This spring, as five Georgia O’Keeffe paintings from the museum’s collection were carefully packed into crates and sent off to the New York Botanical Garden for Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai‘i (on view through Oct. 28), I packed a suitcase full of art supplies in preparation for a temporary move to Santa Fe, New Mexico. You may remember from an earlier blog post that, in addition to my role as web project manager here at HoMA, I am also a social practice artist. Last year I was selected to participate in the Equal Justice Artist Residency program at the Santa Fe Art Institute, where I lived as an artist-in-residence during April and May.
O’Keeffe spent the last four decades of her life in northern New Mexico, mostly at her homes in Abiquiú and Ghost Ranch—about 60 miles northwest of Santa Fe—where she created some of her most iconic imagery. Given the artist’s association with the region, it seemed somehow fitting that my journey should coincide with that of her Hawai‘i paintings.
Downtown Santa Fe is home to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum which comprises a gallery, research center, education annex, and a collection of over 3,000 of her paintings, drawings, notebooks, letters, and other personal effects. When I spoke to Cody Hartley, senior director of collections and interpretation, his staff had also recently finished preparing several Hawai‘i paintings from her 1939 visit to join the exhibition in New York. While guiding me around the skylit galleries, sharing details of the artist’s life as the bold hues of her high desert compositions gleamed in the morning sun, Hartley spoke of O’Keeffe’s travels:
“Up until Stieglitz’s death, all of her travel is pretty much domestic. Hawai‘i is about as far-flung as she gets. But after Stieglitz’s death when she’s living [in New Mexico] in the 50s and 60s she starts traveling internationally and she’s a fiend for travel, she cannot stop! She did Asia, India, Middle East, North Africa, Europe—she went all over the world on these long, long trips. She documented them in her artwork, she documented them in her collection, she kept travel boxes of all of her receipts and memories and postcards and notes. On these trips, what’s kind of fascinating is, as she’d done elsewhere in other times in her life, she uses her art as a way to get to know place.”
We stopped in front of a large oil painting of what looked like ice floes, adrift on cold, deep water, fading toward a hazy horizon.
“She would go from describing what she’s seeing to increasingly abstract images. In this case, looking down from the plane at the land below her,” Hartley gestured to the painting as I read its title, Above the Clouds I. “But she does the sketch on the plane—on the back of some letterhead from a hotel in Hong Kong—and then goes back and works up this whole abstract painting. So from looking down at the earth she then starts thinking out from the plane and there are these views of the horizon and just the clouds and the light beyond. The way this resonates for me in terms of her Hawai‘i experience is: travel is a way of stimulating her creativity, it’s a way of finding new subjects. She brings the same tool set everywhere she goes, she sketches, she finds essential forms in what she’s seeing and then works them back into her paintings, but it’s the experience of seeing something new and learning about a new place that reinvigorates her paintings.”
This was precisely what I hoped to accomplish during my residency, so I attempted to travel like O’Keeffe. A few weeks later I drove up to Abiquiú with my own toolkit, hoping to catch a glimpse of the arresting forms and colors O’Keeffe so eloquently abstracted from the landscape. The drive takes about an hour and a half, but with every new plane of mountains and painted mesas, rising up from the horizon in deep red ochre and muted lavender against the sky, it became easier to understand why New Mexico is nicknamed “Land of Enchantment.” Pulling up to the O’Keeffe Welcome Center, every vista was like a painting brought to life, from Pedernal to Black Mesa. The center had already closed for the day, but the home and studio tours were booked out so far in advance I would not have been able to enter the property anyway. Instead, I sat with paper and pens and got to know the place.
Since returning home to Honolulu, the yellow ochre adobe structures and burnt sienna mesas still find their way into my sketchbook. Hartley said that O’Keeffe’s notebooks from the 1950s and 1960s still contained flowers resembling hibiscus, over 20 years after she left Hawai‘i.
This fall, Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai‘i will travel to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. HoMA’s O’Keeffe works will come home to us in March, 2019.