RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Art blossoms with self-will, but sometimes the price is steep

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

SANTA FE, New Mexico – An admission: I’m lukewarm about Georgia O’Keeffe’s art. I like erotic flowers and horse skulls as well as the next person, but in paintings I prefer to see the French countryside, or the churning sea.
I’ve always admired the woman, Georgia O’Keeffe, however, more than her art. The fact that she hied late in life to the New Mexico desert to live alone and paint from nature impresses me far more than the work itself. For me, the desert is the definition of loneliness. She conquered it.
I’m the same way about the writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. I’m a tad ambivalent about her words – all that dialect is off-putting – but I find her tough life in the marshes at Florida’s Cross Creek fascinating. She once hiked with a backpack holding snakes to try and overcome her fear of the reptiles. It didn’t work. She added an indoor toilet with her first royalty check. She was one gutsy woman.
Both O’Keeffe and Rawlings were ahead of their times and crafts, successfully negotiating male-dominated realms of art and literature. They thumbed noses at convention and dove into deep waters. You can look at their respective faces and see strength. Like Sinatra once warbled, they did it their way, or ways.
I knew precious little about O’Keeffe until visiting the museum named for her here. I had no idea she was a Wisconsin native, for instance. Looking at the iconic photographs, you half forget she wasn’t a Native American from New Mexico; by the end of her life she could have passed.
O’Keeffe lived with, and then married, the New York photograph Alfred Stieglitz, who did more to promote his wife than any rich patron. He shot more than 300 portraits of his younger bride, and their sensuality caused a stir, which, in turn, was good for business – his and hers.
In search of new things to paint, O’Keeffe traveled to New Mexico with a friend, and there she found her muse. Love at first sight. She’d spend summers there painting until Stieglitz died, and then she moved to New Mexico for good.
Rawlings, working in Rochester, N.Y., as a newspaper columnist, abruptly moved herself to a rural Florida orange grove that she bought through the classifieds. The first moment she saw the place, she knew she was home. Through her novels and nonfiction, Marjorie Rawlings made the hamlet of Cross Creek famous.
There’s that old adage to “Bloom where you’re planted.” I guess that’s sound advice if you haven’t the resources to leave – or legs on which to walk away.
These women put themselves into settings that inspired and nurtured their talents. They did the choosing, perhaps more instinctively than calculatingly. The point: They took control.
O’Keeffe already was a rich artist when she made her move. Rawlings inherited money from her mother that she used to buy the grove. Money always helps in these artistic leaps.
But, still, in both cases, there was a will to plant themselves where they might bloom. And there were sacrifices.
They both were married to men who preferred more cosmopolitan existences. Rawlings got a divorce. O’Keeffe traveled to New Mexico alone each year. Neither relinquished a dream.
There is a price for artistic and personal independence. Both paid.

Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.

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