I enjoyed my high school art classes well enough.
Then one day my teacher looked over my shoulder at the drawing I was creating and asked: “Cynthia, don’t you think you are a bit too old to be drawing stick figures?”
Everyone laughed. I was mortified.
I loved drawing stick figures, loved them so much that I got lost in the act of creating them. But the thing I loved had become the source of shame. Convinced that I was naturally bad at art, I never returned to that class, and no-one came looking for me.
If they had, they would have found me in the old library, used by no-one else, it seemed. In that small world of musty old books on tall wood shelves, I read books in Spanish, French and English then taught myself Latin just to read some more.
In that one school year, I convinced myself of two things: I was naturally terrible at some things but unusually bright at others. How else to explain my years-long but shameful efforts at art, alongside the fact that I could teach myself a foreign language—even a dead language that I would never speak to anyone else—in a remarkably short time?
The idea that one could become really good at a thing through mistakes, patience and practice didn’t sink in for years.
I became a writer and gardener not by raw talent but by decades of effort involving a never-ending stream of errors. Of seeing, rendering, trying and screwing up. Then patience. Patience galore.
Stranger still? My first efforts at both took place when I was a small child, pottering around in my mother’s garden, writing little stories in my diary.
No-one had told me I was bad at these things. Nor did I know these two activities—creative writing and gardening—were art. That I was painting pictures with words, creating a fantasy world with plants and colour.
As with writing, the art of gardening requires both large and small strokes, an eye for colour, a willingness to experiment and start over again.
You plant a flower/sentence over here, only to stop, squint at it, and realize it doesn’t work. You pull it up by its roots and plant it somewhere else.
Like book-writing, a gardener’s great work can take years before the picture in her mind fully takes shape. And when it finally does, the gardener-artist might stare at the palate of colours and shapes and wonder what on earth she was thinking. That patch of blue poppies is too far back in the border and damn that wretched squirrel who planted that orange lily right in the middle of the red bee balm flowers.
But gardening is a skill, you may say—not art.
Ah, but I would argue that it’s both those things, and a bit of magic too. And that last part may be where the greatest learning lies.
The gardener-artist must recognize that the act of creation is always shared. Bees and other insects pollinate our plants (sometimes creating a new plant colour); the wind and birds carry seeds from one place to another; the squirrel digs up a hyacinth bulb or lily tuber and buries it in an entirely different garden bed. And then there’s the mighty rain and sun and soil.
Nature’s invisible hand is at work, determining the outcome. We cannot claim sole authorship or copyright.
I still yearn to create some of the wildness found in nature. To try to partner with nature in an act of creation. It’s humbling, because nature has limited tolerance for artifice.
The garden painting changes shape and form and will even grow colours that I never planned. The forget-me-nots change from blue one year to white the next; the hollyhock blooms are pink for several summers then yellow and pink. There are scientific explanations, no doubt, for this mysterious alchemy.
Mind you, nature is not without order. You glimpse it when you happen upon a stream of golden flowers in a field and find yourself gasping in wonder at the mighty hand that threw the seeds of those millions of wildflowers… just so.
With the years has come a small piece of wisdom—that we may imitate nature, but we are never in control.
Luckily, we get the chance to try again and again, without having to submit our final work to a publisher, a jury or a gallery. In every gardening season, we can try to reinvent the same scene, or create an entirely new one, on the same canvas. We get the chance to think differently, see differently, to create again.
If my teacher were still alive, I would send him an email saying, “Sir, I am happy to inform you that I am still drawing stick figures. I also failed photography in journalism school—twice. But I’m an artist in the garden. And a good one too.”