I’m not used to drawing with pastels. But I had a whim, so…just don’t harsh Aubrey out, please.
I’m not used to drawing with pastels. But I had a whim, so…just don’t harsh Aubrey out, please.
In 1897 Max Beerbohm wrote a charming little bon mot entitled ‘The Happy Hypocrite.’ The titular character was a shocking, shameless dandy. He enjoyed a graceful, debauched life.
Until he fell in love.
However, she was a strong-minded innocent and repulsed by his approaches, by his face made ugly by a dissipated life. The man she marries, she declared, must have the face of a saint.
Distracted, this dandy found a very specific artist, an architect of masks. He had one made with the face of an angel, and it was molded to his face. He searched out his love once more, unrecognized and beautiful. They married.
But a woman from this rake’s past approached him and demanded that he remove his painted visage. Reluctantly he did and was amazed – along with his former mistress – to find that contentment and true love had wrought a remarkable change on his face. It was now indistinguishable from the mask.
Similarly, the street sign stood engulfed – it too was indistinguishable. It was obliterated by a curling garden that climbed like parasitic filigree, lissome and hungry. The steel marker was devoured, its banner threatened by a graffiti of roses and jasmine. Never had there been such a bower of vandalism, never had there been such delicate destruction.
But this was not a hostile takeover. Rather, it seemed as if the metallic defenses of the city’s indicator welcomed the latticework of vines and the starry, chaste flowers. It must have been a ticklish business, feeling the tiny green movements and blossoms as fragrant as a boudoir.
The ascending growth dripped chlorophyll onto the cut and perforated metal. Butterflies visited to feast, dappling the structure with frost from their illustrated wings. The sign, blinkered by a bouquet of leaves and petals, had succumbed to a higher power.
And perhaps, in the fullness of time, the invasive borders will be cut away. But the unknown gardener will be confounded, for he will find that the sign will have vanished, the street doomed to anonymity. All that will be left would be a single green sapling.
Maybe that is the way of all cities, to be replaced by networks of forests. Perhaps it is their destiny, to return to their earthly dominions, to dissolve into the twisting labyrinths of their fertile homes.
Like a lavender propeller
As capricous as a feather
As focused as a stone
It fell in a dismal spin
Into gravity’s hypnotic embrace
From a canopy that spread like a garnet cloud
A feminine twilight
In filigree flight
Flagrant and fragrant
It was detached, still in its summer youth
And I watched the tiny, delicate descent
A silent and subtle thing
Blossom before the tree
Child before the parent
In gentle acquiescence
Resting beyond my troubled hands
The neighborhood where I work is an assertive one – a person cannot walk through it unknowing, for it dares to prey on the imagination. Vines leap over walls like sleek, chlorophyll-ridden animals. Stone fountains, small imitations of ancient indulgence, stand behind black gates. Flowers embrace homes in a blooming grip, their discarded petals turning the sidewalk into a slowly dying tapestry. The fragrance of growing things, of distant acres, colors the breezes.
Taking all of this into consideration, it is no wonder why I don't mind walking through this fancied countryside. I always take my time, observing the shapes and colors that surround me, varied and charming. Nature's creativity extends before me like a map, guiding me into a foray on her wit and vision.
Last week, when I traveled down this path, I saw something that I swear I had never seen before.
It was a door, closed and inscrutable, and unexpectedly blue. For some reason, it pleased me. It might have been the color: it was not garish or unprincipled; it was not an invasion of this flourishing country. It might have been the vines that surrounded the doorway, green palms facing outward as if they were introducing me to this cerulean entrance.
I wondered what was beyond it. A depthless garden, its shadows dark and twilight, lined with starry flowers? Indigo streams, lined with silver reeds that swept and glistened like a satin dess? Pebbles from the ocean, in maritime hues, tinted by fogs and watery horizons? Or landscapes of Renaissance sfumato, melting into a turquoise dusk?
I looked and wondered, until the thoughts and phantoms became unendurable. So I continued walking, leaving behind the door with its locked, azure secrets.
I thought it snowed last night. The morning was cold, drawing the color out of my face like a wintry syringe. My breath mocked and danced before me, flying up to join the clouds that were as gray and threatening as a waiting battalion. The branches of the trees meshed together to form a black spiderweb that extended the length of the street.
It was that cold. Most of the flowers had receded into the warm, mothering earth. But the roses braved the silvery, shivering air – roses, pale and white, huddled inside leaves that held them like cupped hands. But at first glance…I thought they were something else. These winter bouquets dissolved into a solstice vision that emerged from a long night.
To me, the rose gardens were flocked with the evening's snowfall. I saw melting landscapes, patient under a chilled, crystalline frosting. I saw snow as soft as mittens, although made of sharp-edged and serrated snowflakes, their images a kalidoscope of knives.
The gentle, rose-colored scent froze in the bitter air just as my breath had done.
The whiteness that I saw was as pure as a Beluga's, as depthless as a polar ocean. It was alloyed with shadows of sapphire and cracked into filagrees of ice. I peered closer, hoping to see tracks of reindeer and fox; looking for paths embroidered with tinsel and fallen arctic stars. But all I saw were thorns and the offended petals. And I drew back again.
One of my elegant neighbors, Red Pen, follows the delightful tradition of posting a photograph of a flower every Friday. The photos are individual and intimate – she has an eye that quickly recognizes each personality that makes up a garden's population.
On photograph especially fascinated me. It was a yellow rose - remembering The Alamo, perhaps – which gently receded into the soft distance with the exception of a single petal which stood out blade-sharp. Each petal was warmed with a halo of pink as it curled into the curved interior.
I thought I'd draw it.
But, to my dismay, my first effort failed. And the second. Followed by a third disaster. Put plainly, the rose's wayward charm was the very devil to capture.
What follows is my fourth (or fifth) effort. As you can see, the melted pastels have been demoted to black and white. I've added leaves because, frankly, I had to. Still, hidden behind the additions, alterations, extractions and licenses you will find the original bud that delighted me at first sight. Like looking into the eyes of a loved one and recognizing the spark of attraction that started it all.
I don't pretend to be botanically wise. I watch the flowers that I enjoy, but am seldom moved to inquire after their names. It could be that I'm not social. But I do nod in passing to those that please me: golden clarion trumpets, daisies flat-faced and innocent, winking magenta stars and the dear garden that I wrote about months ago and which is now curling up and preparing for its winter sleep.
But there is one type of flower that always gives me pause. Its petals are sheer, tracing-paper shapes, etched with green capillaries. Sometimes they are translucent, gray as pearls; sometimes they are opaque, with fighting colors torn from a dragon's back:
sometimes they are clusters of tiny sunsets, tinted with apricot and coral:
They hang rich and heavy, a living brocade, off vines that leap over walls. They travel like ships with colored sails and wave like a lady's maddening, dainty handkerchief. They grow in gossamer clutches, with hues that insinuate, like the touch of a watercolorist's brush: sometimes these flowers carry only a scent of color. Those are the ones that I like the best of all, because the color moves and grows, like an open vein emptying its life into a clear pool.
I wanted to learn this flower's name. And after some effort I was able to find its nom de bloom. It was born in South America, in the pulsating jungle, amidst lianas and creepers, breathing the thick, heavy air. In the 1760's, an explorer introduced it to the hothouses of France. He was an Admiral, and his name was Louis de Bougainvillea.
So I would like to thank the Admiral; if it wasn't for his efforts I wouldn't be peering into the gathered colors of the many rouged and tinted faces. Nor would I be watching the braids of knitted vines unraveling as if the hand that worked the spinning wheel had grown tired and was silent.
I was walking back to work, from the bank – congratulating myself that my purse hadn't been stolen (I held on to it, white-knuckled, all the way back).
At one point I passed a type of box hedge, dull and olive – its flat, sheared top just reaching to my shoulders. In its interior there was a lot of activity: I saw the leaves vibrate; I heard delicate rustles as the tiny inhabitants jumped from branch to branch. There were groups of twitterings rising to the surface and breaking free, the notes taking their place in the sky as if it was an endless, blue lyric sheet.
I really didn't understand anything that was being said, but surely the discussion was an excitable one.
From the top of the hedge there sprouted a flower. It had wings. It grew with quick, nervous movements. It had a beak which had once freed it of its childhood home, when its petals were still curled and weak. Its roots were not visible, twisted tightly around one of the branches which formed the dark labyrinth within.
Then: Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Four more appeared – an entire featheration of flowers. They spun on their stationary stalks with sharp, little turns: like the tiny ballerina dancing inside of a music box.
This garden, alive, breathing, driven by rapid flickering hearts, was growing only a foot or two away from me. But not a single blossom took its floating flight. They were in constant rotation: maybe they were looking for the sun, and were having trouble finding its warm reassurance on such a cluttered, dirty afternoon.
I walked away smiling. If I had dared to pick them, what a charming bouquet they would have made.