The Women and Gender Studies department of Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, IL sponsors a juried exhibit for professional artists every year. This year the theme of this year's exhibit (October 6-28, 2011) was "Call and Response:from Artemisia to Frida." The entries had to show the influence of a famous woman artist. I thought at first that I would submit a painting influenced by one of the women artists I admire, such as the portraitist, Alice Neel, Paula Rego, whose huge paintings show the dark side of fairy tales, or Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the truly great artists of the Italian Baroque.
Instead, I astonished myself by selecting Georgia O'Keeffe as my influence. Until this year I thought Georgia O’Keeffe has nothing to say to me beyond being proof that it is possible for a woman artist to be as successful and renowned as her male contemporaries. I did appreciate that there are no precedents for the way Ms. O’Keeffe painted flowers, only imitators of her style. But I didn’t do floral paintings- until this year. As a young artist who felt driven to be avant-garde, I dismissed her work as beautiful and non-threatening, the sort thing the ladies who lunch would buy. When I saw her paintings in museums, I would look at them in passing, but not really “see” them-until this year.
This year I saw her work at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. There I studied the texture and the soft blending of her intense, slightly muted colors, which glowed under the track lighting. Her “Jack-in-the-Pulpit Nr.2,” 1930 struck me with its physical presence and sexual power. This painting solved an artistic dilemma I’d had for a long time- how to show the spiritual nature of sexuality. There are many people, including the artist herself, who deny anything sexual in the flower paintings. After standing in the presence of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit Nr. 2 and Nr 6, I respectfully and resolutely disagree.
This year, when asked to do a floral painting for a group show, the resulting painting, “Georgia on My Mind Geraniums,” revealed that I had incorporated the lessons of Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting and still made a work that is me. I thank her for showing me that what I thought merely beautiful can also be powerful.