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Waterfall, No. I, Īao Valley, Maui, 1939

Georgia’s Hawaii

Entertainment / Whenever American artist Georgia O’Keeffe is brought to mind, a whirring, pastel-colored carousel of images arise–I see animal skulls suspended in sky, luscious flowers, New Mexico, feathers, churches, barns and more bones. Less aware of O’Keeffe’s deep affinity for the Islands of Hawaii, I found the book Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawaii to be a unique, delightful glimpse into a lesser-explored chapter of the radiant, sometimes rebellious artist’s life.

The book, which follows O’Keeffe’s three-month stay in Hawaii upon invitation from Dole Plantation in 1939 for an advertising campaign, is an enthralling read, mostly due to the voice behind the story–Patricia Jennings, O’Keeffe’s 12-year-old Maui guide at the time (Jennings, now 86, lives on the Big Island. Co-author Maria Ausherman is a writer in New York.

When O’Keefe headed to Hana in Maui, painter Robert Lee Eskridge arranged for her to stay with Willis Jennings, manager of Kaeleku Sugar Plantation, and his wife. When they found themselves entangled in unexpected obligations upon O’Keeffe’s arrival, their young daughter Patricia inherited the job as O’Keefe’s guide. The two of them went on adventures around Maui, Patricia teaching her the names of native flowers along the way.

Rather than reading as a stiff and formal biography, Jennings’s accounts of O’Keeffe are intimately honest, tinged with Patricia’s youthful innocence. In one stirring scene, O’Keeffe, never one to let anyone see her paint, finally succumbs to Patricia’s desire to watch her; It’s pouring and the two of them are sitting in a car in ‘Iao Valley, a lush gorge in the West Maui Mountains: “When I’m in New Mexico, I often paint from inside my car. The sun gets too hot in the desert. Now turn and sit quietly,” says O’Keeffe. After moments of silence with Patricia’s back obediently turned, O’Keefe says, “I suppose I could let you watch–but absolutely no talking.”

O’Keeffe’s vibrant, rarely exhibited Hawaii paintings–depicting everything from fishhooks, to crab’s claw ginger, to a green papaya tree–are paired next to Jennings’s insightful stories, creating a beautiful juxtaposition to the desert art for which O’Keefe is so widely known. O’Keeffe’s personal letters from Maui and period photographs of Hawaii, O’Keeffe and the Jennings family are also brightly fused into the pages. A must have for any ardent fan of O’Keeffe–especially if you call Hawaii home.

Georgia O’ Keeffe’s Hawaii (2011)

Patricia Jennings and Maria Ausherman

Koa Books

$20 paperback, $35 hardcover

107 pages