Before artist Georgia O’Keeffe was famous for her outsize flower paintings and desert landscapes, she was known for something else.
Her black, mannish, no frill shoes.
O’Keeffe preferred flat, ramble-ready footwear because she walked everywhere, taking long, meandering strolls that influenced her artistic breakthrough at age 27.
Her shoes were legendary at Columbia College, where she taught in 1915, and are the inspiration for “Envisioning O’Keeffe,” a new art installation at the college’s Goodall Gallery, up until Sept. 27.
The installation is the first of several special events celebrating the centennial of O’Keeffe’s time in Columbia.
The story goes that when O’Keeffe left to teach in Texas six months after arriving, she left a pair of shoes behind. Someone then jokingly placed a “want ad” for O’Keeffe’s black clunkers in the 1916 Columbia College yearbook.
“Almost from the beginning I knew I wanted to do shoes,” said Judy Hubbard, the artist behind the installation. She said she has been an O’Keeffe admirer for decades.
Hubbard will give a free gallery talk at 12:30 p.m. Thursday in the Goodall Gallery.
For “Envisioning O’Keeffe,” she spent months collecting old shoes from thrift stores. Then she invited 51 artists from across the state to honor O’Keeffe by decorating a pair in their own interpretation of O’Keeffe’s work.
The artists ranged in age from 8 to 89.
One artist took a pair of boots to Sun Prairie, Wis., where O’Keeffe was born.
Another cut open the sides of cowboy boots like folding petals and put the pistil of a flower inside them.
Another repurposed shoes to create the shape of a cow skull – an object O’Keeffe was famous for painting.
The shoes teeter on white pedestals, climb up the walls and perch all over the gallery space. Other features in the installation include “sky frames,” wooden frames with dangling painted ribbon, that symbolize the sky O’Keeffe loved gazing at. There are also “touch” stations, where visitors are invited to pick up an array of bones and examine them – the way O’Keeffe did in the New Mexican desert where she settled later in life.
“I wanted people to engage,” Hubbard said. “I wanted this to be a sensory experience.”
It’s a chance to walk in O’Keeffe’s shoes, if you will. (Although most pairs in the installation are much more colorful than anything the artist would have worn herself.)
Unlike galleries that show O’Keeffe’s work, “Envisioning O’Keeffe” offers a look at what O’Keeffe was like as a person, Hubbard said. Particularly the person she was when she was in Columbia.
“It gives you a sense of her aesthetic,” Hubbard said. “We put O’Keeffe here. Not her art. Her.”
Columbia College’s O’Keeffe website
Upcoming O’Keeffe events
Sanctuary and Spirit: Images of O'Keeffe by Todd Webb (Oct. 9-Dec. 27): American photographer Todd Webb built a 30-year friendship with Gerogia O’Keeffe, giving him unique access to the artist. Webb’s photographs bring to life O’Keeffe and her creative process in the landscape of the Southwest. This show will include 22 photographs and will be featured in the Goodall Gallery at Columbia College.
Georgia O'Keeffe: Her Carolina Story (Oct. 9-Jan. 10, 2016): Georgia O'Keeffe: Her Carolina Story is the first-ever exhibition of 14 works examining the sources of this major American painter's intimate artistic epiphany experienced in South Carolina. The exhibit will be at the Columbia Museum of Art.