In 1908, at a small art school on New York’s West 57th Street, a young man pleaded his classmate to pose for a portrait. She would have to skip a class to pose for him, but after enough begging, 20-year-old Georgia O’Keeffe reluctantly agreed.
She sat down in her black frock, and gazed over her left shoulder, as he quickly and confidently painted in oil.
The portrait ended up winning an award.
Later, O’Keeffe reflected on her own excitement. She had drawn two columns in her notebook. One column said “yes,” and the other column said “no.” She would later recall, “The essential question was always if you want to do this, can you do that?”
If she truly wanted to become a great artist — as O’Keeffe had always wanted to — she would have to concentrate fully on her craft. Modeling for her classmates wasn’t going to help her with that, so she put it in the “no” column, and soon after stopped posing.
O’Keeffe could have easily convinced herself that modeling for her classmates was a productive use of her time. It was flattering to know that she had a “prize-winning” face, and she could earn $1 for a four-hour session. She needed that money badly enough that she would eventually have to end her formal art education and leave New York for lack of funds.
But, O’Keeffe recognized modeling for what it was: Quiet procrastination. Yes, there was something to be gained from her posing. But it was tempting only because it was more appealing than the alternative: putting in the hard work required to become a great artist.
Throughout her career, O’Keeffe would maintain this mindset of foregoing short-term pleasure for the sake of long-term gain. For another example, look no further than this same modeling incident.
This classmate of hers hadn’t actually merely pleaded O’Keeffe to model for him. He also blocked the doorway, and said something she would never forget: “It doesn’t matter what you do, I’m going to be a great painter, and you will probably end up teaching painting in some girls’ school.”
In 1908, it was virtually unheard of for a woman in the United States to build a serious career as an artist. It may say something about just how pervasive this attitude was that someone who had always been as independently-minded as O’Keeffe agreed to model for her classmate, even after a comment like that.
But even on this matter, O’Keeffe maintained a stoic mindset throughout her life. In an article O’Keeffe would call “one of the best things that have been done on me,” art critic Blanche Matthias wrote: “To the many excuses produced by women on the difficulty of having a career, O’Keeffe snorted, ‘Too much complaining and too little work.’” Throughout her life, O’Keeffe refused to participate in exhibitions and anthologies that were dedicated to women artists, explaining that “one is a good painter or one is not…sex is not the basis of this difference.”
It wouldn’t be hard to argue that O’Keeffe was a little harsh, even on herself. She had every reason in the world to complain: Women didn’t have the right to vote until she was 32, and art critics never ceased to sexualize her paintings of close-up flowers, all the while qualifying their compliments by calling her a “great woman painter,” rather than a “great painter.”
But, this mindset worked for O’Keeffe. By avoiding short-term temptations — whether it was earning extra money, listening to the limiting beliefs of others, or playing the victim within those limiting beliefs—she conserved her energy, and channeled it into the one thing that mattered to her: Becoming a great artist.
O’Keeffe did achieve her dream of becoming a successful artist. She made millions in her career, and her work lives on as some of the most important art of the 20th century. As for that classmate of hers, Eugene Speicher also became a successful artist in his lifetime, but in a bit of poetic justice, as one art historian has put it, “he is now virtually erased from the canon of American art history.”
In the confusing flurry that is everyday life, there are always temptations to use your energy in unwise ways. If you aren’t careful, you can think you’re making progress, while actually holding yourself back. It helps to ask yourself: “If you want to do this, can you do that?”
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