Lessons from the Garden, Part 1: The subject was irises

iris interior
Oh, to be a bee right about now!

I am working on a new painting finally, reinterpretating my photograph of the interior of this bearded iris flower. I have learned that going back to explore an image and turn it from a photo into a painting gives me the added ability to try to say more about how the image made me feel originally. I know it’s frowned upon in some artistic circles to work from photos. But I have found it helpful so far, especially when I want to paint a sunflower in January!

To me, it’s just dreamy inside this iris. I love how the soft lavender, blue and cream colors contrast with their stronger versions, and how bold it is in its invitation to be pollinated. Who could resist that golden caterpillar-like tongue? It just looks too delicious to pass up!

Frankly, I’m surprised Georgia O’Keefe didn’t paint more of them…

Bearded irises were always a bit too lavish for my taste as a gardener. Or at least that was my prejudice against them, until I had an epiphany a few years ago visiting a particularly fine collection of irises at a botanical garden. Seeing them all in bloom together, with a riot of colors from snow-white to near black, blew me away. It was like watching a Monet painting come to life. Although it’s Van Gogh who’s famous for painting them, the seemingly endless wash of colors in the iris garden gave me much more the feeling of an Impressionist-style painting.

Maybe it was just that I was in the right mood for my encounter with their sultry display. But speaking of Van Gogh, my mind-altering experience with the irises that day paralleled my reaction when I first saw his paintings in person. I experienced a similar response to a similar flower…

For most of my artistic life, I had never really liked Vincent Van Gogh’s work. I can’t remember exactly why now, or what objections I used to have. But I took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art several years ago, a pilgrimage I had wanted to make since moving to New York, that changed my mind quite firmly and forever.

van gogh irises
I feel my joy in art and nature given life with these bright, lovely blooms.

Wandering through the crowded and maze-like  galleries of the Met, I happened to come across their Van Gogh collection. I almost moved on, thinking it wasn’t of any interest to me. Then this purple-and-white gleam caught my eye. I recall turning and starting slowly forward into the gallery. I felt a strange sense of awe and surprise coming over me the closer I got to the painting, like meeting up with a true love for the first time.

My eyes felt hungry, I remember, moving over the canvas, gobbling up all the powerful lines and colors. The painting was gorgeous, rich and thick with lots of paint and bold brush strokes – no timid or blushing blooms here. I could almost see the sunlit garden the flowers had come from, and feel the hand that had lovingly collected them. They were flowers painted the way I felt about flowers, with all the same fascination and exuberance. Like Georgia O’Keefe, but yet completely different. Never had I expected a similar sensation in me from Van Gogh!

The painting I discovered at the Met that day was Van Gogh’s aptly titled, Irises, 1890, above. It wasn’t a large work, but it leapt off the wall at me in a way few images have ever done. Though it had been created more than a hundred years earlier, the flowers still looked as fresh as if someone had dropped them into the vase just the day before, still wet with morning dew.

I wanted so badly to reach out and touch one, feel the papery velvet of the petals and the fleshy stiffness of the leaves – which of course, if I had, would have set off alarms all over the museum and probably landed me in jail. Smartly, I resisted temptation. I returned home from my trip with a new appreciation for Van Gogh’s work, and a sneaking suspicion that maybe I should keep my mind a little more open about my artistic influences in the future.

So I was reminded again years later, of that same lesson when I found the field of irises at the botanical garden. The universe said to me, Hey wait a minute! Aren’t you forgetting something? And of course, I had. Time can do that, make you forget certain things that once felt so powerful and real. But like most of life’s lessons, we seem to get them over and over again until we finally learn.

An old-fashioned variety I found growing on the farm, very pretty and dainty!
An old-fashioned iris I found growing on the farm, very pretty and dainty!

And now, I love all kinds of irises. I have a few types in the garden, including the bearded variety I’m painting and the Siberian ones that inspired Van Gogh, and I appreciate how different they can be. Much like people, they come all shapes, sizes, and colors, each one beautiful in its own way. And my creative life is more rich because I embrace them all.

Which is the point that I have finally learned, I think: to relish the beauty that is often found in differences and contradictions, and to understand that what repels us one day might just turn around and inspire us on another. And that’s okay – even quite wonderful, actually. We just have to keep our eyes and hearts open to it.

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