I’m in New Mexico and hour north of Santa Fe in the village of Abiquiu, where painter Georgia O’Keeffe reconstructed a dilapidated adobe, converting it into a winter home of extraordinary minimalism. She would have been at home in the living simply movement of modernity. One could also say she shaped it.
Here in Nuevo Mexico, thinking of Mexico is unavoidable. The vast, expansive, unending landscape of desert, scrub oak, sage and cactus always brings me back to the root of native Americans, of indigenous First Nation peoples, to New Spain and the conquest, to the land that was once an integral part of Mexico. Place names call out original Hispanic settlers, land grants. Tribal communities draw parallels to Mexican pueblos where creativity thrives and hardship is an undercurrent.
The land stretches out in folds, crevices, upheavals, arroyos, twelve thousand foot mountain ranges. It is dry and hot in July. It is getting drier and hotter. Afternoon thunder clouds build up and in the distant purple hills, I see rods of lightening and the softening horizon of rain. Along the green ribbon Rio Grande River Valley ancient peoples who migrated south from Mesa Verde continue their traditions.
We are not permitted to photograph the interior of the Georgia O’Keeffe Home and Studio in Abiquiu. We are not permitted to take photos of the interior through the glass picture windows while standing outside. The home is as it was when she left it, each particular and well-chosen item in its particular place. Each item a sculptural statement, most created by icons of modern furniture design.
The walls are pale mushroom or cream or beige or faded salmon. They are thick adobe. Deep and cool. Through the window is a living painting. The walls are barren. Bare. Empty only to the imagination of what might lay beyond. The vast changing of the sky, the season, the chill or warmth of air. One can imagine the isolation and solitude of living there amidst the expansiveness of the hills, mountains, a ribbon of road, eagles soaring on the thermals, a garden to feed and nurture belly and soul.
The palette at the O’Keeffe house in Abiquiu is neutral. White cotton covers the kitchen sofa. The kitchen faces north, the light preferred by painters, the guide tells us. The windows are huge. Standard Sears metal cabinets disappear recessed into deep adobe walls. The table is simple whitewashed plywood that sits atop sawhorses, worn smooth with use and age. Nature and living space merge.
Throughout the house the naked walls speak — nothing is necessary. A painter’s easel served as coat rack when she turned from painting to making ceramic vessels.
Details complicate things, she said. To become acquainted with an idea, one must revisit the same subject over and over. Her paintings took on the austere minimalist life she lived. Seeing this, hearing this, reminded me of the traveling exhibit Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern, I saw in Winston-Salem, NC, at Reynolda House, that included a dress that she designed and sewed into multiple versions using different fabrics and colors.
Being there also challenges one to revisit lifestyle and think about how we are acculturated to consume, compete and communicate. I am always grateful for these moments of self-reflection to ask the essential question: Who am I? What is the meaning of my life? Being with O’Keeffe in Abiquiu helps in the continuing process of self-reflection.
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