Some people have such an innate sense of what they want and who they are. I have never been that kind of person. Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) is my icon, my model for self-certainty. It seems she never wavered from her painting. Her boldness and confidence governed her daily decisions which supported her artistic life. She married a much older man, a man who was also in the arts; a gallery owner, champion of artists, and famous photographer. O'Keeffe seemed to blossom in this partnership, becoming even more strong and assured. She had the confidence to break away not only from her traditional master painters but also from the styles of the male painters of her time. Her painting "Red, White, and Blue" (1931) was a jibe to her contemporaries. In an interview (see the youTube video below), a much older O'Keeffe lit up with orneriness as she described what this painting meant to her. She said that at that time all the artists were discussing the "Great American" this and the "Great American" that but, she laughed, few of these men had been west of the Hudson River. O'Keeffe knew there was more to the American Spirit than New England breeding and Western dime novels. She had lived in rural Texas and New Mexico, truly embracing a holistic vision of America.
I read about Georgia O'Keeffe, study her art, and watch her interviews to see if I can figure out what made her so certain about how she should live her life. Why was she able to focus so clearly on her painting? How did she have the courage to boldly share her vision of the world without heed to the critics? How did she blend so well with married life, using it to reinforce her art rather than minimize it?
I am tempted to believe that some people are just born that way, but isn't that always our default when we don't understand a phenomenon? We pinpoint genetics, fate, or God's will as the reason for a mystifying origin. I can't be satisfied with that and I imagine neither can many of you. If you are like me, longing for a level of mastery, creative expression, and success enjoyed by someone like O'Keeffe then you won’t be satisfied by the standard line "She was born with it" either.
But I am beginning to wonder if the answer lies more in not what a woman did but perhaps what she didn't do. O'Keefe's husband was very famous and successful but O'Keeffe wasn't threatened by this. She didn't make herself smaller, or tuck herself into the shadow of her husband's successful career. In fact, her paintings grew bolder and larger after her marriage. Poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963); however, chose a different response. She was a published, popular poet before she married another successful poet. But it seemed that as her husband became more successful, she became more self-effacing. She developed writers block. She set the priorities of her husband and children before her poetry. She denied her creative expression. Perhaps she thought she was doing the proper thing, setting aside her creative ambition to tend to her daily responsibilities. But her actions weren't selfless. Her need to creatively express herself was so strong, so undeniable that it eventually ate at her from the inside and she chose to kill herself rather than live in her creative vacuum.
I believe that for many of us, men and women alike, we blur ourselves, our dreams, our true nature in shrouds of expected responsibility and excuses of lack of time and energy. We think we are doing the right thing by working at a job that doesn't support our creative needs. We think we are giving our children a perfect childhood when we are available for their every need. Meanwhile our core self, our creative self gets smaller and more obscure. At the same time our bitterness and disappointment grows by leaps and bounds. The truth is, most of us can't create in a protective isolated chamber (unless you are Emily Dickinson). If art reflects life, then it is through life that we create art. And most of our lives are filled with responsibilities, earning a living, caring for loved ones, nurturing our health. Each of our responsibilities requires time and creates distraction. Every interaction has the potential to cause us to doubt ourselves and make ourselves smaller like Plath, or to enrich our perspective and foster creative ways of expression like O'Keeffe.
Some of us store our personalities in boxes and call them dreams. "One day when I retire I’ll do this." Or "if circumstances changed, I would be doing this." The trouble with putting off who we are is that our true self or our "dreams" as we call it keeps gnawing at us. We use this taunting to justify our anger, our fears. We use it to blame the ones we love, saying they prevent us from being who we truly are. But is this true? Are we being honest?
Perhaps the key to changing our dreams into a reality is to change what we do every day. The choices we make on how we spend our time, where we focus our energies, and whether our daily actions are consistent with who we truly want to be. O'Keeffe lived to be a very happy, accomplished 98 year old. Sylvia Plath killed herself at the age of 30. Both were incredible artists, whose work has influenced thousands of women but one seemed happy with her life and we enjoy a larger body of work from the woman who turned her dreams and self into a daily reality.
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Georgia's spirit in her own words:
About the author: Allison Frederick is a writer and online marketing educator for other creative women. http://www.famisswomen.com/ offers free Web 2.0 resources. She is also the author of an upcoming novel, A Portrait of Josephine, an academic-lite thriller. Find out how to receive a free copy of the novel by visiting http://www.portraitofjosephine.com/