Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “I’ve been terrified every day of my life and it’s never stopped me from doing anything.” The iconic artist’s life is proof that she lived her philosophy. She independently pursued her singular artistic vision, defying every expectation for women artists in the early 1900s.
Beginning in 1929, she spent summers living a largely-solitary life in rugged New Mexico. Each winter she returned to New York and her tumultuous marriage to photographer Alfred Stieglitz. She moved to New Mexico permanently in 1949 following Stieglitz’s death.
O’Keeffe was one of the first truly modern artists in the U.S. She recorded the sun-bleached bones and then exotic-seeming landscapes of the Southwest in her inimitable style and created enormously enlarged examinations of the heart of weeds and wildflowers. Today her work is among the most recognizable American art. The artist’s name has become synonymous with Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the O’Keeffe Museum — the only museum in the United States named for a woman artist — is located. Travelers from around the world visit Santa Fe every day in pursuit of O’Keeffe art and lore.
Of course, visiting Georgia O’Keeffe’s home is the ultimate homage to her life and work. Here’s what you need to know before you go.
To Visit Georgia O’Keeffe’s Home, You Must Plan Ahead
Many are sorely disappointed to find they cannot visit O’Keeffe’s remarkable home because they didn’t plan ahead. With a $40 ticket price, the O’Keeffe home may be one of the most affordable opportunities to see American art up close and personal, but a visit requires some planning.
First of all, you need to know the O’Keeffe home is not in Santa Fe; it’s a little over an hour to the northwest in the tiny traditional New Mexico village of Abiquiu (pronounced abbey-queue). There is no public transportation between the town and Santa Fe — you need a car to get there. The drive itself can be a treat, with spectacular ribbon-striped rock formations interspersed with richly colored grasslands. However, on the picturesque highways to Abiquiu, you’ll pass through several small towns and Pueblo jurisdictions, all with seriously reduced speed limits that are strictly enforced. Consider yourself forewarned!
And don’t plan to just show up at the gates. You need to buy tickets in advance on the O’Keeffe Museum website. You’ll choose the date and exact time for your docent-led tour. Plan to arrive early at the visitor’s center for a brief film on O’Keeffe narrated by another famed New Mexico resident, actor Gene Hackman. From there, a small shuttle takes visitors up the hill to O’Keeffe’s carefully preserved, and very private, home.
There’s A Lot To Take In Once You Get There
Today the spacious, refined adobe home belies its 18th-century origins. When O’Keeffe first came upon the structure, it was a falling-down, abandoned monastery. O’Keeffe negotiated, pleaded, and wheedled for many years before the diocese agreed to sell the property to her. With the able assistance and construction supervision of a young admirer, Maria Chabot, O’Keeffe restored the estate preserving such features as its interior courtyards, a shepherd’s stove (an open fireplace with a cantilevered shelf bed above it), and packed-dirt floors. She furnished her home with a select few, well-chosen items designed by her friends and luminaries of the design world.
You’ll see chairs by Charles Eames and Harry Bertoia and lighting by Noguchi alongside indigenous textiles collected during O’Keeffe’s travels. There are also the curious rocks she gathered on her regular walks and painting trips. Her kitchen and pantry are still stocked with the spices and glassware that were there when she died in 1986 at age 98. Her juicer, yogurt maker, and canning supplies give a glimpse of her self-sufficient life. O’Keeffe took pride in her innovative idea to recess her kitchen cupboards into the thick adobe walls in order to maximize floor space. She told friends her plywood dining table with its butterfly shaped supports was her own design.
Her living room, with its pale packed-dirt floor, houses her stereo equipment and the records she enjoyed listening to in the evenings cuddled up with her chow chow dogs after her cook, gardener, and housekeeper returned to their nearby homes. A picture window fills one end of the room. It frames a giant cottonwood tree that gave O’Keeffe a front-row seat to the changing seasons.
Outside the house is a spacious garden and orchard with traditional acequia irrigation ditches, a centuries-old means of sharing scarce New Mexican water. A short flagstone walk leads past the entrance to the fall-out shelter O’Keeffe added in the 1960s and on to O’Keeffe’s airy studio and spartan bedroom.
One wall of the studio is lined with shelves of the meticulous, hand-written notebooks that record her work. The pale carpeting on the floor may come as a surprise in a painter’s studio. O’Keeffe had it installed in the 1980s as her eyesight was failing. She feared that she might step on one of her small dogs as they blended into the then dark-colored floors.
O’Keeffe’s bedroom can only be viewed from outside, looking in through the giant corner picture windows that gave O’Keeffe an expansive view of her chosen world, from the first morning light to the crystalline desert stars of the night. The walls are a deep earth-colored clay. Her narrow bed could be from a nunnery. And a delicate sculpture of a Buddhist hand gesture sits nearby.
The extraordinary views of the roads, the red bluffs, the expansive green and gold fields and orchards, and the Chama River — all visible from the home’s blufftop location — are seen in many O’Keeffe paintings. Even her courtyard figured prominently in her now-famous work. In fact, she said the single black door in the courtyard was what sparked her desire to own the property. She painted it more than 20 times. Many vignettes around the property also have been memorialized by visiting photographers. O’Keeffe welcomed landscape pioneer Ansel Adams and esteemed portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, among others. However, her photographer husband, the famed Stieglitz, never visited, although the two corresponded daily — sometimes two or three times a day — when O’Keeffe was in New Mexico.
Who Will Enjoy A Tour Of O’Keeffe’s Home?
Fans of O’Keeffe or American modern art will want to make this stop part of their New Mexico visit as will anyone with an interest in Southwest history or geology. That said, O’Keeffe’s home may not be suitable for very young children.
Other Things To Do In Abiquiu
While you’re in Abiquiu you may want to stop at Bosshard Galleries near the central plaza for Asian and Native American artifacts and antiques.
Just across the highway from O’Keeffe’s home you’ll find Bode’s General Store, a unique source of an unlikely mix of merchandise. You can find outdoor equipment, deli food, fishing gear, art supplies, and artisan-made New Mexico gifts. I can never leave this spot empty-handed!
Also stop in at the Abiquiu Inn next to the O’Keeffe Welcome Center. Their restaurant, Cafe Abiquiu, serves breakfast and also offers lunch and dinner accompanied by soft drinks, local beer, and wines. Seating is available indoors or — my favorite — outdoors under an adjoining pergola, La Terraza. The Azul gift shop features books of local interest, handmade jewelry, and decorative items. They often stock O’Keeffe-style broad-brimmed black hats. The Inn also offers rooms and casitas decorated in traditional New Mexico style for overnight stays.
A few miles down Highway 84, on the way back to Santa Fe, is The Purple Adobe Lavender Farm, where you can buy lavender-based products and see the cultivation of the fragrant plant. Sometimes you can even pick your own lavender.
If you have more time, you may want to drive west another 13 miles on highway 84 beyond Abiquiu to Ghost Ranch. It was on this 20,000-acre dude ranch that O’Keeffe had her first New Mexico home, which is not open to the public. The rambling ranch land is now a retreat and education center owned by the Presbyterian Church. It offers magnificent vistas along with hiking trails, meeting rooms, simple accommodations and, for $10, a cafeteria-style lunch.
A highlight of any Ghost Ranch visit is the view of the famed flat-top Pedernale mountain, one of O’Keeffe’s favorite subjects. O’Keeffe said that God told her if she painted Pedernale enough times he would give it to her. At her death her ashes were scattered on the beloved mesa.
If you’re headed to Abiquiu, odds are your journey will take you through Santa Fe. Make time for a good meal with Santa Fe’s best food (and learn where to find it).