Monday, April 15, 2013

Consciousness, Writing, and “George” O’Keefe

By DeAnna Knippling

In college, my playwriting professor asked me, “Does your subconscious help you or hinder you?” I jokingly answered something like, “It’s more a question of whether I help or hinder my subconscious.”

And yet. My subconscious is not the nicest place to be.

For example, I recently finished a novelette that was supposed to be something straightforward about swashbuckling pirates and mermaids. My subconscious took over. By the end, it was about a kid who’d been abducted from his Mayan village and almost destroyed by a god that had hatched on a Spanish treasure ship.  He’s rescued by pirates, but only after most of the crew has been consumed. Years later, he meets the ship again and betrays his crewmates to try to destroy it. I’m not sure why half the stuff in the story happens. Some of it’s pretty horrific, and all of it’s troubling.

I feel much safer working on a conscious level.

So I go to the recent Georgia O’Keefe exhibit at the Denver Art Museum and the question of what to do about my subconscious, that is, to ride it out or try to control it, is on my mind again.

I’m looking at the paintings and sketches up close, because I always wonder what the mindset is of an artist, how they put things together.  A van Gogh is not an O’Keefe. A van Gogh is thick, jabbing stabs of paint, covering up the canvas and punishing it over and over. From a distance, the paintings are lovely; up close, they scare me. O’Keefe’s brush strokes lay down thin layers of pigment in supple-wristed movements. Looking at her landscapes doesn’t just make me feel like I’m outside; I can feel the skin start to burn on the end of my nose and feel grit in the corners of my mouth.

The more I look at her paintings, the more I think - she’s not painting things at all; she’s painting negative space. What looks like a thing - an arroyo, a flower - is more a coincidence of different layers of shaped nothing, filled with light. You know the optical illusion where a solid face appears to follow you around? They’re called “Hollow Face Illusions.” That’s what O’Keefe’s paintings are like.  

I’ve just worked this out when a group of kids comes by and stops at a watercolor. They must have been middle-schoolers. They just had that vibe. Not quite hyped up on hormones, too cynical to be elementary students. They’ve lost the innocence of true childhood but haven’t experienced the things that make you long to run back to that innocence yet.

They’re up close, closer than I am.  They’re breathing on the art. One kid goes, “Look at that sky. A kindergartener did that.” More mocking ensues. Shortly thereafter, the security guard makes them back off, and they move on.

I look at the painting - it’s a sketch, really, a set of quick washes of the back of a church. A few squares, showing the adobe shapes and colors, and a flat wash for the blue sky. Some of the edges don’t match up; some of them overlap. It’s not realistic at all. There’s no detail. It still ripples with heat.

I look at other pictures.

They’re all like that. Flawed.

Yet she filled everything she did with an absolute, unavoidable sense of self, and she makes you feel something, even with a quick watercolor sketch of the back of a church.


“Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they may say something.”

“Slits in nothingness are not very easy to paint.”

“I know I cannot paint a flower. I cannot paint the sun on the desert on a bright summer morning, but maybe in terms of paint color I can convey to you my experience of the flower or the experience that makes the flower of significance to me at that particular time.”

“I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”

“To create one's own world, in any of the arts, takes courage.”


Later I’m sitting outside the gallery and writing all this down.  One of the tour groups that’s been wandering around is full of retirees - people in wheelchairs, people with walkers, people carrying oxygen tanks. They keep shouting at their tour guide. “IS THAT METAMUCIL IN THAT PHOTOGRAPH THERE? SHE SHOULD BE DRINKING METAMUCIL, IT’S GOOD FOR YOU.”

As the last of the group leaves the room, one of the guys goes, “THAT GEORGE O’KEEFE. WAS HE REALLY A WOMAN? YOU CAN TELL.” The guide assures him that she is, in fact, a woman. “HUH. IS SHE DEAD?” And she confirms that Georgia is, in fact, dead. “THOUGHT SO.” And off they go.

By the time their group’s out of sight, I’m not worried about it anymore. Conscious, subconscious, whatever. I may never know what it was that stopped me worrying, but it was at that moment that I figured it out. Right now there’s just the work, not knowing what it means, not letting meaning get in the way. We’ll see.

About the Author: DeAnna Knippling started freelancing in May 2011 and wouldn’t be able to do it without her wonderful family and friends, especially her husband. In fact, she owes a lot to Pikes Peak Writers for helping her be a better writer, especially through the Write Brains, both in the lectures and in meeting lots of other writers.

Her reason for writing is to entertain by celebrating her family’s tradition of dry yet merry wit, and to help ease the suffering of lack of self-confidence, having suffered it many years herself. She also likes to poke around and ask difficult questions, because she hates it when people assume something must be so.

For more kicks in the writerly pants, see her blog at or her ebook How to Fail & Keep on Writing, available at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit.

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