Yale Bulletin and Calendar

January 26, 2001Volume 29, Number 16

This photograph of Georgia O'Keeffe and a nun from the St. Thomas Mission School is among the materials donated to the Beinecke Libary. O'Keeffe praised the stability the school brought to Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Nuns' library donation reveals
new aspects of artist's life

In March of 1971, American artist Georgia O'Keeffe wrote a six-page letter to the head of the Dominican Sisters of St. Mary of the Springs in Columbus, Ohio, protesting the proposed removal of her neighbors, a group of nuns who had run a mission school in the town of Abiquiu, New Mexico, for nearly 30 years.

The Dominican Sisters recently donated the letter to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the principal repository of the artist's personal papers.

Along with the letter came a taped interview with Sister Irma Walker, who recounts her memories of the Abiquiu mission and of O'Keeffe in particular; copies of photographs taken by Walker between 1947 and 1954; transcribed reminiscences of other Sisters; and annals of the mission for 1946-47 and 1970-71.

The materials illustrate an aspect of O'Keeffe's life in Abiquiu that has remained largely unexplored by her many biographers. They also document the Sisters' work with the Abiquiu during a time of transition for the rural village, when the designation of the nearby Los Alamos as a nuclear research center had accelerated the encounter between Native and Anglo cultures.

When the Dominican Sisters came to Abiquiu in 1946, they at first occupied a prefab convent provided by a local rancher. At that time, the nearest telephone was 30 miles away. Later, an adobe convent was built to house the nuns. Eventually a school with four classrooms was constructed, as well as a gymnasium donated by O'Keeffe.

When the Sisters started the St. Thomas Mission School, it attracted so many students that the public school closed. By 1971, the school had enrolled 73 children from Abiquiu pueblo and the surrounding area. For the first time, Abiquiu children began to go on to high school in Espanola 23 miles away.

In her taped interview, Sister Irma Walker recalls befriending O'Keeffe: "Across the road from our place lived a woman who walked by every day on the way to the post office. She usually dressed in dark clothes and carried a large walking stick fashioned from a tree. She seemed old to me then. We didn't speak for quite some time, but gradually we waved at each other and eventually we introduced ourselves.

"Her name was Georgia O'Keeffe, and I learned later that she was an artist of some renown, but she lived simply and we became great friends. She confided in me that she had been raised in a convent setting and reminisced with me. I remember many teas we shared on her roof, where she would set up her canvas to paint what she saw."

Walker also describes another time when she visited O'Keeffe at her Ghost Ranch home: "We were on a walk out there one day, when she stopped me in my tracks with a restraining hand and a 'shush.' She then raised her ever-present walking stick and killed a rattlesnake coiled in the road. 'Do it all the time,' she confided."

In her letter to Mother Francis de Sales, superior general of the Dominicans of St. Mary of the Springs, O'Keeffe described the stabilizing influence that the nuns of the Abiquiu mission had on the community:

"I must tell you a little of Abiquiu as I have known it and how it has changed, and try to make you understand how having the sisters in the village has made a great difference in many things. They probably get little thanks for being here, but the effect on the community has been very much to the good. Just their presence is -- I might almost say, is precious.

"Abiquiu was a farming pueblo of Indians -- Abiquiu Indians. I have been passing through here often for 40 years and living here for the past 22 years. When I first came here, the single track dirt road was so bad that we never came up this way if there was a chance that rain might come because we might not be able to get back for two or three days if the rain came. We can be flooded at times by cloudburst from the mountains when the sun is shining here. ...

"I have enjoyed living here. No-one bothers me and I don't make any effort to get them to change their ways. I have my own life -- they have theirs. I wanted really to do something for the village. I live behind my garden wall quite undisturbed, and I consider it a privilege. Finally, I built the gymnasium. ...

"I assure you that having the sisters here has a very leveling influence on the community. The police don't have to come to our dances anymore. The fights are not as bad. ...

"I can not explain the difference in cultures -- it will take a long time for it to pass, but in the mean time the sisters can bring our little village out into the world. ..."

Despite O'Keeffe's plea, the Sisters were recalled and the mission school closed.

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New director of Beinecke Library named

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Benson reappointed to second term as dean of School of Art

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Nuns' library donation reveals new aspects of artist's life

Beinecke exhibit explores 18th-century views of theater


Illustrator is inaugural Theodore Fellow

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Grant supports nurse's effort to prevent diabetes in teens

ITS announces appointment of new CMI director

Art gallery appoints its first deputy director

Musicologist Claude Palisca, scholar of Baroque opera, dies

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