Life imitates art

Making sense of the sublime

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The expression “life imitates art” has been rambling around my subconscious for the past few years. It floats in my peripheral vision when I walk home from class at night, with the Campanile rising into the dark sky and glowing orbs of light guiding me home. I’m reminded of it when I’m riding in the back of my friend’s beat-up Volkswagen and my mouth hurts from smiling and the air is full of laughter, Lizzo and salt from the sea. I think of it, sporadically but perpetually, and I wonder if it’s true. 

Sitting on the floor of my greenhouse, with the heat building around me and bees buzzing amid bite-sized, orange sweetness, I mixed the perfect seafoam blue for my canvas. I’d been working on this piece for the past few weeks, moving through free-flowing charcoal sketches and watercolor meditations until I solidified my vision. I called it “Psychedelic Lover,” as it symbolizes every good feeling I have felt while in love. 

This may be sounding like quite an extreme challenge — trust me, I never imagined I would paint such a sublime phenomenon as love. I mean, painting life itself is hard enough, as my subconscious ruminates on it incessantly. 

I’ve written about love in years worth of poetry, but I never considered painting it. I painted flowers, faces and still lifes because that is what Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and the Romantics taught me to see and express. They taught me how to wonder at the juice that would drip down my wrists when I picked blackberries, fresh from the vine in my backyard, and how to stand on a mountain in the countryside, look off at the rolling hills and revel in the beauty of their simplicity. 

Music taught me to hear love, to express it through language and sound, but language is objectively more tangible than aesthetics. If an album is named Lover, as Taylor Swift’s latest was — well, it probably has something to say about love. But painting is different: Color, perspective, brush strokes and bold inconsistencies all work together to saturate an onlooker in vigorous sensation. For too long I’ve struggled to grasp the full possibilities of love on canvas. 

Artists teach us how to see beauty and express that beauty, and therefore when art presents people with an unknown perspective, it confuses them. Critics from the 19th century didn’t laugh at Vincent van Gogh’s art because it was crude, they laughed because they couldn’t imagine that life could be experienced in such brilliant color, such blinding emotion and such cruel proximity. Frida Kahlo wasn’t less successful than her husband during her lifetime because he was more skilled, but because he painted the world as people knew it, whereas Frida painted it as it should be known. 

By recognizing that art can teach me how to see the world and by accepting my responsibility to push my own perceptions, I realized that love doesn’t have to be realistic or literal. It can be the vibrant red and yellow rays of sunlight, the cool effusion of the ocean, the soft embrace of a mossy bed or the silky soft petals of a rose. So, that’s exactly what I painted. Two lovers embracing on a bed of soft greenery, sitting in an underwater world, with a majestic red rose reaching to break the water’s surface and a psychedelic sun peeking from the corner of the frame. 

At face value, “life imitates art” literally imagines that life is only beautiful so far as it can be expressed. It’s quite a startling suggestion, as there is so much to see and feel that lives beyond the realms of thought, communication and even art. But I’ve learned that the actual philosophical position of this phrase is not that life must be expressed, but rather that all the beauty and wonder of nature cannot exist until art teaches us how to see it.

Love and beauty can be whatever I choose to see, whatever I want them to be. It’s Amy Winehouse and iced coffee on a hot summer’s day. It’s the shadow of light meeting leaves on the white walls of my room, the smell of my Palo Santo body lotion and the curvature of my calves nestled among the blankets. It is anything and everything.

I know that I will carry the expression “life imitates art” with me throughout this lifetime and it will inspire me to paint both what I see and what I can only hope to see. And I know that art will forever inspire in me new avenues for understanding and expression — avenues lined with grass so green you can taste it, rocks of every tone and condition, the roar of the ocean beating a midnight shore and the psychedelic rays of that majestic ball of fire we call the sun.

Nathalie Grogan writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on art as a method of communication. Contact her at [email protected].