Recently my eye fell on a little grouping of berries and pinecones that I had arranged – one of several still lifes I had composed around my home for the holidays – and I thought about the term “still life.”
I probably first heard the term in 9th grade Art class, when we practiced painting “still lifes” to learn the mechanics of creating the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface, experimenting with color, light and shadow.
What an odd term, I thought, “still life.” Technically, the items in a still life aren’t alive, or they aren’t alive now. Flowers. Fruit. But they once were.
Where did the term come from, I curiously wondered. I thought of all the “masters” who painted still lifes centuries ago. The term has certainly existed for centuries, far longer than since I was in Junior High mere decades ago.
What was it, I wondered, that first compelled a painter to capture such a vignette on canvas? Was it composed just for that purpose? Was the artist so moved by something that caught his or her eye that s/he had to paint it? Was it the way the light caught the curve of the apple, the way the shadow fell behind the strawberry, the way the colors of the flowers seemed to glow from within with a vibrance that the artist knew would soon fade? Was it a way of capturing, in a simple vignette, the treasured memory of the loved one picking the flowers, the time spent gathering the fruit, the meal shared? Was it a moment of piercing, unexplainable beauty? Or was it simply an exercise?
Was it something meant to capture the symbology of abundance, of appreciation of the fruits of the earth and of our efforts, no matter how simple?
Or was it simply a place for the eye to rest, to be still in the stream of life?
It occurs to me as I clear away the decorations, the leaves, berries, boughs, and seedpods, simple though they were, to hold the space for the new year and its adventures to enter, that I must remember to create one new Still Life where my eye can rest for a moment before I go on about my way.
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