Last week, I went to New Mexico from Tuesday through Thursday to be a part of Emergent Village's "Vision Team" which met during the Emergent Gathering in Glorieta. I've been to most states in the US thanks to my parents' fondness for car trips, but I'd never been to New Mexico. So although I knew that there was warm, welcoming, and fascinating community waiting for me at the conference center, I lingered a bit in Santa Fe on Tuesday morning after I arrived. I found a coffee shop, had lunch, and then made my way over to the Georgia O'Keeffe museum.
I wandered my way around the small collection, watched part of the introductory video, and then looked around a bit more. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself tearing up and trying not to attract attention. I was just overwhelmed by the museum's testimony to one woman's bravery. O'Keeffe was not only one of the first women to paint abstract paintings in the U.S. She was one of the first people in the U.S. to do so. A lot of people hated what she did, and it was hard to do, and hard to keep doing, but she kept at it, and her vision just became bolder and more revelatory as time went on.
But her life wasn't without complication. She fell in love with Arthur Stieglitz, who clearly understood the beauty of her soul and her body. He took some incredibly sensual photographs for her and displayed them, and from that point on, everyone saw O'Keeffe's paintings as thinly-veiled sexual iconography. It was impossible for a flower to just be a flower, and if it was something more, then it was wild and wicked and naughty. And it wasn't quite as great.
For a while, O'Keeffe retreated. She painted pears which were so simply and clearly pears that no one could accuse her of trying to imbue them with her supposedly pervasive sexuality. But she couldn't stay in retreat, because she simply didn't see the world as others did. In fact, she claimed that she painted things exactly as she saw them, and when finished, others looked at her work and called it abstraction. The paintings from the end of her life are perhaps more rooted and structural, but just as bold, just as brave as ever.
How does a woman become that brave? The last time that question struck me was in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. My kids were pulling at me to move on, but I stood in front of the display of Janis Joplin's clothes and albums in absolute awe. Janis was another totally brave, totally original artist. But she flamed out much earlier than O'Keeffe, killing herself first little by little and then completely. Both women were geniuses, but one was an addict with all the lies and falsehoods that go with that, and the other allowed herself to be seen and known and loved.
I thought and talked about a lot of other things in New Mexico, but the questions that started in the O'Keeffe museum are the ones that stayed with me. Did O'Keeffe succeed because of Stieglitz or despite him? Did he make her career or almost destroy it? Those questions can't really be answered--this relationship had both a gift and a cost, like all relationships have.
Stieglitz didn't make Georgia O'Keeffe brave, but her saw her bravery and loved it, and made sure that she didn't play to an empty house. She didn't need to be known and understood by everyone, but it clearly made an enormous difference in her life (and his) that she was known and understood by someone.
We'll never step out on our own if we need to get permission from the whole world first, but in the end, we aren't ever really brave on our own. As a Christian, and as a Christian leader, that insight feels like an important one.