Nov

11

The first daughter in a Wisconsin family of dairy famers with seven children, Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887 – March 6, 1986) had decided she wanted to be an artist by the age of ten. What she did become — what she made herself with the sheer power of passion and grit — was not merely an artist, but an art pioneer celebrated as the Mother of American Modernism.

O’Keeffe pursued her childhood vision with unrelenting focus and dedication, from her early instruction by a local watercolorist to her studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to her participation in New York’s Art Students League, where she was mentored by William Merritt Chase. But her journey wasn’t a straight upward trajectory to success. In the autumn of 1908, shortly after winning the Art Students’ League’s William Merritt Chase still-life prize for an oil painting titled Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot, she became disillusioned with the art world, believing she’d never be able to set herself apart from the sea of sameness under the mimetic tradition, which had been the basis of her training. She abandoned painting altogether and spent four years as a commercial artist in Chicago, but eventually returned to painting, in large part thanks to the influence of Arthur Wesley Dow’s radical ideas about making art.

In the autumn of 1915, O’Keeffe created a series of charcoal drawings, which captivated photographer Anita Pollitzer. Pollitzer took them to New York to show them to her good friend, the prominent photographer and modern art champion Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz fell in love with the paintings, which he exhibited in his legendary 291 gallery, then fell in love with O’Keeffe. The two, twenty-three years apart in age, began living together in New York in 1918, married in 1924, and remained together until Stieglitz’s death in 1946. Their magnificent love letters are among history’s greatest romantic correspondence.

In 1929, O’Keeffe started spending her summers painting in New Mexico and became intensely interested in the local landscape and culture, which began dominating her art and went on to inspire some of her most famous paintings. She moved there permanently in 1949 and continued working for more than three more decades, even after she suffered macular degeneration, which left her nearly blind.

More than a century after reconstructionist Maria Mitchell became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, O’Keeffe became an Academy Fellow. She received the prestigious National Medal of the Arts, which reconstructionist Adrienne Rich is the only person to date to have declined), as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed upon an American citizen, one also awarded to reconstructionist Margaret Mead.

O’Keeffe lived to be ninety-eight, sustained by an ethos perhaps best captured in a 1922 New York Sun article that quoted her:

It is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.

Nov

05

When pioneering chef Julia Child (August 15, 1912—August 13, 2004) was finally able to publish her landmark labor-of-love magnum opus Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961, it wasn’t just a seminal introduction of French cuisine to America — it was a pioneering feat of entrepreneurship for Child, who had faced rejection after rejection, struggling for nearly a decade to surmount the oppressive greed of the publishing industry and bring her vision to life in its original creative integrity.

When Knopf finally greenlit the 726-page first volume, the book swoon swelled into the status of a cultural classic and was followed by a second volume in 1972. By then, Child had become not only a legendary chef, but also an influential media personality with her own television shows in an era when few women graced the airwaves — heartening redemption for a woman who, upon finding out she was too tall to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps, had spent her late twenties and early thirties as a typist and an advertising copywriter. Indeed, over the course of her life, Child received numerous awards for her work — a Peabody and three different Emmys for her TV shows and a National Book Award for Julia Child and More Company.

So monumental is Child’s legacy and so enduringly uplifting her story that she has even inspired a delightful illustrated children’s book and a rose species was named after her.

Oct

28

Few artists have captivated audiences with equal enchantment in coffeehouses and at Carnegie Hall, have sung for prisoners and for presidents, have come to be known by first name only and to speak for millions at the same time, becoming the voice of a movement that shaped the course of history. But singer, songwriter, and activist Odetta Holmes (December 31, 1930—December 2, 2008), better-known simply as Odetta and widely celebrated as the “voice of the civil rights movement,” did just that.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. revered her as the “queen of American folk music.” The New York Times anointed her a “mother goddess” of folk and blues. The Washington Post called her a “matriarch for a generation of folk singers.” Reconstructionist Maya Angelou proclaimed that “if only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and a soul like Odetta’s would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognize time.”

Odetta’s influenced fueled a remarkable creative lineage that stretches across Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, Tracy Chapman, Nick Cave, Jewel, and Nellie McKay. In Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, Dylan cites her 1956 album Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues — the same record that inspired young Janis Joplin to become a singer — as a key turning point in his musical career:

The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta… . I heard a record of hers in a record store… . Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar.

So monumental was Odetta’s cultural impact that her life was even adapted in a children’s book.

Above all, however, Odetta considered herself a “musical historian” who brought back to life — to new, more dimensional life, thanks to her remarkable vocal range of soprano-to-baritone — the forgotten songs of chain gangs, cowboys, and the working poor, which she herself excavated from the archives of the Library of Congress. She saw in that music a way to deconstruct the conceits of culture, something she articulated beautifully in a 1965 New York Times interview:

In folk music, complex emotions are spoken about with such simplicity that it’s the highest form of art to me. You can unclutter things.

Oct

14

A generation before reconstructionist Berenice Abbott took her camera to the streets, pioneering female photographer and photojournalist Frances “Fannie” Benjamin Johnston (January 15, 1864—May 16, 1952) revolutionized the cultural impact of the photographic image.

The only surviving child in a well-to-do family, Johnston was raised by intelligent, connected, and progressive parents — her mother was a female congressional journalist and drama critic, an occupation as uncommon for a woman in the mid-nineteenth century as they come. From a young age, Frances was heavily engaged in public life and unafraid to have a voice. After receiving her education at the Académie Julian in Paris and graduating from the Notre Dame of Maryland Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies in 1883, she began writing critical essays and articles for print publications, until she received her first camera as a gift from George Eastman, inventor of the legendary Eastman Kodak cameras and a close family friend. Young Frances fell instantly in love with photography and found in the burgeoning medium an outlet for her creative restlessness and her intense interest in social commentary.

She began with portraits of family and friends, and by the 1890s was already touring Europe as a freelance photographer. An 1895 Washington Times article described Johnston as “the only lady in the business of photography in the city,” admiringly adding that “in her skillful hands it has become an art that rivals the geniuses of the old world.”

She photographed many of the era’s most celebrated public figures, including Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, Alice Roosevelt, Admiral Dewey, and the famed African-American educator, author, orator, and presidential adviser Booker T. Washington, who also asked Johnston to take portraits of Hampton Institute’s black students in a seminal 1899 exhibition aimed at celebrating African Americans’ positive contributions to society. The six-week assignment paid her $1,000 plus living expenses for herself and her assistant — an astonishing sum at the time, and doubly so for a woman running her own business, in a creative field no less. At the Pan-American Exposition of 1901, Johnston took the last portrait of President William McKinley shortly before his assassination.

Bettina Berch writes in the excellent biography The Woman behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston:

By the standards of the day, Johnston was a “self-made” woman. Far from identifying with the poor or the working class, she focused on cultivating the upper class, whose commissions were her mainstay.

Johnston’s seminal 1897 article titled “What a Woman Can Do With a Camera,” published in Ladies’ Home Journal, included the following advice:

Photography as a profession should appeal particularly to women, and in it there are great opportunities for a good-paying business—but only under very well defined conditions. The prime requisites — as summed up in my mind after long experience and thought — are these: The woman who makes photography profitable must have, as to personal qualities, good common sense, unlimited patience to carry her through endless failures, equally unlimited tact, good taste, a quick eye, a talent for detail, and a genius for hard work. In addition, she needs training, experience, some capital, and a field to exploit. This may seem, at first glance, an appalling list, but it is incomplete rather than exaggerated; although to an energetic, ambitious woman with even ordinary opportunities, success is always possible, and hard, intelligent and conscientious work seldom fails to develop small beginnings into large result.

Perhaps most timeless of all, however — and timelier than ever, in our age of aesthetic consumerism where everyone is a photographer — is Johnston’s admonition in the article:

Any person of average intelligence can produce photographs by the thousand, but to give art value to the fixed image of the [camera] requires imagination, discriminating taste, and, in fact, all that is implied by a true appreciation of the beautiful. For this reason it is wrong to regard photography as purely mechanical. Mechanical it is, up to a certain point, but beyond that there is great scope for individual and artistic expression.

In 1913, Johnston and her lover, Mattie Edwards Hewitt, opened a studio together in New York City, where she lectured on women’s entrepreneurship at NYU and began documenting the city’s architecture in the 1920s. The experience further kindled her interest in architecture and its role as a bastion of social status. In 1928, she exhibited a pioneering series of photographs, ranging from the abandoned mac-mansions of the wealthy to the dilapidated dwellings of the poor — a powerful foreboding of the Great Depression and America’s growing income inequality, which influenced photojournalists for generations to come and inspired similar contemporary projects that contrast poverty and privilege in everything from children’s bedrooms to daily diets around the world.

Johnston moved to New Orleans in 1940 — a vibrant city of boundless visual stimulation for the creative artist — and died there in 1952, at the age of 88. She continued to photograph until her final days.