Waimea Plantation Daughter Remembers Georgia O’Keeffe

…A Conversation with Patricia Jennings

…By Catherine Tarleton…

“I know you paint flowers and skulls in the desert,” said Patricia Jennings, 12, to her family’s famous dinner guest, “and that you have a wonderful brush technique,” she added, recalling an article she’d read in Time magazine. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe laughed out loud. It was 1939 and the Jennings’ guest cottage in Hāna, Maui, was home to O’Keeffe for ten days of painting and tromping across the Maui hills, forests and coastlands, with Patricia as her guide.

Seventy-three years later, Patricia Jennings Morriss Caldwell, mother of five children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, sits in her cozy Waimea home, surrounded by beautiful works of art: a painting by Robert Eskridge, a gallery of Kathy Long miniatures of the children, her own vibrant needlepoint cushions on the antique settee by the wood stove. It’s hard to imagine her as a nervous girl, hostessing a celebrity in Mother’s absence.

Born and raised in Kukuihaele on the Big Island, Patricia is the daughter of Marie and Willis Jennings. Jennings ran the Hāmākua Sugar Plantation, before moving the family in 1936 to Hāna, Maui, to manage Ka‘elekū Sugar Plantation, owned by C. Brewer & Co.

“The road to Hāna was there, but not paved all the way,” said Patricia. “We always took a picnic lunch because you never knew how long it would take.” There in the remote and time-untouched village by the bay, the Jennings family moved into the plantation manager’s house, above what is now the Travaasa Hāna hotel, and lived there for six years.

Meanwhile, Georgia O’Keeffe, the famous 20th century painter known for her sensual renderings of flowers, skulls and desert scenes, was commissioned by the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (later Dole) to create two paintings for an advertising campaign. She visited O‘ahu, the Big Island, Kaua‘i and Maui, and produced 20 paintings. (Not one included a pineapple, although she later painted a budding pineapple plant that the company shipped to her New York studio.) Her Maui visit was arranged by a mutual artist-friend, who had also stayed and painted at the cottage.

“Bob Eskridge was a very close friend of the family,” said Patricia. “Lady Nancy Astor was his first cousin, I think,” said Patricia. “He used to go to England and stay, and come back with wonderful stories about having dinner with Winston Churchill… He must’ve met Georgia in New York. He told her she must go to Hāna.”

“Mother told everybody at every occasion,” said Patricia, “and she always added ‘of course she has the reputation for being difficult.’” When Mother’s mother became ill and she went to the mainland for several months, taking care of O’Keeffe became Patricia’s responsibility. “I was terrified,” she said.

O’Keeffe would drive the family car to favorite island sites with Patricia as her companion and guide—then send the girl off to amuse herself while she painted. The one exception was when a sudden ‘Īao Valley shower made them retreat to the car. Patricia watched, without speaking, enthralled by the brush in her hand, the effortless glide of oil paints onto canvas. “It was a very happy relationship as it turned out,” said Patricia.

After Hāna, O’Keeffe visited the Big Island and stayed at Volcano House, briefly. “I didn’t care for that place,” she wrote to her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. “I don’t like steam coming out of the earth and holes in the road where the earth has opened up and not closed properly.” She also stayed at the Kona Inn, but unfortunately for us, did not paint.

Patricia’s memories of her time with the celebrated artist have been captured in a book, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawai‘i (Koa Books) by Patricia with Maria Ausherman. Included with Patricia’s story are all 20 paintings, a detailed, scholarly introduction by Jennifer Saville, and a collection of letters from O’Keeffe to Stieglitz, sent
from Hawai‘i.

“I think I got three or four letters, only one of which survived, and that was miraculous,” said Patricia. “It had been in my desk at Punahou School on December 7, 1941.” According to Patricia, when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, the Army Engineers took over the campus and evacuated students in the middle of the night. “All of our things were bundled into sheets and thrown into the basement,” said Patricia. “I didn’t get them back for six months.”

Her parents happened to be in Honolulu at that time for the Sugar Planters Annual Meeting, so Patricia was able to join them at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. “I don’t think we believed how bad it was. It wasn’t till the next day, when we went out to Aiea. I remember standing looking down at Pearl Harbor, still smoking—the capsized Oklahoma, where they were drilling a hole in the bottom to get survivors out.”

“We cried,” she said.

After one semester on Maui, Patricia returned to and graduated from Punahou. She went off to college in Massachusetts, married W. A. Morriss, and moved to St. Louis where they lived 17 years and raised their family. They returned to Hawai‘i in the 1960s, when Patricia’s husband and father started a macadamia nut project in South Kona: the Honomalino Agricultural Company.

“Waimea was much, much greener than it is now,” said Patricia. “And it was much colder, definitely.” The family home is over 100 years old, and the wing where Patricia resides was added in 1947. Her living room window overlooks new subdivisions where horses used to graze. Patricia remembers getting a call once, from one of Waimea’s most famous horsewomen, “Auntie Anna.”

“When we first moved here in 1967, she was doing ‘Old Hawai‘i on Horseback,’ and we had horses,” said Patricia. “The phone rang – ‘This is Anna Perry-Fiske’ she said. ‘I need a skinny haole who can stay on a horse.’ My husband played Charles Reed Bishop after that.”

For some time, Patricia ran a knitting shop at one end of the old Waimea General Store, which is now Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy’s lower campus. Widowed for 11 years, she remarried and lived in Australia for 17 years, which is where the book project began.

“Some time in the early ‘90s, Jennifer Saville at Honolulu Academy of Arts called me in Australia. They were having a special exhibit of the 20 Georgia O’Keeffe paintings and she couldn’t find the photo of Georgia when she was here in 1939,” said Patricia. “I was happy to lend it.”

Teacher and author Maria Ausherman, mother of two teenage daughters, read the Exhibit Catalogue and was inspired. “She had wanted to write a book, with the idea of giving to adolescent girls the concept of what an artist could mean in their lives,” said Patricia. Ausherman contacted Saville, who connected her with Patricia, and eventually produced a manuscript for Arnie Kotler of Koa Books. The book was a labor of love for everyone involved for over four years—from writing and funding to tracking down the paintings, discovering and transcribing the letters from O’Keeffe’s unusual cursive.

“It never would have happened if Maria hadn’t got me thinking about it and writing things down,” said Patricia. As to what the artist meant in her life, Patricia writes, “… the deepest gift she offered me was the experience, in some way for the first time in my life, of really being listened to and appreciated for who I was.”

Of her, O’Keeffe has written, “The child is too lovely—a flower in full bloom with the sun on it.”

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawai‘i is available at local booksellers, www.KoaBooks.com and Amazon.com

Contact writer Catherine Tarleton at catherinetarleton@gmail.com

 

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