Georgia O’Keeffe was an artist of such compelling vision that an entire region of the United States redecorated to match her aesthetic. I don’t mean that as snark. Contemplation of O’Keeffe’s art actually changes the way we understand erosional geomorphology, flowering plants, sun-bleached bones, deep blue skies, and the physiography of the desert Southwest. If O’Keeffe’s paintings seem a bit familiar or formulaic to the modern eye, perhaps it is because she has trained us all to see the world her way. In any case, this experience of shifting perception triggered by O’Keeffe’s images is a unifying theme in Jennifer Sinor’s idiosyncratic book of personal essays about the artistic experience of place.
In her book of essays, Letters Like the Day: On Reading Georgia O’Keeffe (University of New Mexico Press), Sinor poses the question, “How can I use words as O’Keeffe used pigment to convey an emotional truth?” As a writer and professor of writing, Sinor makes a deliberate decision to approach O’Keeffe through the written word – reading through O’Keeffe’s voluminous and well-preserved correspondence mostly held by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, and released to public view in 2006.
A selection of these letters has been published as “My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933,” (Yale University Press, 2011). In 2015, Sinor received a fellowship to travel to Yale to read the letters in the original. It must have been an amazing experience, handling these intimate and physically beautiful letters in the translucent, temple-like architecture of the Beinecke. A plate in Sinor’s book shows O’Keeffe’s elegant, flowing penmanship, flamboyantly punctuated with flourishes and curlicues instead of standard typographical marks. Yet none of these essays focus on the monastic experience of archival research, and Sinor writes, “when I initially tried to write essays that responded to the letters, to move out from her language into my own, I was paralyzed. “
Well, you can see the problem here. O’Keeffe’s letters aren’t about an abstract relationship to spirits of Earth and Sky; they are largely about her own somewhat messy relationship with Alfred Stieglitz. By grounding her research in words on paper, Sinor shuts herself out from expression through color and form and finds herself seeking clues to O’Keeffe’s genius between the lines.
Since Sinor is, according to her essays, the kind of relentless person who runs every day even when she is on vacation, she persists in this word-based exploration, trying out different angles to discover something profound that she is sure is concealed within O’Keeffe’s writing. In various essays, Sinor writes her own letters to O’Keeffe, inserting herself into the correspondence (“Cleaving, 1929”); She imagines O‘Keeffe as an actual friend along for a hike in Green Canyon near Logan (“Holes in the Sky”); She rents a cabin in New Mexico, the better to commune with O’Keeffe’s landscape (“More Feeling than Brain”); She engages in girl-talk, commiserating with O’Keeffe about unfaithful lovers (“Taking Myself to the Sun”); She ponders the contrasting visions of O’Keeffe the landscape painter and Robert Smithson the land-art bulldozer (“Spiral”); She travels to India in search of enlightenment (“I Must Speak to You”).
In this context of not quite reaching the goal, the essay “More Feeling than Brain” stands out as pivotal. During a family trip to New Mexico, Sinor’s 6-year-old son wants to see a coyote like his favorite stuffed toy. Every day, the family goes out walking, looking for coyotes. They never spot one until they are making the long drive home. Then, late at night under a starry sky, a coyote darts into the road and is killed by their car. To Sinor, this is the worst possible thing that could happen. She writes,
“We have been waiting and waiting to see one,” Aiden sobs, “waiting and waiting.” And this, I think, is the coyote he is given.
Sinor says that she was compelled to write these essays because, “O’Keeffe’s letters took up residence inside my body and refused to leave.” But at the end of the day, words alone don’t offer sufficient explanation for the transformative magic of O’Keeffe’s artwork. It seems that like so many of us, Sinor has underestimated the raw power of O’Keeffe’s superficially accessible artistic vision.
I wouldn’t say this book is a failure, though. Sinor’s essays delve into a deeply personal experience of letting art get under your skin. She may not crack the nut of O’Keeffe’s genius, but she does allow herself to be awestruck and transformed by her encounter with genius. After all, if it were that easy to convey emotional truth through pigment or words, we would all be doing it.
Years ago, O’Keeffe’s letters took up residence inside my body and refused to leave. They shaped how I saw the world. They challenged my understanding of narrative. They made me question the limits of writing and ultimately of art. They reminded me of the intimacy created in putting pen to page, as well as the solace found in fashioning a sense of self on sheet after sheet of paper. For so long, I thought the letters were what I was writing about. Given how loudly they clamored inside me, I wanted others to see their beauty and wonder. But such a response would be akin to feeling satisfied with O’Keeffe’s use of the color blue. It misses the real magic. To really appreciate O’Keeffe’s literary and visual art, you must move out from what is actually on the page or the canvas and risk the journey across the empty space. (pg. 15)
Letters Like the Day: On Reading Georgia O’Keeffe
by Jennifer Sinor
University of New Mexico Press. 168 pp.
Jennifer Sinor is the author of three books, including Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir and The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diary (2002). She is a recipient of the Stipend in American Modernism, as well as the winner of the Donald Murray Prize and the Utah Original Writing Competition for both the novel and book-length nonfiction. Jennifer’s work also has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, as well as a National Magazine Award. Her essays have appeared in The American Scholar, Creative Nonfiction, Gulf Coast, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, Utne, and elsewhere. Her essay, “Confluences,” can be found in the 13th edition of The Norton Reader. She teaches creative writing at Utah State University, where she is a professor of English. She lives with her husband, the poet Michael Sowder, and their two young boys at the foot of the Bear River Range in northern Utah.
You can watch a video of her 2012 reading with Sowder at City Art here: http://artistsofutah.org/15Bytes/index.php/jennifer-sinor-and-michael-sowder-at-city-ar/