Georgia O'KeeffeCredit: wikimedia commons

Oriental Poppies

She knew she was going to be an artist from the early age of 12. Her mother had arranged for her to have painting lessons and books to study drawing. She loved colors, and nature patterns. She followed her own voice, even as a young student. She was a nonconformist by wearing her hair pulled back, and dressing simply - no ruffled feminine clothes for her at school. Georgia O’Keeffe changed the way to look at things.

Her flowers paintings were absolutely stunning to initial viewers. Mainly they were perceived positively as female genitalia. So much of her work was constructed around a center that did imply physical body representations. The perception is beautiful, and glorifies the female sexuality. She painted simple objects, rarely humans, and gave the work a noted sense of color. Her work increased a desirability to view flowers (for instance) like they have never been viewed before. She would scoff at the reference to sex symbols in her work, and merely say that the viewer was seeing his own obsessions. The paintings of her flowers art were way ahead of her time, totally unconventional.

It’s interesting to note that her most natural at home landscapes had plenty of sky, sun and openness - a wide playing field. She was raised in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, on a farm. She was one of 7 children, and loved the wide flat prairie plane. At one time she held an academic position in Amarillo, Texas. She really liked the vast emptiness, plains and winds there. That was a different sentiment from most people. Then, later in her life, after her husband’s death, she settled in New Mexico (Abiquiu). She lived in the Ghost Ranch house which she owned, and was surrounded by the landscape she so dearly loved. It was stunning to her, and she painted it in such an innovative modern style that it is hard not to see the beauty after viewing her work.

Georgia studied at the Art Institute in Chicago and the Art Students League in New York City. She attended Chatham Academy in her pre-college years and was greatly recognized as a talented artist by her principal, and art teacher. This encouragement to continue her art helped to influence her to attend the Art Students League. During a summer school course there, she ended up visiting the gallery that photographer Alfred Stieglitz had opened up. He was a major supporter of unconventional art, and the students went to argue with him. Little did she know that eventually she would be married to him.

When a friend of her’s showed Stieglitz some of Georgia’s drawings (unbeknown to her), he exclaimed, “Finally a woman on paper!” He hung her drawings at his gallery, Stieglitz’s 291, without her knowledge. She was not thrilled that the public could view her private drawings, and she asked him to remove them from the gallery. They remained on the walls and she gained recognition for her work. That was in 1916, and she and Stieglitz remained together for the next 30 years until he died.

They were both unorthodox in their own ways. When Alfred opened the gallery, An American Place, he certainly didn’t follow the traditional gallery openings of the time. He did print out a card that stated:

  • No formal press reviews.
  • No cocktail parties.
  • No special invitations.
  • No advertising.
  • No institutions.
  • No isms.
  • No theories.
  • No games being played.
  • Nothing asked of anyone who comes.
  • No anything on the walls except what you see there.

An American Place was open to all- “are ever open to all,” was the furthermore that expressed his ideas of what a gallery should be. I have never been to an opening that hasn’t been advertised, or for that matter, at least offered champagne or wine or some beverage. How daring and rebellious that must have seemed.

When she was 37 and he was nearly 61 they married. Of course Georgia refused to take any “love, honor and obey” vows, didn’t exchange rings, and she kept her own name. She was so radical and beyond the social norms, she was true to herself. They enjoyed and respected each other’s work. She would see details in his work that helped her to be more aware of the finer up closeness of whatever she painted. He, in return photographed her like no other woman has ever been photographed. Every mood and bit of her was photographed by him, with ardent pleasure. Their differences were still part of their connectedness. He loved to have lively discussions with a surrounding of people, and converse all night. She preferred a more solitary lifestyle. She loved travel, he didn’t. Thus she ended up staying in New Mexico during the summers instead of Lake George, NY where Alfred stayed.

They experienced their trials in their marriage, but after Georgia healed from a nervous breakdown, she helped nurse him from his health problems. He died at age 82, in 1946. She moved to her Abiquiu home in 1949, and eventually painted her largest work, Sky Above Clouds ( a mere 8 x 24 feet)!

Her home was void of Stieglitz photos and O’Keeffe paintings. Instead there were animal bones, Chinese statues, African masks, and smooth round stones adorning shelves. The white walls gave her place the unique simpicity and elegance that showed the clarity she received from her choice of homestyle.

In 1971 she lost her central vision and stopped painting. One would think that this was a major heartbreak for the extraordinary woman. Maybe it was, however her spirit just continued to create. She learned how to build clay pots by a potter she had hired to teach her, and be her assistant. She better describes what I am trying to say of her:

“I had no great passions. I went my own way. I didn’t even intend to ‘live’ by painting because there’s the danger that you’ll try to copy the style of someone else and ‘work’ it.”

How many times have artists (writers, sculptures, chefs, etc.) realize the truth in that revealing statement? Often, because one cannot help but be influenced by something to ignite the creative spirit that in return ignites others. Yes, she was an unconventional woman.