Painting with O'Keeffe

Painting with O'Keeffe

Painting with O'Keeffe

Painting with O'Keeffe

Synopsis

When a world-famous artist begins to lose her eyesight and puts down her brushes, it is a tragedy. When she starts to paint again, it must surely be a miracle. "What are those colors?" I asked, shouting over the wind. O'Keeffe raised her eyes skyward, resting both hands on the cane. She looked slowly all around, squinting against the flying sand, her white dress flapping loudly. Then she lowered her eyes toward me. "You tell me what they are," she said. At first I thought she was jesting. I knew she could see them, or I thought she could. But she waited patiently, looking at me. I turned back to the sky. "They're like pastels." I stopped, focusing on one cloud near to us. "This cloud is like a grainy orange and red- no, it's more like a peach, with yellows in there too." I gestured widely. It seemed as if one color was superimposed on traces of another. The air was full of fragrances enhanced by a hint of moisture and sharpened by the wind as it passed quickly over the surface of sage and stone, sand and piñon. Somehow, all that was part of what I saw. "But there are reds, too." I struggled to think of how to describe the colors. "There is a gray or white behind the reds; and some orange." O'Keeffe's head declined slightly as she listened, her lips creased in a faint smile. In late summer 1975, John Poling left college to wander the beauty of northern New Mexico and wound up in Abiquiu doing odd jobs for Georgia O'Keeffe. Never did he imagine that one day O'Keeffe's request for help in preparing a canvas would lead to a two-year collaboration that would prove the most rewarding yet most painful of his life.

Excerpt

Artists are notoriously circumspect about the origins of their work. It is difficult enough to describe to oneself the mysterious process by which a poem or painting comes into existence, let alone to an apprentice or public audience. How fortunate we are, then, to have John Poling’s account of painting with Georgia O’Keeffe. Here is a portrait of an aging artist discovering new ways to create even after she had lost her sight. Painting, she said, “is like the thread that runs through … all the other things that make one’s life.” And for one magical season John Poling helped her to find that thread again.

The outlines of her life are well known. She was born on 15 November 1887 near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, the second of seven children, and by the eighth grade she had decided to be an artist. She found the right teachers when she needed them: a high school principal who persuaded her to focus on her work; William Merritt Chase, at the Arts Students League in New York City, who encouraged her to “seek to be artistic in every way”: in dress, in manners, and in conduct; and Arthur Wesley Dow, at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, who convinced her that painting was a matter of “filling space in a beautiful way.” This she did for more than sixty years, leaving behind not only one of the most fascinating bodies of work in American art, but also a dynamic example of how to live. “I’m frightened all the time,” she once declared. “Scared to death. But I’ve never let it stop me. Never!”

Her most important mentor was Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer, theorist, and impresario of modern art. “I believe I would rather have . . .

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