Monday, March 23, 2009
I called Los Angeles home for about a dozen years, from 1981 to 1993, and lived to tell about it. I experienced earthquakes, floods in the canyon, fast-moving fires from Mother Nature and the kind that come from anger and frustration in neighborhoods filled with the same. I made sandwiches for homeless residents of my alley and ate a sandwich next to Elizabeth Taylor. We were not in an alley. I went to jazz clubs, fitness clubs, country clubs and Sam's Club. Living there was a lesson in extremes and I saw way too much. Too much wealth, too much poverty, too much traffic, and too much plastic surgery on people who had too much time on their hands. But even for all of the insanity of such a place, my world was opened up there in a way I wouldn't trade for anything.
On a Sunday afternoon in 1989 I visited the Los Angeles Museum of Art. They were having a Retrospective of the work of Georgia O'Keeffe. Now the only thing I knew about O'Keeffe at that time was that she was an old lady Charles Kuralt had visited at her home in a desert somewhere and the only thing I knew about art was that I didn't know anything about art. But as I entered the first room filled with the art of this remarkable woman, I had a strange sense of recognition. Something about this work seemed familiar; as if was resonating with a part of me I didn't even know existed. In simpler terms...I dug the heck of it.
I left the museum that day with a biography of O'Keeffe in my hot little hands and couldn't wait to get home to read it. The book was called Portrait of An Artist by Laurie Lisle (available at Amazon), and to this day I will occasionally open it up and if I don't have time to read any of it I will at least take a whiff. It smells different from any other book I've ever read. It smells of freedom, of painting to music, of a tiny studio in New York and an old adobe in New Mexico. It smells of possibilities.
I was blown away by this woman's paring down of life to it's barest essentials in order to find more time for art. "I often wished I lived in a tent, so I could pull back the flaps and let the wind blow everything away." At one point in her life her artist statement for a show read..."My name is Georgia O'Keeffe. I like to live in a room as spare as possible."
The dedication that made her sit on the floor of her boarding house room and draw until her back hurt and her hands ached, sending these same drawings to a friend in New York City, who would take them to the famed gallery owner and photographer, Alfred Stieglitz. "At last...a woman on paper!"
She dressed in all black in order to keep it simple and to save the choosing of colors for the studio and the painting she carried in her head. "It's as if my mind creates shapes that I know nothing about."
She dared to paint abstracts at a time when women didn't even have the right to vote. "Oh I was always afraid. but I never let it stop me. Never."
I love that she lived to be nearly 100 years old and continued to make art into her 90's. She took up pottery well past her 90th birthday and upon looking at a picture of her and her dogs standing on a bluff outside her home at Ghost Ranch..."Oh this picture is a prize. It's me and my dogs looking out to the future." She was 88.
I believe any one who lives their life in the studio or who dreams of living that kind of life, should read about the life of Georgia O'Keeffe. In this complicated day and age, it would be hard to emulate the life she led, but it would be worth trying to capture even a little of her attitude. As for me, I certainly lead a life very different from her...but I carry the knowledge of this artistic spirit with me. I make sure every day that my hands touch something in a creative way.
And I love the words that the late Dan Fogelberg wrote in a song dedicated to the artist and her beloved New Mexico desert called "Bones in the Sky."
"And I sing to your spirit where all my dreams dwell.
The vision. The Freedom. A life lived so well."
What an awesome thing to be able to say at the end of your artistic journey...a life lived so well.
Journey through the desert with Georgia. There's nothing barren about it.