A New York Minute In History
A New York Minute In History
Georgia O'Keeffe and Her Visit to Wiawaka | A New York Minute in History

On this episode, Devin and Lauren discuss how the poor conditions of female textile workers in Capital Region cities led to the creation of a retreat where women could “escape” the cities. Wiawaka was founded by Mary Fuller, an advocate for women workers in Troy, and the wealthy philanthropists Katrina and Spenser Trask. Wiawaka originally included a planned artist’s retreat, called Wakonda, where Georgia O’Keeffe was invited to stay as a young artist and member of the Arts Students League. This introduction to Lake George had a monumental effect on O’Keeffe’s life and art, and she spent several years working in the area.

Marker of Focus: Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George, Warren County

Guests: Doreen Kelly, executive director of Wiawaka, and Karen Quinn, art historian and curator at the New York State Museum

A New York Minute In History is a production of the New York State Museum, WAMC, and Archivist Media, with support from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. This episode was produced by Jesse King. Our theme is “Begrudge” by Darby.

Further Reading:

Messinger, Lisa Mintz. Georgia O’Keeffe. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001.

O’Keeffe, Georgia. Georgia O’Keeffe. New York: Viking, 1976.

Wiawaka Holiday House: https://upstatehistorical.org/items/show/84?tour=7&index=10

Capital Region Textile Industry: https://www.albanyinstitute.org/textile-industry.html

The Collar City by Don Rittner: https://rensselaer.nygenweb.net/article11.htm

Collar Maid Cuffed Bosses by Pam Trudeau: https://rensselaer.nygenweb.net/article4.htm

More on Georgia O’Keeffe: https://www.okeeffemuseum.org/about-georgia-okeeffe/

Follow Along

Devin: Welcome to A New York Minute in History. I’m Devin Lander, the New York state historian.

Lauren: And I’m Lauren Roberts, the historian for Saratoga County. On this episode, we’re taking a deeper look at a marker located along Route 9L on the eastern shores of Lake George, which is located in Warren County. The title of the marker is “Georgia O’Keeffe,” and the text reads: “Georgia O’Keeffe, 1887 to 1986. American artist who stayed at Wakonda in June 1908 on a scholarship from the Art Students League. William G. Pomeroy Foundation, 2016.”

The artist Georgia O’Keeffe is pretty much a household name, but I’m guessing many of our listeners haven’t heard of Wakonda, which is the lodge Georgia O’Keeffe stayed in, or the Art Students League. So let’s take a step back and talk about what brought this young artist to the shores of Lake George in the summer of 1908.

In the 19th century, the city of Troy in Rensselaer County was known as the “Collar City,” because Troy produced the majority of detachable shirt collars in the country. Detachable collars are now a thing of the past, but in the 19th Century, they were really popular. The collar was usually the dirtiest part of the shirt, and it needed to be laundered most frequently, and in the days before washing machines, this was really a pain. So someone in Troy — there’s a couple of conflicting stories about who actually came up with the idea — but someone in Troy created the concept of a detachable shirt collar, and eventually detachable cuffs as well. So the idea was, you could just remove the collar and replace it when it was dirty, saving the laundresses from having to wash the entire shirt. This industry exploded in Troy, and by the early 1900s, 15,000 people were working in the collar industry in that city.

It also expanded into the larger textile industry, which made it a desirable location for new immigrants to settle, because jobs were readily available. The majority of workers in the textile industry in Troy were female, and many of them were immigrants, most of them with very low incomes, who worked extremely long hours. And this is where Mary Fuller enters the story. Mary Fuller was the daughter of a wealthy Troy industrialist who was an advocate for women’s rights. Mary Fuller was sensitive to the fact that these women working in the industries in and around Troy, such as the shirt collar factories, mills, and laundries — they couldn’t have afforded a vacation. They were making really low wages and just getting by, and so Mary fuller had the idea to create a place that would be affordable for these women to be able to have some respite from their jobs in the city.

Doreen: My name is Doreen Kelly. I’m the executive director at Wiawaka Center for Women. Our original name is Wiawaka Holiday House.

Lauren: To learn more about Wiawaka, we spoke with the executive director Doreen Kelly.

Doreen: Katrina Trask and Mary Fuller both believed in giving back to the working woman. They believed in giving these women that worked in the factories in Troy an opportunity to have a holiday on Lake George.

Lauren: Mary Fuller’s family had means, and so that means she also had friends with means. So she approached one of these friends, Katrina Trask, to ask for help in developing this vision. The Trask name might be familiar to people in and around Saratoga Springs, which is where Spenser and Katrina Trask had a home called Yaddo. They also had purchased an estate on the southeastern shores of Lake George, which was called Crosbyside. It was the site of a former hotel, the United States Hotel. The property seemed exactly what Mary Fuller had envisioned as a getaway for the young, working women of Troy. It wasn’t terribly far away from the city, it was out in the country with fresh air. At first, Mary Fuller leased this property from the Trasks, but eventually Katrina sold it to Mary for $1 and a bouquet of flowers.

Doreen: Wiawaka was formed. It’s the oldest continuously operating women’s retreat center in the country. [Wiawaka] is an old Indian name [for] “the great spirit of women.”

We have five historic buildings where people can stay, overnight accommodations. Three of them are Victorian in style, and those are the original Fuller House, where Mary Fuller’s family originally had stayed, but now is the main house. The dining room’s there, the front desk is there, and there’s also staff quarters. Rose and Mayflower are two other Victorian cottages similar in that they were also considered guest cottages, but they’re two floors. Lake House was built in the early 1950s because of the overflow of all the guests that were staying at Wiawaka, and it’s got also a very Adirondack feel to it, with eight rooms on the top and eight rooms on the bottom. And there’s a communal screened-in area that’s quite lovely. People love Lake House. And then Wakonda is still the same, original to its date of what it looked like back in 1908. Very Adirondack in style, with the bead boarding and the ornate woodwork in the front. It’s very simple furnishings, but it is the closest building to the water, so when your windows are open, you can hear the water, get the breezes. So it’s a very beautiful, open, spacious, peaceful location on Lake George.

Wakonda was where the New York City League of Art Students stayed. They gave the students the ability to apply to different types of opportunities to go and paint outside of New York City, and they stayed for a month. And we know Georgia O’Keeffe did stay, and we even know the room number: Room 18. Her award-winning submission was the [Dead Rabbit and Copperpot], and that is what won her the scholarship to come paint on Lake George for a month.

Devin: Most people know the name Georgia O’Keeffe, and probably those that do recognize her for the work she created in New Mexico, and her kind of existential nature scenes, as well as her famous flowers, of course. But I think there’s less of a realization that Georgia O’Keeffe spent a great amount of time in New York — New York City as well as Lake George. So how did Georgia O’Keeffe end up in New York City? She was born on a farm in Wisconsin, she spent time as a teacher, she spent time moving around before she followed her muse as an artist. And of course, New York City being the kind of bastion of art in this country, then and today (We’re talking the early 20th Century), [that] really was the reason that she ended up there. I sat down with my colleague, Art Historian Karen Quinn, who tells us a little bit more about Georgia’s early life.

Karen: She came from a family of farmers, but her mother and grandmother were very much interested in the arts, and certainly fostered that not only in Georgia, but in her sister Ida, as well, who is a good artist. But Georgia went first to the Art Institute of Chicago, and then she headed east to the Art Students League in New York City, which truly was the place to go. The Art Students League is one of the most important art schools in this country. Historically, it was founded in the 1870s as a response to the National Academy of Design, which is also in New York City, and which was more of a conservative institution. And the Art Students League would allow people to come in and just take classes, which was attractive to students. The list of artists who’ve gone to the Art Students League is a mile long, everybody from Winslow Homer to Jackson Pollock.

Devin: Oftentimes, students would go on to become teachers there, and this continues to this day. The Art Students League is still open and vibrant and flourishing in New York City. It is also famous for its summer schools. We know about the one in Woodstock that it held for many years, in the Woodstock Arts Colony, but it also, obviously, held one in Lake George in 1908. And her piece that she put forward for this award was actually a very realistic type of artwork. It was realism — she was not a modernist [then], as she would later become famous for. So I think we see that change from realism to modernism beginning in her time in Lake George.

Doreen: She was probably about 18, 19 years of age, and as far as details of their time on the lake, I feel it was very flexible. There may have been other artists and instructors that came over the course of the time they were there, but they were all given the flexibility to paint. We have several photographs of her participating in different activities on the property, and we know that they did go boating, and they walked into the village. And it’s quite interesting to hear that that’s when Georgia also started painting more flowers and the lake. And in her history, we know that that’s where she got a lot of that inspiration — it was her time on Lake George. And we also know she extended her time. So she spent most of that first summer at Wiawaka and Wakonda, painting and being part of that New York City elite group of artists.

Karen:  In the 1910s, she was kind of all over the board, teaching and trying to eke out a living, and at times she turned away from art briefly. She took some summer school classes when she was teaching in Virginia, and the teacher there introduced her to the concepts of Arthur Wesley Dow, and Dow continues to be influential as a teacher. He published a well-known art book called Composition. He was very interested in the tenets of Japanese design, and this led to O’Keeffe experimenting and moving away from the kind of painting she had done early on in the Art Students League, such as [Dead Rabbit and Copperpot]. Her art became completely abstract by the mid-1910s, something that she then would back away from afterwards, but it was that work on paper, charcoals that came to the attention of Alfred Stieglitz, when a friend of O’Keeffe sent the work (unbeknownst to her) to Stieglitz. And Stieglitz, actually, was profoundly interested in the work, and exhibited it at his gallery, 291, in New York City.

Lauren: This trip that Georgia took to Lake George would certainly not be her last, right, Devin?

Devin: You’re right, and Georgia’s return to Lake George really is a result of her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, who was a prominent photographer and gallery owner in New York City. He was really the first person to show Georgia’s work professionally in his gallery. He was also a talent scout of sorts for various artists.

Karen: He had his fingers in many, many pots. He himself was an extraordinary photographer. He promoted photography as a fine art at a time when photography was belittled. He promoted American art at a time when American art was not first and foremost on people’s minds. He had a series of galleries in New York City, where he had a stable of artists that would include O’Keeffe and other artists who are considered modernists, like John Marin and Arthur Dove, Charles Sheeler, and so forth. He invited O’Keeffe to move to New York, and basically provided her with a living starting in 1918. So she came back to New York, and they would eventually marry in 1924. So it was this extraordinary relationship between the two of them — and it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. He was married when he met her. He couldn’t get divorced for six years. And then it was through Stieglitz’s family getaway in Lake George that she returned to Lake George.

She’s beginning to become the O’Keeffe that we all associate with her work. She’s starting to work in still life with the flowers. She’s very influenced by the architecture around Lake George — the barns, she does a whole series of the barns. She does a variety of the kinds of things that we would associate with her abstract, but still recognizable, style. She steps away from the pure abstraction that she had achieved in the 1910s and goes back to something that still has a foot in visual reality, but she is certainly putting her mark on it. And she’s certainly making things the way she sees them. She becomes an amazing colorist. Sometimes her paintings are so subtle in color, and just unbelievably quiet, and then other times, they’re bombastic. Some of that comes when she starts to go to New Mexico, but she really had quite a brilliant career as a colorist.

One of my favorite series that sort of has the essence of O’Keeffe at Lake George is this series called the “Shell and Old Shingle” series. And it starts out fairly recognizable, and they’re small. The old shingle is a barn shingle, and it’s a clam shell, and she gets increasingly — in their little verticals, they get increasingly more abstract until she turns the shell and old shingle on its side. And the profile of the shingle becomes the landscape of Lake George. People see this and they go, “That can’t possibly be the name of that painting,” because there’s no shell or shingle in it. But it’s actually, you can see how she worked from reality all the way to her abstractions.

Devin [to Karen]: Where would that artwork be housed right now? Is it at the O’Keeffe Museum?

Karen: No, the group of those, five of them are at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. And one, I think — I may be wrong, but it might be in St. Louis. I’m not positive.

Devin [to Karen]: You mentioned New Mexico, and by the early 1930s, O’Keeffe was spending more time there than she was in Lake George or New York City. Why was this, what was the attraction?

Karen: She was always a little bit fragile health-wise, mentally and physically, and oftentimes felt overwhelmed. Her relationship with Stieglitz was — I don’t know if you’d say problematic. It certainly was all over the boards. He produced hundreds of photographs of her, both clothed and in the nude, that are just extraordinarily beautiful. He certainly was very important to her as a mentor, and promoting and selling her work And certainly exhibiting her work and making it well known. But part of the problem they had later in their marriage is that he had an affair, a well-known affair with Dorothy Norman, and that sent Georgia O’Keeffe into a bit of a health spin, I would say.

It was recommended to her that she go to New Mexico, and she traveled there with her friend, Rebecca Strand, who had been married to the photographer Paul Strand. Rebecca Strand is an artist in her own right. And she went and was invited by Mabel Dodge Luhan to spend time at Luhan’s salon out in Taos, and went back for summers after that, and had a studio there. And she was bowled over by the landscape. And that’s something I think that’s important in O’Keeffe, as far as landscapes are concerned, is she’s very much very responsive to Lake George, for instance, which has a subtler color range — and then she goes to New Mexico where the sun is so bright, and she’s wowed by the geology and the hills around where she’s staying. She’s a bit of a loner, she travels by jeep out into the countryside. She collects some of the bones that she paints, and sets them up against the landscapes and such. And she would settle in New Mexico after Stieglitz passed away in 1946. In fact, in 1946 was the last time she went to Lake George. And she brought Stieglitz’s ashes there. But she would settle in New Mexico and she had a home at Ghost Ranch and another she would eventually buy in Abiquiu.

Devin [to Karen]: So at this point she was world famous, we would say? Or getting there?

Karen: Certainly nationally famous. In the 1930s she had a brief stint of not painting at all, but she certainly was being shown in a lot of galleries, and then things pick up after that. She certainly is a well-known artist, and certainly Stieglitz promoted her until he died. And that was very important.

Lauren: Georgia O’Keeffe had a very long career that spanned several decades. She passed away in 1986, at the age of 98. But until the very end of her life, despite suffering from macular degeneration and the loss of her vision, she continued to create art. And she remains one of the most important American artists of the 20th Century today, which is why I think it’s so great that Wiawaka chose to put these markers up. And I should say there are two markers. They’re identical, but there’s one on the road side and there’s also one on the lake side, so that people that are boating along Lake George can actually see the marker from the water. It’s really great that Wiawaka continues its legacy of a space for women to come and gather and better themselves, to give them respite and peace, to continue learning. They still invite artists to Wiawaka over the summer, so that they can continue to develop their skills, and they can work in a peaceful setting on Lake George. In addition, the Art Students League continues their mission that was started all the way back in 1875, as well.

Devin: Absolutely. The Art Students League is still functioning and flourishing in New York City, and artists are passing through teaching and learning. Again, there’s no grades, there’s no degrees, but they are learning and developing art that goes far beyond the boundaries of New York City and New York state. So it is very interesting that Wiawaka and the Art Students League, even the Trask property at Yaddo — all is still functioning today, still developing and meeting its mission. And Georgia O’Keeffe, again, famous for her artwork in New Mexico, and her flowers and various scenes from the desert, actually learned her craft and perfected her craft in Lake George, which remained vitally important to her throughout a very important part of her artistic development.

Karen: I think it gave her — when she had solitude — it gave her the chance to really focus on her art without distractions. And it also gave her subjects that she was able to explore in depth over and over again, that became kind of her calling card. Things that she discovered, and people would say, “That doesn’t look like a flower.” And she said, “Well, have you ever really stopped to look carefully at a flower?” or what have you. And she was very much interested in nature, and how that natural world could be reflected in her art.

I think she’s important as an artist, in terms of promoting a vision that’s both personal and appeals to the viewer in a way that the viewer might not have thought about. Looking at these kinds of things like the geometry of an adobe, the cragginess of the hills out New Mexico, the subtlety of the colors of a Lake George day, and the effect of it on a barn. I think it introduces people into a way of looking at things that they might not normally have looked. And certainly the flowers and the fruits that she had painted, have done that for people. At the end of her life, she’s fascinated by flying in planes and painting clouds, and as you see them it’s fascinating from a plane, but still with that O’Keeffe sense of vision, abstraction, however you want to put it. And she’s certainly interesting as one of the modernists, as a Stieglitz artist, perhaps — but she stands on her own. Frankly, she’s important as a trailblazer at a time when women artists initially were not taken seriously. I mean, Stieglitz’s comment about, “Finally a woman on paper,” when he saw her work, was basically that you didn’t see this kind of work being produced by women. And women could go to the Art Students League, which was wonderful. And certainly the Art Students League produced amazing women artists.

Doreen: We actually have a Georgia O’Keeffe Week during our summer months, and we commemorate Georgia through impersonators, through historians, through workshops and through music. And we’re able to get a feel on what Georgia was thinking at the time. It’s often funny to hear stories where some of these other artists — they were male and female — and she was told at some point that she was going to be a great art teacher some day. It’s quite funny to hear her retort of, “I was not the art teacher, I became much more than that,” but there was that assumption, as a woman artist, that she would be a teacher someday. Which, she’s a very strong artist with a very strong history of being independent and doing what she felt was the best for her painting and her inspiration.

We do have copies of paintings in Wakonda, in the sitting rooms, of works that have been inspired by Lake George. And we have the photographs in the marker to of her property. So it’s a very nice way to summarize who we’ve had here, and how much we are celebrating her time at Wakonda. And it’s a key central point during a tour, right next to Wakonda, so you can actually see the historical marker from the Pomeroy Foundation. And you can see the beautiful background of the lake behind it. So it’s a very important piece of our history. You can find more information about us on our website at wiawaka.org, and our number is 518-668-9690.

A New York Minute In History is a production of the New York State Museum, WAMC, and Archivist Media, with support from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. This episode was produced by Jesse King. Our theme is “Begrudge” by Darby.