Georgia O'Keeffe - Drawings / by Jeannine Cook

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When I recently saw the big Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, I was rather disappointed. It seemed disparate, with a huge range in quality of her paintings, and the overall lighting was, I found, strangely cold and uninviting. Nonetheless, as always, there were marvellous gems. Predictably, for me, most of these special pieces were drawings done at various stages by Georgia O'Keeffe. It is always so interesting and important, I find, to see other people's drawings and their  different approaches to creating a drawing: not only the actual materials used to make the marks, the size and presentation, but also the content, the emotions, the impact. Of course, being a drawing, each can potentially be much more direct and fresh, more unvarnished in honesty.

There were some of O'Keeffe's early, exploratory drawings, done in 1915-16. As she herself commented about this period, "this was one of the best times in my life. There was no one around to look at what I was doing - no one interested - no one to say anything about it one way or another. I was along and singularly free, working into my own, unknown - no one to satisfy but myself." (Georgia O'Keeffe, Some Memories of Drawings, edited by Doris Bry. 1974)

 Drawing no. 13, 1915, charcoal (image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Drawing no. 13, 1915, charcoal (image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Her comments underline what each artist knows - even when it seems an unattainable state ofartistic being. The freedom to explore and create, just for oneself, and let things develop spontaneously, is almost a luxury. Yet it is a really vital way of growing as an artist. Trusting oneself, trying to satisfy oneself, and listening to that little inner voice, my favourite pal - that is a wonderful step to achieve if one can.

 Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), No. 17 - Special, 1919. Charcoal on laid paper, 19-3/4 x 12-3/4 inches. Courtesy of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe; gift of The Burnett Foundation and The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation.

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), No. 17 - Special, 1919. Charcoal on laid paper, 19-3/4 x 12-3/4 inches. Courtesy of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe; gift of The Burnett Foundation and The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation.

Another comment in the same publication that resonates with me is when she stated, "after careful thinking, I decided that I wasn't going to spend my life doing what had been already done." Her search to find her own voice, her own optic on the world around her, is one that I think is terribly important. We are all individuals, and need to ensure that we think for ourselves and stand on our own feet in life generally whenever possible. In the same way, the art each of us creates ideally is work that is uniquely our own, not derivative. Yes, of course, we all use an artist's work as a springboard to go on to do something else, hopefully different, but in awareness that we owe the other artist a debt. Nonetheless, our own approach to life, our own hallmark should ideally come through the work of art we create.

As I went on through the Tate exhibition of Georgia O'Keeffe's work, I marvelled at her diversity of drawings. There were the spare, spare evocations of canyons zig-zagging down the hills, evoking the eroded badlands of New Mexico. Then there were detailed drawings of bananas, of Kachina dolls, and of wonderful goat's and ram's horns and antlers. Like so many artists, she was an obsessive gatherer of things that could be turned into drawings and paintings. (I confess to my studio being stuffed with such items!)

 Banana Flower, 1933, charcoal, Georgia O'Keeffe

Banana Flower, 1933, charcoal, Georgia O'Keeffe

 Goat's Horns II, 1945, charcoal, Georgia O'Keeffe

Goat's Horns II, 1945, charcoal, Georgia O'Keeffe

 Ram's Horns II, 1949, charcoal, Georgia O'Keeffe

Ram's Horns II, 1949, charcoal, Georgia O'Keeffe

As O'Keeffe herself said in a catalogue of an exhibition of her 1943 paintings at An American Place, "I have picked up flowers where I found them - have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood where there were sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood that I liked."

"When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too."

"I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it."

I don't think anyone could better summarise what so many of us artists do as we evolve and work as artists. It makes me feel in very good company as I stoop yet again to pick up something seemingly insignificant that sings to me and promises to be, perhaps, another silverpoint drawing.