Last Sunday, on the very last day of the run I finally went to see the Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. I’d been wanting to go see it for a while but the days just kept passing me by, one after another. Even though I got there at the very last minute, I can say that this was one exhibition I’m grateful I didn’t miss. It may very well have changed my life!
The reason why the O’Keeffe exhibition was so powerful for me was that for once we were not simply viewing the paintings of a painter––nor the sculptures of a sculptor––we were also viewing the way the artist lived. The audience was allowed to see the clothing, shoes, and accessories O’Keeffe had worn (and largely made herself) in addition to looking at photographs of her by various photographers (including Alfred Stieglitz, the man she married). We also saw photography and video footage of her beautiful rustic home and garden in New Mexico and its mountainous surroundings. And perhaps most inspiringly, alongside each item on exhibit were little insights into her life and her view of the world via quotes from herself and others close to her.
I can’t express how galvanizing it was for me to have the opportunity to see how all-encompassing O’Keeffe’s vision was. She did not simply paint canvases––she painted her life––just as deliberately as any piece of art. In fact, in her case it was impossible to separate the artist from her art. Down to the minutest detail, her life was a celebration of that which she deemed beautiful. The way she lived must have required extraordinary mindfulness in her everyday endeavors and chores. That’s what I find most moving about her. Being that intensely present in her daily life is what enabled her to stay true to her singular vision in every aspect of her life, and therefore achieve all that she did.
I know that none of us on this earth are perfect, and idolizing any human being would be naive. But having role models, wherever I can find them, has been invaluable for me. Georgia O’Keeffe is certainly now an important one. The most powerful sentiment I absorbed from the exhibit was a concept that had transformed O’Keeffe’s own life early on in her career. She credited a teacher of hers, painter and printmaker Arthur Wesley Dow, for giving her a one-sentence theory of art by which to paint and live. Ready? Here it is. The quest is about seeking to “fill space in a beautiful way.” That simple line hit me like a ton of bricks on Sunday. Could it be that one concept could apply to everything I do, whether it’s making a meal for myself, the way I walk down the street, the words that I say to a friend? Now, the idea of what is beautiful is, of course, personal to each and everyone. But by filling the space with what I consider beautiful––in my life and in my art––I’m bound to create something meaningful, personal, and true. I marvel at the thought, and have been practicing using it every day since discovering it. And for that, I express my gratitude to Georgia O’Keeffe. It’s not a small gift that she’s given me by showing me the way. Not a small gift at all.