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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 is about the chance meeting of one of the leading artists of the 20th century – Georgia O’Keefe -- and a lonely plantation manager’s daughter living in a “dream world” of Hana, Maui.

It is mind-boggling now to think that the Hawaiian Pineapple Company’s (it was later re-named Dole Pineapple) Mainland advertising agency would ever think of contracting Georgia O’Keefe to do 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 Hawai'i and pineapples figured in the American mind back then, the audacious scale of the advertising budget reveals how huge the national market for premium Hawaiian pineapple juice existed in America. Canned pineapple juice was an exotic, up-scale drink for middle-class Americans from New York to Los Angeles.

Hawai'i in pre-War America for a New Yorker or Texan was a lengthy journey via passenger liner across the Pacific Ocean, and rubbing shoulders with Hollywood stars at ritzy hotels called the Royal Hawaiian or Moana. 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, found in her beloved New Mexico, where she would go often and paint flowers, landscapes, and even a white antelope skull with horns. 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 pre-Columbian Mayan cities (few recent Maui transplants could imagine such an organized community existed; even now there are acres of foundation marks like a sprawling 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 earlier project).

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 92 years old), her pre-War Maui visit had deep influences on her work during the second phase of her artistic life into the 1950s and 1960s while an artist now identified with the bold, stark images of the American Southwest.

The book has fabulous illustrations of O’Keefe’s paintings (the waterfalls at Iao Valley are mesmerizing), her letters (with hand-writing like calligraphy), photographs of Maui of that period; the recollections of the encounter 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, living in a green island paradise.

The first dinner at the plantation manager’s house must have been strange, other-worldly for Georgia O’Keefe (who wrote in her diary about eating "raw fish" for the first time in her life), arriving from New York City with its European-styled cafes and Fifth Avenue art galleries.

Japanese maids dressed in colorful silk kimono* and obi served purplish taro-rolls, roast beef and Kula potatoes, and guava ice-cream; some dishes of the pre-War plantation era would return as regional Hawaiian cuisine only in the early 1990s, influencing Chef Tylun Pang’s Ko’s restaurant at the Fairmont Kea Lani Resort in Wailea.

See: Blog Post: Chef Tylun Pang and Memories of Local Flavors

Her visit to Hawai’i occurred two years before Pearl Harbor and by the early 1950s, barely a decade later, the remote Hana pineapple plantation would close, and through the ballot box, the rise of the State and social legislation, economic drivers like finance, shipping, and fast-growing tourism, the highly stratified plantation society would come apart: the sophisticated New York artist Georgia O’Keefe had stumbled into the waning years of a different social universe.

The strong-willed girl guided Georgia O’Keefe to Wailua Falls, Seven Pools of ‘Ohe’o Gulch, and Kipahulu – lush scenic areas that remain the same today compared to nearly 75 years ago. During these stops O’Keefe took out her brushes and paint (she 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 -- a short clip, with the background sound of raindrops falling on the Ford car roof, from an "indy" movie still-to-be-filmed).

After O’Keefe left Maui Patricia Jennings would embark in her own departure from the isolated Hana plantation to Punahou boarding school in vibrant urban Honolulu, college and marriage, raising a family: she would never meet the famous artist again in her life.

Ironically, during her Hawai’i visit O’Keefe painted flowers, fruits, landscapes, and even a Hawaiian fishhook in a startlingly modernist abstract fashion that looks like an image of today's digital media advertising -– but never a pineapple; her contract never actually stipulated that she paint a pineapple, but that was the underlying reason for paying O’Keefe to travel to Hawai’i.

Sheepishly, the Madison Avenue ad agency mailed a pineapple to O’Keefe and she finished a painting of the golden fruit that dominated the Hawaiian economy and that image was published as part of Dole pineapple juice campaign in the best-selling national magazines of that period, like Vogue and Saturday Evening Post.

The rest of her Hawai’i paintings, completed during her brief three months on Maui, 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 painted.

*Influenced by Asian imports, especially items sold 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 40,000 residents and about a third were of Japanese descent, including my grandparents, my father, and uncles.

For more Information – see Koa Books: Georgia O’Keefe’s Hawaii

Also New York Times Travel Article on Georgia O’Keefe’s Maui


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The beautiful book.