What is it about the fragile, fleeting, and flagrant beauty of flowers that can so break a heart?
I wrote about this once in a photo-essay called Riffing on Roses. And then just this week I found this new-to-me poem by Mary Oliver, Peonies, which broke my heart again.
The poem speaks to the flagrant beauty of flowers that gives itself away, all that it is, so freely and readily to all that comes its way: the ants, the breeze, the sun’s soft buttery fingers, the poet’s breaking heart.
“Beauty the brave, the exemplary,” indeed.
I wish we all could live so bravely, so carelessly, giving all that we are to all there is. I wish we all, like those ants, craving such sweetness and finding it, would bore deep within that sap. We must cherish and adore all we are, all we have, all that is, while it’s still here to have.
This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready to break my heart as the sun rises, as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers
and they open — pools of lace, white and pink — and all day the black ants climb over them,
boring their deep and mysterious holes into the curls, craving the sweet sap, taking it away
to their dark, underground cities — and all day under the shifty wind, as in a dance to the great wedding,
the flowers bend their bright bodies, and tip their fragrance to the air, and rise, their red stems holding
all that dampness and recklessness gladly and lightly, and there it is again — beauty the brave, the exemplary,
blazing open. Do you love this world? Do you cherish your humble and silky life? Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?
Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden, and softly, and exclaiming of their dearness, fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,
with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling, their eagerness to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are nothing, forever?
Mary Oliver, New And Selected Poems. (Beacon Press; Reprint edition November 19, 2013)
By now you’ve probably seen the stunning new images from the Webb Space Telescope, which takes us 13 billion years back in time. That’s 8 billion years before the Earth was born. We stand here now looking back at a time before there was ground to stand on, or a human consciousness to see or grasp anything at all. We are looking at a speck of sky no bigger than a grain of sand, they say, yet filled with millions of galaxies and trillions of stars, and who knows how many planets or moons or intelligent life-forms looking back. Only they wouldn’t see us. For we don’t exist yet.
It’s mind-boggling. And certainly puts the turmoil we’re experiencing here on Earth into a new perspective. No less urgent or relevant for our fire-fly timespans. But it points us away from the personal and relative “here and now” into one that is infinitely larger than our selves and the tiny blue marble we call home. Our “here and now” encapsulates not only the present moment but the “here and now” 13 billion years ago. We are the link that spans that distance through time and space. Our consciousness. Mine. Yours. Now. Enfolding all that. Surely it means something significant.
When we turn the eye inward rather than out, into the micro-universe of atoms and particles swirling inside us and everything that exits, we grasp a new paradox. Quantum physics has shown us that those inner worlds at the most infinitesimal level exist only as clouds of potentiality rather than as concrete substance. These clouds of potentiality only become “real”—that is, fixed in time and space—when observed. Unseen they exist only within a hazy realm of the possible.
In comparison to the infinite universe swirling around us and inside us, we humans may seem pathetically insignificant. Not worth a mention in the footnotes of atomic and astronomic legers of Science. And yet we seem to play an essential and outsized role.
Without the human mind to grasp the universe there would be no universe to be grasped. Our bodies may have been evolved from star-dust. But it’s our minds, our own conscious grasping of such, that moves “star-dust,” and all else, out of the realm of the potential and into the realm of the real.
Such is the circular and utterly paradoxical wonder of a world we live in.
We’ve been blessed with more than usual rainfall on the central coast of California recently. I love the way the gray skies and damp, rain-soaked surfaces around our home make the colors seem more rich and vibrant. The ordinary becomes extraordinary. Wet cement and a shovel can look like abstract art. While fallen tree branches take on the purple glow of a Fauvist painting. Even a little hummer left behind this winter came out to dazzle me with its red-throated splendor. I hope you enjoy these photos as much as I enjoyed taking them.
Aside from her paint brushes, we don’t see much of Georgia O’Keefe’s studio here, but I couldn’t resist including her as the lead photo in this post based purely on the strength of her face and that hypnotic gaze: as if she can see right through you. There’s no doubt she’s an artist that commands attention.
By contrast below, Miro seems quite content to lean back in his rocking chair gazing serenely at the lifetime of artwork surrounding him. These two photos and the ones that follow say so much about what it means to be an artist.
I found them in a wonderful spread produced by Artists Network: 125 Artists and Their Historic Studios. I’ve gathered a few of my favorites here. But if you like this sort of thing, there’s a treasure trove more to explore at the link above, which also includes a bit about each artist’s life and work.
The photo above is my favorite in the collection. A woman in command of her world, poised gracefully on a barbed wire fence post to capture her vision! How does she ever stay balanced long enough to do so?
Looking at her poised on that fence, it’s not surprising to learn that “she challenged oppressive Victorian conventions by embracing individuality and independence” as noted in the article Over 100 Years Later, Photographer Alice Austen Is Finally Being Recognized as an LGBTQ Icon. The photo below that she created of herself and a friend “wearing masks, corsets, and calf-length skirts, their arms intertwined” and smoking, “an act women could be arrested for,” perhaps says it all about this amazing, talented artist.
I love seeing these incredible artists, Wood and Sorolla, surrounded by their art. Each so different, and each so prolifically talented.
Wood, I learned, had inspired the character of Rose in the film Titanic after Cameron read her autobiography I ShockMyself. She famously shared in a love triangle with Marcel Duchamp and Henri-Pierre Roché, two famous men in that time, an artist and author. She lived to be 108. So did Rose, in the film, I believe.
Sorolla has been one of my favorite artists for a long time now. Quite the opposite of Wood, he was a staid, devoted family man. This black and white photo does not do justice to his work. For a better look at the way he infuses his paintings with light you might want to take a look at another one of my posts: The Luscious Light of Sorolla’s Paintings.
I found the strength of Bourdelle’s Hercules and the fierceness in the artist’s eyes mesmerizing. Both seem to challenge the viewer with their ferocity. He was a protege of Rodin and a teacher of Matisse, a “fiercely independent'” artist who resisted formal training and eventually started his own free-school of sculpture.
Bourgeois below, in contrast, has the calm, studious appearance of the serious craftsman at work, all her tools in perfect order. You wouldn’t guess that her most famous sculptures are gigantic spiders, who she sees as both predator and protector, symbolizing the mother figure.
I love Dali’s face above and Gorey’s cat below. They make me laugh.
I fell in love with Dali’s work when I visited his museum in Bruges, Belgium. I was especially captivated by his illustrations of Alice in Wonderland. He himself seems something of a Cheshire Cat figure. You can see more of his work at my post Down the Rabbit Hole with Dali.
Gorey, below is also an illustrator of children’s books, and something of a Cheshire Cat himself. He created books with no words, books the size of match boxes, and surreal books he classified as “literary nonsense,” adding: “If you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there’d be no point. I’m trying to think if there’s sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense for children—oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, there is no happy music. And that’s true, there really isn’t. And there’s probably no happy nonsense, either.”
Something about the faces of these two women artists next to their paintings of other women speaks to me. They almost seem like self-portraits.
Stern, below, traveled the world and was a major South African artist who achieved national and international recognition in her lifetime. Wyeth stayed close to home, a wife and mother. While a noted artist in her time, her fame was overshadowed by her father’s and brother’s, as happened to so many women artists back then. And too often today too, sadly.
The patience and persistence, the quiet dignity, captured in this photo of Hunter above, complemented with the sheer joy and exuberance of Pollock in his photo says all that needs to be said about the making of art!
You can make art no matter your social class, your gender, your personal challenges, and often these are part of your art and what makes it unique. But what is truly needed is the pure love and joy of art-making, which inspires the patience and the persistence, whether fame and fortune follows or not.
I spent a lovely morning recently exploring some of the deer paths behind our home, stopping to take photos along the way. It’s steeper than it looks here, but the deer know the best way to travel this terrain. And the lovely walking stick my husband made me with it’s sailor stitching and nubby knobs helped.
I love these oak trees, the curving branches with their rough bark and soft grassy moss, the dripping branches with their lacy ribbons. The way the sun peeks through . . .
The backlit branches spiking the sky. The tiny twigs curling like calligraphy against the deep blue.
The deer paths led me through sun-dappled glades . . .
. . . and pass the graveyards of dying and fallen giants, their bare bones scattered and broken along the way. Enriching the soil and nurturing new growth.
As I headed home again I passed the gopher ghetto that edges our property, a space my husband keeps clear of growth as a firebreak. These greedy, prolific creatures gobbled up the roots of several of our favorite rose bushes this year. But the bevy of quail that live here love this cleared space to scratch and feed. And they use the holes as bathtubs, wriggling their fat little bodies deep down into the tiny tubs and splashing the loosened dirt over their shoulders with their wings.
Home at last, I end this journey where I began, with this gorgeous red plum tree the marks one corner of our property.
And a postscript pleasure just for you: this beautiful buck who took a nap in our front yard not long ago. I feel so blessed to be surrounded by so much beauty and wildlife.
The Roman Forum lies right behind the Colosseum, that I wrote about last week. It is the great plaza where Caesar and Augustus and other Roman emperors once trod and, like the Colosseum, has been a mecca for tourists, artists and photographers down through the ages.
It was mostly in ruins when the Vikings first sailed up the Tiber River to gaze at this wonderland of antiquity.
A View of the Roman Forum today, image from Wikipedia
I was there for one short and very hot afternoon last summer. I didn’t take as many photos as I wish I had, but the views I’ve become most enamored by are the ones that artists painted hundreds of years ago. You will find my photos mixed among those below.
It seems so far away now, and long ago, that trip to Europe last summer. Even more so when re-viewing photographs of The Coloseum and Public Forum, which were ancient even in ancient time, when artists throughout the ages flocked here to paint these wonders that still stand like a thread through time, tying us all together.
Below are a few of my photos of the Coloseum that I took last summer, along with paintings of the same from long, long ago. I’ll do the same for The Public Forum in another post.
The Coloseum by Gasper van Wittel (Vanvitelli), 1652 – 1736
My photo of the interior, 2018
The interior by Thomas Cole, 1832
Here we see the floor of the Coloseum, the arena where the gladiators fought and Christians died, as well as a view under the floor, the little cells where they prepared for battle and were held captive.
The Coloseum cells by Pietro F. Garoli, 1638 – 1716
The cross in the Coloseum was a place of pilgrimage through the ages.
By Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1783 – 1853
Night view through arches by Carus Carl Gustav, 1789 – 1869
Arches through arches By Francois-Marius Granet, 1804
Self-portrait with Colosseum, by Maerten van Heemskerch, 1553
I loved seeing this Selfie from the 1500’s! So I’ll end with my own selfie, nearly 500 years later.
With summer around the corner I’ve been looking at all the photos I never shared from last year when I was in Europe with my cousins. Sorrento was one of my favorite places and I wish we had had more time to spend there.
We arrived by ferry from the island of Capri which lies just off the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Sorrento is set upon a high, sheer bluff. We walked along the beachfront and the took an elevator in the cliff wall to the top, where we could look down on the boats and sunbathers.
At the top of the elevator was a lovely plaza with old and new art, and a beautiful 14th century monastery which hosts events, such as this tribute to Sophia Loren.
A short walk away is the famous Piazzo Tasso, lines with restaurants and shops, and with a view looking down at the winding road leading to the old port.
A short block away, was a lush, sunken garden with the ruins of an old saw mill.
A lovely lunch at a sidewalk cafe and a quick bus tour around the city rounded out our visit. Then we headed back to the waterfront to catch our ferry. I wish we could have explored more. Next time!
That day I saw beneath dark clouds
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.
It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.
It is Moses in the desert
fallen to his knees before the lit bush.
It is the man throwing away his shoes
as if to enter heaven
and finding himself astonished,
opened at last,
fallen in love with solid ground.