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Georgia O'Keeffe Hawaii
Pictured: "Heliconia—Crab Claw, 1939," oil on canvas. From the collection of Sharon and Thurston Twigg-Smith.

O’K in HI

How two American masters redefined the Aloha State

February 5, 2014, 12:00 am

Given her quintessentially desert-rich palette, it’s hard to imagine a substantial body Georgia O’Keeffe’s work that’s far removed from her stunning New Mexico landscapes or trademark flowers.

But, as evidenced by the past exhibit at her namesake museum, Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George, the American Modernist’s artistic legacy is anything but limited. Making way for the upcoming Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: The Hawai’i Pictures, Theresa Papanikolas, Curator of European and American art at the Honolulu Museum of Art—who put together the exhibit—presents an opening lecture at the St. Francis Auditorium on Thursday.

SFR: What stands out about this particular era in O’Keeffe’s life?
Theresa Papanikolas:
O’Keeffe was both at the height of her fame and in a transitional point in her career. She had dabbled in commercial art with her (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to create a mural for Radio City Music Hall, and subsequently suffered extreme mental exhaustion. I imagine she was quite ready for a change of scenery when she was approached to travel to Hawaii to create advertisements for pineapple juice. 

Are people surprised that O’Keeffe’s trip to Hawaii was prompted by a commission from the now Dole Food Company?
Maybe the O’Keeffe purists would be a little surprised that O’Keeffe participated in the advertising campaign for Hawaiian Pineapple Company, but the fact is that many modernist artists undertook commissions for the ads, which set it into context.

Many people do not equate her trademark style with anything tropical. Was this a challenge for you or an opportunity?
It was an opportunity to explore a little-known aspect of her oeuvre; the challenge was to identify the extent to which she responded to Hawaii in her work and how. 

What were some of the more surprising moments in putting together this exhibit?
O’Keeffe’s work in Hawaii is very well known here—there are five paintings in the museum’s collection as well as examples in private collections, and the images have assumed a life of their own in posters and note cards and other gift-shop items. The surprise came in researching the Ansel Adams portion of the exhibition and discovering the rich array of subjects he tackled—landscapes, to be sure, but also people and the trappings of the lives they lived—in his effort to capture Hawaii in the entirety of its aspects. 

Finally, what’s the relationship between O’Keeffe and Adams’ time there?
Their trips to Hawaii were 20 years apart, but common ground exists in their profound reactions to and interpretations of Hawaii’s unique sense of place, their emphasis on landscape, and their efforts to unmask what lay beyond the beaches of Waikiki to get at the entirety of what each discovered in the islands.

Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: The Hawai'i Pictures

6:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 6. $5
St. Francis Auditorium, 107 Palace Ave.,


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