Local Arts

How Georgia O’Keeffe’s time in Columbia influenced her artistic style

Georgia O'Keeffe, taken in 1963 by famed photographer Todd Webb.
Georgia O'Keeffe, taken in 1963 by famed photographer Todd Webb. Courtesy of Columbia College

Last year, Georgia O’Keeffe’s iconic 1932 flower painting, “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1” sold for $44.4 million at a Sotheby’s auction, a new record for any female artist.

With its clean lines and elegant simplicity, “Jimson Weed” exemplifies the style that made O’Keeffe one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century.

One hundred years ago, before that fame, O’Keeffe arrived in Columbia to take a job as an art instructor at Columbia College.

She was 27, single and unknown to the art world.

It was in Columbia where O’Keeffe developed new ideas and experimented with her artwork. That time is being celebrated in several special events that start this month.

“Columbia was a place where she could focus on her art,” said Tracy Bender, executive director of marketing and communications at Columbia College. “She had a light teaching schedule and had time and freedom to explore things artistically that she hadn’t before.”

O’Keeffe took long walks in the woods beyond campus, sometimes with students and other times on her own.

“She was a tremendous nature buff,” Columbia Museum of Art curator Will South said. “She went for walks all the time. Hikes down to the Congaree (River). Looking at the sky – she loved cloud gazing. Picking flowers and marveling at these things.”

Back in her studio, O’Keeffe began a series of abstract, nature-inspired pieces. The black and white drawings were filled with bold, sweeping lines that suggested growth and movement in harmonious shapes.

“Rather than drawing nature, she drew the feeling of nature,” South said. “The drawings wind up having this simple, symbolic feel.”

It was a style that was completely different from what other artists were doing in early 1900s, where the dominant emphasis was on realism. O’Keeffe herself had won a contest in art school for a realistic still-life painting. These charcoal flourishes and undefined forms were a stark departure.

It was O’Keeffe coming into her own. But she didn’t know it yet.

The young artist wasn’t sure her drawings were any good. She mailed the collection to a friend for feedback, who showed them to Alfred Stieglitz, a famous New York photographer and gallery owner. The two later married.

One look at O’Keeffe’s drawings and he exclaimed, “At last, a woman on paper!”

What followed was a stint teaching in Texas, then a solo show at Stieglitz’s gallery in New York, the large-scale oil paintings, national recognition and even a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford.

But Columbia is where her career truly began, South said.

Exhibits, events planned in Columbia

To celebrate the centennial of Georgia O’Keeffe’s tenure in the Palmetto State, several special events are in the works.

Columbia College will offer “Ideas of My Own,” which includes four exhibitions at the school’s Goodall Gallery, gallery talks, lectures, special academic courses, guest panels and a student ambassador program.

The first exhibit opens Aug. 14 with an O’Keeffe-inspired art installation by Judy Hubbard.

The Columbia Museum of Art will have an exhibition of 14 works titled “Georgia O’Keeffe: Her Carolina Story,” from Oct. 9-Jan. 10. The exhibit brings together a selection of O’Keeffe’s early drawings and paintings.

“The name Georgia O’Keeffe conjures images of outsized flowers and skulls floating in the high desert air,” the Columbia Museum of Art’s South said. “Few folks think of abstract, black and white charcoal drawings. But it was abstract drawing of the kind no one had yet seen in 1915 that started O’Keeffe on her way to becoming the artist we know her to be.”

An exhibition focusing on O’Keeffe’s early works has never been done before, according to a news release. Several works are on loan from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., where O’Keeffe spent many years living and working until her death in 1986 at age 98.

Later in life, O’Keeffe reflected on her artistic breakthrough in Columbia.

“I realized that I had things in my head not like what I had been taught – not like what I had seen – shapes and ideas so familiar to me that it hadn’t occurred to me to put them down,” O’Keeffe said. “I decided to stop painting, to put away everything I had done, and to start to say the things that were my own.”

Schedule of events

Celebrating Georgia O’Keeffe’s time in Columbia

Aug. 14-Sep. 27: “Envisioning O’Keeffe”

Columbia artist Judy Hubbard will have a Georgia O’Keeffe-inspired installation at Columbia College’s Goodall Gallery. Hubbard will give a gallery talk at 12:30 p.m. Sept. 10.

Oct. 1: “A Woman On Paper”

A documentary about O’Keeffe airs on SC ETV (time to be announced). A free screening will take place at Columbia College’s Cottingham Theater at 2 p.m. Oct. 11.

Oct. 9-Dec 27: “Sanctuary and Spirit: Images of O’Keeffe”

A photography exhibition featuring black and white images of O’Keeffe taken by her photographer friend Todd Webb.

Oct. 9-Jan 10: “Georgia O’Keeffe: Her Carolina Story”

An exhibition of 14 works by O’Keeffe at the Columbia Museum of Art.

Nov. 15: “Georgia O’Keeffe”

A screening of the documentary, “Georgia O’Keeffe,” at 2 p.m. at Columbia College’s Cottingham Theater, followed by a talk with director Perry Miller Adato.

For a full schedule of events, visit www.ideasofmyown.com.