“One day seven years ago I found myself saying.. I can’t live where I want to — I can’t go where I want to go — I can’t do what I want to — I can’t even say what I want to… I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint as I wanted to.” — Georgia O’Keeffe, 1923
Georgia! I wish I could have known her. I wish she had been my mother, my grandmother, or my aunt. I wish I could have witnessed her ascension, studied her aplomb, drank her courage.
She wasn’t perfectly confident, she was persistent. Her contribution to American art wasn’t invited and caused little celebrity. She was, after all, only a woman—a bold and brassy one.
Maybe it was the times, the hedonism, the threshold of a new era, that allowed her to experiment with what it meant to be a woman—a woman who paints. She let herself be in love with the paint, with line and form and most of all, color. She let herself be in love with life.
How is it that I can, 86 years later, identify with the above quote? I’m still working on my genealogy, and the women are much harder to find and define than the men. They lose their maiden name, they remarry, and we seldom see what they did. Kept house or none is commonly written for wives’ occupation. The arts and unpaid professions are not recorded in the census. Millworker, station master, carpenter, shopkeeper, farmer, these are the occupations filed for the head of household, for the men.
But it’s the wives’ lives I’m obsessed with. Ten or more children some of them had, year after year. I know that most women had talents beyond childrearing and housekeeping. What did they create? How did their talents enhance the lives of their friends and families? If you look deeper, you can find stories describing these women as musicians, artists, bakers, florists, seamstresses, painters, and midwives.
I have no older, living female relatives to emulate. I lost the link to my past. Now I want to find meaning in my life by finding it again. I want to decide how I will be recorded. Artist, mother, wife, daughter, sister, grandmother. How many adjectives do I have time to add? What do I want to add? Who will my granddaughter’s great grandchildren think I was? Or, with such a small family, will my line disappear completely one day?
Could any of these women I’m researching have imagined that someday, someone would be searching for them, looking for her own identity? Where did I get my frizzy hair, gray-blue eyes, and fiery temper? Where did I get the desire to create, to make what’s ugly, pretty? How did I know that I could use fantasy to replace reality? Who else used counting to calm anxiety, skipped cracks in the sidewalk and clicked her teeth to music in her head?
I’ve traced my family back to Ireland. I want these women to give me the will to create, strength and courage, attachment and hope. I want it all back. I never dreamed it’d be there for the taking.
And Georgia? Can I find her in the census for her time? If so, would I find her occupation recorded as none? I am determined to find out.
“I get out my work and have a show for myself before I have it publicly. I make up my own mind about it–how good or bad or indifferent it is. After that the critics can write what they please. I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.”____________________ Edited 12.10.09
— Georgia O’Keeffe
1920 Census information…
Ms. O’Keeffe was indeed listed in the 1920 United States Federal Census as being a single woman, 32 yrs of age, head of household, with the occupation “Artist,” place of business “At home” Chalk one up for that census-taker, or Ms. O’Keeffe’s presence of mind in providing such information.