You’d be hard-pressed to find a life that’s been more mythologized than Georgia O’Keeffe’s. By the time she was anointed Most Famous Woman Artist in America so many people had gushed so flagrantly over her singular style, her huge erotic flower paintings, her snappy (and occasionally snappish) bon mots, her long and unconventional marriage to Alfred Stieglitz, the other-worldly landscape of northern New Mexico with its voluptuous land forms and many large dead animals, whose skulls and vertebrae she immortalized, and her prickly devotion to her privacy, that it’s amazing there aren’t more O’Keeffe folk songs, limericks, totems, feast days, rituals, annual pilgrimages, and bank holidays. Given our feelings for everything she represents, it speaks well of the human race that we haven’t fetched up a minor religion around her that worships independence, focus, creativity, and wearing those bad scarves my mother used to don the day before she went to the beauty parlor.

O’Keeffe attracts as she repels, and perhaps that’s what makes her so intriguing. People like to say they don’t give a damn, but O’Keeffe lived it. The proof? She was the embodiment of two aspects of living that most of us dread: being old and being alone. For O’Keeffe, forty was the new sixty. She had no problem being known for decades as the old lady in the desert with an affinity for cow skulls, an old lady in heavy black clothes with beautiful cheekbones and a lot of wrinkles, with no one for company but her various housekeepers and a pair of fierce chows who provided hours of entertainment by chasing off and occasionally biting unwanted guests.

I’m sure there is someone out there—perhaps you’re reading this right now—who aspires to look old before her time and spend days and weeks following her muse in the middle of nowhere, but I’m going to wager that most of us don’t want that for ourselves. What we do want is to know what went on inside O’Keeffe to allow her to defy society and make her own way.
Few human beings manage to be so resolutely themselves for so much of their lives. If we’re lucky, we’re able to scrape together a few days of self-realization in high school, followed by a month or two in college, after which we fall in love and completely revamp our personality to please our beloved, or else we land a job that requires us to kiss up to someone to whom we normally wouldn’t give the time of day, after which we have children and don the invisible t-shirt that says “I live to serve.” By the time the kids are grown, we’re tired and set in our ways and all it takes is waking up in a hotel room in a new city to forget who we are completely.

O’Keeffe is the poster child for doing exactly what you want, in the service of an abiding passion. Intuitively, we know how rare this is. In 1999, monster.com, the online employment agency, made a mockumentary commercial “When I Grow Up,” which featured kids answering that age-old question. Instead of saying they wanted to be astronauts or the person who discovers the cure for cancer they foretold their futures. “I want to file . . . all day,” said one kid. “I want to climb my way to middle management,” said another. “I want to be a yes man!” said a third. The ad was wildly successful; we laughed in recognition of how hard it is to make our dreams come true.

How O’Keeffe Became Herself

Unless you’re fifteen, when the point of defying convention is to piss off everyone around you, the main reason for refusing to go along with familial, societal, and economic expectations is so you can free up your time and thoughts to pursue something meaningful. Living up to the expectations of the world can take up all your time and energy if you let it. The clearer we are about what we want and what may be our abiding passion, the easier it is to chart our own course.
In the art world, critics remain divided over whether O’Keeffe was a genius or merely an energetic fetishist who pressed upon us, year after year, her sexy yin and yang paintings of calla lilies, sweet peas, the various chalk white bones of horses and cows, mysterious doorways, and  adobe walls. What remains indisputable, however, is her genius for navigating the waters of her own vision, for discovering it, nurturing it, and never abandoning it. At a time when women still didn’t have the right to vote, when their life goal was marriage to pretty much anyone who would have them, O’Keeffe was having none of it. She had better fish to fry. How, we may ask, did she catch these all-important fish?

She wrote letters.

I realize I may as well be suggesting that you take up whittling, but the fact remains that one of the best ways to figure out what you’re all about is to write letters. Many letters, hundreds of letters. Letters to friends, lovers, acquaintances, and colleagues, each one a mini-manifesto about how you waged the battles, both large and small, of each day, what you did, why you did it, and how you felt about it. I feel equally compelled to say that if you did this, in a short time you would have no friends at all.

There’s always e-mail, except that e-mail, too, is about to join letter-writing as a lost art. A newsy, content-rich e-mail has too many sentences, and, God forbid, paragraphs. Social networking in all its manifestations may try to pass itself off as the modern iteration of letter writing, but posting, tweeting, and so on is all about soliciting a response. It’s about audience, not expression.

O’Keeffe claimed to have never trusted words. She said that she and words were not friends. To prove her point, she refused to learn how to punctuate. Still, every day for most of her life she was writing her struggles, trying to figure out what she was doing, what was important, and how she felt. O’Keeffe and her correspondents were one another’s therapists in the time before therapists, serving as witnesses to each other’s struggles to locate themselves in their own lives.
In an oft-quoted letter to Anita Pollitzer, the college friend who hooked Stieglitz up with O’Keeffe’s early, transcendent charcoal drawings, O’Keeffe attempts to both explain and sort out her mixed feelings about showing her work: “I always have a curious sort of feeling about some of my things. I hate to show them – I am perfectly inconsistent about it – I am afraid people won’t understand them and – I hope they won’t—and am afraid they will.”
We could write such a thing in a journal, but no one would reply, reassuring us not to worry or telling us she understands. We could write such a thing in a blog, but it’s a tender statement, one that requires a loving, supportive response and not an anonymous comment that may very well say You suck. Perhaps an ad on Craig’s List might work. Knitting has enjoyed a comeback, why not letter-writing?

She found a devotee.

One of the reasons O’Keeffe was able to flaunt the conventions of Canyon with such confidence and ease is because she had Stieglitz rooting her on from New York. Fat envelopes arrived from him daily. He sent her books to read, conversed with her about the work he’d included in a group show at 291, closely monitored her current work, and cheered her on every baby step of the way.

On January 1, 1917, four months after O’Keeffe arrived in Texas, Anita Pollitzer had marched over to 291 on a whim and showed Stieglitz some of O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings. Legend has it that Stieglitz fell into a memorable quote-producing swoon and gasped, “At last! A woman on paper.” It’s doubtful he said this then or ever, but he behaved as if he did. When Pollitzer reported back to O’Keeffe, it was Georgia who sought out Stieglitz and wooed him with her letters about her work. People who knew her well said that she possessed the nose of a bloodhound when it came to finding people who would champion her art.

The best devotees are people whose interest in you is mixed up with their own self-interest. It’s not only what they can do for you, but what you can do for them. Stieglitz was a compulsive educator. Art students used to bait him for fun. They would go to 291 and venture an unlearned opinion about the Picasso or Matisse currently on exhibit, just to see how many hours (five) Stieglitz could lecture them on their poor judgment.

Thus, he required an audience and a pupil and she was there; she required someone who supported not only her radical approach to painting (how something made her feel was more important than how it looked), but also encouraged her rejection of middle-class expectations. That one day they would fall in love, marry, and wind up driving each other crazy was only to be expected.

She defied all accepted conventions of feminine beauty.

I’m willing to accept that you’re reading this book because someone gave it to you for your birthday, or because you like to take a stroll around an art museum on occasion. But even if you don’t seek to defy every social norm so that you may pioneer a new school of art and become a personal icon to millions of women and aspiring painters everywhere, not to mention a one-woman tourist magnet for a previously overlooked yet majestic corner of our fine and enormous nation, please nonetheless consider abandoning the pursuit of robo-beauty in favor of accepting—and even celebrating—a few flaws.
With her fabulous raw-boned frame, snaggly brows, and school marm’s bun, her black vestments, man’s shoes, and odd assortment of hats and turbans, O’Keeffe was out there. There was none like her, then or ever. A few months before she left her teaching post in Canyon, when someone mustered up the nerve to timidly ask her why she wore her hair that way, O’Keeffe said, “because I like it.” Freeing herself from the endless demands of looking like other women released her into a parallel, and freer, universe. After people adjusted to her curious look, they accepted it and expected nothing else.

Let your freak flag fly. Or at least retire your flat iron. You just may gain a sense of yourself as a unique human being, rather than as a mere consumer of $150 lip plumpers and $400 handbags. Do this in the interest of your own self-worth.

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KAREN KARBO's first novel, Trespassers Welcome Here, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and a Village Voice Top Ten Book of the Year. Her other two adult novels, The Diamond Lane and Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me, were also named New York Times Notable Books. Her 2004 memoir, The Stuff of Life, about the last year she spent with her father before his death, was an NYT Notable Book, a People Magazine Critics' Choice, a Books for a Better Life Award finalist, and a winner of the Oregon Book Award for Creative Non-fiction. Her short stories, essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Elle, Vogue, Esquire, Outside, the New York Times, salon.com and other magazines. She is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and a winner of the General Electric Younger Writer Award.

How Georgia Became O'Keeffe is the third and final installment in what she calls her kick ass women trilogy. How to Hepburn, published in 2007, was hailed by the Philadelphia Inquirer as "an exuberant celebration of a great original"; and the best-selling The Gospel According to Coco Chanel was published in 2009. Karen grew up in Los Angeles, California and lives in Portland, Oregon where she continues to kick ass.

2 responses to “How Georgia Became O’Keeffe
An Excerpt”

  1. Pete DeLorean says:

    This is my favorite TNB post so far. Loved it. Thanks.

  2. Art Edwards says:

    Hey, Karen Karbo!

    Lovely work, but that’s no surprise to me.

    Good to see you here.


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