Aloha, Ms. O’Keeffe

A new show at the botanical garden explores Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawaiian connection

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When someone thinks of Georgia O’Keeffe, they think of her journeys to New Mexico and the art that came from it. 

But the New York Botanical Garden is exploring a trip many don’t know about — a visit to Hawaii.

In 1939, the Hawaiian Pineapple Co. — now known as the Dole Food Co. — the largest producer of vegetables and fruits across the globe — commissioned O’Keeffe to create promotional material. They sent her to the Pacific island group for nine weeks to capture the beauty of a place that wouldn’t become America’s 50th state for another 20 years.

Now, the garden is taking its visitors on their own trip to the tropical paradise with “Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai’i,” taking a look at O’Keeffe’s artwork while celebrating island group’s plants. The exhibit runs through Oct. 28.

When the staff found out about O’Keeffe’s Hawaiian excursion about three years ago, the staff under library exhibitions director Joanna Groarke immediately started doing research with the hopes of creating an exhibition.

“We were intrigued and thought it was a wonderful opportunity to tell this less-known story of O’Keeffe, and to really highlight the rich ecological stories that come with choosing Hawaii as a subject,” Groarke said.

Visitors are exposed to the exhibition from the very beginning of their visit, with various plants like calla lily flowers and palm trees lining the entrance, leading them to the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. There, Hawaiian plants — both native to the state and others that were either brought there by Polynesian settlers, or made their way to Hawaii from other tropical locations — can be found. O’Keeffe’s paintings for the Hawaiian Pineapple Co., are found within the LuEsther T. Mertz Library Art Gallery.

Although O’Keeffe was “primarily an artist of the desert,” according to Groarke, she said it was interesting to see how O’Keeffe made a commitment to find the essence of Hawaii and what it had to offer — even if she sometimes incorrectly named plants in her work.

“She was a keen observer of the natural world and had a great appreciation of it,” Groarke said. “And to see how her personal and artistic interests really intersect with what we as an institution do every day is always really exciting.”

If she had to choose which one of O’Keeffe’s paintings exemplifies the garden’s exhibit, Groarke thinks it’s “Hibiscus with Plumeria,” a painting featuring two plants from the islands.

“It’s kind of the perfect painting to use to tell the story of Hawaii in that hibiscus and plumeria are probably two of the plants most emblematic of the islands,” Groarke said. “What’s interesting about that painting is that neither of those plants are actually native to the Hawaiian islands. None of the plants (O’Keeffe) painted really are.”

When it comes to the plant side of things, there was one that caught Karen Daubmann’s attention the most.

“I really do love the little tiny pineapple plants,” the associate vice president for exhibitions and public engagement said. “I think that is cool to me to see a little tiny 3- or 4-inch pineapple plant and know that it grows into a large pineapple.

“I think people are really wowed by that, and most people have never actually seen where a pineapple comes from. And to show it to them and hear their reactions is pretty wild to me.” 

The response to “Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai’i” has been positive so far.

“I think that our visitors are charmed by the fact that they get to see these paintings, many of which have not been seen together — certainly in New York — since they were first debuted in 1940,” Groarke said.

Daubmann noted the exhibition has something to offer for everyone.

“Some people are really interested in Georgia O’Keeffe and they come here and learn more about Hawaii,” she said. “But some people are just very interested in Hawaii, and come here and learn a little bit more about Georgia O’Keeffe. 

“Some people are just coming here because it’s the New York Botanical Garden and they’re learning about our science programs and about our landscape, and I feel like they’re falling in love with Georgia O’Keeffe and Hawaii at the same time. So I feel like no matter who’s approaching the garden, they’re going to learn a little bit more about something they haven’t maybe been exposed to in the past.”

While another Hawaii-themed exhibition isn’t in the works anytime soon, Groarke isn’t opposed to the idea.

“The riches of Hawaii are endless,” she said.

But first, some visitor research needs to be done for future exhibitions. Daubmann spends time walking around the garden, observing the people who come in and interact with the exhibition.

“It’s really important for planning future exhibitions to see what our visitors react to, what they stop to take pictures of, which signs they stop to read, where they’re doing their selfies, what they’re talking about with their friends,” she said. It’s “not to be super creepy, but to just sort of hang back and watch people experience the exhibition, and to make sure they’re getting the most out of their visit.”

In the meantime, Groarke hopes visitors will appreciate how O’Keeffe “worked very hard to show Hawaii as accurately, or as truthfully, as she could, and to get to the essence” of it.

“If our show can serve as a means of experiencing those things in a new way, or opening your eyes to the beauty and complexity of the natural world,” Groarke said, “then we’ve done our job.”

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