All Flesh is Grass

By Arlyne Moi

Norwegian College of Applied Art and Design, Thesis for Master’s Degree, 1998
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2 How the Motifs Developed

1 The False Start

There are many biblical metaphors of plants. The one I have always thought was the most beautiful - melan-choly, sad and sweet, is from Psalms 103: 14-16. This text was one of the initial inspirations for my work.

«For he knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass. He flourishes like a flower of the field, the wind blows over it and it is gone and its place is re-membered no more.»

Lots of ideas cooked on the back burner of my mind and I thought that the best way to arrive at a visual ex-pression I liked was just to get started drawing. Monumental blades of grass the size of people, the idea of withered grass blown away. I realized that this was quite banal but it was a place to start.

I also cut out a number of ambiguous looking figures out of copy machine paper. I wanted them to look at first glance like something very ordinary, like what children hang in their classroom windows.

After working for a while on the large drawings, I decided it wasn’t working. A life size human blade of grass is too corny. (I realized after talking with Truls Hellevig just recently, that it was much too soon to judge whether the idea was working or not, but I ditched it.)

I tried to approach this biblical metaphor directly but couldn’t think of anything except the very most banal things. It was as though the beautiful metaphor was a road blocks to creativity because it was so perfect. My drawing seemed the postlude on a hackneyed theme. With time, it became clearer to me that this metaphor was complete in itself and that if words and images have totally different aesthetic functions, then let each do what it does best. Language is much better suited to expressing ideas whereas visual images can show what would by quite tedious and boring if it were presented in writing. I started approaching the theme obliquely. Whilst letting texts and various other stimuli percolate on the back burner of my mind, I just started to do things, be-ginning with what interested me most. Concentrating on how my own personal life is like a plant, my hope was that there might be some overlapping, that some of what I created would indeed relate to the biblical metaphor.

2 Starting Over

There is nothing new under the sun, every thing has been done before. Fortunately I realize that I am in good company. The human figure has also been depicted since the beginning of time. Is that any reason for not con-tinuing to picture it? We are all human beings and have the same basic common interests. Furthermore, there are certain processes and ideas I can appeal to overcome banality. By looking at it from many angles, an un-derstanding of the theme developed and lots of ideas started poring forth.

Using what I already know about the topic

Gardening and having a green house, painting flowers from nature and poring over herbals provided one sort of understanding of the topic. Taking stock of my personal situation as well has contributed greatly to the for-mation of motifs. My pending 40th birthday, my marriage and family background have all played in the thoughts I had while drawing. By using my own unique life, I hope to visualize things uniquely.

Asking pertinent questions

During the whole process, I have tried to ask questions which would lead me on various fruitful mental path-ways towards memorable images. Examples of these types of these questions are as follows:

  • What is the history of the portrayal of flowers?
  • Why have flowers been used so much as decor?
  • What is it about flowers that makes them so suitable for such an application?
  • What do flowers mean? What have they meant in the past and what do I mean?
  • What kind of plant am I?
  • Why does flower painting have such low status?
  • In what way do I have the vestiges of a medieval mind and how does that have a bearing on my work?
  • Is it important for me that my art results in the formation of a permanent object?


I am a curious sort of person. I read a lot and think reading widely is important. All of life is interrelated. For example, I read Little girls in Pretty Boxes by Joan Ryan which discusses the formation process of Olympic gymnasts. The journalist exposes how young girls are willfully malnourished and stunted in order to stave off puberty which would necessitate an increased percentage of body fat. They are psychologically conditioned - when they achieve high scored they do no feel happy, they are merely relieved. Their self worth is dictated to them by their coach. It seemed to me that dancers, gymnasts and acrobats as the starting point for the creation of my flowers was quite logical.

David Attenborough’s book, The private life of Plants, supported this as well, with his emphasis on the plants necessity to move. This has been incorporated into almost all of my motifs. Everything that lives moves. You aren’t perfectly still until you are dead - it is an essential sign of life. I like the idea of dance as a metaphor for life. Attenborough states:

«All plants must move. Swiftly moving creatures such as ourselves tend to regard them as immobile organ-isms, leading stationary lives, rooted to the ground. But the lives of plants like our own and those of all other animals, culminate in the production of more individuals of their own kind which will try to claim space for themselves and so extend the dominion of their species. And to do that, all plants- at some stage in their lives - have to move.»

J. Huizanga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages started me making gothic green house cathedrals with orna-mental plant people as the constructive element.

The last book I will mention is Camilla Paglia’s Sexual Persona. After reading just the first four chapters, my figures turned into female torsos growing in chthonian swamps.

Looking at what other artists have done with the topic

I spent some time looking at what contemporary artists who have dared to approach the theme have done and the conceptual approach prevails. I found some quite appealing examples such as Ottmar Hørl’s «forever Young». But I want to make something that somebody would want to have, not just see a photo of and laugh for two seconds. Neither did his approach suit me because I model fourth my solutions.

Traveling and looking at art

During the first two semesters, one week out of every month was spent in London. While there, I visited many museums and galleries. The Victoria and Albert Museum was just a ten minutes walk away. This was a won-derful opportunity to school myself in the history of graphic and paper-art. The Henry Cole Wing offered a service where I could look up in catalogues of topics or illustrators and the librarian would cart out exciting boxes of original work I could touch with my own freshly washed hands.

I looked under the topic «paper» and was eventually served boxes of work where what was presented was not done on but in and with paper.

The box by the artist F. Uhlman, contained illustrations for war poems. These were simple paper-figures of which I was very intrigued. Their fascination was that they were so ambiguous and grassy. There was just enough resemblance to people that they kept my interest. I kept asking myself, «is it a person, a piece of grass or just a doodle cut out of paper?»

Another find was a letter dated 1664:
This to William Style Esq.

I can give you no greater testimony of the recovering strength of my eyes than this which I am confident is not unwelcome to you. and Now my heart I wait your return and commands with the assistance of your own fancy, to set my fingers on singing which was never better employed than in assuring you that I am

Your obedient wife,
Eliza Style
Hempson, October 28 1664

The text of this letter was delicately cut calligraphy in white linen paper. In the back of the leather bound book there was a cases containing two tiny pairs of scissors. It must have taken ages. I thought of a woman in a fluffy dress, sitting at home, living alone with her maid for months at a time, waiting obediently for her hus-band’s return.

The reading room in the Henry Cole Wing held other examples of paper lace: There were portraits made with pin pricks, three-dimensional motifs made with rolled paper and books filled with silhouettes. These were all samples of the kind of hand work women did in the days of yore. Perhaps most surprising was a piece pre-sented to the library by Queen Mary herself with the Lord’s Prayer and Nicene Creed cut in miniscule letters surrounded by ornamental wreaths.

Characteristic for all these things was that they were minutely detailed and painstakingly done. Was this how I wanted to work? It seemed to be a residue of the middle ages, where scrupulous attention to detail was the rule. The breadth and simplicity of the renaissance swept this out of fine art, but it still chanced to remain in the private quarters of the housewives’ domain.

The beauty of having these weeks in London spread out over two semesters was that I could energetically visit museums and galleries of applied, fine and contemporary art. One week at a time is enough to overdose on art and then return to Bergen to process my impressions.

Processing impressions

On A visit to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington I saw an exhibit on how the Indian women of New Guinea ate yams in order to stave off pregnancy. Research on this led to the development of the birth control pill. With this exhibit, there was a photo of a woman lifting up a child. The light behind the figures was very strong and ate up most of the figures. To me it looked like a sapling with one branch. Could I show a human figure as a sapling, as a thin and graceful birch tree? I started rummaging through croquis drawings and made saplings out of human back bones.

One day I found an announcement for a lecture by Professor of Botany Knut Fægri. There was a curious il-lustration of a mandrake. I looked up mandrake in the Encyclopedia Britannica and found that in ancient times these were plants believed to have magical powers. Their forked root resembled the human form and could be safely uprooted only in the moonlight, after appropriate prayer and ritual, by a black dog attached to the plant by a cord. Human hands could not touch it. If the mandrake was pulled from the ground it uttered a shriek that killed or made mad those who did not block their ears against it. Closing the encyclopedia, I thoughtfully rec-ollected the rivalry between Rachel and Leah, the two wives of Jacob:

«And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them unto his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah: Give me, I pray thee, of thy son’s mandrakes. And she said unto her: Is it a small matter that thou hast taken my husband? And wouldest thou take away my son’s mandrakes also? And Rachel said: Therefore he shall lay with thee tonight for thy son’s mandrakes. And Jacob came out of the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said: Thou must come in unto me; for surely I have hired thee with my son’s mandrakes. And he lay with her that night.» Genesis 30: 14 - 16.

I started drawing people that live their life under ground. I was not thinking so much about how these plants increase sexual potency or that they have had a tremendous hold on man’s imagination through out millennia, or even their supposed magical power. it was rather the dichotomy between half of one self being hidden and the other half visible. The contrast between private and public life or the contrasting aspects of ones own per-sonality.

David Attenborough tells of a rare orchid that blooms underground. I thought about the things that cause me to live a secluded underground sort of life, spending all my time in the basement work shop.

«I love thee as the flower that never blooms.» said Pablo Neruda. How could I draw that?


I have incorporated other peoples work into my own. By that I mean that some of my images are based upon pictures of dancers found in two books, one on African dance and the other on acrobatics. These figures have a clear apollonian line. I do not think I have violated copyright laws because they have been changed consid-erably.

That my work is derivative can indicate a number of things: Perhaps that I do not think for myself or that I recognize I stand within the context of artists who came before me . Perhaps to evoke a feeling by a manér.

Once in a discussion with Louis Aragon, Henri Matisse said,

«I shan’t get free of my emotion by copying the tree faithfully, or by drawing its leaves one by one in the common language, but only after identifying myself with it. I have to create an object which resembles the tree. The sigh for the tree, and not the sign that other artists may have found for the tree: those painters, for instance, who learned to represent foliage by drawing 33, 33, 33, …This is only the residuum of the expres-sion of other artists. These others have invented their own sign … to reproduce that means reproducing something dead, the last stage of another artists’ emotion.»

As a copyists I am bound to fail because I can imitate another man’s voice but not his emotion. But can not the residuum of another’s expression be related to my own feeling?

In any case, in the process of finding form for my ideas, I have copied myself a lot. I enjoyed using the old copy machine at the institute because taking a problematic drawing and copying it once could give a very dif-ferent drawing. The advise of my mentor: «simplify and then simplify some more.» Reduce the forms until only the essential remains, for multiplicity rarely succeeds in finding harmony and unity. Here is a sample of one of the processes I have followed:

  • Draw a figure on paper with pencil.
  • Redraw it into a plant like figure.
  • Scan the drawing in to the computer, composing and fabulating with Adobe Photo Shop. Enlarge, reduce, apply filters, combine with other drawings.
  • Flatten it by adjusting contrast.
  • Print out a greatly reduced version of the figure.
  • Photocopy the figure onto acetate, reducing even more to get rid of the screen dots.
  • Project the image onto a zinc plate with an overhead projector to adjust for size.
  • Paint the figure with sugar aquatint.
  • What Heyter calls the accidents of the method occur from now until the plate is etched and printed.

After printing, I ask: «Is what remains worse than the former figure, or is it more essential?» If I am not satis-fied enough with the result, I make the plate again. Some of the plates were made three times.

I think a copyist who dares not compose afresh eventually can compose afresh because somewhere along the process, the figures change to such a degree that they will be reduced into something new.

Digital drawing

Using the «free transform» function, I turned a figure upside down and it was like a lily. Putting it on the end of a stem, it rendered something like a blue bell. Melting it onto the arms of a female figure it became some-thing akin to an iris. I thought of men who are at the mercy of their wives.

Scanned in photos of molded paper samples combined and recombined, twisted, stretched and crimped with filters produced some of my favorite plants.

I come from a family of ten. I wondered what my family-tree would look like. Of all of us eight children, only one lives in the town where we grew up. The dandy-lion grew from reflecting over having come from a large family which happens to be spread across four continents.

In my iconography, there are several reoccurring motifs. One female figure is repeated in a myriad of varia-tions. Then there is the stacking of figures who grow out of each other.

Symmetry is often used where the ideal rather than the actual flower is presented, placed under a peaceful and stable system.

In spite of the excellent advise to simplify forms, I experimented quite a long time with the illusion of three di-mensions. There were some sorts of dangerous femme fatal plants I found it hard to express flatly. I spent a good part of the summer working with these voluminous figures. Finally I was convinced that the expression I wanted to continue with would be quite flat, often symmetrical and free of almost all extemporaneous detail.

Eventually I had quite a number of plants to work with. I started combining them in decorative designs in the spirit of wallpaper and botanical plates.

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