Plaza Blanca: Georgia O'Keeffe's White Place
Updated: Jan 11
Photo by Danielle Shull
I have been traveling like a fat little bee lately, touching down to find my creative spirit pollinated by the sweet beauty of Portugal, Spain, Washington State's San Juan Islands, Zihuatanejo and Mexico City. But back home in New Mexico, I am constantly confronted by the beauty in my "backyard." From the glimmering Aspen-topped Sangre de Christo mountains to the glowing red rock of Ghost Ranch, there are places that speak to me; places with "aina", as my mom, Helene, says.
One of these spots is called Plaza Blanca. It attracts like-minded visitors, those awed and inspired by Nature's works of complex, frightening and fragile beauty. We go there frequently to take in its contrasts: the blue sky and white earth, the jagged edges yet fragile rock, the apparent absence of water yet the remains of deep pathways it has carved. Plaza Blanca is what Georgia O'Keeffe and Maria Chabot called "the White Place." The friends took frequent trips there, particularly in the 1940s. Georgia would paint, Maria would write.
I wanted to share one of Maria's passages because it, like her writings on the Black Place, describes a place and a time and a feeling so specifically, you can picture the two women there. Both working in silence, creating their own images of the wildest of places.
"One of the places we go to paint we call “The White Place”. It is a small canyon head -- an almost enclosed amphitheatre of white sandstone cliffs. It is several miles away from the road. The “road” (such as it is!) is a little river road running haphazardly up and down the Rio Chama. Here along the river road there are green fields, trees, settlements of Native Spanish, but behind the road, running counter to it, are the bare hills, the ridges of naked rock, the cliffs, the dry waterways of country known as “bad land” -- quite useless to man. Quite out of reach of the Machine Age! <Quite useless for tilling and cultivating> Its sparse vegetation was eaten down to the bone generations ago. It is not only “bad land” -- white, barren, eroded by wind and storm, baked by sun, deserted by man and beast - if ever indeed they came.
To get into this back country one must travel up the bedrock, the sand and boulders of an arroyo. An arroyo in New Mexico is a dry river bed, a rough highway, or passageway, or exit for water pouring down the face of cliffs and boulders to tear across country to a river. Arroyos cut through the very bone of the land, smash in and out and around cliffs and rocks. Sometimes they become canyons, often they merely sprawl, hurtling boulders and trees across the face of the Earth. Always they move down to a central river draining the whole. So that such a river flowing in its silt, between the trees and rich fields and little human settlements is, in New Mexico, like a spine -- with the white, dry vertebrae, the arroyos, feeding into it.
Arroyos are treacherous. One does not travel far up and arroyo with a cloud in the offing. One waits for a clear day when the sky is blue -- and only blue -- the bright, high New Mexico blue. We speak of “White Place Days” when the sun only is in the sky and the far mountains and dark darkness of trees on the mountains are clear - each quite separate. Then we risk the White Place, leaving the security of highway and river road, the murmurs of water and people and their fields for the White Place. Once into our arroyo, cautiously, slowly guiding our Ford between boulders, around wet spots, our spirits rise. Hills, boulders, cliff walls in the bedrock. There is no turning aside, no turning back. Desolation and danger are stimulating. The soundless brilliance of the desolate arroyo with no odor, no movement, no sign of life -- only the ever-increasing whiteness -- draw one on. Once, a native going into the darkness of the Santa Fe cathedral believed herself in heaven. Light can be no less wondrous, no less inspiring.
You travel up the arroyo between low, rolling hills. They aren’t green hills, nor quite grey, nor quite barren. But closing under them one sees that they are rock with a mist of green where the pink earth has not yet washed away - like clouds on earth heavy under the hot sun - almost transparent spotted now and then with a little dark cedar bush, separated now and then by their own system of arroyos, the long, soft gashes down their side that join their bone whiteness with the bone whiteness up which we travel - the ever increasing whiteness that steals around one, motionless and promising - the whiteness of the under rock where the earth blowing and washing has slipped away. Ahead, cutting the blue sky at the end of every turn, rises the drapery of cliffs, The White Place. It is the head of our arroyo. It makes the arroyo. It rises up in pinnacles of smoothened white sandstone in a majestic curved wall to embrace and enclose and give existence to the dry waterway up which we drive.
And next, ledges of white rock jut out like half-buried ruins below the soft hills, the dark and retreating bushes. A bend in our road and we are brought slap up against a great comb of rock -- bedrock turned on its edge like a hand-- poised and sharp-edged against the sky -- its tortured movement caught in eternity. But we do not halt. Our arroyo hurls us around it and we are in a world of white a coliseum of cliffs reaching up, enfolding, ever-widening before us.
To the West, flying buttresses, their Gothic pinnacles encrusted and bound in cobwebs of sand thrust up the enormous weight of their wall. While on the East, worn and smooth and polished by wind, a curtain of stone descends, stratum upon stratum, in multiple fold, to the canyon floor. Coming to rest in the center of this canyon - and its amphitheatre is but a few hundred paces across - one experiences the depth of its whiteness, an intense, overpowering, all-absorbing white. Utterly sensuous and soft.
But there are shadows, erosion shadows, and clefts of the blue sky. Rising straight up from the canyon floor the drapery of the cliffs is traversed by a lateral erosion, bands of inner shadowing, delicately carved, minutely complex and innate - an absolutely uniform succession of darkness and light, repeating and repeating round the rotunda - until suddenly, in intervals of silence, come smoothened pinnacles where the wind has found entrance to the wall -- with the rhythms of erosion pinnacles of white descend to embrace the long shadows they cast -- the whole folded in a body of rock from whence neither projection nor recession emerge to break the singleness of the whole.
And in this world of white there is only the blue sky above us, only a few dark bushes around us, too few and too little even to give us firewood. There are a few yellow flowers, unable in this barren earth, even to grow leaves. There is no water, only the rocky floor that shows how terrible water coming from the sky can be. We have never seen a rabbit here, nor a snake, and but once a lizard. We have never heard at night even a coyote or a mouse. A bird crying over the edge of the cliffs is magnified into terrible unreal demeuse. It always startles us with its unbirdlike sound - the torn shadow of its black wings. From time to time, too, a flock of birds overhead will leave behind them the echoing swish of their passage. And more than once we have started at the trembling of leaves on the small Cottonwood under which we camp.
This tree, with its three limbs and yellowing leaves, is almost no tree at all. We move with the sun to keep in its sprinkle of shade. Our four kittens embrace its trunk and stare down at us from its height. They are Siamese and somewhat the color and the shadow and smoothness of these cliffs.
I think sometimes of Sinbad being dropped by the great bird into a place like this -- among precious rocks. Our canyon floor is no less exciting. What nature ignores in wildlife and growth she makes up for in beautiful stones. We can hardly progress to right or left for joy in the form and color of the stone. Strewn over the white sand, polished and rolled by water, emblazoned by sun -- these stones and boulders brought up from the bowels of the earth burden us on every walk. Our Ford is laden with them on every passage - our mantels and shelves and garden attest our possessive fervor. There is a pink kind with a sheen like silk - quite slick to the touch. There are pieces that look like overripe fruits, round and mottled, a patina of violet and red and blue. There are red ones, as if still hot with fire, and pale green ones, and liver-colored ones, and ones that glisten with mica and crystal. There are pure white ones, transparent and opaque, serenely elusive. And who can say such beauty is useless?
At night, when the moon rises over the eastern wall and the stars stand glittering above the continual procession of elegant personages that the cliffs become - one sees the whiteness against black. A dull, glowing whiteness unbelievably gentle and voluptuous. Unbelievably beautiful this White Place that is of no use to man. Except to be beautiful."
--Excerpt courtesy of Maria Chabot Papers, The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Library