Toward the end of high school my art teacher once said I reminded her of Georgia O’Keeffe.
Inundated in the O’Keeffe flower calendars of the 80s, I wasn’t particularly flattered by this. (I had a similar calendar-based prejudice against Van Gogh until I saw his work in person, where it is undeniably stunning. It really does not translate well in reproduction.)
I have seen some of her work in person, and some of it was quite powerful, but I’ve come to appreciate her more from reading about her.
I hadn’t realized she had almost died from typhoid in her teens, and that although her family was able to send her to art school for a couple of years, after that their financial situation worsened and she had to leave school to work to support herself at age 20.
One of her father’s many failed business ventures was apparently manufacturing concrete blocks, and when it didn’t go well, to prove their efficiency, he built a ramshackle house for his own family out of these blocks and then they had to leave in this sad building the neighbors referred to as “the prison.”
She didn’t have the worst life, but she definitely endured a number of circumstances that I could imagine made her both pretty tough and not too concerned with the opinions of others.
But apparently she was concerned, at least to some extent.
She relates the story of a day when she was 28, working as a teacher and trying to make time for her own work. She went into her studio and reviewed all of her work. She found she could see which ones were done to please a particular person or instructor, which were inspired by one or another well-known artist.
Then she put all of her work away to rid her mind completely of the influence of others. She wrote to a friend that: “I feel disgusted with it all and am glad I’m disgusted.”
She found she had shapes in her mind, integral to her imagination, that were not based on anything else she had seen. “This thing that is so close to you, often you never realize it’s there.”
So she dropped everything and started doing charcoal drawings of those shapes. “I could think of a whole string of things I’d like to put down but I’d never thought of doing it because I’d never seen anything like it.”
And of course those drawings were the pieces that started her career.
Many years later, she wrote this about her breakthrough: “I grew up and…one day seven years ago I found myself saying to myself – I can’t live where I want to – I can’t go where I want to – I can’t do what I want to – I can’t even say what I want to. School and things that painters have taught me even keep me from painting as I want to. I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint as I wanted to and say what I wanted to when I painted as that seemed to be the only thing I could do that didn’t concern anybody but myself – that was nobody’s business but my own.”
I think we can all relate to this, even if the “can’t live where I want to, can’t do what I want to” might be relative. As human animals, we are all constrained to different degrees by many factors – fear, family, finances – and concerned with what others think of us, for both ancient and contemporary reasons.
And I think that when we experience creative work that steps outside of these considerations, we feel more connected with our own courage, our own true voice. Sometimes I see work that I find visually attractive but then I am disappointed when I don’t feel anything except maybe appreciation of the skill involved in creating it. Then there is the work that makes the world new. That makes me new.
That is clearly what Georgia was looking for. And that is what I am looking for too. Reading about her experience makes me even more determined to find it.
And needless to say, now I feel quite flattered at the comparison!