By Joanna Cresswell
I have lived in cities for most of my life, but when I think of my dream home, few aspects of city living make the cut. I grew up on the outskirts of east London, where the rows of semi-detached housing stretch on endlessly. I think that’s why I yearn for space above all else. It’s not that I want a huge house, just somewhere that has a bit of breathing room and proximity to the great outdoors — a place where the sky feels impossibly vast.
When I first came across pictures of the adobe house where American artist Georgia O’Keeffe lived at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, I knew immediately that I had found my fantasy home.
O’Keeffe had fallen in love with Ghost Ranch in the mid-1930s and she spent several summers visiting the house before persuading the owners to sell it in 1940. She had been drawn to the way the mud walls were rendered in the same earthy palette as the surrounding landscape. Once resident there, she preserved its simple aesthetic, decorating the interior with organic objects such as bones and stones.
The living area became her studio. The walls were whitewashed and she installed a huge picture window that framed the red rock cliffs surrounding the house. Over time, she added more windows, increasingly inviting the outside in. Each day she would rise with the sun as its light flooded in and paint the same view, over and over, as the light shifted from blazing orange to pale pink.
Like a handful of other iconic artist’s homes — Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage, for instance, or Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul — Ghost Ranch is wrapped up in the mythology of O’Keeffe. The simple, single-storey house transformed her relationship with the landscape. The textures and tones of its surroundings informed her distinctive style — and shaped the artist she became.
In one of O’Keeffe’s letters to her husband (the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who surprisingly never visited Ghost Ranch) she wrote: “I go out my back door and walk for 15 minutes and I’m somewhere that I’ve never been before.” When New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins visited O’Keeffe there in 1973, she gestured to the view and told him, “in the evening, with the sun at your back, that high sage-covered plain looks like an ocean”. She was 86 by then and had spent the best part of four decades at Ghost Ranch, but it still inspired her.
As a writer, I often daydream of a home that is also my workspace, but not in the desk-in-my-bedroom-of-a-shared-house way. I would like my own Ghost Ranch. It needn’t be in the US, and it need not be as big, but it should be on a piece of land that’s mine. When the time comes, I will install picture windows, position my desk in front of one of them, and attempt to translate its magic, in my own way, just as O’Keeffe did.
Photography: © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum