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Deciphering Our Lady of the Lily

Empowering art, past and present

Elizabeth Turner

In 1912, when Georgia O’Keeffe arrived in Charlottesville, she’d nearly given up on art. “She hadn’t touched a paintbrush in four years,” says Elizabeth Turner (Col ’73, Grad ’85), vice provost for the arts at UVA. “The family fortunes were dwindling. She could no longer afford to study in New York.” O’Keeffe lived in her mother’s Wertland Street boarding house and, when the University opened its summer session to female students for the first time, enrolled in Alon Bement’s art class.

“The University had a profound impact on her career,” explains Turner. An expert on American modernist art, Turner spent the summer at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and Research Center in New Mexico. Immersed in O’Keeffe’s favorite landscape, studio and home, Turner wrote essays to accompany exhibits she is co-curating at the Whitney Museum in New York City and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Both exhibits are expected to open in fall 2009.

Calla Lily Turned Away, 1923, Georgia O’Keeffe. Pastel on paper-faced cardboard, 14 x 10 7/8 inches. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa fe. Gift of The Burnett Foundation. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

“Bement’s class introduced O’Keeffe to the teachings of Arthur Wesley Dow,” explains Turner. Dow taught that art could be therapeutic and empowering, creating a “dialogue” with the viewer. O’Keeffe, an ardent feminist and advocate of progressive social causes, was energized by the idea. Dow’s theories also celebrated the abstract—an emphasis on space, color and line rather than representation.

In the essay Turner prepared for the Whitney exhibit, she argues that it was O’Keeffe’s “ability to intensify colors … (and) her repeated use of shapes like the chevron, the spiral and the arabesque in practically every phase of her work that creates her unique imprint. That was her big innovation.”

It was her abstract interpretation of lilies that made O’Keeffe famous—and earned her the moniker “Our Lady of the Lily”—and her work continues to have broad popular and critical appeal. Art critic Edmund Wilson observed that Georgia O’Keeffe “outblazed the other painters in her circle with her uncanny ability to arrest attention within the space and color of a single object … while the men remained somehow ‘separate’ from their subjects.” Turner concurs with Wilson’s analysis and offers an explanation: “She wanted to connect, to communicate something of herself, and people respond to that.”

Alfred Stieglitz (United States, 1864-1946), Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918, platinum print, 9 1/4 x 7 1/4 inches, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation.

Like O’Keeffe, Turner believes that art is empowering, which inspires her own work as vice provost. She is brimming with plans to integrate art into all aspects of University life, and is thrilled with the success of the inaugural assembly for the arts held last November with choreographer Bill T. Jones.

“O’Keeffe was someone who believed in the public power of art, so she’s a great role model for this program,” says Turner. “We can all feel proud that she came to UVA and had this regenerative period in her career here. That’s what I hope the arts integration program will do for our students and future artists at UVA.”