Being Inspired by Georgia O'Keeffe
by David Berry
In 1994, when I first begin to seriously paint, Georgia O’Keeffe is the first artist I am drawn to. More than any other artist, I find her paintings to combine equal elements of abstract and impressionistic painting. Often she creates large images of tiny flowers and small images of endless landscapes, arranging the elements of color and form to evoke a sensation. The grandeur of a landscape cannot be accurately depicted on a two by three foot canvas, but elements can be transferred to the canvas that allow the viewer to experience equally captivating.
Normally an artist learns his trade and experiments sufficiently over several years to find an abstract style. Often it is more of a feeling than knowledge and evolves as a natural skill, like riding a bike or writing. Without a formal art background, I find it very uncomfortable to think up designs. Unlike a clearly recognizable image, they have no meaning to me. O’Keeffe and Van Gogh create images that are recognizable, but not necessarily realistic. The color and form are far more important than subject. By making studies of these two artists I discover how to see the color in the painting without the burden of a picture of something. It is as if I had only listened to songs with lyrics my whole life and then found myself trying to compose symphonies. I begin to understand the brushstrokes as having importance as their own expression instead of being simply means to create an image.
The biggest difference I see in the two artist is that Van Gogh is drawn to the human figure (the most challenging subject for an artist), and O’Keeffe, who seems to have never painted a human form accept in art school, draws similar fluid forms from naturally undefined designs found nature. While this might seem irrelevant, mastering the human figure transforms the way an artist interprets the world. Figure study nurtures very specific rules and approaches to form. Despite Van Gogh's extreme style, he draws very literally, compromising realism with great deliberateness while O'Keeffe relies on the fluidness of her inner vision to create something that only suggests something in the physical world. Rather than having common style, they are most similar in their independence and degree of departure from traditional art. In my own mind I have found a fusion of these two seemingly opposing styles and also a freedom to find my own way.
O'Keeffe in the West
O’Keeffe begins her career as a painter in New York City, finding inspiration in the new architectural landscape of the early century. Even so, she constantly returns to flowers and landscapes. In 1929, at the age of 42, O’Keeffe travels to Taos, New Mexico at the invitation of friends. The town already boasts of small, but significant, artist community at that time. Invigorated with new friends and the landscape, O’Keeffe returned then next year. She even packed up a barrel of bones and artifacts to take back with her to New York. Soon she is spending six months of the year in “the faraway,” eventually making it her permanent home.
O’Keeffe’s home is on a 7 acre parcel at Ghost Ranch, a vacation ranch near Abiquiu (about fifty miles from Taos and Santa Fe) with significant archeological digs and spectacular landscapes. In 1955 the ranch, with the exception of O’Keeffe’s home, is donated to The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Today it is a spiritual retreat, small conference center and educational center. Ghost Ranch has many programs open to the public - including photography and hiking “classes” that explore the landscape that is O’Keeffe’s inspiration. There are also museums and other attractions at or around Ghost Ranch that make it worth taking a seminar or the extra driving if you find yourself in the area.
Off-Site Links for Georgia O'Keeffe
For Georgia O'Keeffe on the Internet, click here.
To see the O'Keeffe Museum web site, click here.
To find out about Ghost Ranch, click here.