Bookstores already dedicate whole shelves to Georgia O’Keeffe. That didn’t stop Portland author Karen Karbo from adding one more book, How Georgia Became O’Keeffe: Lessons on the Art of Living, to the shelf. Her third in a series of books about seriously influential women, including Coco Chanel and Katharine Hepburn, the recently published, untraditional biography awakens the subject by drawing life lessons from the O’Keeffe model.
Within the first few pages, Karbo writes, “One aspect of the myth is that there’s an objective truth about her life,” letting the reader know that she’s steering clear of straightforwardly rehashing the hard facts of the painter’s life. She’s not really looking to analyze O’Keeffe’s work. Instead, Karbo digs, and often speculates, through a set of circumstances.
If you’re hankering for an art history lesson, this is not your book. There are some references to O’Keeffe’s celebrated style and to husband Alfred Stieglitz’s impact on modern art and the art of photography. But mostly, Karbo dissects O’Keeffe’s personal life—the lonesome upbringing, wandering tendencies, fascinating love affairs, dysfunctional marriage, and artistic struggles and triumphs of the woman behind the flower paintings.
Problems start with Karbo’s interjections of her own opinions and narratives. She jumps into stories about meeting her husband through the video game EverQuest and undergoing surgery the day before Thanksgiving, making the difference between insightful lessons and unnecessary self-referencing difficult to distinguish. Her striving for relevancy to current generations is muddled in the excessive hopping back and forth between how Georgia became O’Keeffe and how Karen became Karbo.
Thankfully, Karbo has her moments of humor. Those familiar with her writing know her voice is witty and clever, which adds a much-needed spin to such an academically regarded artistic figure. In the end, her lighthearted undertone, along with O’Keeffe’s intriguing experiences, are the two successes of the book. Despite sometimes feeling that Karbo’s retelling is like that of a storyteller who is easily hung up on tangents born from sparked memories, she still delivers an entertaining portrayal of O’Keeffe’s eccentric personality and bohemian lifestyle.
Although not the
ideal gift for all Portlanders this holiday season, Karbo’s take on
O’Keeffe could be the perfect stocking stuffer for art-loving,
middle-aged women seeking inspiration.
BUY: How Georgia Became O’Keeffe is available at bookstores now.