Each day, I look out from my off-the-grid home northeast of town at the distant pastel tones of the Painted Desert. According to season and weather, the muted colors shift into undulating shadows, highlights and striations of intense blue, pink, yellow and purple.

Legendary artist Georgia O'Keeffe, (1887-1986), knew well this kind of landscape and worked diligently to capture these subtle forms and colors in her art.

I recently took a quick road trip to New Mexico, with stops in Albuquerque to celebrate my birthday, followed by a drive north along the historic Turquoise Trail that ends just below the city of Santa Fe.

VISIT TO A MUSEUM WITH HER NAME

A key destination for me in that city was the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum near the plaza in the old town area.

Every so often, I receive press releases from the museum and had read of a new exhibition: "Georgia O'Keeffe and the Faraway: Nature and Image," which honors the artist's deep bond with nature, as well as her love of camping.

On a lovely Sunday afternoon, I paid for a two-hour parking space downtown and found the museum on Johnson Street, a peaceful side street just two blocks from historic Santa Fe Plaza.

Both the museum and the research center, which opened in July 2001 to study American Modernism from late 19th century to the present, are Pueblo Revival-style buildings. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum opened to the public in July 1997, 11 years after the death of the artist. According to the website, it is the most visited museum in New Mexico, and is the only museum in the world dedicated to an internationally known American woman artist.

It is also the largest single repository of the artist's work in the world, with more than 3,000 pieces, including 1,149 O'Keeffe paintings, drawings and sculptures that date from 1901 to 1984, the year failing eyesight forced O'Keeffe into retirement.

The museum lobby is welcoming, but I had to laugh when I asked for a senior discount and staff told me many of the visitors are seniors, so that wouldn't work.

Celebrating its 15th anniversary, it seems fitting for the museum to open on May 11th the Faraway show, which harkens back to the roots of O'Keeffe's love of the Southwest and what has been dubbed "O'Keeffe Country."

O'Keeffe has long been considered one of the most significant artists of the 20th century and was devoted to creating imagery that expressed what she called, "the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it."

For those of us lucky enough to live in the Southwest, the wideness of this world is perhaps the thing we most love -- vistas that seem to never end, skies that are limitless and expressive and mountains and trees that roll out before us in fascinating patterns.

The museum houses a number of instantly recognizable O'Keeffe images, including abstractions, large-scale depictions of flowers, leaves, rocks, shells, bones and other natural forms, New York cityscapes and, of course, paintings of the unusual shapes and colors of architectural and landscape forms of northern New Mexico.

TWO WOMEN FORM UNIQUE FRIENDSHIP

The Faraway exhibition is unique because it is the first to demonstrate how the beauty and elegance of O'Keeffe's paintings were prompted by the intimacy of her ongoing experiences with Southwestern natural forms, especially as seen on her camping trips to remote areas.

Central to this period of her life, the four summers from 1941 to 1945, is her friendship with Marie Chabot, a Texan who met the artist in 1940.

An unknown writer, Chabot at 26 was a robust companion to the older O'Keeffe, who was 53 when they met.

The artist had just purchased at house at Ghost Ranch and needed help to sustain and provision her remote household.

Chabot needed a place to live, so she moved in and organized the household, including providing for guests who visited the ranch.

With minimum distraction, they were both able to pursue their individual painting and writing passions.

Chabot also organized the famed camping-painting trips, from which came some of O'Keeffe's most distinguished works of the period.

In a charming manner, original camping supplies from their trips are displayed in one of the larger galleries at the museum, in front of a huge photographic panorama of the "Black Place," a beloved area of painted desert that captivated O'Keeffe and inspired many paintings and drawings.

"O'Keeffe had been passionate about nature since childhood, but living amidst the astonishing beauty of the Ghost Ranch landscape, and making camping and rafting trips in the Southwest allowed her to form an immediate and personal relationship with the area through which she realized her independent spirit and sense of adventure," said Curator Barbara Buhler Lynes, of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.

In 1946, Chabot agreed to conceive and oversee the reconstruction of a ruined adobe house in Abiquiu, N.M., that would become O'Keeffe's permanent home in 1949.

During the periods when O'Keeffe was in New York living with famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz, the two women wrote each other frequently.

Their letters describe their love for northern New Mexico, the hardships of life there during World War II and their interactions with various cultural groups of the region.

After her death in 2001, Chabot bequeathed the tent the two pitched, their lanterns, camping stools and cooking equipment from the camping gear to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.

Betsey Bruner can be reached at bbruner@azdailysun.com or 556-2255.

Brief biographic background:

Born in Sun Prairie, Wis., O'Keeffe was the second of seven children, and grew up on a farm. As a child, she received art lessons at home, and after graduating from high school in 1905, she decided to make her way as an artist.

She pursued studies at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Art Students League in New York, where she mastered the curriculum of imitative realism.

Under the influence of Alon Bement at Teachers College, Columbia University, she turned toward a new goal in art: The expression of personal ideas and feeling through harmonious arrangements of line, color and lights and darks. In a life-changing move, O'Keeffe mailed some of her revolutionary drawings to a former Columbia classmate, who showed them in January 1916 to the internationally-known photographer and art impresario, Alfred Stieglitz, long considered one of the first advocates of modern art in America.

They began a correspondence, and when O'Keeffe returned to New York, Stieglitz exhibited 10 of her charcoal abstractions at "291," his famous avant-garde gallery.

She and Stieglitz, who were married in 1924, had fallen in love and subsequently lived and worked together in New York (winter and spring) and at the Stieglitz family estate at Lake George, New York (summer and fall), until 1929, when O'Keeffe spent the first of many summers painting in New Mexico.

-- Betsey Bruner, staff writer

IF YOU GO...

WHAT: "Georgia O'Keeffe and the Faraway: Nature and Image," an exhibition honoring the artist's deep bond with nature.

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WHEN: On display through May 5, 2013

WHERE: Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, 217 Johnson St., Santa Fe

HOURS: Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

COST: General admission, $12; seniors (60+), $10; students (18+), with ID, $10;

military and law enforcement, $6; and youth and students 18 and under, free.

PARKING: No on-site parking, but metered parking downtown, at garage in Santa Fe Convention Center and at corner of Sandoval and East San Francisco Street.

INFO: Call the museum at (505) 946-1000, or visit the website at www.okeeffemuseum.org.

RECENT GO'K BOOKS:

These two recent books about Georgia O'Keeffe are available through the museum's bookstore. Click on "Shop" at the website at www.okeeffemuseum.org.

* "Georgia O'Keeffe and the Faraway: Nature and Image," by Tricia Taylor Dixon, 2010, 100 pages, with 62 images (including photographs and art), published by the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Texas, in conjunction with the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, N.M.

* "Georgia O'Keeffe and Her Houses: Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu," by Barbara Buhler Lynes and Agapita Judy Lopez, 2012, 256 pages, published by Abrams, New York, in association with the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, N.M.

A walk downtown

Before or after visiting the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, it's a simple matter to saunter to the plaza area of old town Santa Fe.

Whether seeking a cool place to sit and eat a snack, or exploring the many shops and stands circling the plaza, this is the hub of Santa Fe where many locals and tourists gravitate.

Historic landmarks near the plaza include the stately Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, on Cathedral Place, as well as the 134-year old Loretto Chapel, east of the plaza, with its miraculous spiral staircase.

Also nearby, on East DeVargas Street, is the so-called Oldest House, built around 1612, which shares an alley with San Miguel Mission, billed as the country's oldest church.

Down the street is the New Mexico State Capitol, the Roundhouse, completed in 1966 and designed to resemble the states's Zia symbol (tribal sun sign) when viewed from the sky.

-- Betsey Bruner, staff writer

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