“I wish people were all trees and I think I could enjoy them then.”
― Georgia O’Keeffe
O’Keeffe has been my companion these dozen years. I’ve studied her facial and physical features through photographs, her letters collected by friends and lovers. I’ve hiked the shore of Lake George where she gathered rocks and leaves.
In 2014, I traveled to the Adirondacks, climbed the hill to where O’Keeffe’s painting Shanty once stood, and pried a rock from the clay where bulldozers’ tracks dug fresh furrows.
This morning, I took the Shanty rock from my writing desk and glazed it with coconut oil to bring out its fine lines, its aged surface that O’Keeffe’s young face did not possess when she walked the hill. The photograph of her on the hill, pencil in hand, old wool sweater and worn leather boots constant companions, is my favorite. Taken by her lover, photographer Alfred Stieglitz in 1918, it captures the muse he claimed her to be.
Digging a rock from the hill was not my intention when I crossed the grounds and started up to the thicket of trees where the Shanty offered O’Keeffe a view of Lake George. Once committed, however, I wanted a rock deep in the earth, one that would have lived there during her time, when her own feet traveled the path from the lake’s edge to the hillside Shanty to paint.
On my desk is the rock, on my screen, the O’Keeffe photograph glancing round, her much photographed hand resting on her knee.
It was this photograph that drew me into O’Keeffe’s world and had me traveling to Wiawaka across Lake George from the Shanty to glance into the single room where she summered after winning an art prize, to Williamsburg, where she spent her teen years distinguishing herself in art and life, and to Maine, where she fled from Stieglitz’s infidelities.
The opening scene from my novel GEORGIA and Genevieve comes from these direct experiences. The land, the rocks, the studios where she stood are my inspiration.
I polish a rock taken from her hill. I set it at the base of my tree.
I climb onto the lower branch and aim my lens.
I lean against the trunk to steady my arm.
“The sun slants over the mountain. Her strokes come swiftly. Large images on small canvases. She’ll paint a dozen colossal flowers, lean them against the Shanty then slip tanned feet into espadrilles and wander through the grasses to the shoreline searching for branches, shells, and smooth rocks. Yesterday’s find sits on the windowsill, three black rocks in a neat stack. She has something to say about rocks; she’s still deciding what it is.”