Monday, September 17, 2012
Georgia O’Keeffe and The Christian Faith
By Brian Nixon
Special to ASSIST News Service
GHOST RANCH, NEW MEXICO (ANS) -- Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is perhaps America’s greatest female painter, a modernist tour de force.
O’Keeffe studied art in both Illinois and New York, held down a job in Chicago as a graphic artist, attended Columbia University, was a teacher’s assistant in South Carolina, and taught art at a school near Amarillo, Texas.
All this travel and work occurred before her big breakthrough in 1916 when modernist photographer and Gallery 291 owner, Alfred Stieglitz, took a notice of her work, shown to him by Georgia’s friend Anita Pollitzer.
The rest, if you will, is history.
Georgia O’Keeffe went on to become one of America’s greatest artists, paving the way for a uniquely American style and perspective.
After her marriage to Stieglitz, Georgia split her time between New York and New Mexico. It was New Mexico, however, that captured O’Keeffe’s interest and attention.
Between the late 1920’s to the late 1940’s, O’Keeffe made several visits to New Mexico. But it was after Stieglitz’s death in 1946 that Georgia moved permanently to New Mexico, settling in Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch, keeping a home in both locations.
This two-hour expedition allowed riders to see various locations where O’Keeffe painted: Lavender Hill and Chimney Rock among them. The final destination was a ride-by of her Ghost Ranch home, an adobe at the base of Chimney rock.
The beautiful scenery, open space, amazing rock formations, and solitude created a pensive, meditative setting.
It made me wonder what O’Keeffe thought of her monk-like existence in the high desert of New Mexico.
And even more: did she practice the faith of her childhood among the red rocks, pinón trees, and high desert?
It seems that answers vary.
According to O’Keeffe biographer, Roxanna Robinson, Georgia envisioned God as female (Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life, Harper and Row Publishers: New York, 1989, page 23). This comment sounds as though Georgia may have found meaning outside her orthodox upbringing.
Yet other writers point out that Georgia periodically went to services at the Christ in the Desert Monastery (mostly Easter and Christmas), 20 miles northwest of her home at Ghost Ranch.
C.S Merrill, in her memoir, Weekends with O’Keeffe, writes, “At 3:00 am, we will go to Christ in the Desert Monastery for Easter services…” (Page 65). C.S Merrill goes on to write about the memorable service with Georgia, saying that O’Keeffe sat in the service, “With hands folded in her lap.”
It would suffice to say, Georgia had at least a friendly acquaintance with the brothers at Christ in the Desert Monastery.
Others point out that Georgia would attend the church down the dirt road from her house in Abiquiu, named St. Thomas. And, on occasion, attend events at the famous church of Chimayo, located 30 miles southeast from Abiquiu (see Margaret Wood’s, Remembering Miss O’Keeffe, page 35).
I know from personal experience that during a Catholic feast held in Abiquiu the O’Keeffe home opened its doors for a fundraiser to assist St. Thomas Church. I was able to join the tour, thereby supporting St. Thomas.
Even famed Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, paid Georgia a visit at her Ghost Ranch home. After a conversation with Merton, Poet, C.S Merrill notes, “She [Georgia] was impressed with his attitude toward the church” (page 169).
Thomas Merton wrote about his travels to Christ in the Desert Monastery, discussing his time wandering O’Keeffe country in his book, Woods, Shore, Desert.
All this association with Churches may mean little. Georgia may have attended the churches for religious duty only, or maybe curiosity, or may have actually attended to worship. Why not all three?
O’Keeffe didn’t leave a statement of belief. Nor was she, to my knowledge, a member of any particular Church, other than the Episcopal church of her upbringing.
True, she wasn’t pleased with the Presbyterian take-over of Ghost Ranch, but this doesn’t mean she was against evangelical Protestants.
Rather, she seemed to be a free spirit, reveling in the beauty of her surroundings, attending the occasional Church service, and spending the remaining 40 years of her life living a secluded existence.
The closest statement I’ve heard concerning O’Keeffe’s philosophy of life came when I attended a lecture by C.S. Merrill at the Albuquerque Museum of Art.
She told of a time when poet, Allen Ginsberg, paid Georgia a visit. As they sat in the south porch of her Ghost Ranch home, Ginsberg showed her how he meditates in the “Tibetan Buddhist way.” He tried to show her. She didn’t follow his lead. He asked, “What is it you believe?”
As Merrill described it, Georgia “gestured with an open hand up and arm outstretched in a semi-circle, saying, ‘It’s hard to say.’”
“It’s hard to say” may be her motto for her worldview when asked, but her life’s-work, painting, seems to suggest something more: a quest for beauty, meaning, grace, and truth.
According to John Poling in his book, Painting with O’Keeffe, “O’Keeffe, by emphasizing the ‘common things,’ granted status to what most would have considered banal and trite. ‘The common’ was used by her to remind us of what we had become: people so hungry for the extraordinary that we fail to see that we are surrounded by it…”
And when added up, the sum total of these characteristics point to something transcendent and amazing, something where wonder meets the ordinary, where heaven greets the earth. Or put another way, where humanity assembles with the divine.
And in Christian vernacular, this is precisely the message of Jesus Christ: the union of humanity with the divine. Known as perichoresis, this union is the mutual exchange of love among three-fold nature of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Maybe, just maybe, Georgia’s art is a signpost for the world, helping us understand the beauty, truth, and goodness of God’s extraordinary love.
Who knows, it may be a signpost worth paying attention to.
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