Why Georgia O’Keeffe Will Never Stop Being Our Muse

“It was nice of Stieglitz to let you go every summer,” an interviewer commented of Georgia O’Keeffe’s husband regarding her visits to New Mexico.

“Well, listen. He didn’t let me go. I just went…” O’Keeffe chuckled. “I had to go.”

As a previous art student, I’m forever curious of the artist’s journey. A child of an architect and an interior designer, from a young age I learned that houses are a manifestation of one’s own internal cosmos – and I fell prey to the obsession of artists and their homes.

Today, as the co-owner of SOLARE – a retail concept focused on self-care – I’ve always considered 19th century artist Georgia O’Keeffe as our shop’s muse. Her pared-down, self-made desert life is a beacon for functionality, essentialism, and strength in everything from our products to the shop’s desert-dusted décor.

Beneath the exquisite interiors of her New Mexico homes at Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu, there lies an array of reasons why in 2019 we are so stirred by a woman born over 140 years ago. Beyond her sepia-toned face and adobe houses – a familiar sight on social media – why does she still speak to us collectively at this transformational point in history? 

Ghost Ranch sits on a land where she felt most herself – a reminder of the wide-open landscapes of the Wisconsin dairy farm she was born onto. She described the New Mexican wastelands as incredibly beautiful, splattered with color amongst its rocks. Her NYC work was often dark, architectural, and constrained, while her New Mexico paintings revealed a new expansiveness. By moving to New Mexico, O’Keeffe quite literally stepped into her expansive painted landscapes as much as she stepped into her fully embodied self. Her willingness to set-off completely on her own and to leave behind a successful path (and partner) in search of a quiet, solitary approach to better serve her life’s purpose was intention and feminine self-empowerment at its finest.

With new media attention during the rise of the women’s movement in the 60s and 70s, her fame grew. But O’Keeffe rejected this new association. 

She wanted simply to be known as an artist, not a “woman artist” — a label she had fiercely fought during her early days in NY.

She was unwelcoming of the concept of sisterhood, as well as those who would show up on her doorstep, including Gloria Steinem, who arrived with flowers and was turned away. She was a no-show at multiple White House ceremonies honoring her as an important American Woman Artist. While she never abandoned the feminine aspects in her work, she often did in her public persona – a conscious decision she likely made to assume parity with her male counterparts of the day. Equality came at the expense of the whole “woman” bit. 

She used her uniform of black dresses and hair pinned back to cope with the attention, however at home she would drift around the house in see-through negligees with her locks flowing. Her flower paintings were often seen as erotic, her landscapes as stand-ins for the female body, her sexuality often questioned – none of which was exactly wrong but certainly not the whole picture. It was an oversimplification of her work, reduction of her complexity, and trivialization of her intellect and sensibility. 

Independence and grit ran alongside paintings infused with emotionality. This complexity in a public woman was unheard of in a time when women didn’t have autonomy or the right to vote.

The continued relevance of Georgia O’Keeffe’s journey drives home the point that we — still — have so much work left to do. No matter how many multi-hyphenated, complicated, successful women there are, we still deeply grapple with the often internal issues of women being seen (and seeing themselves) as more than mere casts from the molds of the men in our lives. 

Perhaps this is why we are still so enamored by a woman who lived decades before us. Beyond her constantly reposted home interiors, beyond her rightful inclusion in the pantheon of Great American Artists, Georgia O’Keeffe continues to stand out as a deeply emblematic symbol of female empowerment and complexity, and though she might very possibly reject it if she could, she continues to be a matron saint to a movement.

Angela Hodgkinson is a writer, designer, mother, and co-owner of SOLARE, an earth and body-friendly brand focused on self-care. Her interests lie at the intersection of motherhood, self-understanding, the artist’s process, and the human journey. You can find her on Instagram at @aaahhh.writes, @solare_shop, or at solare-shop.com.

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