Sunday, November 18, 2012

Life lessons from Georgia O'Keeffe, letter-writer

Ditch the digital, handwritten is better
Originally published November 16, 2012 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

I know I sound like your mother, but you need to write more letters. I don’t mean to guilt-trip you, and yes, I am more than old enough to be your mother, but just hear me out.

Many would argue (correctly) that the increase in the use of digital media is a good thing for the environment. Ecards, Evites and email are obviously much greener than paper. I do value trees, but is digital communication always appropriate?

The letters of O'Keeffe and Steiglitz were published as a book in 2011, "My Faraway One:
Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933," which
included a letter from Stieglitz with a photograph of him and O'Keeffe kissing at Lake
George in 1929." (from
Judith Martin, author of the syndicated Miss Manners column, offers guidance on dealing with the evolving protocol of expressing sincere sentiments in an increasingly impersonal, digital world. Generally, she says that email and texting are okay for casual events and occasions, but formal events and intimate expressions require, at the very least, a handwritten note. Formal weddings, words of sympathy, and love letters should never be digitized.

I hear your excuses—chief among them is that you don’t have time to write letters. You also think your handwriting is too messy, or too illegible, or too inelegant. Or that greeting cards are too expensive, or too tacky, or the U.S. mail is just too slow, or you wouldn’t even know where to buy a sheet of stationery (do they even still make stationery?). And so using digital media is a much more practical choice.

I would counter that the very act of handwriting a letter sends volumes more content than pushing the “send” button, no matter how many words you type. By its very novelty, a handwritten note says that you really care about the person you are writing to. It says that they have a high priority in your life. And it says that your words were chosen carefully and meaningfully, since backspacing wasn’t available.

You probably know who Georgia O’Keeffe is—her flower and skull paintings are as popular and ubiquitous as Freda Kahlo’s face on tote bags. But you may not know much about the woman herself, and that she and her photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz, were avid letter writers.

"How Georgia Became O'Keeffe, Lessons
on the Art of Living" by Karen Karbo. (from
Georgia O’Keeffe, the letter-writer

Over the course of their 30-year romance, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz “exchanged more than 5,000 letters—roughly 25,000 pages—on everything from the rich detail of their daily lives to the breathless angels and demons of their passion,” according to Maria Popova in a recent review of a book about their letters. They met in 1914, when O’Keeffe was a 28-year-old nearly penniless student at Columbia University, and Stieglitz was a long-married 54-year-old gallery owner, who famously introduced America to modern art. According to O’Keeffe’s latest biographer Karen Karbo, in her lighthearted book “How Georgia Became O’Keeffe—Lessons on the Art of Living,” their passionate letter-writing began in 1916, when she was teaching in West Texas.

“Every thought that entered their heads was fit to be part of their communication,” writes Karbo. Their correspondence “was so lively, consistent, and increasingly intimate that it could have only ended in bed.” At his bidding, O’Keeffe returned to New York and they lived together but didn’t marry until Stieglitz finally got a divorce 1924. They continued their letter-writing—sometimes two or three letters a day—whenever they were away from each other, until Stieglitz’s death in 1946.

Karbo—whose non-traditional biography explores Georgia O’Keeffe’s life for its teachable moments—in her glib, wisecracking-in-the-footnotes writing style, wonders how we can “develop this kind of rich, multifaceted attachment to someone…now that letter-writing is dead and e-mails are on life support.” She acknowledges that letter-writing was “fun, 1916-style,” which has now been supplanted by “Angry Birds and ‘I Can Has Cheezburger’ and ‘American Idol’ and retail therapy, and everything else we moderns like to do.” But at what cost? (For one thing, we wouldn’t have such wonderful source material for writing biographies about iconic role models like Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz.)
Christine West's workspace for making cards is her desktop.
Supplies needed for decoupage card-making include a
self-healing mat, tweezers, paper-cutter, small scissors,
bone folder, dimensional silicon glue or foam pads,
computer and printer, and cardstock paper.

O’Keeffe and Stieglitz occasionally illustrated their correspondence, which undoubtedly enhanced their message further. Greeting cards can add another dimension to your message, if you avoid tacky or cliché. Take the time to find artwork that is special and personal, or, better yet, illustrate your own messages.

Christine West, greeting card-maker

Some artists make greeting cards from their original artwork. But Christine West’s greeting cards are her artwork. In her native England they call her technique “decoupage,” but it has nothing to do with Mod Podge or varnish.  West takes cut-out images, either found or purchased, duplicates them over and over, then uses dimensional silicon or tiny foam pads to glue them into 3D stacks, sometime 7 or 8 layers tall.

The technique doesn’t require a lot of workspace or materials, and the results are quite extraordinary. “I like to think that people who buy my cards are a little more caring and discerning about what they’re sending. And recognize the art and the work that that goes into them,” says West. “I love to see people look at them and go ‘Oh wow!’ because they are really unique. And it’s very gratifying to have someone love what you do.”

The English version of decoupage is all about making multi-layered, 3D images.  This card made by West, features a
seven-layered image of a bouquet of flowers.
Many of Christine West's designs are whimsical, like turning the
poster art from the Santa Cruz County Fair into a decoupage image,
for which she won a ribbon at the fair.  But she also makes get well,
sympathy, thank you, thinking-of-you, Easter, and Christmas cards.
"You name it, I've got it," she says.  Give her a theme such as mermaids
or golfing, and she'll even make you a custom card.  "If you think of
it, I'll make it," she says.
West sells her cards at Just Baby in Capitola Village, The Dragonfly Gallery in Aromas and more casually at Body Zone in Watsonville, where she goes for exercise. Through YouTube tutorials, you can also learn to make your own decoupage cards, and variations including pyramage (a pyramid-shaped stack), invertage (the opposite of a pyramid, with a deep center) and trinitage (a pop-up card with a foreground, middle ground and background). Google “decoupage cards” and you’ll find examples, supplies and design sheets for making 3D cards on sites such as,, and

To create holiday cards, you can reuse artwork from last year’s cards, if you’ve saved them, using your scanner to duplicate images for the 3D effect. Or search for websites with free downloadable decoupage sheets such as E-How suggests using Christmas coloring worksheets, printable from various websites, so your kids can color the multiple images with crayons or markers. Or, if you want a truly original card, start with images of your own artwork or photographs.