When a world-famous artist begins to lose her eyesight and puts down her brushes, it is a tragedy. When she starts to paint again, it must surely be a miracle.
"What are those colors?" I asked, shouting over the wind.
O'Keeffe raised her eyes skyward, resting both hands on the cane. She looked slowly all around, squinting against the flying sand, her white dress flapping loudly. Then she lowered her eyes toward me.
"You tell me what they are," she said.
At first I thought she was jesting. I knew she could see them, or I thought she could. But she waited patiently, looking at me. I turned back to the sky.
"They're like pastels." I stopped, focusing on one cloud near to us.
"This cloud is like a grainy orange and red--no, it's more like a peach, with yellows in there too." I gestured widely. It seemed as if one color was superimposed on traces of another. The air was full of fragrances enhanced by a hint of moisture and sharpened by the wind as it passed quickly over the surface of sage and stone, sand and pi±on. Somehow, all that was part of what I saw.
"But there are reds, too." I struggled to think of how to describe the colors. "There is a gray or white behind the reds; and some orange." O'Keeffe's head declined slightly as she listened, her lips creased in a faint smile.
In late summer 1975, John Poling left college to wander the beauty of northern New Mexico and wound up in Abiquiu doing odd jobs for Georgia O'Keeffe. Never did he imagine that one day O'Keeffe's request for help in preparing a canvas would lead to a two-year collaboration that would prove the most rewarding yet most painful of his life.
John D. Poling teaches aesthetics, philosophy, and theology at St. Olaf College, where Painting With O'Keeffe, written originally, he says, out of his debt to O'Keeffe, forms the basis of one of his courses.