Saturday, August 15, 2009

'Foul Rag and Bone Shop'

For the last week I have been contemplating the startling fact that I had found an actual place - a place I had never seen nor known existed - which I had 'made up' and written down in my notes and in the blog. I cannot say it enough: I just made up a place and gave it a name. I never suspected that a place loosely fitting that description existed.

The more I considered this the more I understood that I had experienced 'creative visualization' at its fullest. My introduction to the concept came in the form of a book I read decades ago. The exact title escapes me but it was roughly "The House that Gilda Drew" and was a title I acquired through the Scholastic Books program. (Oh, how I looked forward to those flyers and the chance to buy books!)

These days I would recognize Gilda and her family as likely being homeless as they constantly moved as her father searched for employment. Through all the travels, all the schools, Gilda dreamed of a certain house she wanted to live in one day. She drew it time and time again. Then, one day she saw the house itself. Sadly, I do not remember how it came to happen, but in the end Gilda and her family did indeed move into the house of Gilda's dream. That story has always remained in my mind.

I wonder now if that story was in the back of my mind when my fourth grade teacher, Sr. Mary Henry, a Dominican, took one look at the tree I had drawn in crayon on art paper and informed me that it was not a tree, that 'There are no trees like that.' I said nothing, but in my mind I retorted, "Just because you haven't seen a tree like that doesn't mean there isn't one.' Years later, to satisfy myself, I looked through a book and saw that my tree could have been a very mature weeping cherry!

The discouragement was replaced by my resolve to be a writer as under that same nun's tutelage I quite happily discovered that those sentences and paragraphs and all that other grammar stuff were the nuts and bolts of the stories I devoured.

Not long ago I discovered some quotes attributed to Ms. Georgia O'Keeffe in my notes. They had been posted on one or another of those websites offering fine art posters for sale. This quote leapt out at me: 'It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough I could have it.' I read between the lines of that quote and came to understand that Ms. O'Keeffe very likely believed in the principle that life would imitate art provided she practiced her art, lived her art.

I pulled Hunter Drohojowska-Philp's biography of Ms. O'Keeffe ("Full Bloom," W. W. Norton & Co., 2004) from my shelf and paged through it for one of the stories I remembered from Ms. O'Keeffe's school days which, ironically, involved a Dominican nun passing judgment on one of her drawings (p. 27) Ms. O'Keeffe chose to respond differently to the nun's stinging judgment of her drawing efforts than I did to Sr. Mary Henry's. In fact, at some point she 'decided that the only thing I could do that was nobody else's business was to paint.'

Independently of one another both Ms. O'Keeffe and I chose art as the means of being our Selves despite the judgment of an early teacher. The most inspiring aspect of Ms. O'Keeffe's life and work was that she practiced her art on her terms, however shaky she may have felt at times.

Ms. Drohojowska-Philp relates one instance of self-consciousness at a time just prior to Alfred Stieglitz's introduction to her work, when few established artists were understanding that work. 'After staying up all night working, she felt the results to be "effeminate" but she was unsure of the implications. "It is essentially a woman's feeling - satisfies me in a way," she admitted. "There are things we want to say - but saying them is pretty nervy." Once again, she was thinking that it was all "a fool's game" when she learned of Stieglitz's approval.' ("Full Bloom," pps 106-7)

Nearly thirty years after Alfred Stieglitz first glimpsed the work of this extraordinary woman she produced another piece I consider to be self-conscious, a pastel on paper entitled "My Heart" (1944). She was then 57 years of age and had bought a home in New Mexico only four years previously, a home with stunning views of her beloved pedernal.
Ms. Drohojowska-Philp wrote, 'The Navajo believe that the Pedernal is the birthplace of their "Changing Woman," who represents earth and time.' (p. 368) In full view of that Pedernal, that mountain, Ms. O'Keeffe imagined and presented to us an image of her heart. 'O'Keeffe named this drawing of two stones after her heart because she thought they "looked hard."' Hard as pieces of the 'Changing Woman,' perhaps?

For myself, when I consider that heart image she offers I am struck by a parallel between her work and that of the poet William Butler Yeats in the closing years of his life, specifically the poem "The Circus Animals' Desertion" (1938-39). I quote here the final stanza of the poem:

Those masterful images because complex
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Many are familiar with the paintings of skulls and pelvises Ms. O'Keeffe executed. (My favorite is "Pelvis with Distance.") There are paintings featuring ladders in Ms. O'Keeffe's oeuvre as well. Her studio must surely have contained stained rags and a collection of skeletons to qualify it as not just any studio but a "foul rag and bone shop of the heart." She painted her heart out, and in the end it was hers, always had been. I suspect she cherished the irony, as I do, that the nun's judgment had been passed in a schoolroom at Sacred Heart Academy.

These remarks from the commentary about the 2008 exhibit "Georgia O'Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle," (HIGH Museum, Atlanta, GA), which included work by Pamela Colman Smith, Katherine Nash Rhoades, Georgia Engelhard, Gertrude Kasebier, Anne Brigman and Alfred Stieglitz point to the enduring significance of "charms the brush laid on with tints in sweeps and flourishes" : 'her work and that of the others "laid the groundwork for the idea that women artists possessed a powerful creativity equal to that of men and their stunning images convinced Stieglitz ... that women could reveal a new and uniquely feminine perspective on modern experience."'

For Ms. O'Keeffe the perspective from her foul rag and bone shop of the Pedernal, the Changing Woman, gave her her heart and gave the world a beautiful vision of life lived artfully.

Top Photo: "Crossing to the Everlasting," Barbara Butler McCoy, oil on canvas, 12"x24," 2007, after "Sky Above Clouds," Georgia O'Keeffe and the author's photograph
Bottom Photo: "A Bowl of Cherries," the author, 2009

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