Tag Archives: painting

Why Flowers?

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When I was a child, we lived in a flat with no garden.  All the flowers I knew were on stamps I collected, or cards in packets of Brooke Bond tea I pasted into stiff little albums that had to be sent away for.  From the bright flat images next to the old songs of their names – cowslip, butterbur, meadowsweet, forget-me-not – I sensed that plants were powerful, even though they were small, soft and, as far as I knew, silent. So I learnt young that there was such a thing as paradox, that life could contradict itself and things weren’t always what they seemed.

The flowers whose names chimed in my head, like portable poems, wild and cultivated, seemed to grow in an imaginary realm, a world I read about in books where people lived in houses with gardens and gardeners, exotic apparatus like wheelbarrows and spades.  They belonged to people who weren’t us, with different names and different lives – Alice Through the Looking Glass and Mary in The Secret Garden, across the ocean Anne of Green Gables.  My mother’s name was Lily and, in the absence of a garden, she filled our flat with houseplants she’d water every Saturday morning and feed a magic potion from a fat brown bottle.

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I was twenty-four before I saw a snowdrop and knew that was what I was looking at, consciously paired the word with the three-dimensional flower growing out of hard winter earth.  By then living in rural Northumberland, as the seasons changed and flowers appeared in garden, woodland and hedgerow, I remembered all the names I’d forgotten I ever knew.  It was a revelation that echoed Adrienne Rich’s reflection on poems – that they ‘are like dreams: in them you put what you don’t know you know.’[1]  Flower and word spoke to each other – in the botanical texts I read as well as the poems I wrote.  I got my hands dirty in the soil, watching and learning how different plants grew, looking up where they came from and how they were named.  Moving between inside and outside, self and other, I experienced a kinship and intimacy I found nowhere else.

When Georgia O’Keeffe took the flower as muse, she felt her portrayals were misinterpreted.  How she explained it is a touchstone for me:

A flower is relatively small.

Everyone has many associations with a flower – the idea of flowers.  You put out your hand to touch the flower – lean forward to smell it – maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking – or give it to someone to please them. Still – in a way – nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.  If I could paint a flower exactly as I see it no-one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small.

So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers… Well – I made you take time to look … and when you took time … you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.[2]

Like a friend, a flower is never just one thing: both subject and object, it is a composite form, a layered text.  In the field, however long you look at a flower, however closely you observe it, the flower shifts shape at different times of day in different kinds of weather.  You have to get on your knees, down at the flower’s level, to inspect it properly.  I need to put my glasses on and lean in very close.  If you use a botanical hand lens, the scale changes even more: stigma and stamen, pollen grain or droplet of nectar are magnified, so you can imagine how it might look to a foraging bee.  This is ‘reading the flowers’, via our word ‘anthology’ from the Greek, which also means ‘gathering the poems’ – just one seed of a long association of plant and book, word and root, folio and leaf.[3]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Images from the Margaret Rebecca Dickinson Archive in the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Library at the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle upon Tyne.

[1]Adrienne Rich, When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision (College English, Vol. 34, No. 1, ‘Women, Writing and Teaching’ (Oct., 1972), pp. 18-30.

[2]Georgia O’Keeffe,‘About Myself’, in Georgia O’KeeffeExhibition of Oils and Pastels, exhibition brochure (New York: An American Place, 1939).

[3]Linda France, Reading the Flowers (Todmorden: Arc Publications, 2016).

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Happy New Year!

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Paul Nash, Flight of the Magnolia, 1944

 

New Year’s Day—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

Issa

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Sparks of Light

 

Unknown

Colour is seen in growing things, living the life of the rainbow curve, the sevenfold spectrum. Flowers create colours out of the light of the sun, refracted by the rainbow prism. So I paint flowers, but they are not botanical or photographic flowers. My paintings talk in colour and any of the shapes are there to express colour but not outline. The flowers are sparks of light, built of and thrown out into the air as rainbows are thrown in an arc.

Three Kinds of Artist, 1974

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I like painting flowers – I have tried to paint many things in many different ways, but my paint brush always gives a tremor of pleasure when I let it paint a flower – and I think I know why this is so. Flowers mean different things to different people – to some they are trophies to decorate their dwellings (for this plastic flowers will do as well as real ones) – to some they are buttonholes for their conceit – to botanists they are species and tabulated categories – to bees of course they are honey – to me they are the secret of the cosmos.

 The Flower’s Response, 1969

 

After a visit to Dulwich Picture Gallery to see Art and Life 1920 – 1931 – Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and William Staite Murray.

Words and images by the wonderful Winifred Nicholson.

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In the Field

Kim Lewis

Reblogging Rebecca’s piece about the garden in Arizona touched upon an area I’ve been roaming around ever since I began to write about plants:  the difference between reading-based research and first-hand experience, between representation and phenomenon, and how that’s reflected in my writing.  I’m trying as much as possible to spend time really looking at the plants and gardens I’m writing about, making notes in the field in the same way an artist makes sketches, catches a sense of the moment.  It encourages me to stay still and really get to know a plant or a tree and for that understanding to be based on the actual truth of the plant’s morphology, condition and habitat, rather than simply being an excuse to indulge my fantasies.  There is freedom and delight in this deep appreciation of what appears to be other – harmony between the seer and the seen.

The artist is a beholder.  The artist carves with his eyes.

Sho-nin

Birtley Aris

This week I’ve been writing about Miró’s The Tilled Field, a 1923 painting that has stayed with me since I saw it in the Tate’s retrospective a few years ago.  Working from an image on the screen of my laptop was better than nothing, but frustrating.  I was aware of my eye skimming over the surface, missing the evidence of a human hand directing the brush, the sense of 3-dimensionality.  Because the mood of the painting is one of idealism and nostalgia I was able to persuade myself working from the virtual rather than the visual might be okay.  As I said, better than nothing.  Maybe.

Perhaps it’s also comparable to the difference between reading a poem on the page and hearing it read aloud, live, by the poet herself.  Many people commented on that at the recent launches of Border Song – another piece of work that couldn’t have happened without field trips, this time along the North Tyne valley.  Direct experience was filtered through an investigation of the Old Testament Song of Songs – a balance that suited my need for both the physical/natural and the intellectual/cultural.

Being present and really looking is not as easy as it sounds.  We get in the way, and the world gets in the way, preventing us from seeing what’s in front of our eyes.  The mind will always struggle to go somewhere else; the flow of impressions and digressions and voices in our heads like a badly-tuned radio.  Writing in a garden helps me tune in and settle down, find the serenity to let my mind open enough to see what’s really going on and let the marvellous layers of it sink in.

Looking is as creative as making as long as it is possessed of the art of seeing.

Robert Pogue Harrison

Mu Qi

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