Thursday, March 15, 2012

What I Learned from Emily and Georgia

March 15 - Today's post provided by Jen Bryant

During a recent school visit in New Jersey, a student in my biography workshop asked: “If you could meet, in person, one or two women from history, who would it be—and why?” It was a good and thoughtful question (we’d already covered the perpetual ‘how much do authors really make?’) and the speed and certainty with which I replied, surprised me: “Emily Dickinson and Georgia O’Keeffe,” I said.

As to the “why” part, I gave a much-abridged version of what I’ll share here in this post. But in the days after I visited that school, I reflected upon the lives of these two very different women to arrive at a deeper understanding of my answer. What made me identify them (from the thousands of possible answers I might have given) as the two women I would most like to meet? Why do they still matter to us? And what can we learn, and apply to our own creative lives, from their (seemingly DIS-similar) worldview, aesthetic sensibility, and life choices?

Emily Dickinson

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. The second of three children, she had an older brother, Austin, and younger sister, Lavinia or “Vinnie.” The Dickinson’s were a well-respected family whose patriarchal members served in the administration of Amherst College and also in the U.S. Senate. Emily’s mother seems to have been afflicted with various psychological and physical illnesses, and was thus emotionally absent for most of the poet’s life.

Georgia O'Keefe

Georgia Totto O'Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887, just eighteen months after the death (at age 56) of Emily Dickinson. O’Keeffe and her six siblings spent their childhood on the family farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. The days were filled with outside chores and tasks, but also with lessons in music and drawing, which Georgia’s mother, in particular, believed was necessary for their intellectual and emotional education.

From these very different chronological, geographical and emotional beginnings, came a poet and a painter whose influence on literature and visual art cannot be overstated. To those like me, who look to the past for clues about how to live as a creative woman, Dickinson and O’Keeffe provide
a trail of breadcrumbs by which we can find our way through the forest of
daily distractions and endless noise to our best work. Here, in brief, is what
I’ve found to be most relevant and helpful:  

1. Both understood the value of solitude in order to do their best work.

While in her later years, Emily Dickinson became quite withdrawn and reclusive, her earlier years were spent among school friends at Amherst Academy. Even then, however, she had a penchant for taking long, solitary walks through the woods and fields, and some think that her father’s concern over these un-chaperoned excursions is what caused him to purchase Emily’s faithful Newfoundland, Carlo. In many of her letters to friends and relatives, Emily makes it plain that being alone and being “lonely” were two very different things. For her, an afternoon spent tending flowers in the family garden, traipsing through the fields with Carlo, or gazing through a microscope at the wonder of life in a drop of stream water was certainly as pleasurable as any afternoon spent with schoolyard friends. Here is what she writes to Thomas Higginson:
          “You ask of my companions—Hills—Sir—
             and the Sundown—and a Dog—large as myself,
             that my father bought me . . .”

She felt the same about books; they were as good as human friends—and possibly better because they engaged her imagination and challenged her Intellect in ways that people rarely could. As one Dickinson scholar noted: “No one could keep up with her.”

In similar fashion, Georgia O’Keeffe displayed an affection for solitude from early childhood. Although surrounded by siblings most of the time, she often retreated into her bedroom to gaze at the black outlines of the trees against the night sky or to study the fine details of a leaf or flower that she’d collected and brought inside. Later, as a young woman, she would venture independently
into the male-dominated world of painters, securing commercial work and a series of teaching positions, and yet carving out hours of solitary time in order to hone her own skills with pencil, paint, and charcoal.

Having read tons of material on both of these women, I know that each of them, at times, felt the immense joy and burden of choosing solitude in a world that, even today (and especially for women), views sociability as the litmus test of psychological health. And yet each did so despite its social cost precisely because, like the men in their lives, they believed their work had value, and that, given the proper time and attention, it would be worth the effort and sacrifice.

2. They had a spiritual relationship with Nature and were not afraid to get
    their hands dirty.

While the one existing daguerreotype of Emily shows her as a well-dressed
young woman with neatly pinned-back hair and smoothed skirt, we know from her letters and from her poems that she reveled in all things earthly. From the snake in the grass, to the rain in the gutter, to the bee in the hayfield . . .
for Emily, the earth seethed. It spoke to her like a lover and she listened so very, very well. See how she elevates the ordinary nouns of grass, rivers,
wind, heat and makes of them something extraordinary:

There came a wind like a bugle;
It quivered through the grass,
And a green chill upon the heat
So ominous did pass
We barred the windows and the doors
As from an emerald ghost;
The doom's electric moccasin
That very instant passed.
On a strange mob of panting trees,
And fences fled away,
And rivers where the houses ran
The living looked that day.
The bell within the steeple wild
The flying tidings whirled.
How much can come
And much can go,
And yet abide the world!

And Georgia! She was a true Earth woman who collected shells from the sea and bones from the desert and walked countless miles into the hills around
her Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, sleeping underneath her car when it was too hot to paint, shipping the cow skulls and pelvises back to New York by train
when her husband fell ill and needed her to come home. By nature both visual and tactile, when her eyesight failed her later in life, she turned to sculpting
and of course, mastered it.

Despite their solitary nature, neither Emily nor Georgia believed in the ivory-tower separateness of the scholar-artist. Both poems and paintings came through the experience of their bodily senses, which gave it an un-restrained richness that was rare in the work of their female contemporaries. Especially today when most of us spend our time before a back-lit screen, we must, MUST remember to get out into the world of bones, birdsong, snakes, seashells, and yes--even dirt!—in order to bring that life back to the page or to the canvas.

3.  Both had a female friend or relative who acted as an emotional ally, and who supported their image as artists.

Emily’s devoted but complex friendship with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert (Susan married Austin and lived next door to the Dickinson’s) is well documented. Emily sent Sue more than three hundred letters, and Sue often acted as Emily’s muse and, at times, her editor. That Emily frequently made changes in her poems that Sue had suggested, attests to the poet’s high regard for her friend’s intellect and aesthetic. Lavinia “Vinnie” Dickinson, Emily’s younger sister, played an equally supportive role in the life of the poet. Always protective of Emily’s solitude, Vinnie provided the necessary buffer between her reclusive sister and the outside world, and thus facilitated the time and space Emily needed to create her body of work. It was Vinnie who, after Emily’s death, discovered the stitched booklets of original poetry in Emily’s dresser and helped to bring them to the world’s attention through Sue Gilbert and Mabel Loomis Todd.

For O’Keeffe, there were many different friends over the course of her lifetime, but it was her classmate from Columbia University, Anita Pollitzer, who was probably the most sustaining. The letters between the two are filled with things mundane, profound, joyful and sorrowful, but always with encouragement one for the other. It was Anita who introduced Georgia to Alfred Stieglitz, who later became Georgia’s husband and art dealer.  In fact, so sure was she that Georgia’s work had merit, Anita took a batch of charcoal drawings to NY to show Stieglitz without Georgia’s knowing. O’Keeffe was furious at first, but later, forgiving. One wonders what might have happened had Pollitzer not taken the risk!

As social constructs morph ever more rapidly and technology out-paces our ability to grasp its many positive uses, these two women from the past still do, I believe, give us templates of a creative life from which we can benefit:
1. Value your time and stake your solitary space.
2. Get your hands dirty.
3. Lean on a friend.

This month, we celebrate them . . . and you!

Editor's Note:  

Jen Bryant has published more than 25 books for children and teens, many of them based on historical events and biographical subjects, especially artists. Picture books include Georgia’s BonesMusic for the End of TimeCall Me Marianne and the Caldecott Honor book, A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams. Her novels include The TrialPieces of GeorgiaRingside 1925Kaleidoscope Eyes, and The Fortune of Carmen Navarro. Jen lives with her family in Chester County, PA and can’t wait for Phillies baseball season to begin.


  1. I am in the midst of reading a biography of Temple Grandin - and while not an artist, she too, is a visionary who "found" herself in solitude, nature and friends - poweful allies, all. It sometimes seems that, as a culture, as we advance technologically, we retreat in knowledge of the natural world. Your advice is excellent. (as is your choice in baseball teams - go Phils!)

    1. To a fellow Phillies fan:

      Yes, bring on those red-and white pinstripes, I say . . . they can’t arrive soon enough!
      And thanks for the reminder to look for a T. Grandin biography. I’ve heard her interviewed on NPR--she’s fascinating. Will have to get that biog. for summer reading.
      And re: the Nature withdrawal: I just read that an astonishingly high percentage of very young kids are being diagnosed with nearsightedness because they’ve failed to develop the eye muscles that are normally used in outside play! (good grief . . .)
      Let’s hope we can nudge the next generation away from the screen a little more often!
      Thx again to you & to Margo for this great WH project. Wonderful stuff.

  2. I loved this! Thank you! I visited Santa Fe last summer. Georgia O'Keefe is a fascinating artist.

    1. Thanks, Mindy! Santa Fe is one of my favorite places to go . . . although it's been several years since my last visit. I have a cow skull over my desk that I brought back from my first trip to NM when I was researching GEORGIA'S BONES:
      (Let me know if you'd like a copy and I'll send it)
      Ms. O'Keeffe has so many fans . . . she was truly a great lady!

  3. I'm fascinated by both these women as well. We do need "a trail of breadcrumbs" to get us outside these days-thanks for highlighting these two profound women.

    1. Thanks for this message . . . and I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I see from your profile that you like some of the same books & movies that are my favorites, too! I love The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate . . . has she written anything since then? That was a great book--very intelligent, but also fun and well-paced. Another woman who isn't afraid to get her hands dirty, come to think of it! :)

    2. Thanks Jen. I adore Calpurnia Tate and I'm waiting for what ever Jacqueline Kelly comes up with next. I'm was amazed at the depth of her writing for her first time out!

  4. Replies
    1. Glad you did . . . and you have a fascinating job! (just read your bio. page on your website). I will look for your Y/A novel and will also look for the Antiquities Museum the next time I in Atlanta. I had NO idea that Cleopatra had four children.

  5. Excellent choices. I'll have to think about who I'd want to meet.