VISIONARY: GEORGIA O'KEEFFE'S ABIQUIU GARDEN
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Georgia O’Keeffe is known as the innovative mother of modernism in the art world. She was also a gardener. O’Keeffe's garden in Abiquiu, NM has always moved me as a visionary, gardener’s garden - one of those gardens of the mind, the hands, the heart and a place.
I first visited Georgia O’Keeffe’s garden at her pueblo home in Abiquiu, NM close to 17 years ago, it moved me as a gardener’s garden, as a garden of both heart and place. To end 2017 with a flourish, exploring the nature of this human gardening impulse, and entering our own next turns on this great globe, we visit this visionary woman’s beloved garden.
I’m going to wager that you agree with me on this – when you meet a garden of both meaning and beauty, you know it. When you meet a landscape that speaks to the layered evolution and history of this planet, your entire sympathetic nervous system lets you know – whether you could articulate it or not. You know when you enter a gardener’s garden. And you know when it’s a garden or landscape of spirit.
To walk into the Abuqiui, NM home and garden of innovative and groundbreaking twentieth century American artist Georgia O’Keeffe is to walk into such a space - interconnected to an iconic and sacred landscape that stretches as far as the eye can see. It is both open and enclosed, it is rich and spare, it is colorful and monochromatic, it is productive and contemplative.
On a cool sunny morning in late November, I had the honor of speaking with Agapita Judy Lopez, Director of Historic Properties for the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, in Georgia O’Keeffe’s white, open studio with wide windows overlooking iconic red clay hills and sage brush slopes – sights familiar to you if you’ve seen O’Keeffe’s landscape paintings. Pita, as she is known, and I sat as well as in Ms. O’Keeffe’s small and tidy functional kitchen, with potted pelargoniums lining the windowsill looking out to Miss O’Keeffe’s applesauce producing apple tree.
Imagine while you listen, sitting there with us. We explore the history of the inspiration, of the relief and rest, and of the nourishment the gardens and landscapes provided to O’Keeffe’s art, to her wellbeing and to her sense of self.
“I think my favorite place is the walled vegetable garden, because it brings back great memories of not just picking things to cook for her, and doing the different lettuces, but it's a sense of her, a sense of her place…I would say she was not a religious person, but she was very spiritual, [which] you feel in her exterior spaces…her patios, her garden, the landscape at the ranch, her back yard, her front yard - all these spaces are so spiritual.""
Agapita Judy Lopez, Curator of Historic Properties
The Georgia O'Keeffe Musuem
Georgia O’Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887. Throughout her life she lived in and enjoyed many landscapes – Wisconsin and the Midwest, Virginia and the Southeast, Chicago, Illinois and Amarillo, Texas, New York City and upstate New York at Lake George with her husband the famed photograph Alfred Stieglitz. But it was when she first traveled to New Mexico in 1929 and decided to put down roots there that she truly seemed to find her spirit home – as an artist, thinker, nature lover and person.
Georgia O’Keeffe once wrote to a friend about her Abiquiu house and garden, which she spent ten years trying to buy from the Catholic church:
“This house is just another of the odd things I have done in my life, it even has a garden
all walled in, and it has surprised me to feel what a warming
difference it can make in one’s life.”
O’Keeffe fell in love with her Abiquiu house and garden in the 1930s, while already coming to the area and staying long periods of time at the Ghost Ranch property. She fell in love with first with the historic adobe wall surrounding the garden and helping to enclose some of the interior patios. It was a double wooden door in the wall of one of these interior patios that caught and held her attention throughout her 48 year relationship with the home and garden, and she painted this door in this wall over and over again in her work throughout her career.
Once the Catholic Church finally agreed to sell the run down building and its grounds – with water and irrigation rights all of which date back to the 1700s – to O’Keeffe in 1945, it would take another 4 years before she was settled permanently in New Mexico at which time she alternated time between her Abiquiu house and garden and her Ghost Ranch house. Between learning she would own the Abiquiu property she dreamed of in 1945 and finally residing in it in 1949– she became the first woman to be honored with a career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in mid-1946 (May – Aug), her husband died in July of 1946 and she spent the next few years settling his estate and managing retrospective exhibits of his work.
All the while O’Keeffe’s friend Maria Chabot, oversaw the renovation of the Abiquiu house and garden and the two women communicated about the planning and work regularly. By June of 1949, O’Keeffe was a permanent resident of New Mexico, where she would spend the rest of her life. In the early 1970s, Agapita Judy Lopez (Pita) became O’Keeffe’s companion, reading to her and helping with cooking as O'Keeffe's macular degeneration increased. Ultimately, she became O'Keeffe's secretary. O'Keeffe died in 1986 and Lopez has worked ever since in various capacities to preserve O'Keeffe's legacy. Preservation of the historic adobe property has been the charge of Pita and her family for three generations. Her grandfather was O'Keeffe's gardener, her mother cooked and kept house and she and her brother both worked with O’Keeffe and continue to work for the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Pita is currently the Director of Historic Properties for the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
The museum consists of the museum itself in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as O’Keeffe’s two residences north of Santa – her house at Ghost Ranch, and her home and garden in the Abiquiu, NM. The homes and their outdoor spaces – both cultivated and wild - were integral to Georgia O’Keeffe’s groundbreaking artwork, her own physical and mental well-being, to her very sense of self. O’Keeffe’s artwork is known for its stunning close-up to the point of almost being colorful abstract studies of flowers and their inner workings and parts, of the redclay mountains, sage brush and cholla spotted hillsides and wide open blue skies of New Mexico – including aspects of its ancient cultural iconography. Georgia O’Keeffe’s garden spaces – a well-loved and productive vegetable and cutting flower garden, an orchard, as well as simple but moving contemplative interior patios each with just one or two very carefully chosen and tended plants – were part and parcel of who she was as a person, as a woman, as an artist of global importance.
A new year is one of those thresholds where we’re more inclined than ever to pause and take stock about – where we’ve been – where we hope to go….I think back on this second year of Cultivating Place and I think – how do I want to end this year of exploring and celebrating our human impulse to garden – how it connects and grounds us - to the planet beneath our feet and the communities around us. How this impulse offers us daily access to the inner sanctums of our own minds and hearts. And I decided I want to end 2017 on something of a visionary note – one connecting us to the past and firmly looking toward a future in which every garden and gardener, nature lover and naturalist move the needle of our world into a place of greater awareness, intentional action, and deeper connection. Because that’s the power and meaning of these things for us.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I find every gardener, every garden designer or landscape architect, every flower farmer and floral designer, every garden to table chef, every school garden administrator, ever garden writer or nature advocate to be a visionary – an activist. Every one of you manifests hope and positive action. But - I wanted to sum up 2017 and open the gates to 2018 with a garden and gardener and garden practice illustrating how simultaneously very simple and beautifully complex this impulse to garden is – how it’s handed down to us from generations past and how it’s among the most valuable of things we offer to the future.
Pita and I started our conversation sitting in Georgia O’Keeffe’s studio itself – with its windows looking out over the Chama River Valley, its ribbon of Cottonwood bosque along the river, its red and white hills dotted with pinyon, sage, cholla cactus, juniper and native grasses. We ended our conversation sitting at Miss O’Keeffe’s simple white wooden kitchen table. Pots of pelargoniums, and handfuls of the artist’s collected rocks (which line most flat surfaces in her home and garden) lined the window gathering sunlight, two large potted jade plants greened the interior of the room – between the kitchen and the "roofless" room. I could imagine Georgia O’Keeffe fixing her garden-to-kitchen salads, her soups and her herb teas there while also absorbing the light and the view. It felt very powerful and peaceful to be there with Pita.
Which is among the things I love most about this program the energetic connections we offer to one another – all of us gardeners and plant folk no matter how we might manifest that out there in and around the world. We’re everywhere and our human impulse to garden is important. It makes a difference to our mindsets, to our families, to our communities and to our environments.
I wanted to both end and begin again by celebrating that this impulse of ours is inextricably intertwined with our greatest passions - feeding our bodies and spirits – enriching our environmental and human communities – helping to grow a greater world.
A very happy new year to you as you continue your journey cultivating your place.
For more information on the houses and gardens of Georgia O'Keeffe - this is a wonderful book with outstanding history and images: https://www.ghostranch.org/product/georgia-okeeffe-and-her-houses-ghost-ranch-and-abiquiu/, co-written by Agapita Judy Lopez.
If you're on the east coast and would like a chance to see some of O'Keeffe's seminal work - follow the 2018 exhibition being put on and traveled by the New York Botanic Garden: https://www.nybg.org/content/uploads/2017/05/NYBG_Georgia_OKeeffe_announcement_release.pdf
Cultivating Place is an award-winning co-production of North State Public Radio, where it airs every Thursday at 10 am PST.