Georgia O’Keeffe: Her Carolina Story

Posted On September 26, 2015

A collaborative effort brings an amazing story and visual gift to art lovers. Don’t miss this one.

By Rachel Haynie

Artist Georgia O’Keeffe Columbia SC

Commemorating the century that began with Georgia O’Keeffe teaching art at Columbia College, a little-known yet transformative time that prefaced her stunning artistic journey, is a city-wide art partnership. Coming together for this centennial observance are: South Carolina Educational Television, Columbia Museum of Art, and Columbia College. O’Keeffe’s time and experiences at Columbia College – and in Columbia – were life-altering; she readily acknowledged it was here she recognized she was “on her way” to becoming one of America’s iconic artists.

Setting foot in Columbia, South Carolina, September 22, 1915, for the first time, turned out to be a monumental step for a key shaper of American modern art. Georgia O’Keeffe, arriving by train from visually-rich New York to begin giving art instruction at Columbia College, had accepted the academic post because it promised to leave her mind most free and her time least encumbered. Balancing her compensation, that amounted to no more than a stipend and a roof over her head, with the latitude to invest as much of herself as possible on her own work was a good deal for this young artist, then only 27 years old.

That first month on the tight-knit campus where 150 women were preparing primarily to become music teachers, O’Keeffe described her environment in a letter to her friend, Charleston native Anita Pollitzer, as a “vacancy in her life.” Isolated now from the visual stimulation that had satiated her in New York, where she and Pollitzer had been art students together at Columbia University’s Teachers’ College and studied together also at the School of Practical Art, O’Keeffe slogged through stagnation – but only for a short while.

O’Keeffe soon discovered beauty in nature walks radiating away from the campus of utilitarian red brick buildings. Once back from these walks – on which she sometimes was accompanied by art students – she drew in charcoal on the floor of her small, stark room what her being had experienced out of doors. To Pollitzer she wrote: “I am feeling beauty alive.” Those drawings became career-changing for the woman who ultimately would be described as the undisputed doyenne of American painting.

Making their way onto paper, from initial charcoal swipes on her dorm room floor, were coiling, swelling, bendy forms, abstract shapes informed by nature’s lunar roundness, plants and water references, including raindrops and the nearby Congaree River. O’Keeffe summarized her new-found freedom in a comment used later in Doris Bry’s book, Georgia O’Keeffe: Some Memories of Drawings. “I realized that I had things in my head not like what I had been taught. I decided to put away everything I had done and start to say what I was seeing and feeling. There is no one around to look at what I am doing, no one interested, no one to say anything about it, one way or the other.”

The ease of these shapes emanating from O’Keeffe’s new-found sense of freedom paralleled a comfort she came to enjoy: with her students, and with her colleague, Dr. James Milton Ariail and his family, especially the Ariail’s four year-old daughter, Cecelia.

There was comfort and ease also in O’Keeffe’s friendship and communication with Pollitzer, so much so that Pollitzer audaciously took to Alfred Stieglitz, gallerist of the fabled Fifth Avenue gallery, 291, drawings and watercolors mailed to her from Columbia. A fine art photographer and modern art promoter, Stieglitz displayed the work, without O’Keeffe’s knowledge, in a flourish that followed upon his famous utterance: “At last! A woman on paper!” Immediately, her work caused a stir in the art world.

She forsook Columbia College and returned to New York in February 2016, never to set foot in Columbia again – although she sustained some contact through correspondence. Landmark pieces, created here, were discovered in her Abiquiu, New Mexico, studio following her 1986 death.

Persistent negotiations on the part of Columbia Museum of Art (CMA) Chief Curator Will South have made it possible for a selection of these works to be on view during CMA’s fall and early winter exhibition entitled: “Georgia O’Keeffe: Her Carolina Story.” Other works for this defining show are on loan from: the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the High Museum, Atlanta, Georgia; and the Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina.

The footprint O’Keeffe left on the art scene in Columbia, South Carolina, is indelible. For this Mother of American Modernism to acknowledge openly that being here “started me on my way” helped established the capital city as an art center, even though some patrons are just now becoming aware – through this multi-institutional exhibition – that she was here.

To inaugurate its O’Keeffe Centennial celebration, Columbia College invited artist Judy Hubbard to develop a site-specific installation for its refurbished Goodall Gallery. For this installation, “Envisioning O’Keeffe,” Hubbard invited a multi-generational cadre of 50 artists and students to claim a pair of O’Keeffe-styled shoes, then envision them artistically to represent O’Keeffe’s journey through Columbia College as she made her way to becoming an iconic figure in American art. Hubbard said, “In the beginning of her time here, O’Keeffe said she felt she was a shoe that didn’t fit. We know that throughout her life she was known as a relentless walker, especially after she set herself up in New Mexico.” The installation opened August 14 and remains on view through September 27.

Will South easily pictures that, “On her nature walks, O’Keeffe often slipped off her shoes and dangled her feet into the waters of the Congaree River, so Judy has chosen an appropriate metaphor for this installation, the first in a broad and lengthy series of community-wide events in which CMA is proud to partner with Columbia College and SCETV.”

The O’Keeffe Centennial Celebration

September 22, 1915 – Georgia O’Keeffe arrived in Columbia to assume an art instructor position at Columbia College.

Through September 27 – Envisioning O’Keeffe, a site-specific art installation by Judy Hubbard and 49 other artists, continues at refurbished Goodall Gallery on campus of Columbia College.

October 9 – noon lecture at CMA where Chief Curator Will South will discuss the process behind the organization and installation of the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition.

October 9 – Georgia O’Keeffe: Her Carolina Story opens at Columbia Museum of Art and will remain on view through January 10, 2016.

October 9 – December 27, 2016 – Sanctuary and Spirit: Images of Todd Webb opens, featuring iconic black and white portraits of George O’Keeffe; Columbia College, Goodall Gallery.

October 11 – Screening of “A Woman on Paper,” a SCETV O’Keeffe documentary, with guest panel featuring art historians, scholars, and documentary producers, 2pm in Cottingham Theatre at Columbia College.

October 20 – Dedication of Georgia O’Keeffe Tribute Garden, 10am, Columbia College, followed by ArtBreak program – Horticulturalist John Long will discuss connections between the garden design, physical flora, and O’Keeffe’s works of art.

November 10 – Author Tom Poland will discuss O’Keeffe, considering her life and work in the exhibition as a potential starting point for a piece of writing.

November 13 – Noon lecture by O’Keeffe Museum curator Cody Hartley of Santa Fe, New Mexico, on how the exhibition fits into the context of O’Keeffe’s career, overall.

November 15 - Screening of the documentary, “Georgia O’Keeffe,” by award-winning filmmaker Perry Miller Adato which aired previously as part of the PBS American Masters Series. 2 pm in Cottingham Theatre, Columbia College.


Check www.ideasofmyown.com for gallery hours and additional celebratory events and venues including dance, theatre, ceramic exhibition as well as reproductions of historic documents and archives that illustrate the story of O’Keeffe’s time at Columbia College. The celebration continues throughout the academic year; check cultural calendars for further information.