x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Ask the expert: a cultural holiday in the American Southwest this winter

Book in at a creative retreat in Santa Fe.

I'm thinking of doing some kind of creative retreat and I've always wanted to visit the Southwest of the United States but the only time off I can take is early in the new year. Is that feasible, or do all the courses close down for winter in places such as New Mexico?

The American Southwest is certainly an alluring place, for reasons that are both cultural and physical. And although the region bakes nearly as hot as Abu Dhabi in the summer, it gets much colder in winter. In Santa Fe, the capital both administratively and for the state's arts scene, there have been snow storms this week and the temperatures struggle to get above freezing for days.

Despite all that, the arts community continues in winter, albeit at a quieter pace than the summer season. Santa Fe is famous for claiming it is second only to New York City in terms of number of art galleries but other cities in the state, such as Taos (an arts hub since the early 1900s), Albuquerque (the state's biggest city), Las Cruces and Silver City all have their arts communities.

One option for a retreat isn't in any of those towns but it's a place synonymous with one of the most famous names with painting this region: Georgia O'Keeffe. She was a pioneering abstract modernist artist who grew up in the north and travelled from New York to Hawaii but only really found her muse in the distinctive light and hues of the Southwest.

There's a Georgia O'Keeffe museum (www.okeeffemuseum.org) in Santa Fe which houses more than 1,000 of her works but the place where she bought a home, endlessly painted and spent much of her time is Ghost Ranch, amid the box canyon country 105km west of the capital. If you're familiar with her work, you'll instantly recognise many of the mountains and landscapes surrounding the ranch building.

At the time the ranch (reputedly named by some 19th-century cattle rustlers in the hope that the locals' superstitions would outweigh their suspicions) was owned Arthur Newton Pack, the co-founder of the American Nature Association and a supporter of O'Keeffe. In 1955 he donated it to the Presbyterian Church, which runs it as a retreat and educational centre.

The place is full to capacity in spring and autumn with courses that cover although every aspect of the human condition but in winter it continues to operate but at a much quieter pace. In January, for example, you'll have the choice of courses that teach everything from yoga and meditation to short-story writing to adobe architecture to cross-country skiing in the surrounding mountains to ... well, you get the idea.

For some weeks, your course (and the ranch staff) will be the only occupants, a rare luxury. You can read all the courses and details about staying there at www.ghostranch.org. Enjoy the silence.

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