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Georgia O'Keeffe: Canyon and Sky

Tracing the artist's formative years in the Texas Panhandle
Written by Kathryn Jones.

Georgia O'Keefe (Photo by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918)

The room where artist Georgia O'Keeffe lived in Canyon south of Amarillo was so tiny it held only an iron bed and a wooden fruit crate. Sparse suited her because she preferred to sit on the floor to paint and draw.

The room also had a special feature that so captivated O’Keeffe that she approached the homeowners, the Shirley family, about renting that particular room. A bank of windows in the upstairs bedroom faced east. They allowed her to see all the way to the horizon and watch the sunrise—the “light coming on the plains,” as she called it.

That would be the title of a series of abstract watercolors on paper that O’Keeffe painted during her stay in Canyon from 1916 to 1918 when she taught art at West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M University). She depicted a glowing yellow arc rising from the horizon and spreading into a dome of dark blue sky. Those watercolors date to 1917; the originals are in Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum of American Art, which includes several other O’Keeffe works in its permanent collection.

I had seen the O’Keeffes at the Amon Carter and a retrospective of her work at the Dallas Museum of Art. I’ve also visited her former home in Abiquiu, New Mexico, which is open for guided tours.

But I wanted to see the place where O’Keeffe made her breakthrough into color and abstract expressionism. So last spring I traveled to Canyon in search of the places that inspired O’Keeffe’s vision of the West during her formative years as an artist.

The chocolate-brown bungalow with those windows that enchanted O’Keeffe is on Fifth Avenue, just a block off Canyon’s modern-day “main drag,” Fourth Avenue. My husband, Dan, and I stood out in the street and stared up at the windows and snapped photos.

A man emerged from the front door of the circa-1915 Sears Craftsman home and walked over to us. We apologized for disturbing him, but Richard Bowers smiled and told us he’s used to seeing curious visitors outside the home. Last year a woman arrived and spent three days sitting under an umbrella and painting a picture of the house, he said.

We chatted for a while and learned that Richard’s wife, D’Aun, had grown up in Canyon and had always wanted to buy the home. So after they moved back to Texas from Illinois and discovered it was for sale, they bought the house and began restoring the interior.

“Would you like to see the room?” Richard asked. We certainly did.

Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

Once we climbed the stairs and entered the space, we could see why O’Keeffe had wanted to live there. Light streamed in from the windows and illuminated the room. We could imagine O’Keeffe with her paper spread out on the floor, working on early abstract drawings and paintings, some of which later ended up in the hands of avant-garde New York gallery owner and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, whom she married in 1924.

 “She had wanted to paint the walls (or possibly the trim only) black,” Richard said. “But Mrs. (Willena) Shirley put her foot down.”

 “She was ahead of her time,” Richard said of the artist.

O’Keeffe already was familiar with the Texas Panhandle after a stint as supervisor of art for Amarillo’s public schools from 1912 to 1914. Afterward, she returned East, but heard of the job opening in Canyon and jumped at the chance to live in the West again.

“It is absurd the way I love this country,” she wrote back to her friend Anita Pollitzer, with whom she exchanged a series of letters later published in a book, A Woman on Paper: Georgia O’Keeffe. The Letters & Memoir of a Legendary Friendship (Touchstone, 1988).

As the landscape so affected O’Keeffe, she apparently made her own impression on local residents, as well. In his 1990 booklet about O’Keeffe, Dr. Fred Stoker, a former professor of education at the university, quoted the Shirleys’ daughter, Louise, as saying the artist was “as different as they come.” For instance, O’Keeffe was known for wearing mannish clothes, primarily black, and walking all over town at all hours of the night with her sister, Claudia, who had enrolled in the university. She challenged administrators with her ideas about art—such as painting from nature rather than textbooks.

After thanking Richard for the impromptu tour, Dan and I strolled a few blocks back to the bed-and-breakfast where we were staying. The Hudspeth House, a blue, three-story structure with white columns and gabled windows, also was a Sears “kit home” shipped to Canyon by train. When O’Keeffe lived in Canyon, it had been a boarding house run by Mary E. Hudspeth, a Spanish teacher and dean of women at the college. It was a place where other faculty congregated and where O’Keeffe took most of her meals.

We booked two nights in the O’Keeffe Room upstairs, decorated with photos of O’Keeffe and prints of her leaf and flower paintings. With its vintage claw-foot tub, four-poster bed, and hardwood floors, the room re-created the atmosphere of the early 1900s. Train horns echoed at night, reminding me of one of my favorite O’Keeffe paintings, a 1916 watercolor called Train at Night in the Desert. It’s in the collection of the Amarillo Museum of Art.

The inn’s proprietors, Van and Jill Shelton, say people still come to Canyon in search of O’Keeffe. “They want to follow in her footsteps,” Jill says. “They’re still intrigued by her. She was a rebel in this little town.”

O’Keeffe’s favorite times to walk around town were at dusk or in the moonlight. In September 1916, she wrote to Pollitzer: “Tonight I walked into the sunset—to mail some letters—the whole sky—and there is so much of it out here—was just blazing—and grey-blue clouds were rioting all through the hotness of it … .”

The big sky also inspired O’Keeffe. “I am loving the plains more than ever it seems—and the SKY—Anita, you’ve never seen SKY—it is wonderful,” she wrote her friend.

One of O’Keeffe’s other favorite things to do was to climb down into Palo Duro Canyon and paint the vibrant canyon and the crows that floated above it. She wrote to Stieglitz—in one of thousands of letters exchanged between the two—about the moon rising above the canyon:  “… a great big one—bumped his head just a little—enough to flatten one side a little—as he came up out of the ground—light. First plains—then as the sun was lower the canyon—a curious slit in the plains—cattle and little bushes in the bottom pin heads—so small and far away—wonderful color—darker and deeper with the night. Imagination makes you see all sorts of things.”

 Our second day in Canyon we drove the 12 miles to Palo Duro Canyon. O’Keeffe went there by car with friends; other times she caught a ride on a hay wagon. It’s always a surprise to travel along the flat plains and see the great red crack of canyon open. O’Keeffe referred to the sight as a “slit in nothingness.”

The main road into Palo Duro Canyon State Park winds down past multicolored, exposed layers of time—bright red claystone and white gypsum, and mudstone of yellow ochre, gray, and lavender. Wind and water carved strange “hoodoos” and formations such as the Lighthouse. It’s like seeing Texas from the inside out, and it touched something inside O’Keeffe.

We’ve been hiking and camping in Palo Duro several times before and heard about a new trail called the “Rock Garden” that opened late last year. It’s only 2.48-miles long, but part of it is quite steep and leads to a view of the canyon from Fortress Cliff. Giant boulders frame views of Palo Duro, whose abstract forms so appealed to O’Keeffe.

Some people in Canyon weren’t quite ready for the artist’s vision of Palo Duro, however. Once, when she showed a fellow professor a painting she had done of the canyon, he remarked that it didn’t look anything like it. She told him that she painted how she felt about it. “Well, you must have had a stomach ache,” he was quoted as saying.

He might have been talking about Red Landscape, O’Keeffe’s only painting on public display in Canyon. You can see it at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, on the WTAMU campus. Painted in 1916-1917 using oil on board, the work is striking for its bright red canyon walls, dark mounds of greenery, black shadows, and dazzling sky. But it is expressionistic, not realistic.

In early 1918, O’Keeffe asked for a leave from the college, saying she had been ill with the flu and needed some time to recover. She went to stay with a friend, Leah Harris, who had a ranch near San Antonio. Dr. Stoker interviewed several of the artists’ acquaintances who speculated that O’Keeffe may have left or been forced out because of her anti-military beliefs during World War I, but there were indications that she intended to return. Stieglitz wrote her letters urging her to come to New York, which she did. Stieglitz became not only her husband, but also her most ardent promoter. O’Keeffe’s fame eventually eclipsed his, and she remains one of the most influential figures in American modern art.

Although O’Keeffe left Canyon, the Texas plains never left her. O’Keeffe scholar Sharyn R. Udall, in her book O’Keeffe and Texas (published in 1998 by San Antonio’s McNay Art Museum), noted that O’Keeffe came to view Texas as her “spiritual home” and that her years in the Panhandle had been ones of “profound artistic discovery in a kind of self-imposed creative exile.” She encountered “new forms, fresh sensations, and the freedom to pursue them,” Udall wrote. O’Keeffe also learned about “luminosity and life, about space and spontaneity. She discovered a largeness of sensation that forever drew her back to the vastness of the West.” Her discoveries draw us back, too, so we can see that vastness in a whole new light.

As a painter and a writer, Kathryn Jones is an admirer of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work on canvas with a brush and her work on paper as a writer.

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