Georgia O’Keeffe and the Art of Saying No – Skinny Artist

Georgia O’Keeffe and the Art of Saying No

Georgia O'Keeffe
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD

Have you ever squandered a free day on strange, unimportant activities? I have.

When I finish a writing project, I grant myself an open day. Twelve potential-filled hours lay before me to accomplish something epic. I often end up blowing every one of those hours on dumb stuff I can’t remember.

It’s now 6:30 A.M. on a free day and I stand at a crossroads…

Will I tend to the weird-ass series of found-object-boxes I promised myself I’d complete? Or will I be distracted by the shiny butterfly of an email I just opened from a fast-paced editor I freelance for, who wants four detailed article pitches for her magazine by 5 pm today?

I’m honored she asked me. The extra money would be nice. But it may not result in one iota of new, paid work. No bright ideas are coming to mind for the pitches, and it will take me all day to churn out something respectable.


When I need to make decisions like this, I ask myself WWGD? What Would Georgia Do?

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) became one of the most prolific and accomplished painters of the twentieth century; in part because she possessed dozens of qualities I wish I had this morning, but just these three would be sweet to start.Georgia O'Keeffe

  1. O’Keeffe chose art over personal drama.
  2. O’Keeffe protected her art practice by consistently saying no to anything that didn’t serve her truest creative goals of the moment.
  3. O’Keeffe was courageous, humorous and above all, self-possessed.

In other words, O’Keeffe was in charge of O’Keeffe. Even as a young woman her life decisions were not based on the approval of others. Instead, her choices seemed driven by what O’Keeffe thought would be best for her art practice.

“Georgia O’Keeffe’s self-possession was part of her art,” said Roxana Robinson, author of Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life. Robinson shared the following lesser-known story about O’Keeffe with me, demonstrating this self-possession in action.

O’Keeffe Once Said, ‘No, I’m Busy,’ To The Louvre

“O’Keeffe is living out in Abiqui in the 1950’s,” Robinson said. “She is by then one of the most famous women artists ever; however, her work is no longer in the Edith Halpert gallery which has closed. She has no dealer in NYC.” O’Keeffe was by no means forgotten, but right then she could use some publicity as: “Life Magazine has a column called Where Are They Now, and they have included O’Keeffe in that column,” said Robertson.

Just then, the Louvre Museum in Paris contacts the painter to ask her to do a major, one-woman show. “At that time, O’Keeffe would have been the only non-French artist ever offered that honor,” said Robinson. “She responds to the Louvre with: ‘No, it would be too much trouble. I live in Abiqui, New Mexico and I would have to work to get all the pictures crated, I know how much work that means—So no.”

“O’Keeffe was committed to the work and living her life. Making the art was really what was important for her, said Robinson. “She was living out there painting in a remote desert location. She did not care what was happening in Paris.”

Saying No To Get To Your Yes

I think the lesson here for artists and writers is; sometimes you have to say “no” to get to your “yes.”

Georgia O KeeffeAs my colleague, jeweler Barbara Klar explains: “There comes a time you finally realize more publicity or extra money are not worth the flying, the hauling, the schlepping or the promoting.”

Yes, of course, certain shows or events that inspire, enlighten or pay you money you really need at the moment are things to still say yes to. “But eventually to stay true to your work as an artist you say no more and more because you realize you have a limited time on earth to convey what you need to convey. You’re happy to make do with less stuff, so you can just stay home, without stress and make art.”

I bet O’Keeffe would agree. O’Keeffe herself said, “The days you work are the best days.”

Back to, WWGD if she were in my shoes this morning?

She’d be headed to the studio to work on the bizarre art boxes because she knows they are 1000 times more important than getting approval or an article assignment from the editor. So it’s no to my id, yes to my odd so down to the art room I go.

How about you?

What does YES to your art look like for you these days? What will you be saying NO to, in order to spend more time on your YES on your next free day?

About the Author

Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD is a humor-loving, award-winning journalist, artist and children's literacy volunteer. Come check out her new blog TheCharmedStudio. It’s a sanctuary for creatives who care about soul. Her dream is to help creatives like you feel better, write better and sell better---by being yourself.


No no and no. Mostly having to tell that to myself. A key stickie that sits near my computer is: “How does this activity get me closer to my target?” I find it harder to tell myself no, at this stage in life, than to tell others. Perhaps a sign of some dysfunction? LOL.

    Thea Fiore-Bloom

    Hi John, I am glad you can relate to what I was trying to express in the post. It is a struggle to attempt to have our own actions match up to our most important goals and dreams isn’t it?
    I applaud your sticky note selection! Thanks for reading the piece and for your comment.

Georgia O’Keefe’s message is extremely important; it gets down to the soul of our identity. I found a provocative (and closely connected) term in Sam Keen’s “The Passionate Life.” His term: the “Sacred No.”

Keen writes, “Without the sacred ‘no,’ the power to negate, the courage to oppose, the audacity to cut ourselves off from the past, there would be no freedom, no spirit, no love. The urge that moves us toward at/one/ment with matrix and patrix will always be in tension with the impulse that moves us toward in/dividuation. To gain our freedom, we must us the knife of de/cision. We come to a fork in the road, either/or. We must choose.”

I love this term. We utter our Sacred No’s when we are two years old and begin to rebel against our parents. Achilles uttered it in The Iliad when Agamemnon took his concubine Briseis away from him. His Sacred No was a refusal to fight. He refused because Agamemnon had pulled rank on him and had not respected his dignity. The Sacred No is the fundamental principle that lies underneath the concept of nonviolent resistance. It is a tool of communication that is available to the smallest and the weakest of us, every day of our lives.

    Thea Fiore-Bloom

    Steve this is such a moving an informative response to my post. It’s possibly better and deeper than the post itself, lol!
    I have been thinking about Keen’s “Sacred No,” since I read your comment and I agree, our biggest personal no’s may seem crazy for us to utter, at the moment we speak them, but in retrospect they turn out to be these rare, positive, liminal moments where we take the road less traveled. And that road allows us to go in the direction of a more personally meaningful life. ( That’s been my experience at least.) It’s cool to zoom out too and see the big picture “Sacred No’s” in the form of social movements taking place in the U.S. and other countries at this time, and in other eras of history as well.
    Thanks for taking the time to respond and voice your take.

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