Ghosting after O’Keefe

Stormy Pedernal

We pulled into camp in Ghost Ranch, near Abiquiu, NM just ahead of the storm front.  While Nick headed in for the start of his 3 day retreat, I started my 3 days of exploring the famed landscape that dominated Georgia O’Keefe’s art for decades.  Or, I would have started exploring but for the thunderheads that moved in and kept me within running distance of our rv.

I am not conversant in O’Keefe.  She remains, for me, an iconic but abstract name in the world of 20th Century art, like Frida Kahlo, Dali or Pollock.  And yet, it’s impossible to live in this state and be unaware of her images of the high desert heartland and her impact on the psyche of New Mexico. So here I am, camera in hand — or rather, on-neck — ready to see for myself.

Clouds are a photographer’s best friend.  Over the next 48 hours, the formations and patterns were pure Southwest, giving me wonderful context for the landscape.  At the time, I didn’t realize that I was taking shots of O’Keefe’s guiding spirit mountain, Pedernal, when I watched and tried to capture the moving storms, clouds, fog and clearing sky.  Pedernal Clearing

The story told later was that O’Keefe had a dream that God told her he would give her the mountain if she painted it enough; she painted some version of this mesa almost 30 times.  I’m glad the mesa is still there for the rest of us to capture in our own forms of expression.

I did a few little studies in black and white, which seemed natural given the gray, rainy skies.

Typical tourist, I took an afternoon bus tour that left public-access behind for a drive through the red hills that O’Keefe hiked daily,  where she painted the same scenes at various times of day, and on one or two occasions, painted various times of day on the same canvas.  And like all the other tourists, I took pictures of the same formations, hills and canyons O’Keefe painted.  Then, in processing my images, I decided to have a little fun.  I found online a couple of her paintings that were highlighted by the tour guide, locations which I had also photographed.  And I tried, using my processing software, to come close to the effect that she created with oils, pastels and watercolors. Here’s O’Keefe’s original Cliff Chimney, followed by my approximation, followed by my more typical processing.

Because there are so many ways to explore and understand a landscape, I went from 4 wheels to 4 feet — that is, I followed the bus tour with a horseback tour of the same limited access ranch area.  Where the bus had to stay to the road, the horses were able to meander among the hills, drop down into the arroyos, circle the outcroppings at a much more deliberate pace.  This guide/wrangler didn’t hold photos of O’Keefe paintings for our appreciation and elucidation; she told us the local origin story of a monster snake coiled around a big mesa, which ate interlopers, about mad witches after which the ranch was originally named, about the cattle rustlers who made a living and a killing there, and the bad turn of a gambler’s card that cost him the deed to the ranch.

This ain’t New Mexico’s Rio Grande!

 

Soft water on the Rio GrandeTraveling Silver followed the Silver Thread Scenic Highway from South Fork CO, through the old mining town of Creede, ending at Gunnison.  Our goal was to explore the Rio Grande National Forest along the way.  About halfway up the Silver Thread, we made our way in to Thirty Mile Campground and set camp right on the rocky bank of the Rio Grande River.  This is a river that does not resemble the Rio Grande we know in southern New Mexico, where the river creeps between its banks, sneaks underground,  and slips along acequias to water patches of chiles and groves of pecan trees.  This Rio Grande jumps rocks, digs flash holes and flows wild; it talks in loud voices of rumbles and burbles.  We found ourselves about 18 miles from the headwaters of the Rio Grande, starting appropriately on the northern flank of Rio Grande Pyramid Mt at 13,000+ feet.  The river remains untamed by the series of reservoirs that capture some of its water, but none of its spirit.

The forest here is decimated by beetle kill and a few old fire scars.  You can tell the difference.  Fire scars turned aspens into sticks right along with the firs.  Beetle kill stripped the fir of their leaves, leaving the aspen relatively green.  Entire mountainsides of brown sticks.  Seems to be a common pestilence phenom across the Colorado forests.  And yet, while on one side of the valley in which we camped the trees looked like porcupine quills, the other side along with the riverside was verdant with exclamation marks of firs.  Upon closer note, other punctuafir marks: there was the comma at the top of a fir where the trunk must have grown around an errant cloud; there were the pair of parentheses trunks that enclosed a fair piece of blue sky.  Along the river course, firs leaned in to better hear the language of the rapids.

Our campground was shared with an overabundance of chipmunks, ground and tree squirrels.  Fat. Direct. Jump-on-your-table bold. Deer so acclimated to people, they walked through campsites trailing their spotted fawns or waving their growing spikes.  Thirty Mile was cared for by a marvelous couple, camp hosts extraordinaire.  The only drawback for us flatlanders who live at a measly 6,000 feet elevation was that we became over-elevated.  Thirty Mile is at 9,300, rather like going from sea level to Denver and trying to hike a few miles. We weren’t there long enough to get acclimated and, sadly, left with the same niggling headache and mild nausea we arrived with.

Up and over the pass, we stopped at an overlook that took in the valley leading up along the Rio Grande to and beyond the campgrounds and reservoirs, all the way up to the headwaters.

Headwaters Rio Grande River, Rio Grande Natl Forest
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