Georgia’s Stolen Stone: A Playful Story of the Serious Value of Shape To Artists
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, Ph.D.
One of my all-time, favorite photos of Georgia O’Keeffe doesn’t include her face; it’s a close-up by John Loengard of Georgia’s long-fingered white palm supporting a smooth, round stone.
But it’s no ordinary stone.
It’s a stone with a story.
Want to hear it?
O’Keeffe Was Crazy for Stones
Like many of us creatives, O’Keeffe was crazy for stones. She called them her “treasures.”
But unlike many of us, O’Keeffe was so crazy for stones, stealing one out of a friend’s house, was not out of the question.
(And we’ll get to that in a minute.)
In fact, stones loomed so large in Georgia’s life it would be fair to say that over half of the millionaire, minimalist’s prized possessions, were stones.
(With a bushel of bones, skulls, shells, and a few nests thrown into the mix.)
But this is the story of Georgia’s favorite stone, her holy of holies.
O’Keeffe’s favorite stone was a river rock, most likely born on the banks of the mighty Colorado.
(Tumbling in the Colorado River for eons probably granted Georgia’s favorite stone its consummate smoothness.)
But let’s get on that river with her now.
The Story of O’Keeffe the Thief and the Black Stone
So in the early 1960s, Georgia’s pal, wildlife photographer Eliot Porter took groups of his friends on guided rafting trips to sketch or photograph the soon-to-be damned Glen Canyon area of the Colorado River.
On one of these trips in 1961, the guest list included the spry 74 years old Georgia and her longtime friend, photographer Todd Webb.
Roxana Robinson tells what happens next in her insanely well-researched biography, Georgia O’Keeffe; A Life:
“On the Colorado River trip, O’Keeffe collected her favorite things: bones and stones.
One night, on his way to the campfire, Eliot Porter picked up a stone. It was the quintessential rock, smooth and flat, black and flawless.
O’Keeffe asked him boldly to give it to her, but Porter, though he was not collecting stones, refused.
Back at home, the Porters hatched a diabolical scheme: they invited O’Keeffe to a dinner party and left the coveted object on the coffee table.
All the family pretended not to watch as Georgia, as expected, tucked it into her own pocket.
“We got it back later,” said Aline Porter, smiling; they were all delighted at Georgia’s presumption.
In the end, they gave it to her, and later she told Life photographer John Loengard it was her favorite rock. (Robinson, 501).”
Moral of the Stone Story for Artists: Less Shame, More Moxie
I smiled when I first read this story.
Why do we smile?
Why don’t we judge Georgia more for pocketing the stone?
Well, I personally give O’Keeffe a “Get Out of Jail Free” card here for two reasons.
Firstly, Georgia’s a hero of mine because she had no shame. She seemed to have replaced the space shame usually takes up in us — with moxie.
Not a bad plan, I say.
Because all things considered, I believe artists (especially women artists) would benefit from dragging around fewer tons of shame.
I also believe we’d benefit from filling in the empty space the departed shame leaves – with brazen daring.
Pocketing the Porter stone was not an “incident” O’Keeffe was mortified by and seeking therapy over (as I would.)
Instead, Georgia O’Keeffe bragged about the stone story to Loengard.
She told it as more of a victory tale, the kind a pirate might tell other pirates about the adventure in which she acquired her greatest treasure.
(To hear another story of another great artist who stole certain things read The Charmed Studio’s Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Laureate: Genies, Junos, Junk Shops, and Genius.)
So what’s the second reason I forgive her?
Ovals and Spirals and Bears, Oh My!
The second reason I excuse O’Keeffe’s behavior is that I have a theory that the “Eliot Porter” stone, matched up perfectly with something within O’Keeffe’s consciousness that I call a soul form.
Let me explain.
I think almost every artist and architect has one or more shapes, structures, or patterns that make us crazy- in a good way.
And we’ve carried the predilection for these specific shapes, structures, or patterns (or as I call them, soul forms) seemingly since birth.
One of O’Keeffe’s soul forms was the oval.
Ovoid shapes made her creative brain hum and sing from early on in her art career (and perhaps even from her childhood).
For example, look closely at O’Keeffe’s “Drawing No. 2. Special,” created when she was just 28.
Notice a smooth black oval, rock-like shape anywhere?
Yup, it’s the focal point.
Georgia went on to investigate ovals as an artist into her nineties via her still lives, abstractions, and late clay sculptures.
You can see O’Keeffe’s oval-philia over here in her stunning painting of the sky and moon viewed through the opening of a pelvic bone, Pelvis IV, 1944.
(I’d love to hear any other examples of ovals in O’Keeffe’s work that you’ve noticed. Pop them in the comments.)
But it didn’t end at ovals for Georgia.
Georgia O’Keeffe and Her Second Muse — the Spiral
Georgia was also entranced by spirals- especially naturally occurring ones like those in nautilus shells like the one she painted here in “Red Hill, White Shell,” in 1938.
Spirals are often circles or ovals with a winding interior pattern, right?
Eyeball this Todd Webb photo of a stunning ode to the spiral large clay sculpture of O’Keeffe’s.
And speaking of the love of the spiral: how many people have a rattlesnake skeleton set into their living room furniture (besides natural history fanatics or maybe…Marilyn Manson)?
O’Keeffe got such a thrill from the coil of a rattlesnake skeleton she bought from a science supply warehouse, that she had a black velvet display case built for it to sit within the banco (clay bench) of her adobe home in Abiquiu.
Go eyeball Georgia’s snake skeleton banco insert in her Abiquiu living room in this photo here.
Lastly, have a peek at the gorgeous spirals O’Keefe depicts in her firey painting of rams horns, Horns and Feather, 1937, or her Goat’s Horn with Red, 1945 here.
What is Your Soul Form?
Let me leave you with a question:
What shape or form is your enchanting muse?
I love the following quote from Alan Bradley’s fabulous Flavia de Luce Mystery Series because it teaches us there are two kinds of inspiration. As Bradley’s character Aunt Felicity explains to the young Flavia during a pep talk to convince her to follow her dreams of becoming a pathologist/chemist/detective:
“Inspiration from outside oneself is like the heat in an oven; it makes passable bath buns. But inspiration from within is like a volcano; it changes the face of the world.”
What form, structure, or pattern inspires you – from within?
What shape do you love to such a degree that if you saw the quintessential example of it, you would daydream about swiping it?
In other words, what’s your soul form?
What wild way would you like to investigate it further in your art?
Do you, too, have little collections of stones or feathers or bones or nests lying about?
Let me know in the comment/discussion section below!
More Charmed Studio Posts to Support Your Journey:
Health and well-being were priorities for O’Keeffe; check out what she did to live to be almost 99 years old here:
O’Keeffe’s Love Affair With Herbs: Recipes and Gardening Tips from the Artist’s Magical Kitchen Garden
O’Keeffe’s 6 Business Tips for Artists
Transcending a Troll: O’Keeffe Shows Us a Way Out
Melissa Zink and Her Magic Suitcase: A Little Story of How Creatives Can Access Their Own Brilliance
Have Your Sketchbook Be Part of History
Transform Your Art Newsletter in 3 Questions
51 Blog Post Topics for Heart-Centered Artists
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This! Delightful. From another artist who brings home bones and stones. xo
Hi Jen, Thanks so much for commenting. 🙂 I was just telling Sylvia about getting the side-eye from some people who visit my house and see the bones and stones lying about. Your blog is amazing!
Denise McCanles says
Not being an artist this was really interesting to me because I didn’t know any of this. But what’s funny about this is after I read this I remembered a story about an artist named Frank Stella. There’s a great show called CBS Sunday morning and they do a lot of stories on artists that are really interesting. He did paintings and sculptures of stars in all different ways. So that was a very obvious example. I loved his art. I always learn something new in your blogs.
OMG Frank Stella is an amazing example of an artist working with a soul form! I included a link to his stars (which is what the name Stella translates too right?) here for any who wants to check out this jaw dropping show you mention Denise. Thanks!! https://thealdrich.org/exhibitions/frank-stellas-stars-a-survey
And here is an audio on Stella’s star shape obsession throughout his artistic career;https://soundcloud.com/user-292598524/frank-stellas-stars-a-survey-front-of-museum
PS as an actress I consider you an artist, and you are a performance artist too wouldn’t you say, or is that not correct? (your thera Trumpy booth as an example).
Denise McCanles says
Yes you are right. A performance artist. Of course I never thought of it that way wise one.
The booth was a healing , humorous form of street theatre for others I think.
Denise McCanles says
And here is a link to the Sunday morning feature.
Watched it, so cool. I love Stella’s quip; “First I was a young artist, then a middle aged artist, then a mature artist, now I’m an ‘is-he-still-alive artist?'”
Denise McCanles says
I know that was so great and so true.
Rob Anglin says
Your O’Keefe essay resonates for me on many levels. My artist wife Carolyn Lord (www.carolynlord.com) brings the spirit of Georgia O’Keefe into my own life, and of course — we both love O’keefe’s work.
Most of my life I have picked-up sticks, stones (no broken bones) feathers, leaves, and most had momentary “careers” in my collection. Years ago, we went painting in Utah (near the Thunderbird Foundation / Maynard Dixon – Milford Zornes property on Highway 89 at Mt. Carmel) and as I painted with massive clouds billowing-up in a deep blue sky, I started picking up lots of different colored rocks. I soon stacked them up and took a bunch of photos as pretend cliffs along arroyos with billowing clouds. Those photos have yet to turn into paintings, yet it was a powerful experience.
As a retired architect, I can report that my mind conceived of building designs (often in dreams) as 3-D rectangular forms, and often had very-angular aspects, too. The 45-degree angle is particularly beguiling for me. Nonetheless, I also love organic forms of trees, rivers and hills. A smooth flat stone such as Georgia’s favorite would have been a tempting object for me to skip across a river. The Fibonacci ratios and resulting spirals are manifest in the curve of our fingers, the cavities of our ears and all the way out to the spiral nebulae, and even expressed in our economic cycles as society have relationships to these ratios and spirals.
I will have to think a bit about what my spirit/soul-form is, since I love so many forms.
Wow, Rob what a great comment! I was thrilled to read of all the forms and notions the idea of soul forms brought up within you. The 45-degree angle sounds enchanting. Like you, Salvador Dalí was fascinated by the whole Fibonacci dance of life. You can read my post on him and his love of “the beguiling cabbage” here.https://thecharmedstudio.com/6-ways-salvador-dali-can-help-you-sell-more-art/
Thanks for commenting, I really appreciate when people leave comments.
Barbara Klar says
I loved this newsletter, Thea. That Georgia O’Keefe, what a pistol! She had moxie! I find myself creating metal shield shapes over and over. The shape makes me feel strong because I think of jewelry as armor for the world. Very thought-provoking and funny with her friends tempting her to steal the stone!
Thanks, Barbara, shield shapes, for protection eh? That is so cool. Because it brings in the idea of not only what shape do we gravitate towards, but why? Right?
Karen Morningstar says
I have always loved spirals, rounded shapes, no sharp points or corners please. I have always collected pebbles and rocks, dead bees. I love going to the ocean and collecting shells. I brought home a starfish once that made quite a strong sea smell in my bedroom. I found a dead bird once that I wanted to study and draw, but was voted down by the household. Feathers, or any natural found object will do nicely. It seems to be a trait of artists to want to find and collect treasures for their own pleasure and for using in their artwork.
OOOOH dead bees, cool Karen. I laughed out loud that the dead bird got a thumbs down household vote. I have been there. Yes, I really am seeing from the email responses and comments here that we artists do indeed love to gather natural objects. I dragged a big squirrel nest made from dead long pine boughs, home that had dropped to the ground , one Christmas day on a walk in California, beautiful. Thanks so much for your answer. I appreciate every comment.
Elise Nicely says
One of my soul forms is paisley. I love it! And yet , I have never painted that shape knowingly in any painting. I also like circles and spirals. I too, have a collection of stones and seashells! I have several “holy rocks”. I take one with me to the dentist, it is my work rock. I rub it between my fingers to keep the discomfort of a dental visit at bay. However, my dentist is so painless that I stopped taking it with me after awhile. I no longer had any anxiety about my visits.
Paisley, Elise, I love it! Never heard that from an artist yet. Exciting. It has Persian origins? Can’t recall, I saw a lovely albeit tiny textile show at LACMA on the history of Paisley once. Will have to look it up. I wonder if you will incorporate Paisley into future works? And thanks for telling us about your Holy Dental Rocks, what a great idea. Like you, I have finally found a wondrous, kind dentist. Such a blessing right?
Julie Miles says
I love this post. As a young child my curated white washed shelving hutch was home to bowls filled with found rocks covered in water to amplify the view. Now in my mid 50’s I still get the occasional side eye from my 20 year old daughter over my bone, egg, nest, arrowhead and stone collection. and these items continue to bring me joy and wonderment, stories told, stories fabricated.
Thank you Thea!
Julie, you made me laugh out loud with “the side eye”! I get a lot of those side eyes from classy folks who have visited my house and looked in horror at the bleached cow bones I have on the dining room table (among hole-filled rocks, crow feathers, abandoned hummingbird nests and sand dollars etc.)
Sylvia Larkin says
Thea, when I saw your email from the Charmed Studio in my inbox this morning, I knew I was in for a treat! I went back into the kitchen and fixed myself a huge cup of Dalgona, loaded with whip cream and chocolate sirup (all lowcarb of course) and sat back with my legs up. You come up with the most amazing stories! Stones! I have been collecting them since my teens (along with bird nests and skeletons). Our garden is filled with them. My favorite is a large oval one gifted to me by my then 7 year old grandson. A classmate of his gave it to him and he thought of me. Our young grandchildren are also fascinated with stones and must have O’Keefe’s obsession.. Every time they visit they inspect all the beautiful stones surrounding a buddha statue and fill their pockets with little stones. I totally get Georgia stealing a stone. I have done it myself (not from people but from a park) It spoke to me and it had to live with me. Love, love your excursion into our “soulform”. My soulform is creating shrines that tell stories. Thea, with your blog you wove a mysterious story about O’Keefe, with amazing photos, it was then I realized that all along it was about us and our soul forms.Thank you for sharing your amazing gift with us!
Sylvia, you are a writer’s dream reader, thanks for your kind words. I love that kids somewhere on earth still take the time to marvel at the shape of stones and love them enough to pocket them. You are the ultimate grandma, more generous of heart than me. On certain days, I might get possessive about the stones in my garden, lol, and not let the little angels fly away with them. Send me a photo sometime of the stones in your garden. I would love to see them.
My soul form is rectangular or square boxes, that’s why I love to see and make miniature dioramas. One wild way I want to investigate it further is making a whole bunk of tiny matchbox shrines which fit together to make a big piece of wall art. 🙂 How about you?