a note from God
I stood in a long gallery full of paintings of the Pedernal. Blue faded to green faded to red. The brushstrokes mapped out the land, showing me a vision of a sliver of the earth.
“It’s my private mountain,” Georgia said. “It belongs to me.”
I turned to face her. Her white scarf was wrapped around her head, flowing gently in a breeze from somewhere I couldn’t see.
“God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it,” she said. She turned to face one of her paintings.
I believed her. God had given her the Pedernal, and she had accepted it gracefully.
Georgia went from painter to model to wife to painter once more. Despite her love of the New York skyline, nothing compared to her devotion to the wilds of the high desert. Her job was in color–a stark contrast to her husband’s work with black and white photography. Black and white and sexuality drenched his art. On film, he captured Georgia’s femininity and sealed it into his prints. But she freed it again, painting her land and her flowers in her own vibrant colors.
an affair with the desert
When Georgia O’Keeffe discovered her husband’s unfaithfulness, she had an affair of her own. She visited a friend in New Mexico but spent more time caressing the high desert landscapes with her paintbrush. Mother Nature was her mother–the family that gave her no grief – and she embraced this love time and time again. All the art she created was kept securely in New Mexico.
Georgia O’Keeffe settled permanently into her house in Abiquiu, New Mexico in 1949. Her husband had passed away three years prior, but her home wasn’t empty. She left the radio on to the point it was a constant buzz, the music humming through the tiny speakers and reverberating off the white plastered adobe walls. She often visited the nearby Ghost Ranch. Towering rock pillars made fenceposts to heaven, splitting the blue sky with bolts of red. The colors of the dirt drew Georgia to this landscape, and she painted it over and over. For fifty years, she traveled from her home to the acres of the wild desert to paint.
Georgia O’Keeffe painted New Mexico, and New Mexico had been made for her to paint. The high desert was a land of contrast – snow in April and scorching in July, green and red left adjacent in the landscape, curves and angles of rocky ground. Here, the sky looked bluer and the earth redder, the shapes of the terrain more pronounced against the sharp colors. Georgia painted the body of Mother Nature like a man painting a naked woman.
a canvas unpainted
Standing on the bulkhead of my family’s property in Home, Washington, the sun is peeking up from behind the Cascade Mountains, and a blank canvas stands before me. I am far from the distant colors of the vibrant high desert, but the landscape is similarly vast.
“The colors are beautiful this morning,” Georgia says.
I turn and face her. The reds and purples of the sky light up her leathery face. She sets up her canvas next to mine, carefully dressing her palette with jewel-toned paints.
She holds up her brush to paint, but pauses. She looks at me again, a slight smile tugging at the corner of her lips. She looks like someone else I know, but I can’t place my finger on it. The Georgia I know doesn’t smile.
“Paint while the colors are still bright,” she urges. “No sunrise is ever the same, so take this chance while you have it.”
I face my canvas again. It’s still blank, and all I’ve done is ready my paints. Black, blue, red, and white. What am I painting? Georgia guides my hand across the canvas, pushing the paint into the weave of the white fabric. A face emerges. My grandmother stares back at me, a slight smile tugging at the corner of her lips.
In 1995, my mother strolled through the halls of Tucson’s University of Arizona Museum of Art. She rounded a corner and came face to face with Georgia O’Keeffe’s Red Canna. Reds, oranges, yellows, and pinks melted into the canvas, spreading from edge to edge and reaching outward toward the world beyond the painting. This painting had been an inspiration to my mother’s photography. Georgia’s statements –both textual and visual–about seeing something mundane in a new light made Red Canna my mother’s favorite painting. Standing just a foot away from the canvas, tears rolled down my mother’s cheeks. She could see the brushstrokes, those fingerprints of a painter. Years later, when I was five, my mother brought me to the museum to see that painting. When we rounded that very same corner she had nearly a decade earlier, the painting was gone. She was relentless in her search for the Red Canna. We found it tucked away, and she had me pose next to it for a photo. I only remember the windows behind her, letting the Sonoran Desert light into the museum, and the sound of the camera shutter as she snapped the photo.
Near the end of her life, Georgia O’Keeffe went blind. Despite her lack of physical vision, she continued to paint, saying she could see in her head what she wanted to paint, and that was enough. Art comes from within, I suppose. Or at least, the desire to make something, no matter what it is. God gave Georgia the Pedernal for her art. She didn’t stick around long enough for me to ask her what God gave me. I know what she’d say, though. “Go out into the world and see something someone else doesn’t. Make your art, and God will give you the world.”