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  Curled Up With a Good Book
An interview with Dawn Tripp, author of *Georgia*

Author Dawn Tripp talks about her biographical novel of Georgia O'Keefe, the artist's complex relationship with photographer Joseph Stieglitz, the risk of mixing passion and vision, the transformative power of solitude, and the fierce spirit of a woman who refused to stand by and let herself and her art be “written down by the Men."

Interviewer Luan Gaines: Georgia O’Keeffe leaves Texas for New York, embarking on a love affair with New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz. You found inspiration for Georgia in an art exhibition. Would you share that story with us? Have you fallen a little bit in love with O’Keeffe in the process?

Dawn Tripp: In 2009, I saw an exhibit of Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstractions at the Whitney Museum of American Art. That show was, for me, a revelation. Growing up, I admired O’Keeffe’s art but, like many, I was more familiar with her cow skulls, her giant flowers, and southwest landscapes. That day at the Whitney, I fell in love with her abstractions. As early as 1915, O’Keeffe, at 27 years old, was creating gorgeous, radically new abstract forms when only a handful of artists were bold enough to explore this new language of art, and I wanted to know: Who was the woman, the artist, who made these shapes? What did she think, feel, want? What was going on in her life when she made these works? And why have I never seen the full range and scope of her abstract art before?

In the Whitney show, O’Keeffe’s abstractions were paired with photographs Alfred Stieglitz had taken of her as part of a portrait that spanned twenty years – O’Keeffe’s hands, face, body – some clothed, others nude. There were also excerpts from the letters they exchanged over the course of their relationship from 1916 to 1946, the year of his death. The language of those letters was sharply intimate – intense, vulnerable, complex. That language felt aligned with the abstract pictures and photographs I was seeing on the walls, but at odds with the image I’d always held of O’Keeffe: aged doyenne of the southwest, cloaked in black, her gorgeous lined face ravaged by sun and weather. An American Icon. Holding the world at arm’s length.

This contrast was thrilling to me. I remember leaving the Whitney that day, thinking: here is a woman most people know of, but at some level barely know at all.

Stieglitz is an important figure in the New York art scene, using his gallery to show the work of other artists, exhibiting his own photography. Stieglitz has gravitas and connections; O’Keeffe has just begun to explore her vision. How critical is his support and encouragement at this time?

It’s deeply meaningful to her. At the beginning of their relationship, his support is buoying, expansive. He recognizes the revolutionary force of her abstractions and his faith in her work becomes an important fuel for her artistic evolution. As an artist, there’s nothing more meaningful than feeling your work is ‘seen.’ It matters deeply when someone really gets the driving vision behind your work and can articulate the various dimensions of what you’ve accomplished in a piece of creative work. Stieglitz not only recognized the emerging greatness in O’Keeffe’s art, he also insisted that others value her and her work with the same respect and reverence. In a certain sense, he opened a world to her at this early point in their relationship. There was a significant cost to that, and later his world became, to her, confining and too small – unaligned with who she was and what she needed.

Although O’Keeffe has primarily used charcoals and watercolors, Stieglitz counsels her to master oils: “He knows I love the transient wash of thin colors… unlike the sluggish, pretentious oils.” Though O’Keeffe trusts her own instincts, she also considers his advice. Does her respect for his artistic eye contribute to her art and/or the deepening of the relationship?

Absolutely. Her respect for his eye and guidance is critical to the deepening of their early relationship. A leading promoter of Modern art in America, Stieglitz understood that O’Keeffe needed to translate the power of her charcoal and watercolor abstractions into oil in order to be taken seriously as an artist. He was a mentor to her, and she was also a mentor to him. She believed in his vision as a photographer and supported his work. In many ways she reignited his career. It was such an intriguing relationship: the passion between them was compelling, but the politics of that relationship, and how those politics impacted the work of both artists, even more so. Here was a young woman - strong, fiercely intelligent, and independent - with a stunning, artistic talent and a revolutionary vision years ahead of her time, and here was a man - the father of modern photography - at the tail end of his own artistic career, who fell so deeply in love with her, who had faith in her greatness but needed to orchestrate every element of the world that surrounded him, blind to the risk of losing what he wanted most.

When O’Keeffe comes to New York, she is in love with the new direction of her painting and, soon, the sophisticated man who has complete faith in her talent. What is the risk, if any, in mixing passion and vision in the heady days when both are inextricably bound? Without giving anything away, can you describe Stieglitz’s marital problems?

Stieglitz is married when O’Keeffe comes to New York. He is not happily married, but he and his wife have a daughter, Kitty, whom he loves deeply. You ask about the risk of mixing passion and vision. That is such an incisive question. I feel the risk is that you stop knowing – definitively – where the passion for the person ends and the exhilaration derived from a shared passion around art and vision begins. Much later in her life, O’Keeffe would say that it was ‘the art’ that kept her with Stieglitz. There is an extraordinary quote in her memoir where she describes him and the sense of being with him: “as if something hot, dark, and destructive was hitched to the highest, brightest star.”

There was a brilliant, nuanced intensity to the passion between them – not just sexual, but intellectual, philosophic – and a faith in the transformative power of art. I tried to infuse that into the narrative – the uncanny, at times transcendent bond reflected in their letters and their work.

In your Author’s Note, you mention that the letters between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, sealed for twenty-five years after her death, were released shortly before the publication of Georgia. What impact do the letters have on O’Keeffe’s decision to go to New York? Do you think the letters contribute to the depth and longevity of the relationship?

In 2011, the letters were published in a book-length work, My Faraway One. I read them in 2012. In my research, the letters clarified a number of discrepancies in time and event I had noticed in various biographical writings about O’Keeffe and Stieglitz. That was helpful to me. The editor of My Faraway One, Sarah Greenough, is a brilliant scholar, and her work reflects a profound and precise understanding of the lives and art of both O’Keeffe and Stieglitz. Although the letters in Georgia are fictionalized, they are a critical presence in the story. Letters were a magnetic, expansive, and saving force in their relationship.

The letters drew Georgia to Stieglitz and his world in New York. Throughout their life together, the letters allowed O’Keeffe and Stieglitz to resurrect what was best and most striking between them. Even when their relationship became fraught with betrayal, misunderstanding, and dynamics of control, when Georgia traveled - to Maine, Wisconsin, New Mexico – the letters created the space for that pure expansiveness and desire – that idyll of one soul reaching toward one another – to exist again between them.

Late in the novel, Georgia remarks: “I used to think the letters told the story of our life together, the truth of that strange beautiful love. But the letters were never who we were. They were who we wanted to be.”

Although her face is cropped out, Stieglitz’s nude photographs of Georgia attract a good deal of attention in the creative community. Other than artistic impact, might Stieglitz have any other motives in showing the nudes? What is Georgia’s reaction?

I had someone – a writer - remark to me once that she wondered if Stieglitz’s motives were to publicly exhibit his ownership of his young lover. I’m not sure I would assume that kind of motive. But Stieglitz was familiar with pornography from his years in Berlin, and I do feel that he – unlike O’Keeffe – foresaw the marketing potential of exhibiting nude images in 1921 in New York, two years before his first major showing of O’Keeffe’s art. And if he didn’t see it coming before he showed the photographers, he definitely recognized and abetted that language once it was out there. O’Keeffe was devastated, and angry. She originally supported the showing of the photographs, because she viewed them as art –gorgeous transcendent relevant lyric works of art. She was not prepared for the way they were interpreted, as personal documents that publicize the scandal of their affair.

When Georgia’s work is exhibited with that of other artists in Stieglitz’s gallery in 1925, the critics’ separation of male and female work and the patronizing tone toward a woman’s paintings are not acceptable to her. Georgia realizes that “tying herself to Stieglitz has tied their work as well”. Please speak to O’Keeffe’s fierce resistance to any definition by others (even Stieglitz), including gender. Is O’Keeffe’s opinion too advanced for that time?

O’Keeffe was a strong woman, progressive and radically direct, who understood that passion, sexual and otherwise, can be a key source of inspiration for creative work. That said, she explicitly resisted and ultimately refused to have her art described in sexualized, eroticized terms. She quickly recognized that although that language might originally have been intended to distinguish, even elevate her, it arguably had the opposite effect - marginalizing and diminishing the significance of her work and vision, and the key artistic innovations that she made during that time. Just as this was a challenge for O’Keeffe – and that language continues to inform our assessment of her influence on 20th century art – this is also a challenge relevant to women artists and writers working today. Throughout the 1920s and beyond, O’Keeffe fought to reclaim her image and artistic vision from an explicitly gendered branding of her art. She had no interest in being a great female artist. She wanted her work viewed as merely, purely, art.

Her commitment to her unique vision and her determination to control her own brand might have appeared advanced for her time, but was it, really? Like any great artist, she was simply breaking the mold of how things were ordinarily done, shattering perceptions of how a woman should paint, should act, should live or speak or be. She refused to stand by and let herself and her art be, as she said once, “written down by the Men.” This quality of O’Keeffe’s became a defining force throughout her life – and dovetailed with her resolute unwillingness to be linked to any ‘ism’ – surrealism, abstractionism, feminism. She had no interest in being framed by any movement or vision other than her own.

In O’Keeffe’s career trajectory, is Stieglitz a curse or a blessing? His guidance, artistic insights and influence are valuable; his human flaws are difficult to tolerate: “There are moments where you can see where the path split- where you could have made a different choice”. How would you describe the tightrope O’Keeffe walks between love and art? Is her work ever at risk?

As I’ve alluded above, Stieglitz’s passion for art, and his relentless charismatic intellect are thrilling to Georgia early on. His faith in her work is not only a blessing but inspiration for her art. However, as she begins to expand beyond the confines of their life together; as she begins to grow into a clearer sense of who she is, what she wants, what artistic innovations she will make; as she begins to resist the terms he has assigned to brand her art; as she begins to engage her own lens and language to express the intent of her vision and the direction of her career, their relationship begins to devolve into possession, betrayal, control.

Georgia is a strong woman. It never occurs to her that she will break. And it’s not his affairs – or even his lies – that ultimately level her. It’s the fact that she begins to feel that she has compromised something deeply true to what drives her, losing touch with her impulse to create.

O’Keeffe accepts a commission to design a mural for Radio City Music Hall in Rockefeller Center, a decision that shakes her confidence when the project becomes impossible: “Here I am again. Held, down, held back, in a power struggle with some arrogant man, his ego and incompetence that has nothing to do with my art.” She rejects Stieglitz’s commiseration: “He can love me this way- when I’m in pieces… All I wanted was the work.” Does this incident- and her lover’s reaction- accurately depict the limitations of a female artist in a man’s world at that time?

Yes. And I believe it depicts the limitations of a strong female in a man’s world, at any point in time. That is arguably as true now as it was back then. But at least now we are having the conversation.

As the years go by, Georgia matures as an artist and wife, pondering the choices she has made: “it occurs to me that perhaps Stieglitz is not my life, but a detour from it.” New Mexico clarifies her confusion, the spare landscape promising soothing in the midst of confusion: “This is the moment my life becomes wholly mine… because I will never again let it be anything less.” Can you compare the woman who finally makes peace with herself to the idealist rushing to New York City and the man for her?

As a young woman Georgia was always strong and independent, but her strength crystallized into something more enduring as a result of her relationship with Stieglitz. She opened herself to him – to his faith in her and the full range of passion between them that infused and inspired her art. Then, at a certain point, when the damage between them had exacted so much, she owned her own role. “This is not what he has done to me; it’s what I let him do.” These words are not the words of a victim. They are the words of a woman asserting her own power to change a situation she finds herself in, a woman determined to build something different.

Later in her life, O’Keeffe did not often talk about her years in New York with Stieglitz, but to me those years are so compelling, and relevant. Those were the years when her art was first discovered, those were the years she fell in love, had her heart broken, craved a child, almost lost her sense of self and ground, overcame challenges of gender politics that would have daunted any woman, alive back then or alive today. Those were the years when she resolved she would not compromise to a relationship again. Those were also the years when she discovered New Mexico - the wide raw singular landscape that to her was unparalleled - and where she felt she belonged. When Georgia was in Texas and Stieglitz first began writing to her, she compares the expansiveness she feels in his letters to the experience of breathing in the vast wild sky that she adores. And when she comes to him, she allows her desire, her hunger for that expanse which is a defining characteristic of who she is, to be hitched, personalized, in this man. By the time she discovers New Mexico, she understands that her need for open space can only be filled by the natural world itself and by her art.

O’Keeffe fights for her vision, experiences the highs and lows of a passionate love affair, comes to terms with the vagaries of fate and the facile reduction of a female artist who resists any definition other than her own. Georgia is filled with moments of exquisite beauty, from your descriptions of her paintings to the inspirations that drive her pieces. In taming this wealth of material, what did you find the most challenging? The most rewarding?

O’Keeffe’s fierce spirit, her determination to build a life on her own terms, and the sacrifices she makes for the sake of her art, remain the most inspiring aspects of her story. I love the range and scope of her art. I love her abstract work. Ambitious, gorgeous shapes of color and form designed to express and evoke emotion, they are masterful - at once visceral and cerebral – vividly alive. I believe in O’Keeffe’s commitment to art and her dedication to her solitude. I believe in her innovative creative vision, her wisdom, and determination to build a life in a place she loved and to make art on her own terms. The greatest challenge for me writing Georgia was the voice. It took me over a year to find the voice of this book. I did research, filled notebooks. I looked at art—O’Keeffe’s art, Stieglitz’s photographs of her, the work of other artists in their circle. I wrote pages of half-scenes, fragments of thought, but I couldn’t quite nail the voice. During that first year of work, I stayed away from reading material written in O’Keeffe’s own voice, her letters, even her memoir. I knew that before I allowed myself to do that, I needed to find the voice of my novel - the voice that would tell her story to me. I was not at my desk when it hit me. I was outside with my two boys. It was an afternoon in the spring. We were down at the river. They were playing in the water. I was lying in the sun, and the words came:

I no longer love you as I once did, in the dazzling rush of those early days…
For me, voice drives story—and it has to be true. With Georgia, even after the book was considered ‘finished,’ I went back through it several times and rewrote every passage that didn’t feel aligned with what I believed her voice needed to be.

Reading Georgia, I was conscious of O’Keeffe as an artistic voice, a warrior for her cause, but also a woman deeply in love with both her work and the man who believes in her vision. Yet it seems impossible that she should have both. It’s a familiar question: whether it’s possible to have it all, love, marriage and career.

Growing older, I’ve come to understand that a key part of a creative life—whether you are a working artist or not - is recognizing that every day is a choice. You choose to dedicate more or less time to a given endeavor. You develop ways to balance your work with your personal life. To me, that awareness of everyday choices is exhilarating, and there is also an attendant sadness. Every choice comes with a sacrifice. That’s not a reason not to make it, or to apologize for a choice you’ve made. Choices made at one point in your life may change as the parameters of your life change. I believe in staying open to that. O’Keeffe was a strong, innovative female artist who achieved fame and success in an art world dominated by men - male painters, critics, gallery owners. She did not apologize for the choices she made, and she continued to make bold choices—again and again—as she aged. I feel like that alone makes her story intensely relevant to women today.

There is a fine message in Georgia, a woman who has “stripped her world down to tomorrow”, shed the past and its sorrows. Though she dabbles for a while in the world of those who thrive on community, she is, at heart, a solitary soul. What message might O’Keeffe have for the solitary souls among us?

I definitely agree that she is, at heart, a solitary soul. And she believed in the transformative opportunities that only solitude can bring. When we sit in silence, when we are deep in ourselves, we can drop below the pull and chatter of everyday life and discover a clearer stronger sense of what we are meant to do, who we are meant to become. How we are meant to live, love, serve. What kind of art we are called to make. I believe in living in the question – Rilke’s term. When I hold a question and let myself be still with it – waiting with it – not reaching toward an answer – but simply being open and present with the question itself, a sense of meaning and direction in my life can clarify. It’s hard sometimes in the frenetic rush that day-to-day modern life can be to create space for that kind of solitude. It’s a day-to-day practice to create that kind of aloneness, and attendant willingness to stay open to it, and listen.

How have readers responded so far to Georgia? Have they appreciated the hard choices and painful lessons of such a gifted life? Would she be any nearer today to having both passion and her art?

One of the things that has been so meaningful to me in these early weeks since Georgia has been out is that readers and reviewers are seeing the hard choices Georgia made, the challenges, bias, and opposition she faced and fought and overcame for the sake of her art and a life that she believed in. Many reviews have articulated the nuanced complexity of the relationship between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, capturing not just the content, but the spirit of the novel and its driving themes.

In terms of the second part of your question about would she be nearer today to having both? I think it takes a very particular type of relationship to create the space a dedicated artist needs. And I don’t know that Stieglitz was fluent or strong enough in his own sense of self to provide that flexible space for Georgia. When I am deep in the world of a story, I eat, sleep, and dream that story. I’ve only had one partnership in my life that could hold space for my life as a writer, and that’s my marriage. My husband and I have been together for 17 years, and I am lucky. He gets my need for solitude but when I need to talk through some knot in a story I’m working on, he’ll talk through it with me. He reads every draft, and has amazing editorial instincts. He is very direct, which has taught me to be more ruthless with my work. Growing older, I’ve come to realize that if I didn’t have that kind of support in a partnership, I’d prefer to live alone.

Have you begun working on your next project? If so, can you share a little about it?

I have begun my next project. It’s another biographical novel, but I actually can’t talk about it yet. I am very superstitious about work in progress. I am superstitious about my writing practice in general – I use a certain type of notebooks, a certain type of pencils (Palomino Blackwing) for my early drafts. I don’t talk about a work in progress until I have a complete manuscript. I need to know that I have it in hand, before I talk about it. I don’t want any jinx!

Winner of the Massachusetts Book Award for fiction, Dawn Tripp is the author of the novels Moon Tide, The Season of Open Water, and Game of Secrets, a Boston Globe bestseller. Her essays have appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Believer, The Rumpus, Psychology Today, and NPR. She graduated from Harvard and lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two sons.

Contributor Luan Gaines interviewed author Dawn Tripp, author of Georgia (see accompanying review), about her book for Luan Gaines/2016


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