Selected Botanical Photographs by Cynthia Dickinson When asked about my photography, I like to tell a story about a panel discussion I attended while in art school at the University of Minnesota. I was intrigued by the theme: “When is art spiritual?” The panel included a curator of Indigenous collections, a Public Art artist and a Chinese-American humanistic geographer.
The curator talked about contemporary Native artists and how most of their cultures had no word for art—yet everything in their lives, from beaded regalia to carved wooden spoons, was connected to beauty and the environment. The Public Art artist made the point that we are all citizens, first in our families, then on the block where we live, then the city, state, country, continent, world and universe. He said we are first citizens, then artists, and we best we do our artwork to contribute to our communities.
At this point, a man in the audience stood up and complained that no one had talked about when art is spiritual. A heated discussion followed, with others arguing that the panelists had addressed the theme—depending on who you were as an artist. The humanistic geographer then spoke up and told the man, “I have the answer for you.” He reached into his briefcase, pulled out an Iris Murdoch novel and read a small section about a very depressed woman who was out walking in London when she passed a gallery. Spotting two paintings on the back wall she wanted to see more clearly, she entered the gallery. There, the stood in front of these paintings, and after a few minutes fell to her knees and wept.
The panel audience and the man who started the argument fell silent. Finally, the geographer broke the silence, adding, “This is when art is spiritual. When it so moves you, you are drawn outside yourself and find yourself in it.”
I like to think my photographs could do this for someone, drawing them into a visual milieu in which history and memory play on a canvas of botanical imagery and rich color. In this age of Instagram, where 95 million photos are posted every single day, it’s easy to glide unmoved past images in a gallery and, in particular, to dismiss photographs. My artistic aim is to cut through the visual noise with imagery that connects on a spiritual level.
My first step in creating these images is to find flowers that evoke something of the human condition. It might be the tilt of the head of an iris that speaks of loneliness. It might be the interruption of floral decay, conjuring loss, death or separateness. Or the slant of leaves across a stem, calling to mind disconnected people on the street, so absorbed in their iPhones they don't notice the explosion of soft color and petals at the end of stem.
The finished product always involves beauty, but it’s frequently commingled with dissonant, even “ugly,” elements. Sometimes the viewer may see only pure, unmitigated beauty. Color. Line. Texture. Composition. More often, something beckons to a viewer who stops a moment to really see—an muddled, chaotic background, or a leaf intruding into the scene from outside the image. I leave these intrusive elements for the viewer to resolve in their own responses, much as memory and history so easily disrupt the “now” in our daily lives. (In a recent moment of joy, the recollection of a first love who died at the age of 26 wandered across my consciousness.)
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of receiving comments on my work from a well-known American photographer. He suggested I consider how the ancient practice of Memento Mori plays into my work and into photography in general. As he said, all photographs are capturing soon-dead moments in our lives, and we take them because somewhere in our minds we know this – we are here, then gone. I don’t know yet all the ways this realization will affect my future work, except that it will continue to be concerned with beauty, memory and history. And, always, I will be seeking out the spiritual in front of me.