Carol Merrill was a graduate student at the University of New Mexico in November, 1972, when she wrote an admiring letter to Georgia O'Keeffe. To her astonishment, the young poet received not only a reply but an invitation to visit. It took months to screw up her courage, but in August, 1973 she finally walked through O'Keeffe's gate. Merrill was 26; O'Keeffe was 85.
It was the beginning of seven years of on-off weekends and short stays with Miss O'Keeffe (as Merrill almost unfailingly calls her), as a library assistant, household helper, companion, and sometime cook. Throughout the period (1973-1979), Merrill kept a journal both on tape and in her notebook. The journal is remarkable for its immaculate attention to details of O'Keeffe's person and personality, the settings (interiors and exteriors) of home and studio and the surrounding desert-and-canyon landscape, and the daily household activities. Because the journal was kept over an extended period, we can also see the changes in Merrill's relationship to O'Keeffe, from hero-worship to nuanced perceptions of the aging artist's human frailties, as well as her place in O'Keeffe's evolving household, which is increasingly dominated by a young sculptor named Juan Hamilton. He appears early in the journal and becomes an omnipresent and somewhat ominous figure.
But while a great deal of controversy swirled around the artist in those days, and particularly about her relationship to Hamilton, Merrill sets all that aside: "Tactful reserve is my motto." She focuses her observations on O'Keeffe, not as an artist but as a frail older woman. Her journal entries include descriptions of O'Keeffe's clothing ("a black scarf pulled back like an Arab or a nun with a shawl over a short black silk kimono and fragile bluish-white blouse"), the surroundings ("There is a tan comforter for a white bed, a tan telephone, white stool, and a brown and black fireplace carved in mud in the corner...White curtains cover an east wall full of windows."), and O'Keeffe's reminiscences about the past, her husband Alfred Stieglitz, and the many artists she had known.
Most striking, perhaps, is Merrill's frequent attention to the details of food. Breakfast: "Scrambled eggs, mushrooms, fresh radishes, orange juice, jasmine tea, muffins, whole wheat bread, butter, and honey." Snacks: "A feast of salted dry roasted peanuts, Norwegian goat cheese that tasted like caramel, and tart apples." Dinner: "Cottage cheese, onions and oranges and sesame seeds on lettuce. There was cheese, wheat bread, gingerbread, and raspberries, delicious without sugar." For Merrill, food—like clothing, furnishings, and surroundings—is an expression of O'Keeffe's essential creativity, which is exhibited not just in her work but in all that she is and does. Through all of Merrill's descriptions runs the thread of the poet's admiration for the artist: "Her way of life is art embodied. I enter her art by moving through shared space on weekends."
The style of the journal entries evolves over time in interesting ways. In the beginning, it is often stilted and awkwardly self-conscious but becomes increasingly fluid and lyrical as time goes on. And while Merrill occasionally worries that her note-taking is a betrayal of confidence ("I greedily put down every shred of experience I can remember of her and the house"), she continues to journal until the last day she sees O'Keeffe, in 1979. Over the next two decades, clearly considering the possibility of publishing her writing, Merrill annotates some of the entries with additional recollections, and in the published journal, inserts her own poems at the beginnings of chapters. In an afterward, written in 2009, she confesses that the end of her relationship with O'Keeffe came at just the right time. She was "losing herself' under the artist's influence, she says, and needed to become more thoroughly herself.
This is a book that deserves to be read for the insights it offers into the daily life of the complex and gifted O'Keeffe; for the love (I am tempted to write "adoration") that the artist inspired in those around her; and for the evolving and increasingly mature perceptions of the young poet who recorded her observations with such a sustained and clear-eyed focus.
"She taught me to look, really look at things," Merrill says, reminding me of something that O'Keeffe herself wrote, about the hugeness of her flower paintings. "Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven't time, and to see takes time..." Merrill took the time to see and record the small things, the intimate details of an artist's daily life. And for that, we can only be grateful.
A Tulsa native, Carol Merrill was a student at the University of New Mexico in 1973 when she was offered a job organizing Georgia O'Keeffe's library at the artist's home in Abiquiu, where she worked as librarian, secretary, cook, nurse and companion from 1973 to 1979. Merrill's earlier book of poetry, O'Keeffe: Days in a Life, was published by La Alameda Press in 1996. She is now librarian at the Kewa (Santa Domingo) Pueblo and Cochiti elementary and middle schools.
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