by Jeanette Winter
Out of the darkness I emerge, and the next few weeks are going to be heavy with picture book biographies and graphic novels. Not that any of you are keeping tabs, just what I've been soaking in for the past couple of weeks while visiting the island of Incommunicado.
For this intimate look at the painter Georgia O'Keeffe, Winter has chosen to tell not so much a life story as a sort of emotional growth of an artist. We do get the requisite facts of her life as a person -- birth, death, early childhood -- but most of what Winter has built this book on are the words that O'Keeffe uses to express her feelings. What emerges isn't so much a description of how art spoke to her, but how she seemed to be answering a calling that was difficult to articulate outside of her art. The distance was always calling me, O'Keeffe says, and Winter uses these moments to build an emotional arc to a story that shows us the inner life of an artist.
Aside from the opening and closing images that plainly state O'Keeffe's dates of birth and death, the book is told in a first-person viewpoint. To achieve this, Winter has taken select phrases quoted from various biographies about O'Keeffe and built narrative bridges to fill in the gaps that otherwise would have been described by traditional biographers. Winter sets the stage and situations and then allows O'Keeffe's words to fill in the feelings surrounding them.
I went to the Texas plains,
the Wild West of my childhood books.
...you have never seen SKY--
It is wonderful.
Rather than break the flow of the narrative with quotes or attributions, Winter simply offsets O'Keeffe's quotes in italics. For the younger reader these statements probably read more as emphasis, but for older readers (and adults) this serves as an elegant solution to the dilemma that arises when a picture book author writes about someone else in the first person.
It's an interesting point (and one I have been exploring a lot lately, so it's likely to show up again) that nowhere else but in children's books do we find biographies written in first-person narration. Any adult author that dared to write about an historical personage in the first person, their book would be labeled as fiction, but here and in many others like this the Library of Congress has categorized this book in the traditional non-fiction category of Biography.
In carefully choosing O'Keeffe's words Winter is able to present the reader with a sense of how the artist thought and felt. Whether or not this is an accurate portrait it would take an art historian to sort out, and taken by themselves I'm not so sure I would draw the same conclusions on character that is implied here in this book. But Winter is smart in calling this a portrait and not a biography, understanding the artist's use of the word to mean "a likeness" with all the leeway it provides. An artist, painting a portrait, has the delicate task of finding the best way to represent their subject while at the same time inserting their own style to the process. I have no doubt that Winter has "painted" a portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe, but is it an accurate one?
As Winter portrays O'Keeffe, she is a woman driven by the landscape, compelled to paint it, to find her peace within it, to commune with this space in an almost religious sense. It isn't hard to believe this was what O'Keeffe was like, what she felt, and it's a fairly sophisticated idea to communicate to a picture book audience. Where the biography is lacking in he type of information one might look for in a report -- why she made the decisions to move to New York, her relationship with the photographer Alfred Steiglitz, how old she was at any of these ventures -- Winter does manage to convey a sense of time passing and the emotional growth of the artist.
As for the illustrations Winter has said she wanted to give her impression of O'Keeffe's work and in this area I feel she falls flat. Winter's style is unique in and of itself and I am sure I could recognize any illustration from any book of hers on sight. O'Keeffe painted small things very large to make people notice them (as is pointed out in the text itself) but Winter paints the large things very small, surrounding her images on each page with a lot of white space. O'Keeffe was drawn to the large openness, the faraway she calls it, but here it looks so contained, so tiny.
Still, for a biography that looks at first blush to be very slight, this book is contains a great deal that is felt more than it tells.