Dreams of Trees and Butterflies

arkansas, art, butterflies, coronavirus, Creativity, Faith, Forgiveness, grief, Healing, Historic neighborhood, holidays, hope, Imagination, inspiration, nature, pandemic, renewal, vision

The saying is true: “If nothing ever changed, there’d be no butterflies.” Yet how hard do we humans hold to the past, even if we need to move on into the future? As an artist, I’ve always been caught between my desire to honor the traditions of the past, but also to move into the the unknown realms of the future. Artists already have a vocabulary and boundaries to describe the works of the past, so we can tell if our current works “meet the criteria for excellence.”

Found Object Butterfly: roadside debris, wire, scrap cloth, and metallic beads

When we go beyond this known world into the uncharted territories, we’re like Columbus, who landed in the Caribbean islands, but thought he was on the continent of North America. I wonder if the monarch butterfly, just emerging from the cocoon, has any idea it soon will begin a 3,000 mile migration to its ancestral winter home in Mexico. The butterfly has the innate ability to navigate this path, whereas we humans are like Abram, for we’re going to a land our God will show us. We have no idea where we’ll end up, but we do know we’ll travel by stages and God’s guiding inspiration will always be with us.

During this current protracted COVID pandemic, with cases beginning in mid December 2019, we’ve now lost over 766,206 persons in the US alone and over 47,390,239 individuals have had COVID. Worldwide, the numbers are far greater: over 5 million have died and nearly 255 million have contracted COVID, mostly because vaccines and health care services aren’t available to the extent they are in America and the European Community. Not only has our world as a whole suffered a great grief, but each of us individually have lost friends, neighbors, or loved ones. This adds to our collective grief.

Airport Road at MLK Hwy Intersection, empty lots

When we see the rest of our world changing around us, we feel another loss, and this becomes the grief leading to the death of a thousand tiny cuts. Just as in our workplaces, when the ideas of the young, the female, and the ethnic individuals aren’t valued, their dismissal leads to devaluation of their perspectives as well as their personhood. When we devalue nature and treat creation as an arena for humanity to restructure for our purposes alone, we can fall into the trap of thinking only for our immediate future, but not for the generations to follow. This is why building lots inside the city get cleaned off and offered as a blank slate, since this makes them valuable to the greatest number of buyers.

Death by a thousand cuts was supposedly a form of torture in ancient China. It was reserved for the most heinous crimes, such as matricide, patricide, treason, and the like. From all the tiny slices, the accused finally bled to death. It was a cruel and unusual punishment, rather like flogging the back of a law breaker until the flesh was raw, but this punishment was intended to cause death because the executioner kept at it until he succeeded.

Most of us are blissfully unaware of the loss of a few trees here and there in our neighborhoods. Sometimes we even want to cut down the trees on our own property because we’re tired of raking leaves every fall, or if we have a magnolia tree, we’re tired of our year round duty of leap reaping. Of course, if you want a high strung, classy tree to show off in your front yard, you also need to sign onto the high maintenance these trees require. “Those that wears the fancy pants has to take care of those fancy pants,” my mother always reminded me.

Yard work is a type of infrastructure most of us can understand. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, those of us hosting the feast are also getting the house and yard ready for family and friends to visit. Infrastructure has been in the news lately also, with politicians debating whether soft or hard infrastructure deserves the most funding.

In Hot Springs, we have “Green Infrastructure,” which includes all the natural assets that make the city livable and healthy: trees, parks, streams, springs, lakes and other open spaces. These assets are ‘infrastructure’ because they support peoples’ existence. For example, tree canopy keeps the city cooler while also absorbing air pollutants and mitigating flooding. The Hot Springs National Park forest area is also an important resource for a variety of reasons. The mountain area is in the recharge zone for the hot springs and the forest provides other important ecosystem services.

Hot Springs is Very Green

In urban areas, we can evaluate the landscape on a smaller scale, so even small patches of green space become important, since together they can make a greater large cumulative impact. Smaller urban spaces, such as linear stream valleys, or even pocket parks, can add up to a connected green landscape. When evaluating the ecological health of an urban area, urban tree canopy is a key green asset. For instance, Hot Springs has 57% tree canopy coverage and an additional 12% green space coverage. This adds to our quality of life, for this isn’t only pleasing to the eye, but the trees and grass convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, thus improving the air we breathe.

Cities are beginning to recognize the importance of their urban trees because they provide tremendous dividends. For example, city trees are a strategic way to reduce excess stormwater runoff and flooding. Even one tree can play an important role in stormwater management. For example, estimates for the amount of water a typical street tree can intercept in its crown range from 760 gallons to 4000 gallons per tree per year, depending on the species and age. Taken city-wide, the trees within the city provide an annual stormwater interception of 1.2 to 1.5 million gallons which equates to 7 to 9 million dollars in benefits. The loss of one tree is worth so much money, replanting our tree cover is an investment in our future wellbeing.

I often heard an old proverbial poem growing up, which may not be repeated much today:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

My nanny would remind me of the same principle in other words, “A stitch in time saves nine.” My daddy was from the school of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While those two schools of thought still persist today, I think making a small, inexpensive repair, rather than a costly replacement, is a better choice, but too many of us live in a throwaway society.

Wisterias among the Trees

When we lose one small thing, we brush it off as no matter, but after a thousand small losses, we just can’t take it any longer. We look around and wonder what happened to our world, why didn’t we take action sooner, and now we might be in a hole so deep we can’t see the top. When I first painted the trees on this vacant lot, the little coffee kiosk had closed shop and moved on. It was springtime and the violet wisteria vines were bright against a sunlit cerulean sky.

As I was taking a few photos with my iPhone last spring, the local policeman pulled into the circular drive to check on me. We chatted a bit, but he wanted to make sure I was OK. I’m at that age when silver alerts go out for others, but I’m not there yet. I guess “old gal taking photographs of trees” still looks suspicious in my small town. I’m thankful my town is this quiet.

When I told the officer, “These trees called to me,” he might have had second thoughts about my state of mind. Then he realized he was talking to an artist. I was rescued when his radio called him off to take care of some real trouble. I find I do my best work when I feel called to a subject, for I have a spiritual connection with it.

That was this past April, and here at year’s end, this lot is up for auction, with a commercial use zoning. It has easy access to the bypass and would be good for a food place or a fuel stop. Things change and we can’t hold back progress. I know people who buy a vacation home to visit while they still work, but as soon as they retire to this same place, they grouse about all the weekenders who come and spoil their solitude. They put up with it a year or so, griping daily, and then sell and move on. Life changed for them and they didn’t adjust to their new normal. I wonder why they never realized Hot Springs was a vacation destination. We think we need an infrastructure just for the 38,500 people who live here year round, but we actually need an infrastructure to support the over two million visitors to whom we offer the hospitality of our hot springs, our hotels, our fine dining, our attractions, and our natural beauty.

When I saw the trees were gone and the lots had been plowed level, I wondered if the trees had a swift death, or if they had brief dreams and fantasies while the saws pierced their outer skins. I thought of the butterflies encased in their cocoons, and the deep sleep of their transformation. Do butterflies dream in this stage, or do they even dream like we do? I wondered if next April I would see wisteria growing near the ground, for as a weed, it’s hard to kill. I always hope, for I’ve learned over time, if I’m a prisoner of hope, this is better than seeing only the loss.

Stage One

After traveling and recovering from an autumn sinus infection, I decided to destroy an old mobile sculpture of a butterfly made from found materials and attach it to a canvas. I took some scraps of cloth from some mask projects, and glued the whole to the canvas. Maybe I crammed more than I should have onto the small surface, but I was going with it. This work might be more catharsis than art, or more process and possibility than success. It doesn’t matter, for sometimes art is more therapeutic than anything else.

The first layer held all the colors and shapes of the original Google map. The second layer began to make sense of the shapes and textures, for I started to pull together the small areas into larger spaces. By the third layer, I’d lost most of the color areas and turned them instead into linear shapes. The primary colors of the background I subdued beneath an overall gold tone. The lines now are like an automatic writing or glyphic writing, which might be the language spoken either by the trees or the butterflies, or by all natural living beings.

Stage Two

When we confront suffering in nature, in our lives, or in the world, we often ask, “Where is God in all of this?” In the days past when I suffered, I held on to the words of the Apostle Paul to the Romans:

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (8:18-21)

Dreams of Trees and Butterflies

Often we suffer because we can’t change our past, or we think we can’t affect our future. At some point in our lives, we come to accept our suffering. We don’t have to continue to suffer, of course, but we need to accept that what happened to us is over. We can forgive ourselves for not leaving a bad relationship earlier, or being too young to know we were being harmed. Some of us may have survivor guilt from our nation’s wars, and suffer moral injuries from acts of war. Only good and decent human beings would feel this guilt, and they can heal with Christ’s forgiveness. We can be changed and then begin to change the world, even if we begin only with our own selves.

After all, the Psalms promise us God is faithful both to us and to the creation also: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” (104:30)

Joy and peace,

Cornelia

Vegetation Community Monitoring at Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, 2007–2014
Natural Resource Data Series NPS/HTLN/NRDS—2017/1104
https://www.nps.gov/articles/upload/HOSP_VegCommunity2007_2014r-508.pdf

GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE LANDSCAPE STUDY AND PLAN
City of Hot Springs, AR
Green Infrastructure Committee
https://www.cityhs.net/DocumentCenter/View/6245/Hot-Springs-AR-GI-Study-and-Plan-Final?bidId=

Hot Springs General Information: Hot Springs National Park Arkansas
https://www.hotsprings.org/pages/general-information/

KISS Principle and The Six Degrees of Hydrangeas

adult learning, art, Bartram’s Nursery, brain plasticity, butterflies, Creativity, Faith, flowers, garden, inspiration, Ministry, nature, Painting, purpose, renewal, righteousness, risk, Spirituality, Travel

These dried hydrangeas, a gift from North Carolina, traveled home with me from my vacation back east to see my youngest nephew marry the love of his life. My childhood friend cut them from the bushes in front of her beautiful retirement home in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Lake Junaluska, the famed Methodist Retreat Center. Her home is about an hour away from the Biltmore Estate, America’s largest home. I’ve now been to both historic places, known for their hospitality, and enjoyed the hospitality of two friends’ homes, who live not an hour apart. I knew both of these gals growing up back home, and now they know each other through me.

Hydrangeas and Coffee on a Cloudy Carolina Morning

Hydrangeas are native to America. Two well-known hydrangea species, among others, grow wild in North America — the H. aborescens (smooth leaf) and H. quercifolia (oak leaf). Their actual cultivation began in the 1700s. An historic trifecta of our forefathers’ estates is proof: Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier all cultivated these hydrangeas.

Bartram’s Garden, possibly drawn by a young William Bartram

William Bartram, of Bartram’s Nursery in Philadelphia, provided the seeds and plants for these historic homes. James Madison’s home, Montpelier, in Vermont, still has the creamy white heads of H. arborescens as a border for his garden wall. The Bartram Gardens were a natural history project begun by his father John Bartram and continued through the generations, with William’s love of travel and exploration leading to a four-year collecting trip to the American Southeast and the publishing of an account of his travels in 1791. It became a classic text in the history of American science and literature.

Documents from Mount Vernon record how in 1792, George Washington planted a native hydrangea, H. arborescens, on the bowling green at his home. Nearby, when Thomas Jefferson was designing his gardens and walkways at Monticello, he also included these new shrubs. Today, gardeners can purchase heirloom H. quercifolia seeds from the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants in Monticello.

The notion everyone is connected by just six stages of separation gained popularity in the early 2000’s based on scientific studies done in the 1960’s. The game Six Stages of Kevin Bacon was based on this idea. Today, due to social media and the internet, some people have only 3 or 4 stages of separation. Our founding fathers ran in the same circles, so their stages of separation were small.

Hydrangeas also come from Japan, where they’re the subject of many brush and ink paintings. The flowers hold a solid role in Japanese culture. The Japanese celebrate the hugely popular Ajisai (hydrangea) festivals in the blooming seasons of late spring and summer. Pink hydrangeas are given on the fourth wedding anniversary. Hydrangea gardens often grace the grounds of sacred Buddhist temples. People enjoy amacha, or tea from heaven, on April 8, Buddha’s birthday. Amacha is brewed from leaves of the Hydrangea serrata.

Steps ascending to Meigetsu-in Temple

While western churches are sited in lawns, as if they were sheepfolds to shelter the sheep within and protect them from the outer world, eastern Buddhist temples incorporate nature into their design and sites. This reminds us everything is one. As Father Richard Rohr reminds us in his book, The Universal Christ, the author of Colossians 1:19-20, puts this idea plainly:

“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

A classic example is the Buddhist Meigetsu-in Temple, which was founded in 1160 as a Rinzai Zen temple of the Buddhist Kenchō-ji school. Located in Kamakura, Japan, its nickname is the hydrangea temple, for from the end of May through July, thousands of hydrangeas bloom during the rainy season. The temple is a Japanese national historic site.

When I first brought in the dried flowers to class, the first reactions I heard were, “Wow! You brought those all the way from North Carolina intact?” and “This is gonna be hard!” I’ll let you figure out who said what!

My answer was, “Sure, I’m an old art teacher, and I’m prepared for anything. I had a travel box in my SUV trunk, so they nestled quietly there on the journey home. As for hard to paint, remember what I always tell you, don’t paint the eyelashes before you get the shape of the face. The KISS principle always applies.”

“You mean keep it simple, stupid?”

“Mike, the one who wants to learn and stretch their mind is never stupid. KISS stands for KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUDENTS.”

They all laughed. Most of us can’t see the big forest because we’re looking at all the individual trees. If we step back and get a sense of the whole first, we can see how the parts relate to one another. This helps us put the basic sketch onto the surface of our work. It also gives us a moment to observe the subject before us and catch that moment of interest, which we can then emphasize.

Image Ball in Shadow and Light

As I reminded folks, “This looks difficult, but the basic shape here is a big ball. We’ve already done geometric balls. You thought those were boring, but they had a purpose. You needed that skill to be able to see the same shape in nature and recognize the same pattern of light and dark shadows.”

They nodded their heads. Teaching often is just reminding people what they already know or reinforcing previous skills from a different viewpoint. We went on to the slide show. It helps to see how other artists have handled the subject of the day. I’ve always enjoyed show and tell time, for it gives us inspiration and education both. Every time we learn something new, we have a new wrinkle in our brains. At a certain age, this is the only place we want to get wrinkles!

Inuzuka Taisui: Butterfly and Hydrangea, 1930, Woodblock print

This lovely Japanese woodblock print is from the era when Japan moved from its historic monarchy into the beginning of its new democratic government. The old emperor was confined to the palace due to illness, so the western educated prince regent Hirohito was the default leader. During this time, the people favored western art styles, such as this romanticized Shin-hanga print, instead of the older artists’ works of the floating world, or Ukiyo-e. The Japanese continued to prefer the works of the floating worlds, with the dancers, actors, musicians, and tea houses.

Of course, Taisui and the other artists of the Shin-hanga movement were producing for a distant audience, who may never have set foot upon the island of Japan. What we think we know of a place is one thing, but until we experience it first hand, we won’t know its truth and its power, except by word of mouth. Taisui was active for only a decade, as far as we know, from 1920 to 1930, but he made numerous prints of plants, insects, and birds, which still bring joy to us today.

T. Adams: Hydrangeas and Lilacs, palette knife technique

I found this painting on Pinterest. I pointed out how the artist didn’t paint every single flower petal, but still got the message of “hydrangeas” across. This is a palette knife work, so it builds up the shapes from back to front. An artist can’t just throw paint on the canvas like some piece of spaghetti against the wall and hope it sticks. We always have to put our thinking cap on and build up the shapes from back to front and from dark to light. We also have to pay attention to the direction of the light if we’re doing a realistic image.

Allison Chambers: Yesterday (Hydrangeas), oil on canvas, c. 2017-21

This second rough image by Allison Chambers is another example of not painting all the minute details, but getting the main idea across (KISS). This is why billboards don’t use small print and politicians use sound bites. We’re moving too fast on the highway to read the fine print and our attention spans now are less than a goldfish! Sad but true, a goldfish can focus for nine seconds, but the average human only for eight seconds.

We can blame phones, social media, and our desire to be connected all the time. Once we were content to call once a day, but now we have to check in twice a day or more. Some of us find that much contact interferes with getting things done, but then self starters don’t need anyone checking up on them. These folks tend to think frequent callers need to find another hobby to fill their time. Everyone needs a purpose in life, so those who’re trying to micromanage others might need to spend that energy helping the poor with food distribution or expending that excess energy doing good elsewhere. Then again, maybe those frequent callers are just lonely. They might need to use those dialing fingers for good as part of a community prayer chain. Then they can connect in prayer and feel useful too.

Doris Joa: Hydrangea with Ivy, watercolor on paper, 2015

This last image does have many details. It’s a watercolor built up in thin layers of washes to get the desired result. When working with washes, we have to have time and patience, and channel our inner goldfish, so we can manage our attention spans. Our first inclination is to work wet in wet, over and over, but that just muddies up our colors in that space. We need to let that spot dry, move to a new spot, paint it, and keep painting and moving, until we get the whole first layer done. Then we can come back and lay in darker tones in certain areas, once again moving about the canvas, for if we repaint too soon, we’ll just lift up the underpainting.

This takes focus and intent, as well as the ability to reserve judgement on our work, since it takes time for it to come into being. This isn’t a simple skill, for delayed gratification isn’t practiced often today. Even when we work our plan and execute our technique to the best of our ability, the end result may seem lacking. Yet, we’ve grown, or else we wouldn’t realize our struggle didn’t meet our expectations. When we want more, we can see how far short our efforts fall. This should encourage us to continue the challenge.

As Philippians 3:12-14 reminds us about the spiritual life:

“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

After show and tell, we sat down to paint. We’d done enough talking and presenting of models. We had enough to chew on for the short time our class meets. If we have two hours, we use the first 15 minutes on presentation and the last 15 minutes on cleanup. This gives us about 90 minutes to paint. We don’t make large works, but sometimes we take an extra day to finish what we started. I’d call most of our work “studies,” since they’re quickly done.

Gail’s Hydrangeas

Gail chose to do color exploration and deeper, more saturated applications of paint, rather than her usual washes. This was a bold experiment for her. Art is a risky business. We can’t always control what the brush will do. Most of us have been trained since childhood to “color within the lines.” Once the paint gets loose, we’re in uncharted waters, sailing out into the deep ocean and out of sight of familiar landmarks. We can either turn back and hug the safe shore, or sail out to discover the unknown land. Taking risks is how we grow.

Mike’s Hydrangeas

Mike’s love of texture is apparent in his painting, as well as a variety of color. While the colors aren’t natural to the subject, he chose the colors which made him feel good. His is an emotional response to the beauty of the flowers. He wasn’t happy with the opening of the vase, but he got so carried away with the flowers, he forgot his perspective principles.

We might need to reteach that lesson once again. Some lessons need reteaching multiple times. This is why Jesus spoke in the gospels about God 264 times and love 44 times. Money rated 24 mentions, riches 2, the neighbor 10, and the poor 25. If we ever wondered what Jesus was focused on, we might look at what he emphasized in his ministry.

Cornelia’s Hydrangeas

I noticed we each gave our flower pots a different look when we painted our canvases. None of us are dedicated copyists. My color scheme tilts toward the red-orange, yellow-green, and blue-violet. This is a secondary triad, rather than a primary triad of red, yellow, and blue. The mixed colors give the flowers their muted look.

Secondary Triad on Cornelia’s Hydrangeas

By adding white to some of the brush strokes, and darker tones to others, I was able to suggest individual flowers as well as shapes. It’s just a quick sketch, a work I would do in preparation for a larger painting. Doing this would help me get some ideas down and help me solve some problems in advance, as if I were training for a competition. I would know if my color scheme was working, or if I needed to change the values or tints. I might want to choose a deeper color, or certainly a larger canvas.

So we come back for another day and another try. We can “see the promised land,” but like Moses, we don’t know if we’ll ever reach it. Artists have to be incurable optimists, for they keep trying again and again, even though we know human perfection in art will always be out of reach. Yet as Paul reminds us in Romans 3:21-24, if perfection in art eludes us, we can still have “Righteousness through Faith:”

“But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

May we all go onto perfection, with God’s help—
Joy and Peace,

Cornelia

Hydrangeas: A History
http://thehouseandhomemagazine.com/culture/hyndrangeas-a-history/

Taisho Democracy in Japan: 1912-1926
https://www.facinghistory.org/nanjing-atrocities/nation-building/taisho-democracy-japan-1912-1926

William Bartram – History of Early American Landscape Design
https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php/William_Bartram

Kamakura’s Famous Hydrangea Temple: Walk Among Flowers in Japan’s Ancient Capital
https://livejapan.com/en/in-tokyo/in-pref-kanagawa/in-kamakura/article-a0001996/

Science: You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish
https://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/

The Science Behind Six Degrees
https://hbr.org/2003/02/the-science-behind-six-degrees