Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
ABIQUIU – Georgia O’Keeffe’s panoramic studio windows frame the green Chama River Valley, the white stripes of Plaza Blanca and the juniper-speckled foothills as cattle graze along the river.
It is a beautiful place to grow old.
O’Keeffe first visited the village of Abiquiú in 1931. She made it her permanent home nearly two decades later. Owned and managed by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the house is located roughly 60 miles northwest of Santa Fe. It’s open to the public seasonally for guided tours with reservations.
Museum staff members refer to the artist almost reverentially as “Miss O’Keeffe.”
About 15,000 visitors annually visit the 7,000-square-foot home and studio where O’Keeffe lived and worked. Since the pandemic reduced the number of allowable visitors, this year’s count will likely end with between 8,000 and 9,000.
A blend of Spanish colonial and Native American style, the oldest rooms of the house date to the 1740s. During the 19th century, the original Spanish owners expanded the property into a pueblo-style adobe hacienda, with rows of rooms organized around a common open space or plazuela.
When O’Keeffe discovered the property, it was in ruins. She had learned to drive in New Mexico and bought herself a Model A Ford with wood panels, removing the passenger seat to make room for her easel.
“She saw this property and it had an incredible garden,” curator of historic properties Giustina Renzoni said. “The villagers had kept the garden active.”
The original family had donated the property to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. When O’Keeffe tried to buy it, the church wasn’t ready to let it go.
“She was very persistent,” Renzoni said.
Ten years later, the archdiocese sold it to the artist for $500. O’Keeffe also gave the church a $2,500 donation.
To visit the house is to enter the time capsule of an artist who knew what she wanted. Streamlined and largely white, its minimalist mix of adobe with a cement stucco treatment on the exterior remains neat and uncluttered. She draped whatever she didn’t want to look at – especially cardboard storage boxes – with white linen. Tidbits and clues to her ownership abound.
The spirals she created in her sculptures echo in the white rattlesnake bones coiled inside a glass display case placed in her living room banco. The antlers and skulls of elks and rams hang from walls.
A bubbling acequia feeds the garden she loved. Cottonwood, blue spruce and tamarisk trees canopy the flower garden. The raised vegetable garden still germinates produce, tended by local children given internships.
“We donate from 200-300 pounds of food annually to local food banks,” Renzoni said. “This garden has been producing food now for at least 300 years.”
One of the courtyard walls first lured O’Keeffe into the property.
“As I climbed and walked about in the ruin I found a patio with a very pretty well house and bucket to draw up water,” she said. “It was a good-sized patio with a long wall with a door to one side. That wall with a door in it was something I had to have.”
She painted that old door more than 20 times.
After buying the property in 1945, O’Keeffe supervised its restoration, conducted by her friend Maria Chabot. Local workers used 22,000 adobe bricks in its construction.
The home reveals her commitment to aesthetics and design. Distinctly modern, natural light floods its rooms. Rock and bones decorate the windowsills.
If you were invited to dinner, you brought an interesting-looking rock.
Born on a farm near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, O’Keeffe made her own tables using plywood and sawhorses. She was both frugal and resourceful, often sewing her own clothes.
Classical music wafts throughout the house. The artist favored the Baroque period, particularly Bach and Vivaldi.
“She liked to sit on her bancos and listen to music,” Renzoni said.
Her stereo system still stands in the studio, tape mark glue stuck beneath the switches and knobs.
“No one touched her settings,” Renzoni said.
A small, white epoxy resin sculpture of a downcast woman crowns a marble table in the sunlit studio.
“We call this the mourning figure,” Renzoni. “She made it when her mother died in 1916.”
One of her famous wrap dresses hangs from a hook in her tiny closet in the back of her equally small bathroom. A single bed covered in white linen dominates her small bedroom. A bronze Buddhist hand hangs on the fireplace. It dates to 15th-century Thailand.
“It means ‘fear not,’” Renzoni said. “Every morning she woke up to this view and this hand to live her life. She used to say, ‘Highway 84 is the road to Española and the rest of the world.’”
O’Keeffe maintained friendships with the people surrounding her. She donated indoor plumbing to many Abiquiú families. She also grew friendly with the scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
At the back of the property, nestled into the bottom of a hill, hides a makeshift bomb shelter with a crooked screen door. The artist had it installed in the 1960s.
It’s not on the tour; cholla cactus roots have invaded the roof, Renzoni explained.
“She had things like a Geiger counter and a big can of dog biscuits in there.”
As the artist’s fame grew, visitors showed up at her door unannounced.
When staff members told her she had an unexpected guest, O’Keeffe sometimes complied.
“She said, ‘I heard you wanted to see me,’” Renzoni said.
The artist then spun in a circle, adding, “I hope you enjoyed seeing me and I hope you enjoy the rest of your day,” before flouncing off.
O’Keeffe lived in the house from 1945 until 1984.
She died in 1986 in Santa Fe at 98.
The O’Keeffe Home and Studio was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1998 and is now part of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.