Monday, July 9, 2012

Remembering Miss O’Keeffe: Stories from Abiquiu

Former Caretaker Recalls O’Keeffe


John Loengard: Georgia O'Keeffe, Abiqui, 1967



Via the Albuquerque Journal North
 By

In 1977, a 24-year-old woman took a job as caretaker for an elderly artist in one of New Mexico’s remote villages.
The woman was Margaret Wood; the artist was Georgia O’Keeffe, and their pairing would launch an adventure into food and friendship that would last a lifetime.
Wood was living in Lincoln, Neb., when she received a call from an acquaintance about a job opening in Abiquiu. Wood had graduated from Nebraska’s Hastings College with a degree in art education.
O’Keeffe was 90 at the time, and her eyesight was failing. She needed someone to stay with her throughout the night and to prepare simple meals. Wood’s duties included brushing O’Keeffe’s long white hair, using just the right pressure, reading to her and accompanying her on her walks beneath the red cliffs of Ghost Ranch or down her sweeping Abiquiu driveway.
She always called her “Miss O’Keeffe.”
Wood recalls her five years with the great artist in “Remembering Miss O’Keeffe: Stories from Abiquiu” ($19.95, Museum of New Mexico Press). Wood will talk about her time with O’Keeffe and sign books at Collected Works, 202 Galisteo St., No. A, at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
“I knew someone who had been a companion for Georgia O’Keeffe, and she was looking for someone to take her place,” said Wood, now living in Santa Fe and working as a speech therapist. “Her (O’Keeffe’s) eyesight was failing due to macular degeneration.
“I was very excited,” she continued. “I thought perhaps I could do this. I had studied art, and I knew of her paintings. I was a fan. I especially liked the paintings of New Mexico.”
Her friend warned her of O’Keeffe’s exactitude; everything had to be to her specifications. She cautioned Wood to be patient. Wood rented a former schoolhouse in the small village of Barranco. She thought she knew how to cook, but she quickly learned otherwise.
O’Keeffe took great pride in her healthy lifestyle. Whole wheat flour was always ground fresh with the artist’s personal mill. Yogurt was homemade, often from the milk of local goats. Fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables came from the artist’s garden.
“I tried to fit in what she needed,” Wood said. “It took me several months to make friends with her. She was such a private person and an independent person that it was an invasion to have someone assist her in this way.
“It was hard because I had to learn everything from how to make the lunch soup just right to how to brush her hair with just the right pressure. If the plates were not heated, she would say, ‘Oh, my dear, these plates are stone cold.’
“I didn’t expect the level of simplicity yet perfection that she liked in her food and her surroundings.”
Freshly made beds had to be perfectly tucked in. Food had to be attractively arranged on the plate.
Wood worked from 5 p.m. to 8:30 a.m., while the rest of the staff went home.
“She enjoyed listening to music,” Wood said. “She had two beautiful stereo systems — one in her studio and one in her house.”
O’Keeffe was a fan of Bach, Schubert and Monteverdi. She liked Wood to read to her — mostly Prevention, Time and Newsweek magazines, the bold print version of the New York Times and art books.
But no rock and roll.
Despite her carefully cultivated image as a recluse, O’Keeffe regularly welcomed visitors. Wood was thrilled when singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell came calling, resplendent in gold eyeshadow.
“That was a great visit for me,” Wood said. “Georgia O’Keeffe didn’t know much about her. (Mitchell) was a painter. She gave her an album. We listened to it, and Miss O’Keeffe thought the music made her drowsy.”
Allen Ginsberg arrived with his partner Peter Orlovsky. They admired the late afternoon light as they compared the nature of words to action. O’Keeffe declared that talk was easy but it was action that got things going. Ginsberg countered that words often inspired people to action. He and Orlovsky climbed the ladder to the roof to watch the sunset.
O’Keeffe often talked about her late husband, the photographer and impresario Alfred Stieglitz.
“She talked about how people thought he liked the arts page, but he (really) liked the sports page because of the horse races.
“She thought Alfred could look down on her and smile.”
Sometimes, O’Keeffe’s traditional ways clashed with the changing times — especially the women’s movement. Wood felt like she was in a time warp.
“I was being trained in these old ways,” Wood said. “I felt like I was in an old-fashioned place.”
She left to pursue graduate school.
“I knew I needed to get more education in a field I could use for the rest of my life,” Wood explained. “All the positions in the O’Keeffe house were filled.”
She visited O’Keeffe after Juan Hamilton, her companion, had moved her to Santa Fe for 24-hour care. But on her second visit, Hamilton warned her that the artist’s memory was fading.
O’Keeffe did not recognize her. Wood was stunned, then felt waves of grief. She stopped going but still dreamed about the artist.
Today, Wood finds a direct link between her profession and her years spent with the great artist.
“I work for elderly people, and I think it’s because of my work with Miss O’Keeffe,” she said. “I like their stories and their experience of being in this world. Most of them are very comfortable with themselves.”
But mostly, she remembers the food.
“I have an appreciation and a style of cooking simple, nutritious food,” she said.”I still cook the lemon chicken. I still make the herb salad. I make the lemon pecan fruitcake every Christmas.”

If you go WHAT: “Remembering Miss O’Keeffe: Stories from Abiquiu” by Margaret Wood. A conversation and book signing with the author and Miriam Sagan.
WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo St., No. A
CONTACT: 988-4226