All Flesh is Grass

By Arlyne Moi

Norwegian College of Applied Art and Design, Thesis for Master’s Degree, 1998
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Art and practice, what are they? The theologian Francis Schaeffer says art is a way of fulfilling the God given mandate to be fruitful, a way of being co-creator. I agree with this, but more specifically define art as purpose-fully willed human action. «Practice» on the other hand is behavior which follows rules, a set way of going about things. These rules may not be articulated, but they are there none the less, made evident by ones ac-tions. The results of such rule following actions makes up the world of art.

This paper is a reflection over my artistic practice as a master’s degree student. By that I mean that I will re-flect over the act-ions I have carried out and the things I have habitually done for the last three semesters in order to create.

A description of the theme and goal of my project, is followed by a discussion of the nature of illustration and how it relates to conceptual art. What is the difference between «just» illustration, and good illustration? (Introduction.) A brief historical overview of visual plant metaphors provides the context in which to argue in support of my ornamental approach to the three final works I have created. These were designed with two types of rooms in mind. (Chapter 1.) The process by which motifs developed is discussed (Chapter 2) and an expose of some of my visual experiments (Chapter 3) is followed by a more in depth look at the three projects brought to fruition. (Chapter 4.) A sober reflection over my methodology ends with the ironic view that I do not feel that I have developed a critical understanding of the context of my work. (Chapter 5.) Yet I admit that I see that this diploma project is the catalyst for many future projects. (Summary.)

The theoretical part of this master’s degree in illustration is not to be an account of how plants have been used as metaphors throughout the history of art. Nor will this paper be a discussion of how I see myself in the con-text of artists and artisans who have come before me or those working with my chosen theme at the present time. Neither is it an interpretation of my work or an exposition of what I think is its iconological significance. Finally, this paper is not intended to be a reminiscence over the technical problems and creative solutions that have occurred. However, all these factors are very important and to the degree they have been the foundation for decisions in my practice, I will discuss them.


I would like to thank the following people for their various forms of help over the months in which I have been working on this degree. Rita Marhaug, Gro Jessen, Edvin Skjerping, Ingri Egeberg and Jorun Småland have all done their stint at advising. Einar Wiig and Wenche Quale helped me clarify my thoughts, -Wenche par-ticularly in the first two semesters. Her criticism also greatly improved the finished version of this thesis. Tomas Getmundsen helped me with carpentry and finally, Oddvar Moi has very generously supported me throughout the whole process.

A warm thanks to everyone.


«Without metaphor it is impossible to express a single thought.» J. Huizinga.

Theme: Plant Metaphor

All flesh is grass, said the Old Testament sage. This metaphor is a theme artists have considered for millennia. Why? Perhaps it is because of the very basic relationship man has to nature. Webster’s dictionary defines metaphor as «a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applies to something to which it is not literally applicable, in order to suggest a resemblance.»

We need these substitutions in order to visualize abstract relationships. These verbal pictures ensure ambigu-ity, such that the individual reader can visualize them in their own mind. In my diploma proposal I asked; «Can the common plants from my daily life function as metaphors for human existence?»

1 To describe my project briefly

I wanted to illustrate established biblical metaphors showing how man is like a plant. Then I would progress to developing images from my own life and contemporary culture. My goal was to apply these visual metaphors in the production of things which could be integrated into both public and private rooms where they would function as objects of meditation.

By meditation, I do not mean westernized varieties of eastern origin, such as Transcendental Meditation. There is a biblical admonition to write on the door posts of our heart, to meditate day and night. Webster’s defines «meditation» as to dwell on anything in thought. To cogitate. Meditation is the revolving of a subject in the mind. In other words, I want my work to be striking enough to be memorable and thus be useful for the pur-pose of cogitative thought.

2 What is illustration?

Since I define myself as an illustrator, it is important for me to try to clarify, at least to myself, what that is. I deem it as being something more than what most people consider it in fact as being. It is art that is somehow or another connected with a concept (idea) which can be but is not limited to a text, verbal or written. It can elucidate a theory, even a theory about itself, and thereby be a self reflection. In so far as illustration is self re-flective, it is a form for conceptual art in the contemporary understanding of the term.

The work I present for my diploma is narrowed down to be a reflection over the decorative ornamental plant and how it is a metaphor for human existence. It is also a self reflection over its own decorative status. I want to address the curious predicament that a picture on a wall has a certain status. As soon as it is taken from the wall and placed on a useful object, that status is lowered.

3 Is it good or is it «just»?

But what is good illustration as it pertains to my work? To make «just» illustrations is a derogatory term meaning that work is not open enough to interpretation, that it is limited. A good illustration houses a plethora of meanings. However, I see a problem with the current high status placed on ambiguity. It is crucial in a situation where one must disguise ones meaning for fear of loosing ones livelihood or life, as in the former Eastern Europe or present day Kurdistan, but some makers of visual images treat this characteristic as the all important factor. I personally do not agree that a works ambiguity is important. Take for example the Alter of Pergamum currently housed in Berlin. Created for a specific purpose, it has taken on new significance for new generations, becoming a symbol of resistance for manual laborers in the previous D.D.R. Or what about the Black Madonna of Poland, let alone its frame? This is surely a work created with a very specific meaning, yet it became one of the greatest symbol of solidarity and resistance to oppression of our time!

Viewers will always come up with their own meanings or interpretations and these will change with time. The meaning of the artist can stand as a point of comparison and will also be of great interest to art historians in the future. The coyness of trying to make work ambiguous and in that way thoping to appear profound, leaves me cold. The works openness does give the beholder a greater share, but there are other things which I think are important for me to concentrate on, namely, that it be memorable and decorative.

4 Memorability and decorativity

By memorable, I mean that pictures can be used to jog the memory. They intrigue us in such a way that they go into our subconscious and are logged in the memory. I am fascinated by the mnemonic use of pictures in orally based cultures, where pictures are like road maps for the mind.

The second characteristic of what I think is important in my work is that it be decorative. People have a need to beautify their surroundings. I admit that pictures in the private sphere almost always function as decorative objects in addition to whatever other function they may have. One may purchase a work of art which has been praised by critics and found favor by the art establishment, but what happens with it? The buyer moves the work to several places in the building and tries it in different lighting. It is hung over a sofa or in the hall way, placed on a table or the floor by a stairwell and it takes on a decorative aspect. They think about its color and how it looks in relation to the things around it. It is glanced at it umpteen times a day and the colors and design of it function decoratively in the room.

If my work is to hang in the private or public sphere, I want it to have a decorative function in addition to any other purposes it may have.

I do not think though that work which is intended to be placed in museums, galleries, books and other publica-tions need necessarily be decorative. One chooses deliberately to go to these places, to open the pages of the book.

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