Okakura Kakuzo made a lasting impression on a great American artist
I’ve always been a fan of Georgia O’Keeffe.  I don’t mean just a fan of her art. I think she understood the greatness of small things – just as students of Okakura Kakuzo’s Book of Tea came to understand this great truth. 

O’Keeffe may have learned this concept from one of her teachers at Columbia University, Arthur Wesley Dow, who spent a great deal of time with Okakura in Japan. 

In his art instruction book Composition, Dow attributes his understanding of the concept of notan (dark and light) to Okakura.  
I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe soon after it opened in 1995.  During later visits, I had the good fortune of visiting Ghost Ranch and exploring her home and studio in Abiquiu. I felt a great sense of harmony walking through her simple adobe home, especially when I spotted a copy of The Book of Tea.  

The O’Keeffe home in Abiquiu, New Mexico


I knew it was one of her favorite books because I had seen it as part of an exhibition of a portion of her personal library at The Phillips Collection in Washington DC a few years earlier.

In 2011, I had a fascinating conversation with Christine Taylor Patten, caretaker to Georgia O’Keeffe in her last years and author of the book Miss O’Keeffe. I quickly discovered O’Keeffe’s love for Okakura through my talks with Patten.
“Miss O’Keeffe’s love of Chinese and Japanese art is well known, but so not so well known is the meaning of The Book of Tea in her life,” Patten said. “She repeatedly told me of her affection for the book, and I would often read to her from it.”
“Miss O’Keeffe would ask, Turn to the pages about flowers. He understands about flowers. You know, he says that a butterfly is a flower with wings. Don’t you think that is a fine idea?”
Patten writes in her book:
When I was at Abiquiu taking care of Miss O’Keeffe, the similarities between her own life and the Japanese tea ceremony were obvious—her constant manner, her humility, her exactness, her utterly respectful exactness. When she touched something, it was with respect, reverence. If she wanted to look at something with her by-then dimming eyes, it would be separated out from other objects. A small act seemed to be a natural ritual—the folding of her handkerchief, for instance—as if it was the most important thing a—person could do, much the way the tea ceremony inspires deliberate presence. A shell or a stone would be placed in an exact position.
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Even her longtime way of dressing in kimono like clothing, unadorned, reflected the same sensibility. Her life and her house were as considered as the finest tearoom, precise but modest, conscious but unimposing, free from the complications and pretensions of life lived in response to possessions.
I am often asked the question “what makes a great tearoom?” I sometimes respond by saying “have you read the Book of Tea?” 

When you understand the greatness of small things, you understand tea. When you understand tea, you understand life. 

*****
Tea Maestro Bruce Richardson is the editor of the 2011 edition of Okakura Kakuzo’s classic The Book of Tea. Read more about Georgia O’Keeffe, Frank Lloyd Wright and other artists who were influenced by Okakura in this expanded and illustrated edition. 

Bruce Richardson was a guest lecturer at the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, NM on November 6, 2014.

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