3 Things Introverts Can Learn From Artist Georgia O’Keeffe

a Georgia O'Keeffe painting

“I get on pretty well with my own company,” said O’Keeffe, who lived a reclusive life to suit her introverted nature.

If you’ve seen any significant collection of modern art in a museum, you’ve probably seen paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe. She was, and is, commonly known for her colorful paintings of flowers and skulls. 

There are a lot of things we don’t know about her life and art, though, partly because she was a private introvert. Still, interviews and biographical articles reveal that we “quiet ones” — who tend to be introspective, relish our alone time, and think before speaking — can learn a lot from O’Keeffe. In essence, she’ll make you proud to be an introvert.

So what’s her story? 

She was a trailblazer both as a woman and an abstract artist. Born in Wisconsin, she studied art in college. In the 1910s, her abstract drawings caught the attention of curator and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who gave her an exhibition and a start in New York. By the 1920s, she became famous for her paintings of New York skyscrapers and married Stieglitz.

Beginning in 1929, she took up part-time residence in New Mexico, which is said to have inspired her greatly. O’Keeffe drew from her inner ideas and observations, enriched by the landscape and culture of her New Mexico surroundings. 

In a New Yorker interview, she shared that she enjoyed the solitude, as Stieglitz always had a circle of creative friends around him. This group, the “who’s who of American modernism,” were also her friends, but we introverts do not necessarily enjoy big groups of people. 

Not only was O’Keeffe a pillar of American art but also an example of how introverts can thrive. 

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3 Lessons Introverts Can Learn From Georgia O’Keeffe

1. Limit access to yourself by creating healthy boundaries.

One smart thing O’Keeffe did was to create boundaries. Since introverts tend to like routines and need alone time to regroup, boundary-setting is crucial for them.

By the time O’Keeffe was in her 60s, she had painted prolifically and returned to fame, but wasn’t always well understood. This is partly because she lived — by choice — in a remote area of New Mexico, but also because she limited access to herself. 

In a 1982 interview with none other than Andy Warhol, she said, “I get on pretty well with my own company.” 

If you search for interviews with O’Keeffe, you will find a few, but you will also find stories of people who tried to interview her and only succeeded in meeting her briefly, if at all. They note she limited interviews and was not afraid to say no to public demands on her time and attention. 

I don’t think any of this is because O’Keeffe did not care about others or Stieglitz. O’Keeffe did miss her husband while they lived apart, as she said in her letters, but did it for both of them.

Some might think it’s unusual to live apart from your partner for even part of the year, but other introverts find this works for them and is healthy for their relationship, and O’Keeffe was one such introvert. 

O’Keeffe’s story shows that she cared about others, too, as she had several good friends over the years and gave generously through projects to benefit the children of the local village in New Mexico.

Still, though, I think she knew she needed to give herself space and time for what she found to be her life’s purpose: her art. I believe she made decisions and set boundaries to get the quiet physical and mental space most introverts desire in order to thrive.

Others did not always understand this, however; she was called a “hermit” and “reclusive,” despite the numerous photo opps she allowed. 

But as we look back on her life and work, I think her boundaries paid off. By the time she died at the age of 98, despite the degeneration of her eyesight as she got older, she had completed some 2,000 paintings. 

For introverts like O’Keeffe, me, and perhaps you, boundaries can be as simple as saying yes and no to what we need to do in order to draw inspiration, complete our tasks, recharge, or simply be happy. Maybe boundaries can even lead us introverts to our own version of great achievements like O’Keeffe’s.

2. Be true to yourself and the way you see the world.

Along with creating healthy boundaries, interviews indicate that O’Keeffe valued being true to herself and her vision. 

In the New Yorker piece cited above, she said, “In my case, I never cared anything at all what other people thought.” I believe this approach allowed her to be one of the first to do what she was doing with abstract art. People may have expected paintings of flowers from a female artist, but probably not animal skulls. 

O’Keeffe seemed to be observant and draw inspiration from her physical surroundings. Like many introverts, it’s as though she noticed details others might miss, and like most artists, she probably interpreted them in her own way. 

I recently participated in a workshop where we did free writing from prompts based on viewing a painting. One thing we learned is how we sometimes make our own meaning from art pieces, based on where and who we are at any given moment.

In interviews, O’Keeffe shared that people often attached symbolism to her works, and that was not her intent — she didn’t like the idea that they were assigning messages to her flowers, skulls, and color choices. 

Speaking of one of her teachers, Alon Bement, O’Keeffe said, “But if I’d really done in painting what he wanted me to do, nobody would ever have thought anything about me.” 

Instead, she seemed to listen to her introvert nudge — her internal compass — and was true to herself with her art, which is something we can all aspire to.

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3. Create the circumstances you need to thrive, but stay humble.

As a creative introvert, I find myself looking for that balance between independence and collaboration, between self-doubt and needing to realize that I can benefit from bringing in eyes and voices other than my own. 

From what I’ve learned about O’Keeffe, it seems that she balanced self-awareness and boundary-setting by remaining humble — and that the combination of the three enhanced her natural creativity as an introvert.

While she didn’t seem afraid to be herself and made it a point to create the circumstances she needed to be the best artist possible, she also didn’t take outsized credit for her success. 

She described herself as “very lucky,” in the New Yorker interview. She noted that Stieglitz had given her the first real break she had before meeting her, and he was a good connection to have.

She also shared that her way of seeing and painting met the right moments in American history during the decades it became popular. This was first in the 1920s, but her work and fame experienced a resurgence when the Whitney Museum of American Art did a retrospective of her art in the 1970s.

As she grew older, her long-time assistant and companion, Juan Hamilton, said of O’Keeffe, “She was very much aware of her work’s quality. She graded her own paintings, and she could be very hard on herself.”

My take on this amazing artist is that despite having a strong sense of who she was and what she wanted, O’Keeffe was not arrogant about her talent. Rather, she remained humble, and fame did not go to her head. This, too, aligns with the way many introverts are, since we prefer to be under-the-radar.

While we may not all have legacies like O’Keeffe’s, we introverts can still learn from her approach to life. 

The more I get to know who she was through interviews and her work, the more I admire her courage. If we create healthy boundaries, are true to ourselves, and remain humble, who knows what we can achieve?

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