Artistic, Botanical, and Social Diversity

In 1887, the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. hired an immigrant artist to be on its staff. Born in Germany, Wilhem Heinrich Prestele’s parents emigrated to the United States with their family in 1843 when Wilhelm was five years old. His father, Joseph Presetele, had been a head gardener for King Ludwig I of Bavaria and a painter of fruits and flowers.

In his mid-twenties, William Henry Prestele, as he was now called, was a struggling artist living on Ninth Avenue in New York City with a wife and three children to support. William had inherited his father’s abilities, and when the opportunity to make a series of nurseryman’s plates for a Bloomington, Indiana, nursery came up, he packed up his young family, moved from New York to Indiana, and started his career as a botanical illustrator. None of the plates from this time exist, but an 1869 edition of Gardener's Monthly wrote:

We have now before us a fruit piece...prepared by W. H. Prestele. We are in the habit of admiring European art in this line, and have often wished Americans could successfully compete with it. We now have it here. We never saw anything of the kind better executed from any part of the world. 

Prestele’s next position was in the USDA’s new pomological division. He painted watercolors for the National Agricultural Library’s collection, which grew to hold 7,584 watercolors of different varieties of fruits and nuts, including 3,802 paintings of apples. There were 21 artists who contributed to the collection, and nine of them were women.

Dolls Autumn Apple painted by William Henry Prestele, U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, Maryland

Dolls Autumn Apple painted by William Henry Prestele, U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, Maryland

The watercolors and drawings of fruit by these artists are among the most beautiful of early American art, no less amazing than the landscape paintings of the same era by the likes of Thomas Cole and his student Frederic Church. Though these artists had widely divergent subjects—towering mountains and flowing water on the one hand, versus seedpods, blossoms, and fruit on the other — they shared a desire for scientific accuracy and transcendent awe for their subjects. Americans’ appreciation for wilderness seemed to have paralleled their enjoyment of the apple.

The consumer knew that some apples were better for dessert, and some for pies, while others needed to be stored for several months to develop their flavors. The public appreciated the details of their differences — one licorice, another bitter, some with hints of orange, others lemony, nutty, or cinnamon-ny. The Nomenclature of the Apple by W. H. Ragan, printed in 1905, listed the unique apples offered by nursery catalogues from 1804 to 1904 — there were 6,654! The 19th century was a heyday for apples.

In the 1920s and 30s, with more people living in cities, the industrialization of food production advanced. Longer shelf life and ease of shipping became more important than taste. It was far easier to focus on a few varieties for mass production. It was all about commerce, all about looks; and the appreciation of the unique tastes of locally picked apples vanished. By the time my mother shopped for apples in Philadelphia in the 1950s and 60s, there were only a handful of apple varieties available in the supermarket. I remember liking the tart Winesap, while my brother preferred the sweeter Red Delicious.    

I love the fact that the USDA hired artists to create extravagantly detailed renderings of fruits and nuts. We have lost a quality that comes with hand-painting, handwriting, and drawing. Sharing is a button on Facebook, and a catalogue is a collection of photographs. But more importantly, as these few varieties were crossed and re-crossed, their good taste and their health diminished. Red Delicious stayed a lovely red on the outside, but inside became mealy and boring. Unlike in a diverse orchard, where one variety might suffer insect pressure, while other varieties are ignored by pests; the insects prepared thorough, full-on attacks and feasted in these monocultures. As a result, pesticide use greatly increased. As any biological grower knows, diversity is key for healthy agriculture.

Diversity is also key to responding to climate change. A Northern apple grower might soon need to plant some Southern apples that don't require as many chill hours. Apple trees start to grow only after they receive a certain number of chill hours followed by heat. Each variety has its own ‘chill’ requirement.  To read more about chill requirements for both apples and people read The New Year 2016 blog.

Diversity is key in every aspect our lives — the food we eat, the people we interact with, the news we read. We don’t always realize how we insulate ourselves and build walls around many aspects of our lives. We need healthy ecosystems just as much as we need healthy societal systems. And we need imagination! My friend, Vico Fabris, paints beautiful imaginary botanicals.

Azumacea, Vico Fabbris

Azumacea, Vico Fabbris

Written in Vico’s native Italian under this painting is local legend about the plant, its medicinal properties, fragrance, and source. Vico celebrates diversity in every one of his paintings. 

I doubt either of us could find support as artists in this United States government. When our President Elect asked Warhol to do a portrait of Trump Tower, Trump was “very upset that [the series] wasn’t color-coordinated,” and the deal fell through.  We’ll all just have to take down that wall brick by brick., and keep America as artistically, botanically, and socially diverse as possible.

Where is Eden?

“Way to the East, at the source of four rivers” it says in the Bible. But this description doesn’t really help. The Tigris and the Euphrates are two locator rivers for Eden, but they have different sources, and there is no confluence of four rivers nearby. Medieval cartographers placed Eden on the far edge of their maps, beyond Asia, as if in unexplored territory. They often drew a walled garden and a naked little man and woman to mark the location.

Beatus Map, locating Garden of Eden (1109)

Beatus Map, locating Garden of Eden (1109)

For centuries, Eden was considered a real place and it belonged on any map of the world, but no one quite knew exactly where to locate it. When coordinate mapping began in the 15th century, Eden was placed at 0 degrees latitude and 180 degrees longitude — until it became apparent that the coordinates pointed to an area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Today, we don’t try to put Eden on the map — but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to find it.

What is Eden, after all, but getting what we want, when we want it? That’s what the Buddha understood 2500 years and built the foundation of his teaching from his understanding that we all suffer because of our desires. When things go our way, we are happy, and when they don’t, we suffer. Eden is that lovely place where every desire is satisfied: the world is our oyster. The Buddha taught that the way out from this suffering was to understand that satisfying our cravings will never bring happiness, because all of life is impermanent. When we think we have it — whatever it is — something shifts — and once again we are looking for the next rosy apple.  

Eden and Paradise are often used synonymously. To the Persians, Paradise meant a walled garden, while to the Hebrews it was an orchard. Indeed, I would agree that an orchard is as close as it comes to Eden. Trees that grow and produce sweet fruit year after year are really quite miraculous. There is so much about fruit trees that is astonishing — even simple apple branches — those irregular shaped, pruned and grafted, sculpted limbs, bewitching with their freedom and artistry.

Thus we have the genesis of the exhibit, After Apple Pruning. Using apple branches pruned from dormant trees and a few grafted roots from young trees that died, and with the help of good friends, Lynn Horsky and Gabrielle White, and my daughter, Ariel Matisse, we have created an Eden of apple orchard related sculpture for The Gallery at Villageworks in Acton, Massachusetts. We populated many of the branches with bronze figures that I first sculpted in wax — Adam and Eve, serpents, people sitting, bending, kneeling, reading, mediating, resting, as well as hanging from trees, tempting a snake, or embracing.

A few days ago, in anticipation of the installation, I became almost hysterical with worry. Two large wall panels took most of one day to figure out how to hang, including three trips to the hardware store and two consultations with my neighbor, a retired engineer (No nails in the walls was a gallery restriction). I didn’t want to rent and drive a 15’ truck and the forecast was solid rain for installation day. Moving so many very delicate branches was frightening, because one never knows when reassembling a piece if it will come together the way it did before. I watched as my mind went into a tail spin. I was struggling outside the garden walls.

The installation was smoother than expected; though one small, but important branch broke and caused a small panic. Blase, my partner, helped enormously. Clearly my prior distress was for naught. Today, we no longer look for Eden on a map, but I would place it for the next three months, a little to the east, in Acton. I simply love to be in the gallery space among all of the art. My Eden has been the pleasure of working with Lynn and Gabi, and seeing my daughter fully engage a challenging project.  Eden is inside the mind, always nearby, no farther than our next thought. 

From One Seed, Linda Hoffman & Gabrielle White

From One Seed, Linda Hoffman & Gabrielle White

Please join us!
Opening Reception for the Artists
Sunday, January 15 from 3-5 pm at 525 Massachusetts Ave, Acton, MA.

Exhibition dates: January 6 – March 30, 2017
Gallery hours: M-F 9-5.

Artist Hours in the Gallery
Fridays, Feb 3, 10, 24; March 10, 24; noon to 2pm

Poetry Reading in the Gallery
Celebrating the publication of "Before We Were Birds"
By Susan Edwards Richmond
Sunday, March 12 at 3pm

Grafting a Life (Left Wall) Linda Hoffman & Ariel Matisse

Grafting a Life (Left Wall) Linda Hoffman & Ariel Matisse


The Creative Heart

I watched as my son, Alex, carefully undid the wrapping, opened the wooden box, and lifted a corner of the quilted cloth. On his face, I saw a strange look of disbelief. “It’s broken,” he said. Now it was my turn to be stunned. The beautiful ceramic bowl sat in broken shards on its rose-colored cloth. I was crushed and horrified. It felt like a betrayal.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog about Kintsugi — the Japanese art of repairing a broken bowl with gold. For Christmas, I offered a Japanese tea bowl that had been repaired using this method, to Alex and my daughter-in-law, Connie. I felt it would be a meaningful gift as they embarked on married life together. With baby Vita now a hear and half, a new baby on the way, and the opening of a store in Asheville, North Carolina, East Fork Pottery, their life is full. I thought of the Kintsugi bowl with its veins of gold as a symbol of creatively and beautifully overcoming challenges.

A week later, I was still feeling badly about how my gift turned out. I thought to myself, I should make something with these shards — a sculpture — and give it to them. I mentioned my idea to Alex and he seemed a little put off — then he said, “Yes, um, we should do a repair.” And I understood that he wanted to repair the bowl himself. I had kept it anticipating that I would return the broken shards to the gallery, but they graciously refunded the price I had paid. We decided to talk about it in early January when we will next be together.

Everything in our world is impermanent. Wood turns to ash and fallen leaves to compost. The broken pot shards can become something else. Accepting change is about no longer being stuck in what was, but moving on. This moving on is the awakening of our creative heart.

I know that my well-being depends on feeling that I have connected to that place of creativity inside my heart. With days of less meaningful doing, I begin to fall into this dark abyss of my own mind. I become disjointed, my body altogether not my body, my limbs connected like a puppet. I don’t act with spontaneity and wholeness. I can be in the most beautiful place and if I don’t feel connected to it, I can’t appreciate it because I block the beauty from entering my bones. I can be in the most loving relationship and not allow this love to enter.

Each creative act makes use of something that is unresolved in our hearts. Each creative act makes the world whole. In this new year, let’s make whatever is broken whole again. We don’t, in fact, can’t know what it will look like. Who would ever imagine that a river carved a canyon that enthralls millions of people thousands of years later. I can’t imagine what will possibly come out of this box of pot shards, but this is precisely the process that heals broken places and turns them into art. 

In this new year, I’d like to remember that broken bowl when I find myself slipping away from my creative heart, when I feel alone and cut off.  For I know that in doing the work I will find my way back. We all share this longing that is deeply human, that beseeches us to be fully our own life, to belong completely to the entirety. Our longing is the gift we can offer.

When I started this weekly blog, Apples, Art, and Spirit, one year ago, I thought it would be a one-year project and I would be using the orchard as a springboard to write. With 2016 being a year of no apples, they have been a very silent partner. I’ve decided to commit to another year, and hopefully with some good winter chill, we will have an apple crop and there will be more apple-inspired writing. Please join me, share the blog with your friends, and together let’s lift the corner of the new year, white, and pure, and unknown. It’s ours to create for the very first time.

A Christmas Tale

Babushka is a fairytale set in Russia about a little, old woman. It begins on a snowy and cold night inside a little hut with a warm fire and a rocking chair, and Babushka sitting and rocking quietly when she hears a knocking on her door. In Russia, on a cold winter night, Babushka knows it would be rude not to open the door. She rises from her chair, shuffles over, and opens it. Three colorfully dressed men are cold and wet and hungry and she invites them in. They stomp in with snow and mud and muck on their boots. She feeds them and lets them warm themselves by the fire. Then they tell Babushka why they have come.

          “We have come here to ask you to join us. We are wise men and we have studied the stars. We know that a baby will be born tonight in Bethlehem — the Prince of Peace. We were told to stop here and bring you with us.

          “What do you have in those wrapped boxes?” she asked.

          “We are bringing gifts of frankincense, myrrh and gold, to the newborn child.” 

          “Oh, I am an old, old lady and my blood is thin and it is cold. I can’t go cavorting out in this weather.”

 Annoyed by the intrusion of the three wise men into her peaceful evening, and ashamed because she had no gift for this Prince of Peace, Babushka showed the men to the door and sat back down on her rocker.

She rocked and she rocked, but she was agitated. Why would I want to see this Prince of Peace, she asked herself? Then she imagined this wee baby and her heart opened.

Nursing TIme, Bronze figure and rusty alarm clock, LH

Nursing TIme, Bronze figure and rusty alarm clock, LH

She did have something for the newborn child. No spices and jewels, but, in her closet she had baby clothes, baby blankets, toys, and trinkets — all kinds of things she had saved after her own child had died.

         “I will go with them,” she decided. “I will leave in the morning and find these three wise men.”

Babushka set out at sunup wearing all she could fit on her body. Three pairs of socks, three vests, three coats, and a big red shawl over her head and tied around her neck. In a big basket she carried toys and trinkets, blankets and sheets for the baby. She asked everywhere she went if anyone had seen the three wise men, but no one had. Babushka stopped along her way, offering a gift to every household with child.

Woman Walking, Bronze Figure, LH

Woman Walking, Bronze Figure, LH

Babushka never caught up with the three wise men, and she never made it to Bethlehem that Christmas morning. But she continued on, walking always to the next house, always farther, trudging onward. Babushka continues to this very day. Every Christmas morning she brings toys and gifts to families with children.

The odd history of this story is that it is not commonly known in Russia, and seems to have been created by the American poet, Edith Matilda Thomson. Apparently Thomson’s poem was so popular it was retold and retold, until the origin of the tale was lost. Which brings me to wonder about our own Santa Claus.  

When I looked up the origin, I came upon the book, Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years, by Phyllis Siefker. The author makes a case that Santa Claus is not related to jolly old Saint Nicholas, originally from Turkey, but belongs to a lineage of ‘Wild Men’ who were worshiped in fertility rites and came to America with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania. Siefker’s Santa Claus belongs to the line of pagan heroes like Robin Hood and Puck, and to harlequins and jesters and those wild men wearing goat skins and bear fur. Perhaps even our own Johnny Appleseed with his horny feet and tin hat shares these same ancestors.

We remember these ‘wild men’ most of all for their generous spirit — food for the poor, trees for the settlers. And we remember Babushka because she transformed her personal loss and loneliness into an offering of love. Babushka has never stopped giving. This is the real message of the Prince of Peace.

Merry Christmas!