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Photography by John Loengard

The sign marking Georgia Totto O’Keeffe’s birthplace is even more unremarkable than the corn and soybean fields surrounding it. Discreetly tucked away near the intersection of Town Hall Drive and County Highway T, some three and a half miles southeast of downtown Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, it is dark blue with plain white lettering and so modest that I don’t notice it the first time I drive by. Or the second. In fact, it requires a third pass — at a speed that no doubt infuriates the drivers of the pickup truck and the tractor stuck behind me — for me to spot it. Pulling over into the ditch, I get out to read it: Birthplace of Georgia O’Keeffe, Artist, Born Nov. 15, 1887. No mention of the huge impact this icon of feminism and 20th century art had during her lifetime. No note that the farmhouse that used to stand here, the farmhouse where she was born, burned down in November 1976, or that she passed away on March 6, 1986. Which leads me to me wonder: Is Sun Prairie not proud of its most famous daughter?

Stepping into the Sun Prairie Historical Library and Museum quickly answers that question. More than 150 O’Keeffe prints fill the walls of the red brick building. Intermixed amongst the art — mostly the oversize flowers and desertscapes for which she became famous — are photographs, letters, books and all the other paraphernalia one would expect from a museum proudly paying homage to a luminary who once called its small city home.

But Sun Prairie hasn’t always celebrated its ties to O’Keeffe. It wasn’t until 1976, shortly after the farmhouse burned down, that city leaders decided to name a park after the artist who spent the first 16 years of her life here. Assuming she would appreciate the gesture, they invited her to the dedication and asked her to donate a painting. She said no to both.

Rumors quickly spread about the impetus behind her rejection. Some concluded that she was embarrassed by her Northern roots. Others said they’d heard she’d attempted to forge a relationship with her hometown early in her career but had been rejected due to Freudian interpretations of her paintings as erotic (something she consistently denied). Although O’Keeffe never explained her rationale behind declining the offer, friend and longtime New York Times reporter Edith Evans Asbury rejected all the whisperings in 1987, explaining, “If they read up on her, they will find that O’Keeffe had a reason to refuse their 1976 invitation to visit. She was going blind. She was trying to keep it a secret.”

But perhaps the truth is even simpler. Perhaps it’s just that, at heart, O’Keeffe was a Northerner who preferred solitude to celebrity, privacy to publicity. That was how she was raised by her independent mother, grandmother and aunts as well as the many forward-thinking women who helped shape her as a youth. And it was how she chose to live her life long after leaving Wisconsin in 1903.

On paper, the O’Keeffe clan looks like most 19th century farming families: first- and- second-generation European immigrants who sought prosperity in the fertile Midwest prairies. Georgia’s mother, Ida Totto, was the daughter of a Dutch woman who grew up in New York City and a Hungarian count forced to emigrate after the 1848 revolt. Her father, Francis Calyxtus O’Keeffe, was a first-generation Irishman, born and raised on a Sun Prairie farm less than a mile from the Totto family’s.

Were this the whole story, Georgia’s life likely would have turned out far more ordinary than it did. As it was, Count Totto abandoned his family to return to Hungary, leaving his wife, Isabella, with their six children and the farm. Instead of remarrying, she packed up the kids, rented out the farm to the neighboring O’Keeffes and started a new life in Madison. There, she ran her household with a firm hand and a confident determination — traits that would be passed on to Georgia’s mother and eventually to Georgia.

Ida and Francis married in 1884 and inherited a dairy farm that spanned more than 600 acres — the cumulation of the Totto and O’Keeffe properties. Unfortunately, Francis did not have a head for business, and by 1899, he had acquired so much debt that he was forced to rent out the farm and sell the cattle. Three years later, he, Ida and their three youngest children left Wisconsin for Williamsburg, Virginia. Georgia and her other siblings stayed behind to finish out the school year, joining their family on the East Coast in 1903.

Instead of being dragged down by Francis’s misfortune, Ida channeled her mother’s independence and made the most of life. She was highly involved in the community and in 1901 joined the Twentieth Century Club, a nationwide organization for women dedicated to pursuing goals like achieving women’s suffrage, ending child labor, and passing the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Photography provided by Getty Images/Heritage Images

Ida’s willpower also defined Georgia, who thrived in her art lessons with Sarah Mann, a local watercolorist and a friend of Ida’s. Along with two of her sisters, Georgia made the seven-mile round trip to downtown Sun Prairie once a week to learn to draw and paint. She practiced diligently back home, and at age 12, she was convinced she’d found her calling, telling a friend, “I want to be an artist.” 

By 14, Georgia had painted her first known watercolors, “Hanging Up the Clothes” and “Untitled (Lighthouse).” At the time, she was a freshman at the girls-only boarding school Sacred Heart Academy in Madison. There, her artwork was encouraged by another female mentor, Sister Mary Angelique Sabourin, who oversaw the art department and steered Georgia in the direction that would eventually define her as an artist. When Georgia once turned in a graphite drawing of a hand, Sister Mary criticized it for being too small. That forever stuck in Georgia’s mind, and from that point forward, she always drew big.

Despite her early accomplishments and obvious talent, in an interview with ARTnews in 1977, Georgia admitted she considered her sister Anita to be the one with the real gift. “My sister next to me [Ida] always thought she was the talented one,” she said. “My other sister [Anita], though, was the one I thought had the real talent. … I always tried to get her to let go. But she was always rather timid about her painting.” 

That statement could be interpreted as self-deprecating or far-fetched, but really, almost all the O’Keeffe children were artistic in their own way. The eldest, Francis Jr., became an architect. Alexius was an engineer. And three of the five girls — Georgia, Catherine and Ida Ten Eyck — were such skilled painters that they all eventually booked shows across the country. The family’s unique talent is on full display at the Sun Prairie Historical Library and Museum.

Long gone are the days of Sun Prairie ignoring its ties to Georgia O’Keeffe. The site of the original farmstead is now fondly referred to as O’Keeffe Corners. In 2005, the stretch of State Highway 19 connecting Sun Prairie to nearby Marshall was officially designated the Georgia O’Keeffe Memorial Highway. Plans to install a bike path stretching from downtown Sun Prairie to O’Keeffe Corners are in the works. And last year, the museum acquired its first original O’Keeffe: a watercolor purchased at a garage sale in Milwaukee that was determined to be authentic.

While she may be best known for her years as an up-and-coming artist in New York City and, later, an isolated desert dweller producing genre-shifting paintings of nature, through it all, Georgia remained the disciplined, self-effacing woman she was raised to be. Considering her modest yet emboldened upbringing, the balance of the small and large ways in which her hometown honors her legacy — the humble sign, the designated highway, the overflowing museum — is fitting. Each element is an attempt to demonstrate just how significant Georgia O’Keeffe was during her lifetime and, through her work, remains today. 

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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