xx039 • To See Takes Time
Learning from Georgia O'Keeffe
Sometimes, if you give a mouse a cookie... you end up leaving your job and spending a week studying and writing in Taos.
Last fall I reconnected with an old friend and caught myself texting back that of course I'd love to visit his new queer wonderland in Taos, New Mexico. It was aspirational and not one bit realistic.
In January, I set an intention to center my writing practice. Not two weeks later, a writer I admire announced a retreat in Taos. I signed up immediately. I was ready to commit to developing a more significant piece of work about my father.
At a bar in February, I chatted up a former Santa Fean who encouraged me to make time to visit Ghost Ranch where Georgia O'Keeffe lived and worked.
I went home that night and noticed the monograph of Georgia O'Keefe displayed on my coffee table. It's a book I remember always having but no sense of how it entered my life. On the inside was an inscription to me from my father for Christmas: “Someday there will be a book of your creations.” I gasped. I was seven when he wrote this to me. The age my daughter is now.
When I signed up for the retreat, I imagined it would be challenging but necessary to step back from work for a week and focus on my own project. And then in March, I found out my job was ending.
Believe what you will about the power of setting intentions and believing in creative magic, but I arrived in Taos on Sunday—my father's birthday.
🏜️ ART & LIFE
Georgia O'Keeffe has been omnipresent in my life, but I never engaged with her.
For some reason, I kept track of the book my father gave me as a child. He later fell in love and married a man who grew up in New Mexico. Throughout the stairwells of my childhood home hung multiple large O’Keeffe prints. I took her art for granted; her images always seemed to contribute to an attractive vibe, but they never meant anything to me.
Back in 2017, the Brooklyn Museum mounted a retrospective “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” organized around connecting her personal style to her produced works. I didn't go, but someone who did gifted me a print of her Brooklyn Bridge. Not four months later, I hung the print in my first solo apartment after leaving my marriage. It has been displayed prominently in my home ever since. As the infamous Glinda sings,
There's a kind of a sort of cost.
There's a couple of things get lost.
There are bridges you cross
You didn't know you crossed
Until you've crossed!
Recently I’ve dug deeper into O’Keeffe’s life trying to understand her steady presence in mine, her connection to people I love, and the magic that pulled me to the land she loved. To my huge surprise, O'Keeffe studied at the University of Virginia decades before the school formally allowed women to enroll. UVA tends to speak of its legacy like this: Jefferson, Jefferson, Jefferson, Hemmings, Jefferson, Secret Societies, Jefferson, Faulkner, Football. How am I learning twenty-five years after my own enrollment that one of the greatest artists of the 20th century studied and taught on the same grounds that shaped me?
It is said that she entered the summer program at UVA at a pivotal moment in her artistic practice. While it took years for anyone to take notice of her history with the university, in quintessential UVA fashion they were quick to take credit for influencing her legacy:
“She studied here at a critical time, a time when she actually thought she was going to stop pursuing art. It’s a transformative time for her, and we can trace how this transformation begun in Charlottesville carried on through the rest of her career, when she becomes the O’Keeffe that everyone knows now. That began here.”
For many, Georgia O’Keeffe is an icon of independence: a woman who dared to live on her own terms. I love the story that she initially turned down a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art because curator James Johnson Sweeney wanted to put the show up in the fall. O’Keeffe replied that it was her favorite time in New Mexico and she would absolutely not travel to New York City to see anyone’s show, let alone her own. Sweeney acquiesced and presented MoMA’s first retrospective of a woman artist in May 1946.
O’Keeffe’s expansive body of work provides ample space for re/interpretation. As Jackson Arn recently posited in The New Yorker: “every generation of Americans has invented a different O’Keeffe, fiddling with her image to match the moment’s predilections.” The new “To See Takes Time” exhibit currently at MoMA makes a case for her place in the abstract modern tradition by arranging groups of similar works together. The curator, Samantha Friedman, has painstakingly pulled pieces from a variety of collections to give the viewer an opportunity to meditate on O’Keeffe’s process. Rather than look at one Evening Star—here’s the rare opportunity to see eight variations at once organized chronologically. The show invites you to examine the similarities at a distance and interrogate the differences up close. The New York Times co-chief art critic Roberta Smith was less enamored than I was. But perhaps that’s the benefit of just beginning to tune into O’Keeffe. She can be the inspiration I need her to be right now: an example of an artist prioritizing her creative practice, who regularly returns to the same compost pile of ideas to craft new work.
☀️ GHOST RANCH
My father would have turned 72 on Sunday.
During his first round battling cancer we made a deal that when he got to the other side we’d travel to a yoga retreat. Late July 2011, we drove up to Lake Tahoe to practice together.
It was a blissful trip—we were both so happy—grateful his body was strong enough to climb the mountain and hold the poses.
One of my favorite things to do now is look at the selfies he took, to see my father as he saw himself. Here he is at 60 years old, having recovered from brutal surgery, happily practicing shirtless in the sun.
In honor of my father, and the spirit of Georgia O’Keeffe, my friend Austin and I drove out to Ghost Ranch and climbed Chimney Rock. It was the perfect entry into this retreat week.
We just wrapped up Day 3 of this retreat and it has started to drizzle.
I’m off to dinner with another writer, a friend-of-a-friend who now lives in Taos, and who has also written about the loss of her gay father. There’s a lot of magic out here in this desert.
Hope you are having a good week.