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Rita Farin : Georgia's on my mind...

Georgia's on my mind…

The role of relationships, love and solitude in the creative process.

By Rita Farin

"Who wants to spend their life painting rabbits and copper bowls?" asks the 91-year-old Georgia O'Keeffe in her 1977 documentary. Good question. I had started off searching for information on the relationship between O'Keeffe and Stieglitz. I have always been intrigued by the love stories between famous artists and writers: Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt; Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; Susan Sontag and Annie Liebovitz; Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre; Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey. And Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. So when I was flipping through TV channels last week, the Lifetime drama on O'Keeffe drew me in. I watched as O'Keeffe decides to leave Stieglitz. She realizes she needs to be alone to paint in New Mexico. She feels relieved, but also feels like her heart is still half his. They both feel that way.

I understand. Nothing is more intoxicating than a creative connection. To see the world in the same way as someone else can make you fall in love in the most passionate way. Watching that connection on screen reminded me of my most recently ended relationship. Jim and I noticed and shared the subtleties in nature and light. We didn't have to speak most of the time. We worked on creative projects together and played by coming up with all sorts of hilarious and interesting ideas. When this type of relationship dies, your heart breaks in a different way than in other breakups. It makes you wonder a lot of things. How will I continue to create without that well of love to ground me? Who will I share my view of the world with now? Who will spark my creative play and laughter?

When Jim and I first broke up, I sought a lot of external support. I began building a new network of people to socialize with. Since I was new to Atlanta when I met Jim, most of my social life concentrated around him and his friends. Without him, it was time to find new things to do and new people to do them with. And to rely on my old friends, family and colleagues around the world for the support I needed.

And then I stopped. All of a sudden, like O'Keeffe, I just wanted to be alone. As if I needed to hunker down. Just be quiet. Listen to me and only me. My own creative guidance. Not talk about it. Not complain about it. Not focus on a romantic relationship that drained my energy. Just to be quiet and listen. And do. Write and paint and build my new coaching practice. Rediscover the inspiration and motivation I had lost when sadness and frustration decided to take over. I requested silence, explained that I needed time alone. My friends and family were concerned.

Intrigued by the dynamics I had seen in the Lifetime movie and, in search of my own answers regarding creative relationships, I began looking for more information on O'Keeffe and Stieglitz. I watched the documentary on O'Keeffe, read through fact sheets and archives. In fact, O'Keeffe didn't leave Stieglitz. She spent her summers away from him, painting in New Mexico, but didn't leave New York altogether until three years after his death. While the movie shows that O'Keeffe discovers her own creative voice only when she spends a significant amount of time in New Mexico, away from Stieglitz, the fact is that she discovered her artistic style years before she met her husband. This process of creative awakening was even more fascinating to me than their relationship.

O'Keeffe had been trained in realism and won an award for her painting of the rabbit and the copper bowl. But then she stopped painting. "I was taught to paint like other people and I knew that I'd never paint as well as the person I'd been taught to paint like. There was no reason for me to attempt to do it any better. I hadn't been taught any way of my own." When she moves to South Carolina to teach, she takes the opportunity to discover just that. She writes to her friend Anita, "If I can't work by myself for a year with no stimulus other than what I can get from books, distant friends and my own fun in living, I'm not worth much." During this time, she discovers how to paint to please herself, using charcoal only. She sends a bunch of charcoal paintings to Anita, who thinks they're so good that she forwards them to Stieglitz. And from there, the creative and love relationship is born.

In the documentary, Georgia describes the glue that kept Stieglitz and her together for 30 years. "I was interested in what he did and he was interested in what I did. Very interested…That's how we got along at all." While this creative bond with Stieglitz was powerful, O'Keeffe became a pioneer in abstract expressionism before she met him and continued to be an influential artist long after his death, as well as her own. O'Keeffe outlived Stieglitz by 40 years.

In the aftermath of my relationship, Georgia's story reminds me that a creative life has a progression of its own, independent of relationships. And sometimes it requires a deep silence to move past the copper bowls and rabbits to our greatest potential. I am grateful that I once shared my heart with someone who saw the world in the same creative light as I did. But I've come to realize that as powerful as that was and as much as it's left me with a deep sense of loss, it's time to ground myself confidently in my own creative voice. A voice that I started developing long before my relationship and will continue growing throughout my lifetime. While I may not have that special connection with one person anymore, I can continue sharing my point of view with the rest of the world.

I had started off searching for a better understanding of creative relationships. But instead, I discovered something more intriguing. I discovered the life of an artist. And I wonder who or what else I'll find as I dwell inward for a while. Thank you Georgia, for paving the way and letting me know that it's going to be ok. To continue venturing creatively alone. •

© 2009 Rita Farin. All rights reserved.

Rita FarinRita has spent the last 20 years studying the creative process. She is a full-time writer, artist and creativity coach focused on helping others unleash their imaginations to bring about new realities. More »