Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Sunday, July 03, 2005

What About Fairies?

Fifty paintings of flower fairies by illustrator Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973) are on display through August 29 at the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Rosemoor, making this as good a time as any to take up a touchy subject.


Faerie Departure

Artist Unknown

Image: Faerie Monstrous

Do you have little naked babies in the yard?

I don’t. At least, I hope I don’t. Today’s heat index is 104 degrees. Any cherubs are wailing their wings off, and honestly I’m not going out there and rocking them back to sleep.

But I haven’t quite given up on the idea of fairies either. It could be the big picture books I used to love before I could read or, more recently, a sago palm—seemingly static—that overnight sent up five smoke green plumes: its next set of fronds. It’s not magic, but what is it?

imageFlower Fairy

by Cicely Mary Barker

The Royal Horticultural Society’s gardens at Rosemoor recently opened an exhibition of illustrator Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairy illustrations. The North Devon Gazette calls the show “delightful,” which is somewhat like calling mayonnaise slippery. The article recounts that Barker’s books, “the first published in 1923, brought the author international acclaim as an artist and have become classics in children’s literature…. Barker used children she knew as models and matched their character to those she saw in individual flowers. She also made the costumes herself and each child would stand holding the appropriate flower as she painted.”

Here’s one of her fairy portraits. What do you think? Is it gooey-cute? Botanically wise? Darling? Dumb? Other?

As with fairies generally, I vote “other.” And it turns out, according to scholar Diane Perkiss, otherness is what fairies are all about. According to this review of her book Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories, Perkiss looks back many centuries, to times and cultures in which fairies embodied a whole range of possessive and not-so-flowery spirits: “The stillborn ghosts named Kubu, the childless Lamia that turns her loneliness to hunger, and the Nymph who would keep a boy ever young and in paradise if he were to stay with her forever, never living his own life.”

Perkiss writes that fairies come into view whenever people bump into something inexplicable or alien. “In the beginning they inhabited the darkness of death and all the unknown places. They are the dead, the rich as seen by the poor and servant as seen by the rich. They are Catholics to the Protestants and the indigenous peoples to the imperial rulers.”

For Barker, who as a sickly child was schooled at home by a governess, fairies were tiny companions, the unknown childhood friends of a girl living small, in a society of adults.


Frances Griffiths and fairies, 1916

(a doctored photograph that beguiled a nation)

Photo: The Cottingley Fairies

As cities sprawled and factories displaced farming in the 19th Century, fairies were the elusive and “endangered” progeny of once-domineering Nature, all that seemed lost. Max Weber, social theorist, wrote how modern rationality and scientific powers of manipulation would come at a high price: we would have to trade enchantment. After that bargain, we’d project our innocence and frailty onto others—“the folk” or the flower fairies.

Just a glance at fairy imagery proves Perkiss true. Here is otherness in all its familiar guises: the feminine, the old, the crippled. What I find perverse in our notion of fairies is that they are nearly always vulnerable, whether the New-Agey devas we must protect from garden pesticides or, more commonly, naked little girls. One popular illustrator likes depicting them as knocked out, splattered dragonflies. (My mother-in-law calls things like this “ewkie.”)

imageFlower fairy, by Cicely Mary Barker

For another, less demeaning orientation toward spirit as it binds the human and natural worlds, there’s a group called Nature in Legend and Story, NILAS, that’s been considering the subject through art and literature for more than ten years. Judith Handelsman’s Growing Myself, which I’ve just finished, also has many powerful and persuasive—and non-ewkie—things to say on this touchy subject. (More on this group and book in later posts.)

So what about fairies? Today, I can take “delight” in Barker’s drawings, but a small dose of delight suffices. The spirits and life-forces will not be denied. Looking at the sago palm fronds arching back in the Texas sun, delightful’s not the word. Seems to me, the fairies aren’t the vulnerable ones.

Posted by Julie on 07/03 at 02:33 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyEcologySecular CustomsPermalink

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Floral Tanks

Moscow’s Festival of Flowerbeds smacks of the old U.S.S.R.

imageSwath aesthetics

from Moscow’s

flowerbeds festival

Photo: Igor Tabakov

for Moscow Times

Just as you thought Russia would cast off the woolly bear suit and ascend onto the world’s pop culture stage, we have Moscow’s Festival of Flowerbeds. Granted, it’s not terribly fair to judge a public festival happening 8500 miles away, but we can’t help it after reading this account in the Moscow Times.

“This year’s festival, the first to have a theme, is dubbed the ‘Victory’ festival and honors the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II. Over 200 organizations from Moscow and 22 other ‘Hero Cities’ of the former Soviet Union, as well as nine other countries—including France, Germany and the United States—contributed some 166 floral arrangements that each pay tribute.”

That’s very dignified, and undoubtedly a healthy contrast to the U.S. Tournament of Roses parade with its six-figure floats devoted to “Yabba-Dabba-Do” and “Spiderman.”

But in Russian culture, expressions of dignity seem prone to a certain leadenness, to wit: “In some of the displays, flowers are strung together in the shape of tanks and airplanes. One arrangement, titled ‘Defense of Moscow,’ attempts to recreate the city’s war-torn battlefield look, punctuated with spiky tank traps.” Oh joy. This swath and barricade aesthetic does nothing for the cause of socialism. 

Perhaps superpowers, even recently notched-down ones, don’t possess the elan for such occasions as flower festivals in the same way that, say, France, Thailand, or New Zealand do. Maybe to express public joie de vivre and a collective sense of beauty, one has to have given up on ruling the world,  whether by artillery or comic books.


Posted by Julie on 07/02 at 02:40 PM
Culture & SocietySecular CustomsPermalink

Friday, July 01, 2005

Retreating to Minnesota

Here in Austin, Texas, it’s 97F and due to climb a few more degrees before the day’s out. Brugmansia looks wilted, lantana shriveling. How about some painted flowers from cool Minnesota? It’s 72 degrees this afternoon at Sebago Resort.


Mural, Sebago Resort, Minnesota, 2000

Photo: Richard MacDonald

Posted by Julie on 07/01 at 02:29 PM
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