Obey the Flower: Lessons Learned From Drawing a Rose
The power of beauty to move us to joy
Posted Jun 30, 2016
Obey the flower. I keep repeating the phrase under my breath, inside my head. I am not at all sure. It does not seem like I am making the right move. I look again at the small rose, then back at the large piece of paper looming in front of me – four by six feet of empty white space. How am I going to translate what it is about this rose that is so compelling for me – so beautiful – onto this flat piece of paper? Obey the flower.
I began drawing roses in January 2016. I had some dead, dry, decapitated roses in a bowl that had been given to my partner (when they were alive) at his December concert at Carnegie Hall. One shriveled bit caught my attention. It looked small, but it wasn’t. Not to me. The crinkling and crossing of petals took my breath away. So I took out my 8 by 11 inch sketch pad and decided to draw it big – as big as the page, as big as it seemed to me – in pencil. The next day, I sketched another. And a couple of days later, another, before it hit me: these drawings are too small. These roses are much, much bigger.
I borrowed some 18 by 24 inch drawing paper and charcoal sticks from my oldest son which were left over from his college course in Drawing 101. I began again. Each rose appeared to me as so compelling, so unique – a dazzling crystallization of arcs and trajectories and impulses to move circling round one another, layered on top of one another – opening just enough to reveal an endlessly receding enfolding. Each rose was expanding to infinity and retreating into invisibility – a sunburst, a mandala, a holy conduit. I decided to draw a series of six, with each rose, again, as big as the page.
Then my partner protested. Enough of the dead roses! Draw some live ones! Luckily, he brought some home. I began another series of six drawings. The live roses were indeed different – the petals were softer and rounded. The drawings wanted to be light, not dark. So I colored the backgrounds black. The roses gleamed, and wanted more.
My drawn roses were big, but not big enough. The more I drew, the bigger the actual roses seemed to me. How was I to reveal what I was seeing – Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum – a cause for awe and trepidation and delight that was, at the same time, so small and vulnerable it could sit in the palm of a hand and be crushed easily?
I bought a 4 foot wide role of paper, cut a 6 foot length, and taped it to the family room wall. I thought about Georgia O'Keefe. When you look at a flower, she said, it becomes the world. I understood.
Obey the flower. I look at the rose, at the paper, and back again. With the sweep of my arm, I follow the arc that I see with my eyes: a half an inch turns into a foot-long crescent. I curl my wrist at the center, whirling around the pivot point of attention. Each pass across the paper leaves velvety black traces that pop out when I stroke them again with my finger. I follow another arc with my eyes, with my arm, with my finger. I feel insanely happy.
This entire artistic endeavor caught me by surprise. I let it happen. And what I am learning from these flowers goes beyond the usual “smell the roses” or “every rose has its thorns.” Here are four things I am pondering.
1. Open a tiny passage to beauty and it will rush in.
It all began with a glance, a turn of the head, an involuntary spurt of admiration. This rose is so beautiful. I let myself feel the pull, be drawn by it. I was soon drawn in – drawing roses so large that I could be.
The beauty got me. It moved me to feel and think and act, and when I did, my senses recalibrated; my perception changed. I started paying attention to rose-like things – looking for more roses, live roses, multi colored roses, big, bigger and biggest roses – and feeling the joy of doing so.
So I am learning: If you let yourself be moved by what appears to you as beautiful, you give it permission to redirect the path of your attention. A little trickle of appreciation can plume into a transforming torrent. Beauty rushes in. And if you respond by moving towards, moving with, your vulnerability to beauty can guide you to unfold potentials for experience and expression that you have yet explore. Like drawing.
Of course, what is beauty to one may not be so to another for all kinds of social, cultural, and psychological reasons. Philosophers disagree about whether beauty lies in the subject or the object; whether it is a sensory or intellectual phenomenon; whether it ought inspire passion or disinterest. But in the case of my roses, their beauty acted on me, though my actions in relation to them, drawing me in and drawing me out along the path of bodily becoming.
2. Movement matters.
If I had only looked at the roses and not drawn them, I would not have learned to see them as I now do. I began with a visual experience. I ended with a visual image. Yet what happened in between was thoroughly kinetic. The more I moved in relation to what I saw, the more I saw. The more I saw, the more movement patterns I was able to make. Each rose demanded something new. Each grouping of roses asked for a new technique.
In letting my bodily self be moved by these roses, by making the bodily movements that drawing them required, I learned to perceive the dips and swells of a rose not just as shapes and colors, but as potential movement patterns – as a call to dance.
3. Beauty never dies.
Even when dead, a rose is powerful. It can still exude a beauty that redirects attention. The rose lives on in my recreation of it. It is not all dead. It lives on in the impulse to draw the picture that now fills my wall. It lives on in the actions that express the happiness I feel in drawing and being drawn out by it.
My drawing on the wall is not the rose. It does not represent the rose. It is not a substitute for the rose. It is a recreation of my relationship to the rose – a history of my movement with it and because of it.
The drawing reminds me: what is dead has agency. Through the movements a rose compels me to make, it works to bring into being a world where beauty serves as a sensory guide to what is good and just and true.
4. Whatever you open to see grows in you.
My roses are not just on the wall. Nor are they simply inscribed in me as traces of the movements I have made. The roses live in me, they grow in me, as joy – the joy of seeing and feeling; of moving and being moved; of drawing and being drawn into a world that is emerging, in the moment, on the page before me, brand new.
A rose forms on the page as it dies in the vase. It is resurrected in and through the movements I make in drawing it; even as these movements make me into someone who is willing and able to obey the flower.