A Career Lesson from Georgia O’Keeffe

Two things happened last week, within twenty-four hours.

I visited a major Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the Phillips Gallery in Washington, DC.  I saw room after room of dazzling art, supported by just the right amount of wall text. I had not known how her work evolved through an expanding technique.  Unhappy with traditional art education, this woman born in the 19th century finally decided to work through the art  theory of Arthur Wesley Dow.  He advocated starting with a charcoal pencil, learning to draw, to recognize forms, to reduce what you see to its simplest shape.  After that, the student is to work exclusively with the color gray, and after that, choose one color to get to know intimately.  O’Keeffe chose blue.  So this exhibit had an extensive display of charcoal, then gray, then blue (midnight! navy! turquoise! robin’s egg!).  Etc.

Could this step-by-step approach be the reason her works seem so confident, so strong, so assertive?

Just after seeing the exhibit, I met witht Monty.  He has a responsible, good-paying federal job.  Yet he yearns to do something else – to indulge in his passion for something more creative, more intimate, more communicative.  His discomfort is intense, and he feels restless and quite hopeless.

Do you see the connection?  I think I do.

O’Keeffe was unhappy with the traditional path other art students were pursuing.  And Monty doesn’t seem content with doing what other people do.  The objective measure of success doesn’t seem to be working for him.

We talked about O’Keeffe’s discipline of working with one step at a time. Monty realized that this is what he hasn’t done – he needs to go back to the charcoal sketch step.  What is his first step?

We decided it is to gather information.  What are the salaries of people in the creative fields he craves?  What would his pension pay if he retired early?

The color gray stage will be to add one creative activity to his off-hours.

And after that?  Monty’s work life will become more confident as he realizes he is making choices.

The lessons to be learned from the arts are all around us.  Have you been inspired by something you saw in a museum?

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