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O’Keeffe’s Canyon

Artist Georgia O’Keeffe spent her formative years exploring and drawing inspiration from Palo Duro Canyon.

By Dan Oko

Cross the plains of the West Texas Panhandle south of Amarillo without a map and you might never discover majestic Palo Duro Canyon, a massive rift in the earth’s crust 120 miles long and as many as 20 miles wide in places. More than 16,000 acres of the canyon were deeded to the state of Texas in 1933, although humans have frequented the area from the time of the Clovis peoples over 11,000 years ago. Popularly known as the Grand Canyon of Texas, the Palo Duro landscape is superlative — whether viewed from the rim high above the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River or seen after descending 800 feet into this great fissure in the Eastern Caprock escarpment.

Since I visited the park last year, though, it has not been ancient occupiers who come to mind when I think about Palo Duro. Rather, I recall a more recent visitor, one whose relationship to the canyon is nearly as hidden from Texans as the canyon is hidden from most travelers: Georgia O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe, who died in 1986, was arguably the nation’s preeminent modern artist, and despite the fact that she settled in New Mexico after setting the 20th-century art world on fire for four decades, there is no arguing that O’Keeffe’s revolutionary style owes a great deal to the big sky, bright lights and surreal scenery found in and around Palo Duro, a place she visited frequently when she lived in Texas.

“She spent a critical phase of her career in the Panhandle,” says William Chiego, director of the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. “The work that she did during that time would establish themes that would be with her the rest of her career.”

Born in 1887 in Wisconsin, O’Keeffe first ventured west at the age of 24, when she arrived in Amarillo to teach art, though initially she stayed in Texas less than two years. At the time, O’Keeffe already knew that she wanted to be an artist; she had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she won top honors, and went on to win a scholarship from the prestigious Art Student League of New York. Having endured the tight green spaces of the upper Midwest and East Coast woodlands, O’Keeffe found the “bigness” of the Panhandle inspirational; the endless sky and uninterrupted horizons were a salve to the young artist’s vision. “I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me,” O’Keeffe said. “Shapes and ideas so near to me, so natural to my way of being and thinking, that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.”

That impulse to put things down shifted dramatically when O’Keeffe returned to Texas for another two-year stint as an art teacher, this time at the West Texas State Normal College in Canyon, a dozen miles from where Palo Duro Canyon State Park would soon be established. From 1916 to 1918, O’Keeffe spent her free time exploring the main canyon and side canyons such as Sunday and Thule, carved by the headwaters of the Red River, where she mostly used charcoal and watercolors to depict the rough scenery. Her so-called Canyon Suite paintings reflect the earliest glimmers of the more abstract use of light and color that would come to characterize O’Keeffe’s later work, especially her famous images of flowers and popular scenes of New York skyscrapers. Her watercolor Canyon with Crows depicts a deep purple arroyo that lightens higher to yellows and orange while impressionistic black crows hover in a pale blue sky.

“There is something wonderful about the bigness, the loneliness and windiness of it all,” O’Keeffe observed of her time on the Texas plains. Indeed, even today with development expanding rapidly around Amarillo and Canyon, there is both a remarkable emptiness and complexity to the landscape. I spent two nights in the park camped quietly beneath the stars with only a few other visitors. A pair of Spanish tourists stayed in a nearby tent site while down the park road older travelers in their RVs seemed to enjoy the solitude as well. This was during the fall, and overhead each morning flocks of sandhill cranes made their way to the grain fields and silver-dollar playa lakes dotting the roadsides, where the birds gathered and danced their awkward West Texas waltz. Trying with limited success to photograph the multihued canyon and vegetation such as riverbank cottonwoods, as well as juniper and plentiful mesquite, I found myself confounded by these forms.

“I guess she could see it a little better than most of us can,” TPWD Park Ranger Mark Hassell told me. “On the whole, she does a good job of capturing the canyon and what it’s like to be here.” Trained as a geologist at West Texas State, Hassell went on to explain about the 250 million years of history that can be observed through the striations that define the ravines. The park, he says, is located near the head of the canyon, which was formed by playa lakes that slowly eroded, forming streams that cut the sedimentary rock below. Found at the chasm bottom is the oldest rock, which Hassell labeled the “Permian Red Beds” dating from the Jurassic Era; the middle section of the canyon dates between 210 and 180 million years old, including a distinct layer of pink and purple silt stones and the Trujillo cliffs; dating back a mere 12 million years is the Ogallala Formation, which consists of pinkish-tan sandstone spanning the caprock.

For as much inspiration as O’Keeffe found in the undulating scenery, according to Michael R. Grauer, curator of art at the first-rate Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum on the West Texas A&M University campus (formerly Normal College), many lesser artists tended to shy away from the challenge of trying to capture the canyon in paint. “It was not an easy place for beginners,” says Grauer, who organized a 2006 exhibition of prints, photos and paintings titled “Picturing Palo Duro.” He traces the history of Palo Duro artists back to army expeditions who mapped the area in the 1870s, more than a decade before O’Keeffe was born, looking for where the Red River got its start. Probably the most famous Texan to paint Palo Duro was Dallas artist Frank Reaugh (pronounced “ray,” 1860-1945), who brought art students to the nearby Goodnight Ranch to work al fresco.

“Many of the pictures of the canyon looked downright garish,” says Grauer. “A constant criticism was that the colors and landforms in the West could not exist. The critics were used to misty light and this kind of thing. Even Reaugh thought it could be too intense.”

The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum collection includes one of O’Keeffe’s rare oil paintings, Red Landscape, which was completed in 1918 during her stay in Canyon. The picture is one of only four oil paintings attributed to the artist. It’s a striking composition that uses a skyward perspective, looking out from an undetermined arroyo past bright red cliffs to a hazy yellow sun beneath a darkening sky — and unless you have stood in Palo Duro, it’s easy to see why somebody in New York might have thought O’Keeffe was pulling some sort of stunt. There’s more going on than meets the untrained eye, offers Sharyn Udall, an art historian who curated a 1998 show, “O’Keeffe and Texas,” at the McNay Museum in San Antonio. “This was a foreign landscape to her eyes,” says Udall. “What she seems to be doing is that she is dealing with it in an expressionist manner.”

Shortly after O’Keeffe finished Red Landscape, she left Texas and moved to New York City, where she would marry gallery owner and photographer Alfred Steiglitz, who had hosted O’Keeffe’s first solo show, in 1917. The artist would never live in Texas again, yet for the rest of her career, she continued to pursue a vision born of her Lone Star experience, representing much of the natural world — including myriad flowers, cow skulls and even clouds seen from an airliner — as abstract monuments. “She loved the sky, the light, the hills, the color of the dust, and of course she loved the canyon,” says Udall. “It struck her from the very beginning, and she was forever changed by her experience.”

After Steiglitz died in 1946, O’Keeffe would return to the West — this time settling in New Mexico. But if you have a real desire to understand this groundbreaking artist, whose images today decorate coffee cups, postcards and T-shirts, the thing to do is find where the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River parts the Panhandle and spend some time watching the light dance amid the rippling Spanish-skirt cliff formations that decorate Texas’ grand canyon. When O’Keeffe hiked there as a young woman, they say she let the red dust of the Panhandle stain her clothes. It clearly colored her vision, too.

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