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Georgia O’Keefe, 1939 Hana, and a Plantation Manager’s Daughter
April 8, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama
Georgia O’Keefe’s Hawaii: This beautifully-illustrated and inspiring story published by Koa Books (its publisher Arnie Kotler lives in Hana) is about the convergence of one of the leading artists of the 21st century – Georgia O’Keefe – and her visit to Hawai’i in 1939, and her life-long impact on a lonely plantation manager’s daughter living in a “dream world” in Hana, Maui.
It is almost mind-boggling now to think that the Hawaiian Pineapple Company’s (that become Dole Pineapple) Mainland advertising agency would ever think of contracting Georgia O’Keefe to do a couple of pineapple illustrations for an ad campaign. Imagine if GM flew Pablo Picasso to Detroit to paint a new Chevrolet station wagon and use the illustration in ads in magazines and billboards throughout America.
Although we cannot imagine now how Hawaii and pineapples figured in the American mind in the 1930s into the 1960s, the huge, audacious scale (and advertising budget) tells one about how large the national market for premium Hawaiian pineapple juice existed in pre-World War II America. Canned pineapple juice was an exotic, up-scale drink for middle-class Americans from New York to Los Angeles.
And Hawaii in pre-War America was exotic, absolutely way out there for a New Yorker or Texan, reach-able only by a journey via passenger liner across the Pacific Ocean. Combine a fresh fruit juice with exotic Hawaii – an advertising dream project for an innovative “Mad Men” Madison Avenue team of 1939.
More than a highly-regarded modernist artist, Georgia O’Keefe was a media star in 1939, and was depicted in Life magazine by her equally-famous photographer husband Alfred Stieglitz. Her nonconformist “brand” was bohemian, a risk-taker, and a precursor of the 1960s hippies’ search for Nature, beauty, but not just beauty: an absolutely wild beauty, also found in her beloved New Mexico, where she would go often and spend time to paint flowers, landscapes, and even a bull skull with horns. And then as part of her all-expenses paid Hawai’i trip, she arrived in Hana, Maui.
Enter from stage left Patricia Jennings, a 12-year old daughter of a Hana sugar plantation manager. Maui, like other islands in the Hawaiian archipelago, had thriving population centers like Pu’unene Camp (once inhabited by thousands of plantation workers and their families) that flourished and then vanished like Mayan cities (few Maui transplants could imagine such an organized community existed; even now there are acres of foundation marks like an archaeological site) – and many of today’s Mauians would be surprised that far-east Hana once had a thriving sugar plantation – Ka’ele’ku Camp.
Patricia Jennings spent ten days as a guide for George O’Keefe, and her recollections and writings were assisted by Maria Ausherman, who corresponded with her and later visited her when she moved to Hawai’i Island. Art Curator Jennifer Saville contributed to an Introduction about Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings completed during her three-month Hawai’i sojourn. It is a book worth acquiring, then savoring, lingering, imagining.
George O’Keefe was already in her early fifties, half-way through her long productive life, when she came to Hawai’i (and by Fate in need of an artistic jump-start away from the stifling New York art milieu, plus she was still recovering from a deep depression resulting from an unsuccessful early 1930s project), and according to the book’s warm, gentle coda by James Meeker, who would know her in New Mexico and also was in Hana when she returned in 1982 (O’Keefe was a spritely 92 years old then), her pre-War Hawai’i visit had deep influences on her work during the second phase of her artistic life into the 1950s and 1960s in the American Southwest.
Yet the book with all its fabulous illustrations of O’Keefe’s paintings (the waterfalls at Iao Valley are intensely green), her letters (with hand-writing like calligraphy), photographs of Maui and Hana of that period (one photo shows Hana’s Hasegawa Store, the then-center of social life), the recollections give a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of an intelligent, somewhat bored (she was home-schooled by her mother) of pre-teen Patricia Jennings, her older sister at a Mainland college, and living in a green paradise.
The first dinner at the plantation manager’s house must have been strange, other-worldly for Georgia O’Keefe (who ate "raw fish" for the first time in her life), who came from New York City with its European-styled cafes and restaurants, Greenwich Village, and Fifth Avenue galleries. Silent Japanese maids dressed in silk kimono* and obi served taro-rolls, roast beef and potatoes (from Kula), and guava ice-cream (some dishes of the pre-War plantation era would return as regional Hawaiian cuisine only in the early 1990s, and would also influence Chef Tylun Pang’s Ko’s restaurant at the Fairmont Kea Lani Resort in Wailea).
Her visit to Hawai’i occurred two years before Pearl Harbor and by the early 1950s, barely a decade later, the Hana plantation would close, and through the ballot box, the rise of the State and social legislation, economic drivers like finance, shipping, military bases, and tourism, the highly stratified plantation society would come apart, and Georgia O’Keefe had stumbled into the waning years of a different social universe.
The girl would guide Georgia O’Keefe to Wailua Falls, Seven Pools of ‘Ohe’o Gulch, and Kipahulu – lush scenic areas that remain the same now in 2013 compared to nearly 75 years ago. And O’Keefe would take out her brushes and paint (and did not allow the girl to witness her painting, almost like a sacred act for the artist, except once in a car, during a downpour). They would drive to Haleakala, as well, and encountered snow and ice.
After O’Keefe left Maui – the Pacific War would disrupt everything -- Patricia Jennings would embark in her own departure from Hana, to Punahou boarding school, college, and marriage, her own adventures, her raising of a family: she would never meet the famous artist again.
Ironically, during the Hawai’i visit O’Keefe would paint flowers and fruits, and landscapes, and even a Hawaiian fishhook in a startlingly abstract fashion – but never a pineapple (the contract never actually stipulated that she paint a pineapple, but that was the underlying reason for paying O’Keefe to come all the way to Hawai’i).
Later, the ad agency sent a pineapple to O’Keefe and she did finish a painting, which was published as part of Dole pineapple juice ads in the big national magazines of that period, like Vogue and Saturday Evening Post.
The rest of her Hawai’i paintings were shown in her annual exhibition in New York City in 1940, and they remain some of the most evocative images of Hawai’i ever drawn.
*Heavily influenced by Asian imports, especially at the now-gone Maui Grand Hotel gift shop in Wailuku, Patricia Jennings wore cotton tabi or Japanese-style socks at dinner and Chinese silk pajamas at night. Pre-War Maui probably had 35,000 residents and more than a third were of Japanese descent.
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