georgia o'keeffe -- 3/27/20

Today's selection -- from Big Wonderful Thing by Stephen Harrigan. The artist Georgia O'Keeffe in Texas:

"Georgia O'Keeffe was twenty-eight when she arrived in Canyon, Texas in September to become the sole teacher in the college's art department, responsible for classes in design, costuming, and interior decoration. She was sick off and on during that academic quarter, and she wasn't the sort to blindly follow a crowd, but it's hard to imagine her not being interested in witnessing Charles Goodnight orchestrate the concluding act of the great Texas frontier drama.

"We know that she was deeply drawn to the landscape in which the hunt took place. On Saturday mornings, alone or with students or fellow faculty members, she would climb down the same steep, snaking trails that the Comanches and Kiowas and Mackenzie's troopers had used to reach the floor of Palo Duro Canyon. She would stare in artistic agitation at the sun-bathed red and rose and white bands of eroded sediment all around her -- a chromatic won­derland of geology. 'I can't help it,' she once exclaimed, 'it's all so beautiful!'


"O'Keeffe had lived in the Panhandle before. In 1912, when she was twenty­-four and no longer able to afford to live in New York or continue her studies at the Art Students League, she had boarded a train for far-distant Amarillo to become the drawing supervisor for the town's public schools. She was something of an apparition in Amarillo -- a lean young woman, her hair pulled straight back to showcase her stark and striking features. Later, when she returned to live in Canyon, she dressed somewhat like the nuns who taught her at a convent boarding school in Wisconsin, in spooky robe-like garments and black dresses accented only by a severe white collar. 'There was something insatiable about her,' a friend remembered of O'Keeffe after her first Texas stint, 'as direct as an arrow and hugely independent.'

"She took artistic possession of the landscape. The room she rented in Canyon, a spare room in a professor's house, was strikingly austere -- no curtains, no furniture except an iron bed and a wooden crate. But what mattered was the window that faced east, into the Texas sunrise. 'That was my country,' she later wrote. 'Terrible winds and a wonderful emptiness.'

"She had been working mostly in black and white on the advice of the New York photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, her formi­dable mentor, champion, and eventual husband. But what she saw from her window and from her excursions into Palo Duro expanded her palette and helped her find her way as an artist. Her letters are full of descriptions of color and light and of wild visual yearning. 'Tonight I walked into the sunset,' she wrote to her friend Anita Pollitzer, 'to mail some letters -- the whole sky -- and there is so much of it out here -- was just blazing -- and grey blue clouds were riding all through the holiness of it.'

"She left Texas in 1918, but the color and scale and isolation of the Pan­handle seems never to have left her consciousness, and the abstract water­colors she made there -- a painting called Sunrise, and a series known as Light Coming on the Plains, are as much about the awakening of a soul as they are about the dawning of a new day."



Stephen Harrigan


Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas


University of Texas Press, Austin


Copyright 2019 Stephen Harrigan


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