gasping.

A few weeks ago I traveled with my mother to New Mexico for a 5-day vacation. Flying into Albuquerque, we had an excellent view of the city and its environs. Albuquerque is bordered on one side by mountains, but on the other side the desert stretches out as far as the eye can see.

The desert landscape is a palette comprised of more subtle variations in hue than we are accustomed to here on the East Coast. Cottonwoods, tamarisks and Russian olive trees, along with the ever-present sagebrush provide a touch of green, but it is a muted color, designed to blend in to a great extent with the rocks and the dirt. It was spring and the rivers were high, so from the airplane window I quickly sought out the Rio Grande. The water was the same light brown color as the desert floor, the only difference being the satiny sheen on its surface, providing enough contrast to distinguish it from the dusty ground.

In early May I took a scenic flight from Marshfield’s airport. My companion and I intentionally chose the day of the full moon, and went up at high tide so that we’d see as much water as possible. The scene below was one of abundance. Most of the trees were still in bud and yet to leaf out, but the grasses had already shed their winter dullness. The rivers were full to the brim, the salt marshes flooded, a landscape rife with potential, nearly overflowing with life.

This is where I draw my inspiration. Miss O’Keeffe would be gasping for breath.

I used to think one’s preference in landscape had to do with where one grew up, but that’s not always the case. It runs deeper than that. O’Keeffe was brought up on the Wisconsin prairie and later moved to the mountains of Charlottesville, Virginia. A teaching assignment near Amarillo, Texas first introduced her to the western landscape, but it wasn’t until she was in her thirties, when she’d been painting professionally for more than a decade, that she discovered New Mexico, a place that, in her words, “call(s) one in a way that one has to answer it.”

I too hear the desert’s call, but it’s a much more fleeting thing for me. I’ve traveled off and on in the American west for the past ten years or so, but I never need to stay there long. I love the stark beauty of the desert, the richly-colored rock, the wide, flat expanses of sand and sage, the sheer amount of space between one place and the next. But the desert, arid and unforgiving, makes me homesick . . . and thirsty. There just isn’t enough moisture to satisfy some essential part of me — the part that’s flourished here at the ocean’s edge, breathing the damp sea air for 27 years now.

The highlight of this last trip to New Mexico was a brief, chance stop along the side of a mountain road. We’d been to Ghost Ranch, a conference center near where Georgia O’Keeffe had built one of her homes, and were en route to Abiquiu, the town in which she had built her other one. We had immersed ourselves in O’Keeffean landscape — the white hills, the red rocks, the Penitente churches, the flat-topped Pedernal mountain. Coming around a corner, we caught a glimpse of the Rio Chama, and pulled over to the roadside to take pictures.

From this high vista I could see the river snaking down out of the mountains, its sandy banks studded with cottonwoods and Russian olive trees. The sky was blue, and the water reflected back some of that color, in strong contrast to the deep reds of the canyon walls around it. We were only there for a few minutes, but the scene stays with me.

I was pleased later to discover that O’Keeffe too had taken an interest in that scene. Looking through some books later that night I came across not only her painting of the Rio Chama from the same vantage point, but also a photograph of O’Keeffe there, camera in hand, taking her own picture of the scene. For me, the river, rocks and sky represented a rare scene of abundance. For O’Keeffe, it may well have been an anomaly, an exception to the starkness of the desert that she loved so much.

Five days in the desert isn’t a long stay, but it was enough for me . . . until next time. I’d been back almost a week when a work assignment brought me to the South River in Humarock — the first time I’d been to the river in over a month.

Stepping out of my car, I could feel a breeze coming off the water. Catching a whiff of the river’s earthy scent, I followed it until I arrived at a place that offered a good view. It was an hour short of low tide, and the marsh grasses had begun to turn green. I wanted to drop everything, get into my kayak, and see what sorts of changes spring had brought to the river . . . but that would have to wait.

The scene was more beautiful than I’d remembered it. I took a deep breath, promising myself that soon I’d be out on the water. Finally, I felt that I was home.

by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
May 1999

Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance, and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of the latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.