Sunday, March 17, 2013

Georgia on my mind

Georgia OKeeffe, 1920, by Alfred Stieglitz,
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 tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they may say something. ~ Georgia O'Keeffe

While Bumble and I are not terribly dogmatic about our lives, we do stay faithful to a few lofty goals: embrace organic growing practices and eat healthy, go outside and exercise daily, read and learn something new, and once a month attend a cultural event. A cultural event can include such treasures as a theater performance, lecture, live musical event, gallery visit, local festival, or museum exhibition. Yesterday, in the middle of March, we chose to partake in the latter. We went to the Denver Art Museum’s (DAM) exhibition titled “Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam, and the Land.”

“Katsinam,” I wondered, “what exactly is that?”

"Blue-headed Indian Doll" by Georgia O'Keeffe
 Photo courtesy DAM
While I knew it had something to do with the native cultures of the southwest, I quickly learned from the exhibition that “katsinam” are the carved and painted representations of Hopi and Pueblo "spirit beings" often called katsinas or kachinas. They are otherworldly doll-like figures carved from cottonwood, brilliantly painted and adorned. They can be spiritual representations of anything in the natural world—an ancestor, a concept, a phenomenon, a place—the sun, stars, storms, corn, insects, etc. Katsinam represent the presence of a life force in all things. Aside from painting the animal bones and western landscapes of her beloved New Mexico, Georgia O’Keeffe also painted the colorful katsinam; I can see how the shapes and colors intrigued her. I never saw her katsinam paintings until yesterday. Before the exhibit of O'Keeffe's katsinam paintings and drawings, there were respect issues to be addressed with the Hopi nation as to who should even be allowed to depict the katsinam, which is why viewing her impressions of them was a rare treat.

"Rust Red Hills" by Georgia O'Keeffee
The exhibit deepened one’s understanding of this folk art by also including a DAM collection of katsinam carved by various Native American artists. Shown too are several paintings by Dan Haminga, two stunning and graphic weavings by Ramona Sakiestewa and a huge painting by David Bradley depicting Georgia O’Keeffe as Whistler’s mother, all of which added to the experience. A small section of the exhibit broadcast a documentary movie of Georgia O’Keeffe continually; you could hear her voice and see her absorbed in the landscape.

"The Mountain" by Georgia O'Keeffe

What is it about seeing the artwork of the great painters, sculptors, carvers, or weavers? Why do we gawk at art? What is it about this experience? For me, it is a chance to marvel at the creative process. To share in the artist's vision of a place or a thing. It is always inspiring to view the museum's many exhibits (from Van Gogh to Matisse to O’Keeffe) and observe up-close the brush strokes of the artists, the colors, the mood, and the visions they saw. Seeing the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, who is as iconic an American genius as Frank Lloyd Wright is to me, was a special opportunity to admire the work of a woman who brings to life the way I emotionally experience the landscapes of the southwest.  For me, nature is a place of worship, an entity with incredible life force, just like the katsinam represent.

There I was studying one of her paintings titled “The Mountain”— marveling as her varied brush strokes, her mastery of blending paint, her vision, her subject matter, her color palette, her eye, her steady hand, her everything—and it happened. The painting started to move. It was as if I had been slipped a psychedelic mind-altering drug; it was coming alive with energy, wriggling shapes, and colors. It was at that moment, I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Part American history, part indigenous culture, part modernism, part of our West, part homage to the contributions of a great woman; it was a DAM good experience.



  1. Interesting post. O'Keeffe's paintings are quite unique, aren't they? I remember watching a biopic on her and it was captivating. Have you seen it? Joan Allen stars, and she's quite good. On another note, a few months ago you indicated you'd like to join in a read-along of Proust. It's started now. Just wondering if you're still interested. Here's my updated post.

    1. Arti,
      Thank you one thousand times for your wonderful comments. Yes, I did see the movie with Joan Allen and she did a great job portraying Georgia O'Keeffe. It gave me a new perspective on Steiglitz and some of the difficulties of their relationship. I seriously could not say in words what viewing her paintings up close did/do to me.

      I wanted to do the Proust read-a-long, but I am involved in "another project" and my energy and time are very limited right now. I always look forward to getting and reading your blog and will be there in spirit OK?. . . Hedda