In the dozens of times I have visited the Art Institute of Chicago, I cannot recall a moment when more than six people stood in one of its tall-ceilinged, white-walled American Art galleries. There are sometimes small gasps of recognition around Nighthawks or selfies in front of American Gothic, but generally people don’t linger. I myself, for years, nodded along as well, strolling through with just enough time to seem like I understood the deeper meanings of these paintings without the aid of their placards.
Four years ago, though, I stopped at Yellow Hickory Leaves with Daisy by Georgia O’Keeffe. I recognized her name but could not remember from what class or friend or calendar. The golden yellow leaves, giantesque and bold, held my gaze as I thought of the sunlight drenching the fall foliage, the kind people drive to New England to see. But the painting features a daisy in full bloom, its petals confident and its flower head the color of a proud hard-boiled egg yolk so that it captured, more so, the warmth and newness of warmer months.
What has brought me back to this painting is how O’Keeffe wanted viewers to slow down, to take the time to notice the beauty in small things they step on or walk past. The arrangement of the two elements resembles a larger flower, with the hickory leaves as petals and the daisy as its center. The play on size makes me feel as if I am stooping to the ground, where tiny things live. And in taking the time to pause, to really see, I am gifted with hearing their voices shout the joy and sweetness of high summer.
Winshen Liu is a former software engineer currently working on her first novel.
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was an American modernist painter best known for her depictions of colorful flowers and New Mexico landscapes. She is recognized as the “mother of American modernism.” Yellow Hickory Leaves with Daisy (1928) is held by the Art Institute of Chicago.