Off in the Far Away Somewhere: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawaii

Well, one thing I learned from this film is that Georgia O’Keeffe is Georgia O’Keeffe and not Georgia O’Keefe.

In other words, Georgia O’Keeffe is someone I had heard of enough to assume how her name was spelled, but not someone I was familiar enough with to actually be right about that. (Apparently the same is true of the people who created the (misspelled) poster for this film.)

The visuals of this 15 minute short film are nearly all still photos, with a few very short film clips of scenery that presumably is the same now as it was in O’Keeffe’s time. There is also some explanatory text.

The audio, aside from background music, consists of Sigourney Weaver and Zach Grenier reading from letters O’Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz sent to each other.

The subject of the film is a trip O’Keeffe took to Hawaii in 1939. Though she was already well established as a successful and famous artist, she accepted a commission from some pineapple growers’ association in Hawaii to create the visuals for an advertising campaign. The film doesn’t explore the moral ramifications of an artist shilling for business, except to say that she rarely accepted such offers, and that Stieglitz disapproved.

The association paid her expenses to travel round trip from New York, and to stay in Hawaii for three months.

Remember, this was decades before Hawaii became a state. Probably most Americans either hadn’t heard of it, or didn’t know it was an American territory, kind of like I’m sure the vast majority of Americans today know nothing of American Samoa or the Northern Mariana Islands, and certainly don’t think of them as part of this country.

I’ll offer a few observations on things that caught my attention.

O’Keeffe is clearly very receptive to experience—in Hawaii certainly, but on the train trip across the country as well—especially visual experiences. Which is not the least bit surprising for a painter. It’s a nice reminder to stay aware of the beauty that surrounds us in life, the way she lovingly describes everything from the snow-covered trees in Utah to the many beautiful flowers in Hawaii unlike any she had ever seen anywhere else. But it’s nearly always the visuals. She rarely writes about what she heard, what she did, what the people in a given place are like, etc.—just the colors and shapes of the things she saw and how they made her feel.

She is obviously very impressed with Hawaii, remarking about how perfect it all is. The climate couldn’t be better, it’s as beautiful as any place she has ever experienced, etc. Which makes me think, “Why don’t I live somewhere that I feel that way about?” Indeed, that’s a not uncommon thought I have. If not a place I find visually very pleasing, then a place where I love the culture, find I really fit in well with the people, or something ideal like that. For one thing, probably 80% of places in the country, maybe the world, have climates I much prefer to where I am now.

I think it’s one of those things where what you have is not quite bad enough to create an urgency for change, at least when change would involve considerable risk and uncertainty. You know, if I found my environment utterly miserable, I wouldn’t have much choice but to get off my ass and do something about it. But really there are things to appreciate about my life where I am now, things that I’d be giving up if I left. It’s not all bad by a long shot.

That’s the thing, though. By being just good enough to make me hesitate to leave, it may be keeping me from living somewhere that fits me better and where I’d be happier. So maybe I’d be better off in the long run if things were just a little worse here, enough to get me to leave.

I don’t know that Hawaii is where I would choose to live. It’s not a place I’ve really considered. But I will say that this film is consistent with my pre-existing impression of Hawaii, which is all or mostly positive. I’m not sure why I’ve never seriously considered living there. Maybe I should. (Honestly, though, the most likely place I’ll relocate to, if I go anywhere, is New Orleans.)

Interestingly, for all the awe and appreciation O’Keeffe expresses about Hawaii and how perfect it is, she ends her trip a little early so she can return to New York, mentioning that she wants to come back to the “real world.” There was something dreamlike about Hawaii’s perfection that didn’t feel healthy to her as a long term environment. Maybe like in Annie Hall when Alvy’s friend is extolling all the advantages of southern California, how nice the weather and everything else is, how you don’t have to put up with all the shit you do in New York, and Alvy’s contrarian response is “You know, it’s important to make a little effort once in a while.”

I don’t think that would concern me so much. If I lived in some idyllic, beautiful place where it was easy for me to consistently be happy, I don’t see myself as the type to be dissatisfied with that because there isn’t enough challenge. Living in paradise sounds pretty damn good to me.

By the way, an interesting reminder of how things have changed (in this case, for the better) is when a newspaper article that flashes by for a few seconds refers to O’Keeffe as “Mrs. Alfred Stieglitz.”

I don’t think they ever say what happened with her commission to produce art for an advertising campaign for pineapples. I mean, they show multiple pieces she created; maybe the implication is that they were the ones she made for the group paying her specifically, but I don’t know.

She remarks in one of her letters toward the end, in describing a piece she has in mind, that she would very much want to come away from this trip with at least one painting. But text on the screen moments later mentions that soon after the trip “twenty canvases inspired by O’Keeffe’s trip were displayed in a show,” a heck of a lot more than one. So I’m not clear on the dividing lines between things she painted for the advertising campaign, her “canvases” displayed in this show, and what she’s referring to by a “painting” when she writes of wanting to do at least one.

It’s interesting that, according to text at the end, this trip seems to have inspired O’Keeffe to travel a great deal more. After the war, and after Stieglitz died in 1946, she traveled all over the world in her golden years, including back to Hawaii multiple times.

Pleasing little film, I suppose. Its greatest relevance for me was as a reminder that there are places much, much closer to perfection than where I am now, and that maybe it’s time I did something in response to that awareness.