Georgia O’ Keeffe often said that if she painted scenes she liked often enough, God would eventually give them to her.
I can’t think of a figure in history that I identify with more closely. I grew up in places that had nothing, and at the same time, they had everything. There was nothing except sky, sagebrush, dirt, and endless ridges covered in girders of gold—cheatgrass.
Sometimes there was nothing to do other than hike to the top of a mountain or run for miles on the road, throwing beer bottles at train tracks along the way. Many days were spent wandering in those hills. In the midst of this way of living, I discovered how mysterious the landscape of the Idaho desert truly is. In visiting New Mexico, I realize how sacred the void of the desert is. Magic happens here.
And that’s how I discovered painting and living as a creative nomad in general. Some people have got a little bit of gypsy blood inside them, and I’m one of them. I love the wind and the prickly pear and I get excited when I find a new cow gate to open. And I think that if you exist in a place long enough, God gives you more of that place every day—gives you more cow gates to open. And it’s your responsibility to decide how much you want to take and how many ridges away you want to go.
In the 1940s, Georgia O’Keeffe used to paint from a location called The Black Place, which is in New Mexico about 150 miles away from her ranch house. The wind was so severe there that it was hard to keep the canvas steady. It got so hot there that she sometimes had to seek refuge from the sun under her car. Painting in conditions like this reminds me of things I do: driving to places where I can be alone and painting them or writing about them. And O’Keeffe—like myself—was an introvert. I cannot count the nights I’ve stayed up by myself, drinking cup after cup of black tea, listening to Portishead, Ryan Adams, and Townes Van Zandt and painting, playing guitar, sitting on top of a high point, or riding my bike around the dead town. And I was never lonely. I can’t count the days I spent wandering ridges in my cowboy boots with a camera and a bottle of water—those were and always will be the best days. No one will ever understand that. Maybe Georgia would.
Sometimes I think I will spend my life alone and that I’ll die alone. That’s okay, because I’ve never truly been lonely. Georgia O’Keeffe’s husband died nearly 40 years before she did, and she was okay. You can be in love with cliffs, sand, cow skulls and calico roses.
As I grew older and moved away for school, I realized how much I missed the random cliff bands that rose out of endless hills covered in sage. I realized how much I craved the variety of grass plains and forest timber. I needed a way to interpret this feeling into something productive, and it ended up translating into the things I paint and write. I paint those cliffs, and in them I infuse other colors or other emotions. The ink spills and flows on its own. I pick the colors and they braid themselves easily—like horse hair. There are ghosts in those cliffs, and I’m friends with all of them. You have to spend the time—listen for their whispers on the wind.
I think humans tend to try and make the best of the things they were blessed with; it’s an instinct to explore and survive simultaneously. There’s beauty everywhere; you just have to wander long enough to find it. And your spirit has to be open and ready to receive love and give it back in whatever form it comes in; use whatever gift you were born with to give back to the world. Georgia O’Keeffe called her Ghost Ranch home in New Mexico “The Faraway,” and she would paint and repaint the cliffs there, and I think that God gave them to her when she died.
Georgia O’Keeffe died six years before I was born—in 1986. However, I think if I would have met her, we would have been best friends. Gypsy souls riding horses and sitting beneath a cliff with two blank canvases, dirt on our jeans, indigo flowers and white hollyhock (so famous in her paintings) in our hair, and a paintbrush in each of our hands. And we’d never be alone.
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Ed: Brianna Bemel