Lessons from the Artist’s Life: Connections Conversations

At MindsEye Designs art studio in Dover a small group of student artists sat around a paint-splattered table, discussing the life and work of Georgia O’Keefe. They were about to read Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keefe Painted What She Pleased by Amy Novesky and Yuyi Morales. This wonderfully-accessible book, with its simple narrative and striking illustrations, tells the story of the artist’s seminal trip to Hawaii. 

Early in her career, O’Keefe accepted a commission to create paintings of pineapples for the Hawaiian Pineapple Company’s marketing campaign. 

Georgia could not and would not paint the large ripe pineapple they wanted, but instead was entranced by Hawaii’s lush native flowers, and would only paint a pineapple in bloom. The resulting paintings were never used in an ad campaign. While the trip may have been a commercial failure, it influenced O’Keefe’s art for the rest of her life. 

To introduce the book discussion in Dover, Connections facilitator Maren Tirabassi gave each participant a lei of silk flowers and offered the traditional Hawaiian greeting, “Aloha.” Laughter erupted when one artist responded, “Hello –a,” and the rest of the group had to follow suit. Once engrossed in the book, the conversation turned serious. 

“Why do you think Georgia wouldn’t paint the pineapple the way the Hawaiian Pineapple Company wanted her to?” Tirabassi asked. 

“She could only paint what she wanted to paint,” replied one participant. Tirabassi asked if the students could relate to those feelings. Many nodded their heads. A participant pointed to an illustration of Georgia O’Keefe in the book. 

“It looks like she is closing her eyes to lower her blood pressure!” Everyone laughed again. Tirabassi asked who was right in the dispute, O’Keefe or the pineapple company.

“There was no happy medium,” someone responded. Someone else suggested that they should have talked it over. Tirabassi asked if any of the artists related to O’Keefe’s feelings. More nods.

“I like to paint flowers, too,” said one participant. “It’s important to paint what you like to paint, not what someone tells you to paint.” 

This conversation was one of a four-part series on famous artists offered by Connections in collaboration with Community Partners of Dover and hosted by MindsEye Designs. MindsEye Designs provides vocational training in the creative arts for adults with developmental disabilities. Here students work in several mediums to explore their creativity and learn skills for art and life, and some also sell their art work. MindsEye artists take great pride in their work. 

Two groups of student artists met for discussions featuring biographies of artists including Jackson Pollock, Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, Alexander Calder, Thomas Locker, and O’Keefe. The theme of “painting what you like,” became central to many discussions and participants agreed that becoming a true artist means being true to your own impulses. At MIndsEye Designs, for example, one artist paints fish, another paints flowers, while yet another prefers to create abstract designs. Each artist at the studio has found their niche, at least for the moment, until inspiration may take them in another direction. 

“We have seen a profound impact on the self-esteem of our participants,” says Jane Hamor, Community Partner’s Enrichment and Community Outreach Coordinator. “Many come to us with a feeling that they cannot do much. Art is a great teacher. It requires skill, but it gives them a lot more. Creating art allows for personal expression, and this seems to be just what our participants need.” 

The same could be said for reading a book about artists: there is much more to talk about than just plot and setting. And this is where Connections comes in. Connections has long collaborated with Community Partners, providing books and facilitated discussions tailored to specific groups. In this case, in addition to the discussions, participants visited regional museums to view original art by the famous artists they read about back at the studio. 

“It’s great to see them sitting around a table, talking about art,” says art teacher Taintor Childs. “Discussing books helps them develop their ideas and think about what they are doing.” 

Connections is all about sparking ideas and finding connections between ideas and what we are doing, between people and books, and between the big characters in our world and ourselves. Learn more on the Connections page of our website at www.nhhumanities.org or contact Susan Bartlett.