I’m standing in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, NM, staring at an index card in startled delight. It holds O’Keeffe’s notes for a large painting she made in 1963, and it hangs beside that painting, nicely framed. A famous index card.
I glance around at the other folks in the gallery, looking for some shared excitement. People circle, pressing earbuds into their heads so that the audio tour they downloaded to their smart phones can inform them about the stuff on the walls. They don’t seem impressed by the index card. I can’t stop staring at it.
“Look!” I want to say, “It’s a panel! From a comic! Look everyone!”
I was drawn to Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of flowers and desert landscapes as a kid. Her love for New Mexico resonated with my own longing for that land, so when I traveled through Santa Fe in 2006, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum was at the top of my list of stops. I liked the flowers and the landscapes and the bleached white bones back then.
Ten years later I am in this museum again, and now it is O’Keeffe’s tiny pencil drawings that pull me in. The sketches that prefaced paintings. First-take watercolor nudes that are mostly splashes of color. Small paintings that seem to be missing their black lines. That index card.
Most of what I’m drawn to is work O’Keeffe did when she lived in Canyon, Texas, between 1916-1918. This period is considered the prelude to her career, the formative years when she really began to develop her abstractions. She was not quite 30.
A little series she did of Palo Duro Canyon almost makes me cry. The simple, quick strokes seem similar to drawings I have made of the New Mexican landscapes around Santa Fe. I’m the same age that O’Keeffe was when she made them, and – this is “The Land of Enchantment” after all – I suddenly feel strongly connected to her spirit. I whip some index cards out of my bag and copy the series. For a minute, it’s like I’m there on the edge of the canyon with her, drawing in the sunshine…
And I’m looking at her stuff and seeing comics, yes. That’s where my brain lives constantly, these days. The index card is a panel for a comic. The Palo Duro Canyon drawings aren’t a series – they’re a sequence. Her paintings without lines prove how lively comics can look without being pinned down by traditional inks.
Her small “notes” for larger paintings tell me the story I’m truly interested in.
“Colors and shapes make a more definite statement than words,” O’Keeffe wrote in 1976.
Especially when they take on the shapes and colors of comics. The statement that O’Keeffe’s work is making to me is reflective of what’s in my own head and heart, but that’s the uniquely fluid exchange between a creator and and the person experiencing the creation.
I went to the museum because I’m about to leave New Mexico and it seemed necessary to “check in with Georgia”. I expected to see her flowers and cattle skulls and cottonwood trees in front of blue mesas, and feel somewhat wistful about the land I’m leaving behind.
Instead I discovered the comics in her work, and made the peculiar realization that my move back to the East Coast right now puts me on a similar path to the one O’Keeffe took when she left Canyon, TX, to move to New York City. The world recognized her as an artist to be reckon with there. Who knows what will happen to me?
I left the museum feeling the opposite of wistful. After all, I had spent the afternoon drawing comics with O’Keeffe – just two gals, jotting down the world in quick, sure strokes, on simple – yet powerful – index cards. I’ll never leave home without them!
(Palo Duro Canyon, TX, a few days later, standing in roughly the same spot that Georgia O’Keeffe stood to make her pencil drawings 100 years ago, perhaps to the day. Funny ol’world.)
Art Trip is a series that features reflections on art and comics, and the adventures that transform those who seek it out. Experience more on Comics Workbook soon.