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Solitude in New Mexico: Female Artists who found themselves in the Desert

Writing and Illustration by Isi Williams.

Lockdown has been a difficult time for pretty much all of us. But as isolation took over many people’s lives, I’ve begun to find beauty in solitude. I have been surrounded by people my entire life, and this has been the first period where I felt a true feeling of solitude while being at home, without seeing my sisters, friends or neighbours. What I have discovered is that solitude for me is a catalyst for making artwork. It allows me to find my thoughts, to steady myself and to fall into the escapism of my work.

I am not alone in this. Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin were two 20th Century artists who found their way to solitude. O’Keeffe was born in 1887 in Wisconsin and Martin was born in 1912 in Canada. They both had very different upbringings, with O’Keeffe having a very suburban childhood and Martin being born to Scottish Presbyterian farmers.

By the age of 10, O’Keeffe had decided she would be an artist and after gaining an education at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago she went on to teach, traveling the country and spending time in South Carolina, Virginia and the Texas panhandle. She was put in contact with photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz by a friend and he promised to give her a quiet studio if she came to New York. After moving and spending time working alongside Stieglitz, they formed an affair.

Stieglitz was married at the time (not to mention 23 years her senior) but that didn’t stop their passion and they quickly moved in together. He ended up divorcing his first wife and marrying O’Keeffe. Things in their marriage were going well for a while but eventually O’Keeffe started travelling back and forth from New Mexico, with her life in Taos becoming a bit of an escape from her husband who had developed another affair. Stieglitz never even set foot in New Mexico, the place she loved so much, and in many ways it was her own love affair.

Her house is often described as being zen-like, and odd objects, such as gnarled branches and animal bones, scavenged by her, decorate the minimalistic studio where she painted. Her work was highly inspired by landscapes; at one time charcoal depictions of the New York skyline filled her studio and later in life she devoted her canvas to the great plains of the desert, dusty bones, and the deep blue sky.

Colour was always important to her work and she found a depth of colour in New Mexico that gave a life to her paintings. Her work from this period is my favourite of hers. Bones that hold the sky within them and landscapes depicting dawn and dusk, mountains and mesas in every colour the earth can exude.

Martin was more on the fringes of the New York art scene, partly by her choosing but also due to being queer and disabled (she suffered with schizophrenia and was hospitalised for a number of psychotic breakdowns). This didn’t hinder her artwork, though, and she was a very strict painter, only painting things she deemed ‘pure’ - although the voices in her head never told her what to paint, it’s as though they helped clear the path to the ‘perfect’ paintings. If you’ve ever seen her work, you’ll know she worked obsessively to create grids and order. A lot of her artwork is about clarity and happiness - she once said that ‘I'm very careful not to have ideas, because they're inaccurate.’

There was never any evidence she had an interest in going to New Mexico, unlike O’Keeffe who yearned and returned to it again and again, like a safe haven. No one really knows for sure what drove Martin to New Mexico. We only know that after losing patience with the ego-driven New York art scene, and after the threat of losing her studio, she disappeared. Martin had won a grant which was enough to buy a pick-up truck, she gave away her possessions and packed up her studio. She didn’t resurface again until 18 months later in a remote New Mexico mesa.

Martin asked the wife of a gas station owner if she had any land to purchase and was rented a space. After building her own adobe home from handmade bricks on the 50-acre plot, she subsequently built herself a studio from wood she chopped herself. I can’t let go of this image of the strong beautiful woman forging a path for herself out in the desolate and harsh landscape. Building herself a home, a studio and foraging for the materials to do so.

After taking up painting again in 1971, she quickly gained a reputation as the woman out on her own in the desert. Her work gained attention fast and became very popular. Unlike O’Keeffe, she didn’t necessarily take inspiration from the landscapes outside her front door, but instead turned inwards. She was once quoted saying, ‘I paint with my back to the world’. But just like the voices in her head brought a level of clarity, so too must the quiet world she found herself in.

Some would argue that O’Keeffe and Martin must’ve suffered by isolating themselves out in the desert, but I see isolation and solitude as two different things. Isolation is lonely where solitude is contemplative, and I don’t think either Agnes Martin or Georgia O’Keeffe suffered through isolation but instead flourished in the solitude they found out in the great plains of New Mexico.

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