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O’Keeffe country’s otherworldly landscape has been luring visitors for decades

The otherworldly landscape of northern New Mexico known as Georgia O’Keeffe country – towering red spires and exposed cliffs of white and gray – have inspired generations.

It’s difficult to drive north on U.S. 84 and not stop to wonder at the geography; more difficult still to stay for a while in the Abiquiu area and not explore it.

And why not?

The area has something for everyone from landscape tours that pair famed artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings with the geology that inspired them, artist studio tours, art and other creative classes as well as kayaking and fishing along Rio Chama and in Abiquiu Lake.

Everywhere invites you to walk or hike to get a little closer to the natural beauty, carved and layered by an ancient shallow sea and shifting tectonic plates.

O’Keeffe explained the magical call of this country in her famous quote, “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.”

‘In her footsteps’

Like many new to the state, O’Keeffe first visited Santa Fe and Taos. The state began its romance with the world-renowned artist, often called the mother of American modernism, in 1929. She discovered Ghost Ranch a few years later and found her home in Abiquiu in 1945 and moved there permanently in 1949.

Born in 1887 in Wisconsin, she died in 1986 in Santa Fe, according to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum website.

The state’s tourism office explains their definition of Georgia O’Keeffe country as the places she traveled and stayed in northern New Mexico, including Santa Fe and Taos, but the area surrounding Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch, where she lived and painted so many of her abstract landscapes, is the heart of Georgia O’Keeffe country.

“I’m walking in her footsteps where she painted and where she found her inspiration,” says Walter Nelson, a photographer, painter and sculptor.

Nelson, who has lived in the Abiquiu area since the 1980s, at first part time and now full time, says the place is his daily horizon. It keeps him engaged in his art. “I take it in and bring it back out again.”

Nelson is one five established artists who have opened their studios for daily tours for the Abiquiu Art Project, says Teresa Toole, the tour director and wife of one of the artists, Joseph Hall, a metalsmith and fine jeweler.

“Each artist has a profound connection to the physical environment that O’Keeffe loved and painted,” she says. “Walking along the desert out here, you are absorbing all the cultures and all the past history through the dirt.”

Frank Shelton, an artist on the tour, says the Abiquiu area was magnetic for him and his wife so they moved from Georgia about nine years ago. “There is something about the immensity of the space here. The ever-changing light and colors are always influences in our work.”

The tour, about 2 to 3 hours, starts at the Abiquiu Inn and is about $25 each, depending on the size of the group, she says. Visit abiquiuartproject.com to book a tour or for more information.

Beauty all around

The White Place, or Plaza Blanca, prominent in O’Keeffe’s series of paintings about it, is a high point of the tour, Toole says. The white cliffs are owned by Dar al Islam Mosque, but open to the public.

Sculptor Doug Coffin, also on the tour, looks at Plaza Blanca everyday from the door of his studio, where he’s worked for 25 years.

“I get a sense of calmness and energy. It’s stimulating to be surrounded by this beauty,” he says. “It’s easy to understand why she was attracted and inspired here.

“People come here from all over the world just to gawk at her house. It’s a testimony to the impact she had around the world. We’re all influenced by her shadow.”

A new Georgia O’Keeffe Welcome Center next to the Abiquiu Inn is scheduled to open this spring, says Micaela Hester of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.

Tours to the O’Keeffe compound, home and studio, Tuesdays through Saturdays through Nov. 21, $35-$45, can be scheduled at the center or through okeeffemuseum.org.

Honoring place

The museum in Santa Fe is a great place to get perspective on Georgia O’Keeffe country either before or after visiting the Abiquiu area.

This summer the museum will explore work from the Black Place, remote badlands near Nageezi, about 150 miles from Abiquiu, that O’Keeffe drew and painted more than 200 times.

In a program called Contemporary Voices, the installation will explore O’Keeffe’s paintings of the place and new photographically-based work by Michael Namingha, a Santa-Fe based, multidisciplinary artist.

“Created in different centuries, but inspired by the same place, comparing Namingha’s artwork to O’Keeffe’s presents an opportunity to examine evolving notions of art and the landscape of New Mexico,” says a museum news release.

The exhibit is open through Sept. 14.

Nelson, who is also deeply inspired by that dramatic landscape, pays tribute to it in his work.

“Some of O’Keeffe’s most beautiful paintings came from that place,” he says.

Nelson and author Douglas Preston published “The Black Place: Two Seasons” in 2014. It features Nelson’s photography.

Ghost Ranch, where O’Keeffe lived during the summers before she bought her Abiquiu home, has morning and afternoon tours, everyday but Wednesday, for $37 for adults. Visitors travel by bus to the scenes and locations of O’Keeffe’s paintings. Other tours feature different perspectives, including paleontology and archaeology.

Ghost Ranch, formerly a dude ranch and owned by the Presbyterian Church since 1955, has a full line-up of classes all summer and fall, that explore all kinds of creativity for adults and children. Visit ghostranch.org for information.

Nestled into the cliffs, two miles north of Ghost Ranch on U.S. 84, and 13 miles west, is Monastery of Christ in the Desert.

The graded, dirt U.S. Forest Service Road 151 winds along the Rio Chama, with roads for camping, canoes and kayaks. Deer and other wildlife live in the canyons and cattle graze in the mesas.

The monastery was founded in 1964 by Benedictine monks. People of all faiths are invited to services in the chapel. The area is open to day visitors from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Overnight guests are welcome. The minimum stay is two days and two nights.

Visit christdesert.org for information.

Back south on U.S. 84, Abiquiu Lake, managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, boasts that it has some of the best fishing in northern New Mexico for bass and trout. There are campgrounds and picnic areas. A swimming beach was opened in 2015 in the Cerrito Recreation Area.

Boating, swimming, water skiing, jet skiing, river running, windsurfing, kayaking and fishing are all allowed at the lake. Visit New Mexico State Parks at emnrd.state.nm.us for maps and information.

Bode’s General Store, established in 1890, just off U.S. 84 in Abiquiu, is a great place to stock up on breakfast burritos and other food, beverages and information about the area. They carry a wide selection of wine and there’s beer from Abbey Brewing, made by the monks at Monastery of Christ in the Desert.

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