Love Letters to the Mountain: Georgia O’Keeffe and Cerro Pedernal

Untitled (Pedernal), 1958, by Georgia O’Keeffe.

Georgia O’Keeffe painted the mesa Cerro Pedernal 28 times.

Regarded more as an honorary mountain than traditional mesa, the Pedernal sits at the edge of the Jemez Mountain range in northern New Mexico, rising up over the Abiquiú Lake. Amidst the dusty reds and pinks of the neighboring mesas, the piercing blue of the Pedernal commands a kind of hush. In Spanish, cerro pedernal means “flint hill,” and its earth is lush with chert, the rock once used for shaping tools and weapons. Like the flat of a blade, the Pedernal shows its full breadth from only the front and the back. From the sides, the mesa recedes as though painted and mounted on a backdrop, as part of a grand set.

The Pedernal and the Piedra Lumbre that surrounds Abiquiú have served as setting for a host of films and stories, mostly Westerns. Perhaps the grandest spectacle yet has been the second life of Georgia O’Keeffe — a Western in its own right. A fiercely independent woman blows into a dusty town to start a new life. This was a role she had played before, at the start of her twenties in the Texas panhandle. Now, she was newly widowed and nearly sixty.

These moments bookended her life with Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz first sent for her to stay with him in New York City in 1918. She had fallen ill earlier that year, moving into a ranch in Waring, Texas with a friend so the two women could recuperate. The previous year, when O’Keeffe’s health and spirits had been at their highest yet, she and her visiting youngest sister, Claudia, had glimpsed New Mexico for the first time — Santa Fe — while en route home to Texas from a trip to Colorado. “From then on,” she wrote, “I was always on my way back.” Beginning with a 1930 invitation from Mable Dodge Luhan to stay in Taos, O’Keeffe did make nearly-annual pilgrimages to New Mexico, meandering over the years from Taos to Alcade, Abiquiú, and finally Ghost Ranch. Stieglitz died in the summer of 1946, and that fall was no exception — O’Keeffe returned ceremoniously to Ghost Ranch.

“From then on,” she wrote, “I was always on my way back.”

In New Mexico, she made preparations for her second life, and in New York, oversaw the settling of her late husband’s. By 1949, she’d seen to the last of his estate, and left again for New Mexico. She was coming home now: to the place she had long found herself orbiting, and perhaps even to a small part of herself, to the spirit of that young schoolteacher in the Texas deserts.

Each morning in Ghost Ranch, O’Keeffe opened her curtains and beheld the Pedernal, her neighbor and friend. The mountain can be seen from all over Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu, appearing to travelers on US-84 as the grandest signal of approach. Yet the view from O’Keeffe’s adobe patio is unparalleled, a truth she knew and prized. “It’s my private mountain,” she once said. “It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”

Georgia O’Keeffe opening her studio in Ghost Ranch, 1960, photographed by Tony Vaccaro.

Thus began a diligent and prolific study of her new companion. Whether the focus of the work, or the ever-present, celestial guardian on the horizon of the painting, O’Keeffe’s breadth of work depicts the Pedernal as a living, breathing, and changing presence in the landscape: clothing itself in rich indigo under the bright New Mexican sunlight, in shimmering periwinkle at dawn, muted hues during draught, and vivid saturation after rain. O’Keeffe captured her mountain in snow and after fire. The mountain’s since-healed burn mark suggests the ghostly, leaping form of the region’s antelope.

Besides studying and painting the Pedernal, O’Keeffe even scaled it — a feat boasted by few seasoned hikers. Categorized today as a “Class 4” trek, the path is unmaintained and unmarked. Only a line of white paint points up toward the rocky pass to the peak. Visiting hikers to Ghost Ranch are not advised to attempt this climb, and nobody is advised to do so alone.

Naturally, O’Keeffe did just that, and at the age of 63.

Cradled in her mountain’s palm, on the scant edge of the peak — the knife, the cuchillo — she surveyed her world. Another autumn had come, and the cottonwoods were turning below. Stieglitz had been dead for five years. He’d been unfaithful throughout their marriage, had kept her most “persistently off [her] track,” yet had also been the most interesting person she’d known.

“It’s my private mountain,” she once said. “It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”

A 2016 article in the Telegraph is often encountered amidst search results for the artist’s paintings of this mountain. It is titled, “How Georgia O’Keeffe left her cheating husband for a mountain.” This title, obviously aggrandized, is actually a refreshing take on O’Keeffe’s life in an important respect.

There exists a tendency to undermine O’Keeffe’s relationship to her husband, to gloss over her obvious passion for him, and to wholly reshape her into a sagely minimalist — a being without want, need, or desire. Yet there is also a tendency to overlook her own, equally undeniable and justifiable, hardening toward him and his infidelities. To ignore her consistent desire not to speak of Stieglitz in those second-life years. To downplay the pain she felt, the tendrils of human emotion hidden by the mythic sheen of the woman.

And what has been denied chiefly of the artist’s memory, and what is denied generally, is the idea that she might have loved a place just as much — if not more — than her husband. The idea that place could have a more profound effect on a life’s course than relationships. In the wide-open skies of Texas, in her escapes to Maine while married to Stieglitz, and finally in New Mexico, place served as the lifeline to O’Keeffe’s inspiration.

Stieglitz hated her comings and goings, but he accepted them — this was the very least he could offer in exchange for her acceptance of his affairs. Their understanding, however bitter, was essentially reciprocal. Though he sent a trail of plaintive, sorrowful letters after her no matter where she went, if he ever tried to give her an ultimatum to make her stay, either she called the bluff or flat-out refused it. She ruled in favor of place, again and again.

Pedernal, 1936, by Georgia O’Keeffe.

And when she was away from Stieglitz, she would call him her “faraway one” in her letters. In New Mexico, her mountain and landscape were her “faraway, nearby.” This language evokes love, too—a different kind of love, but a love nonetheless, and at last attained. O’Keeffe’s new love fed her work in the most vital way: inspiration. The Pedernal was a loyal, steadfast subject and companion. It gave her a quiet, diligent practice, a life spring for her work. O’Keeffe met this with both diligence and respect. Though her claim to the mountain was brazen, it was no act of hubris.

Her claim was a declaration of love, a mantra of self-acceptance. She chose place. She lived precisely the life she wanted — after all, it belonged to her.

Note: An early version of this piece was sent out in my TinyLetter, Field Notes.