“The painting is like a thread that runs through all the reasons for the other things that make one’s life.” Georgia O’Keeffe
I’ve just returned from my very first trip to New Mexico. We visited Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Abiquiu, and Ghost Ranch – “O’Keeffe Country!” In 1988, at about the time I first began seriously pursuing painting, I saw a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago and I was as much impacted by her life and lifestyle as I was by her art. At that time our kids were still living at at home and I was juggling the responsibilities of family life with doing everything I needed to do to learn how to be the kind of artist I so passionately wanted to become. So, besides being the chief cook and bottle washer at home, I was taking art classes, painting every day, learning how to draw, participating in a number of local art groups, and doing a yearly art fair. My art life and my family life were two separate entities and I don’t think anyone in my family took my art seriously. Mostly, I think they thought it was great that I had this nice little hobby called painting.
But, here was this woman artist – this Georgia O’Keeffe. Like me, she grew up in the midwest. However, unlike me, she was able to defy convention and gender expectations and live a self-determined life. I was raised to be a people pleaser, do what I was told (and never question what I was told), and always consider other people’s expectations. Defying convention and expectations never once crossed my mind – until I encountered Georgia O’Keeffe. Impressed by her deep commitment to follow her own ideas and her own rules, she became my role model as I sought to discover and nurture my own individuality as an artist and as a woman.
In one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s bios, I read that at one point she became very dissatisfied with her work. One day, she went into her studio, locked the door and hung all of her recent paintings on the walls. With ruthless detachment, she analyzed her work, noting which paintings were done to please her instructors, which were influenced by other artists, and which were directed at other people’s tastes rather than her own. She concluded that none of it was her own. The idea dawned on her that “this thing that is your own is so close to you, often you never realize it’s there.” Suddenly it seemed very simple, and she made the decision that from that day forward she would paint “that thing that is her own.”
When I first came across that story, I was focused on learning how to accurately reproduce subject matter and master watercolor techniques. Finding and expressing “that thing that is my own” was not part of my program. But once I read that story, I got it – and finding and expressing “that thing that is my own” became my number one goal. And now, 25 years later, it’s still my number one goal, and I’m happy to report that I think I’ve made some progress!
For me, that longing to find and express “thing that is my own” initiated a search for my identity, personal voice, and personal vision. I’ve since come to believe that finding and expressing “that thing that is your own” is what the artistic journey is ALL about.
Being at Ghost Ranch and experiencing the places that Georgia O’Keeffe loved so much brought me back to my first encounter with her so many years ago and made me realize how much that one chance encounter with the artist and woman who was O’Keeffe influenced the artist and woman I am today. I just want to say, “Thank-you, Georgia.”