The gate entry to O’Keeffe’s garden is located adjacent to a sign declaring her home and studio a National Historic Landmark.

In 1945, Georgia O’Keeffe acquired her property in Abiquiú, New Mexico. Following an initial trip in 1929, she’d been visiting New Mexico regularly since 1934, and had purchased her home at Ghost Ranch in 1940. O’Keeffe claimed that it took her some ten years to acquire the Abiquiú location, which included the remnants of eighteenth-century dwellings and a connection to the local water infrastructure, known as acequias. O’Keeffe’s friend, Maria Chabot, proceeded to spend four years renovating, building, and planting the site that would become O’Keeffe’s home and studio. Within the first years of the Abiquiú renovation, O’Keeffe mostly lived on the East Coast in order to manage the estate of her recently deceased husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. After moving to New Mexico to establish primary residency in 1949, O’Keeffe lived between her Ghost Ranch and Abiquiú homes.

At Abiquiú, trees stand guard both over and within O’Keeffe’s compound walls. They surround the garden and appear within courtyards. We can think of these trees as witnesses to momentous changes that occurred throughout O’Keeffe’s long lifetime. We can also envision the trees as ways to connect the below and above, a continuum of regional histories of which the artist was a part.

A docent describes connections between O’Keeffe’s garden and paintings.

O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home and studio is located approximately 50 miles northwest of the New Mexico capital, Santa Fe. It is also situated approximately 50 driving miles north of Los Alamos, a current national laboratory where scientists constructed the first detonated nuclear weapons. The Abiquiú site contains a collection of buildings, a garden—and a nuclear fallout shelter built into the cliff beneath O’Keeffe’s bedroom. As with her studio and bedroom windows, the entrance to the fallout shelter looks out over the Chama River Valley. Public tours of the site include the kitchen, inner home courtyard, studio, bedroom, and some additional rooms. Select tours also provide entrance into the fallout shelter. Upon arriving, visitors pass through the compound’s modest gate and enter O’Keeffe’s garden.

In public and scholarly interpretations, O’Keeffe’s home and studio compound evokes mythologies of the American Southwest, the artist’s legendary independence, and the Atomic Age. Knowledge of Northern New Mexico further exposes and entwines one to deep histories of cultures and creatures. From the 1920s through the 1940s, dinosaur bones were unearthed not far from O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch home, as Audrey Goodman reports in Lost Homelands: Ruin and Reconstruction in the 20th-century Southwest (2010). The trees don’t reach back that far, but they do witness interwoven time frames—of ecological pasts, histories of peoples, the nuclear age, and O’Keeffe’s life and legacies.

Given their focus on flora, bones of fauna, and landscapes, O’Keeffe’s paintings provide a sense of time and surroundings. However, hers was literally a superficial view, as she explored her world via vistas and detritus found on surfaces of the earth. Her observational acumen may be part of why people pilgrimage to her Abiquiú home and studio— to see what she saw is a powerful draw. Her home and studio structures also hint at a sense of her participation in cultural and environmental histories; the buildings combine architectural bones from the 1700s with mid-twentieth century modernism and twenty-first century conservation efforts.

Cradled by trees consisting of volunteers and old and new plantings, O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home and studio charts some of the ways in which she broke and transcended the surface, as her life incorporated that which was also in and beneath the soil. Her fallout shelter expresses the anxieties of mid-20th century nuclear developments, while never breaking the view out to the vast Chama River Valley beyond. The shelter is only one piece of her buried critical infrastructure, however; her water system, consisting of traditional acequia structures, are hundreds of years old. O’Keeffe was also an avid grower of flora for both beauty and food. Over the four decades within which she lived at Abiquiú, she also turned over Northern New Mexico historical layers of place when she tended her garden.

A general site plan, based on archival materials dated 1996.
Visitors ponder O’Keeffe’s garden, surrounded by trees that have seen farther.

Throughout O’Keeffe’s life in New Mexico, the trees witnessed ongoing impacts of the region’s colonial pasts, post-Depression Era mentalities and survival tactics, and both the visible and invisible impacts of the new nuclear age. The ongoing work at Los Alamos has and continues to irrevocably change the surrounding watersheds, farmlands, and forests—as well as the relationships, livelihoods, risks, and worldviews of those who live in nearby towns (relationships vividly traced by Jake Kosek in his ethnography, Understories). As anthropologist Joseph Masco puts it, Northern New Mexico ecologies are “mutant,” transformed by the logics of the nuclear age: landscapes into parks and preserves, and trees and other living beings into “sentinels” who bear witness to the often-invisible phenomena of “radioactive nature.” These mutant natures—trees as living entities affected down to their very molecular structures, now and for future generations—may be invisible to casual visitors to O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home, but that doesn’t mean that the transformation is not still there. Acknowledging these effects, taking the land into account, as more than a stage-set or symbol, allows us to see histories, presents, and futures more clearly, to engage in what Shiloh Krupar calls a “relational ethics.” The land is not just a proscenium, but a pathway to less-discussed stories, and the trees are more than mere background, but witnesses to pasts and futures we may strive to see.

Visitors pause on the pathway between O’Keeffe’s home (right) and studio (left).

What if O’Keeffe’s trees provide us with not only a framing for her surface worldview, but also as entry points to envision a wider context within which she lived? Standing in her garden, surrounded and enclosed by these visual and ecological reminders of continuums, thinking about what they must have encountered—above and below, across their years and hers— allows us to see O’Keeffe as more, and more complicated, than her typical story. To only acknowledge the views embedded within her surface landscapes is to miss the ways in which she, and her home and studio site, engaged with and embodied much deeper times and cultures.

Sherri Wasserman constructs experiences at intersections of physical, digital, and informational landscapes. Her work ranges in scale from artist partnerships to initiatives for major institutions. She holds a BA in visual arts history (Oberlin College), a master’s degree from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, and a PhD in science and technology studies (ASU).


Buhler Lynes, B., & Lopez, A. J. 2012. Georgia O’Kee’ e and her houses: Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu. New York: Abrams.

Buhler Lynes, B., & Paden, A., Eds. 2003. Maria Chabot—Georgia O’Kee’ e: Correspondence, 1941–1949. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Goodman, A. 2010. Lost homelands: ruin and reconstruction in the 20th-century Southwest. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Guzman, A.I. 2017. Georgia O’Keeffe at home. London: Frances Lincoln.

Kosek, J. 2006. Understories: The political life of forests in northern New Mexico. Durham: Duke University Press.

Krupar, S. 2012. Transnatural ethics: revisiting the nuclear cleanup of Rocky Flats, CO, through the queer ecology of Nuclia Waste. cultural geographies, 19(3), 303–327.

Masco, J. 2004. Mutant Ecologies: Radioactive Life in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Cultural anthropology, 19(4), 520–22.

Poling-Kempes, L. 2005. Ghost Ranch. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

From “free” to “friend”…

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