A Visit to O'Keeffe's Ghost Ranch Home
In my last post I shared a photo of a special place, a photo of which Maria Chabot sent to Alfred Stieglitz in 1944 showing him some of the beautiful spaces she and Georgia shared at Ghost Ranch. The photo, of a large tree stump circled by smaller stump "stools" had a caption on the back reading "Where we eat breakfast." I promised to write more about it so here we go...
That photo grabbed at my heart when I came across it while researching at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Looking at it I could feel the warm early morning sun on my face, smell the dry pinion air, and almost taste the ladies' breakfast of choice–eggs with chile, bacon, and homemade bread. I am sure Stieglitz felt the same upon receiving this packet of words and photos from Maria.
It's a strange thing to feel and smell things from just a photo (but it has happened to me before in this process) and it really made me long to truly experience this spot. I had seen the Ghost Ranch house before, looking down from the tower of Chimney Rock and from afar while on horseback. The small details of how Maria Chabot and Georgia O'Keeffe's days at Ghost Ranch unfolded–like the delicious detail of where they ate breakfast–are not knowable from such distances. My mind was left to wander and create its own pictures from the little I had seen. Those "faraway nearby" glances left me wanting more than I could find myself or in one of the many books, photos, and descriptions of life at Ghost Ranch that I have, for years, poured over.
Maria's description of it:
"The little house is built around a patio. That is, it has three portales with a courtyard in the center; and every time you step through a door you are smitten with the New Mexico light, you are face to face with heaven, you are aware of the unseen energizing force, the vast and creative silence everywhere waiting. It seems visibly to flow from the extinct volcano, the old Cerro de Pedernal that rises in terrible testimony about the Piedra Lumbre. Pederal sits at our front door -- eighteen miles away, and there is no house between us and it. It is at one edge of the plain and we at the other. Our portal faces directly to it, and no matter where we walk or where we sit we are ever in the presence of the mountain.
To have something as noble as a mountain for a neighbor is good, we feel." (from the Maria Chabot archive, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)
“Badlands roll away outside my door–hill after hill–red hills of apparently the same sort of earth that you mix with oil to make paint. All the earth colors of the painter’s palette are out there in the many miles of badlands. The light Naples yellow through the ochres–orange and red and purple earthy–even the soft earth greens. You have no associations with those hills–our waste land–I think our most beautiful country.”
(from the Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O'Keeffe collection, Yale University)
So perhaps you will understand when I was offered the opportunity to actually visit the House at Ghost Ranch, I cried. Like, really cried. I was so embarrassed by, but at the same time somewhat grateful for, the tears because, while this project is all about writing a book, the story is also part of mine– of my family and my heritage and therefore, a bit of an emotional journey as well.
Not long after those tears fell I found myself one sweaty summer day bumping along a washboard road, through gates and over cattle guards, slithering along the base of Ghost Ranch's famous red cliffs in my (once) white Volkswagen. A left turn after a fence, around a bend, and there I am...sitting breathless in front of the Ghost Ranch house. This was the place where the lives I research were lived, for a time. Where the sights inspired the writing of the words I so often read. A place that birthed artworks that know no equal. A difficult, rough, and mean place to live–and, apparently, worth every bit of effort.
I believe homes have energy, an emotional holding collected from the lives lived out within them. Hope, joy, sorrow, frustration, fear, inspiration, anger, love. I already knew the land here had power and I hoped to experience this other, more intangible, feeling...understanding how people had used a space and and the ebbs and flows of living life within it.
As we walked through the house my guide, Agapita Judy Lopez, thoughtfully opening every delicate white curtain to reveal the boldness outside, I was struck by the feeling that someone sparingly and lovingly still lived within its earthen walls. Personal effects were at a touch, the windows I had read so much about installing became my eyes, colors came to life. The "blue room" I had read about was not the blue I had imagined. Georgia's studio was not where I had imagined it to be. The pump house was further than I had imagined–its stickery distance making the stories of rattlesnakes and creepy crawlies much more cringe worthy. The smell of the air, feel of the wind, warmth of the rising sun after night spent on this roof, were now real to me.
There is something about seeing and experiencing something you know a lot about, but don't actually know, that allows for a deeper understanding of time and place and rhythm and rhyme–not just filling in the extra dimension you don't get in flat photos, but understanding things like how something as simple as getting water could be such a feat, how people interacted and their physical distance when staying there, the arrangement of the places they would gather.
Photos are not allowed in the Ghost Ranch house, though Pita was generous enough to let me take a few for my research, but below is one I can share (because, really, it could be anywhere) and this is of my knobby knees and dirty feet as I stood in the spot where Georgia O'Keeffe sat in one of my favorite photos of she and Maria.
(Left image) Photographer: John Candelario
Negative Number: 165668
Palace of the Governors Photo Archives
We wandered slowly from room to room and with every window Pita uncovered you could see how Georgia fell in love with the house. Each window smartly framed something immense and almost unknowable–the breakfast nook just off the kitchen with its two large windows looking out to Chimney Rock and Kitchen Mesa, a beautifully brown guest room framing Pederal, Georgia's sparse bedroom with its windows looking at the same candy corn cliffs, but differently through each one. In one room with a sky blue floor, I am guessing the aforementioned "blue room", Pita pointed out Georgia and Maria's camping gear. There, on shelves, were various items including canvas tents and bed rolls. On the floor opposite them, a burnished, well-used, camp "stove" made of a shallow, two-handled metal bowl topped by a bent and bruised cooking grate and held upright by a most Georgia-esque touch–three mid-century modern hairpin legs.
Pita spent a generous hour with me and we talked about what we knew about the house over the years, including a kitchen renovation Maria had undertaken after the Abiquiu house was finished, even though Maria and Georgia's friendship had started to wane. As we left the house back to its stillness, I emerged from the kitchen door to see those cliffs, those colors, and unchanged and beckoning beneath them, that stump and its weathered stools where breakfast was once enjoyed.
Very special thanks to Cody Hartley and Agapita Judy Lopez of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum for the opportunity and the time spent allowing me this experience. If you need an excuse to visit Santa Fe (like anyone actually needs an excuse?) visiting the O'Keeffe Museum is a great one. It is intimate, refined, purposeful, bold, focused, and beautiful...just like the woman it celebrates. As with the Ghost Ranch house, there is no other place like it in the world.