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Georgia O’Keeffe and Faith

by Brian Nixon

O’Keeffe Opening Curtains in her Studio, 1960 by Tony Vaccaro

GHOST RANCH, NEW MEXICO—As they sat in the south porch of her Ghost Ranch home, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg showed famed artist Georgia O’Keeffe how he meditates in the “Tibetan Buddhist way.” Ginsberg tried to get her to follow suit. She didn’t. Ginsberg asked, “What is it you believe?”

O’Keeffe, according to her assistant C.S. Merrill, “gestured with an open hand up and arm outstretched in a semi-circle, saying, ‘It’s hard to say.'”

So goes the misunderstood faith of Georgia O’Keeffe.

According to biographer, Roxanna Robinson, O’Keeffe envisioned God as female.[1] This comment sounds as though O’Keeffe may had a broader understanding of God outside her Episcopalian upbringing.

Christ in the Desert Monastery

Christ in the Desert

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. Christ in the Desert is a Benedictine Monastery.

Concerning attending services at Christ in the Desert, 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.” Merrill notes that O’Keeffe sat in the service, “With hands folded in her lap.”

Days in a Life by C.S Merrill

On another occasion, Georgia told Merrill to have Merrill’s parents-who were visiting the monks at Christ in the Desert, “Say hello to the fathers for her.”

Others point out that Georgia would attend the church down the dirt road from her house in Abiquiú, named St. Thomas. And, on occasion, frequent events at the famous church of Chimayó, located 30 miles southeast from Abiquiú. [2]

I know from personal experience that during a Catholic feast held in Abiquiú the O’Keeffe Foundation opened its doors for a fundraiser to assist St. Thomas Church. I was able to join the tour of O’Keeffe’s home, thereby supporting St. Thomas Church.

And on a recent tour of the O’Keeffe home, the tour guide pointed out the unique relationship O’Keeffe had with the local Catholic church. O’Keeffe supported, at least in principle, the Christian faith.

Thomas Merton

Woods, Shore, Desert by Thomas Merton

Even famed Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, paid O’Keeffe a visit at her home. After a conversation with Merton, C.S. Merrill notes, “She [Georgia] was impressed with his attitude toward the church.” Later,  Merton wrote about his travels to Christ in the Desert Monastery, discussing his time wandering O’Keeffe country in his book, Woods, Shore, Desert.

I was able to ask C.S. Merrill about O’Keeffe’s beliefs during a presentation in Santa Fe.  Merrill stated, “If she ever decided to be a religious girl, she’d choose to be Catholic because she liked the ceremony, the incense, the music, and the windows.”

In short, O’Keeffe loved the beauty of God. This is best best seen in her tongue-and-cheek comment concerning her favorite mesa across the road from her home in Ghost Ranch.  O’Keeffe said, “God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”

Suggests Something More

“It’s hard to say” may be her motto for her worldview when asked by a poet, but her life’s work, painting, seems to suggest something more: a quest for the beauty of God.

Painting With O’Keeffe

According to theology professor, John Poling, who spent a summer with O’Keeffe, the famed artists was interested in common things.  In Poling’s book, Painting with O’Keeffe, he writes, “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.”

If one were to add up the sum total of the various characteristics of O’Keeffe’s life, they infer a quest for transcendence, something where wonder meets the ordinary, where heaven greets the earth. Or put another way, where humanity assembles with the divine.

Heaven and Earth Embrace

And in Christian theology this is precisely the message of Jesus Christ: the union of humanity with the divine.  Maybe, just maybe,O’Keeffe’s art is a signpost, helping people understand this truth in a unique way, where heaven and earth greet and meet in a marvelous embrace.

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[1] Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, Harper and Row Publishers: New York, 1989, page 23

[2] See Margaret Wood’s, Remembering Miss O’Keeffe, page 35.

 

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