Proverbs about first impressions rarely account for the weight of the reputations which may precede them. In the case of famed modern artist Georgia O’Keeffe, that reputation was “she can be difficult.”
In the milieu of affluent, polite plantation society in early 20th century Hawaii, the words “she can be difficult” take on nervous weight–particularly when they preface the charge of hosting a highly regarded artist during her historic time spent on Maui in 1939. And so these words head the first section of Patricia Jennings’ remembrances of O’Keeffe, in the new book Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawai’i; published by Kihei’s own Koa Books (the only publishing house on the isle) and written by Jennings with Maria Ausherman, with an introduction by Jennifer Saville.
Jennings, the daughter of Willis (and Marie) Jennings, manager of Hana’s Ka’eleku Sugar Plantation, was O’Keeffe’s personal guide through Maui–and at the time had but twelve tender years to her credit.
“The first thing I saw was her dark hair pulled tightly in a bun. Then I noticed her sunken eyes, her long narrow nose, and the deep creases between her eyebrows,” writes Jennings. “Her skin looked nearly brown, and even her blouse and skirt were tan and brown. Her face was expressionless, and she didn’t say a word.”
This stern imagery of O’Keeffe, though obviously not unprecedented and certainly not absolute, stands in stark contrast to her nonpareil work. Her large-format paintings–most famously of magnified flora–are compellingly bright and boldly hyper-feminine, and from the onset were heralded as revolutionary. But in the way that even life-giving light would lack interest without its shadowy compliment (after all, every color we perceive is but every other color we don’t), such honest insight into human disposition is what makes words worth reading. So in this way, among many, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawai’i masterfully contextualizes a mercurial woman whose art changed the world.
Further still, with its focus on O’Keeffe’s time spent specifically on Maui with young Jennings, the book presents unmistakable value to the lexicon of modern Hawaiian history. Jennings, who is now 85, chronicles her time with O’Keeffe with candid eloquence and sharp detail. Anyone who’s had a love-affair with the islands, notwithstanding O’Keeffe, will surely find that its pages melodically strum their heartstrings by painting a picture of a bygone Hawaiian era–unwittingly on the eve of World War II–through a prettily privileged lens unique in all the Earth.
But back to how “she can be difficult.” An opinionated, assertive woman in an American time still unaccustomed to such disposition, O’Keeffe’s confidence was largely rooted in her renown. On a professional level, one crucial thread to this story plays through fascinatingly.
O’Keeffe had traveled from New York to Hawaii at the behest of Dole Pineapple Company, commissioned to paint two commercial artworks.
“By the 1930s, corporate recognition of the selling appeal fine art as a marketing tool led to an unprecedented level of cooperation between artists and advertisers,” writes Saville. “N.W. Ayer & Son [Dole advertising agency], as much as any other ad agency, fostered this strategy, and Charles Coiner, an art director for the company… selected upscale images for educated and sophisticated readers of ‘class’… believing that even if ‘they [were] not already familiar with the artist, [they suspected] they should be.’”
Though “O’Keeffe was no stranger to commercial art,” she “adopted an elitist attitude toward the fine arts.” Saville quotes O’Keeffe as having said (to her sister, in 1924), “A large proportion of the people who think they want to be Artists of one kind or another finally become commercial artists–and the work they send out into the world is a prostitution off some really creative phase of Art.”
But “after some convincing,” O’Keeffe revised her position and accepted Dole’s offer.
The nine weeks she spent in Hawaii resulted in 20 works, first exhibited in New York in 1940, of which the New York World-Telegram said, “Her pictures always brilliant and exciting, admit us to a world that is alien and strange.” Since then, the full collection of O’Keeffe’s Hawaii paintings have only been exhibited once more, 50 years later, Honolulu in 1990 (curated by Saville). Only half of the works are in museums, while the other half are in private collections.
“Although she had been busy painting in Hawai’i,” writes Saville, after a series of difficulties–including an incident with a pineapple that left O’Keeffe “disgusted”–her obligation to present the Dole Company with two canvases remained unfulfilled.” To make matters worse, O’Keeffe became wrought with illness. (But O’Keeffe “expressed her delight with Hawai’i and contradicted the popular belief that her trip catalyzed her infirmity.” Meanwhile her husband, famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz, said “The irony of it all is that everybody feels that her work is better and healthier.” And of the exhibition, he reported, “Many believe it to be a health-giving one to all coming to the place.”
More than six months after her arrival in Hawaii, O’Keeffe “submitted depictions of a papaya tree and the spiky blossom of a lobster’s claw heliconia.” Needless to say, this was not what the Dole Pineapple Company had in mind–especially as their primary competitor was papaya juice. (But with a little clever ad writing–Hospitable Hawaii cannot send you its abundance of flowers or its sunshine. But it it sends you something reminiscent of both–golden fragrant Dole Pineapple Juice”–Heliconia was placed in marketing which ran nationally in pubs like Vogue and the Saturday Evening Post.)
But “[t]actful Art Director Charles Coiner,” as Time Magazine reported in 1940, “spouted to Painter O’Keeffe about the beauty of pineapples in bud, urg[ing] her to give the pineapple a break. He phoned Honolulu, had a budding plant put aboard the Clipper. Thirty-six hours later the plant was delivered to the O’Keeffe studio in Manhattan. ‘It’s beautiful, I never knew that,’ exclaimed Artist O’Keeffe… She promptly painted it, and Dole got a pineapple picture after all.”
Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawai’i is a fine addition to the library of any lover of local lit. It’s available in hardcover ($35) or paperback ($20), and includes reproductions of O’Keeffe’s Hawaii paintings, 50 period photos, her letters from Maui and other correspondence. For more information, visit koabooks.com.