It started with a letter. Georgia O’Keeffe was already an international celebrity. Her pieces had been shown for over five decades. Carol Merrill was a graduate student in 1972. A fan of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work, she sent a short letter.
“Dear Georgia O’Keeffe,” she wrote. “I want to meet you. I do not want to intrude on your privacy—your solitude. I would like to see you, be near you for just a few moments and learn if I have the strength and power to proceed in my work by witnessing your will.”
Georgia received plenty of fan mail. Carol’s letter easily could have disappeared in the pile. The universe seemed to align to bring these two women together though. The letter was seen by Georgia’s secretary who made sure it got into her hands.
According to biographer Nancy Hopkins Reily, “The brevity and simplicity of Carol’s letter attracted Georgia’s attention and she must have recognized a nonconformist thinking…. In a rare gesture Georgia invited Carol to visit her on a Sunday but to stay for only one hour.”
Carol didn’t respond immediately. Understandably, she was shocked that her art hero had responded at all, let alone invited her to visit.
According to an article by New Republic, when Merrill finally told an artist friend about it, she recounted, he “scolded me strongly and admonished me to write an answer or call her immediately.” He said that O’Keeffe never did this, that she had received the rarest of opportunities and that she was blowing it.
Merrill realized her mistake and scheduled a one hour appointment with the famous artist.
A Meeting Turns Into a Friendship
That first visit to Georgia O’Keeffe opened the door to many things for Carol. It started with a part-time job. She organized O’Keeffe’s rare books, including obscure volumes and first editions. Then she became cook, secretary and companion. She would read to O’Keeffe and keep her company. They took many long walks together, enjoying the New Mexico desert scenery. In her memoir, Merrill recalls that when she thinks of O’Keeffe she likes to think of her “walking in beauty beneath the ancient cliffs at Ghost Ranch.”
Carol kept O’Keeffe’s secret about her blindness. Though Georgia still had a firm grasp on her mind, speaking lucidly about her art almost until she died at age 98, physically she battled the frailty of the aging human form.
To many Georgia seemed like a giant figure. Her work was prolific and her style was unique. Carol was able to get past the barriers of that fame and perception to get to know the real artist behind it all, keeping her company and helping her enjoy the things she still loved as she got older.
Carol further documented this friendship with the famous artist in her book Weekends with O’Keeffe.