At the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the Denver Art Museum last week, I was struck by how her paintings of northern New Mexico looked nothing like the photos of the same places, as shown in the short movie about her life. Of course, great artists take a subject as their own and translate it into something very different from what the ordinary person notices (see Picasso). But O’Keeffe gave these hills a power I’ve never felt, even when in New Mexico and admiring the sculptural and otherwordly landscape of almost barren hills, dotted by a few junipers.
In one painting, she portrayed the gray and black hills near her home in Abiqui as waves of black and gray forms descending to a silver line that coursed through these almost abstract shapes. She took a simple landscape and transformed it into something powerful, something deriving from her own place of courage.
But this painting also comes from more than 30 years of becoming intimate with this landscape. This is not a painting you could create in one day or even a week of visiting New Mexico. You would have to get to know this landscape very well before you could paint it with that depth and power. You would have to sit with your sketchbook or easel in front of these red and russet and gray and black hills day after day, wake up every morning to the light on the hills and go to bed every night feeling their presence.
Every day your connection to this landscape would grow more intense and deep. Every day you would see things you never saw before as you slowly absorb the energy of the hills, the rocks, the sky. After a while the landscape becomes part of you, and what you translate onto the canvas is part landscape and part you.
It will soon be five years since I bought my cabin in Meeker Park, and I get to know the landscape more intimately with each passing week. I see something I’ve never seen before: a cabin tucked in the woods, a certain light on the creek, the shadow of a tree on a boulder, the color of the lichen on a rock. Over time, the landscape has slowly gotten filled in. I’ve followed small ravines up the hills, discovered new groves of aspens, new bends in the creek, experienced every season of the year.
But it’s more than that. It’s as if the accumulation of every moment I’ve been here is experienced in the present moment, so looking at Mount Meeker today I can see the mountain in all its moods and in every season. It’s like O’Keeffe’s layers of hills—memories and experiences piled on top of each other and coursing through me like a river.