Something Beautiful: Flowers and Creative Flow

It’s late spring as I write this: season of wildflowers, season of long walks outdoors. Have you noticed the birdsong? Peepers at night? The flowers coming and going along roadsides and in meadows? Every day delivers something gorgeous to look at and smell.

I’m in residence at an artist colony in upstate New York, where I’ve worked many times over the years, usually on poems, sometimes on essays, most recently on a book, and always in a state of blissful flow. Yes, this is a kind of artist Utopia where those who receive the invitation are given time, space, quiet, and wholehearted encouragement to pursue our work. As an added benefit, meals are shared with fellow artists, providing a rich conversation rarely found in regular life.

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Last week, a fellow writer reminded that the very first time I came here, back in 2007, I made a ritual of cutting flowers each afternoon after writing all day, and placing them in vases around the lodge: on the sill in the kitchen, on the large oak dining table where all 20 of us met for dinner, in my room.

In a poem from my first chapbook, The Grass Impossibly (Michigan Writers Cooperative Press, 2008), I wrote about this:

I change the flowers in the kitchen

knowing you will notice them

and say nothing.

from “Grace”

Copying that out just now, I’m reminded of a statement by the designer Saul Bass who said: “I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.” These words often come to mind when I’m making something for the pure happiness of doing so, without thought for an audience or anyone else’s sense of value.

I’ve been drawn to flowers since I was a child. For several years, I even worked on an organic flower farm, harvesting all morning, and arranging bouquets for wholesale all afternoon in the old barn. There were five or six of us on the flower crew, and it suited me to wake early and work surrounded by rows of calendula, snapdragon, zinnia, dianthus and weather. I remember, with particular fondness, the conversations I had with my friend Jennifer, a visual artist, who seemed to feel the same kinship between our farm work and the creative process.

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These days I pick flowers on my walk to the post office, or on the way to the compost pile, which takes me past Virginia bluebells, buttercups, lilacs, blue Siberian irises. I always gather a little greenery, too, before placing everything in jars or vases all over the house, at least one per room. I enjoy coming across these little outburst of color and fragrance throughout the day, and I’ve noticed how much my husband and daughter appreciate them, too.

I prefer when my flowers don’t look too fused over, so this is one of those creative acts that’s all about making something lovely without over-determining the outcome. Of course I think about color, composition, and form, but not as I do when editing a poem or essay. It’s much more spontaneous, less concerned with craft, per se, and while totally informed by my aesthetics, I never ask myself if what I’m making is any good, or if anyone else would want it. I just make my bouquets and know they add something important to our home, whether anyone says so or not.

This sequence involving impulse/immersion/manifestation that happens when I’m handling flowers is a powerful experience of creative flow, one that reminds my muscles (and all of me) what it feels like to lose myself to a process.

A similar quality of ease and unselfconscious attention could describe James Schuyler’s many poems about flowers. He’s a master regardless of his subject, but he’s my go-to poet when I want to imagine gardens, especially out of season, and I always marvel at the ease of his lines, where his mind wanders, and the way he brings his reader into the moment with his admiration of particular flowers.  Here are a couple of favorite passages to show you what I mean:

 

A yellow light
in blue light.  Twilight
and hydrangeas watery
through hedges.  Was the hideous
lesson worth the pleasure?

from “The Exchange”

But that bluet was
the focus of it all: last
spring, next spring, what
does it matter? Unexpected
as a tear when someone
reads a poem you wrote
for him: “It’s this line
here.” That bluet breaks
me up, tiny spring flower
late, late in dour October.
                           I’ll
soon forget it: what
is there I have not forgot?
Or one day will forget:
this garden, the breeze,
in stillness, even
the words, Korean Mums.
Oh oh oh. He is so good. If you’re not already familiar with Schuyler’s poetry, get thee to a bookstore at once. And consider living with more flowers. Both of these things will make you happier.
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Marigolds in Bird Vase, Melanie Parke, 2015

Of course, visual artists take flowers as their subjects all the time. I especially adore Melanie Parke’s floral still-lifes and interior scenes with flowers. I have one of her river scenes hanging in my office—a gift from my parents when I received my Masters—but I long to live with one of her big canvases, especially one with flowers, windows, water. You can follow her on Instagram which may well be as enjoyable as having FTD deliver tulips to your door.

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Orange Pekoe, Melanie Parke, 2016

My mother, painter Carol C Spaulding also loves and paints flowers. In addition to oil, she often works in gouache, a flexible, water-based medium that we’ll introduce to participants in our upcoming workshop, Small Pages: Writing and Painting as Contemplative Practice. If you join us, we’ll surround you with flowers and paints and poems, and share some of our ideas about who to use these practices as methods of self-inquiry, meditation, and pathways to a more fulfilling creative life. We have just three places left in our June 25 session, but you can also join us on August 20. Both workshops take place inside and outside her studio near Glen Lake, Michigan, on the beautiful Leelanau Peninsula. Use the form to enroll. No previous experience required.

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Must Love Flowers, Carol C Spaulding, 2016

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