Still a Life
Still Life (Still Life with Fruit), Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe, 1926. Courtesy of Peters Family Art Foundation; photograph courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art.
by Rosalie Morales Kearns
In the 1980s, having a poster of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting in my college dorm room made me feel sophisticated and grown-up: I’m living in New York, it announced. I’ve been to the Whitney.
The 1980s was also a time when feminist scholars were reclaiming the work of creative women who had fallen into obscurity. O’Keeffe and her art needed no such rescue. Her life was a triumph, her genius recognized during her lifetime—still a rare thing for a woman.
But it turns out that O’Keeffe had younger sisters who were also talented artists, and Georgia was angered by their growing success. She demanded that Ida and Catherine give up painting and stop exhibiting their work. Catherine complied.
Ida, however, continued to paint—when she had time and energy. She cobbled together a living as she moved about the country from one job to another, sometimes teaching art and sometimes working as a nurse. She exhibited her paintings occasionally, but with nothing near the output or the fame achieved by Georgia, and died in her early seventies in 1961, a quarter-century before her older sister.
“A wasted life,” was how Georgia summed it up.
I learn about the sisters only now, at an exhibit at the Clark Art Institute entitled Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow, featuring artwork by Ida and black-and-white photographs of Georgia and Ida smiling together, before their estrangement.
In one of Ida’s painting there’s a vase in a color that I lack a word for, but I could stare at it endlessly. In an intriguing seven-part series, she depicts the same lighthouse using different styles and perspectives. Another painting draws my attention again and again: Still Life with Fruit (1926), with three peach-like, apple-like fruits that she’s transformed, somehow, into red-gold glowing things.
A friend messages me with a screenshot of someone else’s social media post: a photo of a slip of paper with a man’s name and a town written on it. Shot in the dark, runs the post. Anyone know this man? And my friend’s additional comment: Can you ask your father about this?
Something about the handwriting tells me that the paper is old, that the military rank noted before the man’s name is from World War II, that the man in question is dead.
Let’s call him Jim Wagner. The location, a few miles from the small Pennsylvania town where my father was born and raised.
“Oh yes,” Dad says right away. He explains that Jim was a good friend of Dad’s brother Bob. I learn that Jim died five years ago, at the age of ninety-five, his life quickly described: a farmer, never married. And then an odd fact: upon his death he’d bequeathed a staggering sum of money to a local Protestant church.
As I listen, a picture forms in my mind, a memory from my uncle’s funeral seven years ago. Bob Kearns had lived to be ninety-three, healthy and living on his own. The grieving relatives and neighbors were from a different generation. Even my dad is a decade younger. Then in stepped a dignified, elderly man in a suit and tie, clearly the same age Bob had been.
Afterward I’d pressed Dad for information about the man. I needed to know that others could also reach that age with mind and body intact. I remember the wistfulness and affection in Dad’s voice, the gratitude for this show of friendship. That’s Jim Wagner, he farmed outside town. Yes, still lives on his own. I remember my own regret at not knowing this stranger.
Lately, our cat Godiva has taken to draping herself around my head at night.
She expands to fill the space available, gently but inexorably pushing my head to the edge of the pillow. I sleep fitfully and wake up just enough to realize how uncomfortable I am.
As I run my hands along her soft fur, the configuration of head and tail and paws makes no sense. I want to move her out of the way but fear hurting her, pushing a limb at the wrong angle. In the dark she’s incomprehensible.
Godiva cradles my head between her paws, purring through my fruitless efforts to shift her. In my half-waking state I get a fleeting sense of my head as a foreign object, a large hollow sphere, like a parade float.
She makes no move to give me more room. Perhaps I’m just as unreadable to her.
The photographs of Georgia and Ida exhibited at the Clark were taken by Alfred Stieglitz, renowned and enormously influential photographer, and eventually husband of Georgia.
At that moment in 1924, Ida was in her mid-thirties. She didn’t know how her sister would break from her, how difficult her life would be. I’m tempted to read the dark colors of Ida’s later paintings as indications of her mood, of work done in a succession of dreary apartments in stark contrast to Georgia’s sun-drenched home in New Mexico.
In one photo the sisters stand close together, looming over the camera lens. Georgia is breathtaking. Not beautiful by standards of airbrushed magazine covers—she’s got weathered skin, a prominent curving nose, an unapologetic stare. She’s looking into the camera’s eye and does not deign to be impressed. She consents to allow you to look at her, and she is magnificent.
Ida, on the other hand, is cheerful and ordinary.
This, it seems, is how the Great Man saw them.
Georgia, Ida, and Catherine, three brilliant sisters. I think of paintings depicting the myth of Paris, a mortal man set up as judge over the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. He gets to decide which one is the most beautiful.
I find Jim Wagner’s obituary online, see names of cousins, nieces and nephews, and then four names listed as “dear friends.” Searching those names leads me to another obituary: their mother, a woman widowed young. Her obituary lists Jim Wagner as a “dear friend.”
What kind of man must he have been, to win the love and loyalty of the children of his lady-friend, to have them listed among his survivors?
No wonder I was curious about him, seeing him at my uncle’s funeral. I knew there was a story there.
A Georgia-and-Ida–type pair show up in Claire Messud’s novel The Woman Upstairs. The protagonist, Nora, is an artist in her late thirties who lacks time and energy for her art—she has a demanding job, an aging parent. Nora meets a slightly older artist who is well on her way to being world-famous, and the novel charts a dance of friendship and envy, wistful admiration and resentment.
Reading the novel at fifty-six, I want to sit Nora down for a stern talk. Thirty-eight is nothing, I would tell her. Ida hadn’t even taken formal instruction in oil painting until she was thirty-six.
I didn’t start my MFA until I was forty. I was forty-nine when my story collection was published by a small press, fifty-four when my novel came out, from another small press.
These must seem like non-accomplishments to some. But that novel had been an endless assortment of scenes swarming about my imagination for fifteen years. Seeing it out in the world is more satisfying than I could have predicted. The way I would feel if I had painted those glowing golden fruits in Still Life.
A wasted life. Those words of Georgia hover over the exhibition, shape the angle of the story it tells. Opportunities missed. Estrangement, struggle, obscurity.
Like Ida’s, Jim Wagner’s was a life easily summarized.
But there was that piece of paper with his name. There was the curious stranger: Anyone know this man? There was the obituary, the hints of deep connections formed, a life well-lived. Jim Wagner? Oh yes.
Reaching the end of The Woman Upstairs, I want to fast-forward well past the end of the novel. Maybe Nora uses her anger as fuel, lets it feed her art. Maybe she looks back on her life like Marguerite Duras’s narrator in The Lover, secure in her accomplishments, the sweep of memory allowing her to see her movement from bright, insecure girl to magisterial old woman.
I’d spin a new story for the O’Keeffe sisters too. One where Georgia, Ida, and Catherine reach old age together, living in a sun-drenched house in the Southwest, serene and fulfilled. They find joy in each other’s company, whether anyone is there, Great Man or not, to capture it on film.
Some say that the story of Paris judging Athena and her sisters is a misinterpretation of more ancient images, that the original story is of the Triple Goddess offering a mere mortal the golden apple of divine wisdom.
All you can do is take that apple when it’s offered. There’s only so much you can understand—about others, about the shape and worth of a life, a painting, a novel, your own self an object known and strange, held delicately in a cat’s paws.
About the Author:
Rosalie Morales Kearns, a writer of Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch descent, is the author of the novel Kingdom of Women (Jaded Ibis, 2017), about a female Roman Catholic priest in a slightly alternate near-future. She’s also the author of the magic-realist story collection Virgins & Tricksters (Aqueous, 2012) and the founder of Shade Mountain Press.