Artists' Words: Barry Stone
“Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke.”
“It’s a good bitter smell.”
John Steinback, The Chrysanthemums, 1934
I commissioned a mum. Mums are short-hand for chrysanthemums. Known (in Europe) as the “flower of death,” chrysanthemums typically bloom in autumn, which corresponds (in The United States) with the ritual of homecoming football games, where the flowers play a vital role. In Texas, women, including the one I escorted on such an occasion during my high school years in Spring, wear large flower arrangements not unlike the prize ribbons awarded to show ponies. These trophies of affection feature a cluster of typically artificial chrysanthemums festooned with a myriad of ribbons, cowbells, noisemakers and stuffed animals. These arrangements make a hell of lot of noise clanking down the high school halls and sometimes are so large they require a harness to wear properly. This is a mum.
Stephanie Walker made the mum for me. I went to high school with Stephanie. She was a grade or two ahead of me and, at the time, seemed to be the queen of the alternative scene. She now lives near Dallas and is a mother of four. We are friends on Facebook, where I saw the pictures she posted of the mums she was making for her son’s date and their friends. I was always intrigued by the semiotics of flower arrangements, from FTD to the intense rigor of Ikebana. Hers were perfect. I thought I would ask Stephanie if she would make one for me, as she really understood the grammar of mums, and I thought she would come up with something I would never have dreamed of. She included a white rabbit foot, a mini black cow-bell and a disco-ball.
* * *
When does personal history collapse into navel gazing nostalgia? To what extent does one’s personal experience inform one’s work and at what point is it pointless anecdote? As a part of my research into this idea, I read Nabakov’s famous autobiography, Speak, Memory. This is a work that simultaneously functions as an idiosyncratic memoir and epic poem about Russian revolutionary history and lepidopterology. I came across this passage, in which he describes a kind of synesthesia he experienced between colors and letters of the alphabet:
“In the green group, there are alder-lead f, the unripe apple of p, and pistachio t. Dull green, combined somehow with violet, is the best I can do for w. The yellows comprise various e’s and i’s creamy d, bright-golden y and u, whose alphabetical value I can express only by “brassy with olive sheen.” In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h. Finally, among the reds, b has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, m is a fold of pink flannel, and today I have at least perfectly matched v with “Rose Quartz” in Maerz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color. The word for rainbow, a primary, but decidedly muddy, rainbow, is in my private language the hardly pronounceable: kzspygv.”1
“kzspygv,” became the text for my mum. The letters form a conceptual rainbow rendered only through memory and the translation of a personal language depicted in sharp contrast to the black flowers and monochromatic ribbons and effects. Traditionally, the ribbons of a mum consist of one’s school colors and the text usually spells out the word “homecoming” or immortalizes the couples’ names. Rather than using a vibrant color scheme reminiscent of typical high schools, I wanted this mum to be black and white. Devoid of hue, the object becomes more generic, but also takes on a more melancholy tone. When I show this piece, I am thinking of including the above quote as part of the materials list. That way Nabokov’s rainbow would be more accessible to viewers and less of a hipster’s sly riddle.
I am drawn to complex narratives and contradictory ideas read through divergent media, i.e photography, painting, collage and sculpture. This is how I fashion my own brand of synesthesia. As it is now, the mum is fodder for a photograph. Photographs are the perfect vehicles for distorted memories and fantasy. Coloring our remembrances, photographs inform the vision of our future. To me, the expression of a Nabokov’s rainbow through the mum is an ephemeral phantom, which functions as a cynic’s after-image of hope. Yet the mum also offers insight into how the perception of images and objects conspire with our memories to form evanescent possible histories. In so doing, the “rainbowed” mum acts like a hallucinogenic Proustian Madeline moving us simultaneously backwards and forwards in time and thus confirming Lewis Carroll’s Queen famous declaration, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”
Barry Stone is an artist and Assistant Professor in the School of Art and Design at Texas State University-San Marcos.
1. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, by Vladimir Nabokov, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1966, Revised Edition, p.35.