By Carol Howard
Before she became an icon of American modernist art—known for her paintings of southwestern landscapes and cow skulls, New York skyscrapers and sensual flowers—Georgia O’Keeffe visited Asheville. It was August 1916, and the cash-strapped, 28-year-old O’Keeffe was leaving one art-teaching post at the University of Virginia for another one in Texas. Before heading out West, though, she felt she had to see Western North Carolina. Her frequent correspondence with Anita Pollitzer, a suffragist and women’s rights advocate, first drew O’Keeffe’s attention to this region.
The two women had met in New York City in 1914 at Columbia’s Teachers College, where they were enrolled in courses in the “practical arts” such as drawing and painting, and where they absorbed the progressive educational theories of John Dewey. An art teacher and aspiring artist herself, the 19-year-old Pollitzer was a Charleston, SC native whose prosperous family spent summers in the cooler NC mountains. She wrote to O’Keeffe from Hendersonville and Skyland in July 1915: “Have you ever been in this part of the country—Mts—great big high ones lots of sky & ground—Much air to breathe & flowers to pick.” O’Keeffe’s idea of a sojourn took shape that Thanksgiving as her boyfriend in Virginia suggested a trip to a Weaverville cabin. When O’Keeffe and the boyfriend parted ways before the vacation, she arranged the trip with friends instead.
While camping and hiking around Asheville, Weaverville and Mars Hill, O’Keeffe was so taken with the region that she wrote to Pollitzer, “We camped nights—had a tent—just did as we pleased—you can’t imagine how much fun it was.” Camping in the Blue Ridge of both Virginia and North Carolina inspired O’Keeffe’s artwork that summer. She made contour drawings of farms nestled in the “blue misty mountains” and even sketched the interior of her tent. “I got up there in those mountains” surrounding Asheville, “and I simply couldn’t leave till the last train that could get me [to Texas] on time,” she told Pollitzer. These landscape sketches on odd bits of paper offer an early glimpse of O’Keeffe’s characteristic method of quickly capturing an image from nature to later develop into a full-scale watercolor or oil painting. “I make little drawings that have no meaning for anyone but me,” she once explained.
It is remarkable to read the correspondence between two young women starting out in the world more than a century ago, seeing what they notice about this region’s natural landscape, even as they discuss art and travel and their future plans more broadly—all on the eve of America’s entry into World War I. That O’Keeffe would soon become a major American artist and Pollitzer a notable feminist activist (her nephew, folk legend Pete Seeger, described her appreciatively as a “firecracker”) makes the letters even more compelling.
In the letters of 1916, we also find a window into what happens when two women support each other’s careers. O’Keeffe recommended Pollitzer to succeed her in the Art Department at UVA. Pollitzer took the position. Pollitzer showed O’Keeffe’s drawings to Alfred Steiglitz that year. Steiglitz was the photographer and arts impresario in New York—he and O’Keeffe later married—who introduced Matisse and Picasso to American audiences and who became the most energetic promoter of American modernist art. Thanks to Pollitzer’s advocacy, O’Keeffe’s career as an artist was born.
Carol Howard is dean of academics at Warren Wilson College. The complete correspondence of O’Keeffe and Pollitzer is collected in Lovingly, Georgia, edited by Clive Giboire (1990).