In the Spirit of O’Keeffe: A Life Lived Deliberately

I’m not really a hermit.

Living high up on the mountain in Maui at the end of a road (or other remote places I have resided in the past), it’s an accusation that has been leveled at me more than once. I’ve even jokingly referred to myself as a hermit but, really, it’s a bit off the mark. Yes, it’s true that sometimes (okay, often) I’m reluctant to venture forth, being quite content in my sanctuary. I also admit that I’m a rather private person who revels in silence—even extended silence—preferring to be surrounded by the wordless reverie of nature.

Though it seems to be where I usually end up, I don’t actually go looking for a house at the end of the road or lane; I swear, these places find me, instead. What can I say? I am highly attuned to my environment, both outer and inner, and sometimes the need to live deliberately and consciously, to follow a vision, is misunderstood. One must choose to disagree with convention. For that, I find both solace and inspiration in the solitary life of the great painter, Georgia O’Keeffe.

Fifteen years ago, while living in Boulder, Colorado, and traveling in northern New Mexico with a couple of friends, I was fortunate enough to stumble across O’Keeffe’s house at Abiquiu (pronounced ‘abbey-cue’). One half of the couple we were traveling with, a talented painter in her own right, had suggested that we detour west from Taos (where we had spent the night) on our way to Santa Fe, and visit Abiquiu.

Being a fan of O’Keeffe’s work, my friend had always wanted to see the artist’s house, and her idea was unanimously agreed upon by the rest of us. We didn’t know the exact location of the residence but figured that we could certainly ask around the village and discover its whereabouts. We changed course and headed towards the rural farming village along the Chama River, roughly ninety-minutes north of Santa Fe.

Passing the Abiquiu Inn on the lazy green river, there didn’t appear to be much of a town ‘proper’, so we turned off the highway onto a small road that seemed to lead into a residential area. A small group of people who looked suspiciously like tourists had gathered in the wide dirt lot in front of a house, so our rear seat navigator hopped out of the car and walked over to enquire.

He soon trotted back to inform us excitedly that, yes, this was O’Keeffe’s house and that normally reservations are required—the house is only open to guided tours and is sold out well in advance during the summer months—but the guide had said that four people had not shown up for the tour. If we could pay cash for the tickets (normally purchased at the Abiquiu Inn), we could join the group now heading into the house. All other tours this week were sold out. The four of us beamed collectively at our astounding good luck, then parked the car in the shade of some tall cottonwoods along the road, and walked quickly back to pass through the garden gate of the adobe wall.

Until this moment, my only association with Georgia O’Keeffe was a passing familiarity with her famous canvases of flowers and Southwest animal skulls; I knew absolutely nothing of her life and I found the tour fascinating. Yet what captivated me most was the residence itself, which had been rebuilt from a ruin after Ms. O’Keeffe spied the property when looking over the garden’s adobe wall on one of her wanderings in the area in the 1940’s.

In nearly every way, the graceful compound and gardens embodied my vision for a home in Abiquiu OKeeffeNew Mexico. Having lived briefly in Taos, I was already smitten with the local landscape and pueblo-style architecture, and I dreamed regularly of returning there to live in a lovely, gracious, adobe house with well-established gardens. Though O’Keeffe’s decor and choice of bare light bulbs was a bit minimalistic for my taste, I was taken with the rustic simplicity and elegance of the house, the passages and rooms and courtyards, the harmony of buildings and garden… its unique sense of place.

I have rarely, if ever, been so impacted by a house; it was as if my entire body opened in a song. Ever since that fateful encounter, O’Keeffe’s adobe compound on the bluff above the Chama River has beckoned me as an elusive ideal… and maintains a curious hold on my psyche.

The fortuitous opportunity to step inside O’Keeffe’s home is but one of uncountable such episodes in my life, and I have come to believe that the element of chance was entirely absent that day. Mystery handed me yet another golden key. It was simply meant to be… even if I’m still unclear exactly why. Perhaps it was partly the house, and also partly to gain inspiration from the artist herself.

In the years since ‘meeting’ the house, I have learned a bit about O’Keeffe. A remarkable character in nearly every respect, she was already a famous artist when she came to northern New Mexico. She defied nearly all conventions for a woman of the time, and lived forty years in Abiquiu at her two houses: the one I toured in the village of Abiquiu, and a smaller one at Ghost Ranch nearby. O’Keeffe was direct, blunt, strong-willed, and spent most of her time in a very solitary manner; walking the land and painting the remarkable light and landscape she viewed from her studio.

Keenly attuned to keeping things simple—spare or spartan, even—she lived in a very deliberate, articulate manner. The smallest acts became rituals of attention: focusing on a random stone or flower, eating dinner, being in the garden. And painting, of course. She had a powerful bond with nature. With its wonderful garden and trees, the sweeping view from her studio, her adobe house above the river was a beautiful, treasured refuge; a handcrafted sanctuary where she was able to drop ever deeper into her work, vision and art.

To pursue one’s vision not only takes courage but is often difficult for others to understand. As written eloquently in the stunning photography book, O’Keeffe at Abiquiu, “A private life is not so much apart from others as it is a vision intent upon simple discovery, upon the need to be present, unseparated from consciousness by other’s expectations.” A welcoming house in a remote location, built of the earth itself and surrounded by nature, free of the distractions of society, fueled O’Keeffe’s creative art and nourished her soul.

Was she a hermit? Or rather a highly talented artist who drew inspiration and nourishment from the expansive landscape that surrounded her.

I would offer that our task in life is to emerge from our patterns of containment and fully open to the Deep Imagination which seeks to emerge through us as our gift to the ‘more-than-human’ world. And part of that personal evolution is to find (or create) the environment that best supports our unique expression.

When we are steeped in solitude, it is then that we can best listen and hear (or feel, sense, see, intuit) what waits to emerge through us. We can draw near to our life and examine it as an artist does. When we live deliberately, we draw soulful nourishment from what surrounds and embraces… the wind in the trees, the changing moods of light and weather, the quiet passages and seasons of the garden. And that is quite different, I think, than simply being a hermit… for we are actually seeking to offer something vital of ourselves to the world, not merely retreat from it.

I wonder what Miss O’Keeffe would say…?

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