Story by Julia Steele
The color of it all was very handsome and delicate—all like a dream—… I love the things that grow—the big dark trees—the big leaves—the black stream beds with the rushing white water. …—I love the wind and the salt air—…—we have walked and climbed—and sat in the sun—and always the places were so good—Georgia O’Keeffe, letters from Hana, March, 1939
On January 30, 1939, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz were headed to New York’s Grand Central Station. Half a world away, Hitler was ranting in the Reichstag, vowing in an infamous speech “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe,” but the darkness that would soon eclipse the globe had not yet reached New York. In 1939 O’Keeffe was well on her way to becoming one of America’s most acclaimed, inventive artists; Stieglitz, twenty-three years her senior and a renowned photographer, was her Svengali. The two had been married for fifteen years, and while theirs was a union famously fraught with tension, it was also, as O’Keeffe’s letters to her husband over the next two months would show, filled with affection and tenderness.
At the train station that day, O’Keeffe was bound for Hawai‘i—the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (soon to be known as Dole) had offered her an all-expenses-paid, two-month sojourn in the Islands if she would agree to paint two images they could use in a national advertising campaign. Hawai‘i would be a departure for O’Keeffe—literally and professionally; her art had rarely been used for commercial purposes. But as she wrote a friend, “After I had looked over all the maps and folders and pictures I was much interested.”
O’Keeffe was known to paint flowers, and Hawai‘i’s would be unfamiliar and beautiful. Everything would be different: the landscape, the light. Hawai‘i offered the artist a chance to stretch herself, and promises of newness, challenge and autonomy all hung in the air. O’Keeffe kissed Stieglitz farewell and boarded the train. Nine days later she stepped off the Lurline ocean liner, accepted garlands of ‘ilima and crown flowers around her neck and found herself in the Islands.