Georgia O’Keeffe as artist, model, and designer at Peabody Essex Museum

Shelley A. Sackett

DECEMBER 28, 2017 – SALEM – Few people outside academia realize that Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), the iconic artist famous for paintings of enlarged flowers and New Mexico landscapes, was an accomplished seamstress who lavished as much creative juice on her self-presentation as on her work. With the opening of its multi-disciplinary exhibition, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style,” the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem opens the door to her closet.

O’Keeffe’s paintings are presented alongside her never before exhibited handmade garments and dozens of images of the artist taken by photographers, including her Jewish husband, Alfred Stieglitz. The show, first curated at the Brooklyn Museum by art historian Wanda M. Corn, is the first to explore how the renowned artist deliberately and adeptly shaped her public image and myth, creating her own celebrity fame.

The 125 works expand our understanding of O’Keeffe while underscoring her fierce determination to be in charge of how the world understood her identity and artistic values. The powerful public persona she created through her clothes and the way she posed for the camera unequivocally proclaimed her independence and modern, progressive lifestyle.

“O’Keeffe drew no line between the art she made and the life she lived,” Corn said. “She strove to make her life a complete work of art, each piece contributing to an aesthetic whole.”

Corn discovered O’Keeffe’s cache during a 1980 cross-country stopover in New Mexico on her way to Stanford University, where she taught art history. She visited O’Keeffe’s homes in the Southwest state at Ghost Ranch and Abiquiú, finding closets full of the artist’s clothing preserved in beautiful condition. Because most were without labels, she had to guess which ones the artist created and which she bought. Corn said if she could sit down with O’Keeffe, “My first question would be, ‘Was I right in my attributions?’”

Most of the clothes and desert artifacts now belong to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, founded the year of her death in 1986.

The provocative photographs by Stieglitz (1864-1946) dominate the exhibition’s walls at the Peabody Essex. It’s hard to imagine the different path O’Keeffe’s life might have taken had she not caught his eye in 1916, when he was 52, married, and a world-famous photographer based in New York and she was 28 and still unknown.

Instantly infatuated with O’Keeffe and her art, the son of German-Jewish immigrants wooed and won her. She moved to New York and soon, he began taking nude photographs of her, one of which hangs beside an O’Keeffe painting at the Peabody Essex exhibit. The two married in 1924. For years, Stieglitz photographed O’Keeffe obsessively, teaching her how to pose and helping make her the most photographed artist of the 20th century.

In 1927, O’Keeffe visited New Mexico and fell in love with the desert landscape. Her art and clothing would change in response to it. She lived there part of the year from 1929 on, moving there permanently after Stieglitz’s death in 1946. The younger generation of photographers who visited her in New Mexico cemented her status as a pioneer of modernism and a contemporary style icon.

Sprinkled throughout the rooms of paintings, paired clothing, and photographs at the Peabody Essex exhibit are small screen films, including fascinating home movies of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz in New York and a one-minute 1977 video portrait, the only such interview the artist granted.

One standout in the exhibition’s predominantly black and ivory palette is an orange Andy Warhol diamond-dusted print that introduces the idea of “Saint Georgia,” showing a meditative, mystical, Mother Theresa-like O’Keeffe. Another is a video of the House of Dior’s 2018 O’Keeffe-inspired cruise collection that features her signature gaucho hat.

“O’Keeffe’s aesthetic legacy of organic silhouettes, minimal ornamentation, and restrained color palettes continues to capture the popular imagination and inspire leading designers and tastemakers of today,” said Austen Barron Bailly, organizing PEM curator.

“Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style” runs through April 1 at the Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, 161 Essex St., Salem. For more information, call 978-745-9500 visit


Pleasure and Pain: Not All Shoes Are Meant for Walking


If, as Mark Twain said, “Clothes makes the man”, then the Peabody Essex Museum’s newest exhibit is full throttle support for a complementary adage: “Shoes make the woman”.

“Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” showcases 300 pairs of shoes by more than 130 designers and artists that range from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the comfortable to the downright punishing. Although men’s shoes are represented with bling and panache, over 70% of the exhibit is devoted to women’s shoes.

With its recent acquisition of 20th– and 21st-century fashion, PEM has the largest shoe collection in the country. Over 100 are included in the exhibit, many of which have never been displayed before.

“We are in the process of building a fashion presence at PEM,” said Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, PEM’s James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Deputy Director and coordinating curator for the exhibition. “There is a growing appetite for compelling exhibitions about fashion.”

Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the PEM show marks its U.S. debut and will run through March 12, 2017.

Curated by themes, the five-section show (Transformation, Status, Seduction, Creation and Obsession) features shoes worn by high profile celebrities such as David Beckham, Elton John, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana. Among the artists and designers represented are Manolo Blahnik (of “Sex and the City” notoriety), Christian Louboutin (with his signature red soles), Christian Dior, Jimmy Choo and Prada. Combat boots and sneakers share center stage with stilettos and seductive boudoir mules.



Beaded evening shoes by Roger Vivier for Christian Dior, 1958-1960.


It is the pairing of designer and consumer that is at the heart of the exhibit. “Shoes are about the personal creativity of the designer and the person who wears that shoe. It’s a partnership between two people who likely never meet. Creation is about communication,” Hartigan said.

The shoes on display aren’t just meant to protect feet and promote locomotion. They are also projections of the mood, identity and status of the wearer. “Shoes are extensions of ourselves,” she added.

Blahnik’s Mondrian-inspired red and yellow “Tendona” shoes would be conversation-stoppers at any gathering as would Louboutin’s impossibly high-heeled “Anemone” design, with its red satin bursts and feathers. The shoes seem molded to fit a Barbie doll’s nonhuman foot, and in fact, Barbie does have her very own accessory line of three Louboutin designs.


Manolo Blahnik , 'Tendona' shoe, 2015. Leather. Courtesy of Manolo Blahnik

“Tedona” by Manolo Blahnik, 2015, made of leather and on loan from the designer..


These shoes aren’t meant for the average consumer (even Barbie’s version retails for $35). With starting prices of $700, they are associated with more than female sexuality and power. “High heels have always been worn by rich people of high society,” said Hartigan, noting that the Egyptians first developed platform shoes in 3500 B.C. so the wealthy could be seen as walking high off the ground.

Historians looking for more than the dazzle of sequins and crystals (yes, there is even a Swarovski Cinderella glass slipper) can linger among the lotus shoes made for bound feet, 16th century chopines and men’s shoes with noisy slap-soles that were worn in Europe in the 17th century.



Chopines by an artist in Venice, Italy, about 1600 made of punched leather and pine.


Fashionistas will delight in the chance to see Vivienne Westwood’s dramatically exaggerated lace-up blue platform heels that famously caused model Naomi Campbell to stumble on a Paris runway in 1993. A picture of Campbell good-naturedly laughing after her very public tumble is part of the display.



The Vivienne Westwood blue, platform-heeled “Super Elevated Gillie” shoes that caused Naomi Campbell’s infamous 1993 Paris catwalk show tumble.


The exhibit also has a distinctive local flavor, acknowledging New England’s importance as a shoe manufacturing center and featuring selections from the late Boston style maven Marilyn Riseman and noted North Shore collectors Jimmy Raye and Lillian Montalto Bohlen.

Turning momentarily serious, the section “Seduction” shines a spotlight on the often-blurred lines between objectification and celebration of women’s sexuality. Inspired by bondage and 18th century prostitution, mules and high heels have always represented both passion and exploitation.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this is “Fetish”, an unwearable pair of stilettos created by Louboutin in collaboration with film director David Lynch, whose signature style (“Blue Velvet”, “Twin Peaks”) is darkly twisted sensuality. The only way one can wear these shoes is by crawling. A picture of a woman doing just that is part of the exhibit.



“Fetish” by Louboutin in collaboration with David Lynch.


Walking through the galleries, it’s evident that while the lion’s share of shoes is designed for women, the designers are predominantly men. Although high heels may empower and literally elevate women, they can do so at a cost of permanent back and foot problems.

Asked whether he has sympathy for women who wear his designer high heels, Louboutin was unambiguous in a 2012 interview with “Grazia” magazine. “High heels are pleasure with pain. If you can’t walk in them, don’t wear them,” he scoffed.

Or, as a shoe designer in ancient Roman times (when high heels were popular with both men and women) might have put it, “caveat emptor”.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain runs through March 12, 2017 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. For more information, visit

Native Fashion on the PEM Runway



When Karen Kramer, Peabody Essex Museum’s Curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture, went to Santa Fe’s annual Indian Market, a traditional Native American juried show, she sensed there was a new, exciting movement afoot. It was edgier, unexpected and non-ceremonial.


Instead of the usual fare of beadwork, basketry and textiles, she noticed a new trend in contemporary Native American art, especially around fashion. “What I was seeing was fresh, relevant and a little bit sexy,” she said. “Native American designers were updating traditional ideas and making them their own.”


She wanted to curate an exhibit to showcase these innovative, pioneering Native fashion designers whose high-energy works break traditional boundaries with materials and invention that go far beyond the stereotypic buckskin, feathers, beads and fringe. “Contemporary Native fashion designers are dismantling and upending familiar motifs, adopting new forms of expression and materials, and sharing their vision of Native culture and design with a global audience,” Kramer said.


Kramer’s dream is now a reality with her curated show, “Native Fashion Now”, at PEM through March 6. Over two years in the planning, it is the first full-scale exhibit to chronicle the contemporary Native American fashion movement over the past 60 years. The show features over 70 artists and after debuting at PEM, will travel for two years to Oregon, Oklahoma and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.


One of the most unusual aspects of “Native Fashion Now” is the fact that of the 74 artists exhibited, 71, or 95 percent, are living.



Orlando Dugi (Dine Navajo). Photo by Shelley A. Sackett


With over 100 garments, shoes, pocketbooks, jewelry, scarves and accessories displayed on 40 mannequins, the exhibit feels like a Native American “Project Runway”- which, in a way, it is. Fans of the television show may recognize the white leather sheath dress that greets visitors on their arrival inside the exhibit. It is the one designed by Patricia Michaels, the Taos Pueblo artist who was the first Native American contestant on the reality TV hit show in 2013. The judges loved the dress, which Michaels hand painted with an abstract New York skyline.


Michaels is delighted that mainstream fashion lovers are embracing Native American design. “We don’t have to be stuck in this gunny sack look anymore,” she said with a smile. Kramer said that the groundbreaking Michaels’ work was the most fitting way to kick off the exhibition, and commissioned her to design the cascading parasols that lead up to the show’s entrance.


The exhibition’s four galleries — Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators and Provocateurs — reflect how designers respond to ideas and trends in the world of Native fashion. All take us to similar places, far away from buckskin and fringe, especially Provacateurs, whose departure from convention makes works that are experimental and one-of-a-kind.


Lloyd “Kiva” New, the Cherokee designer and first true “Pathbreaker”, blazed a trail with his delicate shirtwaist dresses. Their display pays homage to the designer’s 1950s creation of his high-fashion brand, the first Native American to do so. Their timeless style is just as fresh today.


Activators, who embrace an everyday, personal style that engages with today’s trends and politics, are represented in the third gallery by street wear, skates and a pop culture liveliness. Navajo Jared Yazzie’s bold T-shirt with “Native Americans Discovered Columbus” emblazoned on its front turns the familiar saying on its head by encouraging people to think about the truths of history.


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Pat Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo) and Chris Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo/Chiricahua Apache). Belt buckle, 2012. Stainless steel, silver,Teflon, turquoise, and coral. © 2015 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver.


Jeweler and metal smith Pat Pruitt, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, was trained as a mechanical engineer and worked in the body piercing industry before starting to make jewelry in the 1990s. His use of non-precious metals, like titanium, zirconium and stainless steel, creates pieces that are radically different from the traditional Native turquoise and silver jewelry.


Jewelers Kristen Dorsey (Chicksaw) and Pat Pruitt (Pueblo) at the PEM “Native Fashion Now” opening.



Pruitt told the story (repeated by most of the artists who were present at the show’s press opening) about how his creations were not allowed into Native American art shows because they were “not Native enough.” He praised Kramer’s vision in creating the opportunity to showcase the individuality of the Native designer in the context of their tribal identity. “The Native art world wants me to fit in with their stereotype,” he said, pausing. “But individuality and self expression is part of our tradition.


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Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock). Boots, 2013–14. Glass beads on boots designed by Christian Louboutin. Museum commission with support from Katrina Carye, John Curuby, Dan Elias and Karen Keane, Cynthia Gardner, Merry Glosband, and Steve and Ellen Hoffman, 2014.44.1AB. © 2015 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver.


Although Shoshone-Bannock Jamie Okuma’s beaded boots, commissioned for the exhibition, are riveting in their intricacy and beauty, they are not focus of the “Revisitors” gallery, named for the artists’ fresh, new and expanded take on tradition. Rather, it is the two pieces by non-Native designers — Ralph Lauren and Isaac Mizrahi — Kramer included in order to spark conversation about cultural appropriation and borrowing that draw the audience’s attention.


“It’s a complex topic,” Kramer said, noting that some mainstreamers feel that certain Native American cultural icons should be off limits to non-Native designers. For example, Mizrahi’s flannel gown, embroidered as the totem pole that honors North West Native families, could be viewed as offensive by traditionalists. On the other hand, his use of a sacred Native icon could be viewed as mainstream fashion’s acceptance of Native American design, using new materials to update a traditional idea and create something entirely new. “It’s meant to open a dialogue,” Kramer explained, clearly delighted that her inclusion of the piece in the exhibit had already done just that.


While the dynamic and lively exhibit shines a light on what Kramer has called a “Native American fashion renaissance”, the real spotlight is on the individuality of these contemporary designers’ inspirations as they reference their tradition while transcending culture and stereotyping. “We can choose whether we present our culture in our art and what that art means to us,” said Pruitt. “PEM is a museum that recognizes individuality. They get it,” added Michaels.


Pictured at top:

Orlando Dugi (Diné [Navajo]). Cape, dress, and headdress from “Desert Heat” Collection, 2012. Paint, silk, organza, feathers,beads, and 24k gold; feathers; porcupine quills and feathers. Courtesy of the designer, Sante Fe. Hair and makeup: DinaDeVore. Model: Julia Foster. Photography by Unék Francis.

Native Fashion Now runs through March 6 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. For more information, visit