If you were to ask Florida-born author and professor Jessica Jacobs “Why Georgia O’Keeffe?” she would tell you that the fascination began with her exposure to a small oil painting called “Pelvis with Distance” — also the title of Jacobs’ debut book of poems. The writer encountered that particular O’Keeffe painting as a grad student as she was exiting the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Unlike the typical O’Keeffe flowers that grace the covers of shopping bags and postcards these days, “There was just something about that painting and its title that was so evocative to me,” says Jacobs. “I literally just stood there and started writing.” Jacobs gives a reading with her wife, author Nickole Brown, at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café on Thursday, May 28, and as part of the Altamont Poetry Series at N.C. Stage Co. on Monday, June 15.
Jacobs started researching O’Keeffe’s life and reading the hundreds of letters written between the artist and her husband Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer more than 20 years her senior. Jacobs became fascinated by the dynamic relationship between the artist and photographer — she writes about the evolution of O’Keeffe from a meek, unknown painter who sought Stieglitz’s approval, to a mature, established artist who developed confidence in her own vision. Jacobs enjoyed tracking the duo’s relationship as it matured from hero-worship into a marriage of equals. O’Keeffe is often recorded in essays and biographies only as the stoic legend, says Jacobs, rather than the flirty girl who pokes fun at herself in letters to her longtime friend, Anita Pollitzer.
The silly, unknown O’Keeffe was who Jacobs was most interested in exploring in writing. She describes that version of O’Keeffe as “a hesitant young woman trying to figure out what it meant to be an artist.” Similarly, though Pelvis with Distance Jacobs developed her own poetic voice.
The poet’s research included more than 1000 letters of correspondence, visiting museums to experience O’Keeffe’s work in person, and spending s month in isolation in a cabin in New Mexico. O’Keeffe herself moved from New York City to Abiquiu, N.M., in 1945 and painted many pieces there. Of her experience there Jacobs says, “If everyone who wanted to write a book could go to a place like that it would help them immensely.” Alone in a cabin with no transportation, no electronics, and a five-mile walk to the next nearest inhabitant, Jacobs was forced to face her fears and use that insight to inform her poems.
Jacobs describes Pelvis with Distance as a “hybrid.” while the book is a collection of poems, it is also delves into O’Keeffe’s life and psyche. “The way I envision people reading this and the way that I constructed it was the same way that I would write a novel,” Jacobs says. “I had an outline, I had a narrative arc that I wanted to follow, and I then also wanted to braid in O’Keeffe’s story to my story in the In the Canyon series of poems, and also the To Find You poems, which is a series directly addressing O’Keeffe.”
She adds, “Not only do I present O’Keeffe’s story, but I also present what her story means to me, and what it could mean to readers as well.”
WHO: Jessica Jacobs and Nickole Brown
WHERE: Malaprops Bookstore on Thursday, May 28, at 7 p.m.
WHERE: Altamont Poetry Series at the N.C. Stage Co. on Monday, June 15, at 7 p.m.