Monstera Deliciosa (Swiss cheese plant), Pastel on Paper, 21 x 30 inches
I have painted and drawn a lot of plants in my studio. I have not always been very good with them. Sometimes I don’t give them enough water, sometimes too much. Other times they have to suffer long periods of central heating. But they are good to have around because they are more like people than any other ‘thing’. I don’t mean that they feel emotions – I just mean that they are characterful, and become more so with time. I don’t particularly like cats, but I think they are beautiful to watch, and plants are similar in that they have an incredible range of movement, and when I draw them I can see them moving from one hour to the next. It might in some sense be ‘easier’, but it is a lot less fun to draw something that is not moving at all, which is why I prefer to always have something organic in a still life – even an apple is constantly changing. The thing that changes most obviously is a landscape, but often painting a portrait is a similar experience, which is why dividing things into genres – portrait, still life, nude, landscape – is so artificial: there is a landscape in every portrait and a portrait in every landscape.
While I was drawing my Monstera, someone suggested I read ‘The Secret Life of Plants’, a charming but nutty book, largely inspired by the work of Cleve Baxter, a polygraph instructor and one time interrogator for the CIA, who one day decided to do a polygraph test on the Dracaena Massangeana in his office (as one does). The original purpose was not to see whether the Dracaena was telling the truth or not (you only need to take one look at a Dracaena to see that they are perfectly honest) – but to test how quickly water travelled from the roots to the leaves. This simple aim soon yielded extraordinary and unexpected results: the Dracaena could read Baxter’s mind – whenever Baxter entertained nasty thoughts towards it, like wanting to burn one of its leaves, the polygraph went crazy. Further experiments on other plants revealed that they could tell what Baxter was thinking even when he was hundreds of miles away from them.
What must my Monstera have been thinking every time I forgot to water it? I suddenly felt very guilty, but at the same time it was comforting to think that the three potted plants in my studio always knew my state of mind. I started looking after them more, watering them regularly, lovingly wiping the dust from their leaves so that they could photosynthesize more freely.
Dogs are loyal, cats are graceful, but plants are discreet and never impose on you – so it’s worth looking after them.
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