Chautauqua focuses on life of Georgia O'Keeffe

It took Deborah Blanche 20 years to commit to doing a project based on O'Keeffe's life

Mike Easterling
Deborah Blanche poses as Georgia O'Keeffe the Coy in this photo from her Chautauqua 'Georgia O'Keeffe: Close Up and Faraway.'

Editor's note: This performance has been canceled, and a new date has not yet been scheduled.

FARMINGTON – Anyone who assumes that actor Deborah Blanche created her Chautauqua based on the life of New Mexico artist Georgia O’Keeffe because she’s a fan of O’Keeffe’s iconic paintings would be sorely mistaken.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever been a Georgia O’Keeffe fan,” Blanche said, laughing uproariously before adding, “I was never drawn to her work. I was drawn to her abstraction."

The fact is, Blanche debated the idea of crafting her “Georgia O’Keeffe: Close Up and Faraway" Chautauqua that she’ll perform this weekend at San Juan College for more than 20 years before she finally committed to the project. In the end, the things that attracted her to the character were not the things that come to mind when most fans think of O’Keeffe.

“Her sense of humor, her wittiness, her honesty,” Blanche said, listing off the things she found most appealing about O’Keeffe, in a phone interview from her San Miguel County home west of Santa Fe last week. “It was all the things we don’t think of O’Keeffe being because of all the imagery of her that was created.”

This weekend’s performance will be only the third performance of the O’Keeffe Chautauqua that Blanche has done, and she said the piece is evolving, explaining that she has to do a show at least 10 times before she knows what she really has.

But the more she learns about O’Keeffe and her aforementioned abstractions, the more endeared she feels toward her, Blanche said, citing the artist’s habit of placing seemingly unrelated items together within the frame of her work.

She also loves the fact that O’Keeffe had a mischievous personality that few people seem to be aware of.

In a Chautauqua she'll perform this weekend in Farmington, actor Deborah Blanche offers a lighter side of Georgia O'Keeffe that many fans may not know about.

“That sense of humor and lightness,” Blanche said, citing the things she discovered about O’Keeffe that surprised her most. “She was a joker. I’m finding out that a lot of her work was a tease.”

If you've only read O’Keeffe’s biographies, it’s easy to see why most people think of her as difficult and stern, particularly in her later years, Blanche said. But recently released collections of O’Keeffe’s letters, which Blanche relied on a great deal to craft her portrait of the artist, reveal a different side of her – and her motivation.

“She painted because it pleased her,” Blanche said. “She talks about jokes she made with her paintings. Particularly among the New York establishment, the men didn’t get it, but it entranced her.”

Actor Deborah Blanche takes notes near Abiquiu as part of her research for 'Georgia O'Keeffe: Close Up and Faraway.'

Blanche takes that as a good reminder that few, if any, public figures are as one dimensional as they sometimes are portrayed.

“We’re very complicated creatures,” she said. “There’s no one side to any of us. That’s what makes it so fascinating to get under their skin and share it with others.”

This Chautauqua is augmented with images of many of O’Keefe’s works. Blanche said securing the rights from O’Keeffe’s estate to use those images was not an easy thing to do, but their addition to the piece gives it a depth it otherwise would have lacked.

“We try to let the artwork speak for itself,” she said.

Actor Deborah Blanche is pictured on the O'Keeffe Trail near Pedernal.

The Chautauqua is also different from most others Blanche has performed because she doesn’t immediately appear as the O’Keeffe character.

“I come on as myself,” she said. “And Georgia O’Keeffe appears with her images as an unembodied being who becomes embodied. That was a choice I made. It’s about my journey to find O’Keeffe.”

Blanche was assisted in putting together her O’Keeffe Chautauqua by her director and collaborator Linda Sandoval, a New Mexico native who now spends much of the year working in Los Angeles. Blanche said Sandoval’s distance made it challenging for the two of them to get together and work out the kinks in this Chautauqua, so, in the end, they settled on conducting rehearsals via Skype. This weekend’s performance will be the first time Sandoval, who will be traveling here, has seen Blanche perform the show face to face, which is only part of the reason why she’s anticipating it so much.

“I’m so pleased we’re doing this in the San Juan College Little Theatre,” Blanche said. “I wanted this piece to be there because it’s such a nice space.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

Actor Deborah Blanche takes a walk near Georgia O'Keeffe's Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu.


What: “Georgia O’Keeffe: Close Up and Faraway,” a Chautauqua by Deborah Blanche

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9

Where: The Little Theatre on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

Admission: Free

For more information: Call 505-566-3430