An art-inspired pilgrimage to the Land of Enchantment
by Janis Turk
“This is wonderful. No one told me it was like this!” exclaimed artist Georgia O’Keeffe when she first visited northern New Mexico in 1917. From that moment, her love for the Southwest and its red-rock canyon lands never waned.
Best-known for paintings of enlarged flowers, sun-bleached animal skulls and Southwestern landscapes, this 20th-century American painter and pioneer of American Modernism spent the last years of her life in Abiquiú before passing away in Santa Fe in 1986. She was 98.
At first, O’Keeffe didn’t want to tell others about the “Land of Enchantment,” because, she wrote, “Other people may be interested, and I don’t want them interested.”
Too late, Ms. O’Keeffe; people are interested.
Of course, she’s partly responsible for that, for New Mexico’s high desert mountains, cottonwood trees and adobe structures were recurrent subjects of her internationally recognized paintings.
Today, thousands of visitors make pilgrimages each year to O’Keeffe country, stretching from Santa Fe to Abiquiú, Ghost Ranch and Taos. Not found on maps, O’Keeffe country is bounded only by the artist’s memories and travelers’ imaginations.
Some sense a spiritual kinship to New Mexico, claiming it inspires creativity. Others find the Southwestern scenery quietly calming. Many remain ardent fans of O’Keeffe’s art.
Groups traveling here can visit places the artist lived and loved best, enjoy museums dedicated to her art and experience the rugged, restless beauty of the Southwest.
O’Keeffe country begins and ends in Santa Fe, the “City Different.” Start at a hotel brimming with art: La Fonda on the Plaza. With its peerless $300-million collection of Southwestern and American Indian art, La Fonda offers a special Georgia O’Keeffe package, including tickets to the nearby Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, breakfast at the hotel’s La Plazuela courtyard restaurant, luxury accommodations and good-value rates. Art-centric property tours led by knowledgeable volunteer docents are offered several mornings each week. The recently renovated hotel, with roots dating to 1607, remains, modern and stylish. Awash in Southwestern accents, it features an enclosed central courtyard, kiva-style fireplaces, boutiques, art galleries, a bakery and live music in the lobby bar. La Fonda’s multi-level garage is perfect for vans and small motorcoaches, and a nearby lot accommodates large buses.
La Fonda rests steps from the famed Santa Fe Plaza, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and Research Center, numerous shops, restaurants, historic chapels, museums and art galleries.
Tour Canyon Road, a half-mile strip brimming with 100 galleries, boutiques and restaurants. There The Compound offers fine dining, with ample space for parking large vehicles, and houses a small but impeccable collection of local art.
For the ultimate Santa Fe mind-body-spirit experience, just a 10-minute drive from town, visit Ten Thousand Waves, offering specially curated Japanese spa services in a serene setting edging the Santa Fe National Forest.
Head north on US-84/US-285 and behold magnificent vistas en route to The O’Keeffe: Welcome Center at Abiquiú, 47 miles from Santa Fe. Arrange to make a short detour along the way for lunch or a dip in the hot spring-fed pools of Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa.
Upon arrival at The O’Keeffe: Welcome Center at Abiquiú, view a short film before boarding a shuttle to the Abiquiú Home & Studio Tour. O’Keeffe purchased the 18th-century ruins of a sprawling Spanish Colonial compound in December 1946 and spent three years restoring the property where she would live until 1984. Tours are offered March 5 through November 26, Tuesdays through Saturdays. (One week each April, the house is closed). Visit the gift shop or Café Abiquiú & LaTerraza at the adjacent Abiquiú Inn. For many years the artist divided her time between New York and New Mexico. By 1949 she made permanent residence in New Mexico, usually spending winter and spring in Abiquiú and summer and fall at Ghost Ranch.
Just 14 miles northwest, the scenery becomes even more spectacular approaching the 21,000-acre (85 km) Ghost Ranch Education & Retreat Center, a former dude ranch set in the Piedra Lumbre (“Shining Rock”) area where O’Keeffe first visited in 1934 and later would live and work, purchasing a home and seven acres there in 1940. Its landscape became a favorite painting subject, especially Cerro Pedernal, a mesa of the Jemez Mountains. Today Ghost Ranch offers classes, movies, tours, nature tours, horseback rides, and three O’Keeffe–inspired tours: “Walking in Georgia O’Keeffe’s Footsteps,” “Wednesdays with O’Keeffe,” and an “O’Keeffe Landscape Tour.”
O’Keeffe described the area around the town of Taos, about 62 miles northeast of Abiquiú, as “beautiful, untouched [and] lonely… a fine part of what I call the ‘Faraway.’”
At the Mabel Dodge Luhan House (now a hotel), visit the place where O’Keeffe stayed and kept a studio when visiting in 1929. Once a private home welcoming visiting scholars and artists such as D.H. Lawrence and O’Keeffe, for nearly a century it has stood at the center of art, creativity and education in Taos.
“Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant,” wrote O’Keeffe. “It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.” True, but surely the artist would understand why so many long to see the land she loved.