Aug. 29, 2023
Summer is a period of vitality but we can harness that energy for other seasons.
It seems like just yesterday I was writing about the beginning of summer and here we are getting ready to end vacations, some of us already putting kids back to school, and starting to shift our mindsets to fall calendars. I spent most of my summer away from New York, at times caught between the blistering heat of Rome and the unpredictable damp chill of Berlin. But sun or rain, the season has still been verdant, teeming with life.
I think summer is wont to be that way regardless of the day-to-day weather. Somehow our minds more readily switch to flourishing mode, seemingly more expectant of our ability to embrace and be embraced by our lives. We may be more prone to being social. We may allow ourselves more heedless hours of pleasure. Maybe we’re more open to trying new activities or experiences. Our summering world emits an energy of lush days spilling into one another and we’re stretched to entwine ourselves around summer’s mood like rapidly climbing ivy.
But what happens to that energy when summer ends? Still caught in the luxuriousness of summer, I’ve found myself thinking about the idea of flourishing, wondering what it could mean to flourish in our lives, to grow vigorously beyond the seasons that seem to readily invite it.
I discovered the piece “Viriditas IV” by the contemporary American artist Elizabeth Hall while I was researching the 12th-century German Benedictine abbess, mystic and polymath Saint Hildegard of Bingen. Hall’s mixed-media work on paper is part of a series exploring the healing properties of plants and the energy that sustains life forms. It is a vibrant drawing of herbs and neurons depicted within and surrounding a bell-shaped dome infused with green radiant light. The top of the dome is a brain with a spinal cord descending, nerves and neurons branching out as if from a tree. A variety of healing herbs — ginkgo, motherwort, passionflower — float throughout the work. The image looks like a creative blending of human and plant organ systems illuminated by a source of life-giving light.
In this work Hall was inspired by the theology and philosophy of Hildegard, who in her research and interest in the connection between the body, health, ecology and spirituality used the Latin term viriditas as an eco-theological idea of human flourishing. It depended on connecting with the greening power of the divine, a creative life force evident to Hildegard in the greening and flourishing of nature and flowing through all of creation, animals and humans included.
Whether understood literally or metaphorically (opinions differ on how to interpret Hildegard), at the heart of the idea is that a key to our vitality and human flourishing can be found in recognising that even our physical health is related to and affected by the ways we attend to our interior and spiritual lives. Hall’s intricate visual interpretation of the concept connects the idea of viriditas tangibly to something we can all relate to, whatever our ideas of spirituality.
The art beautifully hints at how the functioning of our physical bodies, and what happens on our insides, is also connected to life happening in our exterior environment and how the two overlap. To consider our flourishing in this way might be an invitation to pay more attention to how the spaces and places we inhabit regularly affect our sense of physical and emotional wellbeing. It is also an invitation to listen to what’s happening in our interior selves, perhaps simply beginning with noting what we find ourselves pulled towards or resisting.
The most recognisable of American artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s works are her erotic flowers and animal horn paintings. But a few weekends ago I caught the recent exhibition To See Takes Time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a show predominantly focused on O’Keeffe’s early works on paper using primarily charcoal, pastels and watercolour. I was struck by the 1915 charcoal work, “Special No 9”, her “drawing of a headache”. Sets of black squiggly lines run diagonally along the bottom half of the image, interspersed with a row of short dark rectangles standing upright. On the upper row of squiggles a line of round shapes begins, then blurs into half-formed circles. These different forms and shapes seem to give rise to a billowy white and grey mass on the top half of the image that looks like a cloud of smoke from an old steam locomotive.
The caption revealed that O’Keeffe, committed to the process of her work, and drawing nightly, experienced a powerful headache as a result, which she then used as inspiration for this charcoal image. Her creative and imaginative life was as much a life of the body as it was of the mind. “Special No 9” may seem an odd selection for a piece on flourishing but, understood within the larger context of O’Keeffe’s life and work, it felt like a poignant reminder and witness-bearer to the idea that to flourish in our lives will most likely at some point require discomfort, challenge and perhaps even sacrifice. Reading more of the accompanying captions to the works on display, I was moved by O’Keeffe’s mindset, conveying not just a willingness but a desire to work doggedly at her craft, even reworking forms repeatedly until she figured out what she was trying to say or do.
Another caption on the walls shared O’Keeffe’s words from a letter to her art supporter, and eventual husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. While in a season of creating consistent watercolour works in 1916, she wrote: “When I crawled out of my shell here and took the first step towards doing things — they kept coming and I kept doing them so that I have hardly had time to think.”
At times she seemed to recognise that a fecundity of imagination was also dependent on some measure of vulnerability. There is personal commitment required in order to flourish in one’s life, an openness to being courageous about the periodic motions and movements — physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual — that flourishing might require of us. The “drawing of a headache” image is a creative recognition of how even the challenges that come alongside our flourishing can be strange blessings in and of themselves, necessary vehicles carrying us to the next level of our lives.
I have always loved Henri Matisse’s 1909 “La Danse (I)” more than the final 1910 version. In its cooler, softer colour palette of peach, blue and green, five nude dancers move in a circle. Their undefined bodies seem free and fluid enough to morph easily as they move, maybe even to blend and bend into the environment or into one another. I am engaged with the idea that flourishing in life necessitates occasional unrestrained movement, where we open ourselves to the possibilities of just going with the more loosely defined flow of our lives, against rigid planning or cemented expectations. This fluid flexibility and openness often leads to connections and experiences that couldn’t have happened if we’d planned it.
I also like this version because it was Matisse’s preliminary version and I think for any act of flourishing there needs to be an initial attempt, a willingness to move from or expand out of a familiar place or to reinvent some aspect of one’s life or work. In creating “La Danse (I)” Matisse is said to have considered the new influence of photography as an invitation for artists to focus less on details and to begin to create images with more expressive emotion. It was not only a practice sketch in which Matisse experimented with form and line and colour. It was also a sort of reinvention and reconfiguration of his 1905-06 work “Le Bonheur de Vivre”, in which a circle of dancers is painted in the background.
The idea of flourishing seems more about carrying a particular kind of energy within us into the varied circumstances and environments in which we find ourselves. Rather than thinking about the vitality of summer coming to an end, we should ponder what it would look like to try and shift that vitality into new seasons of our lives.
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