Sunday, August 02, 2009

Swallowed by a Flower, Curved Into a Bone

by Zinta Aistars

Georgia’s flowers swallow me whole. I walk into them. I lay my cheek against her white bones. It is all I can do, all I can do, glancing over my shoulder for the whereabouts of the museum security guard, not to lay myself against the canvas and meld myself to the heat of Georgia’s flowers and Georgia’s bones and the sun-warmed adobe of her pueblo walls. I stand at the base of Pedernal and remember when I did—stand there, a woman alone on the southwestern desert, orange cliffs blazing around me, and Georgia’s mountain, cool blue, on the horizon. Two years ago, I was at Ghost Ranch, not far outside (just far enough) Santa Fe, New Mexico. Now, I stand in the cool rooms of the Kalamazoo Art Institute, mesmerized by her paintings, even more by the photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe herself.

Although I have come to appreciate the art of Georgia’s hands increasingly alongside understanding something more about the artist, I have been far more fascinated with the artist herself. When I drove cross-country two years ago on a business trip to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, I knew I would have to take some time to drive, too, to the Ghost Ranch, her home that she called “the faraway,” and to Taos. I would stand on the ranch land, her red dust on my shoes, and stare long at that mountain for which she bargained with God—“if I paint it enough, God promised it would become mine.” And so it has. I cannot but see her brush strokes in that faraway blue.

And I wandered among those pueblos, the ranch, where she lived and painted and adored the quiet, the solitude. Born in Wisconsin in 1887, she grew in a time when women were not taken seriously as artists. It took her well-known photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz, to bring her to the art world’s attention—and he would do it with something of a sad predictability: he promoted her work, these great and gorgeous paintings of giant flowers with delicate layers of soft, curving petals, as having sexual undertones. However much she loved her husband, Georgia resented the lie. She had no such thought in painting her flowers, no such intention in the gentle stroke of her brush along the curve of a skull bone. Only after Stieglitz had died—his own greatest claim to fame being his astounding hundreds upon hundreds of photographs of Georgia—did she, arguably, fully come into her own. If Georgia brought a movement of modernism to art in her time, she also opened the door for women artists. She loved being alone, and Ghost Ranch was her place alone, Pedernal her altar of solitude, and in her long life spanning very nearly a century, she would develop and control her identity in the art world. She refused the idea of being objectified or having her art so boxed in.

It is her own beauty, too, that draws me in. Spending leisurely Saturday hours in the art museum taking in not only her paintings, but also her contemporaries—Weber, Dove—I finally move into the room where the walls are lined with black and white photographs of Georgia herself. There is a moment when I stand directly in front of her, eye to eye, that the focus of my eye momentarily changes and I see my own reflection transposed across hers. I catch my breath. Something of her spirit… I wish for it, too. My eye traces the lines of her aging face. They are deep and wonderful lines, curving like the curves of flowers and mountainsides and clay walls in her paintings. She has an expressive mouth, a painting in itself, and her hands, subject of many of Stieglitz’s photographs, are art, grace, the great Feminine.

I return to the paintings again. White on white, bones and petals, and she has captured a thousand gradations of white. A pueblo wall, one window, one door, and I am suddenly back at Ghost Ranch again, standing in that very door. A sacred solitude. Woman alone. Power. Grace. Peace.

I stand before a red tree on yellow landscape, and wonder at how she painted the color of her emotion rather than the color of the subject. All that we see, after all, is through the prism of our inner eye, the lens of our self, colored by our own life sense and experience.

I am back at the photographs, gazing into her dark eyes, and wondering how all these many photographers—for she was one of the most photographed women of all time—did not seem to notice the wall she kept in place. Even as she smiled, which was rare. Even as she made an occasional grimace of fun. Her eyes kept that sense of the aloof: I am here, and you are not to enter on my place in this world. Only so far. I am the faraway.

For a moment, I am there, too.

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