Georgia O’Keeffe Talk led by Martha Severens (recording available until May 30)

Event details

  • Monday | May 16, 2022 to Monday | May 30, 2022
  • All Day
  • Recording available online
  • 864-244-1499

  |  Cost: Free | (Recording available until May 30)

Georgia O’Keeffe: On and Off Canvas, Talk led by Martha Severens


Georgia O’Keeffe was an independent woman who broke the rules and forged her own unique place in the world of arts. Her style is familiar from the bold, miraculous canvases that gave rise to her legend. Her face is familiar for the astonishing Alfred Stieglitz photographs that captured her wisdom and haunting beauty.

Her innovative impressionist images challenged perceptions and constantly evolved. She not only painted the world around her, she created a world where gigantic brilliant flowers and cow skulls; cavernous valleys and haunting skylines; parched deserts and wide skies, and even the artist herself achieve their undisputed domain. Through her vision, they grew large to cover the canvas and expand to become another world.

She not only created art; she created a world.  – – – Perhaps you’d like to you see for yourself:

<strong>GEORGIA O'KEEFFE'S WORLD</strong>

The 2022 Library Talk Series celebrates a 24-year community collaboration between Greenville Chautauqua and the Greenville County Library System co-sponsoring talks about the historical figures that will appear in the June History Comes Alive Festival.

Martha Severens

Ms. Severens is an independent art historian and author who has served as a curator of the Greenville County Museum of Art; the Gibbes Museum of Art; and the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Wells College and a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.

Her published works include:

“More Than a Likeness: The Enduring Art of Mary Whyte” (with Mary Whyte) by Martha R. Severens

“Alice Ravenel Huger Smith: An Artist, a Place and a Time” by Martha R. Severens

“Greenville County Museum of Art: The Southern Collection” by Martha R. Severens

“Helen DuPre Moseley” by Martha R Severens

“Renaissance in Charleston: Art and Life in the Carolina Low Country, 1900-1940” by Harlan Greene, James M. Hutchisson, et al.

“Reynolda: Her Muses, Her Stories by David Park Curry” by Martha R. Severens, et al

“Scenic Impressions: Southern Interpretations from the Johnson Collection by Estill Curtis Pennington” Martha R. Severens, et al.

“Andrew Wyeth: America’s Painter” by Martha R. Severens, Ken Wilber, et al. 

“South Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times, Volume 2” (Southern Women: Their Lives and Times Ser., 6)

“The Miniature Portrait Collection of the South Carolina Art Association” (Distributed for Carolina Art Association) by Martha R. Severens and Charles L. Wyrick

“Martha Severens / Charles Fraser of Charleston Essays on the Man His Art” by Martha Severens and Charles Wyrick Jr.

“Perspectives, Elena Jahn, July 11 – September 15, 1991,” Portland Museum of Art by Curator of Collections Martha Severens and Painter Elena Jahn

“The Albert Otten Collection” by Martha R Severens and Megan Thorn

From: The Post & Courier by Rodney Welch – Oct 7, 2015 Updated May 16, 2019

A hundred years ago, a struggling artist named Georgia O’Keeffe was doing some serious second guessing about the latest stage of her career.

She was 27, had been trained by some of the best art teachers in the country, soaked up everything that was happening in the art world and wanted to be a part of it — and had just been hired as the art teacher at Columbia College, which was a good deal different than it is now.

Back then, it was little more than a glorified finishing school, and pretty far from her expectations.

“It’s going to take such a tremendous effort to keep from stagnating here that I don’t know whether I’m going to be equal to it or not,” she wrote to her friend Anita Pollitzer, “… everything is so mediocre — I don’t dislike it, I don’t like it — it is existing — not living.”

With nowhere else to go, she made the best of it. Perhaps in hopes of motivating herself, she drafted a poem, imagining the world as a “beast with a long fur tail” that was going in the wrong direction. The role of mankind — and presumably herself — was to grab the beast and turn it around.

O’Keeffe wouldn’t stay long, but her six months in Columbia were important. In a career that would span 70 years, it was the place where she kicked open the door to her future.

Works that she either produced here, or which influenced her earliest mature paintings, will be on view at the Columbia Museum of Art starting Friday through Jan. 10 in the exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe: Her Carolina Story. Columbia College is also paying homage to its most famous teacher through February, with talks, documentaries, exhibits and plays. (See sidebar, page 16.)

Taken together, the modest group of sketches and paintings O’Keeffe made in Columbia tell a story of love and ambition, set against a most unlikely backdrop for anyone bent on grabbing the world by the tail.

At the time of O’Keeffe’s arrival, Columbia College was in a serious slump. World War I was going strong, and the bottom had dropped out of the cotton market due to an embargo. Enrollment at the school had plummeted to around 150 students, and half the faculty had been pink-slipped.

Regardless, the college figured it needed an art teacher, and it couldn’t afford to be picky. Luckily, neither could O’Keeffe, who not only didn’t even have a degree, but whose previous teaching experience — at a high school in Amarillo, Texas — had been a disaster. She preferred teaching ideas of composition she had absorbed from the art theories of Arthur Wesley Dow, who always stressed filling the canvas in beautiful way. (She would later study under Dow at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.)

The administration didn’t like it when she refused to use a stodgy old textbook; they also weren’t too crazy about her allowing a student to bring a horse to class as a figure model.

Unlike her best friend Pollitzer, O’Keeffe wasn’t the daughter of a Charleston cotton broker who could afford to live in Manhattan. The daughter of Wisconsin dairy farmers, she was a woman of average means who needed work.

The offer from Columbia College didn’t pay much ($4 a week plus free room and board), but the job came with a relatively light teaching load. It was perfect for a woman with two things on her mind: one, that she badly wanted to be an artist and two, that she was crazy in love.

An art career had been her focus since at least the age of 12.

“I am going to live a different life from the rest of you girls,” she had told her marriage-bound high school classmates. “I am going to give up everything for my art.”

She hadn’t yet reneged on that promise, having already studied at the Art Institute in Chicago, the Art Students League and Columbia University in New York, and her last place of residency, the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Along the way, she had studied under the best, from deep-dyed old guard conservatives like William Merritt Chase to revolutionary theorists like Dow.

Luckily, she was also living in a time when the art world was on fire. It was the dawn of modernism and all the other isms that came with it — Cubism, Dadaism, Futurism, et al — and O’Keeffe had absorbed it all. She attended the world-famous Armory Show of 1913, where Picasso, Duchamp, Rousseau, Matisse and dozens of others literally showed the world things it had never seen.

“She was a very curious, intelligent person,” says Cody Hartley, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “She read everything. She went to lots of art exhibits. She went to lots of museums. She had a real strong visual perception and acuity, so she would have absolutely been aware of what else was being done in Europe and the United States, and thinking about that.”

O’Keeffe and Pollitzer also frequented 291, an art gallery run by Alfred Stieglitz, America’s premiere photographer and leading champion of modern art. He would one day become O’Keeffe’s advocate, lover, and, once he got shed of his wife, husband.

That was all in the future. At this point, her mind was on Arthur Macmahon, a brilliant political science professor she had met at the University of Virginia. He turned her on intellectually; he talked and she listened, but he wasn’t in charge. O’Keeffe, three years older, had initiated the relationship; her only concern seems to have been whether she was being too forward.

She wanted to stay with Macmahon, possibly forever, but she also wanted to get back to New York, where everything was happening. She was fully intent, as well, on becoming an artist in her own right, and needed to get away.

“I think I will go to South Carolina for time to do some things I want to as much as anything,” she wrote to Pollitzer. “It will be nearer freedom to me than New York — you see I have to make a living — I don’t know that I will ever be able to do it just expressing myself as I want to — so it seems to me that the best course is the one that leaves my mind freest …”

She accepted the offer four days before classes were to start, only to discover the place was a mind-numbing provincial bore. Pollitzer told her to buck up: “It won’t hurt you to know tame people for a little while.”

O’Keeffe adjusted. Living in a small room in the Old Main building on the campus, she played her violin in the evenings and got to know her neighbors, professor James Ariail and his family. She and her students took long walks over the afternoon, spent time by the Congaree River, looked at the trees and the foliage. It was inspiring.

She was regularly writing back and forth to both Macmahon and an obsessed would-be suitor from Charlottesville named Marcus Hansen. She would encourage one, string along the other, then pour out her soul constantly in letters to Pollitzer, wondering why she should cast her lot with any man when art was clearly her future.

“Don’t you think we need to conserve our energies,” O’Keeffe wrote, “emotions and feelings for what we are going to make the big things in our life instead of letting so much run away on the little things every day.”

She was suffering from creative anxiety. She wanted the approval of everyone — but also to break free and create something that was uniquely hers.

“It is curious — how one works for flattery,” she wrote Pollitzer. “Rather, it is curious how hard it seems to be for me right now not to cater to someone when I work — rather than just to express myself.”

Arthur, the soulmate who talked so eloquently and made her laugh so easily, was never far from her thoughts, either. When he wrote to ask if he could visit Columbia over Thanksgiving, she was overwhelmed.

“If I told you that I am so glad about something that I’m almost afraid I’m going to die — I wonder if you could imagine how glad I am,” she wrote Pollitzer. “I just can’t imagine anyone being more pleased and still able to live. Arthur is coming down to spend Thanksgiving with me … Anita — even yet — I can scarcely believe it — Do you really suppose it’s true! He even tells me the train he is coming on so it must be.”

The visit would be significant in every possible way. The two spent four days together and, while there’s no way of knowing for sure, critics and biographers agree that O’Keeffe probably did what no unmarried teacher at Columbia College in 1915 was allowed to do.

“O’Keeffe may have had her first sexual experience with Macmahon on his weekend visit to Columbia,” writes Hunter Drohojowska-Philp in her biography Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe. “Whatever the case, she was both joyful and distressed over their holiday interlude, and vacillated between dependence and independence.”

The weekend with Macmahon had a pronounced effect on her painting. As another biographer, Roxana Robinson, puts it, she “began the laborious task of attempting to work purely from her own consciousness, seeking to eliminate everything from her work but herself.”

“That was the big turning point,” says Clemson professor Elisa Kay Sparks, author of the 2001 article “‘It Started Me on My Way’: Georgia O’Keeffe in the Carolinas.”

“She talks about how she had looked at everything she had done and realized that it was all derivative … She threw it all out and started all over again, and she started by doing these big charcoal drawings, many of which she called ‘special,’” Sparks says. “And those drawings are the basis of what we think of as Georgia O’Keeffe. Those are the first things she did … The images and shapes, the forms of those drawings are repeated throughout her entire career.”

Getting it all on paper took a lot out of her.

“Did you ever have something to say and feel as if the whole side of the wall wouldn’t be big enough to say it on and sit down on the floor and try to get it on to a sheet of charcoal paper … ?” she asked Pollitzer in a letter. “And when you had put it down look at it and try to put into words what you have been trying to say with just marks … I wonder if I’m a raving lunatic for trying to make these things.”

She showed one such abstraction to her friend Ariail. He found it as “mad as a March hare.” Columbia Museum of Art curator Will South could see why.

“It still mystifies people,” he says, referencing a newly hung charcoal that shows part of a globular shape with a floating black crescent. “What is this supposed to be? Well, it’s not supposed to be a factual description of anything. Music isn’t; music doesn’t describe a thing, and everyone is okay with that. But when it comes to visual things, they get freaked out.”

O’Keeffe’s work was startling for its time, South says.

“There were just a handful of Americans diving into abstraction at this level, and no one knew she was doing it,” he says. “She was here in Columbia, operating on her own, not in a group of moderns, supporting each other in New York.”

Another work, Blue Line, painted just after O’Keeffe left Columbia but reflective of the work she did in the city, is an abstraction that seems portent with eroticism: two whitish masses are separated by an opening blue streak in the center, which could bring to mind anything from an apple half to female anatomy.

Some of the sketches and paintings in the Columbia Museum of Art exhibit are both literal and surreal: off-beat nature scenes that might well have been drawn from her walks along the Congaree River. There’s also a lot of flame — a fiery calla lily, trees against a bright burning cloud — as well as the face of a reclining woman, and trees that seem to suggest human shapes.

On a biographical level, these collective early works all raise a question: are they all, in some way, about her passion for Arthur Macmahon?

“I think there’s some critical agreement that they are,” Sparks says. “She wrote to Anita about kicking a hole in the wall, because she was so overexcited or overwrought and that kind of thing, so I think that most people think that had something to do with it. There is a kind of sexuality about some of these images.”

Of course, Sparks adds, there’s more than just one way of seeing any work of art, so it may be too narrow of an interpretation to say any single painting is only about sex.

Whatever these collected images mean, they proved the key to O’Keeffe’s career. She mailed them to Pollitzer, who quickly wrote back her response: “They’ve gotten past the personal stage into the big sort of emotions that are common to big people,” she wrote O’Keeffe. “They’ve gotten there as far as I’m concerned … You’ve said something!”

Pollitzer wasn’t the only one who thought so. On Jan. 1, 1916, Pollitzer took the bold move of rolling up O’Keeffe’s work and heading to the 291 gallery to show her friend’s work to Stieglitz. He looked at the charcoals for a long time before famously announcing: “Finally, a woman on paper.”

Pollitzer wrote back his further response: “You say a woman did these — She’s an unusual woman — She’s broad minded. She’s bigger than most women, but she’s got the sensitive emotion — I’d know she was a woman — Look at that line.”

Stieglitz sent word to O’Keeffe that her works were “the purest, finest, sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while.” He even took the liberty, without O’Keeffe’s consent, of putting them on display.

Having Stieglitz on her side was a bright spot. No one in Columbia quite got her charcoal drawings and watercolors, which might have been just as well. She had wearied of the place. She didn’t like the people — “I never was so disgusted with such a lot of people and their ways of doing” — or the rain. She also had a way out; West Texas Normal College offered her a job as head of the art department, so long as she returned to New York and completed a teaching course with Dow.

That was it. In another month, she was gone.

“Leaving Columbia is a very good example of her selfishness,” Sparks says. “She packs her stuff and she leaves … she’s had her artistic breakthrough. So, Columbia served its purpose — she’s out of here.”

Leaving the school in the lurch couldn’t have gone over well with the school, Sparks muses, calling it “pretty irresponsible.”

In a sense, O’Keeffe also took her experience in Columbia with her. Sparks recently saw the watercolors O’Keeffe made in her 90s, when she was slowly going blind from macular degeneration.

“I found it just amazing how many of the images and the forms in these late, late watercolors were almost identical to the early charcoal sketches. It’s very clear that there were certain themes or images that stretched through her whole life and that she constantly was interested in exploring.”

The work in the Columbia exhibit, says Georgia O’Keeffe Museum curator Hartley, marks “the first time that she expresses her own abstract visions for making art, and they become part of the language that she uses throughout the rest of her career.”

1887 – Born on November 15 in Sun Prairie, WI

1918 – Moves to New York; moves in with Alfred Stieglitz

1923 – First major exhibition

1924 – Begins painting oversized flowers. Marries Alfred Stieglitz

1934 – Begins spending half her year in New Mexico

1946 – Exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, its first major show dedicated to a female artist. Stieglitz dies

1949 – Moves permanently to New Mexico

1965 – Begins her largest work, the 8’ X 24’ painting Sky Above Clouds IV

1972 – Creates her last unassisted painting

1986 – Dies in Santa Fe, NM

1997 – The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe opens

“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”

“To create one’s world in any of the arts takes courage.”

“I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.”

“If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for a moment.”

“Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time.”

“Sun-bleached bones were most wonderful against the blue – the blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.”

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.”

Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern, by Wanda M. Corn. 2017. Lavish museum exhibition catalog. Explores O’Keeffe’s modernist style in her art and her lifestyle.

Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp . 2005. Detailed biography by an art journalist, great insights into O’Keeffe’s art.

Georgia O’Keeffe: A Lie, by Roxana Robinson. 1999. Well-researched, very readable biography, the first written with her family’s cooperation.

Georgia O’Keefe, by Georgia O’Keeffe. 1974. Oversized book packed with stunning images of her art. Not a full autobiography, but delightful and insightful commentary.

Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keefe, by Laurie Lisle. 1980. Repr., Washington Square Press: 1997. The first comprehensive biography of her. My favorite O’Keeffe biography.

Through Georgia’s Eye, by Rachel Victoria Rodriguez and Julie Paschkis.. 2006. A short collage-filled picture book for very young readers. Approachable, inspiring.

Georgia O’Keeffe (Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artist) by Mike Venezia. 1993. Fun elementary-aged children’s book. Intersperses images of O’Keeffe’s art with whimsical cartoons and a biography of her life.

Video – Carolina Stories, Georgia O’Keeffe: A Woman on Paper, https://www.scetv.org/stories/2020/georgia-okeeffe-woman-paper. O’Keeffe has distinctly South Carolina roots. In 1915, she accepted a teaching position at Columbia College, Columbia SC. It was here that she created a unique series of charcoal drawings, abstract images in black-and-white that were nothing like she had ever done. She sent them to her friend Anita Pollitzer of Charleston, SC who showed them to Alfred Stieglitz, owner of the premier modern art gallery in New York. Stieglitz exclaimed: “Finally, a woman on paper!”

* Available in Greenville County Library