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I have two to add. At the center of both is world-class art, although vastly different forms of art.
Currently, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe is exhibiting “Ghost Ranch Views.” By all means, it’s worth a visit. But afterward, head north to the actual Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu and experience the views firsthand.
I was lucky to spend a recent weekend there with a group of women led by former first lady Clara Apodaca, who knew O’Keeffe and shared wonderful stories.
She described a woman who was independent (we knew that); eager to talk to interesting, good-looking men (usually ignoring their wives); generous to the Abiquiu community; and meticulous in her work.
So meticulous that she made a late-night call to Apodaca the evening before her exhibit was set to open at the Governor’s Gallery, insisting the walls were not white enough. They needed to be repainted.
It was 1975, and Apodaca had been working for months on creating the gallery on the fourth floor of the state Capitol. To ensure its success, she had landed O’Keeffe as the first featured artist.
The big opening approached. The paintings were hung. Everything was set. At 9 p.m. the night before the opening, Apodaca received the call from O’Keeffe. Needless to say, capitol staff was rounded up, paintings were taken off the walls, the walls were repainted and paintings rehung. All with a few hours to spare.
“It was the experience of a lifetime, because no one had gotten so close to her,” Apodaca says. “She had never shown this many paintings in an exhibit in New Mexico before.”
Apodaca recounted that story as we visited Ghost Ranch, where O’Keeffe had a home and spent much of her time. As part of the tour, we visited several of the artist’s favorite spots. A tour guide pointed to a particular chimney sandstone formation, then held up a print of a famous O’Keeffe painting of that formation.
It is the same and yet not. In the painting, the chimney is closer, and the backdrop of other formations has been erased, as has the tip of the chimney. O’Keeffe used her eye as a camera, focusing on one aspect, cropping out others.
We stood there with clouds scuttling overhead amid rock formations and desert landscape and got a glimpse of what O’Keeffe saw and experienced day after day.
A woman of exceptional talent who could have lived anywhere, she chose this spot to create her magic.
On another weekend, I got the chance to visit another tribute to art – one that is not as well-known, but one that blends prehistoric Pueblo, New Mexico and my family’s histories.
Tucked into Western New Mexico University in Silver City is a small museum with the world’s largest interpretive exhibit of Mimbres culture and artifacts – the NAN Ranch collection.
It consists of all of the material and artifacts from more than 25 years of excavation and research conducted by Texas A&M at the ranch, in the Mimbres Valley in southwestern New Mexico.
When we walked in, we didn’t just see amazing pottery. Exhibits explained what the pieces were used for, how the Mimbres lived, even how they brewed maize (corn) beer.
“We have all the documents, maps, all the information to be able to understand their culture,” said museum Director Cynthia Ann Bettison.
In 1981, Bettison was a student who attended Texas A&M’s summer field school at the NAN Ranch. She became close to the ranch owner, Margaret Ross Hinton, who was interested in the archaeological sites and often worked alongside the excavation crews.
While there, Bettison visited the museum at WNMU, which already housed an extensive Mimbres collection. She walked in and said to herself, “Someday I am coming back to fix this.”
That’s what she’s doing. In 1991, she landed the job as museum director, and Hinton – proud of her former “student” – visited her often. Over the years, Bettison talked to Hinton about how wonderful it would be to have the collection in Silver City, so close to its original home. And in 2011, the Hinton family agreed. The museum is housed in WNMU’s former gymnasium.
On our visit, my 90-year-old dad, Tom Moses, who spent much of his youth in nearby Hurley, glanced around and casually mentioned, “Oh, yeah, I played basketball here when I went to Hurley High.” He paused and, always honest to a fault, he added, “Well, I didn’t actually play. I sat the bench, over there at the end.”
Obviously, the bench is no longer there. Instead, exhibits of pottery with explanatory boards are set in a wandering fashion, dividers separating them into a maze, giving the whole experience a warm and intimate feel.
Now Western is about to start a $3.8 million renovation on the museum for fire suppression and heat and air conditioning to protect the artifacts and add comfort for visitors.
Bettison sees a future with interpretive exhibits; more educational opportunities for children, college students and the public; videos about the excavation, and much more. “For me, this is an opportunity to share with anyone – residents, students, professors, everyone – to share not only what the Mimbres made but who they were and how they lived.”
Abiquiu’s vast landscapes seen through the eyes of the world renowned Georgia O’Keeffe and Western New Mexico’s little museum – two items to add to your bucket list.
Western New Mexico University
With an enrollment of nearly 4,000, the school offers associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees and graduate degrees. It is unusual in that it has open enrollment — anyone with a high school diploma or GED is admitted with no ACT or GPA minimum required.
And that presents challenges. WNMU President Joe Shepard teaches a developmental math class with some students at the fifth-grade math level.
Shepard has ambitious plans for the school, including expanding online offerings to further its reach.
Georgia O’Keeffe spent much of her time in her adobe home in the village of Abiquiu. The home, on a bluff overlooking U.S. 84, is sparse, with low ceilings. A tour provides insight into her life, and the views are spectacular. She replaced some of the walls with solid glass, opening her bedroom and studio to vistas of distant hills and cottonwoods.