PHOTOGRAPHY BY SHAYNE LAVERDIERE
Longtime face of fashion Liisa Winkler models herself after Georgia O’Keeffe; she also considers herself a mentee of environmentalist icon Dr. David Suzuki. They are brought together by a deep connection to the Earth.
EDITOR, ELIZABETH CABRAL
WORDS BY EMILY RAMSHAW
Think of Georgia O’Keeffe and one thinks of severity, exactitude, an undying fascination and respect for nature. These qualities defined her work, to be sure, in her minutely planned and shaded masterpieces of animal skulls, blooming flowers and the New Mexican landscape, but they also seeped into her absolutist lifestyle, which came to its full brilliance in her desert home.
As an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art earlier this year showed in expert detail, O’Keeffe lived her life in a pure and uncompromising way. Her home and wardrobe were, ultimately, astoundingly minimal, and yet that which she did have—her hats, dresses, her kitchen and garden—held true value. Her strictness in her life made way for the purpose she found in her work.
Liisa Winkler was our Georgia O’Keeffe for this spread, and we photographed in nature similar to that found at the Upstate New York home that belonged to Alfred Steiglitz, O’Keeffe’s husband and a famous photographer in his own right. It was a place outside of Manhattan where the artist found inspiration and freedom early in her career, before she moved to New Mexico. The wideness of the sky, the fresh air, the bare nature represented an awakening for O’Keeffe. As it turns out, the great outdoors is a life-giving force for Liisa as well.
You know Liisa as the Canadian supermodel who was one of the biggest faces in fashion during the go-go-go early aughts when she was the Gucci Girl in Tom Ford’s advertising campaigns for the brand. This was an era when excess was celebrated and Liisa, who started in the industry at 15, began to feel the crowding out of her own way forward. “I always felt like I was questing, asking about my own purpose,” says Liisa of the 10 years she spent on the fashion circuit. “When I was modeling full time I always felt I wasn’t contributing enough and I’m wasn’t working hard enough. It was frustrating. It’s so awful: I would turn down good jobs and make up lies as to why I couldn’t go. At one point, my agent didn’t believe me anymore and I needed a doctor’s note because it was some good job. I’d said I had an infection and I couldn’t travel, which was such a lie. This was when I was doing really well. I had done a couple Gucci campaigns, I had worked for good magazines, and then I just started to think this is great, but I want to do something that matters more or means something more—I’m not getting enough out of this.”
Here’s the thing: Liisa is still very much a fashion model; during the Spring 2018 season she walked for both Michael Kors and The Row and continues to work with clients all over the world. What’s more, she appreciates the job far more than she did when she’d fake illness. The difference now is that she’s found purpose beyond it—or, as she put it, she’s no longer “questing”.
And like O’Keeffe, her purpose came out of nature. About to receive a certificate in herbal medicine for which she’s been studying for more than two years, Liisa dreams of building a greenhouse at home in Toronto (she’s currently in the midst of renovations on the house itself) and creating a clinic and community center of sorts for kids and families around plants. “My purpose has become to connect people with plants and to make them see that in their own backyard, they can grow things that are going to help them and heal their bodies, and also be healthier for the planet.”
Georgia O’Keeffe made the physical and inspirational leap from Manhattan skyscrapers to the New Mexican desert well into middle age as she sought new creative incubation after the death of her husband and collaborator, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Liisa Winkler’s desire to be close to the land has been something she’s held dear since childhood; it was something that was nurtured and brought into full bloom by an icon of modern environmentalism, Dr. David Suzuki.
As a kid growing up in Southern Ontario, Liisa had a poster of Dr. Suzuki on her wall (“I had a little crush on him”), and she has long considered him a mentor. “I’ve always felt a connection to being in natural environments, caring about it and wondering why we hurt it,” she says. “I remember being little and watching David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things, and thinking, ‘How come he’s saying all these things and nobody’s doing anything—it’s such a strong argument.’ The rest of the world’s not listening.”
Sustainability is the thread to follow in this story. The notion not only that one might create work that sustains—both O’Keeffe and Dr. Suzuki’s legacies echo, and will continue to do so, and Liisa’s career as a model has continued long past the usual 25-year-old expiry date—but that sustainability, with its myriad meanings, is a way of being.
Each of these people—who are all figures of our collective culture, and yet remain wholly human—both used and preserved the earth and its bounty, and have made it their mission, whether documenting it through art and through television (as Suzuki did with The Nature of Things), or, crucially, by bringing that connection to others, through art, yes, but also through advocacy, and, as Liisa hopes to do, through teaching.
Of course, this kind of devotion and purpose begets another result, that the earth offers so much beauty, that other stuff becomes just that: stuff. It’s something Liisa was reminded of modeling herself after Georgia O’Keeffe: that simplicity in things often yields a better understanding of the environment’s majesty. When asked if there are any objects, if there’s any stuff, to which she’s emotionally attached, Liisa pauses. “Books?” Evidently, when you make space for that which matters, the other things fall away.
MODEL: LIISA WINKLER, MODE ELLE & ONE MANAGEMENT
HAIR & MAKEUP: TONY MASCIANGELO, P1M/ ALCORNHAIR.COM
PRODUCTION: TRUC NGUYEN
SPECIAL THANKS TO MOUNTAIN EQUIPMENT CO-OP, FLOW WATER, TONIC FLOWERS, LINDA LUNDSTROM, SCOTSDALE FARM.