I came across Georgia O’Keeffe’s (1887 – 1986) paintings years ago, when I was probably just a tween; and for some reason, at the time, I did not really notice the connection between her floral paintings and female reproductive parts. I have always been a bit innocent, a bit of a late bloomer, and innocence and youth can often blind us to the shock of sex. I suppose I was fairly blind.
I wrote a paper about her in college and I don’t think I brought up the topic of female reproductive parts once. And not because I would have been ashamed or embarrassed to—or maybe I would have. I think I actually just didn’t really see it. My professor must have thought I was a true doofus. I wrote pages and pages about her personal life (which is both fascinating and dramatic) and then went on to intricately describe her beautiful, colorful, delicate, flower paintings, painstakingly shaded in rich color scales. That seemed substance enough to me.
Black Iris VI, 1936, Georgia O’Keeffe
Over the years, I have always been a fan of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work, but I really did not start taking note of this flower-vaginal relationship until I read somewhere that she had adamantly denied, for the length of her entire career, that her paintings were an interpretation of the female anatomy. When I read that for the first time, I remember thinking, “Wait, what, female anatomy?” at which point, I must have re-looked at a few of her paintings and thought, “Ohhhh!”
I always come to Georgia’s defense with regards to this dispute. Perhaps I am still a bit blindly innocent, and in fact her argument was some kind of publicity stunt. Or possibly, she had another ulterior motive for denying these accusations—she was a strong female personality, and being taken seriously in the art world, during this time in history, was very important to her, understandably. However, I still believe in the possibility that she only ever truly intended to simply paint flowers, beautifully. And I will tell you why…
When I was in high school art class, we were assigned a project to create a three-dimensional, flat work of art—think relief sculpture that is 2-D, but also 3-D. The sky was the limit in terms of subject matter, so we had the freedom to express ourselves however we chose. I remember I had this “brilliant” idea. I was consumed by this project and as I was making it, I always felt like it was coming from another place. I recall feeling a bit furiously obsessed in my approach.
My idea was to illustrate a hole. And for some reason, I thought this hole should be colored pink and black. And then I wanted to place lots of three-dimensional, bright yellow roses, falling into this hole, as if they were losing themselves in a deep, dark well, or a bottomless pit. So, if one combines motifs of pinks, and blacks, and holes, and flowers, one can easily come up with something resembling female reproductive anatomical parts. Unbeknownst to me at this time, I created a giant flowering vagina to present to my entire high school art class. I really just thought it was a kick-ass colorful hole with flowers falling into it. My process of expression was so subconscious, so feminine. It was so strong, and yet so innocent.
Since I don’t have the original work of art on hand, I recreated something below to give you the basic idea.
Libby’s Flowery Hole
I was always quite proud of this work until one day, years after graduating from school, I was going through my portfolio and came across it. I was mortified. All I could think was, “How was my sweet art teacher able to keep a straight face as I presented this material to the class?”
[Incidentally, my favorite flower above all else is an iris, and has been for as long as I can remember. And I do believe that an iris flower—a favorite of O’Keeffe’s as well—is one of the more vaginally mimicking flowers in existence, as far as vaginally mimicking flowers go.]
Even though I was just an innocent little tween when I created this work of “art,” and Georgia O’Keeffe was a grown woman with loads of perspective and wisdom, I believe it is still possible that she was just focused on flowers. Perhaps she didn’t want to have her sexuality brought into the matter, even though it is apparent and rather blatantly obvious that it was making its way into her work whether she wanted it to or not. Maybe her denial was a bit of shame stuffing. Who knows? However, it does beg the question, “Are you ever too old to escape your innocence?” Her love of landscapes and her passion for nature—she lived in some breathtakingly beautiful places such as Lake George, New York and the deserts of New Mexico—could have been reason enough for her to feel the need to recreate the all-consuming beauty around her. In her flower paintings, she was IN them. She was tiptoeing along each petal’s edge and wrapping herself in its silky protective folds, all the while, brilliantly luring us into her world of female mystery. That is a beautiful thing. Imagine if you were a small fairy, and that perfect flower was your home. Maybe she was in that state of fairyland purity when she painted her flowers. Maybe she was not.
Art is such a subconscious thing. It is the way a soul expresses itself. Sometimes words do not suffice. Sometimes the soul’s message is too deep, and perhaps Georgia’s inclination to paint out her embattled female-ness in the form of flowers—intentionally meant to look like flowers, and only flowers—was the way her soul chose to unburden itself.
Unfortunately, this debate will go unanswered for eternity. Sometimes artists do not even know why they create what they create. I do not always know why I take the pictures I take, or why the person next to me is taking a completely different picture than I would ever endeavor to take. But I know that what I choose to create is right for me. Georgia has passed on and no one truly knows the answer to what her flowers really meant. But this is what art does. It provokes. It is uncomfortable for us not to know. We will not ever know, and not knowing is a frustrating thing for many of us. But being uncomfortable will not kill us. It will actually open us. So why don’t we just enjoy the mystery? Her paintings are so incontrovertibly gorgeous. Maybe it is okay to just leave it at that.