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  • Writer's pictureZibby Wilder

Chasing Maria

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

Maria Chabot in Mexico, 1933. Courtesy of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center

Maria Chabot in Mexico, 1933. Courtesy of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center


In March of 2017 I moved from Walla Walla, WA to Santa Fe, NM to continue researching the life of a slightly distant relative of mine who has fascinated me since my teenage years.

My relative's name is Maria Chabot. In the beginning, all I knew was that she was my Great Grandmother Edith's sister and that our family had very few stories about her. I knew that she was instrumental in founding the Santa Fe Indian Market in the 1930's and that she had lived for some time with the artist, Georgia O'Keeffe.

I thought of her a lot in those days and wondered what she was like. I was able to find out she had been named a "Santa Fe Living Treasure" in 1994 - but Google did not exist then so I didn't know exactly why. When my grandfather passed away in 1998, I decided to road trip my sorrow away and began the drive in Albuquerque, NM. I knew Maria was living in a retirement home there and sent her an advance letter hoping she would see me. I knew she wasn't a big fan of the family but I thought I was special. Maria didn't. She never responded to my letter. The first day I arrived at the facility, she had gone swimming. The second day I arrived, the receptionist told me no one by that name lived there. And there ended our story.

Then one Monday -- July 16, 2001, to be exact -- Maria came back to me in the act of leaving. As I scanned the day's news at work, I ran across this headline in the New York Times: "Maria Chabot, 87, Dies; Began Indian Market and Was an O'Keeffe Associate"

My heart jumped. Then fell. I finally had the real story on who this "black sheep" of the family was but now, she was no longer. And while I was still fascinated by her, life got in the way and Maria slowly fell to the back of my mind.

Fast forward to 2014 when talk between my mom and I turned to the time she had visited with Maria. Maria liked my mom because she was an artist. My mom liked Maria because she was a true character. A tough old broad. An adventurer.

After that chat I decided Maria and I needed to get reacquainted. That night I went on Amazon and ordered a copy of a book I had wanted for some time - I planned to give it to my mom for her birthday (after reading it first :). Maria Chabot -- Georgia O'Keeffe: Correspondence, 1941-1949 arrived at my house a few days later and it never left. Sorry, mom!

This stunning collection of nearly 700 letters between the two women blew my mind. It was put together with great care by then Georgia O'Keeffe Museum curator Barbara Buhler-Lynes and editor Ann Paden. These letters showed there was much more to the story than I had always been told; and it appeared there was much more to the story that other people were still telling. Something in my heart told me I needed to look further.

I dove into the internet, finding all I could about her. I read many an O'Keeffe biography (my favorite being Full Bloom: the Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp), as well as O'Keeffe's autobiographies. But I kept going back to the letters. Maria had donated her literary trust -- thousands of documents, from letters and journals to short stories and diaries -- to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center upon her death. I wondered if I could see them? I needed to find out more. I needed to fill in the blanks of our history. I needed to know Maria. I needed to write her book.

I emailed the Research Center and got an immediate reply. I was welcome to view the collection, with some restrictions, when did I plan to arrive? So, in March of 2016, I did. And again, in October of 2016. And now, in March of 2017, here I am.

This blog will not talk about the book -- in whatever form it ends up taking -- as I write it. Really, it's just a way to help me wrap my mind around this project and to share my journey and discoveries with friends, family, and followers of Georgia O'Keeffe and Maria Chabot's story.

Let's see what happens...where I go, who I meet, and what I see as I embark on this crazy journey chasing Maria.

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