My mother would lift me up to see Vilhelm Pederson’s illustration of Thumbelina next to the front door and tell me it was her on that Lilly pad, reaching for that butterfly, or that it was me and my brother in Monet’s Garden at Ventheuil. She hung that Monet piece at the end of the hallway, as if I could just keep going and step into it and become the yellow-haired girl on a path between towering sunflowers.
I moved into the painting and saw the hallway from the other end. I moved into the painting and stole the sunflowers there. I swear I can remember those petals on my shoulder. Velvet. Paint does not feel this way. Those sunflowers spoke in so many shades of yellow. I didn’t know if they did in real life or if Monet made them this fluent.
There are no sunflowers on the island where I grew up. The trees there speak the language of fire, of red. I would reach out and catch the petals falling. A tiny flame on the palm. A burning, I swear it. The trees there do not imitate what we think of the sun. They become it. They become it because some people make this happen.
Some researchers have found that people considered creative have little to no latent inhibition. That is, they simply and biologically cannot ignore unimportant stimuli. Whereas a person with high latent inhibition sees an object not important to them, such as a vase, they classify it and move on, the creative person cannot let go of the object in their mind.
For example, Monet had several paintings going at once in his small hotel room in Venice; the language of boar bristle brushes speaking to the light of day at every hour: would you yet leave me?
For example: those are not sheets drying in the evening. The sky is on fire there. The sheets lick the burnt edges of the clouds. The focal point becomes two bodies melting together, vermillion closing upon vermillion. This is the art of the mind.
My mother’s friend Maggie was an artist. I wanted to be an artist. I could not understand how people did not see the world as I did. So I showed them. Maggie gave me copies of her charcoal sketches of Bahamian clapboard houses. I knew her through her artwork. I imagined she lived in these houses, that the framed sinking boat at dock she blurred with watercolor was hers also. In the painting, I could never understand why the waves break in the distance rather than on shore. Later I found out about the coral reef just below sea level.
The world at times presents itself in a flurry of strokes in flame or submerged in water, depending on the light, or on the light of mind. When I think of home my memories come to me in neo-impressionist pieces, all bougainvillea, sailboats, and Junkanoo, framed.
My memory of the Poinciana comes half from my photographs of the flaming trees, half from Chan Pratt’s palette-knife description: umbrellas of crimson opening upon crimson. The trees cannot be captured but the fire remains year-round. It is always summer at home, inescapable.
My memory of Paris exists through Monet’s lilies: blues begin and begin and begin. Has any frame succeeded in containing them? There is my mother, sitting on the velvet bench in the middle of the room. Erase the other people. Erase the bench. Thumbelina born from a flower, her face close to the water: won’t you who have planted me claim me? Or are you not my mother?
The world in shades of blue: I fill with sand and I fall into the ocean I have created at my feet. The sunlight makes shifting nets of light over my green body. My eyelashes, too, become a net for tiny fish. From here, I watch the watery holes of stars beyond the veil, thread a rosary of conch pearls and cowry shells, wait until the memory of the landscape in my body can lay me out to dry.
People don’t understand. How could I have left paradise?
I had to exist somewhere with more than one season. I had to move away from the fire to crave it. I had to forget the image of these trees like explosions, erupting—summer days, over and over, after the long wet season—a fire never matched in my retinal memory.
I had to taste the salt mixed in a glass of water in the silence of winter, cold spoon against colder glass. How else could I know what is imitation—what is reality?
These researchers believe that because people considered creative have little to no latent inhibition, they often suffer from mental illness or distress due to constant stimulation. For example: Monet jumped into the Thames. For example: because his sunflowers were not enough, Van Gogh gave his ear. Not for example: the tumor that grew in Maggie’s brain.
My mother had a nervous breakdown in the kitchen. I pulled my brother into the sunflower painting. What my mother experienced was not an imitation of reality. Her friend was dying and she was old. I frame this in my mind. I hang it. I take it down.
The tumor destroyed the watercolor paintings, one by one. Maggie asked my mother, Did I paint that? She stirred a cup of water with a spoon, always. I’m trying to make it fit.
I imagine, over and over, her sinking boat painting. The coral that exists beneath the ocean does not have great regret for the ships it has ravaged. This is why we call it the Devil’s Backbone. This language is simply an imitation. This language is not real.
Researchers: explain how people can live with one breast, or one kidney, or one half of a brain forever. Explain what happens.
I understand the implications. The idea of vacancy. The need for filling. But I wonder how one talks to this emptiness, says: Explain blue. Explain why we haven’t figured out how to live with one half of a heart. Says: Why am I sad knowing that a shattered vase speaks to the absence of its solid form between two hands? Says, in the echoes of museum chatter mirroring murmurs of funerals: What are you doing? What are you leaving behind?
I have seen the original Garden at Ventheuil, the original Sunset in Venice. The worlds of these paintings exist. They exist because I have made them a part of myself to revisit in the dimmest moments of February, the dying light of winter: I am inescapable from all angles.
We all choose how to speak to emptiness, how to frame it in the mind. For example: the young girl unloved by her parents fits her life into a thumb-sized tale. For example: Monet’s cataracts affected his vision to the extent that he filled the world with reds. After his operation, Monet was able to see certain ultraviolet lengths of light not normally perceived by the lens. He repainted his lilies in new shades of blue. He removed the horizon between the light of the sky and the sea. And then the frame.
•••Sonia Farmer is the author of two limited edition chapbooks, What Becomes Us and Grow, and the proprietor of Poinciana Paper Press, a small hand press which specializes in chapbooks and small print runs for local Bahamian writers. Her work has appeared in Ubiquitous Literary and Art Magazine, Poui X, and tongues of the ocean. She is currently Prose Editor for tongues of the ocean.