The Flag

In January 1918 Georgia O’Keeffe was still teaching art at West Texas State Normal College in Canyon, about 13 miles south of Amarillo. She had been chair of the art department there since fall 1916, but things were not going well. Since the entry of the United States into the war the previous April, Georgia O’Keeffe saw her community caught up in a wave of change that included her family.

Soon after she settled in her job at Canyon, O’Keeffe was joined by her younger sister Claudia, who was still in high school. Together they traveled through the Southwest, taking in the vast landscapes of Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. The stark expanse of light, sky and desert mountains mesmerized the O’Keeffes. It would be a life theme for Georgia’s art from the time she first moved to west Texas in 1912.

Georgia O’Keeffe

War comes to the O’Keeffes

Like many college towns across the country, Canyon, Texas was caught up in the enthusiasm of America’s entry into the war. Young men, students of O’Keeffe’s, wanted to enlist before graduating from West Texas State. Whether or not these men enlisted, many marched up main streets and participated in rallies nationwide. And townsfolk stood by and cheered. It was their way of supporting the war. But it was a low cost way.

Georgia O’Keeffe was brought up in Madison, Wisconsin in a large, close-knit family. Progressive and conscientious, the O’Keeffes were serious about their Christian faith and its commitment to nonviolence. So Georgia was very much troubled by the kind of patriotism she witnessed in her new home town of Canyon. She described the country being at war as “a state that exists and experiencing it in reality seems preferable to the way we are all being soaked with it second hand–it is everywhere…There is no-one here I can talk to–its all like a bad dream.”

…Personally

Soon after America entered the war O’Keeffe’s younger brother Alexis enlisted. Georgia visited him while he was in officer’s training at Fort Sheridan, near Chicago. She respected her brother’s sense of duty, but feared what it all might amount to: “A sober–serious–willingness appalling–he has changed much–it makes me stand still and wonder–a sort of awe–He was the sort that used to seem like a large wind when he came into the house.”

Back in Canyon, Georgia O’Keeffe felt more and more isolated from her neighbors and their casual anti-German attitudes. Texas had a visible German population at the time, as did her home state of Wisconsin. She was able to visit Alexis again, now a Second Lieutenant in the 32nd Infantry Division, while he was training at Camp MacArthur in Waco, Texas. His unit was the sixth Infantry division shipped to France in the war and would see heavy fighting, which is what Alexis wanted.

Alone

Georgia’s sister Claudia left Canyon in December 1917 for her student teaching assignment in Spur, Texas, 150 miles away. On January 2nd, the 32nd Infantry Division left Waco for France. That same month, Georgia O’Keeffe became ill in the first wave of a disease that had spread across the world, the 1918 influenza epidemic. O’Keeffe was very ill and took months to recover. In February 1918 she received medical leave from West Texas State. She moved to Waring, Texas, 450 miles away, to recuperate at the home of her friend, Leah Harris.

It was well for Georgia O’Keeffe to get out of Canyon. Her ambivalence about the war and dislike of jingoist descriptions of the enemy fed the rumor mill. Townsfolk began to view her as not patriotic enough.

It was a scene that was repeated across the country. In June, 1917 Congress passed the Espionage Act which criminalized any attempt to hinder enlistment or the draft. In May 1918, the Sedition Act also outlawed criticism of the government, the Constitution, the flag and the conduct of the war. The law was aimed in part against attempts from hostile nations to influence American public opinion. But the law also made free debate of the war among Americans illegal, even in private.

Georgia O’Keeffe, The Flag, 1918

The Flag

It was in this environment that Georgia O’Keeffe painted her most political work. The Flag is a deeply emotional and personal view of her crisis: True blue absorbing into a dark blue sky that blots out the stars, leaving a streak of red. The flag battered in the storm.

Later in 1918 O’Keeffe would find out her brother was gravely injured in a gas attack while serving in France.  Alexis O’Keeffe made it home alive, but in poor health. The Flag was never shown publicly during the war; doing so would risk breaking the Sedition Act.

The Sedition Act expired at the end of the war and was never renewed.

Alexis O’Keeffe died of his war injuries in January, 1930 at age 37.

Light Coming on the Plains

 

“It is absurd the way I love this country,” twenty-nine year old Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her friends back East. O’Keeffe headed the art department at West Texas State Normal College in Canyon, a small town south of Amarillo. She began teaching there in the fall of 1916, having taught art in Amarillo schools from 1912 to 1914. O’Keeffe found her artistic vision during her time there, as seen in her watercolors of Palo Duro Canyon. “I belonged. That was my country” she would later write, “–terrible winds and a wonderful emptiness.” And the sky: O’Keeffe was transfixed by the big sky. (More about O’Keeffe’s Texas stay here)

Georgia O’Keeffe, Red Landscape (1916–17). Courtesy of the Panhandle–Plains Historical Museum.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Red Landscape (1916–17)

The region

North Texas and the Texas Panhandle were younger and fast growing parts of the Lone Star State in 1917. This region can be bounded by tracing Wichita Falls, Gainesville, Fort Worth, Cleburne, Abilene, Lubbock and Amarillo on the map. Fort Worth was the hub of this region with a population of about 95,000 in 1917.  The other cities were much smaller, but each had been growing at triple-digit rates every decade since about 1890.

Downtown Fort Worth, 1910
Downtown Fort Worth, 1910

Settlers in this area were other Texans and people from the “border” states of Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee. Immigrants from northwest and central Europe added to the influx. There were German, Swedish, Norwegian, Czech, Italian, Slovak and Polish enclaves in the area; farmers and tradesmen who moved to America with neighbors from the old country. The African-American population in northwest Texas was about seven percent.

The work

Ranching dominated the Panhandle, along with agriculture. Farming and dairy production were more common than ranching in northwest Texas. More and more land fell under the plow in the ‘teens; up to 25 million acres statewide. Northwest Texas produced little cotton; the Panhandle produced none. Major crops were corn and wheat.

A watering place on the SMS Ranch, formerly the Spur Ranch. SMS Ranch (Near Stamford, Texas.), 1910
A watering place on the SMS Ranch, 1910

Infrastructure was also a major growth industry of 1910’s Texas. Rails and roads could not keep up with the population and their fascination with machines. Railroads such as the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (The Katy) and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe reached deeper into Texas. Farms in the second decade of the Twentieth Century were becoming mechanized. Likewise, young men on the Plains were growing up with this new technology.

Oil was discovered in the Panhandle in 1910. More oil was discovered in northwest Texas in 1911. The development of oil fields all around Texas created a boom economy, eventually making fossil fuels the state’s largest industry.

War comes to Texas

When war came, the region erupted in parades, rallies and other demonstrations of patriotism. Young men filed out of high schools and colleges, marching in rows to the cheers of onlookers. Bands played and local politicians held forth. Older veterans put on their gray uniforms, though some bravely wore blue. The feeling was of widespread support for the nation and for the war.

Parade organized to encourage donations and recruit volunteers for the Red Cross war-time services, Paint Rock. (097-0098. Courtesy of Concho County Courthouse)
Parade organized to encourage donations and recruit volunteers for the Red Cross, Paint Rock.

The enthusiasm also revealed lack of unanimity about the war. Not everyone was excited about joining a conflict that had roiled all Europe with no end in sight. Particular among these were the Europeans, German and other immigrants who may have had a better idea of what the war was like.

There was also suspicion of enemy activity in northwest Texas. The Amarillo Daily News reported of German spies in the city. Shots were fired at suspected saboteurs on a railroad bridge near Abilene. Arrests of enemy aliens were ordered in Wichita Falls by the U.S. Marshal there, but none were made. Most spectacular was the report of a dozen German agents being rounded up in El Paso, while others slipped through the dragnet and over the Rio Grande into Mexico.

Meanwhile, in Washington on May 10th, Major General John J. Pershing was appointed commander of the American Expeditionary Force.