Nature Animates the Plant-hands

Updated: May 11, 2020

If one has a typical nine to five office job, it’s common that it offers ten vacation days out of the year. We as employees, active members of society, contributors to the economy, use that ten to relax, to attempt an escape of real life, for many, to “do nothing for once.”

But which version is real life?

When I became financially independent, I learned how rare a vacation is, and I began to count down the days for it. And while on that vacation, I fixate on taking in every single moment for fear of losing it too quickly. I feel the time slipping by as my fingers lose a grip. And when I return home, I then realize I worked far too hard during the allotted relaxation time. And it’s gone until next year.

Time allotted.

When I was a kid I used to lay on the grass in my yard during springtime, when the sun was strong enough to warm my skin against the cool, damp ground. I looked up and observed the rhythmic swinging of the tree branches against the bright sky. Over and over. Back and forth, forth more and back again. Still. Either I was a boring kid or I loved nature; I could do this for hours. But one knows life has a way of interrupting to bring you back to reality. I had to go inside and finish my homework.

In order to build a full, healthy and productive life, one needs the free time to fill with nothing, because in this case, your brain will naturally fill it with things you didn’t realize were there. While daydreaming, your brain still works at 95% of its capacity, the same that it does when occupied with a focused job. The act of daydreaming, or as neurologist Jonathan Smallwood calls it, default mode, is extremely important in that it allows people to think in their purest way. It is the closest to your subconscious that you can reach while being conscious.[1]

Maybe that spring day on the grass I was trying to understand my brain in its most natural state, to hear what it had to say when it was its purest. The tree and the music of its leaves must have been trying to open that up for me.

It’s intrinsic in us humans to assign every physical object its own purpose, its job in this working system of the world. And it’s no different that nature has this very value too. That mother Earth’s colors, sounds and textures are simply communication devices to us, telling us to listen to her, feel her, be one with her, rather than push her away.[2] We are not removed from her, we were built from her, and so the language between us must exist.

That day at the beach I chose not to dig holes with my brother Dan, he could do it for hours on end and never get bored because he loved to build anything. He is now an engineer. And didn’t feel like snorkeling with Gabbi either, who was always looking for someone to play with her. She will be scientist. I felt guilty and boring saying no, but I lacked a drive to enjoy their company and at the time I couldn’t figure out why. Mom and Dad generally walked around the bend of the beach, out of our vision, so I remained laying in the sand staring at the sun through my closed eyelids, deep in my own head because back then I would never get the chance otherwise.

I was born on Christmas day, which means my astrological sign is a Capricorn. I don’t study astrology really, and I didn’t know a major characteristic of mine until I was once told. I am apparently supposed to have an inherent obsession with success, a desperate need to finish at the top, get a sliver of recognition, earn loads of money. At first, I refused this identity as an artist, there was no corporate ladder for me to climb, no, I didn’t want it. But, admittedly it answered that feeling I’ve always felt: when I’m racing, when I’m stepping out of my body to look at myself, push myself, chase myself until I get done what needs to get done. I want it so bad, and at the same time I wish for myself to slow down and enjoy my surroundings. Is this the work of nature or nurture? Is this me, or is this society’s effect on me? At times it feels truthful, at times it doesn’t, but either way it fogs my brain until I can’t see the colors in there anymore.

What would I do with the money? I would buy a house at the foot of a mountain or at the edge of the coast so I could sit on my porch alone with nature every single day that I chose to. Sometimes I feel that my goals have no end.

Hyper productivity is the result of our society’s demands to never stop working, often pushed through technologies that allow us to bring our work home with us. When I’m surrounded by an open landscape and the views can go for miles, work life forces me to squeeze in this healthy mind-wandering in the little time I have, giving me a deadline, an allotted time, just as it consistently does. Is this still considered brain activity in its purest form? A scheduled time for relaxation may negate the original purpose of mind wandering; it’s not always something that can be done on command.

Perhaps we are not in charge of our own planet. Perhaps we are not the most important species.[3] Perhaps we cannot demand success out of ourselves when other humans command it.

Sometimes I depend on mind-wandering to do the work for me, even if that time is a scheduled time, it’s what I have to work with. I’ve trained myself to get thoughts out during this time, typically on paper. My writing often inspires the form in my work, becoming a sketch reflecting some poetic idea in my mind. The color brings me to the place I want to be, that I want to reflect and then transform. Painting has become a transporting device, which is no surprise when seeing the works reflect nature. It’s a yearning for connection. The connection with our Earth should be a natural one, the purest of interactions. Just as our mind naturally wanders, our bodies should naturally connect with the ground, the trees, the sand. So what’s holding us back from this?

The tree swings its branches leading me to the clouds, of which I can observe and find a new image each time. I think deeper into myself. They point me in the directions of wonder with

their finger-like branches, whereas the motherly advice plants my feet in sterile soil, leaving me to wilt.

And why couldn’t I listen to the words of the tree? For its sounds spoke stronger than the parental comments on my career, disputes that ended with an exponential number in an account, and no further questions.

Home is so dreadful. Home brings unearthly expectations and time constraints. Home brings a synthetic commitment to success that will without fail turn in circles until I am to dizzy to remember who I was supposed to be in the first place. It’s a suburban New York State house that I’ve lived in since I was six months old. It’s the renovation for future resale that built over the circular green that used to be our playground. It’s the closet that I emptied when I was twenty with the plan to never have anything there to pull me back again. It’s a control over success in the department that I don’t wish to be.

I have yet to understand my place in society. Because according to them, I was supposed to be an academic, an engineer, a doctor, a designer as a last resort.

And I can’t seem to find it here in the midst of these square tables and burning fireplaces and sanded and stained back porches that lead to nothing but a pond, still and black, reflecting the trees back up to them, returning to life what was given in the exact same manner, only to remain a pond, the same depth, still and black.

What is love if I’m always asleep?

I was eleven years old and I hibernated on the deck gazing out at the horizon for hours. I sat on the side where the sun hit, resting my back on the black windows that practically burned my skin after a few minutes. I held a book, as I often did at that age, but could only read a few pages at a time before I got distracted by the beauty of the ride.

I often wish I was eleven again.

My boyfriend told me to turn off my notifications. My boss was tearing apart my confidence; I felt completely incompetent at my job. Was it better to answer the text message from her the minute I woke up on my day off to show my commitment? Should I be committed to this?

I think artist block for me comes about when my mind is clouded with “real life expectations.” I have nothing left to give.


House paint and acrylic on paper

72” x 44”

It’s just emptiness – when the ideas run out. It leaves me lonely, hopeless with that same vulnerable, resistant void in my chest. But at the same time that that void repels, I wish there was an open void, a void that would allow one to enter. Because instead it’s a blockade, a hole that’s dense with smoke, a smoke that hardens and resists any sort of flow, osmosis. I remember that word from middle school. Osmosis – the transfer of water, right? Well, at the moment there is no osmosis happening. Instead, it’s “regular” life. How I can I properly escape this?[4]

These were the words that started this sketch: an opening of a void that had no end, no wide open destination, no galaxy of possibilities, just an end of an allotted time. But surely, it needed an opening. And so IF ONLY IT WAS A VOID THAT ALLOWED ONE TO ENTER began with a green-gray mixture that evenly coated the background to appear perfectly flat. A lighter hue of that color is sponged in the middle and gradates outward. It’s slightly messy of a gradation, and the sponging technique appears to show some slipping of the hand. On top, an unsure distance from the background, possibly an infinite one, exists the granny-smith green plant-hand figure. It has six fingers that come to a pointy end with a light yellow set of sharp nails. As the fingers come together at the beginning, or the palm of the hand, it continues as its neck and wraps around to show the other end of the figure, which is a cone-shape with an opening. And the purple mountains of the west would sit atop the tube-neck of the figure, as if spiky fins along its back, teasing me as I passed through it. “You are not there, you are here.” In the forefront and center of the painting, the cone-shape opens quite sharply from the thin, tube-shaped neck it has, to about ten times that width. Inside this cone-shaped opening is a spiral as the lining, suggesting that those black and white lines continue inside the entire figure, all the way down to the fingers. The plant-hand has yellow scales on top of its green skin.

The painting, although containing slight hints of shadows and highlights along the plant-hand figure and inside the void, still appears quite flat. The figure could be in constant movement towards the viewer, or away from them, but since the green-gray background is so evenly spread across the paper, it’s unclear. It becomes a form with its own autonomy, existing in its world with a control over its destiny, an understanding of its place, and a freedom to move. It begs the question: does the viewer have this same control, understanding and freedom in their own life? It pushes on them a liberty to question their own purpose. Are you falling farther into the green-gray abyss from where you wish to be, or are you flying towards it?

As the flow of ideas seemed to come to a halt, the trees came into my mind again, swaying in front of me the words I needed to begin. A painting about artist block it seemed at first, a way to illustrate the dead-end flow of ideas. But it’s a larger problem than that. Why weren’t the ideas flowing? Well – because they were being told to flow. And just as the creative mind can’t work that way, neither can nature. Nature has its own (necessary) self-sufficiency, as mother nature clearly explains. And so, a void that seems possible to enter, that black and white striped opening, only flows straight to the end of the fingers, growing to a peak of sharp nails. A dead end that only gets filed down. As many people often feel a block from a deadline, sometimes I get this block from New York City. I love this city, but I can’t see miles ahead of me unless I get to a higher story. And typically, the higher the story, the higher the price. The occasional block in my mind is the gray, the concrete ground, the lonesome hour of sunlight when the geometry is correct for it to spill over the set of buildings onto the sidewalk you’re walking on. And if you’re on the famous Wall, on which I used to work, forget about any sun on those alleyway streets. And so, the longing for nature ends in this painting with a bed of fingernails. But surely there is a way to escape the tube-neck and sneak upwards towards those mountains, right? The only way to find out is to enter that void.

Many look at the world as a planet full of resources to be used at our disposal, to use for production that would then be turned into money. They see forests, mountains, oceans as dead, free supplies. It’s as if they push down those serene feelings they get when experiencing a sunset over a mountain, or the waves on a coast, and tell themselves they mean nothing. They close their ears and ignore the words the Earth tries to tell them during these moments and instead tear it down for what they believe to be economic gain.[5]

When my boyfriend and I sat on that rock overlooking the city of Phoenix, four thousand feet in elevation, I told him we were on top of the world. The mountains turned purple as the sun dropped low, and the few city lights began to glow. We breathed that dry, hot air and felt nothing but each other, our purposes, the Earth. As vacation often does, it made me dread going home. I looked down at the bugs and snakes who have their own towns in between the rocks and cacti; we sat atop of them, a part of their world, our world. And then the sun set, and the stars began to speak to us all.


House paint and acrylic on paper

44” x 72”

Upon thinking back to this moment, I began sketching a seemingly magical growth coming from the underbelly of mountains. Plant-hands would grow out from under a set of whimsically-shaped mountains deep into what we understand to be the ground, but we can see through it. The horizontal painting began with a dulled gray-purple that evenly coated the surface of the paper. It was a mixture of flat house paint, leaving the color to be smooth and uniform. On the next level, yellow’s, ochre’s, and sienna’s are sponged, fading upwards to give the illusion of the light from the sun feathering into the sky. And along the bottom side, the colors are wet and have dripped down towards the bottom of the paper, providing feelings of water seeping deep into soil, or slowly down the edge of a surface. Then, a set of purple mountains, slightly more red of a shade than the background, appears in the distance. They have dark pathway-shaped lines leading to their peaks, with white lines atop creating a ladder-like pattern along those paths. In front of those mountains are a set of red mountains closer to the viewer. They come to wavy and then pointy peaks, as if one has just whipped cream and lifted the whisk from the bowl. These are a rich, red-sienna color, with yellow and orange pointed, fleshy lines on them that contain opposing yellow and orange scales. These shapes seem to align with the curvatures of the mountains, revealing a type of reptilian quality. They make their way down to the foot of the mountain, turning a deep red, where the shape of the mountain rounds out at the edges. From it, nine plant-hands smoothly grow from beneath. They grow to differing levels along the bottom of the painting, containing a seemingly organic pattern of growth with its fair set of deformities. These jade-green plant-hands also have yellow scales, where they grow out to have yellow fingernails at their tips. Finally, the entire form seems to be floating in this purple abyss, as it never reaches the edge of the paper and instead rounds out at either side.

I think that moment on top of the Phoenix mountain felt alive for me. And so the plant-hands came alive too with the help of the mountains. They became a mutualistic relationship in this work, in which both the mountains and the plant-hands gave and received. Each alone is classless and powerless, but together they are their own being. In the painting IT FEELS LIKE IT’S SLIPPING THROUGH MY FINGERS BUT IT ISN’T, the entire floating form contains its own support system, a natural relationship in its world. The viewer looks straight onto the form, seeing both the above ground, being the mountains, and what appears to be underground as the plant-hands, assuming we are looking underneath the line of soil that would typically cover the underside. The viewer is given the opportunity to see all of the form, the seen and unseen, the two parts that so naturally connect to build the relationship such as this. In our world, I had felt as if I was losing sight of the relationship I had had with nature. I’d been in a constant hustle for an education, money, and a career for years, just as everybody seems to be. This longing was disintegrating my hopes, pushing me further away from our Earth, excluding me to feel more alone. It was through this painting that I felt I had the power to gain back my own relationship with nature, as we all truly do.

I use painting not to escape these feelings, but to transform them into a hope that could be shared with others, a persistence to embrace this all-natural relationship with the loving Earth. It’s a bond she communicates to us as well, one that begs a reunion. We shouldn’t silence her, we should listen.

The plant-hand and other participatory characters that come together within these works act as the communicators between myself and the longing for nature. They are the ones who I not only build, but rely upon to consume my feelings and transform them into a world in which my yearnings can come true. As I sat on the top of that mountain in Arizona, I spoke to the sky the same way I spoke to the trees as a child, just as I speak to the creatures in my paintings. They don’t live in a dystopia, for they do not solely reflect the unjust existence between us humans and nature in our world. Rather, they transform this dilemma into a beautiful and reciprocal relationship that exists in their world, a relationship from which we should learn.

In the years to come I will be on a search to find that connection I represent in the world of my work; I will find it and bring it to real life, our life. I will be in constant conversation with nature, in order for her to bring her own hand into my paintings alongside mine. Of course, her hope is to reflect the troubling issues that we as humans have pounded onto her, and part of my job is to reflect that. However, I furthermore wish to transform these issues into change, to encourage others to explore that relationship with nature as I have, for the betterment of both of us.

Perhaps those whispers of the branches in the backyard were more than my imagination.

[1] Zomorodi, Manoush. Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. New York: Picador, 2018, 20. [2] Harding, Stephan, “Animate Earth” in Earthy Realism : The Meaning of Gaia, ed. Mary Midgley, James Lovelock. Luton, Bedfordshire: Andrews UK Ltd., 2007. Accessed April 8, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central. [3] Harding, Stephan, “Animate Earth” in Earthy Realism : The Meaning of Gaia, ed. Mary Midgley, James Lovelock. Luton, Bedfordshire: Andrews UK Ltd., 2007. Accessed April 8, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central. [4] Excerpt from my sketchbook [5] Harding, Stephan, “Animate Earth” in Earthy Realism : The Meaning of Gaia, ed. Mary Midgley, James Lovelock. Luton, Bedfordshire: Andrews UK Ltd., 2007. Accessed April 8, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.


Harding, Stephan, “Animate Earth” in Earthy Realism : The Meaning of Gaia, ed. Mary Midgley, James Lovelock. Luton, Bedfordshire: Andrews UK Ltd., 2007. Accessed April 8, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Klingan, Katrin M., Ashkan M. Sepahvand, Christoph M. Rosol, and Bernd M. Scherer, eds. Textures of the Anthropcene: Grain Vapor Ray. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, n.d.

Lamb, Kara L. 1996. “The Problem of Defining Nature First: A Philosophical Critique of Environmental Ethics.” Social Science Journal 33 (4): 475.

Newman, Eric A. The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. New York: Abrams, 2017.

Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Spark Pub., 2003.

“Rick and Morty.” Turner Entertainment Digital. Burbank, CA: Adult Swim, November 10, 2019.

Smithson, Robert. “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects.” University of California Press, 1968.

Zomorodi, Manoush. Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. New York: Picador, 2018, 20.