March is Women’s History Month

Two large flowers: a pink hibiscus above a white plumeria, with other yellow petals behind the plumeria and a blue background above the hibiscus. Overall, a bright pastel compostion.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Hibiscus with Plumeria, 1939, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of Same Rose and Julie Walters, 2004.30.6

By Emily B.

In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s take a closer look at the “Mother of American Modernism,” Georgia O’Keeffe. One of the most prolific artists of the 20th century, O’Keeffe is best known for her large-scale paintings of flowers.

O’Keeffe was born in Wisconsin in 1887, the second of seven children. By age 10, O’Keeffe decided she would be an artist. Her big break came in 1916 when, unbeknownst to her, famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz presented her art in New York City. This marked the beginning of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’s tumultuous relationship. O’Keeffe would soon move to New York and become Stieglitz’s muse, appearing in hundreds of his photographs. The pair would go on to marry, following an intense affair.

O’Keeffe’s marriage to Stieglitz, who was 23 years her senior, was far from perfect. Though Stieglitz provided O’Keeffe with studio space and connections in the art world, there was a major power imbalance and he was not faithful. His long-term affair with another photographer took a toll on O’Keeffe’s mental health. Despite this, the pair remained married until Stieglitz’s death in 1946.
In the 1920s, O’Keefe began creating large-form flower paintings. Almost immediately, male art critics began to assert that the “essence of very womanhood permeates her pictures.” While her husband promoted and capitalized off these remarks, O’Keeffe was not comfortable with the claims. She said, “…when you took time to really notice my flower, you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don’t.”

O’Keeffe’s artistry was highly sought after. In 1938, she was sent to Hawaii on an all-expenses paid trip, where she was meant to produce a pineapple painting for an advertisement campaign. After nine weeks in Hawaii, O’Keefe had the beginnings of many beautiful works depicting Hawaii and its flora, but there was nary a pineapple painting. She would not complete the contracted pineapple painting until the fruit was shipped to her in New York City.

Through her career, O’Keeffe would befriend other artistic greats. O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams had a friendship spanning 50 years, no doubt bonding over their deep passion for the natural world. O’Keeffe befriended Frida Kahlo in 1931 and there is evidence to suggest they perhaps were romantically involved.

Throughout her life, Georgia’s passion for art never wavered. Even as she grew frail and her eyesight began to deteriorate, continued painting with assistance and even learned to work with clay. O’Keeffe’s appreciation for nature is timeless and is surely why she has remained one of the most beloved American artists.

Artwork by Georgia O’Keeffe and her artist friends is available to borrow from the Art Education Collection at the Central and Glenwood branches.

Emily is an Instructor & Research Specialist at the Central Branch. She enjoys puzzling, reading, listening to music, and re-watching old seasons of Survivor. 

Selected Women’s History Month Classes

Creating the Legacy
For adults. Register here.
In the world of codes and ciphers, women have always played a role. Throughout American history, women have provided vital information to military leaders, searched for enemy secrets, and pioneered new scientific fields. Learn about the contributions and talents women have brought to cryptology. Presented by Jennifer Wilcox, Director of Education for the National Cryptologic Museum.
Sat, Mar 11; 3 – 4 pm
Savage Branch

Forgotten Women Writers of the 17th Century and Beyond
For adults. Register here.
Women’s History Month provides the perfect time to recognize that for every Austen, Dickinson, and Bronte, another unheard-of author lived who was every bit as good! Discover new-to-you women authors to add to your To Be Read list.
Wed, Mar 15; 7 – 8 pm
Central Branch

Women’s History Month Button Making
For all ages; under 12 must be accompanied by an adult. Register here.
Votes for Women! Celebrate the historical significance of buttons in the women’s suffrage movement by making one. Design your own or use a template featuring historical women’s suffrage slogans and important women throughout history.
Wed, Mar 22; 7 – 8 pm       
Central Branch

Amazing Women: How Did They Build That?
Ages 6-10, 45 minutes. Ticketed; free tickets available in branch 15 mins before class.
Learn about artist/architects Maya Lin and Zaha Hadid, the innovative structures they created, and how they stay up. Design and build structures with various materials.
Fri, Mar 31; 2 – 2:45 pm
Central Branch

Staff Favorites from the Art Education Collection

Sisters in Link by Charles Bibbs: Five women dressed in red with patterned skirts and colored tights looking at each other with their arms linked.
Sisters in Link by Charles Bibbs

by Emily B.

October is National Arts & Humanities Month, so I decided to ask my Central Branch teammates about their favorite artists and art works from the Art Education Collection. Here’s what they had to say:

April and Wendy love Van Gogh. April’s favorite work is Starry Night. She appreciates “his colors and his unique brushstrokes. You definitely know a Van Gogh when you see one.” Wendy’s favorite work is Farmhouse in Provence. She says, “I’ve always loved Van Gogh because of the bright colors he used, the soft focus, and the imperfect, rustic style. His work is very emotional.”

Angela and Rita are big fans of Charles Bibbs. Rita applauds Bibbs’ “powerful cross-cultural statements,” “the [breathtaking] colors and details,” and “[his promotion of] African American culture.” Angela’s favorite piece is Sisters in Link. She enjoys “the bright vibrant colors of the dresses of the piece, and the dramatic flair of the ladies’ poses,” as well as how the ladies appear “full of life and joy.” She notes how Bibbs creates an “illusion of movement.”

Brandon loves the Art Education Collection. His favorite piece is San Francisco Cable Car, Rain by Judy Reed. He says, “It captures the essence of the Bay area, [the beauty] of Northern California, and illustrates the significance [of] the cable car transportation system.”

Cherise and Angie enjoy Ernie Barnes. Angie’s favorite piece is Uptown Downtown. She was instantly hooked on Barnes when she saw Marvin Gaye’s I Want You album cover, which features his most famous piece, The Sugar Shack. She describes his art as “kinetic and mesmerizing” and continues, “The painting is in constant motion and makes you want to know more about the people in it, where they are going, and where they have been.” Cherise favors Sam & Sidney from Barnes. She says, “I wonder what they are talking about and hope that they are being open-minded in their debate. I am intrigued by the dialogue that Barnes is creating between an African American artist born into a segregated culture and his subjects from a very different background.”

Floral mosaic with a yellow flower, green leaves, and bright blue accents.

Lami’s favorite piece is Carol Murray’s photograph entitled Baltimore Cookie House Tour. She says, “The piece evokes feelings of comfort and peace for me. The intricate mosaic design…brings to mind being curled up near a fireplace with heat from the flames gently lulling you to sleep.” Lami appreciates that this piece gives her the opportunity to admire both the photographic technique and the mosaic work.

Hannah enjoys the mystery of Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Little Joe with Cow. The painting is a great source of debate among Central teammates, Hannah explains. “Do we find him creepy or cute? How did the cow become triangular? Who keeps putting him back in storage instead of on display?!” Hannah looks back at Kuniyoshi’s life: “[he] immigrated [to] the U.S. [from Japan] at age 16, was never given full U.S. citizenship, and was placed under house arrest following the attack on Pearl Harbor.” She notes that, “while this artwork was completed 18 years prior… I believe these aspects of Kuniyoshi’s childhood and adult life in the U.S. shed new perspective on little Joe – a small boy in a dark atmosphere leaning on his cow for support.”

You can find (and borrow) your favorites at Central and Glenwood Branches.

Emily is an Instructor & Research Specialist at the Central Branch. She enjoys reading, listening to music, and re-watching old seasons of Survivor.

Ernie Barnes: From Athlete to Artist

A painting by Ernie Barnes, The View, which showcases three African American women dressed in drapey formal dresses looking out at water and an urban skyline. The viewer only sees the women's elegant forms from behind as they are framed by red curtains. The palette is all golds and reds.
The View by Ernie Barnes

by Emily B.
Ernie Barnes was born in Durham, North Carolina in 1938, amidst harsh Jim Crow segregation laws. His love and appreciation for art was sparked at an early age. Young Barnes often accompanied his mother at work, where she oversaw the household of a prominent attorney. This early exposure to art proved to leave a lasting impact on Barnes.

Though art remained an important outlet throughout his early years, Barnes discovered a talent for football in high school. He attended college on an athletic scholarship (studying art, of course) and went on to play football professionally for five seasons. Much of his early work focused on his teammates. His athleticism had a marked influence on his art style, which was characterized by figures with closed eyes and elongated bodies. In an interview, Barnes recounted how a mentor told him “to pay attention to what my body felt like in movement. Within that elongation, there’s a feeling, an attitude and expression. I hate to think had I not played sports what my work would look like.”

After moving on from professional football, Barnes’ art became less sports-focused. He was often influenced and inspired by the communities and the people he interacted with most – ranging from depictions of Black Southern life (seen in pieces like Uptown Downtown and Each One, Teach One) to the Jewish community of Fairfax, California (seen in Sam & Sidney). Sugar Shack, far and away one of Barnes’ most popular paintings, has a storied history. The famous work, which depicts a jazz club packed with dancers, was painted in 1971 but reworked twice for famous clientele. First for use in the opening credits of Norman Lear’s Good Times and a second time to create a cover for Marvin Gaye’s album I Want You.

Though he passed in 2009, Barnes’ cultural impact lives on. His journey from a childhood in the Jim Crow-era south to becoming one of the first athletes with a celebrated career in art is impressive and inspiring. Several of Barnes’ paintings are available to borrow through the Art Education Collection at the Central and Glenwood Branches. Young readers may enjoy Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery by Sandra Neil Wallace.

Emily is a Customer Service Specialist at the Central Branch. She enjoys reading, listening to music, and re-watching old seasons of Survivor.