It is an odd phenomenon, The Researcher. Maybe you’ve noticed one in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center Library, reclined with a book under his chin like a tanning mirror. He’s basking in the glow of knowledge. Or did you see the bespectacled man sitting too close to the computer in the corner of your tour of the O’Keeffe Museum’s Archives? He didn’t see you. He was blinded by a white light called raw information.
You would not be wrong to wonder why these people keep doing what they do, keep opening up dusty books. “Dust,” you might say, “is better closed up—inside the book—rather than fluttering around the room, carrying diseases, loitering on other, more useable things—like mirrors and TV screens—just dirtying everything up.” I would have to concede that point to you—it does seem odd that a researcher would insist on setting free into the atmosphere a previously well-contained cluster of dust.
Also odd: seeing a researcher digging into a book like he has dug a hole at the beach and stuck his head into it. What could you say to him? You could be frustrated on his behalf because he is looking for something that really doesn’t appear to be there. You may feel a moral obligation to tell him about the sun; that it feels good. Probably, though, if you are like me, you are intensely curious about what he sees down there, in the echo chamber of history.
Last week Amy Von Lintel—a noted Georgia O’Keeffe scholar and professor at West Texas A&M University (where O’Keeffe herself was a professor in the late nineteen-teens)—gave us a glimpse into the ocean of information that exists beneath the surface of O’Keeffe scholarship as we know it. In doing so, she vindicated sun-starved researchers everywhere. Von Lintel’s subject? Georgia O’Keeffe’s life as an educator and artist in Canyon, Texas, primarily from 1916 to 1918.
We have long considered Canyon to be something of an introduction to the Southwest for O’Keeffe. We have also thought the time period (1916-1918) to be one where the artist was waiting to be discovered by the New York world. But Dr. Von Lintel powerfully pushes back against this notion that Texas was a sort of purgatory for O’Keeffe (not quite New York, but not quite Abiquiú either) in her article (published fall 2014) and her timeline (published last Monday) about O’Keeffe’s life in Texas.
By investigating primary sources from 1916-1918, Von Lintel shows that O’Keeffe was not waiting for anything, or stuck in between anything. She was engaged and busy. She was busy being a college professor. She was busy growing into the painter whose work would later embody American Modernism. She was busy dating numerous men, exploring her sexuality and personality, meeting and falling in love with Alfred Stieglitz, and looking after her younger sister Claudia who had a passion for shooting rabbits.
By examining Von Lintel’s research, the work for which included collecting oral histories, scouring correspondences and photos and biographies and more, what is clear is that Georgia O’Keeffe did not spend her time in Texas bored and waiting to leave. O’Keeffe appears a young woman seriously committed to her life in the moment—notably to her job as a teacher. She is adored by her students. One student said she was “very patient and very lenient on marking our displays…She showed us why we [were] to design it that way. Just didn’t tell you, ‘just do it like that,’ but she’d tell you why…Very friendly to us in the classes. Always respected everything we did.” All the while, O’Keeffe was developing, during this time period, her practice as an artist. It was really while in Texas that O’Keeffe’s style really developed its own “O’Keeffe-ness,” and one only needs to look at her watercolors of the Palo Duro Canyon to confirm that. O’Keeffe as a young woman shines through Dr. Von Lintel’s work.
Von Lintel, of course, gives us more than just “one only needs to look at….” She gives us correspondences about the artworks; she gives us O’Keeffe herself describing her artistic process and vision, doubt and all. She gives us real life, and it is contradictory and confusing. O’Keeffe, as it turns out, was not just an artist waiting to be discovered, and she was not just an educator, either. The power of Von Lintel’s article, timeline, and scholarship is that she gives us both of these things, and allows them to remain “both,” not one ruling over the other.
Through research, Von Lintel brings two full years of Georgia O’Keeffe to life. Upon reading her article, one immediately knows that Canyon, TX is not a dimly lit waiting room but a fireworks display on the open sky of Georgia O’Keeffe’s story. These bursts of light are what the researcher sees in his dark room, his face buried into an earthy-smelling book.
Next time you pass through the Research Center library, stop by the computer in the corner and say hi!
Amy Von Lintel’s timeline of O’Keeffe’s life in Texas:
Tim Hone, RC Intern