Branching out: 'Rooted in Place' explores the forests of Georgie O'Keeffe's work

Feb. 4—Mention the artist Georgia O'Keeffe and most people think of flowers.

An exhibition at Santa Fe's Georgia O'Keeffe Museum is designed to challenge that perception.

"Rooted in Place" takes visitors on a journey to the forests of trees, shrubs and keystone species the artist found in New Mexico and beyond. All of the 20 paintings, drawings, photographs and watercolors come from O'Keeffe's personal collection.

"Many of us are familiar with Georgia O'Keeffe's explorations of flowers," said Bess Murphy, Luce Curator of art and social practice. "However, an even more persistent botanical subject in her work was trees, especially during her time in New Mexico."

The exhibition spotlights O'Keeffe's trees, with input from the Santa Fe Botanical Garden on the origins and unique characteristics of the species. A keystone species helps to define and support an entire ecosystem. Without those species, those ecosystems may drastically change or even collapse.

The artist's trees form a geographical map of her home and travels. O'Keeffe painted many versions of piñon, juniper and cottonwood in New Mexico.

"O'Keeffe sketched banyan trees in Bermuda, redwood trees in California and palm trees in Antigua," Murphy said.

The curator was inspired to create the exhibition by the recent digital catalogue raisonné compilation of all of O'Keeffe's works.

"Trees were one of the most persistent subjects," Murphy said. "She returned to them throughout her entire career.

"Even as her eyesight was failing, she kept returning to trees. For her, they were an entry into place.

"I think it was something she resonated with," Murphy continued. "I think it was the sculptural form."

At first glance, "Autumn Trees, The Maple" (1924), resembles a floral. But the painting depicts a favorite maple tree of both O'Keeffe and her impresario/photographer husband Alfred Stieglitz. She returned to it in the summers and falls she spent at his family property in Lake George, New York. O'Keeffe captured the tree's form by depicting it as a zoomed-in abstraction. The image blurs wood and leaf, positive and negative space, stretching the plant across the entire canvas. Despite the abstraction, the artist's palette of grays, blacks, burnt reds and oranges still evokes the drama of autumn.

"She liked to paint it year after year and Stieglitz photographed it," Murphy said. "It recalls the floral paintings we're all familiar with. It's that same close-cropped and magnification."

O'Keeffe painted "Stump in Red Hills" at Ghost Ranch in 1940, the same year she bought the property.

"We have in the collection the actual piece of wood," Murphy said. "It's hanging in the gallery."

The wood came from a juniper tree, otherwise known as "desert driftwood," she added.

Junipers are a common evergreen in the Southwest. As O'Keeffe said: "A dead tree surrounded by the autumn is very gentle and pleasant and high in key, but it holds its place on the wall alone more than 40 feet away."

"It's probably about 2 1/2 to 3 feet tall," Murphy said. "It's amazing that she brought it back home."

The dramatically contoured stump hovers above the flaming hills in the background. The tree's wood is rot-resistant and durable, supplying fence posts, tools and other items for human needs. Its small, blue, fleshy cone or "berry" is an important food source for many animals.

"Cottonwoods Near Abiquiú" (1930) "definitely captures the spirit of the Chama Valley," Murphy said. "She painted those cottonwoods every season to show the cycle of the trees."

O'Keeffe captured the tree as if it were in motion, swaying in the New Mexico breeze. Cottonwoods are distinguished by their tall yet wide stature, thick foliage and tufts of cotton-like hairs attached to their seeds.

As the largest native tree along New Mexico's rivers, the cottonwood is an instantly recognizable symbol of northern New Mexico, with spectacular gold fall foliage. Its fluttering leaves sound like the murmurings of a crowd of people, hence the botanical term Populus — Latin for "the people." Its wide spreading branches offer shade and shelter to many plants and animals, and its roots protect river banks from erosion.

O'Keeffe met the author Gerald Heard in 1937, after he traveled to New Mexico to visit Frieda Lawrence (British author D.H. Lawrence's widow.) She invited him to stay at her property. "Gerald's Tree I" is evocative of that visit and captures the dead juniper tree under which O'Keeffe discovered his footprints.

She later wrote: "I guessed that he must have been dancing around the tree before I started to paint it. So I always thought of it as Gerald's tree."

In 1976, O'Keeffe and her assistant Juan Hamilton visited her friends, the photographer Ansel Adams and his wife Virginia. While staying at Adams' home in California, O'Keeffe produced two charcoal sketches of redwood trees. "Redwoods Big Sur" captures a giant example of the species. The work also signifies her return to a subject and medium used early in her career.

"She had already begun to lose her eyesight," Murphy said.