There's a Georgia O'Keeffe painting at the DeYoung Museum right now called Brown and Tan Leaves, 1928, which she painted while at Lake George, the family estate of her photographer-husband Alfred Stieglitz.
Unlike some of her other paintings--luminous abstractions of lilies, magenta-pinks highlighted with iridescent whites--this painting is not particularly dashing or impressive. Not haunting like her skulls, or sweeping like her flowers. The leaves are ordinary and homely, fallen slips of foliage with torn and tattered edges, fading, dying, drying out; in their last phase of life, they are the leaves that would dissolve under our reckless feet.
But the story that accompanies this painting unnerved and captivated me (don't stories always make grand and mythic the most banal of objects?). According to the exhibition curator, the leaves symbolized the players in a love triangle O'Keeffe was caught in: the biggest leaf, her husband Alfred Stieglitz; the medium leaf at the bottom left, herself; the small leaf in the upper corner, Dorothy Norman, the woman with whom Stieglitz was having an affair with at the time. Stieglitz was forty years older than Norman, and O'Keefe despaired at news of this affair. Her expression of this despair was through painting, using these objects and forms to convey the ideas, feelings, and circumstance--that she did not know how to put out in the world in any other way. More than mere projections, the leaves were a blind man's cane, doing her bidding, touching the treacherous surfaces around her in ways she could not*.
Earlier in the exhibition, there was an O'Keeffe quotation printed on the wall: "I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say in any other way ... things I had no words for."
I am fascinated by this: the way we birth our deepest pains and desires and secrets in the world, in myth and symbol and story--and how so often the pathos of those channels is more rich and expansive than if we told the story itself, as a literal chronicle. That there is some other way to convey who we are--by metaphor, by symbol, by allegory--somehow makes the story that much more powerful because it is proto-typical, archetypal, mono-mythical, universal, legendary (this is nothing new, I know, but lately the power of symbolism has impressed me like a fiery brand)--and I use all those words with their etymologies and associations in mind: proto, meaning primal; archetypum, meaning first-molded**.
In being able to extract the essence of a feeling, a situation, an occurrence, and turn that into a symbol--another story--you are recognizing the universality of your experience, and of course by that--you understand that you are not alone and that you do not exist singularly and that there is someone else out there--many someones out there--with whom your experience is resonant, even if you do not know it yet. You are supporting someone, now or maybe a century later, and that someone is kindred or will have kindred feelings--how those feelings are borne over and over again through our descendants as labors and tear and sweat. The details are changing; technologies develop; circumstances evolve; trees are dying, and yet the myth remains; it is re-enacted again.
We have primal urges to tell our stories; Knowing that this urge is instinctive, natural, ordinary is a relief (how many times I've wanted to write that short story to tell of my pains; how many times have I loved a character because she seemed to understand my insecurities).
Who knows for a fact if O'Keeffe's leaves are symbols at all? Who knows if her objects were the mythical objects we want them to be? But alas, they are out of her hands now, and they are ours to steward and keep; so may they be the stories we tell ourselves and each other, over and over again.
*The other analog I thought of for this was the Patronus in the Harry Potter books... a spirit animal guardian of sorts... not only a protector but a communicator, and I feel like the objects that O'Keeffe found in nature often became her talismen, or at least I'd like to believe this to be so, even if to indulge my own myth of O'Keeffe herself.
**And then there are Jungian archetypes, which are "universal, archaic patterns that derive from the collective unconscious [...] autonomous and hidden forms that are transformed once they enter consciousness and are given particular expression by individuals."