In 1931, Georgia O’Keeffe first laid eyes on the stark and enchanting terrain of Abiquiu, New Mexico. She was so taken with the rugged and tranquil vistas, with paths peppered in glistening rocks and bones, with the sandstone mesas and buttes, that she made it her home for more than three decades. This ancient land depicted in her paintings was once inhabited by the Tewa Pueblos and later became a settlement of the Genizaros, an amalgamation of Indigenous peoples enslaved by the Spanish who were granted land ownership there on the dangerous frontier. Today, the Native and Spanish influences remain, and the region draws many artists with its mystical aesthetic and outlaw ambiance.
Like O’Keeffe, ceramicist and retired Kentucky Country Day art teacher Maggie Towne was also drawn to the region at a young age. After her mother’s passing in 2011, Maggie inherited a nest egg and was able to build her dream retirement home in 2013: a straw-bale and stucco home atop the Sierra Negra on 11 acres of wild, rugged northern New Mexico terrain.
“I always dreamed of having an adobe-style home, but we built a straw-bale and stucco house because it was cheaper and faster,” Maggie explains. Straw-bale construction, invented in the 19th century by farmers as a way to use the harvest waste (barley, wheat, rye, or oats), takes tightly-packed straw-bales, wire, and stucco to erect flame retardant, well-insulated, and biodegradable walls. The benefits of this construction are that all of the materials are sustainable and that the organic material remains surprisingly cool in the summer and holds in heat in the winter. Maggie and her husband, Gary, dream of living off the grid someday, so their straw-bale house was a first step in this direction. Their home, which took seven months to build, also features solar panels, a wood stove for heating, and fans and a light-metal roof to keep it cool in the summer months—but Maggie’s electric kiln and need for a lithium battery, keep them tied tangentially to the grid for now.
When I caught up with Maggie, she was on her way back from an impromptu weekend camping trip with her husband, a photographer. The two were hauling their vintage travel trailer behind them, fighting the October highway winds and spotty cell service. Winter, since leaving Louisville for good in 2016, is now filled with adventure and tranquility.
“We live in the sky,” Maggie says of her new life 6,300 feet into the New Mexican skyline. “The skies are always blue and the air is so clean. I love living away from the city. Our road [1.5 miles up a steep hillside] sucks, but our views are worth it. Sometimes I’ll say ‘I’m not going down that hill today’ to get groceries in Santa Fe, which is an hour away. We are remote, and I’ve learned to love the isolation.”
The home, a 1,300-square-foot cottage perched under a peaked roof, houses their living quarters and artist studios (Maggie has a kiln shed and ceramics studio while her husband has a darkroom). Winters are quiet in this remote locale and filled with expansive blue skies and weather in the teens. Since their move, they’ve had friends visit, but most days are filled with solace and retreat. “We’ve had to have a yard sale virtually every year just to pare down our stuff. Our house here has a lot less storage than our house in Louisville, which we thought we took into account but obviously not.” The couple had to build a shed since moving to stash camping gear, a kayak, and tools. But to Maggie, the simple and adventurous life is the life worth living, no matter what season.
“People are drawn to being in this area. People come here for retreat, for holiday, and to live in an artistic community. Although I miss the foodie scene of Louisville, the arts and culture here have a fascinating history. Gringos are the minority, and I like it that way. The mix of cultures is sometimes strained, but towns are trying to break down barriers through a mutual interest in art.”
Since the pandemic, Maggie has seen an influx of real estate sales in the area. When she and her husband first moved to New Mexico, properties would sit for a year or more on the market, now they are selling in weeks to residents living on the west coast. If the west has always appealed to your artistic heart, Maggie recommends waiting a few years until the market depresses.
Until then, Maggie will winter another year atop her mountain, living with her head amongst the New Mexican clouds and her feet spanning across its sands.
By Megan Seckman | Photos submitted
P.S. Like to travel? Take a daytrip to Cincinnati.
Also, read about another couple who made a paradise location their home.