My first encounter with Georgia O’Keefe’s Black Iris was in The Book of Symbols.  I was stunned into silence as I accidentally landed on the page while flipping through to find the meaning of some other symbol.  I couldn’t stop staring (and swearing, breathlessly) as I lost myself in the depth and the blackness portrayed through the most delicate curves and folds.  

Much of my childhood was spent playing against the backdrop of my grandmother’s flower beds. The entire perimeter of her backyard was wrapped with one continuous garden containing only one kind of flower: irises of every color.  Every spring she would shovel out a few bulbs and give them away to make room for a small tomato patch.

My grandmother’s entire life was spent in devotion to her family but she also fiercely protected her creative life.  Grandma is not a woman you would call sweet.  The trials of her life squeezed the saccharine out of her from an early age.  She likes black coffee and cigarettes and will never miss an opportunity to mumble swear words under her breath. There’s a piercing quality to her almost-black eyes that lets you know with a single glance that she’ll cut straight through your bullshit like a hot knife through butter.  It’s not personal, it’s grandma.

But every once in a blue moon, you could catch grandma in her craft and witness a wholly different shade. Whether behind the paintbrush bringing to life her latest ceramic creation, or in the garden harvesting the summer season’s first vine-ripened, red tomato.  But most especially, when the irises were in bloom. I instinctively observed her in those moments, when her severity softened just enough to allow a momentary glimpse of the unseen side of her – a slight sparkle, lightness, effervescence – hidden beneath hardened layers formed from the harshness of life. I savored those moments just as I did every homegrown tomato I was lucky to share with her.

The iris’ flowering cycle is short-lived, but its transient bloom will take your breath away and transform you if you allow yourself to open as the iris does. The creative life is like this. Inspiration is not evergreen. It comes in flickers and flashes. You know when it arrives, because a little splash of color appears, momentarily altering the landscape of your life.  And then just like that it’s gone.

The iris, like every living creature in nature, has a lesson for us. She asks us to savor and to surrender. To burst into bloom, opening yourself full-bore to the call of the wild, exposing your brilliance, even with the full knowledge that it will fade and wither, folding back into the very place from which it came.   

But the iris also reminds us that under the right conditions in the soil of your psyche, its silvery green, almost iridescent leaves are capable of reflecting the dazzling light of the creative life force that can carry you during even the darkest winter months.    

Like my grandmother’s garden.  Like the perfectly worded statement that comes to you on the highway and has you gunning for the next exit to write it down before it leaves you.  A desire to dance or read or sing or run or paint or hike or laugh or cry that is so strong you feel like you might erupt into a million pieces. That is the creative soul life burning in you.  Its only desire is to express itself through your unique genius in the way that only YOU can. When inspiration next calls will you, like the iris, burst open, surrender, and be transformed?

Seeing Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Iris for the first time changed me.  Like observing my grandmother in rapture, I was keenly aware that I was inside of a sacred moment.  It is in those moments that we are called to unfurl, open our hearts wide, deep, and full like an expansive bloom on the canvas before us, and allow it to penetrate every cell of our being leaving us forever changed.  Even when we feel like it may swallow us whole. Especially then.



That is wild and soulful living.  

Happy birthday to the rebel, the revolutionary, Georgia O’Keeffe.  Thank you for your spirit, your boldness, your relentless devotion to your genius, and your illustrious example of a life lived in full color.

Over to you, have you ever been so captured by an image or a moment that it changed the way you engage with the world?  Please tell me in the comments!

In Love & Wildness,

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  • What a beautful story! I was right there with you as a child and an adult. I talked to my cousin today and had some great laughs about how happy and unconventional I was as a child and still am unconventional as an adult and terrified as described by Georgia. Today I was reminded again of how much I visualize and I can be in many places. To my surprise I learned too much of being so many places takes me away from my center and my true creativity. I feel the wild woman energy in me is helping me to be stronger at my true center.

    • Helen, I can totally see that happy, unconventional child and it brings a smile to my face. You are so right… spending too much time in the “ethers” can leave us ungrounded and ineffectual. The visualizations and imagery from the unconscious need a place to land and both our feet on the ground! Wild Woman is so grounding – she reminds us to be embodied.

  • Your words are breathtaking and on point regarding my beautiful mom in law! We are all truly blessed to be in her presence. She is one of the strongest women I know. thank you Joanna for sharing her with us

    • Elyse, thank you so much for reading and for your kind words! I’m so happy to know you my portrayal of her resonated with you – it was my joy to share.