Channeling Georgia O’Keefe


By Nancy Mueller


BIG BLEND RADIO INTERVIEW: Travel writer Nancy Mueller discusses her experience at Ghost Ranch. Listen to the whole show on, listen/download her interview podcast on Spreaker, YouTube, or SoundCloud.

One drive along I-84/285 north of Santa Fe through the rose and coral-hued, light-filled landscape leading to Abiquiú, and it’s easy to identify with early travelers who felt they had entered “The Land of Enchantment.”

Timeless. Tranquil. Transformative. New Mexico’s northern region instills a sense of sacredness, the echo of the ages, in its surrounding, spellbinding beauty.

Modernist painter, Georgia O’Keeffe, made her home here, a place that provided both solace and solitude following the death of her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Widely known for her larger-than-life flower paintings and New York City skyscrapers, living here among the sage-strewn Southwest desert, cliffs, colorful mesas, and cottonwoods evoked a different artistic sensibility.

With her spirit in mind, I set out with a small group of travel colleagues to discover the place that so inspired Ms. O’Keeffe in the latter half of her long life.


Ms. O’Keeffe’s trips to New Mexico began in Taos at the invitation of her friends Dorothy Brett and Mabel Dodge Luhan in 1929. After hearing about Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú, the artist paid her first visit in 1934. By 1940, she had purchased the small, isolated residence, Rancho de los Burros, of then-ranch-owner, Arthur Pack, as her home-away-from-home for annual summer stays.

Yet the artist yearned for a nearby winter home where she could cultivate a garden of her own which she discovered 13 miles away in the village of Abiquiú. After renovating the ruined adobe home set on three acres over a period of three years, Ms. O’Keeffe made this her permanent winter home and studio.

Our tour began here before driving on to our final destination, Ghost Ranch. Looking out across the vast, open landscape, it’s easy to imagine Ms. O’Keeffe wandering the hills, walking stick in hand, in search of whatever suited her fancy: a stone here, a pelvis bone there. Approaching the courtyard of her home feels like entering a temple as iconic images reflected in Ms. O’Keeffe’s paintings come to life: a ladder propped against the brown adobe building under a canopy of impossibly blue sky; gatherings of animal antlers and skulls on tree stumps, tables and walls; and “That wall with a door in it was something I had to have,” as evidenced by its prominence through several renditions in her paintings.

Inside the inner sanctuary of Ms. O’Keeffe’s 7,000 square-foot home and studio, the artist’s preference for minimalism, mid-century modern, and walls of light prevail. The kitchen area reveals large freezers, top-of-the-line appliances for the times, and a large, open pantry with hanging pots and orderly rows of bulk spices and canning jars. Light, sparse, open space and orderliness define the artist’s studio aesthetic as well. I like to think of her here immersed alone in her craft, paintbrush in hand, giving form and color to the ideas in her head.

Ghost Ranch

Before relocating to Ghost Ranch from New York City permanently, Ms. O’Keeffe summed up her annual visitations: “Each time I leave here [Ghost Ranch] it is like a Death, and each time that I return it is a Birth.” It is a sentiment shared by many who take a trip to Ghost Ranch only to find themselves returning again and again.

One such visitor, artist Diane Arenberg, felt she had been called “home” after coming here for a painting trip 30 years ago. Soon after, she began bringing her family of three daughters and husband, Tom, on annual summer visits. Like O’Keeffe before her, Arenberg ultimately made a permanent move to the area, settling in nearby Santa Fe, in 2009. Since then she and her husband have been active stewards of the National Ghost Ranch Foundation both as members and board chairs.
We met up with Diane for an evening acrylic painting class at the Arts Center on site where she had set up several blank canvases awaiting our inner O’Keeffe creations. Uh-oh. But Diane quickly relieved any feelings of intimidation, assuring us that “I will never make any marks on your painting,” and “‘Critiques’ are always positive with suggestions rather than criticism.” True to her word, she began by having each of us select our own photo from among several to emulate for practice, avoiding competition or comparison with our fellow aspiring artists. She demonstrated a few techniques on her own canvas, then moved about our individual easels, offering words of encouragement and suggestions along the way. By the end of our three-hour class, we each had achieved a small measure of success, our own acrylic  “masterpiece.”

Since the early days of Ms. O’Keeffe’s initial visit, Ghost Ranch has become a retreat and education center run by the Presbyterian Church. With a mission to “foster well-being and spiritual health through this historic, inspiring southwest landscape,” the center offers a variety of options for rest and renewal, such as sabbatical retreats, workshops in the creative arts, outdoor activities, and special events throughout the year.

To view scenes where Ms. O’Keeffe drew inspiration for her paintings, we signed up for a Landscape Tour. Walking in her footsteps while scanning the multilayered, painted cliffs infused our stay with a deeper appreciation of not only her artwork, but of the strong need to preserve and protect the environment for future generations.

Start your stay with a stroll around the grounds, followed by a self-guided tour of The Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology and the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology or take a hike at Chimney Rock, one of several nearby trails leading to jaw-dropping vistas. Browse the 12,000-volume library open 24/7, or walk the half-mile path of the Labyrinth for prayer and reflection.

By happy chance, our stay ended with a celebration of Ms. O’Keeffe’s birthday on November 15th. At the Trading Post, the staff treated us to a taste of one of her favorite desserts, Norwegian Apple Pie Cake.

Ms. O’Keeffe once said: “When I think of death, I only regret that I will not be able to see this beautiful country anymore, unless the Indians are right and my spirit will walk here after I’m gone.” Today, without question, the artist’s spirt continues to enrich this magical landscape she called home.

For more information, including lodging options, visit  and

Nancy Mueller is a Seattle-based speaker, travel writer/photographer, publisher of,  author of “Work Worldwide: International Career Strategies for the Adventurous Job Seeker”, and a member of the International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association.     

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About the Author:

Nancy Mueller is a Seattle-based speaker, travel writer/photographer, publisher of,  author of “Work Worldwide: International Career Strategies for the Adventurous Job Seeker”, and a member of the International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association.     

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