Chautauqua on O'Keeffe planned at college

Mike Easterling

FARMINGTON — A little more than a year ago, as she was planning a performance of her Chautauqua “Georgia O’Keeffe: Up Close and Far Away” at San Juan College, Deborah Blanche said she believes she needs at least 10 performances of a new show before she feels like she has a grip on her character.

Deborah Blanche performs her Chautauqua "Georgia O'Keeffe: Up Close and Far Away" this weekend at San Juan College.

Since the show she was planning here would have been only her third performance as O’Keeffe, the famed Abiquiu painter who died in 1986, Blanche acknowledged she was a long way away at that point from settling into the role.

Over the ensuing 13 months, Blanche hasn’t quite reached that aforementioned 10-performance level, but with six shows under her belt, she thinks she’s a lot closer to zeroing in on the character than she was.

“It’s a much more mature piece now than it was in terms of my intimating the lines and playing with the script,” she said. “It was still on the edge of being green then.”

Blanche wound up not performing her Chautauqua here after slipping on the pavement while putting gas in her car on her way to San Juan College. She landed on her right knee and splintered her femur, a debilitating injury that required two surgeries to correct.

“It was the most challenging year of my life,” Blanche said of her recovery. “Just this week am I able to walk without pain.”

That setback kept Blanche from performing the show at all for several months, and when she did return to the stage, her mobility was limited.  So with the help of her director and collaborator, Linda Sandoval, she developed what she calls a “minimalist” version of the Chautauqua that she’s been performing during her recovery.

Blanche said last week from her home in San Miguel County that she’s physically ready to put that version aside and go back to performing the production the way it was envisioned to begin with, and that’s what the audience at San Juan College will see this weekend.

“Georgia O’Keeffe: Up Close and Far Away” is not a linear presentation of the story of O’Keeffe’s life, nor does Blanche remain in character the entire time she is on stage.

Actress Deborah Blanche says her portrayal of famed artist Georgia O'Keeffe is not a traditional Chautauqua and does not proceed in a linear fashion.

“It goes back and forth between O’Keeffe and myself,” she said. “It’s a bit on the edge of the Chautauqua format.”

Blanche portrays other characters for the New Mexico Humanities Council’s Chautauqua program, and she said those presentations are much more traditional than this one.

“I really nail the time fame in which the character is interacting with the audience (in those other presentations), and I don’t in this,” she said. “The whole thing is set up as if she’s a spirit being, and I embody her.”

O’Keeffe is a beloved figure to millions and perhaps the best-known representative of the storied Northern New Mexico art scene. So Blanche had a great deal of material on her life to sift through when she was crafting her portrayal.

But the artist’s persona left a lot of room for interpretation, she said.

“A lot of people think they know a lot about O’Keeffe,” she said. “They have these questions in mind of what they think about O’Keeffe. I plan the Chautauqua performances to incite questions. I get some of the most off-the-wall questions.”

Blanche said she and Sandoval set about challenging many of those notions about O’Keeffe when they wrote the script for this Chautauqua. One of the elements of her character that they focus on in the presentation is O’Keeffe’s work as a photography model, particularly for her husband Alfred Stieglitz.

“She knew how to do that,” Blanche said of O’Keeffe’s gift for striking a pose. “She knew how to put on a costume and hold the cow skull up and put on the hat. And that’s how many people see her. We intend to show more dimensions.”

One of those dimensions is O’Keeffe’s mischievous side, an aspect of her personality most people know little about, Blanche said.

“There are a lot of laugh lines in the words she speaks,” Blanche said. “She was very flat and matter of fact in her dealings with most people, but she definitely had that trickster quality about her. ... There were so few people who understood her sense of humor, and she had that playfulness about her.”

Blanche augments her presentation with digital images of O’Keeffe’s work that she was able to license for her use through the artist’s estate, but she said only occasionally does an audience member comment on that work during the question-and-answer session that follows her presentation.

Actress Deborah Blanche takes a stroll around Santa Rose de Lima near Georgia O'Keeffe's longtime home in Abiquiu.

In one case, Blanche recalled, a woman asked a question about an O’Keeffe painting, “Black Abstraction,” that isn’t among those works featured onstage. But Blanche knew a lot about the piece because it happens to be her favorite O’Keeffe painting.

Blanche laughed as she recalled how the woman explained how she interpreted the painting to see all sorts of objects in it that Blanche didn’t.

“I wasn’t going to tell her her interpretation is wrong,” she said. “One of the great things O’Keeffe said is, ‘Don’t try to decide what I’m thinking — just decide what you think.’”
In addition to receiving permission to use some of O’Keeffe’s work in the show, Blanche was able to draw on a lot of information from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe when she was compiling her presentation. She purposely has avoided performing the Chautauqua there or for anyone from the museum up to this point, explaining she was seeking that aforementioned maturity in the production before taking it to that setting, where O’Keeffe’s legacy looms so large.

“But I have performed it for a lot of artists who are quite knowledgeable about her and many historians,” she said.

The other characters Blanche portrays for the Humanities Council are Nina Otero-Warren, an early-day New Mexico educator, author and arts organizer; Santa Fe photographer Laura Gilpin, known for her images of the Shiprock pinnacle and Navajo people; and Jeanette Rankin, a Montana woman who was an outspoken advocate for social justice, peace and women’s suffrage.

Blanche said her favorite character tends to be the one she’s currently portraying, but she said she’s had the most experience with Rankin.

“I’ve done her in so many different versions, she’s extremely mature,” Blanche said. “I’m really immersed in her story. I’ve said things as Jeanette Rankin in character that I never intellectualized. It’s like channeling her sometimes. I haven’t quite gotten there with O’Keeffe.”

Deborah Blanche, pictured here near Georgia O'Keeffe's Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, says her portrayal of the famed artist includes plenty of laugh lines.

In the future, Blanche envisions putting together a Chautauqua on Rebecca Salsbury James, a Taos painter and wife of photographer Paul Strand who was part of a creative circle that included Mabel Dodge Luhan, or Elizabeth Bacon Custer, wife of Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

“I tend to choose characters that aren’t household names,” she said. “That’s my advocacy for women’s history. I like to look at all these women who led extraordinary lives and who are not in history books.”

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

If you go

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

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11

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

Admission: Free

For more information: Call 505-566-3430