What I find interesting about “spending time” with Georgia O’Keefe, by reading her letters or diaries, or by listening to interviews on YouTube, is that her mind and creativity was amazingly diverse. People so often speak of her flower paintings, but these Hawaiian pieces go beyond that, to include the waterfalls of the Iao Valley on Maui, and the lava fields. She was, quite simply, pulled into the natural world, and to the vast landscapes that she was drawn to so often in her lifetime.
With research, I learned that she hated the fact that people only viewed the most famous of her flower paintings as representations of the female genitalia. These interpretations only began after her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, took and exhibited some nude photographs of O’Keefe. Perhaps she didn’t know they would end up being exhibited when he took them, but once there were on the walls of New York art galleries, the work ended up creating a mythology around her own paintings and persona. She was, in so many ways, a very private person who was sexualized by her own husband’s photography exhibition. She never intended her own flower paintings to be analyzed from a Freudian perspective, but she had no say in the matter.
I never knew that until I started reading about her over the last few months. Imagine loving someone so much that you trusted that person to photograph you while naked. (I’m sure that’s common these days, what with the culture of selfies, sexting and such, but Stieglitz’s photographs of O’Keefe are beautiful works of art, and a testament of his love for her.)
Anyway, here is a new poem, created this afternoon on the back porch, until I was driven indoors by a sunshower that threatened my laptop. It’s a draft….work in progress.
Black Lava Bridge, Hana Coast,
No. 1, 1939
(for Georgia O’Keefe)
On the edges of things,
away from the pineapple fields,
she found the ocean, smashing itself
up against the rough skin of lava
that had naturally found its way to the sea.
Far from the Iao Valley,
where ancient chiefs were buried,
their sacred voices now silenced
by the rushing of waterfalls
amidst rainforest green,
this eastern coast of Maui
spoke to her now with new words.
Here, the lava made a crazy coast,
carved out by the gods, painted all black
with bright blue waves that reflected sky.
At Hana, the waves rise up, pounding surf
rising high into the air that hovers,
so that lava poured by Pele is sculpted
into bridges, pathways, gates,
etching out holes where water
sprays, hissing and blowing,
letting the light in with each wave’s retreat.
She climbed all over those rocks,
feeling the push of rough lava
up through the soles of her shoes,
rooting herself just as the ocean
rose up to meet her with saltwater,
ready to paint again.
*The italicized words in this poem are taken from a letter that O’Keefe wrote to her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, on March 15, 1939.