Georgia O’Keefe loved the American Southwest. Her colorful desert landscapes and iconic skulls left an indelible impression on me even when I was very young and first learning to draw and paint. I never quite understood the appeal of that rather bleak, arid landscape until I visited Death Valley a few years ago: The wide open spaces, the emptiness of it all, are simultaneously both breathtaking and humbling. It’s kind of like visiting the ocean for the first time, and realizing how small and insignificant a thing you really are. And there are colors and forms that live in the desert that you would never find in nature anywhere else.
Later on I discovered her voluptuous flower paintings and other botanical works, and I have never quite been the same since. She remains my very favorite artist, and I am extremely flattered to say that my fledgling painting style has been compared to hers. And while that’s complimentary to hear on the one hand, it’s kind of frustrating on the other.
As an artist, you want to be unique. You want to somehow standout from other artists – it’s a very natural impulse. But worrying about not being original can really hold you back from producing your own work. It’s a stumbling block – you stop before you even get started.
As a friend and I were discussing not long ago, it’s almost impossible to be completely original these days, or at any other time in the history of art, for that matter. The great masters of long ago had influences, and their influences had influences, and so on and so on, back to the time when humans first started painting on cave walls – now those works were, one could probably say, entirely original. Even my heroine Georgia had her own influences, works that inspired her and that she took away from to go on and create her own magnificent style.
So if succumbing to our artistic influences is inevitable, then maybe we shouldn’t even try to fight them. Or at least not get so anxious about it if people tell us our efforts remind them of so and so’s work (or maybe that’s just me). Instead, we should be grateful for our influences, both past and present, and for the impetus to create for ourselves that they provide. If Georgia O’Keefe had not been inspired to paint, had not been influenced and moved by the beauty of the world and her desire to express it, we wouldn’t have her wonderful paintings to enjoy today. Without them, I might not have been inspired as a young person, and probably a lot of other budding artists might not have been inspired, either.
So whenever I begin to question myself and my work, what it is that I have to offer or say to the world that is special, I think back to my conversation with my friend, and of Georgia and my other favorite artists who probably struggled with that same question themselves at some point in their lives. I may never be as talented or as famous at they are, but that isn’t the point: The point is to express, to share, to speak my peace through my art, whether it’s a painting, a photograph, my writing, or any other creative project. And that’s true for every artist in any media. I remember that idea, and then I get to work.