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.
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:
Image from Customs House Museum The Words of Women exhibition
Last week, I carried a plate of paints up a 10-foot ladder (that felt higher) and chose words from a short piece of fiction that I created for an art exhibition, The Words of Women. The exhibition features writings by women who were mailed a “muse” and challenged to write from the inspiration discovered in the object. I had opened a small box in the mail and found an antique. I didn’t know what it would be, only that it was for a collaborative exhibition to celebrate Women’s History Month. The art curator Terri Jordan at the Custom’s House Museum mailed out ten muses to ten writers from Tennessee. And, I received a silver, engraved, double-headed eagle ring that slipped perfectly onto my ring finger.
I didn’t know what the others writers had received, nor did I know what style they would write. The possibilities were endless as long as it fit within the 1200 word-limit parameters. I didn’t find out what all of the other writers had received until the week before the exhibition when we began to paint on the walls—a pair of silk stockings, a small brown purse, a porcelain thimble, a snake brooch with emerald eyes, and an unmarked black and white photograph of a woman in her twenties living in the ‘20s, to name a few of the objects. There were more. We only knew what we could see, and we created from that.
But what? How could I write from an unknown object? That was the first dilemma, which was soon resolved when a character began to take shape around the ring. But the toughest questions were to follow—how could I paint the walls? With text? With visuals? We had one week to paint whatever we wanted on our section. Enormously high, white walls. It was uncomfortable at times—the process, but I was caught up in a new creative space, and that became more and more evident.
What I discovered is that it’s crucial to take chances, to risk paint on the walls, and climbing to new heights in order to look from a different perspective. On the night of the opening, terrible storms raged all around us and prevented some friends from attending, but the comments we received were surprising and encouraging. “This is a brave show.” “It’s good to try something different. To start something new.” And, it wasn’t uniform. Writers merging with visual arts? It confuses the mind. There was the question, “why not have visual artists interpret the work of the writers, instead of having the writers paint on the walls?” And, I finally understood why some artists don’t particularly want to write their biographies, don’t want to write artist’s statements, or discuss their process using narrative.
Yet what was remarkable for me was that my process was affected. I edited. I rewrote. I wrote more that didn’t make it into the final print, but that didn’t matter. And, I wrote differently. I think the other writers were challenged as well.
The writings varied—poems, narratives, personal reflections about the receipt of the muse. The words on the wall also reflected our different approaches and styles. Mitzi Cross swirled a giant, diamond-backed rattlesnake onto the wall. Amy Wright stopped in like the Buddha, grabbing up the paint and brushing HOPE onto the wall, then shaping the remainder of her poetic line around it; she finished in a couple of hours one afternoon. Cindy Marsh used the letters from the Goldsmith Press and stamped a few hours here and there for days. Rebecca Beach said that she had two things she could draw, and a tree grew on the morning of the opening as the end result. Melanie Meadow’s Threads of Grace narrative twined through recognizable places in the town. Story after poem, after inspiration, moving around the gallery walls to read them all, to stand in front of the muses.
When I read Traci Brimhall’s piece about Kalamazoo’s Artifactory, I noticed the similarities and was reminded of the importance of exhibitions that celebrate community history, as well as visual and literary history. Layering gives more to the viewer, the reader, and the community.
The Words of Women exhibition is open at the Customs House Museum in Clarksville, TN, through the end of April. There’s a full schedule of events for the next two months, so check the Museum website for details.
This Thursday, March 8, I’ll be reading with friends and writers from the community at the Museum for a Writer’s Night, beginning at 6:30.