In Cahoots with Coyote


Terry Tempest Williams

Rumor has it, Georgia O'Keefe was walking in the desert; her long black skirt swept the sand. She could smell bones. With palette and paintbrush in hand, she walked west to find them.

It was high noon, hot, but O'Keefe would not be deterred. She walked down arroyos and up steep slopes; her instincts were her guide. Ravens cavorted above her, following this black-clothed creature through the maze of juniper and sage.

Suddenly, O'Keefe stopped. She saw bones. She also saw Coyote and hid behind a piñon.

Coyote's yellow eyes burned like flames as he danced around the cow carcass with a femur in each hand. His lasso made of barbed wire had brought the bovine down. Maggots, beetles, and buzzards had miraculously cleaned the bones. The skull glistened. Coyote had succeeded once again. He had stripped the desert of another sacred cow.

Georgia stepped forward. Coyote stopped dancing. They struck a deal. She would agree not to expose him as the scoundrel he was, keeping his desert secrets safe, if he promised to save bones for her -- bleached bones. Stones -- smooth black stones would also do. And so, for the price of secrecy, anonymity, and just plain fun -- O'Keefe and Coyote became friends. Good friends. Through the years, he brought her bones and stones and Georgia O'Keefe kept her word. She never painted Coyote. Instead she embodied him.

Elliot Porter knew O'Keefe as Trickster. It is a well-known story. I heard it from the photographer himself at a dinner party in Salt Lake City.

Porter told of traveling with Georgia into Glen Canyon, how much she loved the slickrock walls, and the hours she spent scouring the edges of the riverbed in search of stones.

"She was obsessed," he said, "very particular in what stones she would keep. They had to speak to her."

He paused. Grinned.

"But I was the one that found the perfectly black, perfectly round, perfectly smooth stone. I showed it to Georgia. She was furious that it was in my hands instead of hers. This stone not only spoke to her, it cried out and echoed off redrock walls!"

Porter smiled deviously.

"I didn't give it to her. I kept it for myself, saying it would be a gift for my wife, Aline.

"A few months later," Porter continued, "we invited Georgia to our home in Tesuque for Thanksgiving dinner. Aline and I knew how much Georgia loved that stone. We also knew her well enough to suspect she had not forgotten about it. And so we conducted an experiment. We set the black stone on our coffee table. O'Keefe entered the room. Her eyes caught the stone. We disappeared into the kitchen to prepare the food, and when we returned, the stone was gone. Georgia said nothing. I said nothing. Neither did Aline. The next time I saw my black stone, it was a photograph in Life magazine taken by John Loengard, in the palm of O'Keefe's hand."

Georgia O'Keefe had the ability to trick the public, as well as her friends. She seduced critics with her flowers, arousing sexual suspicion:

Well -- I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower -- and I don't.

She transformed desert landscapes into emotional ones, using color and form to startle the senses. Scale belonged to the landscape of the imagination. When asked by friends if these places really existed, O'Keefe responded with her usual candor, "I simply paint what I see."

What O'Keefe saw was what O'Keefe felt -- in her own bones. Her brush strokes remind us again and again, nothing is as it appears: roads that seem to stand in the air like charmed snakes; a pelvis bone that becomes a gateway to the sky; another that is rendered like an angel; and "music translated into something for the eye."

O'Keefe's eye caught other nuances besides the artistic. She was a woman painter among men. Although she resisted the call of gender separation and in many ways embodied an androgynous soul, she was not without political savvy and humor on the subject:

When I arrived at Lake George I painted a horse's skull -- then another horse's skull and then another horse's skull. After that came a cow's skull on blue. In my Amarillo days cows had been so much a part of the country I couldn't think without them. As I was working I thought of the city men I had been seeing in the East. They talked so often of writing the Great American Novel -- the Great American Play -- the Great American Poetry. I am not sure that they aspired to the Great American Painting. Cézanne was so much in the air that I think the Great American Painting didn't even seem a possible dream.

I knew cattle country -- I was quite excited over our own country and I knew that at the time almost any one of those great minds would have been living in Europe if it had been possible for them. They didn't even want to live in New York -- how was the Great American Thing going to happen? So as I painted along on my cow's skull on blue I thought to myself. "I'll make it an American painting. They will not think it great with the red stripes down the sides - Red, White and Blue -- but they will notice it."

Georgia O'Keefe had things to do in her own country and she knew it. She would bring the wanderlust men home, even to her beloved Southwest, by tricking them once again, into seeing the world her way, through bold color and the integrity of organic form. O'Keefe's clarity would become the American art scene's confusion. The art of perception id deception -- a lesson Coyote knows well.

Perhaps the beginning of O'Keefe's communion with Coyote began in the Texas Panhandle. The year was 1916, the place Palo Duro Canyon. O'Keefe saw this cut in the earth as "a burning, seething cauldron, almost like a blast furnace full of dramatic light and color."

Her pilgrimages to the canyon were frequent, often with her sister, Claudia. "Saturdays, right after breakfast we often drove the twenty miles to the Palo Duro Canyon. It was colorful -- like a small Grand Canyon, but most of it only a mile wide. It was a place where few people went . . . It was quiet down in the canyon. We saw the wind and snow blow across the slit in the plains as if the slit didn't exist."

She goes on to say:

The only paths were narrow, winding cow paths. There were sharp, high edges between long, soft earth banks so steep that you couldn't see the bottom. They made the canyon seem very deep. We took different paths from the edge so that we could climb down in new places. We sometimes had to go down together holding to a horizontal stick to keep one another from falling. It was usually very dry, and it was a lone place. We never met anyone there. Often as we were leaving, we would see a long line of cattle like a black lace against the sunset sky.
Painting No. 21, Palo Duro Canyon (1916) celebrates an earth on fire, an artist's soul response to the dance of heat waves in the desert and the embrace one feels when standing at the bottom of a canyon with steep slopes of scree rising upward to touch a cobalt sky. It is as though O'Keefe is standing with all her passion inside a red-hot circle with everything around her in motion.

And it is not without fear. O'Keefe writes, "I'm frightened all the time . . . scared to death. But I've never let it stop me. Never!"

Once, after descending into a side canyon to look closely at the striations in the rock that resembled the multicolored petticoats of Spanish dancers, Georgia could contain herself no longer. She howled. Her companions, worried sick that she might have fallen, called to her to inquire about her safety. She was fine. Her response, "I can't help it -- it's all so beautiful!"

I believe Coyote howled back.

O'Keefe's watercolor Canyon with Crows (1917) creates a heartfelt wash of "her spiritual home," a country that elicits participation. The two crows (I believe they are ravens) flying above the green, blue, and magenta canyon are enjoying the same perspective of the desert below as the artist did while painting. O'Keefe is the raven, uplifted and free from the urban life she left behind.

I had forgotten about Georgia O'Keefe's roots in Palo Duro Canyon. I was traveling to Amarillo, Texas for the first time in June 1988, to speak to a group of Mormons about the spirituality of nature. A woman in charge of the conference asked if I had any special needs.

"Just one," I replied. "We need to be outside."

What had originally been conceived of as an indoor seminar was transformed into a camping trip. One hundred Mormons and I descended into Palo Duro Canyon in a rainstorm.

The country was familar to me. It was more than reminiscent of my homeland. Certainly, the canyons of southern Utah are sisters to Palo Duro, but it was something else, a déjà vu, of sorts.

Cows hung on the red hillside between junipers and mesquite. I saw three new birds -- a scaled quail, a golden-fronted woodpecker, and wild turkeys. Other birds were old friends: roadrunner, turkey vulture, scissor-tailed flycatcher, and rock wren. Burrowing owls stood their ground as mockingbirds threw their voices down-canyon, imitating all the others. It was a feathered landscape.

The Lighthouse, Spanish Dancers, and Sad Monkey Train were all landmarks of the place. The bentonite hills were banded in ocher and mauve. Strange caves within the fickle rock looked like dark eyes in the desert, tears streaming from the rain.

We crossed three washes with a foot of water flowing through. Markers indicated that five feet was not unusual. Flash floods were frequent.

Mesquite had been brought in for a campfire. Food was being prepared. The rain stopped. The land dried quickly. A group of us sat on a hillside and watched the sun sink into the plains -- a sun, round and orange in a lavender sky.

At dusk, I knelt in the brown clay, dried and cracked, and rubbed it between my hands -- a healing balm. Desert music of mourning doves and crickets began. Two ravens flew above the canyon. I looked up and suddenly remembered O'Keefe. This was her country. Her watercolor Canyon with Crows came back to me. It was an animated canvas. I wondered if Georgia had knelt where I was, rubbing the same clay over her hands and arms as I was, some seventy years ago?

It was time for the fireside.

I stood in front of the burning mesquite with chalked arms and my Book of Mormon in hand. If I quoted a scripture first, whatever followed would be legitimate. This was important. The Priesthood leaders, men, had inquired about my status in the Church. When I replied, "Naturalist," they were not comforted.

I opened my scriptures and spoke of the earth, the desert, how nature mirrors our own. I began to read from the Doctrine and Covenants, section 88, verse 44 -- "And the Lord spoke . . ." when all at once, a pack of coyotes behind the rocks burst forth in a chorus of howls.

God's dogs.

I was so overcome with delight at the perfectness of this moment, I forgot all religious protocol and joined them. Throwing back my head, I howled too -- and invited the congregation to do likewise -- which they did. Mormons and coyotes, united together in a desert howl-lelujah chorus!

I said, "Amen." Silence was resumed and the fireside ended.

That night, we slept under stars. I overheard a conversation between two women.

"Did you think that was a little weird tonight?"

"I don't know," the other replied, "howling with the coyotes just seemed like the natural thing to do."

From An Unspoken Hunger by Terry Tempest Williams, Vintage Books.
© 1994 Terry Tempest Williams
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