Light Coming on the Plains
I just got back from Albuquerque, where I'd gone to visit my grandmother and her husband. The southwest was hot and still and the house crowded with relatives who seemed most interested in knowing when I was going to finish this damn PhD if they showed any interest at all. My grandmother's husband doesn't see well but insists on driving, there were six of us packed into a single sedan for many hours a day, and my plane ride home was canceled, leaving me quite sure that I was never going to survive the trip at all. Either the riding on the highway with a blind man would kill me or the attempts to get out of there would, but I began to doubt I was ever going home.
One afternoon, my younger cousin, a sweetheart who is no longer the baby I once adored, called a caffeine time-out in Santa Fe, and we stood on a corner and watched our relatives disappear in a craft-buying crowd while she slurped an iced mocha and I slowly licked an ice cream cone. I remembered, from my last trip to Santa Fe, that the Georgia O'Keefe Museum was somewhere very near, and so I silently grabbed her elbow and began to walk with her on the side streets, dodging groups of tourists and wondering where the calm I'd felt during my last trip to that city had gone.
During that trip, I'd wanted very badly to see the O'Keefe museum, but had arrived on a Monday to stare at a very closed front door. This time, the museum was open. Feeling a little bossy in my desperation to calm down, I pointed to my cousin's cell phone. "Call you mother," I told her. "Tell her we're going in."
My cousin lives, purposely, in an information vacuum on a ranch in New Zealand and doesn't know Georgia O'Keefe from Salvador Dali. As we walked through the door, she stopped me. "How about," she requested, "a two-minute summary of who this person is." I'm not an art historian, I cautioned her, and she looked at me like I was nuts. "Just, you know, what's her deal?" my cousin asked. I wanted to hug her for her openness, for her willingness to take an artist that has been been practically rendered cliché by calendars and posters as something brand new. I always forget that no poster taped up on a dorm room wall can capture the power of art. No wall calendar can transmit the power of brush strokes and energy that comes from a canvas. It just can't, and that's always such a surprise. My cousin's cluelessness about O'Keefe reminded me that seeing it there, in person, would be new for me, as well.
We wandered through, and after marveling in awe at Alfred Stieglitz's "The Steerage," I found myself standing with my nose just inches from "Light Coming on the Plains." Suddenly, I was transported to a moment years before. I was waking up in a dew-soaked tent in a New Mexican campground, feeling the cool morning let go with misty fingers as the day's warmth pushed its way in. I was unzipping my sleeping bag and pushing my hair down as I stuck my head out of the tent, feeling the feet of my partner shift against my thigh. I watched the day leak out of the horizon in shades of light blue, smelled it coming to a world that was dark and slow to move. One foot in that tent and one in front of this watercolor on newsprint, I felt the calm of Santa Fe wrap me up in that gallery and kiss my nose. I felt it all in that painting and I was glad I'd come.