It is little known that Georgia O’Keeffe, a pioneer of American modern art, spent a brief but vital period in Columbia in 1915-16.
While teaching at Columbia College for $4 a week and living in a tiny, one-windowed room of “Old Main,” O’Keeffe had an artistic breakthrough that would catapult her to fame and influence her work for the rest of her illustrious career.
The Columbia Museum of Art, in partnership with Columbia College, is proudly telling this story by highlighting the artist on the 100th anniversary of her time in the South.
An exhibition of 14 works called “Georgia O’Keeffe: Her Carolina Story” is on display at the museum beginning Friday, Oct. 9.
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Central to the exhibit are four charcoal drawings that O’Keeffe made while in Columbia, which were unlike anything the artist had produced before.
“Both rare and fragile, these drawings seldom travel,” museum executive director Karen Brosius wrote in the exhibit’s catalog.
Yet the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., and others were persuaded to loan work because of the uniqueness of the story, Brosius said.
“Too often, these years in South Carolina … are glossed over in accounts of O’Keeffe’s life,” executive director of Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Robert Kret wrote for the catalog.
“It seems impossible to truly understand the arc of O’Keeffe’s career and the significance of her contribution without considering those first works produced in Columbia.”
Go Columbia dissected one of those early works, “Second, Out of My Head,” with the help of CMA Chief Curator Will South and leading Georgia O’Keeffe authority Sarah Whitaker Peters.
“I wanted that one very badly for this show,” South said. When he looks at “Second,” he said he sees a portrait of Columbia.
“Is that not a Palmetto tree?” South asked. Notice the roots, stretching out. The lines are fluid, juxtaposing dark and light.
“Their vertical lines sweeping upward on the right are tree trunks, and the shapes that top them are flattened palm fronds,” Peters echoed.
Here, South sees flowing water and a bank. It’s a stylized Congaree river, he said.
The artist is said to have occasionally dipped her toes in the water.
The ripples “are made by erasing away charcoal (much as water moves away from us and forever disappears), and this feels unmistakably like a river,” Peters wrote in the exhibit catalog.
Peters noted that this drawing is full of the “special freedoms charcoal permits: stumping, rubbing, scratching, and erasures.” This creates the gradations and value changes in the piece.
O’Keeffe credited Arthur Dow as her most powerful influence. Dow was an art educator who taught his students that lines and spaces should express ideas and emotions. When O’Keeffe would go on long nature walks, she would come back and draw what she felt. “She was interpreting her feelings through nature,” South said.
Dow’s dominating lesson, however, was to tell his students to simply “fill a space in a beautiful way.” At this, O’Keeffe was an expert.
O’Keeffe did not work in color while in Columbia, South said. She also did her drawings on the floor, rather than an easel, in order to look at them a different way.
The charcoal pieces were never sold. They were found in O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu, N.M., studio after her death, along with hundreds of other secret drawings.
“Georgia O’Keeffe: Her Carolina Story” is part of a yearlong series of programs celebrating O’Keeffe’s time in Columbia, including lectures, exhibitions and documentary screenings. Here are some other upcoming events:
▪ SCETV Documentary: “A Woman on Paper”: The CMA will screen SCETV’s documentary about O’Keeffe at 2 p.m. on Thursdays and Sundays in the auditorium.
▪ “Sanctuary and Spirit: Images of O’Keeffe by Todd Webb”: This photography exhibition in the Columbia College’s Goodall Gallery features iconic black and white portraits of Georgia O’’Keeffe taken by her photographer friend Todd Webb. Free and open to the public.
For a full schedule of events at Columbia College, visit www.ideasofmyown.com.
How Georgia O’Keeffe’s time in Columbia influenced her art
Walk in O’Keeffe’s shoes at Columbia College exhibit
If you go
“Georgia O’Keeffe: Her Carolina Story”
DATES: Oct. 9-Jan. 10
LOCATION: Columbia Museum of Art, 1515 Main St.