“You paint from your subject, not what you see…I rarely paint anything I don’t know very well. It was surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract. Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.”
― Georgia O'Keeffe
― Georgia O'Keeffe
Ponder that quote for a moment and then come with me to Abiqui, a small rural village 53 miles north of Sante Fe, part time home of Georgia O'Keefe from 1950 until two years before she died in 1986. If you have read anything about this artist you will recognize my photos for she loved this home and her rare, late portraits were made here.
Abiqui is so small that my husband and I stumbled upon it thinking we had taken a wrong turn. We didn't even know it was the O'keefe home until we returned several days later under the auspices of the Home Tour which loaded into a van at the Abiqui Inn on the highway. To visit the house is to understand much of her work. It took her a determined 10 years to wrestle the property away from the Catholic diocese and another 3 to restore it to her liking. She wanted it in part because it had "water rights" which meant that (still today) every Monday for 2 hours water could flow in and through her property allowing her to have a garden which bore the fresh foods she craved.
Georgia was clearly ahead of her time as her kitchen still has the early yogurt makers, food dehydrators, juicers and fresh herbs she insisted were better for one's health. Her furnishings were spartan but utilitarian. Once again I felt I walked on hallowed ground as the docent brought the artist to life for us.
Well into her eighth decade O'keefe climbed the ladder to her roof (and bid guests do the same) to watch the sunset and gaze upon her mountains.
This is the (in)famous black door she painted (flatly) many times. She drew little distinction in the shadows except she did accentuate the stepping stones you see along the side of the wall.
If you have seen the cover of an old Life magazine with a story about her, you will recognize this exact corner where she was photographed sitting under the antlers (which she said she received from a native American Indian friend.)
We were asked not to take photographs indoors, a pity because it was fascinating to see. As we moved from space to space it became so real that I would not have been surprised to see Ms O'keefe perched in the next room.
Once again we were treated to several comparisons of the scenes from which she painted. Here we see the exact two cottonwood trees she rendered in the oft seen painting the docent is holding.Standing outside the resemblance was clear, the pair being only slightly larger from growth.
I had to take this shot as it tickled my fancy to know that Georgia and I shared a common love of rocks and that neither of us can resist picking them up. She had several collections both inside and out and it did my heart good to know that I was not alone in my compulsion to gather and display.
So my patient husband turns to me in the middle of a long highway and asks a very pertinent question:
After all this Georgia O'Keefe immersion,
what are you taking away for your own work?
Right to the heart, huh?
So here is my answer:
1- Simply (then amplify) - She did not paint every single pebble and dimple in the landscape. What is the jist here, she seemed to ask, paint it clearly. She often flattened it all out in an abstract sense (see quote above).
2- Zero in on one area - She was adept at focusing on one small area of something (like the center of a flower) ignoring the surroundings. Look intimately at one detail.
3- Paint the same thing over and over again. Exploit the subject. Try it again and again to wring every bit of nuance and meaning one can from that same object.
4- Consider that inanimate objects have personality. What is the message or feeling of that pair of trees or that mountain top. She seemed to treat them as alive and communicative.
5- Finally, paint whatever has meaning to you. Not what sells, not trending colors but whatever it is that you are willing to spend hours thinking about and repeating.
Those were my lessons...and easier said than done. But verbalizing them will help me to remember. And if I need extra help I am certain I still have some of that magic red dust in my shoes and backpack just waiting to be sprinkled around the studio.
LOVING THE LEARNING,