1934–1940: Ghost Ranch
In June of 1934, almost three years had gone by since O’Keeffe had last visited New Mexico. With her desire to paint restored, she and her friend, Marjorie Content, traveled back to New Mexico. They rented a cottage, but the situation became awkward for Georgia when Jean Toomer, Marjorie’s fiancé, arrived. Upon Toomer’s arrival, O’Keeffe looked for other accommodations, remembering stories about Ghost Ranch, a ranch with a reputation as being haunted, difficult to find, and inhabited by cowboys. These rumors did not deter Georgia, who had heard of the beauty of the ranch and its environment. Adjacent to a mesa, the ranch lands were located in a valley. Contrary to what Georgia had heard, the ranch was inhabited and prosperous, attracting many visitors. Arthur Newton Pack, publisher of Nature magazine, had just bought the ranch, and proceeded to make it into an impressive dude ranch.
Despite her initial dislike of the prospect of living at a dude ranch, O’Keeffe continued to be enthralled by the surroundings. At Ghost Ranch she experienced the environment by hiking continuously and painting intensively. She tried to paint the wondrous surrounding red hills that changed colors dramatically, depending on the sun, clouds, or rain. She made many passionate attempts at capturing the majestic nature of the hills, but found it a very difficult task.
During these years O’Keeffe established a pattern, living in New Mexico and painting during the summer and then returning to New York to live with Stieglitz in the fall. She generally kept to herself while in New Mexico, but occasionally visited her friends in Taos, such as Beck Strand and Dorothy Brett. She also became friends with Arthur Pack, the owner of the ranch, even presenting him with a drawing of a skull. Her frequent visitors included Ansel Adams, David McAlpin, and Margaret Adams Bok. Georgia went on tours given at the ranch, but mostly appreciated the opportunities to witness Native American ceremonies, such as the Santo Domingo corn dance and the annual Hopi snake dance.
In New York, Stieglitz had another show in 1934 at An American Place, but his health was failing and he was often bedridden. Although their relationship had been strained by Stieglitz’s affair with Norman, Georgia and Stieglitz still had considerable respect for each other and each other’s work. Moreover, as Stieglitz’s health failed, he felt he needed Georgia. However, she still felt the need to travel to New Mexico, even though she sometimes wondered if Stieglitz would still be alive upon her return. He had been an important mentor for her, inspiring her and establishing her reputation. Although he missed her, he realized her artistic agenda, being an artist himself, and recognized that it was important for her to leave. Indeed, Georgia’s stays in New Mexico helped her achieve important artistic creations, such as those exhibited in her 1936 show. One of the exhibit’s most notable paintings, Ram’s Head, White Hollycock, Hills (1935), features powerful symbolism in the life of the flower contrasted with the death of the skull–a juxtoposition that mirrored Georgia’s character during her nervous breakdown. Alternately, in a reverse interpretation, the wilting flower could represent death and the skull, life, because of its durability. Later paintings, such as From the Faraway Nearby (1937) continued to portray skulls, but became more serene and less vibrant in color. In 1937, Georgia arrived at Ghost Ranch without notifying Arthur Pack, the owner. As a result, he had no room for her, so he suggested that she stay a little further away at Rancho de los Burros. Georgia was immediately attracted to the new site. The magnificent view from her house–the mesa of the Jemez range, called the Pendernal–became a frequent subject of her paintings.
While living and painting in New Mexico, Georgia’s fame continued to grow on an international level. In May of 1938 she was awarded an honorary degree from the College of William and Mary, and in 1939 she was named by a committee of the World’s Fair as one of the twelve most outstanding women of the previous fifty years. During World War II, Georgia was surprised to receive an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1942. Because the other degree recipient was General Douglas MacArthur, O’Keeffe commented about the unusual circumstance of being honored alongside a General during wartime. Moreover, the juxtaposition was especially odd because O’Keeffe’s attitude towards war continued to be unfavorable, as it had been during the World War I.
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