The story behind Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers


A bunch of poets I follow on Twitter liked this Tweet today, so it magically showed up on my timeline, and it’s perfect:

“I have done nothing all summer but wait for myself to be myself again.”

Georgia O’Keefe is famous for her flower paintings that look like, ahem, hoohas. That’s a reductionist distillation of her work, but it’s genpop-accurate because, whatever, we can only maintain so much info in our brains so it’s easier to identify her contributions to the art historical cannon by the most “memorable” thing about her work.

OK, Georgia!

Perhaps, though, with the following passage of her own writing, we can see beyond Georgia’s ~flower vaginas~, and remember why she picked flowers as a focus of some of her paintings in the first place. Because they’re freaking beautiful.

Georgia decided to zoom into the blooms and paint a magnified perspective of flowers after being drawn to a tiny flower in a still life painting by Henri Fantin-Latour.

Here’s what she wrote:

“A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower—the idea of flowers. Still, in a way, nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small—we haven’t time—and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. So I said to myself—I’ll paint what I see—what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they’ll be surprised into taking time to look at it. I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”

That the busy New Yorkers didn’t see flowers, necessarily, and instead mostly saw vaginas (or at least the art history did) is totally predictable and, like, what are we gonna to do? Georgia’s voluptuous flowers have caused celebration for the fornication-fueled folds of the most tender of lady parts, and so be it. Hell yeah. Let us toast the vaginas! Long live the labia! But also, as we cheer, may her idea of magnifying flowers as a means to share with the world what a pause to stop and look at the lilies can do for one’s, well, soul, hold meaning for us as well.

What can you take time to appreciate more closely this weekend? Might I suggest Ram’s Head with Hollyhock? Or your nearest adult, consenting vagina?


Roundup of Ruth Asawa stamps from the USPS

Ruth Asawa’s creative time management advice


Y’all. Ruth Asawa had six kids. Did you know that?

What an impressive human. To raise even one offspring and have an internationally successful and personally meaningful art practice seems like a near impossible achievement. Actually, having an internationally successful art practice AND/OR personally meaningful art practice child-free seems like a nearly impossible achievement.

Here she is with four of six. FOUR OF SIX.

I learned this fact about Ruth in ^this video promoting new USPS stamps featuring her work, intricate wire sculptures that explore how “the relation between outside and inside was interdependent, integral.”

How very relevant in a pandemic that has us all stuck inside and having sweaty pastoral dreams! Also relevant: Stamps, supporting the post office, sending care packages to all the people you miss, etc.

Also, also relevant: The following quote from the USPS video about how Ruth found time to meet her practice, continually pushing her process and forms (all while being, let me just say this one last time, a mom of six, in the mid 20th century).

“Use your little bits of time. Your five minutes here, your 10 minutes there. All those moments begin to add up. … Learn how to use time when it is given to you.”


Art you should know: Robert Frank’s The Americans


Capturing America’s inconsistencies and contrasts is practically a pastime now for the average artist. We owe a tip of our baseball hats, emblazoned in racist symbology, to those who developed this aesthetic with such originality that their historical influence is practically cliché. I’m thinking the hard-nosed, coked in empathy narratives of Dorothea Lange; the searingly lonely dream-scaping of Edward Hopper (#1 all-time fave). An artist who deserves to be part of this lineup of artists that the gen pop rattles off when considering Great American Artists Who America-ed America is Robert Frank.

Actually, Frank, a photographer, was Swiss-American, and his new-citizen status gave his work a non-sentimentality surrounding American Life. In the 1950s, this translated to an incredibly unique source of truth for what was happening behind the technicolor and catchy slogans of the post-war pop culture.

I am always looking outside, trying to say something that is true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what’s out there. And what’s out there is constantly changing.

Robert Frank

In 1955, Frank got a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. For the assignment, he spent two years traveling the States with his family and taking photographs of everyday life in places like Detroit, Savannah, Miami Beach, LA, Salt Lake City, Butte (Montana), and (of course) Chicago. In those two years he took more than 25,000 photographs and 83 of them became The Americans, a book of images that “changed the nature of photography. What it could say and how it could say it,” wrote art critic Sean O’Hagan nearly six decades after the book’s publication in 1958. The Americans, he says, “remains perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century.”

Selections from The Americans was recently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition “Out of the Retina, Into the Brain: The Art Library of Aaron and Barbara Levine.”

Frank’s imagery was subtle but impactful because grandiosity took a backseat to themes of boredom, toil, and blind patriotism. These are everyday Americans who live under the spell of American lore with a sort of dumbfounded despair. (It feels achingly familiar to our social media age—ie. if I’m supposed to be happy here, why am I so sad/mad?)

Frank’s compositions depicting race in America are particularly powerful. Prescient, even, considering hindsight of social photography and the incredible civil and human rights upheavals on the country’s horizon. This theme is, again, where Frank’s individual experiences and characteristics gave him a honed eye for making these observations about our country’s racial cruelty. As a Jewish man, he experienced profiling while photographing in the South. He was put in jail in Arkansas. Told he had an hour to leave town by a deep-South sheriff. This racism indelibly shaped his view of the country, which indelibly shaped everyone else’s view of it too. Moreover, he gave brutalized communities a chance to show their strengths, despite all they faced in 1950s America.

There are too many images, too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art anymore. Maybe it never was.

Robert Frank (in 2008)

Suggested reading:

Art you should know: Genieve Figgis’ haunting paintings


The past few months I’ve been grooving to a morning routine that’s 100% helped me get 85% focused for each day. It involves some variation of tea (I’m that person now… tea drinkers are to blogging about being a tea drinker as marathon runners are to 26.2 bumper stickers), journaling, reading, and watching a meditation or an affirmation video. I know, affirmations seem so corny, but I swear to 20-something granola Jesus, they have helped me out of many a morning funk.

While I try to watch the meditation or affirmation videos ~mindfully~, I sometimes—almost all the time—end up getting distracted and, instead, mindlessly scroll through Pinterest (I figure my subconscious is picking up on whatever’s audibly streaming at me in the moment, so all is not lost). Pinterest is one of the few (two) social media platforms that don’t make my blood pressure rise (the other being Instagram). I end up pinning artwork the most. It’s such a visual platform and has helped me discover many artists whose work I really enjoy or feel inspired by. Or, the best, feel rapturously in awe of.


Genieve Figgis on being a mother, the challenges of being an artist, what she loves about painting, the darkness in her experimental work, and who she finds inspirational.

Genieve Figgis was one such morning scroll find.  

The Ireland-born and -based painter creates murky, dramatic scenes that are at once recognizable but elusive. They continuously capture my attention and then do something with said attention that’s increasingly impossible in an oversaturated visual culture—hold it.


“Not doing what was told would be my future, avoiding that, was just so fantastic”

Painter Genieve Figgis

Her work makes me feel like I’ve been in it before. Not just seen it; known it intimately. Like when you see, for a split second, a face on the street and you do a double-take because it kind of looks like a kid you used to know in high school. And that kid definitely died three years ago.

“The Swing After Fragonard,” by Genieve Figgis (A la, “The Happy Accidents of The Swing,” the 1767 oil painting Jean-Honore Fragonard.

The familiarity I feel toward her acrylic paintings is partly easy to explain: We’ve all seen some crisper version of it, as she often uses 18th century paintings of aristocratic life as her starting point. But her work also feels familiar because of its ability to evoke the kind of primal dread that is exciting and addictive. The kind of dread you can’t turn away from. The kind of dread where you don’t understand you’ve sauntered into something deadly until the teeth around you have already closed… you were just stunned by the beauty and sipping your Earl grey and then BOOM, you’re falling down the throat of the beast.

The dramatic danger, the warning, her paintings seem to emanate is made fully clear after you spend more than a scroll-click-Pin with it. In fact, the more I look at her paintings, the more they seem to melt before my very eyes. I find that darkly exciting too.


“If you’re really enjoying something you don’t need to see the end of the road, the finishing line. That’s not always going to be the ultimate triumph, you know? If you’re not enjoying the journey, the end result will be no good.

Painter Genieve Figgis

Suggested reading:

Roundup: Five Saul Leiter photos to make you feel snow romantic


Saul Leiter was a pioneer of American color photography. His painterly images of 1950s and 1960s city life are so wistful. His work makes me see bad weather, stinky streets, and the humans who inhabit it all — differently. Better. More lovingly.

“A window covered with raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person.” 

Saul Leiter

^ Same.

Here are five of his most lovely snow-filled images that might make this seemingly never-ending winter snow a lot more bearable. At least more beautiful.

Read more about the artist’s life here. Also this: “Saul Leiter, the quiet genius who made the mundane beautiful.”

Art you should know: Dawoud Bey’s Underground Railroad photographs


Dawoud Bey is a MacAurthur Genius Award-winning portrait artist whose most moving photographs are black and white images in urban settings; however, his exhibition currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago happens across a different landscape.

Titled, in a nod to Langston Hughes, “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” is a compilation of 25 photographs taken of places in Hudson and Cleveland, Ohio, that marked the end of the Underground Railroad.

The large-scale images are darkened to mimic the blackness of night, a time of day when it was “safest” to run. The darkness makes it hard to see what you’re looking at, inducing a sinister terror that must, when you think about it, only be .01% (if that) of the sinister terror runaway slaves felt when approaching these final stops toward freedom—a term that feels especially meaningless when faced with the final resting stop, Lake Erie and sky. Canada’s freedom on the horizon, but at what cost? How did these people ever feel free or safe or whole? It seems as impossible as swimming in the dangerous choppy waves of the photograph.

Their reflective nature is particularly Bey-brilliant. With this effect, the viewer sees themselves in the image, in this situation, both long ago and in the modern world. At first, I thought about how alone these images made me feel, no human to be found, just the potential for danger that had to freeze you in your tracks. Seeing a shadow of myself in each image, I also thought about the ways white supremacy has shaped my own understanding of the world. How its effects linger today. I thought of Flint. Of Chicago police brutality. Of my own willful blindness that contributes to modern racism.

I was moved by the titles of his images, too. A forest. A marsh. These seem idyllic to me—because they can. But in light of the darkness of these settings and the truth behind them, I understand how these words and places represented a challenge, a cover, an enemy to the people who had to escape through them without the cover of peace… or even hope… or even, sometimes, other people.

Outside the gallery is a wall of framed photographs Bey curated from the AIC’s private collection. In addition to harrowing images of the murder that racism has justified on American soil are images of people who fought back and found strength in the darkness. Their courage is breathtaking.

The landscape portraiture Bey picked to include in the roundup is also meaningful. A particular Ansel Adams image of a tree, which, in a different context, I would have mused on romantically or in a rosy awe of nature, gave me chills instead. The photograph’s juxtaposition to a lynched murder victim evoked the trauma of a tree, how everything has been affected exploited in the name of “natural order.” It’s a devastating exhibit. It’s an important one. It’s on view through April 14.

Art you should know: Sally Nixon’s 365 Insta challenge

Little Rock-based illustrator Sally Nixon illustrates colorful scenes from everyday life. Their bright colors pull you in, their keen observations of human movement make you stay a while, and their dynamic characters keep you coming back.

One of my first-favorite Sally Nixon illustrations (I now have too many to call it my favorite-favorite) was an illustration of a girl taking a shower and absentmindedly making shapes out of the strands of hair on her shower wall. I totally do that, too! I imagine a lot of us with long hair do. But it was the first time I had seen that private moment shown to me by someone else.

Observation and relentlessly relatable documentation is Sally’s art super power.

She draws all kinds of people but mostly women. Women eating. Peeing. Hanging out. Thinking. Not smiling, but not not-smiling. Women just being ordinarily ordinary people—which is exactly what makes her work so extraordinarily compelling.

Well, that and all the bright details in her backgrounds. I wish there was an Airbnb with rentals composed entirely of Sally Nixon apartments and rooms.

"Bri" by Sally Nixon
I’m also endlessly attracted to Bri, fab pizza-getting undercover spy queen. She’s got secrets and pepperoni up her sleeve! My kind of girl.

Check out Sally’s Etsy, her book “Houseplants and Hot Sauce: A Seek-and-Find Book for Grown-Ups,” or her Instagram, where it appears she’s doing the 365 day creative challenge and posting a new work every day. I can’t wait to see what mundane moment she makes feel like magic next.

Art you should know: Sophia Brueckner’s Captured by an Algorithm

Sophia Brueckner is an artist-engineer whose work offers a warm but unsettling bird’s-eye view of where technology, science fiction, and humanity often meet.

A former software engineer at Google, Sophia brings an exciting perspective to her artwork—a comprehensive understanding of how tech works with an unquenchable curiosity about how future tech might—and encourages ethical standards in designing new technology. At the University of Michigan, for example, she teaches courses such as “Science Fiction to Science Fabrication,” which combines sci-fi imagination with practical invention.

 Her ongoing series, Captured by an Algorithm, is a confluence of all of the above… plus, writing and romance novels, so, you know, sign me up.

The project is composed of commemorative plates (such a strange human endeavor when you really think about it, right? Commemorative plates… like, why plates?); on these plates are dreamy landscape collages pieced together by the Photoshop Photomerge algorithm. The algorithm determines what scans of popular romance novel covers are similar and makes an image based on its decision. Voila, a plate.

Then, because these weren’t weird enough yet, each plate’s collaged artwork is stamped with a sentence from a romance novel, selected based on the number of times readers have highlighted it using Kindle Popular Highlights. (Kindle Popular Highlights are the lines in ebooks that readers highlight most often. You can see the lines other readers have highlighted when you read a Kindle ebook, helping you feel validated when a line you like is liked by others, or perhaps making you feel some insecurity if that popular line meant nothing to you until you saw how much it meant to other readers.)

What I love about Sophia’s work is that it is so uniquely and, I think, lovingly, explores how humans connect in modern leisure-fueled spheres, fluctuating between impersonality and deep resonance with another human by way of technology.

This series makes me think about how we “find” each other in a digital age. Romance novels inherently worship love and glorify that final moment of titillating connection/ climax, but they are also things we read alone—even when we’re reading it on a Kindle and highlighting a passage where others before us have lingered. Thus, these plates, especially when hung together like trophies of human desire as organized by a computer program, feel pretty and nonthreatening (even funny sometimes!) but ultimately disjointed and cold.

It’s not that hard to imagine these plates hanging in a dystopian future’s museum, commemorating the once-great human species and how they loved.

Art you should know: Tomie dePaola’s new book ‘Quiet’

Every year, around this time, more than two decades ago, the first-graders of St. Mary’s Elementary School would gather into the first floor lobby of their brick school building, which was dwarfed, like a first-grader to a sixth-grader, by the soaring, heaven-scraping church in front, and sit their bony little bottoms on carpet worn down from more than four decades of Mary Janes, saddle shoes, Reeboks, and now Nikes.

They were, around this time, used to gathering in such a way, as there was an Advent something or another happening in these makeshift assemblies once a week every December, when the whole school of bony little bottoms would swim out from their individual classrooms and sit together on that same worn carpet and sing and read and light a candle in anticipation of Santa Jesus coming to town. Purple. Purple. Pink. Purple.

But this first-grader thing was just for the first-graders, which seemed very special. Both classes would sit down to listen to Mrs. Sinnot tell a story, whether she was your first-grade teacher or not, which also seemed very special; any shift in the natural school day order created a little baby-sized buzz of excitement.

Now, this Mrs. Sinnot (pronounced sin-ut, but it’s, indeed, very ironic to think of a Catholic school teacher named SIN-NOT… maybe I’m remembering the spelling incorrectly or maybe this is just another little universe miracle we can all thank baby Santa-Jesus for later), this Mrs. Sinnot was just wonderful, as so many first-grade teachers are. Her salt and pepper hair was cropped to the exact dimensions popular with fairies around that time, and she was about the size of the half-pint chocolate milk cartons I’d cup like gold coins in my palm each day in the cafeteria lunch line.

We were gathered here, like the first-graders before us and the first-graders yet to come, to listen to Mrs. Sinnot read aloud her favorite book: “Strega Nona” by Tomie dePaola.

Published in 1975, “Strega Nona” is about an old woman in Southern Italy who is a witch doctor (!) (which is rad but, mind you, she’s never called as much in this Catholic school setting) and she travels the countryside helping cure villagers’ maladies, like warts, because this is a kid’s book and the bubonic plague is some heavy shit.

She also makes pasta. A lot, lot, lot of pasta. Because… her pot is magic! And this magic pot can make as much pasta as Strega Nona ever wants, as long as she blows three kisses <kiss, kiss, kiss> into the pot after singing her magic, pasta-producing spell. (Today this spell is called Grubhub.)

All is well in Strega Nona’s softly lit world, where the colors are creamy and the edges are not sharp, until one day, a man named Big Anthony, her helper, overhears her spell but doesn’t see her do the three-kiss closer <kiss, kiss, kiss>. So, with good intentions but not enough information, Big Anthony makes a magic pot of pasta… but doesn’t know how to turn it off. So pasta grows and goes and grows and goes until it threatens to drown out the whole village in its doughy doom!

When Strega Nona returns, feet sore from a hard day traipsing the hills to bring kindness and, I presume, lavender oils to the warty townspeople, she stops the spell and makes Big Anthony clean up the mess by handing him a fork. Mangia!

… I love this Strega Nona story so much, especially because it’s tied to such a happy memory—someone lovely reading aloud, in a mysteriously exciting school-day kind of way. But even so, I completely forgot about Strega Nona and her magic and that there was ever a time when I was innocent enough to delight in nothing but the imagining of pasta taking over a whole town.

Then I saw a random headline somewhere about Tomie dePaola’s new book “Quiet,” and it wasn’t his name that alit me from within, but that unmistakable illustrative style. I saw the gentle outline of his characters, the thoughtful pastel colors from his worlds, and like the snap-pop of a lighter, my mind shot out “STREGA NONA” from the murky depths, and off I went chasing the clickbait. Finding meaningful stuff in such as way is modern day magic, yes?

“Quiet,” like Strega Nona, is also magical, with illustrations like a hug, but the magic is found in something we all have. No secret recipe here. No fated headline coming your way. Instead, the magic can be found in quiet. In stillness. In the <kiss, kiss, kiss> of shhhhh-ing that can stop, not pasta, but a brain from overflowing. 

“Your mind is so busy. You have to train it to quiet down.”

Tomie depaola

Read the book here or the Kirkus review here. Related: This  wonderful meditation on stillness, gifted to me recently from a new friend.

Slow down.

Listen.

Enjoy.

Mangia.

Kiss, kiss, kiss.

Art you should know: Agnes Richter’s embroidered jacket

Agnes Richter was institutionalized in Germany in 1893 when she was 49 years old. She pieced together this jacket during her time in the asylum using materials on-hand, like linens, wool, and thread, likely from her work as a seamstress in the institution. The embroidery is worn down and sweat stains abound, but some of the writing can still be read in deutsche schrift, a German script that’s nearly obsolete. Some of the phrases historians have deciphered: “I am not big,” “I plunge headlong into disaster,” and “583m,” her case number. Read more here.