Author Karen Karbo knows her audience; she suggests that the reader either received this book as a gift or picked it up in a museum gift shop. I was one of the former—my husband bought it for me for Valentine’s Day.
How Georgia Became O’Keeffe: Lessons on the Art of Living is an unusual book: a synthesis of biography-lite, memoir, and how-to—that is, how to apply the lessons of O’Keeffe’s life to our own. Karbo has organized the painter’s life into chapters such as “Grow” (her childhood), “Embrace” (the beginning of her relationship with the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who would become her promoter, lover, and husband), and “Drive” (the early years in New Mexico). Interspersed among highlights from O’Keeffe’s life are highlights from Karbo’s life (she met her boyfriend while they played a video game), her opinions (she has little use for Stieglitz), and suggestions (get a tan: Georgia did!). Sometimes this curious amalgam works; other times, it just feels like filler.
I admire O’Keeffe’s work. We kept a print of her “White Rose with Larkspur” on our bedroom wall well past its fade-by date, and I’ve been amazed by many of her paintings as I’ve encountered them in museums over the years. But I’m not a devoted enthusiast and didn’t know much about her life, the development of her work, or the arc of her success and fame. So, this book, even with all its “witty” asides, provided many of the important details; in that sense, it worked for me.
But Karbo seems to think most fans of O’Keeffe idolize her inappropriately, viewing her as a poster girl for feminism or back-to-the-land-ism. And Karbo tries—shrilly but not very rigorously—to set that record straight. Ironically, I don’t think that truly knowledgeable devotees of O’Keeffe would be tempted by this book; they’d be reading more serious tomes of biography and criticism, surely.