“The meaning of a word–to me– is not as exact as the meaning of a color. Colors and shapes make a more definite statement than words. I write this because such odd things have been done about me with words. I have often been told what to paint. I am often amazed at the spoken and written word telling me what I have painted. I make this effort because no one else can know how my paintings happen.”
Some years ago when I was trying to feed Bella’s thirst for paintings and to introduce her to some of my favorite artists, I checked out some big coffee-table size books from the library. Among them was a volume titled simply Georgia O’Keeffe, which turned out to be a delightful volume which combined her own writings about her work with images of some of the paintings themselves. I loved the insights into how she saw the world. It’s a book I go back to again and again, to drink in the pictures, but also to ponder her words. For if her primary language is color and shape, mine is still words, and her insights into the language of painting help me to see more deeply and to ponder what it is that her paintings are doing and saying. The words are a necessary bridge for me.
And I thought I might offer them to you, too. Perhaps these little snippets will help others to find O’Keeffe’s mysteries more approachable.
“It was in the fall of 1915 that I first had the idea that what I had been taught was of little value to me except for the use of my materials as a language– charcoal, pencil, pen and ink, watercolor, pastel, and oil. I had become fluent with them when I was so young that they were simply another language that I handled easily. But what to say with them? I had been taught to work like others and after careful thinking I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my life doing what had already been done.
I hung on the wall the work I had been doing for several months. Then I sat down and looked at it. I could see how each painting or drawing has been done according to one teacher or another, and I said to myself, “I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me– shapes and ideas so near to me– so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.” I decided to start anew– to strip away what I had been taught– to accept as true my own thinking. This was one of the best times in my life. There was no one around to look at what I was doing– alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown– no one to satisfy but myself. I began with charcoal and paper and decided not to use any color until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white. I believe it was June before I needed blue.”
I love that for O’Keeffe the use of her materials is a language, shapes and colors and ideas are the language of her self. I love this idea of returning to the basics, to black and white, charcoal and paper, almost as if to childhood again, to find what she had to say for herself, not to please any teacher or critic or friend.
I love peeking into how different creative people work: poets, novelists, painters, sculptors, cooks. How does this mysterious creative self expression work? It’s always a sort of little miracle.
Here, my favorite sentence is the final one: “I believe it was June before I needed blue.” That sentence sings. It has poetry in it. It speaks so much in so little space.
“A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower– the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower– lean forward to smell it– maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking– or give it to someone to please them. Still– in a way– nobody sees a flower–really–it is so small–we haven’t time–and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small.
So I said to myself–I’ll paint what I see–what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking the time to look at it–I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”
“Well– I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower– and I don’t.”
“Then when I paint a red hill, because a red hill has no particular association for you like the flower has, you say it is too bad that I don’t always paint flowers. A flower touches almost everyone’s heart. A red hill doesn’t touch everyone’s heart as it touches mine and I suppose there is no reason why it should. The red hill is a piece of the badlands where even the grass is gone. Badlands roll away outside my door–hill after hill–red hills of apparently the same sort of earth that you mix with oil to make paint. All the earth colors of the painter’s palette are out there in the many miles of badlands. The light Naples yellow through the ochres– orange and red and purple earth– even the soft earth greens. You have no associations with those hills–our waste land– I think our most beautiful country. You must not have seen it, so you want me always to paint flowers. . . ”
All quotes taken from Georgia O’Keeffe by Georgia O’Keefe, Viking Press 1977.
(I haven’t at all attempted to match the excerpted text to the same pictures it faces in the book. Not all the images from the book are available in the public domain and anyway I just chose images I liked.)