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Novel traces Georgia O’Keeffe’s evolution

Carolyn Meyer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque’s Carolyn Meyer has been one prolific author.

Meyer is capping an award-winning writing career with her 60th and final novel for young readers, many about courageous women in history.

Her new book is about a woman who was arguably one of the most important artists of the 20th century – Georgia O’Keeffe.

Meyer’s novel is titled “Girl with Brush and Canvas.” It tracks O’Keeffe’s life from her formative years at the turn of the century in Sun Prairie, Wis., through her teen years as a student in Virginia and Chicago, her time teaching art in Texas, her stormy marital relationship with famous photographer/mentor Alfred Stieglitz in New York and the many decades living in northern New Mexico where the landscape inspired her art.

More than a chronology of unfolding events, the book looks at the dominant influences on O’Keeffe’s ideas about art, her struggles to become an artist, and her fierce independence.

Meyer sets the stage for the story in the opening of Part I. The year is 1900 and 12-year-old “Georgie” and a girlfriend are hanging wet sheets on a clothesline. Their conversation comes around to the question “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

The friend says she’ll be a wife and a mother. Not Georgie. She wants to be an artist. “I felt very sure about that, although I’d only just arrived at that decision,” she thought.

The year before, Georgie and two of her sisters took art lessons. Meyer describes how Georgie liked the spartan interior of the teacher’s home, foreshadowing how she would maintain her own home in New Mexico years later.

With the lessons ended, Georgie spent hours alone in her studio in a tower her Papa built in the corner of the family farmhouse. She filled page after page of a sketchbook with pencil drawings. If she didn’t like the results, she turned to watercolors.

As part of the curriculum at a Catholic high school in nearby Madison, Wis., Georgie took art classes from a Sister Angelique, whose criticism improved her work. The young O’Keeffe also reflected on the “elegant and dramatic” robes, veils and coifs the nuns wore: “I decided that someday I would dress in stark black and white.”

Sister Angelique wrote G. O’Keeffe as the signature on her student’s exhibited drawings. It hinted to Georgie that she was on her way to becoming an artist. Later in the novel, the teenage O’Keeffe, already showing her strong will, decided that only her name – Georgia O’Keeffe – would appear on her artwork and if she were married she would continue to use her own name.

An art teacher at a public high school in Madison advised that if she were going to paint a flower, “she must study it so she can truly see it.” Larger-than-life flowers were to be a subject of many of O’Keeffe’s famous paintings.

The 15-year-old Georgie is also seen wrestling with how she would achieve her career goal, not just becoming an artist but painting and drawing the images that she wants.

In researching the novel, Meyer said she had read many biographies about the artist. “O’Keeffe had a lot of relationships that were fraught,” the author said. “(Stieglitz having a girlfriend) was one reason she said ‘I’m going to New Mexico.’ It was very difficult for her to deal with. At the same time, he made her famous, supported her career, gave her exposure. He was never good at making money, so for many years she supported him.”

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