The White Place

Recently, in the basement shop of San Antonio Central Library, I bought for $5 a beautiful, oversized hardback book containing 100 or so colour plates of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings (a few plates had been torn out). Both the paintings and the accompanying text by the artist I found inspiring. So during a road trip that Mike, Mattie and I made to New Mexico, when I learned that the artist’s old house was open to the public, I was most interested.

‘It’ll take just over an hour to get to Abiquiu from Taos, if you take the cross-country route,’ the lady on the other end of the telephone advised. ‘Can you make it by 1pm?’
‘I’m sure we can’, I replied, glancing at my watch: we had well over 2 hours to get there.
Mike, who unfortunately had some urgent business to attend to that day was unable to join me and Mattie. He kindly filled the coolbox with ice and I did a quick check of our picnic goodies and then we were off. We drove out of town the wrong way but my mistake did allow us a glimpse of the Ranchos de Taos church, plates of which I recalled from my gorgeous book. We turned around and then drove west on scenic Highway 64 to the Rio Grande gorge, traversing the river via a rather splendid bridge. Mattie was now napping so I parked and left her for a few minutes whilst I took a photo. I felt a little dizzy gazing into the depths.

Half a mile beyond the gorge bridge, we turned south and drove along a long, empty road until I spotted the river again in the distance and I made a slight detour to get a different view of it. The Rio Grande was even more beautiful here than at the gorge bridge, and void of tourists, too. With a glance at the time I hopped back in the car and a little later we were heading south-west along one of those roads that on the map looks as though you’ll only be on it for a few minutes but which goes on forever and I began to feel a little anxious, wondering if I had missed some turnoff along the way. At this point Mattie awoke and reminded me that we had to get to Abiquiu by 1pm, as though I wasn’t aware of it! Eventually, we approached another junction, I checked my map and yes, we were on the right road but, I calculated, we had about another half-hour to go and it was now 12.30pm. The landscape had become gently lovely: I recall pink and cream rocks punctuated with dark green shrubs. ‘Did Georgia O’Keefe ever come along this route?’ I wondered aloud to Mattie who then joyously spotted a sign for the New Inn at Abiquiu. We turned at the next junction and roared up the road a mile or two until the inn and the booking office came into view. It was a minute before 1pm. There we were asked to leave our cameras and bags in a locker before we were bundled, along with half a dozen other visitors, into a minibus and immediately left for the old village of Abiquiu, located a mile or so up a nearby hill. The driver (the grandson of Georgia O’Keefe’s former gardener) brought the minibus to a halt outside a long adobe wall which, we were told, formed the boundary of the artist’s property. (It was only on coming to visit New Mexico that I understood why O’Keefe so often painted adobe walls: their colours, shadows and curves made me instinctively want to reach out and stroke them.)

When Georgia O’Keefe bought the house in 1945, Abiquiu village consisted mainly of shepherd and farming families and she was viewed as an outsider. After the house was renovated she spent more and more time there, often entertaining friends and visiting artists. She was forced to leave the house, due to ill health, in 1984 and since then it had been largely untouched. Through a ‘window’ or, rather, a hole in an adobe wall, we peered into her living room. Sadly inaccessible due to the fragile state of its mud floor, the room was minimalist in décor yet looked cosy and comfortable; its beige, brown and grey colours imitated the large, smooth pebbles that had once been collected by the artist and arranged around the room. ‘There’s your book!’ Mattie exclaimed suddenly and there, leaning against a mid-century armchair, was a copy of the book that I had purchased in the library sale. ‘That was Georgia O’Keefe’s own copy,’ the guide said. I looked closer: it was almost identical to mine except that the sky on ‘her’ front cover appeared to be cobalt blue whereas on mine it is turquoise.

Mattie was writing notes in her little journal as we entered the open portion of the house by way of a courtyard. There was a well, an ancient juniper tree and, near the doorway, a skull of an elk with antlers, suspended on a wall: was that the same skull that appeared on the front cover of my book, I wondered? Mattie found it amusing to hear that O’Keefe’s gardener had written his initials on the elk’s antlers, the well and other structures. When I later asked Mattie what her main impression was of the visit, she answered, ‘The way the gardener left his mark by putting his initials on everything.’
We then entered an ancient, restored pueblo cooking room, which in turn led into a ‘modern’ kitchen where the artist, we heard, loved to cook. I imagined her standing there at the stove in her customary long, black dress. The kitchen still contained all her spice jars, food packets and electrical gadgets from the 1980s and even some of her original potted succulents. A kitchen table and chairs stood before a large window that gave out onto pinkish-red hills and cottonwood trees.

On exiting the kitchen we crossed another courtyard to a separate structure that housed O’Keefe’s studio and adjoining bedroom. Both rooms were painted white, unlike the rest of the house which was a soft mud-brown. I imagined the artist painting under the fluorescent studio lights to the strains of her favourite Monteverdi and Bach. On a shelf lay a couple of hand-rolled pots that she created in her later years when failing eyesight made painting difficult. A row of small, thick notebooks that contained her painting notes covered the top of a wide cupboard next to a large window which looked out onto the Chama River valley. Mattie turned to me and said, ‘The view would inspire anyone to be creative!’ I was thrilled that she seemed so invigorated. For me, the experience was magical. The guide then passed around a selection of O’Keefe prints; one, The White Place, depicted a pale rock formation in soft hues. ‘The White Place is not far from here, you can get details of its location from the booking office,’ the guide informed us. On exiting the house, we were told to help ourselves to apricots and apples that had fallen from nearby trees.

‘I must go back and take photos,’ I told Mattie later as we got in our car. We drove up the hill and although Georgia O’Keefe’s house was now out of bounds to us we had a closer look at the empty village square, including the building that once had been Bode’s, the grocery shop that the artist had patronized, and at the top of the small hill stood an ancient church with three large crosses planted in its grounds. We gathered some fallen apricots for our picnic and then followed the directions to the White Place. We followed an unpaved road along the Chama river, handsomely lined with cottonwoods and then turned east and the terrain became more and more uneven and I began to wonder, again, if we were on the right tracks when, out of the blue, a set of white limestone rocks appeared before us. ‘What a wonderful place for a picnic,’ I exclaimed. We stopped and laid out our picnic blanket, quite alone in this wilderness. Later, as Mattie wrote in her journal, I went for a short stroll, all the while imagining the artist wandering around the area, looking for a favourite painting spot. (Back in San Antonio I checked my book and was pleased to see that it contained a plate of the area: The White Place In Shadow.)

Later that afternoon, colours of white, cream and pink rock changed to deep red and ochre as we left the White Place and moved north, headed for Ghost Ranch where Georgia O’Keefe had owned another small house and studio. ‘She spent fifty summers here,’ announced the guide who greeted us on arrival. We didn’t have time for a tour of Ghost Ranch and it was a lot more touristy than Abiquiu, but we did get a glimpse of the surrounding red and purple cliffs and in the small gift shop I purchased a card called Cottonwoods Near Abiquiu that recalled our picnic drive. ‘There’s a thunderstorm on the way,’ the guide then announced, looking upwards. The sky had become dark purple, streaked with lightening so Mattie and I hurriedly took to the road again. We just missed the storm as we continued northwards to Highway 64. Soon we had climbed to over 9,000 feet and the high meadows were full of wildflowers, including tall, floppy orange daisies that I hadn’t seen before, and I was particularly struck by some huge craggy rocks emerging through the mist that recalled a Caspar David Friedrich painting. As we began our descent, Taos soon came into view and Mattie rang Mike to let him know we would be back soon for dinner. Mike told us to be careful, as it had been raining hard in Taos all afternoon. As we entered the damp town, we were thrilled to see a double rainbow in the sky…

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