Do you know how to see story?
You’re standing in an art museum, with paintings all around. One, in particular, speaks right to you.
It seems so alive. You know there must be a story here. But how do you unlock it? The painting stares back at you, and you feel a twist of unease inside, like someone is trying to speak to you in a foreign language and you have no idea what they’re saying.
You’re sitting at your desk when an unfamiliar song emanates from Pandora. The singer’s voice is passionate and aching. You know there has to be a story behind his words, behind those waves of melody. How do you find it?
You’re walking down the street with your dog when a flower in a neighbor’s garden catches your eye. It’s as blue as the sky in spring, elegant and lightly frilled, but not nearly as large and showy as some of the hybrid flowers beside it. It looks like something from another generation. Maybe it is. How can you know?
The first step is simply knowing how to see the stories.
Stories are like onions (thank you, Shrek). Not that they stink (well, not for the most part). Stories have layers. And those layered stories are all around us, bound up in every bit of culture that humanity has produced.
But usually, we don’t take the time to peel them apart.
Or maybe we just don’t know what to look for.
I’d like to take a brief look at three vastly different Irises, and show you what I mean. For starters, let’s look for three story-layers in each one: material, cultural and personal.
An Heirloom Flower
We’ll start with an Iris of the garden variety. Give it a passing glance, and your brain may register that it’s pretty and blue. But dig deeper, and stories emerge.
Take a minute. Breathe. Look closer. The first thing you’ll notice is the material story of the plant itself. Look at how the upright petals–the “standards”–form a canopy above the seed-bearing pistil, ennobling and protecting it. Watch how the bees amble across the fringed yellow beards of the three drooping “fall” petals, gathering pollen with every step.
Now you’ll need to do a little legwork. Check out a book from the library. Scan through a few good webpages. Believe me, it’s worth it. A small investment of your time will soon reward you with the cultural story of irises like this one. You may discover, for example, that throughout the Middle Ages, these flowers were used in art as symbols of the Virgin Mary and of Christ’s Passion. This symbolism led the kings of France to adopt the iris as their royal standard: the fleur de lis. Visit a cultural icon like the royal Gothic chapel of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and you’ll see these stylized irises everywhere.
And then there are the layers of personal story. For this one, you’ll probably need to strike up a conversation with your neighbor. Now you’re building community along with your story-collecting! If the neighbor in question happens to be me, I’ll tell you that this particular iris is from the garden of a generations-old home in Cleveland, Tennessee, on land where my husband’s family lived from the 1700s until the mid-1900s. Its original “parent” may well have been planted a hundred years ago. Now it grows in my front yard, adding another layer to its tale.
See what I mean?
A Famous Artwork
Let’s look at another Iris, the one you so admired in the art museum.
The materials of oil on canvas assert themselves immediately. The thick, textured paint recalls the stuccoed walls of houses along the Mediterranean. The moody blues of the irises sizzle against the neon-yellow background, and spiked leaves leap from the orange vase like tongues of green fire. You already know the cultural significance of the fleur de lis, so it’s no surprise that this visceral floral portrait came from an artist’s easel in the south of France. Do a little more digging, and you’ll learn its personal story: the artist was Vincent van Gogh, and he created it in 1889, just after committing himself to a mental hospital in Saint-Remy-en-Provence. Is it possible that these fragile, writhing flowers were a reflection of van Gogh’s emotions at the time?
Music from the Heart
Now let’s find that song on Pandora again.
It’s by the Irish rock band U2, from their album Songs of Innocence. It is, quite appropriately, titled Iris.
The materials here are an atmospheric soundscape of Bono’s rasping, transparent vocals, the shimmering vibrato of the Edge’s electric guitar, and the pulsating heartbeat of Adam Clayton’s electric bass and Larry Mullen Jr.’s drums. A little online scrolling reveals that for U2’s world tour, this song was accompanied by the added visual of old black-and-white video footage, emanating from a web of electronic screens linked together like a beaded curtain. A little more digging reveals the intensely personal story behind the song: it honors Bono’s mother, Iris, who died when he was a boy of fourteen. The lyrics, which speak of courage in the face of darkness, took on increased cultural significance when U2 recorded their live video in Paris, following the November 2015 terrorist attacks that had shut down their previous scheduled performance:
Hold me close, hold me close and don’t let me go/ Hold me close like I’m someone that you might know/ Hold me close, the darkness just lets us see/ Who we are/ I’ve got your life inside of me.
Three story layers to look for.
What stories are hiding in plain view around you?