- Letters Like the Day: On Reading Georgia O’Keeffe by Jennifer Sinor
In confronting the striking qualities of the western American landscape, Georgia O’Keeffe did not trust words to render her feeling. It may seem paradoxical, then, that Jennifer Sinor should turn to words—her own analysis of O’Keeffe’s letters—to make sense of the artist’s life in place. Well aware of this dissonance, Letters offers a deft handling of the gap between experience of place and the words that attempt to capture it, omitting traditional analytic structure in favor of narrative-driven scholarship that places the author’s own experiences of place alongside O’Keeffe’s iconic works and the experiences that inspired them.
Sinor strikes a balance between narrator and participant in the text’s nine essays, direct in framing the work’s structure and her intent, but more a collaborator in the specific themes of each essay. Through this approach, she develops a synthesis of archival evidence, interpretation, speculation, and creative imagination. Some essays, notably “Holes in the Sky” and “Cleaving, 1929,” demonstrate how Sinor attempts to understand O’Keeffe as a peer, a fellow artist, and a fellow contemplator of the western landscape. At the same time, Sinor’s essays are introspective and reveal the tension between connection and isolation common to O’Keeffe’s letters and paintings. A series of essays, including “A Walk into the Night” and “Taking Myself into the Sun,” are most exemplary in this respect, tracing the love triangle formed from O’Keeffe’s long love affair with sensual experience of landscape and with her lover and husband, Alfred Stieglitz. These essays reveal a deep engagement with place that O’Keeffe’s paintings only suggest, a mark of Sinor’s accomplishment in making the artist’s own words resonate as clearly as her brush strokes. As the text progresses, O’Keeffe ages [End Page 129] and increasingly seeks solitude in the nonhuman world. Sinor’s essays mirror her demeanor, becoming more contemplative and less analytic. These essays are more pointedly preoccupied with her intent to find “the emotional truth in a subject” and less occupied with the “translating” of that truth for others (14). No matter her priority, Sinor skillfully employs narrative scholarship that models the kind of meaning making we accomplish in conversation and contemplation—sometimes meandering, often cyclical, and never truly complete.
Though a lyrical and striking read, Letters is perhaps most impressive for its versatility. As a work of creative nonfiction, Sinor’s voice is evocative and unrestrained in exploring the complexity of life experienced in place. Through the same medium, however, her essays chart new spaces in multimodal scholarship of landscape and place in the American West, merging critical and contemplative consideration of subjectivity and historicity in a narrative compelling for its lack of finality. Her work here may prove valuable to archival work and studies at the intersection of literature and art history, but more significantly, Letters models ways to chart the gap between language and experience that so often inhibits our engagement with the nonhuman world. With those boundaries marked, it will perhaps prove easier to render in aesthetic forms the complexities of feeling and knowing place.