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How to see more and care less: The art of Georgia O'Keeffe - Iseult Gillespie


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Feeling disconnected from creating art within classical conventions, artist Georgia O’Keeffe began experimenting with abstract drawings that defied easy classification. Using the shapes and rhythms of nature to capture her internal world, these experiments became the cornerstone of the movement known as American Modernism. Iseult Gillespie explores the works of the elusive painter and sculptor.

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Born in 1887, Georgia O’Keefe grew up on a farm in Wisconsin. For a comprehensive overview of her life and artwork, you can watch this documentary or listen to this podcast. At eighteen, she moved to Chicago to study at the prestigious Art Institute at the age of eighteen. O’Keefe spent her days sketching statues and attending life drawing classes - but would soon become much more experimental.

After moving to New York, O’Keefe resolved to paint the way the world made her feel, her own “way of seeing”, rather than the way it looked to others. She realized, “I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me.” These ides first appeared in abstract charcoal drawings, filled with undulating lines, billowing clouds and enigmatic shadows. These became O’Keefe’s trademarks, and are considered foundational works of American Modernism. This movement broke with European tradition and sought new styles for depicting modern life. For a guide to spotting Modernist art, click here.

O’Keefe often turned her eagle eye to small details, in everything from her love letters and personal style, to the subjects of her art such as the contours of a skeleton. She was particularly praised for her flower paintings, which reveal the inner workings of nature. From poppies drenched in sunset hues to the ghostly shades of calla lilies, O’Keefe found power in objects that were often overlooked. But as this article argues, the associations of O’Keefe’s work with female genitalia are misguided. Instead, she preferred to inspect nature from a perspective no other artist shared. She mused, “if you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for a moment.” Read this article for more on the systemic misinterpretation of her work.

O’Keefe travelled extensively to teach, connect with friends, and gather inspiration – from Hawaii to the Midwest. But out of all her destinations, she was most drawn to New Mexico. Learn more about the spectacular paintings she created in response to the landscape here. You can visit her favorite sites and subjects, and look at many of her paintings, at the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. On one of her early visits, she discovered the Ghost Ranch – an allegedly haunted estate and artist’s retreat out in the desert. You can watch a documentary about her life here, which delves into her connection to New Mexico and comments on her career. Eventually, O’Keefe bought her own home in Abiquiú – an adobe mud-house which appears in later work.
In her seventies, she started a series of dreamy cloudscapes after taking her first trips by airplane. At eight feet tall and twenty four feet wide, the epic Sky Above Clouds IV

was as big as O’Keefe’s garage – and could not even fit through the door of the San Franscisco Museum of Art. When her sight began to fail, O’Keefe continued to innovate. She learnt to work with clay; and kept creating until her death at 98. While the meaning of her paintings is still debated, they give us a window into how she saw and sensed the world. As the artist stated, “I was just trying to say what I wanted to say — and it is so much fun to say what you want to.”

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Iseult Gillespie
  • Director Lisa LaBracio
  • Narrator Christina Greer
  • Animator Lisa LaBracio
  • Music M. Tomihisa
  • Sound Designer M. Tomihisa
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Fact-Checker Alejandra Vasquez

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