This week marks the 131st birthday of Georgia O’Keeffe one of the most, if not the most famous artist from Wisconsin. At first, her celebrity was embraced by her hometown of Sun Prairie. But eventually things got…complicated. Dean Robbins picks up the story.
Sun Prairie vs. Georgia O’Keeffe
Relations between Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, and its most famous native hit a low point in the 1970s.
Georgia O’Keeffe was born on a Sun Prairie farm in 1887. She left Wisconsin at age 15, studied art, and established herself as one of the world’s greatest painters in the 1920s. She made her reputation with boldly original images of flowers and desert landscapes. When you look at one of her large-scale lilies, you feel an intimate bond with the curves and folds of the abstract petals.
By the 1970s, O’Keeffe was legendary as an artist who pursued her own vision and a woman who lived on her own terms. Unfortunately, Sun Prairie didn’t count on her independent spirit when it decided to boost its image as her hometown. After naming a park after her, city representatives asked Georgia to appear in the Sun Prairie bicentennial parade. They also asked her to donate a painting to the Sun Prairie historical museum.
It’s not surprising that O’Keeffe turned down both requests. She was in her 80s, so getting to Sun Prairie from her remote home in Abiquiu, New Mexico, would have been difficult. She was also going blind and not keen on letting people know it. As for donating a priceless painting—well, that’s an iffy thing to ask any artist of her stature.
But Sun Prairie took the refusal as an insult and, in 1977, renamed the park. It’s a shame things got to that point, because O’Keeffe was always proud of her roots. Wisconsin is the place that forged her strong will and prepared her to break through barriers in a male-dominated field.
Georgia grew up amid women who stood shoulder to shoulder with men, making their way on the rugged frontier. With a determination typical of her clan, she set her sights on an artistic career at age 10. She wowed her art teachers in Sun Prairie and at Madison’s Sacred Heart Academy. By the time she and her family moved to the East Coast, she had developed the fiercely unconventional personality that would make its mark on the world. This is a woman who never dressed, behaved, or painted according to any fashion.
When O’Keeffe settled in a wild part of New Mexico in 1949, she had to deal with rattlesnakes and flash floods. There were no telephones, no grocery stores, no medical services. Her New York City friends wondered how on earth she survived in such harsh conditions. O’Keeffe proudly pointed to her origins in Wisconsin—a place where people worked with their hands.
Thankfully, Sun Prairie has made its peace with O’Keeffe since she died in 1986. The city now honors her with a historical marker, exhibits, and special events.
As a Wisconsin resident, I’m relieved that this family feud has ended. It’s only right that Sun Prairie is now as proud of Georgia O’Keeffe as Georgia O’Keeffe was of Sun Prairie.