Weekends with Georgia

Although Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George (on view at the de Young through May 11) focuses on the artist’s work created in upstate New York, O’Keeffe is famously associated with the arid deserts of New Mexico. Anna Koster, an artist who now lives in the Bay Area, shares her experience working with Georgia O’Keeffe at her beloved Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

An abstracted horizontal landscape of a still lake in shades of blue, grey, and green

Georgia O’Keeffe, American (1887—1986). Lake George, 1922. Oil on canvas. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Charlotte Mack © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

When I was Georgia O’Keeffe’s weekend companion in 1976 in New Mexico, I learned first-hand about her work ethic. Although she was 80 years old and had impaired vision, she still worked in the studio. She laid out her compositions using large sheets of paper and carefully picked the colors from an impressive assortment of tubes of oil paint. She could see around the spots caused by macular degeneration, and sometimes her vision cleared a bit for short periods.

A black and white portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe leaning against an adobe wall

Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918. Photograph, platinum print. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Copyright © Aperture Foundation, Inc., Paul Strand Archive. Photo: Art Resource, NY.

With patience, she planned and made decisions. Applying paint on canvas required more help. John Poling, who was my neighbor on the outskirts of the village of Abiquiu, served as O’Keeffe’s studio assistant, and he supplied a steady hand and a clear eye to brush the paint into areas of the canvas according to O’Keeffe’s instructions. He started out painting the trim on O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch house and ended up in the studio. But that is a story best told by John, and anyone can read his book Painting with O'Keeffe.

Although I was jealous of John—I’d majored in art in college and knew I could have done a better job with the painting—I could not dislike him. John had a kind soul and was a gentle man. Besides, I hid the fact that I was an artist—or was aspiring to be one. My reason for taking the position as O’Keeffe’s weekend companion was not about being in contact with an art world luminary. I wanted time to create my own work. Juan Hamilton, who managed O’Keeffe’s small staff along with many of her affairs, hired me to stay with her and assist with domestic tasks from Fridays at 5 pm to Mondays at 8 am. So I had the full week to draw, sketch, and paint in addition to exploring the New Mexico landscape.

A huge blue sky with puffy white clouds looms large over a desert landscape

O’Keeffe’s fame and accomplishments intimidated me. I did not want her to know that I was trying to carve out my own niche in the art world. Each Friday evening when she asked what I had done since my shift had ended on Monday morning, I gave her a vague answer that led her to believe I was not doing much at all. She was concerned and told me firmly that I should start weaving. She became more adamant as the weeks passed, even though I expressed zero interest. Finally she proclaimed that “we” would get a loom from one of the local weavers. I got the distinct impression that I would have to pay for a loom—or have the cost taken out of my wages—whether I wanted it or not.

Finally, to escape the pressure to take up weaving and to avoid the expense, I broke down and told her that I was painting. That piqued her interest, and she asked me to bring some of my work for her to see. That was not what I wanted. I was just getting started again in the studio after a break, and I did not feel ready for such a review of my art.

A tree in pen and ink

By Anna Koster

But Georgia O’Keeffe was not to be denied. The experience was interesting. When she saw my painting of a hallway leading to a door slightly ajar, she reached toward the painting then laughed at herself and said she had started to open the door. Even now this story gives me a strange feeling, especially with the odd coincidence that the painting she was then completing featured her beloved and mysterious patio door.

A pen and ink drawing of a gate and a garden

By Anna Koster

She told me to keep painting and dropped the subject of weaving. I eventually went to graduate school, earned a Master of Fine Arts degree, and began exhibiting my artwork. 

A landscape in blue and white

By Anna Koster

I have also worked for three decades in art museums. In June I will be going back to O’Keeffe’s beloved Ghost Ranch to lead a week-long workshop based on her approach to art, her favorite subjects—including the New Mexico landscape—and what I learned in my six months of weekends with Georgia.

Don’t miss Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George, closing May 11.