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October/2004 * 10/28/04


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Bananas and Oleanders - Photo by Joyce Finn




South Shore from Surf Side - Photo by Joyce Finn




Heydon Path - Photo by Joyce Finn




Hamilton Harbour - Photo by Joyce Finn


Georgia O’Keeffe’s Bermuda
Joyce Finn

When Georgia O’Keeffe traveled to the Bermudas, she came for the sunlight’s vibrant intensity and the open-palmed expansiveness found only in deserts and seas. She left with a dozen new paintings and a new art direction.

As I look down the lane toward the former slave-quartered cottage where she stayed, I see pink and white oleander hedges, high as double-decker buses, bowering over the lane. Beyond them are banana and banyan trees with leaves huge like opened umbrellas. A carpet of yellow nasturtium contrasts with the deep purple of morning glory entwining through the pale leaves of the ground cover.

O’Keeffe stayed for over a year on an estate known as Parapet high on a hill overlooking the western arm of this narrow island. She rarely strayed from its extensive grounds where she be came mesmerized by the whorl of a new banana leaf emerging from its stalk and the shades and shadows of yellow hibiscus blossoms.

I see from the cottage’s back door, the panoramic open sea with its constant shift from mint to turquoise to indigo with an occasional frill of white as it roils over the reefs. At the front of the cottage, resting under a cedar tree, there’s the whole of Bermuda’s fishhook shape encircling the Inner Harbor with a constant flow of ferries and ships coming through the channel toward and from Hamilton, the capital.

I wonder what O’Keeffe would think of Bermuda today? In 1933, all houses had names and traffic was horse-drawn. Overseas visitors endured a weeklong punishing sea journey through the cold, tumultuous North Atlantic. Mark Twain, a frequent visitor to Bermuda, said that Bermuda was Heaven but getting there was Hell.

Now, it is a short 90-minute flight from Boston or New York. Cruise ships still anchor in Hamilton but these modern ones, lit like floating festivals, are gigantic compared to the small cruise liners of Mark Twain’s or Georgia O’Keeffe’s days. Now, instead of tourists staggering down the gangplank seasick and grateful for firm land, they clutch their wallets and aim for the nearest duty-free shop. There are still a few horse-drawn carriages on Bermuda’s roads but even with a 20mph (35kph) speed limit and one car allowed per household, the narrow, walled, and hedged roads are crowded with traffic. Tourists toddle nervously along on scooters while the locals scream past using the middle line as a separate passing lane.

The Old Rattle and Shake Rail line of O’Keeffe time has long been dismantled and sold to the Government of British Guinea in 1948. The rail bed has been flattened to become an ambling lane that reaches from one end of the island through the whole length of its 21 miles to the other end. Bikers, joggers, and families walking dogs amble past sailboats bobbling in tucked-away coves and aromatic copses of cedar and allspice trees.

What would Georgia O’Keeffe recognize if she came back today? Bermudians still celebrate Good Friday by flying kites, each August the island closes down for a three-day cricket game, and families still picnic on the grounds of Bermuda’s many forts. She would find the same things she sought and relished in 1933--the same evocative unfurling of a new banana leaf, the same vibrant intensity of sunlight, and same vastness of the sky and sea.

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