What if you could walk in the footsteps of one of the most influential American artists, and learn to see not only what she saw, but how she saw it? That is the experience that a group of McIntire Department of Art Professor Elizabeth Turner’s students had last summer, as they explored the impact that Georgia O’Keeffe’s five summers learning and teaching on Grounds had on her career. Beginning in 1912, when she was fresh off a self-imposed four-year artistic hiatus, O’Keeffe found regenerative inspiration here, both in the classroom, as well as in the physical environment, creating a significant notebook and series of watercolors that depict scenes across Grounds and offer tantalizing clues into the artistic DNA of this modernist movement icon.
“The notebook was not a ‘how to’ book, but rather, a way of her saying that she was fully prepared to teach this method of composition,” Turner said. “It was not meant to make you think about replicating an image, but about seeing and selecting and emphasizing the abstract principles of design discovered in the world around you. It made you aware of symmetry and asymmetry and the way in which you could be empowered to construct an image.” Johnathan Chance (SCPS ‘18) was part of a student cohort that also included Lucia Colombari, Lauren McQuistion, and Meaghan Walsh, who spent the summer retracing O’Keeffe’s footsteps and eyelines to try and see what she saw and feel what she felt, digging deep to explore vantage points now erased by the University’s architectural evolution. “Johnathan really got us started by going to the Special Collections’ archive and matching photographs to the watercolors in a way that reconnects with the University we don’t necessarily know,” Turner said, “and specifically with these spaces as they existed in 1912, 1913, or 1914, when she was making these notebooks.” “When you have a photograph in front of you,” Chance said, “you are able to see what she is zooming in on, which is significant given her interest in photography. It is an important window into her mental process, and it really speaks to things you see later in her career.” One of these things, he said, is the clear influence that UVA architecture, and specifically the Rotunda, had on her later work.
In a 1915 letter to a friend, Chance shared, O’Keeffe talks about the shape of the Rotunda–specifically about one evening when she walked up and saw the light behind it. “You can see that things being lit in a certain way,” Turner said, “and how it created a certain shape that becomes an important element in her language of design.” The particular Rotunda arch shape, Chance recalls, later finds its way into a series of O’Keeffe paintings of the Texas plains. Turner said the project gave her students the irreplaceable experience of putting them in touch with what O’Keeffe saw and felt while on Grounds. “The entire class really took this up with great enthusiasm, and for those who stayed here over the course of the summer, there was not a one that didn’t think about the fact that Georgia O’Keeffe was here, that she would have seen this, or felt this, or experienced the heat and humidity and the glimpses of the mountains and the blue, blue, blue of the Blue Ridge. I think visitors of the exhibition are also going to be able to connect their own experiences of the environment to hers, and to recognize that so much of what we know of her started here. I am very excited that we can put Charlottesville in its rightful place in O’Keeffe’s story.”
The Fralin Museum of Art is currently presenting Unexpected O'Keeffe: The Virginia Watercolors and Later Paintings, through January 27, 2019. This rare exhibition explores Georgia O’Keeffe’s notebook of watercolor studies produced during her time at the University of Virginia, as well as other landscape sketches and two key later paintings, demonstrating her developing invention in abstraction. This is the first time the watercolors have been on view outside the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “It is an honor and a thrill to bring Georgia O’Keeffe’s works created in and around the University of Virginia, back to UVA for the first time since they were produced,” said Matthew McLendon, J. Sanford Miller Family Director at The Fralin. “Visitors will be able to walk out of the gallery and find the same points-of-view O’Keeffe used; they can experience the same qualities of light.”