Maria Chabot (1913–2001), was an advocate for Native American arts, a rancher, and a friend of Georgia O'Keeffe. She was the general contractor for her house in Abiquiú, New Mexico and took the photograph of O'Keeffe entitled Women Who Rode Away, in which the artist was on the back of a motorcycle. Their correspondence was published in the book Maria Chabot—Georgia O'Keeffe: Correspondence 1941-1949.
Chabot was born on September 19, 1913 in San Antonio, Texas. Her paternal grandfather, Charles Stooks Chabot, was the English ambassador to Mexico. Her father, Charles Chabot, was born in 1866 in San Luis Potosí, Mexico. A few years later, the family moved to San Antonio, Texas, the hometown of Charles' mother, Mary Van Derlip Chabot; her family was considered among the "Makers of San Antonio". Charles remained in San Antonio for the remainder of his life. His first wife, Pauline, (m. 1886) gave birth to a son, Frederick. Soon after, Pauline died while giving birth to their second child, who also did not survive. Charles remarried Lilian Hugo in 1884. Their union resulted in two children, Charles Hugo (b. 1895) and Edith (b. 1898). In 1907, Lilian and Charles Hugo drowned while swimming in the Guadalupe River, in Bexar County, TX. In 1912 Charles remarried his final time, Ollie Johnston, and Maria Chabot was their only child.
Chabot's oldest half-brother, Frederick Chabot, became a well-known Texas state historian and her half-sister, Edith, married Army General Charles S. Kilburn. Maria, who was 15 years younger than her closest half-sibling, excelled in school, graduating from high school at 15. Chabot took a job as copywriter at a San Antonio department store before leaving the United States for Mexico at 17 years of age to explore life as a writer.
Just before her 18th birthday, Maria met Santa Fe-based artist, Dorothy Stewart. The two began a relationship, both romantically and as friends, that lasted until Stewart's death in 1950. Thanks to Dorothy and Maria's cousin, Emily Edwards, Maria spent time with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Jose Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo, among many other well-known artists. Through them she learned of native arts and crafts, and she began a life history of documentation - both in word and photographs.
Advocate for Native Americans
In 1933–34, Chabot traveled with Stewart from Mexico to the East Coast, spending time with Stewart's family in Philadelphia, in Boston, and with artist Orozco as he created his famous fresco The Epic of American Civilization at Dartmouth College. Chabot then returned on a part-time basis to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Stewart. There she worked with Stewart's sister, Margretta Stewart Dietrich, to publicize the work of the New Mexico Association on Indian Affairs (later known as the Southwest Association on Indian Affairs). The Santa Fe Indian Market had been established for a number of years before her arrival, but was not thriving. Chabot noticed similarities between the Native American market and those of the small villages in Mexico and proposed major changes -- mostly dealing with accessibility. Santa Fe was far from most pueblos and reservations, and transportation was non-existent for most Native American artists. Chabot arranged for off-duty school buses to transport artists and also advocated for vetting of artisans to ensure cheap foreign imposter crafts did not find a place at the Market.
Chabot also worked for the Works Progress Administration where she helped writers and artists find work. She also worked to document Spanish Colonial and Native American arts and crafts. She photographed the collection of Mary Cabot Wheelwright, who was a noted collector of Navajo art, now in the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.
Based on her initial observations, Chabot was made the executive secretary of the New Mexico Association on Indian Affairs in 1936. She established weekly fairs and rented schools buses to transport Native Americans to the markets where they could sell their jewelry, pottery, or other wares. Initially, local businesses opposed the Native American markets, which were established by Chabot to promote their works. She visited pueblos and encouraged artists to sell their works, including Maria Martinez, a potter of the San Ildefonso Pueblo. She worked then at the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board where she established cooperative marketing organizations on reservations.
In 1937-38, Chabot and Stewart traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Stewart studying native arts and Chabot documenting the effects of colonialism on native arts and crafts. Upon her return Chabot was recruited by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and spent nearly 12 months visiting reservations across the U.S. to document arts & crafts. It was hard work she did not enjoy. Determined to bring the beauty of Native American art to the forefront of the country's art scene, Chabot quit the Association and began a year-long campaign to fund a magazine, and related installations, that would highlight native arts and craft from America and around the world. Her meetings with the upper echelons of art were to no avail — the Rockefellers, the Met, the Guggenheim — were only interested in European arts.
Chabot did make a friend and ally in Mary Cabot Wheelwright. Distant cousins, they formed a quick bond, though the two women were miles apart in age and bearing. Wheelwright lived mainly on the East Coast, but she owned a large ranch at Los Luceros in Northern New Mexico, had a massive collection of Native American arts and crafts, and a budding Santa Fe museum from which to display them.
Chabot ran Wheelwright's cattle ranch and fruit tree orchard, Los Luceros, at Alcalde, New Mexico for 20 years. During that period, she was voted president of the local irrigation association -- an unheard of position for a woman in the 1940s. The ranch was ultimately deeded to Chabot by Wheelwright upon her death.
In 1940, Chabot met O'Keeffe, with whom she had a friendship. She spent the summers at her house on the Ghost Ranch from 1941 to 1944, spending most of her time managing the house and organizing O'Keeffe's painting trips to the Black Place and the White Place. She was captured in the painting Maria goes to a Party in one of O'Keeffe's paintings of their time together. Chabot managed the acquisition, design and building of adobe hacienda in Abiquiú for O'Keeffe. She said of the experience, "I had never found anything as romantic as this beat-up building, a ruin really... It took six months just to get the pigs out of the house." Chabot and O'Keeffe exchanged almost 700 letters, which were published in 2004 in the book Maria Chabot—Georgia O'Keeffe: Correspondence 1941-1949.
In 1994, after seeing proof of her influence in the artist's life, Richard Brettell, then director of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, agreed to credit Maria as the “architect, contractor and garden designer” of the Abiquiu house. He wrote to her, “I was deeply moved by your letters and convinced that your role in the project was absolutely critical to its success, but also to OK’s definitive move from MY to Abiquiu in 1949.”
In a draft of a book he penned about the house Brettell included this homage:
“Chabot was also an accomplished agriculturalist, builder, water-rights expert, conversationalist, hiker, organizer, knitter and a voracious reader.
Ultimately, OK’s house, garden and studio in Abiquiu are the result of a three-way collaboration. The central member of this “menage a trois” was the house itself, whose thick adobe walls, sagging vigas, and overgrown garden scarcely made it an architectural “tabula rasa” when O’Keeffe acquired it. The second collaborator was Maria Chabot, who interpreted the house for O’Keeffe and created the context in which her decisions were made, and the third was the often absent O’Keeffe herself. If the house had an architect, it was Maria Chabot. If it had a general contractor, it was Maria Chabot. If it had a garden designer and gardener, it was Maria Chabot. Seldom has a great 20th century house been created in a more felicitous way. Chabot was at once a creative and a practical force, enabling O’Keeffe to make her decisions clearly.
In fact, O’Keeffe channeled the immense devotion and friendship of Maria Chabot into architectural collaborations, beginning with work on her house at Ghost Ranch and culminating in the home, garden and studio in Abiquiu. There is not a single aspect of the project that was not mastered by Chabot. She learned every detail and water rights, well water, water projects and water quality. She scoured the entire northern region of New Mexico for dry wood and, when it became too expensive, she switched to green. In the end, she resorted to cutting vigas herself in the nearby pine forests. Her knowledge of the various muds of Northern New Mexico was formidable, and she could talk in the same breath about the beauty of a mud wall or about the various sized and capacities of butane tanks. Her mind comingled a great poetic imagination with an intense practicality, and her knowledge of Spanish enabled her to work closely with the inhabitants of Abiquiu, learning their fears, concerns, and frustrations while becoming their friend. O’Keeffe's entrance into the highly secretive village life of Abiquiu was both organized and smoothed over by Maria Chabot, who learned the intricacies of Abiquiu society while O’Keeffe remained in New York.
From the evidence of the correspondence, she did this out of affection for O’Keeffe and because she truly believed in the beauty of Abiquiu and its culture. She did not do it for the money, and it is likely that she was never adequately paid for her work, not because O’Keeffe refused to do so but because she herself seemed averse to “work for hire”.
The project started in earnest in the early months of 1946 while O’Keeffe was much occupied with her exhibition at the MOMA and the ill-health of Stieglitz. As such, Maria Chabot made many of the decisions about the house – O’Keeffe being so often preoccupied with her own career and the settling of Stieglitz's estate – Maria Chabot was truly obsessed with the project in a way O’Keeffe never was. In this way, O’Keeffe acted as the final arbiter, able as she was to make final decisions in a cooler and more abstract way than Chabot, whose involvement with the project was total.
At O’Keeffe's first arrival in the summer of 1946 – in a scant 7 months – Chabot rebuilt the garden wall, cleared every room in the compound, rebuilt the sagging north wall, re-roofed most of the rooms around the courtyard, and refinished the exterior walls throughout the complex.”
In July of 1998 Maria signed a contract with the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. As a lifelong consultant, she would be paid $30,000 that year and $25,000 per year until her death for sharing her history — for her memories: letters, house plans, photos and mementos. Money came in from the sale of rights to her photos, the most famous being the one she called “The Women Who Rode Away” with a smiling O’Keeffe astride the back of Maurice Grosser's motorcycle. This same year, the house at Abiquiu was designated a national historic monument and Maria spoke at the ceremony.
Chabot never publicly identified as transgender or lesbian (as those were not terms in her time) but had lasting romantic and life partnerships with women. In 1961, Chabot married radio astronomer Dana K. Bailey, whom she had originally met during her travels in the 1930s. Married for only six months, she said, "we were much better as friends than as husband and wife." In the 1960s, she sold the ranch that she had inherited from Wheelwright and moved to Albuquerque, where she cared for her mother.
She was named a "Living Treasure" of Santa Fe in 1996. Chabot died on July 9, 2001 at 87 years of age in an Albuquerque hospital.
- Douglas Martin (July 15, 2001). "Maria Chabot, 87, Dies; Began Indian Market and Was an O'Keeffe Associate". The New York Times. Retrieved January 27, 2017.
- Michael Kilian (March 25, 2004). "The little-known woman in Georgia O'Keeffe's life". The Chicago Tribune. Retrieved January 27, 2017.
- Georgia O'Keeffe; Barbara Buhler Lynes; Ann Paden; Maria Chabot (2003). Maria Chabot--Georgia O'Keeffe: Correspondence, 1941-1949. University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 978-0-8263-2993-6.