July 6-October 30, 2016 the Tate Modern Museum in London will be exhibiting the work of Georgia O’Keeffe. Recently the exhibitions’ Lead Curator for the Tate, Tanya Barson visited Santa Fe, Abiquiu & Taos. Several other Tate curators joined her, along with an art critic for the London Telegraph, a journalist for The Independent, a journalist for the London Times and British Vogue, an Art Historian and Editor of the New Statesman were all in attendance on a tour of O’Keeffe Country. On March 20, 2016 my involvement was as docent for the D.H. Lawrence Ranch to introduce the group and a small film crew to the Ranch and a bit of its history, including the Lawrence Tree and some background of O’Keeffe in Taos.
My portrait with D.H. Lawrence was taken by Sharon Oard Warner.
The following is what I spoke about to the group:
In Taos the locals will tell you the Mountain is a draw, it can hold you tight and accept you to Taos, or it can push you away and keep you from ever feeling comfortable and ‘at home’ here. I prefer to think that Taos and the surrounding mountains are a spiritual center a place that expands creativity, a place that energizes anyone with a creative spirit.
Lawrence & Frida arrive in Taos on September 11, 1922 his 37th birthday, they stayed here in Taos through March 1923
At Mabels’ they stay at the “Pink House” a guest house across from the large home of Mabel Dodge Luhan.
The Lawrences quickly discover the need for a more peaceful atmosphere, there was always something going on at Mabel’s, it was not a place to be creative, to sit and write. Mabel suggests they move up to her ranch in San Cristobal to seek the solitude he required.
The Lawrences invited the Danes, Knud Merrild & Kai Gotzsche to join them at the Flying Heart Ranch. This did not sit well with Mabel, and her jealousy of the Danes spending time with Lawrences led to blows. By the first of December they move to 2 cabins rented from the Hawk family at the Del Monte Ranch. In reality the Lawrences needed them to help get through the Taos Winter with the chores and heavy work. The Danes chopped firewood, and made trips into Taos to gather supplies.
Resisting the invitations of Mabel Dodge Luhan to come to Taos and leave the ranch, to join her social circle and artist salons, Lawrence writes:
“I still of course mistrust Taos Very Much, chiefly on account of the artists. I feel I never want to see an artist again while I live”.
Returning in March 1924 through October, on this trip they bring with them the Honorable Dorothy Brett. The original idea was that members of the Bloomsbury group would join the Lawrences in Taos to create a perfect society which would be called Rananim. When it came time to depart for the US, Brett was the only one who actually joined them. She became Lawrence’s manuscript typist. Although there is much talk and gossip of the Frieda, Mabel & Brett triangle of these woman all vying for Lawrences attention and love, Brett was more likely to be in love with Frieda. In May of that year Mabel gives them the ranch that her son John Evans had used from time to time and who was the current owner. In return, Frida gives Mabel the manuscript to Sons and Lovers, more valuable even at that time than the ranch. Thus the Lawrences were not ‘in debt’ to Mabel Dodge Luhan.
When asked to name 5 famous women artists, at the top of most people's list will time and time again be Georgia O'Keeffe. Who else and how many can You name?
In 1925 the Lawrence’s again return to Taos from April to September.
At the Ranch people from Taos Pueblo teach them to ride horses. They are known as “Red Fox” and Frieda became “Angry Winter” by the people of the Pueblo. People from the Pueblo also help with repairs of the Cabin, the roof needed repairs and just general maintenance as things had become quite run down. Candido, Trinidad and Geronimo become the much needed carpenters at the ranch. Lawrence himself built the porch and some of the furniture, 2 examples still exist, the chair on the porch and the chair in Brett’s cabin.
Lawrence also enjoyed baking bread in one of the horno adobe cooking ovens (which he learned from Taos Pueblo friends) and roasting chickens in the other. Much like that of a modern day man barbecuing out in the yard, the cooking indoors was left to Frieda.
The view of Taos from the ranch Alfalfa field is spectacular, the Lawrences could see all the way to the southern end of Taos, known as Ranchos de Taos, where there stands a Church made famous by the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. San Francisco de Asis Church just celebrated its 200th anniversary in the fall of 2015.
The Lawrence Tree, the large pine tree out front of the cabin, Lawrence writes of it while away in Italy in “A Little Moonshine with Lemons”. Lawrence also described the tree with the “wind hissing in the needles like a nest of serpents”.
In 1929 during her first visit to Taos Miss O’Keeffe visits the Lawrence Ranch during a stay with Mabel Dodge Luhan. She and Rebecca Strand stay at the “Pink House” and hear about the ranch, this was there first trip to New Mexico. O’Keeffe stays up at the ranch (currently unoccupied) for close to a week, where she paints the “Lawrence Tree” at night with the great starry sky seen through the branches.
O’Keeffe had painted trees at the Steiglitz residence in upstate New York such as Bear Lake of 1930, and later she would paint the cottonwood trees along the Chama river below her Abiquiu home. This is the only time she paints a tree from this perspective, Looking up into and through the branches, capturing the starlight and the massiveness.
The tin cutout Phoenix Rising, now on the fence by the cabin was created by Brett in Honor of Lawrence, originally she had nailed it onto the great tree.
At the Ranch the Lawrences grew vegetables, including corn, raised chickens and kept Moses the rooster and cow named Susan. Milk and butter was purchased from the Hawk family.
O’Keeffe’s paintings of chickens, rare that she ever painted live animals, are perhaps influenced by the ceramic chickens along the roof line of Mabel’s home, and or the chickens of the chicken coop at my neighbors home where she found guest accommodations on her many visits to Taos.
In Taos and during all of his travels, Lawrence was looking for “Authentic Experiences” with Nature, Spirituality and Sexuality. I believe O’Keeffe was on that same journey. O’Keeffe and Lawrence never met, later she befriended Frieda and Brett, staying in touch with them throughout their lives.
They both as Lawrence wrote, “found the intense Spirituality of New Mexico”, and “The Natural environment here helps to wash away everyday problems”.
In Japanese culture the term Shinrin-Yoku or “Forest Bathing” is a practice of taking a walk in the woods to feel the healing power of the trees around you. The ranch does this.
Both O’Keeffe and Lawrence are Botanists, herbalists, they are constantly looking at the Flora growing around them.
Cota or Navajo Tea, A natural healing herb used as a tea grows along the roadside to the ranch here in June & July. It’s similar to Chamomile and has the same type of properties as a soothing, calming tea infusion.
The Mullen plant a soft leaved low lying plant with a tall yellow stalk at summers end, has 2 purposes it makes a wonderful comfortable shoe insert, and it makes for a terrific spur of the moment toilet paper!
Miss O’Keeffe and Rebecca Strand (later Salsbury James, marrying Bill James) who remained in Taos her entire life stayed in contact. Rebecca gifts O’Keeffe Jimson Weed plants (also known as Datura or Trumpet Flowers) the plants still grown in O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu garden and at Rebecca’s home (at the end of Bent Street) to this day.
Rebecca James Home at the end of Bent Street as it is today
The photographer Paul Strand came to Taos after the urging of Rebecca, he documented the San Francisco de Asis Church through the lens of his camera, taking risks with shapes and shadows, light and texture. His, in my eyes, are the best photographic documentation of this Church. He and O’Keeffe had an affinity for it as no others have. Strands photographs reinforce the ‘spare’ approach of O’Keeffe’s paintings of this structure.
O’Keeffe painted other Churches and Moradas, none became as iconic or as important a subject matter to her as the Church in Ranchos.
One day while painting the Ranchos Church (visitors often ask where O’Keeffe’s paintings are ON the Church) a young local boy began to taunt the artist. Soon his Mom noticed this bad behavior and she called him inside their home. A moment later the boy returned to Miss O’Keeffe apologizing for his antics. A few hours passed and O’Keeffe finished the small painting she’d worked on that day. She knocked on the door of this particular family’s home and gifted the painting to them.
Time and time again I have been gifted with stories of O’Keeffe’s generosity and spirit here in Taos.
During World War 2, Miss O’Keeffe took up residence at the Sagebrush Hotel in Taos. There she rented the only third floor room at the hotel, Room 301. The room has panoramic views of Taos and the surrounding areas. From her view she could see her beloved Pedernal mountain and Abiquiu off in the distance.
While in New Mexico Lawrence and O’Keeffe visit some of the many area Pueblo Villages, attending ceremonial dances of the “Kachinas” at Hopi and Deer Dance at Taos. Extremely ancient rituals which still take place to this day, and some of the most spiritual ceremonials one can attend here. O’Keeffe creates paintings of Kachina dolls, Lawrence writes of the Deer Dance and of the Hopi Snake Dance, his depiction of the Snake dance is one of the most valuable observations of this ceremony as today it is closed to public viewing.
Miss O'Keeffe may not have been the first person in the desert southwest to pick up the bleached from the sun skulls and bones, but she did make them iconic along with making them (with her paintings of flowers) one of her signature subject matter.
On March 2, 1930 Lawrence dies in Vence, later Frieda marries Angelo Rivagli who s a sculptor. He builds a Memorial at the ranch on a hillside, also carving the stone eagle/phoenix atop it. Rebecca Salsbury James was commissioned by Frida to create a painting for the Nicho that sits above the cement block cript. The painting was one of her classic reverse paintings on glass, it later fell out of place and broke.
Today, the ranch is visited by many writers, artists, and musicians. They tend to sit at the ranch for hours and write, inspired by the beauty of nature in all its glory here. A few Years ago Lawrence Fehrlingetti visited, at the bench there by the memorial he read his poem “The Man Who Rode Away (to DH Lawrence)”.
Through individual moments, Taos affects you, which is what Lawrence and O’Keeffe were in search of, To take the time to appreciate that moment, to pause, to look, to listen to the refreshing spark and inspiration of that moment.
Holly Sievers in the eye of O'Keeffe's sculpture at the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts
To become a docent or to make a donation for the Lawrence Ranch please contact Mary Passaglia at:
Notes and photographs are by Robert Cafazzo including images taken of archival material and images of O'Keeffe paintings, Historic Photographs are labeled as such, and private archive photographs are labeled as such.