EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s post marks a full year and the last installment of Jess’s lovely and thoughtful Swatch of the Month column, and it might be my favorite one! It’s been a true pleasure, Jess, thank you for going above and beyond. And if anyone missed any of it, you can read through all twelve of them right here.
BY JESS SCHREIBSTEIN | Last January, my partner and I went to New Mexico for my 30th birthday, and I haven’t really been able to shake the place from my mind. Even in the dead of winter, the landscape feels alive and endlessly inspiring. Rust red rock erodes and splatters the sides of the freeway like paint, and bleached ivory and camel-colored cliffs look outright sculptural against the expansive sky and low-lying rabbitbrush, cholla and piñon. At higher altitudes, like in Santa Fe, you’ll wake up to a dusting of white snow over everything that’s usually gone by lunchtime. It’s easy to see why New Mexico, and Santa Fe in particular, has attracted tradesmen, artists, medicine people and even nuclear physicists for generations. There’s a magnetic, intoxicating quality to it.
Of its many famous inhabitants, Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the most well-known. While her husband, the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, preferred the energy of New York City, O’Keeffe preferred quiet and isolation for her painting. She first traveled to Santa Fe in 1917, when she was a relative unknown, and instantly fell in love. She later wrote, “From then on, I was always trying to get back there… and in 1929 I finally made it.”
Before we went on our trip, I picked up a copy of Laurie Lisle’s biography of Georgia, Portrait of an Artist, and continued to read it during the trip and after we’d returned home. The descriptions of Georgia’s attitude and approach to making a life – her painting rituals, design sensibility, mode of dress – were equally reflective of place and her own persona, both modern and of its time and completely her own.
Georgia and Stieglitz met in New York where he ran his famous modern New York gallery, 291, which introduced American viewers to artists like Matisse, Rodin, Cézanne and Picasso. He was married and more than twenty years her senior, but they instantly fell in love. In 1918, Georgia accepted Stieglitz’s offer to move from Texas (where she was living and teaching at the time) to New York, where he would financially support her so she could paint. He displayed her early charcoal drawings and, later, her now-infamous flower paintings on the walls of 291, and her career took off. By the end of the 1920s, she was the most successful and highly paid woman artist in America.
In 1924, Stieglitz divorced his wife and he and Georgia married. Their marriage was intimate and passionate, but also a constant struggle through Stieglitz’s repeated infidelities and Georgia’s vying for professional and personal independence. Lisle writes:
“When some people resented her special position as Stieglitz’s paramour, she found it necessary to remind them that he had given her two shows before ‘he knew me personally,’ as she put it. After their marriage, when people addressed her as ‘Mrs. Stieglitz,’ she briskly corrected them with, ‘I am Georgia O’Keeffe.’ ‘I’ve had a hard time hanging on to my name, but I hang on to it with my teeth,’ she explained. ‘I like getting what I’ve got on my own.’ Once when an interviewer referred to Georgia as his ‘wife,’ Stieglitz objected on her behalf. ‘Don’t call her my ‘wife.’ There was a Mrs. Stieglitz I was married to for twenty-four years,’ he said. ‘From the beginning she just felt she was Georgia O’Keeffe, and I agreed with her. She’s a person in her own right.’”
While Georgia was deliberate about her appearance and persona throughout her life, and Stieglitz largely supported her, he was also responsible for perpetuating an overtly feminine and sensual interpretation of her work. Stieglitz took hundreds of photographs of Georgia in their early years together, many in the nude, which created a public sensation and defined her as a sexual being. He also encouraged the interpretation of her flower paintings as female genitalia, although Georgia flatly denied this. She wanted to be respected as a serious artist, not a serious “woman” artist. She rejected modern feminism, wanting to be compared to men’s work without her identity diminishing how others saw her.
In 1929, after Georgia had been hospitalized for exhaustion and depression, she traveled to Taos, New Mexico, with a friend for several months where her spirit and work were reignited. She bought a Ford Model A and learned to drive, and enjoyed exploring the landscape and collecting bones, rocks and other found objects for her paintings. In 1933, she was hospitalized again for a nervous breakdown, and returned to New Mexico in 1934, when she visited Ghost Ranch for the first time. For the next twenty years, she traveled every year between New York and New Mexico, leaving behind Stieglitz in New York. In the 1940s, she bought Ghost Ranch and later a crumbling hacienda in Abiquiu, which she restored as a home and studio for herself. After Stieglitz died in 1946, she spent the last thirty years of her life there. Her homes are beautifully captured in the book pictured here, Georgia O’Keeffe and Her Houses.
Growing up, Georgia always stood out for her unusual but self-assured attitude and wardrobe. While other girls wore ruffles and floral print dresses, Georgia dressed in all-black, preferring tailored, structured garments. According to Lisle, Georgia’s former classmate Christine McRae wrote many years later:
“The most unusual thing about her was the absolute plainness of her attire. She wore a tan coat suit, short, severe, and loose, into this room filled with girls with small waists and tight-fitting dresses bedecked in ruffles and bows. Pompadours and ribbons vied with each other in size and elaborateness, but Georgia’s hair was drawn smoothly back from her broad, prominent forehead, and she had no bow on her head at all, only one at the bottom of her pigtail to keep it from unplaiting. Nearly every girl in the study hall planned just how she was going to dress Georgia up, but her plans came to naught, for this strongminded girl knew what suited her and would not be changed though she approved of other girls dressing in frills and furbelows.”
Her style didn’t change much as she grew older. Georgia wore predominantly androgynous, at times monkish, attire. She was a master seamstress and sewed and altered many of her own clothes, preferring natural fibers like silk, cotton and wool and keeping some of her dresses for as long as sixty years. And although she’s known for her vividly colored paintings, she was highly sensitive to color and insisted on everything else being minimalist in color and detail, choosing to work in empty white rooms and to dress in black and white almost exclusively. She once said, “Nothing is less real than realism ― details are confusing. […] It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get the real meaning of things.” At another time, when she was asked by a reporter, “Don’t you like color?,” she responded, “Color does something to me,” and tried to explain why she needed to paint in a colorless room. “I like an empty wall because I can imagine what I like on it.”
Now, thirty years after her death, Georgia’s work and personal style have seemed to erupt across our public imagination. I see portraits of Georgia – mainly the ones by Stieglitz – across social media regularly, and her design sensibility seems to be fresh and on trend. Even Solange paid homage to her in her music videos for her album “Seat at the Table,” saying, “I shot a lot of my [music] videos in New Mexico, just that entire Georgia O’Keeffe vibe — I’m dying to see her exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.”
Speaking of that exhibit, Georgia’s wardrobe and work are now on display, side by side, in Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit, Living Modern. The reviews from The New Yorker (previously linked out by Karen), The New York Times, Huffington Post and New York Magazine are all worth reading for their take on the exhibition and Georgia’s style, as well as lots of photos. I haven’t made it to the exhibition yet myself, but I’m hoping to catch it before it closes this summer.
Using Georgia O’Keeffe and Santa Fe as a touchstone, I wanted to knit a fabric that reflected the New Mexican landscape she loved, and that would feel at home in Georgia’s wardrobe. It would be easy enough to find a black or cream yarn (I have plenty in my stash) that Georgia would have undoubtedly worn, but I chose a rust-red wool and hemp blend with flecks of cream from Elsebeth Lavold. When I saw the skein of Misty Wool in a yarn shop, everything clicked for me – it so perfectly mirrored the color and texture of the New Mexican landscape.
Next, I wanted the fabric to have both structure and texture, as well as honor Georgia’s minimalist style. Much of Georgia’s early work is comprised of abstract black and white lines and shapes, and her later work continues a focus on lines, divisions of space, blocks of color. With these elements in mind, I chose a herringbone stitch from my stitch pattern book, Barbara Walker’s A Treasury of Knitting Patterns, something that I thought could be easily incorporated into a heavy jacket or rectangular shawl.
Yarn: Elsebeth Lavold Misty Wool in Color 11
Needles: US 7 / 4.5 mm bamboo needles
Gauge: 30 stitches / 28 rows = 4” in stockinette stitch
M E T H O D
For stitch method, please see “Little Herringbone” stitch pattern on page 98 of A Treasury of Knitting Patterns by Barbara Walker.
PREVIOUSLY in Swatch of the Month: Fun with stockinette
New Mexico photos © Jess Schreibstein / book pictured is Georgia O’Keeffe and Her Houses