“The cliffs over there, you look at it and it’s almost painted for you, you think until you try”. Georgia O’Keeffe’s beautifully strange formations aren’t necessarily the subjective stylings of a modern artist. I drove past a few round-headed, gray-striped Abiquiu buttes this fall and nearly sheered off the road in a sudden downburst of meme recognition. While not setting out to copy what she saw, Georgia O’Keeffe was, to my mind, a realist. She just worked in a freakish landscape. “One paints what is around”, as she put it.
This September I took a mentorship program with artist Janet Palin at Ghost Ranch in the O’Keeffe landscape near Abiquiu, New Mexico.
Ghost Ranch has its own colorful history. It’s been, at different times, a cattle-rustler’s hideout, dude ranch, Georgia O’Keeffe’s backyard, and a movie set (City Slickers, No Country for Old Men, and the new Lone Ranger). It now serves as an institute for study and retreat. My visit coincided with gatherings of artists, photographers, writers, hikers, archaeology students and sixty-five Shamans.
Class titles from the Ghost Ranch catalog show a range of what’s possible to learn in a week. For starters… Interior Landscapes: Ecology of Creativity; Food, Glorious Food: The Eucharist & Your Foodshed; Jewelry & Lapidary Arts; Fantasy Birdhouses; Hiking Ghost Ranch: The Land & The Legends; The Art of Blacksmithing, and, most intriguingly, Tiny Writing (a course in creating miniature books). The fall cottonwood leaves glowed so awesomely I had to go buy brighter yellow pastels.
This place had an aura, even for a doubter like me. A huge harvest moon bulged over the horizon every night. At dawn it touched down on Chimney Rock and slid into the notch at the very moment the sun hit the back of Kitchen Mesa to the east. I stood bundled up on a mesa in the middle and started my day with this cosmic dance; that, and the songs of sleepy bluebirds in the junipers.
Three of us worked with Janet to learn her basic, structured approach- how to compose with mat-corners and make useful thumbnail sketches- just a few strokes of heavy pencil to capture the scene as it first appeared. The strong starts gave us confidence and a map to follow as we crossed the plein air minefield.
I graphed a thumbnail into thirds and transferred the design onto a larger sheet of dark blue pastel paper in vine charcoal.
By working directly from the thumbnail, I was spared the hassle of recomposing. The raked morning light in the scribbled thumbnail was a good capture, too, since the sun traveled as we worked. Clouds had come and gone and come again. The view changed radically in the course of a few hours, but I still had the thumbnail to refer to.
“All the colors of the painter’s palette are out there in the many miles of bad lands. The light Naples yellow through the ochres—orange and red and purple earth—even the soft earth greens”
Heading home, my eyes opened to a landscape suddenly broken into bands of color, like a brand-new box of pastels unwrapped, full of rosy-reds, sage grays, and much, much brighter yellows.