Georgia OʻKeeffeʻs Paintings of Hawaiʻi – Through Conservation Eyes

Last week I was in New York City, arriving early to enjoy the city before the start of the annual Christieʻs International Real Estate Luxury Specialist Conference. Friends who had visited me in Hawaiʻi were waiting for my arrival to see the exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden of Georgia OʻKeeffeʻs paintings from her 1939 visit to Hawaiʻi.

Poster for the Georgia OʻKeeffe exhibition at New York Botanical Garden, seen from the High Line Park.

Georgia OʻKeeffeʻs Paintings and Reflections on Hawaiʻi

As Hawaii Life is the listing agent for the Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden on the Big Island, I was gladdened to learn that the New York Botanical Garden focuses on the Pacific Islands as one of six “Areas of Botanical Concern” where they lead efforts to conserve biodiversity. Hence their choice of this art as a draw to educate the public about the vulnerability and importance of conserving the isolated ecosystems found in the Hawaiian Islands.

American modernist painter Georgia OʻKeeffe is known not only for her large paintings of flowers, but also for her landscapes. The best known of these capture the particular sense of her beloved New Mexico, where she spent decades working and eventually made her home. The exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden includes landscapes she painted during her visit to Hawaiʻi, as well as photographs from that time.

Excerpts from letters she wrote to her husband Alfred Stieglitz are voiced by Sigourney Weaver in a short film that runs with images of Hawaiʻi, and placed next to some of the paintings.

Georgia OʻKeeffe letter from Maui excerpt

Perhaps this is what I wish I could have written about why we need to protect and preserve the iconic landscapes and sacred places that make Hawaiʻi the place that touches us as it does. The artist says: “My idea of the world – nature -things that grow – the fantastic things that mountains can do – has not been beautiful enough.” And she continues, “If my painting is what I have to give back to the world for what the world gives to me, I may say that these paintings are what I have to give at the present for what…Hawaiʻi gave to me.”

What is it each of us, as residents and visitors who share this sense of place, have to give for what Hawaiʻi gives to us?

Preserving the Pre-Contact Botanical Heritage of Hawaiʻi

The exhibit was quick to point out that the vibrant tropical flowers OʻKeeffe painted during her stay are all non-native introductions. They complemented the gallery of paintings with display cases focusing on Polynesian introductions (“canoe plants”) and an explanation of the endemic plants which had evolved in isolation over millennia.

Ti leaf lei on exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden in conjunction with Georgia OʻKeeffe paintings

Which brings me back to the Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden (MLS 613952) and our search for the next steward of this special place devoted entirely to plants that were present in Hawaiʻi prior to the arrival of Captain Cook, with a special emphasis on the particular ahapuaʻa (land division) in which the Garden is situated.

A non-profit called the Friends of Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden was formed to purchase the Garden after Bishop Museum announced that it would be sold. They have been awarded at $750,000 grant by the State Legacy Land Conservation Commission, and now a $550,000 grant from the federal Community Forest and Open Space program under the U.S. Forest Service.  But in order for them to make an acceptable offer, they will need to also raise an endowment to ensure that operating and maintenance costs are covered for years to come.

This is a perfect example of the unique real estate practice under Hawaii Lifeʻs Conservation and Legacy Lands initiative. Perhaps there is another viable buyer reading this blog post who would be willing to work with a group such as the Friends of Amy Greenwell Garden or the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden as operator. Or perhaps there are readers whose philanthropic interests might provide the missing piece of the emerging puzzle.

Are you touched by the landscape and biodiversity of Hawaiʻi as Georgia OʻKeeffe was? Perhaps painting is not what you have to give to preserve the essence of Hawaiʻi. Perhaps you can contribute directly to its conservation. If so, please give me a call.

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