This novel is past, present, and future—a road trip and musical journey inspired by nature, family, and storytelling. Years in the making, I am surprised when a book is finished. Usually, I’m in editing and revision mode so deeply that I don’t see the end of the process clearly. I sense that it’s coming, but I don’t finalize books based on schedules. There’s not one action that says, this book is complete now. Combinations finish books. I hope that you’ll check out my book, Ripe for the Pickin’, inspired by places I love in Tennessee and Tennessee stories, plants, and music. Here’s the book cover, designed by Erica Trout Creative. You can read all about the book on the Thorncraft Publishing website.
The orchid is a kaleidoscopic plant. I hold my face very close to its face. What combinations propel it to bloom as the sun turns, as the humidity shifts? Until, a striking pattern of color and form emerges and spirals open, lilting as a dancer into multiple characters with conversations in their bodies. The orchid is capable of holding the gaze for valuable time and resources, even for life itself, as tales of orchid hunters and smugglers are sure to prove.
What presses an orchid and an artist to create, even the simplest of forms into an expression? This is not a callow show and representation.
Textures. This one with its grey bulbous wormy-faced ends growing over the edge of the pot, reaching out as short tentacles, root-like but partially airborne. The green wedge-shaped leaves are hard and I could carve words into the flesh of them with the tips of my fingernails ever so slightly, and they seal them up afterward. The leaves sit that way, maybe growing another. It’s a long time. A thin stem arches up, nimble threading of lifetimes, those folds, as if butterflies about to emerge, greyed by coming into form and existence at first, as nearly all life, grey casting—and the pallor catches upon opening and unfolding and growing and it deepens and becomes rich and bold, taking its browns and greens, taking blue and purple, expressing yellow and pink, mauve and cream, maroon and orange forms defying categorization. Air plant. Blooms pull the stems in acrobatics. Tree leaping and clinging simultaneously.
A tendril swivels and pauses, steady. Another tendril swivels and pauses, steady. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Steady gaze. A long time…
Just before Valentine’s Day, we visited “Orchids in the Mansion” while the sky threatened ice and snow. The frigid air was a contrast to the tropical reflections that greeted us indoors, and sweat slid under our coats. Later, at Picasso’s Figares exhibit, the artist is there—painting a vase with flowers first while wearing a coat and scarf in the video.
See the artist’s focus mesmerized. Is it any less evident in the orchid? Or, in my eye pressed to a kaleidoscope’s lens?
When you behold a flower in a state of wonder.
Does the orchid marvel at the world—life sky, canopy bodies, its mouth open and tongue flared out for catching rain and travelers, faces peering in as if answers to existence awaited?
Akin to wonder, to amaze, akin to bedazzlement, akin to bewitchingly cool.
But, there’s a pressure to find and discover another expression. Not only of beauty, but of understanding, of appreciation for the connections of the artwork itself. Such complexity is wrapped into this simple sentiment—this basic need—as an artist that it is overwhelming, debilitating, and alienating at its most difficult, while it’s healing, exhilarating, and captivating at its most liberating to be aware of a creative state of being.
Steady gazing to close until wispy as paper to ash by the burning of the sun the blooms fall away one by one.
We toted the guitar out in the summer heat, after our beach vacation, while we picked blackberries. Silvia’s dress snagged on the thorns. I was writing about a heartache that constantly pulses reminders because of the realization that there’s no way to make up for a past that’s never coming back. I felt the pull of my characters, especially Robin, her confusion over both memory loss and memory resurfacIng, her dreams to rise above her family’s addictions, and the fire in her heart and her pen to write folk songs.
Foraging for plants and folklore, folk music, and family secrets are themes in the Family Medicine Wheel series, and they especially show up in my next book, Ripe for the Pickin’ (Forthcoming March 2022). In the first book, Poke Sallet Queen and the Family Medicine Wheel (2015), young Robin learns to forage for plants from her dad and other relatives. She also meets the friends who become her bandmates. In the next book, Ripe for the Pickin’, Robin shares more about foraging when she was growing up, and she begins her songwriting partnerships. Robin also makes a remarkable discovery in this book and that allows her to learn about her ancestors.
For the past seven years, I’ve been actively researching plants for the book, Ripe for the Pickin’. The research is a big part of my life, and my family usually participates. While we were out picking plants one afternoon, I asked our younger daughter, Silvia, if we could take photos for the book. I wanted them for inspiration. I also asked our older daughter, Zoe, if she would take some of the photos, too. These images are some of the photos we took, and they have been layered, and some even look quilted together.
Eerily similar to the best ideas in the book is the life that I live:
“Is this the peppery chickweed?” Silvia asks me. A fluffy type grows by the river and has a stronger flavor than the more straggly plants nearer to our house.
She and I pick wild violets for tea every spring. This became the inspiration for a chapter of the book called “Backyard Spring,” and then it inspired a song. I crafted one like Robin might for her band, and I added it to the book. Writing songs was fun, and so different from narrative that I wanted to do it again. I tried. Ohhhhhhhh, I like Robin Ballard and her songwriting journals. I helped her to fill them up.
Silvia eats wood sorrel year round where it stays warm and green close to the house. This became the inspiration for a chapter called “Cowbird Blues” and another song.
We pick the creeping charlie leaves that grow under blackberry canes, and then we pick blackberry leaves for tea, too. And, you might have guessed already…another chapter called “Blackberry Winter Whistlin’ Tune” and another song…
This got us on a songwriting streak. And, I’m in love with it…
I was daydreaming one afternoon while placing images together. I don’t know what compelled me to choose the images or arrange them, but I liked the final result when I stopped my creative daydreaming. This final image contains four photographs with three of them placed on an image of the interior of the Frist Art Museum.
I enjoy the creativity that the books inspire in my family’s everyday life. We have a cabinet full of tea, a drying rack overflowing with leaves and flowers, and an experimental garden of wild plants, heirlooms, and seeds given to me by family and friends. We water the plants. We drink the tea. We sing.
Right now, as I finish this blog, someone is playing the piano and trying to write a song in the living room, probably Terry. I can hear Silvia singing from upstairs, her voice drifting off while she makes up words and when she finds them, it rises again. From the kitchen, I can hear the water boiling in the kettle for someone’s tea, probably Zoe’s.
Art is meditative and transformative for me. Even if I stare for a long time, the experience is active within me. Moving through a museum or a gallery, gazing at a painting, waiting to view artwork, standing at a distance to see more clearly, and viewing a sculpture with someone else–all of that is more of an experience than the passive idea of watching or looking at something casually. I try to imagine painters on scaffolding when I see an immense canvas stretching up toward the ceiling. I stoop and squint at the tiny forms in a contemporary sculpture exhibit. There is not a way to duplicate the feeling of scale on a computer-generated tour of a museum, and yet, I encourage online tours and know they benefit so many people.
I enjoy not only going to see artwork in exhibitions, but the art that I view often becomes part of my own creative process. In the exhibitions that permit me to do so, I take photographs of the artwork on display as well as the space where the exhibition takes place. Later, back at home, in the middle of the night, or when I am parked in a line of cars waiting to pick up one of my daughters, I layer the images. The act of layering images pushes my brain into a new creative space and actually helps me to write imagery in my books. I don’t often share my visual processes, other than a photo of places where I run and that sort of thing on Instagram (IG). I did enjoy layering nature and yoga images for a series on IG, but otherwise, I don’t usually share these images and how they inspire me. I’d like to change that and share some of them on my blog sometimes.
This series of images, the most recent I’ve created, uses photos I took from the recent exhibitions at The Frist Art Museum in Nashville: “American Art Deco: Designing for the People 1918-1939” (ended January 2, 2021) and “Medieval Bologna: Art for a University City” (exhibit up until Jan 31).
Immediately, I was shocked to notice a coincidence between the Art Deco exhibition and my new book–that I actually wrote the dates of 1919-1939, in the novel, Ripe for the Pickin’ (forthcoming 2022), as one of the primary time periods. As my friend and I entered the Art Deco exhibition space, the sequined gold flapper dress made me think about my own character’s gold pageant dress in the first book of the series, Poke Sallet Queen & the Family Medicine Wheel. Robin and her aunt discover the dress in a Nashville store where they rummage through boxes of designer clothes. In another room of the Art Deco exhibit, I swooned over the fan, as it reminded me of Miss Emy, Robin’s grandmother, who carries a fan everywhere and does not stereotypically “flutter” it, but rather uses it as a judge might wield a gavel. Naturally, I thought of putting together a picture I took of the dress with one of the fan. Unfortunately, I cannot find the titles or artists/designers of these two pieces on the online guide for the exhibition.
I layered my own images with pictures I took at the exhibit, too. Photo 2 is my reflection in the Spartan Bluebird Radio during the exhibit juxtaposed with a forest where I ran this summer and which was inspiration for part of the next book’s setting. Radios are a part of the story since Robin is in a folk band, and I wanted to imagine that one of the characters, maybe her relative, had one of those bluebird radios. I also like that this dates the radio and me, as I’m wearing a mask because they are required in The Frist.
The radio: Walter Dorwin Teague, designer (American, 1883–1960); Sparks-Withington Company, manufacturer (Jackson, Michigan, founded 1900). Sparton Bluebird Radio (Model 566), 1934. Wood, glass, and metal, 14 3/4 x 14 5/8 x 6 in. Collection Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver, 2004.1850.
Photo 3 is a photo I took of a Steuben Glass bowl that contained Jimson Weed by Georgia O’Keeffe, and I layered it with a photo I took of Paul T Frankl’s Modernique Clock. I often write about plants and time, and the confusion of the psyche in trying to reconcile human constructs regarding schedules and nature’s own rhythms and shifts. Plants connect the characters in this book series through generations. After I put the two pictures together, the result reminded me of an Alice in Wonderland-type of image, too.
Of course, to create these images, I am using copyrighted works, but they are my images of those works, and I am not selling, duplicating, or distributing the images, so they don’t infringe upon the original works of art. I’m also citing those original artists. My layered images don’t even come close to using mastery at a level of the original artists/designers, but they do fulfill an artistic purpose for my fiction-writing. (See this website and/or a lawyer for the rules of legally appropriating and distributing copyrighted artworks).
The clock: Paul T. Frankl, designer (American, born Austria, 1887–1958); Warren Telechron Company, manufacturer (Ashland, Massachusetts, 1926–1992). Modernique Clock, 1928. Chromium-plated and enameled metal, molded Bakelite, and brush-burnished silver, 7 3/4 x 6 x 3 1/2 in. Collection Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver, Gift of Michael Merson, 2010.0670.
The bowl: Steuben Glass bowl with Jimson Weed image, 1938 Glass, 14 inches in diameter. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of Mrs. Flora C. Crichton 1997.13.1Designer: Georgia O’Keeffe. Clear glass bowl with Jimson Weed etched in center from design
Finally, I liked the snail cocktail picks from the Art Deco exhibit layered with an illumined manuscript from Medieval Bologna. There was no connection to my story. I simply like the idea of the slow passage of time symbolized by the snail and the old age of the manuscript.
Nothing compares to the experience of looking at the artwork, standing in front of it, taking in the scale of it, noticing the texture, focusing on the colors and form, how it shows itself in the space. However, I do enjoy this process of layering and creating even more meaning for myself.
I don’t have the details about the snail cocktail picks or the illuminated manuscript, but here are links to all the information online that The Frist Art Museum offers and online tours: