So what about those Georgia O’Keeffe flower paintings? This week’s Q&A with Kelley Rouse, performer of Georgia O’Keeffe for this year’s Chautauqua series, answers questions that viewers of O’Keeffe’s art are left wondering. We spoke about beginning research, O’Keeffe’s life and the reason she painted, and Ms. Rouse’s favorite performing memories. Ms. Rouse provides a brief, broad history of Georgia O’Keeffe, but I won’t give away what was said. You’ll have to find that in the interview. And be sure to check the schedule to see when and where Ms. Rouse will be performing!
(MHC) What drew you to Georgia O’Keeffe?
Kelley Rouse as Georgia O’Keeffe
(KR) Discovering Georgia O’Keeffe was rather serendipitous through a chance encounter. A woman who had seen my one-woman show on Jeannette Rankin suggested I look into a play she had seen in Baltimore about the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. She couldn’t remember the name of the play so I did an internet search. I never discovered the play she was referring to, but I did discover Martha Fuery’s play “O’Keeffe: Sunset of an Artist.” I contacted Ms. Furey and she sent me her script to review. I was immediately drawn to it. I knew a little of Georgia O’Keeffe, of course. Mostly that she painted huge flowers and skulls, but became fascinated with how this woman managed to craft an artist’s life against the odds of gender and time in history. O’Keefe’s passion and determination continues to inspire me.
(MHC) Georgia O’Keeffe led a loner life for the most part. How did her lack of public appearances affect your research?
(KR) For being a loner, there is plenty of written word, and, of course, her art, that lends itself to discovering much about her. Georgia O’Keeffe’s quotes and anecdotal accounts from family and friends easily demonstrate the artist’s acerbic wit and her dry Midwestern sense of humor. Anita Politzer, her friend from art school in New York, also published a book with very revealing letters from O’Keeffe that speak so fully of her thoughts on art, life and love. From the point of an actress, however, one is always interested in the character’s physical bearing, mannerisms and presence. How did she walk, smile, talk, or laugh? I resisted watching other actresses portray O’Keeffe, because I wanted my own interpretation. I finally located a VHS tape of a film made late in the artist’s life in New Mexico, by Perry Adato at my local library. (this was pre-YouTube days!) That was so illuminating. And, of course, Alfred Stieglitz took very private pictures of O’Keeffe, that became enough of a “public appearance” for the artist, I imagine, to last a life time.
(MHC) What were Georgia O’Keeffe’s beginnings?
(KR) O’Keeffe’s beginnings were humble, born on a dairy farm in the Midwest in 1887. Certain things stand out, though, that I believe were critical to her development. It was a rural prairie environment and she spent a lot of time out-of-doors. Most biographies note O’Keeffe could entertain herself for hours in nature, in fact preferring her time alone. They may have been to escape the crowd of six siblings. It seems that her mother, aunts and grandmother ruled the roost in the household and that her mother made sure Georgia and her sisters had art lessons as children. I think the strong women in her family, her focus on nature and exposure to art laid the foundation for the development of her art, originality and independence.
(MHC) Georgia O’Keeffe quit painting for a period of time but came back to her art a few years later. What was her reasoning for quitting and why did she come back?
(KR) After years of being a student of art, O’Keeffe says she grew tired of doing art for other people’s approval. She felt she was only imitating what had already been done. She wasn’t painting for herself. So she stopped painting. O’Keeffe later said she wanted to paint in terms of her own thinking and feeling. Her break-through abstractions came when she put convention aside and trusted her own feelings. O’Keeffe also stopped painting for 13 months, later in life after suffering a nervous breakdown in 1933. Stunning landscapes in New Mexico provoked new creative energy for O’Keeffe and helped inspire her to begin painting again.
(MHC) Place is an important part of her art, primarily New Mexico. What do you think she did differently when painting landscapes?
Ram’s Head with Hollyhock, 1935 by Georgia O’Keeffe
(KR) Wherever O’Keeffe was, she painted landscapes. It seemed to connect her to whatever place she happened to be. But when she got to New Mexico, she was mesmerized by the country. I think what is different about her painting landscapes was her ability to capture the scope, depth and breadth of the beauty– the vastness of the sky, the essence of the desert or mountains through her vibrant colors– the magic of the land through her ability to paint the light. One can imagine what a sensation these landscapes caused when first shown back east to people who had never experienced the rugged and wild west.
(MHC) People often associate O’Keeffe’s flower paintings with female anatomy drawings, but she adamantly rejected the association. Why is that?
Corn No.2, 1924 by Georgia O’Keeffe
(KR) O’Keeffe was always adamant about critics putting “their” feelings on her art. Her paintings reflected her spiritual connection to flowers, or anything, for that matter, that she painted. O’Keeffe said she was influenced by the art theorist, and considered “father of abstract art,” Wassilly Kandinsky’s writings Concerning the Spiritual in Art which emphasized spiritual metaphors. Her art was her communication of her feelings and getting to the essence of her subject matter. It was a reflection of her psyche. Technically, she also was influenced by the photography of Paul Strand. She observed the power of cropping an image, which allowed her to break a subject down to its essence. In her flowers she also replicated the precision of the image that is captured by camera. The sexual interpretations of O’Keeffe’s work were fostered by the publics’ early introduction of the artist through the intimate photographs of O’Keeffe taken by Alfred Stieglitz and also the popularity of Freudian psychology at the time. It was common for critics to comment that a woman-artist gave “birth” to their creations. O’Keeffe did not want to be known as a good “woman” artist, rather a good artist.
(MHC) What is the most interesting facet of O’Keeffe’s life?
(KR) I think it was her ability to recreate herself, or rather redefine herself as an artist by claiming New Mexico as her own. Early on Alfred Steiglitz, a brilliant strategist, introduced and shaped public opinion of O’Keeffe’s work. She was a “woman on paper.” After New Mexico, her work took a dramatically new turn. She had to break-free of Stieglitz, the pain of his public affair with Dorothy Norman, and the perceptions everyone had developed of who she was to save her own creative energy.
(MHC) Do you have any favorite performance memories?
(KR) My favorite performances have been when my mother and father have been in the audience. They always nurtured and encouraged my love of acting, understanding from the time I was a child that it was my source of joy.
(MHC) What is it like reincarnating Georgia O’Keeffe on stage?
(KR) It’s a powerful and helpful experience to attempt to channel O’Keeffe’s courage, independence and commitment to her art. Helpful, because although sometimes larger than life, she struggled with the issues common to many woman. The fight for independence, recognition, the desire to be loved and to love, the demons of self-doubt that Georgia O’Keeffe fought are part of all human experience. I appreciate and learn from reincarnating her every performance.
(MHC) If not Georgia O’Keeffe, who would you perform as?
(KR) I have always been a writer and performer. My dream is to one day thread together some of my stories about my experiences into my own one-woman show about myself.
(MHC) What are you most excited about for this year’s Chautauqua series?
(KR) Acting has been my artistic passion since I was young. I always had dreams of being on Broadway, or working for a Repertory company. As the saying goes, “life got in the way.” The challenges of balancing an alternate career and raising children, although immensely rewarding, never left room for really taking a show “on-the-road.” With Chautauqua I will have that experience. I am thrilled to finally have a chance to have so many consecutive performances. There is much preparation for a one-woman show, so I am excited to reap the artistic benefit of more than a one-night performance. Because of the Q & A as O’Keeffe that will follow the performance as part of the Chautauqua experience, I have also been revisiting research. I am rediscovering and gaining new insight that I hope will add to my portrayal. I find the whole process of preparation absorbing and exciting as I begin to live, breath and think like Georgia O’Keeffe.
If you liked this Q&A, MHC interviewed the two other Chautauqua performers, MiMI Zannino performing as Emily Dickinson and Marian Licha performing as Frida Kahlo. Be sure to read those interviews for information about the scholars and the historical women. Chautauqua runs from July 5th – July 14th, and check out our Youtube page if you want to see some of our past performers. We hope to see you at the performances!