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Tracking Georgia O’Keeffe

Few American artists have made as big an impression on the average American as Georgia O’Keeffe. She has been called the “Mother of American modernism.” Although her paintings of New York skyscrapers and huge flowers are well known, she is mostly remembered for her abstractions on beautiful landscapes, mostly in New Mexico. Several spots in New Mexico are beautiful memorials to her. 

Santa Fe

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe showcases Georgia O’Keeffe’s work and brings her story to life thorough her paintings.  Born in Wisconsin and achieving her fame in New York, it was when O’Keeffe visited New Mexico in 1929 that she began new genera. Her landscapes of startling color and almost abstract mountains are breathtaking.

For the next two decades she traveled back and forth between New York and New Mexico. After her husband’s death, she moved to New Mexico permanently.  She lived in Santa Fe only during the last two years of her life due to medical reasons.

Painting of Mountains by Georgia O’Keeffe

The museum guide, Christina, does a great job of interpreting O’Keeffe’s life thorough her paintings, sketches, and personal artifacts housed in the museum.  O’Keeffe’s paintings of bones tell a story of how she used looking through the hole in the bone as a way to crop the painting.  Another exhibit is of O’Keeffe’s painting called Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory has an actual skull like the one she used as the model next to it an. Actually, the skull is not a ram; it’s a Spanish goat skull.

Rams Head by Georgia O’Keeffe

There are sketches she made when there wasn’t time to remain at a scene long enough to paint it. One shows where she noted the colors on the sketch so she would use the correct colors for the painting.

You leave this museum feeling you know the woman, Georgia O’Keeffe and not just the artist.

Ghost Ranch

Ghost Ranch Mountains

Next stop, head out towards Ghost Ranch. The history of the area is as colorful as any O’Keeffe painting. Karen Butts, the Tours and Education Manager at Ghost Ranch gave us a tour about the history of the Ghost Ranch.  Originally home to the Paleo Indians and Navaho before the Spanish, Mexican and then American culture arose. Native people were mystified by the huge bones found here. They told the Europeans that the land was inhabited by big snakes that ate people.

Ghost House

Some of the earlier occupants of the area were rustlers who used the legends to keep their stolen cattle hidden in the box canyon. When one of the Archuleta brothers tried to cheat his brother, the cheated brother hung the other brother from a cottonwood tree in front of their home and held his sister-in-law prisoner to find where the purloined gold was hidden. Finally, locals had enough and came onto the ranch and hanged the remaining brother from the same cottonwood tree.

When their 1881 home, now called Ghost House, was one of the lodgings, visitors who stayed in the casita claimed to hear a man and a woman arguing at night. Today, it is open to visitors. The cottonwood tree used for the hangings is still alive in front of the cottage.

The next known owner was Roy Pfaffle. He won the ranch in a poker game in 1928. His wife, Carol Stanley, recorded the deed in her name to keep him from gambling it away. She soon divorcing him and moved here to open a dude ranch. She changed the name from its previous name, Ranch of Male Witches, to the more appealing Ghost Ranch.

O’Keeffe’s first cabin

Stanley wasn’t able to make the dude ranch profitable. In 1935, she sold it to Arthur Pack. When Georgia O’Keeffe first visited the ranch in 1934, the only cottage available was a small one near the current welcome center. The O’Keeffe Cottage is still there.  Karen told us,” Georgia O’Keeffe wasn’t wild about a dude ranch. In fact she said ‘Dude ranches are a lower form of life.'”

However the privacy she found here was appealing to O’Keeffe.  She purchased an isolated house on the ranch. The home is still there today and owned by the O’Keeffe Museum. Pack later deeded the Ranch to the Presbyterian Church to be used as an educational facility.  Today, Ghost Ranch is still owned and operated by the Presbyterian Church.

Wendy shows the scene of the painting

Wendy Davis, one of Ghost Ranch’s tour guides, took us on a tour of the Georgia O’Keeffe sites at the ranch. She showed us the exact scenes of some of O’Keeffe’s paintings.  A very common scene in O’Keeffe’s paintings was a view of Pedernal Mountain. It’s a high narrow mesa that she would view from the front door of her house.

The colorful cliffs and mountains on the opposite side of the ranch were another favorite site. One with a small juniper tree in the foreground still has the same tree and because of the dry conditions of a high desert, the tree has grown very little.

There are tours and trail rides. Many relate to O’Keeffe’s history with the ranch such as O’Keeffe Landscape Tour, Wednesdays With O’Keeffe, Walk-in Georgia O’Keeffe’s Footsteps, O’Keeffe Landscape Trail Ride, and O’Keeffe Landscape Trail Ride at Sunset.


The Georgia O’Keeffe Home and Studio is located in the small unincorporated village of Abiquiú just north of the Ghost Ranch.  There is a museum and a welcome station there where you can book tours of her home. She remodeled a deteriorating building formerly owned by the Catholic Church. Since during bad weather getting to her Ghost Ranch home was difficult in 1946, O’Keeffe made this her permanent home. She died on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98. Her will called for her body to be cremated and her ashes scattered around Ghost Ranch, which was the place she loved most.


Written by Kathleen Walls

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