Updated: Jan 11, 2021
You know those experiences that are so surreal, you're not quite sure if they really happened or not? This was one of those. I finally went to the Abiquiu house.
I can understand now why thousands of people tour it every year. There's just something about this place. It's like the sky above it is different. And the land around it is different. And the energy in it is different. Everything about it is different than other houses. But I can't say exactly what, or why.
The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum cares for the house and has left it somewhat untouched, though nicely maintained, since O'Keeffe's death in 1986. Her personal items, furniture, and plants are still inside and give a glimpse of her tidy, somewhat quiet life as she progressed into her later years.
Maria Chabot oversaw every detail of acquiring, developing and building this house. How much she cared for Georgia, and this special spot, is apparent in every corner, nook, cranny, window and garden. To think of the work she did and materials she acquired, as a woman, in rural New Mexico and during the waning years of a World War, is overwhelming. It was sheer force of will, something I am learning she had no lack of.
In 1994, Richard Brettell, a prominent art historian, sent Maria this excerpt from a draft on the book about the house:
"Chabot was also an accomplished agriculturalist, builder, water-rights expert, conversationalist, hiker, organizer, knitter and a voracious reader.
Ultimately, O'Keeffe’s house, garden and studio in Abiquiu are the result of a three-way collaboration. The central member of this "menage a trois” was the house itself, whose thick adobe walls, sagging vigas, and overgrown garden scarcely made it an architectural “tabula rasa” when O'Keeffe acquired it. The second collaborator was Maria Chabot, who interpreted the house for O'Keeffe and created the context in which her decisions were made, and the third was the often absent O'Keeffe herself. If the house had an architect, it was Maria Chabot. If it had a general contractor, it was Maria Chabot. If it had a garden designer and gardener, it was Maria Chabot. Seldom has a great 20th century house been created in a more felicitous way. Chabot was at once a creative and a practical force, enabling O'Keeffe to make her decisions clearly.
In fact, O'Keeffe channeled the immense devotion and friendship of Maria Chabot into architectural collaborations, beginning with work on her house at Ghost Ranch and culminating in the home, garden and studio in Abiquiu. There is not a single aspect of the project that was not mastered by Chabot, She learned every detail and water rights, well water, water projects and water quality. She scoured the entire northern region of New Mexico for dry wood and, when it became too expensive, she switched to green. In the end, she resorted to cutting vigas herself in the nearby pine forests. Her knowledge of the various muds of Northern New Mexico was formidable, and she could talk in the same breath about the beauty of a mud wall or about the various sizes and capacities of butane tanks. Her mind co-mingled a great poetic imagination with an intense practicality, and her knowledge of Spanish enabled her to work closely with the inhabitants of Abiquiu, learning their fears, concerns, and frustrations while becoming their friend. O'Keefe’s entrance into the highly secretive village life of Abiquiu was both organized and smoothed over by Maria Chabot, who learned the intricacies of Abiquiu society while O'Keeffe remained in New York.
From the evidence of the correspondence, she did this out of affection for O'Keeffe and because she truly believed in the beauty of Abiquiu and its culture. She did not do it for the money, and it is likely that she was never adequately paid for her work, not because O'Keeffe refused to do so but because she herself seemed averse to 'work for hire'.
The project started in earnest in the early months of 1946 while O'Keeffe was much occupied with her exhibition at the MOMA and the ill-health of Stieglitz. As such, Maria Chabot made many of the decisions about the house - O'Keeffe being so often preoccupied with her own career and the settling of Stieglitz’s estate -- Maria Chabot was truly obsessed with the project in a way O'Keeffe never was. In this way, O'Keeffe acted as the final arbiter, able as she was to make final decisions in a cooler and more abstract way than Chabot, whose involvement with the project was total."
(Letter courtesy of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center, Maria Chabot archive)
If you ever find yourself in New Mexico, make a visit to this home a priority. If nothing else, the energy that Maria put into building it breeds inspiration you'll take away from experiencing it.