Sunday, March 27, 2011

Exalting the Humble: "A Magnificent Weed"

A Magnificent Weed - acrylic - 2010 - 40" x 30"

This is another example of a painting of nothing much. In fact its subject was so humble that until I started to paint it and explain to my studio mates what I was doing, I don't believe anyone had noticed it at all. And yet my magnificent weed was not small: it was between four and five feet tall, and almost as wide! It had branches as thick as my fingers, leaves turning rich shades of red and yellow, a sprinkling of bright yellow flowers, and an abundant crop of ripening seeds in long thin pods. I practically tripped on the thing as I was unloading my car one day outside the building that houses our studio. I gazed in wonder at this powerhouse of nature growing out of the crack between the tarmac of our parking area and the base of the wall. I was lost in admiration for its prolific growth out of nothing at all. In the dry, hot August weather, how could it be finding any water, let alone nutrients? I knew right away that I wanted to paint its portrait.

Through the Crack - acrylic - 14" x 11"

It was not the first time I'd turned my attention to weeds, and asked myself the question "What is a weed, anyway?" In 2008 I'd had the idea of painting the uninvited guests in my little garden, and had started with the bluebells that threaten to take over each spring. I admired their persistence and sheer determination, especially one that pushed up between paving stones. 

Vancouver Bluebells - acrylic - 12" x 12"
Bluebells are an introduced species and were probably once prized for their fragrance and  colour; but they did too well in Vancouver and became pests. That's one kind of weed. Another kind are the wild plants, such as buttercups, that have moved to where the living is easy--nice tilled soil with water and manure laid on. They're weeds because they're in the wrong place. It's in the eye of the beholder, but it's a matter of context, not of beauty. Surely even the fussiest gardener couldn't deny the beauty of a dandelion flower or seed head. But these weeds are far from invisible: to a gardener they are conspicuous intruders that require instant annihilation. Quite different was the situation of my weed, which wasn't bothering anybody but was just an opportunistic squatter, managing to keep under the radar in the urban desert.

A bit of research identified my weed as a Tall Hedge Mustard. I got to know it better as I examined it each day upon arriving at the studio. I also took close-up photos. The painting began to take shape. Then I decided that since no one had even noticed the weed, no one would care if I cut it down and brought it into the studio to model for me. But I kept forgetting to bring a suitable knife. Perhaps I didn't really want to kill it. Then one night a gale blew and dashed it to the ground. The next day I found it crushed under a parked car. An ignominious end . . . but probably by then enough of its seeds had lodged in cracks in the masonry to ensure another generation's survival.

And of course, there's my painting to celebrate its life. I painted it close to actual size and let its spreading branches straggle right off the picture plane to emphasize its luxuriance. Its little flowers shine out like lights on a Christmas tree. My tribute to its magnificence extends to all organisms, whether animal, vegetable or human, that manage to thrive and prosper in the most adverse conditions, and with the most unpromising of beginnings.

Next time (around April 3): After this TENTH post to Easel Talk I'll pause to respond to some of the questions and comments I've received. I love getting feedback, so please keep it coming! Just click on "Comments" below. You can do it anonymously!

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