Story by Julia Steele
Two of the greatest American artists of the twentieth century— Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams — both came to Hawai‘i to work. O’Keeffe came in 1939, commissioned to paint pineapples; the island that most inspired her was Maui, where she painted sea cliffs and flowers in Hana, and waterfalls and papaya trees in ‘Iao valley. O’Keeffe was much taken with Hana and with the valley, too, and wrote a friend that it was “a wonderfully beautiful green valley — sheer green mountains rising as straight up as mountains can.” The painting at right, “Waterfall—No. III—Iao Valley,” is one of the works she created there.
Adams came twice, first in 1948 on a Guggenheim fellowship and again in 1957 and ’58, hired to work on a commemorative book for what is now First Hawaiian Bank. On his first trip he photographed for a series on America’s national parks; one of the most stunning panoramic images he created then is of the snow-capped peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa seen from the summit of Haleakala. On his second trip, for the bank, he focused on industry, people and landscapes, shooting everything from petroglyphs and poi pounders to television antennas and economists; he was working, he wrote, to create an interplay of large and small things that would produce an experience rather than just a series of statements of fact. Among the images he created on that second trip is the photograph seen above, “On the Island of Molokai, Hawaii,” taken there in 1957.
O’Keeffe and Adams were good friends and had hiked together in the Southwest and Yosemite—painting and photographing, paying homage to the natural world that was the fundamental guiding light for both of them. Each came to Hawai‘i worried about what they might find: over-commercialization, a place as two-dimensional as a postcard. Both realized, as soon as they’d spent a little time on the ground, that Hawai‘i was a place far more complex than the tourist brochures suggested, and both worked to capture its realities in their own ways. Now their creations are on display at the Honolulu Museum of Art: Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: The Hawai‘i Pictures runs through January 12, then travels to Santa Fe.
The exhibition features twelve of O’Keeffe’s paintings and fifty-six of Adams’ photographs and is the first ever to team the pair’s Hawai‘i work. One can imagine they would be pleased to be in the same room together again. “I often think of that trip at Yosemite as one of the best things I have done,” O’Keeffe wrote Adams later in life, “but Hawaii was another.”