Symbolism is a peculiar game. You say or paint one thing, but you mean another, and the odd thing is that you really want people to figure what that other thing is all about and yet, you camouflage your meaning. It is rather like the silly game that is played by petty wives. When their husbands hurt their feelings or if their husbands forget birthdays or anniversaries, the wives sulk.
The husband asks, “What’s wrong?”
“But I know something is wrong.”
Even though the woman protests that something has upset her, she behaves as though something has, and she wants the husband to guess what that something is. It is as though the true test of love is clairvoyance. If another person can see deep into my soul, he wins.
When I was married, I wanted nothing more than for my husband to stop on his way home, even if it was on a deserted lot, and to pick me bunches of wildflowers or daisies or red clover or whatever else that he could find. But he never did. A smarter wife would have simply said, “I need flowers from you at least once per month.” But that would have ruined the whole thing for me. I needed for my ex-husband to intuitively know that I needed flowers–even free flowers–at least once per month. I seemed to believe that if another person could read my mind, and if he could decipher all of my wants and my needs, he would be my one, true love. No doubt, that is a reason that I am divorced.
But I play that same kind of game with my art. Allow me to illustrate my point:
Thanksgiving Across the Lake – Watercolor by Jacki Kellum
A couple of years ago, I was home alone for Thanksgiving, and I was remembering Thanksgivings of my past–a time when family, hearth, and home seemed to glow a great deal more than they do for me now. I was a little bit depressed, and I painted Thanksgiving Across the Lake. I could write the long version of this post, explaining in detail that the painting and its meaning grew AS I painted it; but I’ll summarize by assuring you that I did not realize exactly what I was painting nor why until I completed the work. By the end of the painting session [not before then], I knew how the final painting would look; I knew what the title would be; and I knew what the painting would mean. Notice that the “evergreen” trees are hardly green at all. They are dark and bluish. The Thanksgiving colors dance around my painting; but the most warmth–the greatest glow is not in the center of attention–not in the main grove of trees that are in the foreground. That was where I was standing in this piece, and that was a dark and foreboding place. The golden and glowing warmth of Thanksgiving was within sight but not where I was standing. It was across the lake, somewhere that I could not reach. In a symbolic way, my painting says that happiness and home were in a place that I could not trouch or access in any way.
December River – Watercolor Painted by Jacki Kellum
As I painted the creek or the river that is snaking its way across the snow in the above painting, I thought about Joni Mitchell’s song River. I consider Joni Mitchell to be the greatest poet of my generation; and every time that I hear her sing River, tears well in my eyes.
Not wanting to try to ride on Joni’s coat tail, I initially decided to just name my painting December 1, but in writing this post, I decided to be totally honest. My painting means more than December 1. I am not Kandinsky, and my paintings are more than mere numbers. My painting December River means that I, too, wish that I had a River I could skate away on……Thank you, Joni Mitchell. No one has said it better than you.
I do not want to be the prophet of doom; but both of the paintings that I have shared today have been a reaction to the holidays and to my own feelings of aloneness during this time. Yet, on a more positive level–on an art-as-therapy level–perhaps my art [both my visual art and my writing] are my River that I do skate away on. I do that through symbols.
I often write in symbols, too. At least 15 years ago, I wrote a group of short verses about flowers. My idea was to illustrate each flower and to publish the book of paintings and verses together, and I would call the volume Garden Songs. [Shhhh! I didn’t just tell you that. I still plan to do it. But like so many other things, I simply haven’t gotten it done yet].
Keep in mind that I want all of the poems to be very short so that they don’t detract from the paintings that will be the true focus of the page. Even though the verses are short, however, I want them to have greater meaning. I want the verses and the images to be symbols for greater truths. Here is the poem that I wrote about Snapdragons:
The Painted Parade
by Jacki Kellum
Watch the painted parade,
With bold and biting dragons,
Teasing all the toddlers—even me!
They’re really just pretending.
Everyday’s a New Year,
A fun and festive firework jamboree.
© Painted Parade Jacki Kellum October 19, 2015
My grandmother always had snapdragons in her garden, and I used to love to pinch the snapdragons and allow them to bite me or to at least close around the tip of my finger and nibble. When I heard the dragon part of the word “snapdragon,” I thought about the Dragon Dance in the Chinese New Year’s Parade, and that provided me a springboard into what would become part of my greater meaning.
Therefore, on one level, the poem is simply about a colorful bed of flowers that have the capacity to nibble at my fingertips–like a biting dragon. On another level, the parade is talking about the non-scary, scary dragon in a Chinese parade. But on the deepest level, my poem is about something entirely different.
When I said, “Watch the Painted Parade,” I was actually chastising all of the people around me that I thought were being pretentious, wearing masks, and playing games.
My simple, little ditty about Snapdragons was actually a symbol for the way that I felt deep within myself about people who are fake. I do this type of thing all of the time. In other words, what you think that you see in my art and in my writing, is not all that there actually is. My art and my writing are only the tips of an iceberg that lies deeply within me.
Now, here is the silly part: I actually want my viewer and my reader to know what I am thinking, but just like a silly wife, I want you to guess what that is. As I pointed out yesterday, in writing and painting in symbols and metaphors, I may be playing a bigger game than the people in the Painted Parade, but at least, I do dare to look inside myself.
Too many people are nothing more than the surfaces that they reflect to everyone around themselves. Although I am lacking in many ways, I know that I am much, much more than a shallow image, and my art and my writing are keys to some of the gems that I keep locked inside.
. You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul. – George Bernard Shaw
©Jacki Kellum September 10, 2017