By Liz Summer, I Start Wondering Columnist
I stayed in Santa Fe over the 2016 Christmas break. Just outside the “Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico.” As any Paul Simon fan will recognize, that is a line from his 1983 song “Hearts and Bones,” written about his brief marriage to actress Carrie Fisher. So I was in a most fitting place to hear her sad news, a journey that started a long time ago….
There is no question that Santa Fe and the surrounding deserts are a world-class destination for experiencing nature. The stark rugged landscape with entire geological timespans in the form of thrusting rocky sills, eroded volcanic cores and impassive mesas bring the vastness of the universe and the relative insignificance of daily human dramas into clear focus. This realization is centering. The union of internal universal vastness and stillness with external universal vastness and stillness bypass the thin sill of personal concerns that seeks to divert awareness from this deeper understanding.
Georgia on My Mind
One of the main attractions of Santa Fe is the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. O’Keeffe, who was born in 1887 and died in 1986, had a palatable drive to express her visions unfettered by conventional — which is to say third-party — sensibilities. Her images of landscapes, cityscapes, bones and flowers are recognizably brilliant manifestations of direct expression. With direct expression, there is an immediate connection between clear observation and representation of this observation.
Direct expression is the heart of creative expression; it bypasses the more typical tendency to filter observations through conventional stylistic thought. In other words, true creative expression is not pandering to copying or filtering the vision through unoriginal ideas of how things “ought to look” based on what is popular, cool or what other people will like and value.
But how to see, outside the common filter of convention? Look at what is, without judgment. The most common judgment that limits direct vision is the judgment of what is “worthy or not worthy.” This leads to dismissal of what is here now as not being significant enough to warrant attention. This is particularly true of nature. There is an overwhelming tendency to appreciate glorious scenery while ignoring the everyday. And so we often limit our appreciation of nature to the short time we are visiting a world-class destination (such as a national park or historic site) while ignoring the nature that is here/now, whatever it might be.
Celebrating a Wildflower
O’Keeffe’s brilliance lay not only with her ability to represent the blatantly and obviously majestic New Mexico landscapes, but also in her extraordinary representation of the common wildflower in a way the world had not seen before. O’Keeffe expressed this ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary in her famous quotes such as “I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty” and “Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”
The value of art for helping people see the extraordinary in the ordinary was brought home during my visit to the O’Keeffe Museum. The elderly docent, standing in front of a painting featuring vertebra and a primrose against the New Mexico landscape, said she had never seen a primrose before seeing this painting. However, it is more likely that she has seen them but just did not notice this wildflower. That’s because one of the most common wildflowers in the Southwest is a type of primrose that forms immense pink blankets along roadsides, parks and yards.
By conventional practice, the simple beauty of common weeds is usually overlooked. O’Keeffe did not overlook common flowers; instead, she saw and expressed the extraordinary in the ordinary. Furthermore, she did not look once and then dismiss them afterwards as “too common” or “I’ve seen those before – no big deal.” Instead, O’Keeffe took what was around her and looked deeply, and looked again, and then took the time to look yet again. Doing this, she created a whole new field of art that is still fresh and resonates today. And so I leave you with a picture of a common yet glorious evening primrose. The image of this wildflower was taken in 2014 because it is too early for their bloom this year, but they will come! When they do appear this year, don’t be afraid to look deeply at their sublime beauty!