Why O’Keeffe Thought Happiness Was for the Birds and What She Focused on Instead
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, Ph.D.
Ever see those WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bumper stickers?
On bad days I ask myself WWGD?
What would Georgia do?
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 – 1986) is by no means divine, but she is a big hero of mine.
Her salty-sea-dog wisdom lives on in her letters and paintings for all of us.
Let me tell you a little story to explain the whole WWGD thing a bit better.
A few years ago I was having a tough day during the holidays and asked myself what I could do at that moment to be happier.
I wondered, what would Georgia do in my specific situation?
Then I laughed.
Because, the thing is if O’Keeffe were in the room, her answer to me may have come in the form of a slap upside my head.
O’Keeffe thought pursuing happiness was absurd.
“I think it’s so foolish for people to want to be happy. Happy is so momentary–you’re happy for an instant and then you start thinking again.” — Georgia O’Keeffe
What O’Keeffe Pursued Instead Of Happiness
If happiness wasn’t the most important thing in life for O’Keeffe, what did she pursue instead?
What was the secret sauce that fueled one of the greatest and most prolific artists of the 20th century?
“Interest is the most important thing in life:” said, O’Keeffe. “Happiness is temporary, but interest is continuous.”
By interest, I believe O’Keeffe was referring to the passionate curiosity a certain subject ignites in you personally.
After years of research on O’Keeffe for my dissertation, I have come to believe romantic relationships and the pursuit of more money were not what made her throw back her sheets every morning as dawn spilled out over Ghost Ranch.
Here are four things I believe O’Keeffe did jump out of bed to investigate and experiment with, throughout her 99 years:
1. Georgia Was Fascinated With Form
Form, especially certain ovoid forms enthralled O’Keeffe. Like the form smooth, round, black river rocks can take. She collected many.
Click on the link here to discover a great photo of O’Keeffe with her favorite stone.
She went wild for the oval-shaped holes in the bleached pelvic bones of cattle she found on her long desert walks.
O’Keeffe held them up to view the blue sky through. My favorite is this lush bone hole painting of O’Keeffe’s.
2. Georgia Was Excited by Japanese Minimalism
Many scholars say O’Keeffe’s favorite book was Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea.
She often chose simple, black and white Kimono-like robes for photoshoots.
O’Keeffe was interested in Ma (the Japanese philosophy and study of the negative space between objects.)
Check out Georgia’s home museum to eyeball her wonder-inducing minimalist adobe in New Mexico.
It’s a celebration of Ma.
3. Music Fascinated Georgia
Like Kandinsky, O’Keeffe saw, felt and painted music (synesthesia).
The private O’Keeffe invited musicians to perform in her home sanctuary.
She would often listen to them with closed eyes.
O’Keeffe’s passionate love of classical music ranged from Beethoven sonatas to Monteverdi madrigals. Good article on O’Keeffe’s favorite music here.
4. But Painting, Excited Georgia Most of All
O’Keeffe expressed the excitement she derived from music, bones, and stones in paint.
When the artist lost much of her central vision to macular degeneration in her eighties, she experimented with video and revisited her earlier passion for sculpting. See a powerful spiral-shaped O’Keeffe sculpture here.
You are Overflowing with Interests and Excitement As Well
As artists and writers, we have the fabulous fortune of having this cranium crammed with the exact kind of interest O’Keeffe spoke of.
As creatives, we all possess brains brimming with images and ideas that can soulfully steer us through our entire lives.
And as artists, (unlike many poor normal people), we are crazy and brave enough to follow our soul’s whispered voice.
Honor Your Own Brainstorms
Want to keep evolving creatively? Honor your own brainstorms.
We need to believe that the wild things that wake us up at 3 A.M. in excitement, are important ideas, worthy of following through on– regardless if anyone applauds them or not.
Around 1914 O’Keeffe threw off the restrictions of the conservative teachers of her past and wrote:
“I decided to start anew – to strip away what I had been taught – to accept as true my own thinking…. I was alone and singularly free, working into my own unknown – no one to satisfy but myself…” — Georgia O’Keeffe
Whether we sink or soar as creatives depends on our willingness to “accept as true our own thinking” and tenaciously pursue our “own unknown.”
These are two things I am still working hard on myself.
How about you?
Focus on Your Fascinations
Next time you feel behind the eight ball write down your own current top three interests or fascinations.
Look at that page you just wrote on as if you are seeing it for the first time.
Believe in the weird, glorious ideas and images bubbling up.
Keep talking to yourself, or O’Keeffe, or whoever your creative heroes are.
Ask yourself What Would Georgia Do?
Keep listening to yourself on the canvas, on the page, with your camera or on stage.
You’re not crazy.
In that one of a kind mental engine of yours, lies acres of passion, peace and great art.
For more O’Keeffe inspiration check out my post: Six Business Tips For Artists From Georgia O’Keeffe.
Or you might like O’Keeffe and the Art of Saying No on the Skinny Artist blog.
You also might relate to my post on the life of another firebrand: Rachel Carson: A Fairy Godmother For Artists & Writers During Tough Times.
This post is dedicated to Stephanie Quinn Westphal; an inspired and inspiring, scholarly copy editor, writer and teacher who helped me finish my dissertation on O’Keeffe, Kahlo, and Freud.