In 1940s America, for a woman to go camping in the wilderness was virtually unheard of.
Enter Georgia O’Keeffe.
Determined to move as close to the New Mexico landscape as humanly possible, O’Keeffe went camping in Glen Canyon, Plaza Blanca and what she termed The Black Place located 150 miles northwest of her Abiquiú home.
The Georgia O’Keeffe Welcome Center in Abiquiú is hosting its first exhibit, “O’Keeffe in the Landscape,” on display through April 2, 2023.
The exhibition showcases Marie Chabot’s photographs of the artist mid-camping, her clothing, hiking boots and equipment.
O’Keeffe had learned to drive in Taos and bought a 1928 Ford Model T so that she could go car camping in remote locations. At the time, she didn’t need a driver’s license.
“She would set up her tent outside,” curator of historic properties Giustina Renzoni said. “She had the passenger’s seat removed so she could put a table with all her paints and her brushes. She essentially carried a moving studio.”
The artist traveled to evoke the essence of these spectacular views in her work.
Conscious of her safety, O’Keeffe never traveled alone, often taking her friend Maria Chabot, who photographed her on various trips. Chabot had worked for salon maven Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos. She was the general contractor for O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home. O’Keeffe also camped with such celebrated photographers as Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter and Todd Webb.
“It was a very creative atmosphere,” Renzoni said.
The artist learned about these unusual sites by talking to local people. She had learned about Ghost Ranch, where she first bought a house in 1940, from acquaintances when she stayed at Luhan’s home.
“She knew she had to see it herself,” Renzoni said.
She also hired local guides.
“What she was doing was very unusual at the time, especially for a woman,” she added.
By the early 1900s, camping had grown into a leisure activity in a reaction against urbanization, Renzoni said.
O’Keeffe first went camping to Yosemite National Park with Adams in 1938. Telling herself this was a vacation, she took no canvases, paint or brushes. She regretted that decision.
“Of course, as soon as she got there she ended up borrowing supplies from people and using the charcoal from the fire,” Renzoni said.
In New Mexico, she collected rocks and bones as she moved through the ragged country.
“It’s an object of nature,” Renzoni said of the rocks. “She liked to hold them and feel the whole rock.”
The bones became part of her image repertoire.
“For her, it was representative of desert life and natural images and colors,” Renzoni added.
O’Keeffe went river rafting for the first time at age 74, invited by Webb.
They headed up to Utah’s Glen Canyon. O’Keeffe wrote to her sister about the trip. After an entire day of rafting, the group camped near the river and settled down, only to be awakened by a torrential downpour.
“She loved it; even the rain,” Renzoni said. “She thought it was a wonderful experience.”
The exhibition also includes a camping dress, complete with large pockets to collect rocks.
Established in 2018, the Georgia O’Keeffe Welcome Center is located one mile from the artist’s Abiquiú home. Visitors can take a shuttle to see her home and studio.