Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Slow Down for Quince

Two fruity and flowery shrubs (at least) go by this name, both of them fine enough to give anybody pause.


Flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa), thriving in Berkeley, California

Photo (detail): Georgia Silvera Seamans

Screech! Blossoms of flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) will detain any errand. Blooming early, usually on shiny black twigs, they are defiant.

Especially so in the city, where deflecting human fixation is more challenging. Everybody’s so busy, dead-set to get where they’re going. Georgia Silvera Seamans of Local Ecology sent us pictures of her neighborhood quinces in Berkeley, California, and writes about their impact in her intensely focussed city. She also reflects on a recent visit to Spain: “In Madrid we ate quince jelly (dulce de membrillo) with cheese (queso) at tapas bars.” Just that thought is pause-worthy.

The classic detainer of the Mediterranean region is not Chaenomeles (native to China), though, but Cydonia oblonga. Its “fuzzy, yellow, apple-sized, somewhat edible fruits” were most likely the ingredient in Georgia’s Spanish maremelade. The blooms look more like apple flowers, too, not so colorful as “flowering quince” but very, very lovely.

imageEve, by Lucas Cranach

Image: Galleria Uffizi

Did you catch that “somewhat’ edible? Cyndonia oblonga (quince) may look like a pear, but it’s sour enough to make you cringe. Only a lot of sugar and cooking can make it really palatable. See how Andrea at Heavy Petal  has been doing just that. (By the way, Chaenomeles also has sour fruit, and can be made palatable; Georgia says so!). But humans do not live by marmelade alone. The plump golden green of Cyndonia oblonga is decidedly alluring.

We remembered The Owl and the Pussycat:

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

  Which they ate with a runcible spoon…

Runcible spoon or chop sticks, quince seems to be if not an outright aphrodisiac then romance food. The fruit was an attribute of Aphrodite, whose demands have a way of bringing all business to a halt. Ancient newlyweds were said to nibble on quinces before entering their bridal chambers. So, perhaps, did Eve. Painter Lucas Cranach and others allege that the original sin was eating not an apple, but a quince. Eve may have been fallen, but her breath was delightful!

Mythology’s most legendary Cydonia oblonga, however, belonged to Atalanta, the dashing beauty who outran all of her admirers. After their defeat, her suitors would be put to death right there at trackside. Hippomenes had the foresight to slow his sweetheart down. He prayed to Aphrodite for help, and she gave him three quinces to bowl across Atalanta’s path during the deciding race. Who could resist them? The undefeated sprinter reached down to gather each fruit, and in doing so gave Hippomenes time to catch up, then to win.


The Race for Atalanta, by David Spear

Has anyone on Barack Obama’s staff considered quinces?

Posted by Julie on 01/31 at 03:34 PM
Art & MediaCookingGardening & LandscapeSecular CustomsPermalink

Monday, January 28, 2008

Enrique Grau: Flower Magician of Cartagena

A Colombian artist bequeathed over a thousand works to his cherished seaside city, and gave its performers a perpetual bouquet.


Las Toreras (1981)

by Enrique Grau

Image: Galeria el Museo

In the era before MFA programs, painting was not so much a career path as a craft and a social adventure. Take Enrique Grau. He was born in 1920 into a rich family of Cartagena, Colombia. At age 20 he won a prize in Bogota for his rendering of a sexy “mulatta” sitting in a clingy dress amid cannas and watermelons. The Colombian government paid his way to the Art Students League in New York in the early ‘40s, and in the ‘50s Grau crossed the Atlantic, studying fresco painting in Florence, Italy.

imageViva Tulipán Primera (1990)

from Triptico de Cartagena de Indias

by Enrique Grau

Image: Villegas Editores

He returned to Colombia, paintbox (and heart) bursting with delicious contrarieties—European and American Modernism, Renaissance figurative painting, an aristocratic heritage, a scrappy bunch of artist chums, worldliness, devotion to indigenous culture. Oh yes, and the floral legacy of Colombia, one of the great flower-producing regions on the globe.

In Grau‘s work there are flowers everywhere. Behind a bullfighter’s ear, between the feet of a corpse, heaped in a basket between a sullen couple. One of his last great works, Triptico de Cartagena de Indias, painted in homage to his hometown, shows red roses scattered in the sky, trailing from a biplane. Critic Hank Burchard writes that this image memorialized the first plane flight over Cartagena. “Grau’s aunt, known as Tulipan, who was Colombia’s first national beauty queen, ...was aboard the first airplane to fly over Cartagena, and took with her baskets of the cut flowers for which Colombia is famous to scatter over the city.”

Our favorite of Grau’s flower paintings—enough to inspire anybody’s flight to Cartagena—is the gorgeous backdrop he made for the city’s Teatro Heredia.


at the Teatro Heredia

Cartagena, Colombia

by Enrique Grau

Photo: Stefan Ruiz, for the New York Times

It shows a huge bouquet extended over the city and the sea. Cartagenan monuments drop through the air (thank you, Rene Margritte), and a satin ribbon flutters toward the theatre’s wings. (So much for canned laughter or electric “APPLAUSE” signs!)

Before his death in 2004, Grau donated “1,300 works of art, including some by other artists, to the city of Cartagena to set up a museum.” The Triptico de Cartagena de Indias was first exhibited at the Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center; we’re still searching to discover its permanent home, and then get there to see it ourselves.

We understand that Cartagena has caught on, again, with the snazzy young travel set. One 20-something described the city to the New York Times as “Civilized but wild.” Okay. Or how about classic and surreal, celestial and earthy, plain and florid? In a word: Vamanos.


Posted by Julie on 01/28 at 11:51 AM
Art & MediaTravelPermalink

Friday, January 25, 2008

Lewis Carroll’s Cranky Flowers

Do you consider flowers silent and demure? Go ask Alice.

imageCharles Dodgson

Photo: Musical Compositions

Lewis Carroll (nom de plume of mathematician and author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was born January 27, 1832, the oldest child of an English parson.  Was he a giant of children’s literature or a troll of proto-surrealism? You make the call, but only after revisiting his writings.

The most conversational of his human flower projects is Chapter Two of Through the Looking Glass: Alice, recently of Wonderland, finds her way along a path with many switchbacks to a garden of chattering flowers. Why had no bloom ever spoken to her before?

“It isn’t manners for us to begin, you know,” said the Rose, “and I really was wondering when you’d speak! Said I to myself, ’ Her face has got some sense in it, though it’s not a clever one!’”

Our looking-glass voyager soon finds herself in floral crossfire vitriolic enough for FOX television.

imageThrough the Looking Glass

Illustration: John Tenniel

“Aren’t you sometimes frightened at being planted out here, with nobody to take care of you?” Alice asks….

“There’s the tree in the middle,” said the Rose: “what else is it good for?”

“But what could it do, if any danger came?” Alice asked.

“It could bark,” said the Rose.

“It says ‘Bough-wough!’” cried a Daisy, “that’s why its branches are called boughs!”

“Didn’t you know that?” cried another Daisy, and here they all began shouting together, till the air seemed quite full of little shrill voices. “Silence, every one of you!” cried the Tiger-lily, waving itself passionately from side to side, and trembling with excitement. “They know I can’t get at them!” it panted, bending its quivering head toward Alice, “or they wouldn’t dare to do it!”

“Never mind!” Alice said in a soothing tone, and stooping down to the daisies, who were just beginning again, she whispered, “If you don’t hold your tongues, I’ll pick you!” There was silence in a moment, and several of the pink daisies turned white.

“That’s right!” said the Tiger-lily. “The daisies are worst of all. When one speaks, they all begin together, and it’s enough to make one wither to hear the way they go on!”

Ah yes, the tranquility of the garden…and the peculiar sensibility of Lewis Carroll. He understood that children for the most part find blithe and moral stories just plain dull. Let’s have nonsense and very bad puns. Let’s have flowers that bitch!

“I never thought of that before!” says Alice, being told that too-soft beds put flowers to sleep.

“It’s my opinion that you never think at all,” the Rose said in a rather severe tone.

“I never saw anybody that looked stupider,” a Violet said, so suddenly, that Alice quite jumped; for it hadn’t spoken before.

“Hold your tongue!” cried the Tiger-lily. “As if you ever saw anybody! You keep your head under the leaves, and snore away there, till you know no more what’s going on in the world, than if you were a bud!”

Robert Novak must have this book on the bedside table.


The Garden of Live Flowers: Madi Ferguson (Tiger Lily), Sally Stevens (Violet),

Caroline Jansen, Charlotte Duggan , and Karli Cole (Daisies), Lauren Rover

(Rose) and Hanna Noel as Alice.

Photo: Mt. Airy (Maryland) Players

Do you enjoy Carroll’s garden spats and irritable flowers? Then make sure also to read the Gardener’s Song from his story Sylvie and Bruno. It begins:

He thought he saw an Elephant

That practiced on a fife:

He looked again, and found it was

A letter from his wife.

“At length I realize,” he said,

The bitterness of life!”

One biographer notes that Carroll first made the cranky flower-ringmaster of Through the Looking Glass a passionflower, but learning of that plant’s religious associations changed the character to the Tiger Lily. (Wouldn’t want to make Daddy angry!)

For the whole argument among them—Tiger Lily, Rose, Violet, Larkspur—and the Red Queen’s entrance too, here’s the full chapter. We find it all about as much fun as digging a nice long trench.



Posted by Julie on 01/25 at 02:49 PM
Art & MediaGardening & LandscapePermalink

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Extraordinary Fashion Pipal

A young designer, a craftsman of New Market, and an ancient holy leaf: Sandy Ao skips along with Kolkata’s latest foot fashion.


Dried leaves of pipal (Ficus religiosa)

100 sell for 25 Rupees at New Market in Kolkata

Photo: Sandy Ao

Last night in the classroom of a Catholic church here in Austin, TX, we spotted an interesting calendar. It was round, and divided the year into liturgical slices: the sacred seasons—like Lent, Easter, and Advent—and big chunks of “Ordinary Time.” Western culture seems especially prone to demarcations like this. We apply the psychic Marks-A-Lot—a lot! Let’s draw a thick line between what’s sacred and what’s profane, between the “work week” devoted to money-grubbing and the “Sabbath” for piety and giving back.

Perhaps the same thing goes on in India. We’re quite ignorant about Indian culture, have never even had the pleasure of visiting. But from what we’re learning thanks to our friend Sandy Ao in Kolkata, India seems to reach for the Marks-A-Lot a whole lot less. Instead, the primary cultural tool there seems to be the spoon. Sacred and secular, ancient and modern, commercial and religious get stirred together. There’s less of a gap between holy festivals, next to no “ordinary time.”

imageAnupam Chatterjee of Kolkata,

a young Indian designer

using an ancient plant

Photo: Sandy Ao

Sandy Ao set us off on this train of thought with some pictures she took recently at Kolkata’s huge New Market, formally known as the Hogg Bazaar. The shopping area was built in the mid-19th century so that English colonials wouldn’t have to rub shoulders with Kolkata natives. (Talk about Marks-a-Lot!) Today, though, and for many decades, the New Market has been everybody’s favorite place to shop. “In recent years we have many malls in Kolkata,” Sandy writes, “but New Market is still everyone’s choice.” Not only are prices better, she says, “It’s a paradise for the shoppers! You can get everything under the sky” 

Even a pair of winged sandals. Sandy found ethereal footwear in the making during a recent visit to New Market. “It’s the idea of this young fashion designer from Kolkata. He is hardly 23 years old. His name is Anupam Chatterjee, a young man full of imagination and working hard towards his dream career - fashion designing.”

Anupam told Sandy he uses fresh flowers often, and even made a gown “fully covered with fresh jasmine.” For the sandals he chose pipal leaf, which dried looks like a swatch of white tulle. Years ago, Sandy tried her hand at creating this beautiful filigree. “When we were young in the school we used to pick up those fallen pipal leaves and would soak them in the water, excitedly changing the water daily and waiting for the green pigments of the leaves to fall off till the leaves turned to this beautiful fibre structure. Most of the time we would end seeing our pipal leaves letting us down.” The dried pipal leaves at New Market are processed locally, she says.  “For 100 perfect pieces of these leaves they charge Rs. 25/- only!!!  It’s like my dream come true.”


Imtiaz deftly folds pipal leaves into ‘flowers’

Photo: Sandy Ao

Anupam Chatterjee has been collaborating for two years with a New Market craftsman named Imtiaz. Buying pipal right there at the market, Imtiaz has learned how to fold the leaves into airy flowers by watching others in the stalls close by. He earns Rs. 100 apiece for each pair of fancy slippers, spooning the pipal flowers together, Sandy explains, with “duck feather, dried arecanut fibres and flowers made of reeds.” We’re not sure how Anupam prices the finished footwear, but he’s already received enthusiastic response. Liking the look of pipal leaf, Chatterjee used it in a recent fashion show. “And the show was a great success,” Sandy writes. “Who knows? He may be another Sabyasachi Mukherjee in the making!”

imagePipal Tree, terracotta tile

Mohenjodaro,  2500 B.C.

in current day Pakistan

Photo: Iowa State Univ.

We don’t ordinarily mention shoe fashion and religion in the same breath, but, pipal (Ficus religiosa) is not ordinary. “The peepal is the first-known depicted tree in India: a seal discovered at Mohenjodaro, one of the cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation (c. 3000 BC - 1700 BC), shows the peepal being worshipped.” In the Vedic period, people used this wood as a firestarter, with the old rubbing method.

It is a deeply sacred plant for both Hindus and Buddhists.  According to legend, the Buddha received Enlightenment under the Bo (or pipal) tree. And here are several Hindu spoonfuls: Vishnu was believed to have been born under the pipal tree and Krishna to have died beneath it. “Some believe that the tree houses the Trimurti, the roots being Brahma, the trunk Vishnu and the leaves Shiva. The gods are said to hold their councils under this tree and so it is associated with spiritual understanding.”

How about a few dollops of science and manufacturing, too?: Ayurvedic medicine uses all parts of Ficus religiosa, and tannin from the bark works its way into Indian leather. Sandy relates also that in Bodh Gaya, folk artists paint on that region’s tougher pipal leaves: landscapes, portraits, and images of the Buddha.


Sandals with sacred pipal leaf and duck feathers

in Kolkata’s New Market

Photo: Sandy Ao

We asked Sandy if anyone would take offense at artists, designers and producers tinkering so freely with a plant holy as pipal.

“We are a country that loves arts and crafts, and always have an open mindedness for any creative work with a good sense,” she replied. “I am sure there will never be any objection coming from any side about this young designer using dry pipal leaf for his sandals. After all, these leaves do look like wings on feet, so unreal and so out of this world.”

Ordinary? What’s that?

Posted by Julie on 01/23 at 02:03 PM
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