I have long adored Georgia O”Keeffe. My first year in art school the Whitney Museum held a retrospective of her work; I haunted that show and bought the catalogue and a ton of postcards. She said, “Fill a space in a beautiful way,” and I thought I could do that. I painted many imitation O’Keeffe’s and read everything I could find about her. I kept her in my head, sometimes speaking to her, sometimes asking myself, “What would Georgia do?”
The Lawrence Tree is one of my favorites. It’s painted as if we’re lying at the foot of a great tree, gazing up through her branches at the starry night sky. I've lain like that, but never thought to paint it. That's why she's Georgia O'Keeffe.
So, as Arthur and I drove through Taos and I saw a sign that said,
I spoke up. I knew O’Keeffe had been part of a loose and fractious community that included the art patron Dorothy Brett. Brett gave the ranch to D.H.Lawrence and his wife and they lived there for a short time, while he recovered his health and wrote The Plumed Serpent.
“Oh, the Lawrence Ranch,” I said. “My favorite O’Keeffe is the Lawrence Tree. I wonder if it’s there.” Arthur slammed on the brakes and turned in.
“It says no trespassing!”
“You have to see this.”
“But Arthur!…” I did long to see it, but I hate breaking rules.
“What if somebody stops us?”
“You’re an artist and you have to see that tree.”
“that’s our defense?”
“I’ll tell them it’s your favorite painting.”
I pictured myself behind bars saying, “I’m not a criminal I’m an artist.”
But what did Lawrence himself say? “A woman has to live her life, or live to repent not having lived it.”
Arthur drove on. It was a very long and rocky dirt road, and we raised a cloud of dust. Around every turn was another NO TRESPASSING sign. I expected to hear sirens.
We pulled in at a sign that said Lawrence Chapel. There was a ranch house, and there was the tree. The Lawrence Tree in person. As Lawrence himself wrote, “The big pine tree in front of the house, standing still and unconcerned and alive... like a guardian angel. “
I walked to the tree, thinking to lie down beneath it and look up but there was a very large raccoon sitting in its branches like a sentinel. A NO TRESPASSING sign is one thing, a vigilant raccoon quite another. I had to be content with imagining I could lie down and see the stars through the branches just as O’Keeffe had done. And that was enough.
I thank Georgia O’Keeffe for the painting I’ve loved for fifty years. I thank D.H. Lawrence for the words that encouraged and dared me. And I thank Arthur for making the turn and driving past the forbidding sign.
The ranch now belongs to the University of New Mexico and they conduct tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I went there on my own instead of behind a well-meaning docent and a bunch of chatty tourists. I saw the Lawrence Tree as I needed to see it.
I trespassed and I do not repent.