Flirting with Georgia O’Keeffe

Swiss cheese was the way to her heart, and her art.

You rarely see Georgia O’Keeffe cracking a smile, much less interacting with sandwich makings, but here she is peering through a slice of Swiss cheese.

That image was snapped in 1960 by the photographer Tony Vaccaro, who was dispatched to New Mexico to shoot the artist for Look magazine. It was windy that day, so they had a picnic in the car. Vaccaro cut her a slice of cheese, handed it into the back seat, and she held it to her eye like a camera’s viewfinder. He pressed the shutter release.

Presto: “Georgia with the Cheese.”

The thing I like most about that photograph, aside from capturing a goofy moment with a serious person…

…is that it depicts O’Keeffe doing what O’Keeffe does best: Narrowing the scope of the world to its essential elements. “Nothing is less real than realism,” she once said. “Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”

So it’s not the Swiss cheese that counts, it’s the hole, because it limits your field of vision. All that O’Keeffe could see that day, through the cheese, was the photographer. “She was flirting with me!” Vaccaro claimed, sixty years later. It shows the power of an emotional connection — even a comic one — that it stuck with him for a lifetime.

He also photographed Sophia Loren.

No cheese on the set that day, evidently.

O’Keeffe was of course famous for painting blossoms so lively and luscious that art critics compared them with female genitalia, over the artists protestations.

But then, we all pick up our own pieces of Swiss cheese, to frame reality our own way.

Over the last several days, my own Road to Elsewhere has led me to 8,684’, to a friend’s house (thanks friend!) overlooking Rocky Mountain National Park. I’ve stared at the view from the deck for many hours over the past fifteen years, but only recently have I tried to paint what I see.

Like so many drawing students of the last four decades, I was initially taken in hand by Betty Edwards, author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Her instruction to everyone who is expectantly holding a pencil over a white sheet of paper: If you want to draw, you have to learn to see like an artist.

It sounded complicated, as Edward described it: “For the global skill of drawing, the basic component skills are: The perception of edges (seeing where one thing ends and another starts) The perception of spaces (seeing what lies beside and beyond) The perception of relationships (seeing in perspective and in proportion) The perception of lights and shadows (seeing things in degrees of values) The perception of the gestalt (seeing the whole and its parts)”

All she’s talking about is O’Keeffe’s Swiss-cheese viewfinder, to narrow your focus so you actually see, rather than merely looking.

When I awoke this morning the Continental Divide had received a dusting of September snow, which was stunning.

The best part: O’Keeffe and Edwards commanded me to slow the hell down, and appreciate the contours and surprises within my field of vision.

“If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it,” said O’Keeffe, “it’s your world for a moment.”

What a beautiful world it is, if you look in the right direction.

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Road 2 Elsewhere by Peter Moore

Road 2 Elsewhere by Peter Moore

Road 2 Where, Exactly? Hope you’ll join me for this picnic.