It called to me–at least it seemed that way. I was attending an open house at the gallery of a local artist whom I had just met one month earlier. Kami Mendlik Polzin is a gifted painter who follows the long tradition of creating “plein air” landscapes, often painting outdoors and on site in real time. As Kami has described it, the plein air artist seeks “to translate the specifics of location, time and the changing emotion of the day onto canvas.”
Being new to Kami’s artwork, I had gone to the open house mostly out of curiosity. Because I was already familiar with the paintings of plein air artists who worked in Brown County, Indiana, during the early 1900s, some of whom were friends of my grandmother’s, I wanted to learn more about how contemporary landscape artists like Kami approach their craft. I was hoping there would be some time during the evening when I could talk with her about the process she uses to create her paintings. However, the evening went a little differently than I expected.
I had difficulty finding the gallery in the first place. It was located on the second floor of a building on the main street above a TV repair shop. In front of the building though was a sandwich board announcing the open house so I entered the doorway and climbed a flight of stairs towards the sound of voices and laughter. Kami was standing near the top of the stairs and she greeted me warmly; she seemed to remember the brief conversation we had shared when we initially met a month earlier. I talked with her for a short time, then walked around the studio surveying the array of paintings. Some were framed, titled and clearly part of the display while others were stacked on shelves and unframed. I supposed that some of those might be the work of her students.
As I looked around, I felt an especially strong affinity for a small grouping of paintings in one area of the gallery. I’ve since realized that each of these paintings depicted variations on the same theme—meadows filled with flowers and a grove of trees in the background. I intuitively knew that the flowers in each of these pictures must be Queen Anne’s Lace.
I have a long connection to Queen Anne’s Lace; it grows widely in the farm meadows and abandoned fields of my childhood homeland of southern Indiana. My earliest memories of Queen Anne’s Lace were formed during the hikes I took as a child with my Grandmother Christine over her farm. She was the one who first taught me its name, as well as the names of many of the other wildflowers and trees I know today.
Queen Anne’s Lace was not regarded highly by the agricultural authorities in the 1950s. The U.S. Department of Agriculture still lists it as a “noxious weed” because of its competitive persistence in pastures and its low palatability for livestock. But I’ve learned that Queen Anne’s Lace has not always been considered so unfavorably. It once was purposefully grown in Europe as a “companion plant” in agricultural fields and gardens. It attracted beneficial insects, and improved the microclimate for crops such as lettuce and tomato. However, such favorable lore apparently did not impress those who put together the noxious weed list for the USDA.
My grandmother was capable of having a strong dislike for some weeds—even bordering on hatred. For example, she vigorously disparaged a noxious weed known as Johnsongrass whenever we encountered it in her crop fields on our hikes. It was a long time before I realized that “good-for-nothing Johnsongrass” was not the weed’s actual name; she always referred to it in that way.
Such was not the case for Queen Anne’s Lace, and although I don’t know exactly why, I expect it may have had to do with my grandmother’s fondness for the delicate, lace-like pattern of the plant’s white blossoms. Once established, a patch of blooming Queen Anne’s Lace can create the sense of a fine lace tablecloth spread across the landscape, and I have a hunch my grandmother liked that. One definition of the term weed that I favor is: A plant growing where it is not wanted. So regardless of what the USDA weed inspectors might have said, I don’t think that Queen Anne’s Lace was a weed to my grandmother’s eyes. The Queen Anne’s Lace plants that grew on her farm were welcome guests because of the decorative presence they brought to her pastoral landscapes. There is an old expression: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Queen Anne’s Lace has been, and always will be, beautiful to my eye—just as I think it was for my Grandmother Christine.
Seeing the paintings in Kami Polzin’s gallery was not the first time I had encountered Queen Anne’s Lace in a piece of art. Several years ago, I was doing some research on the landscape painters whom my Grandmother Christine had known in Brown County when she went there as a young woman. I made arrangements to view some of their works that are stored in the archival vault at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis. I was led into a large, climate-controlled room filled with the paintings of the state’s collection. I probably looked at a hundred paintings that day, but one especially stands out for me now, a landscape titled “The Old Ogle Homestead” by Adolph Shulz. Adolph and his wife Ada began painting pictures in Brown County in 1908 and they subsequently moved there permanently in 1917. Although “The Old Ogle Homestead” is undated, it is representative of many of the agrarian landscapes painted by the early Brown County artists during the first half of the 20th Century. However, to my knowledge, it is the only one that depicts Queen Anne’s Lace as a prominent element. In fact, the entire lower right quadrant of the painting, near the artist’s signature, is filled with images of Queen Anne’s Lace blossoms. I now realize it is why this painting has remained so vividly etched in my memory since I first saw it.
Returning to my evening at Kami Polzin’s gallery open house, I realize that my Grandmother Christine, Adolph Shulz and I were not the only ones who appreciate Queen Anne’s Lace. Kami grew up on a farm in eastern Minnesota and was drawn early to Midwestern landscapes graced by Queen Anne’s Lace blossoms. She writes: “One of my favorite wild flowers are the Queen Anne’s Lace. I love the rhythm of design they create as they sway through the meadows, it’s almost as if they dance in the grasses.” I’m sure my grandmother and Adolph would have agreed–and I certainly do.
After initially perusing the works in Kami’s gallery, I had a chance to speak with her more about the four or five paintings that had most attracted me. After she began conversing with another guest, I looked again at those paintings and I remember thinking I should “listen” to what they had to say to me that might form the basis for an essay to be written at a later time. As I examined each of the paintings more closely, one distinctly “called” to me in a way that the others did not. It was the smallest one in the group, only 12 by 12 inches in size. It was displayed beautifully in a wide black frame with a thin strip of carved scrollwork around the edge. The border right around the picture was antique gold. I was drawn to a faint path depicted in the picture leading back through the meadow towards the grove of trees. That path reminded me of the trails my grandmother and I left as we would stride single file through her meadows fifty or more years ago. We didn’t go on hikes often enough to form well-worn trails; our paths gave only a hint of our having passed by there—just like the one in Kami’s painting.
The path in the painting appears to lead to an opening into the grove. I remember such openings on my grandmother’s farm too. I recall what a relief it was to step into the shade of the trees and get out of the hot sunshine. During our hikes in late June, July and August, when Queen Anne’s Lace blooms most profusely, I remember well the high heat and humidity. I don’t think that Kami has ever been to the area of southern Indiana where I formed my initial impressions of Queen Anne’s Lace, but her depiction of the summertime atmosphere and sky in that picture is as true to my memory of the place and time as any I know. The skies were seldom truly blue, and even the cumulus clouds were difficult to distinguish through the thick atmosphere. In her painting—and in my memory—there is also a hint of impending gentle rain in the air, the kind of shower that comes in the late afternoon and eases the heat, at least for a little while.
Although the path and the depiction of the hazy sky certainly drew me to this picture, it was the blooming Queen Anne’s Lace that called to me most, just as it had done earlier in Adolph Shulz’s depiction of “The Old Ogle Homestead.” I’ve learned that Kami did an earlier 6 by 6 inch sketch of the painting. In her words, this earlier rendition was intended to “stir up some ideas, or maybe I should say bring them to the surface!” It was also a response to her desire to paint fields and meadows of the Midwest and to experiment with creating “a soft moody light.” Such paintings, in her words, represent “my quiet take on the peacefulness I feel and the respect I have in response to Nature.” At the time of its creation, Kami noted that this sketch and its subject matter were “certainly taking on a life of their own” and would likely lead to the creation of larger versions with the same theme. These “larger versions” were the very paintings I encountered during my time at Kami’s gallery that July evening.
Later during the open house, I informed Kami that I intended to purchase the painting that had come to me so strongly. I asked her to tell me more about its creation. She explained that the painting depicts a place she remembers from her childhood farm, although the specific conditions and elements in the painting were a “visual memory” that had come to her in a dream sometime before she executed the painting. When I heard this about the painting’s conception, I was delighted since it helped to further explain for me why I was so drawn to it. As she paints a picture, Kami explained, she visualizes that it is being created for some one. She seldom knows who that person is, but almost without exception someone comes along, as I did, who strongly resonates with the piece and wants to have it. Kami receives much inspiration and gratification from this creation/resonance interchange with the people who acquire her work.
It is significant for me to know that my painting came to Kami partly through a dream. In a sense this picture represents a collaboration between her subconscious and conscious mind, much as my long-ago, almost subconscious recall and more recent memories work together to inform my impressions and emotions. I remember few specific experiences from my childhood times on my grandmother’s farm; almost all I recall now is an amalgam of many episodes that took place over time. It’s even more sobering to realize that what I do remember likely didn’t even happened as I think it did. My distant memories are as distorted and perplexing as my dreams. However, this doesn’t discount their importance for me, or how they work to define who I am today, as well as my view of the past.
Kami gave my Queen Anne’s Lace-strewn landscape painting a title: “Queen Anne’s Lace Dance.” She created the picture for me just last March before we had ever met. This simple 12 by 12 inch linen-covered panel calls forth from me strong impressions and emotions that are every bit as powerful as any of my present-day experiences.
Afterall, meaning is in the mind of the beholder.
I recently visited my 93 year-old mother who lives at her home in Wyckoff, New Jersey. Soon after my arrival, I told her about the new painting by Kami Polzin that I had acquired and I told her of my longstanding interest in Queen Anne’s Lace. She surprised me by telling me of her own fondness for the plant and about how she had once tried to transplant some Queen Anne’s Lace into her backyard garden. “It only grew that first year and then died out,” she said. “I guess my yard is just too shaded; Queen Anne’s Lace likes lots of sun.”
As we talked, I proposed that we might make an excursion in her car the next day to see if we could find some Queen Anne’s Lace growing in her area and then cut a bouquet to put on the hearth in front of her fireplace. She readily agreed to the plan. The next afternoon we began our quest. The task seemed daunting as it soon became clear that most of her area in northern New Jersey is single-family houses, businesses and urban forest. Sun-loving plants like Queen Anne’s Lace don’t do well in such places. There is little agriculture in that area and no abandoned fields or pastures that might serve as habitat for Queen Anne’s Lace; any open spaces are mowed and groomed.
We were about to give up our hunt when my mother spotted two spindly Queen Anne’s Lace blossoms growing beside the road near one of the county parks. Although we realized that this small number of blooms was not sufficient to make a bouquet, we took them as an omen to keep searching. Another three miles down the road, near another county park, we found a larger patch of blooming Queen Anne’s Lace. Considering how few plants we had seen to that point, I considered this “the mother lode.” I pulled to the side of the road, and while my mother waited in the car, I took clippers and walked back to the stand to begin harvesting the blossoms. To my disappointment I discovered that the patch was growing amidst a large and vigorous stand of poison ivy! I couldn’t harvest many blossoms there either.
Resigned to the likelihood that our bouquet would necessarily be a small one, I returned to the car and told my mother of our bad fortune with the poison ivy. “So close–and yet so far,” I thought to myself. My mother agreed that it was not wise to wade into the poison ivy just to get those flowers, so we drove away intent on heading back to her home and making the best of the few blossoms we had.
We had traveled a couple of hundred yards farther down the road when we came upon another large group of flowering Queen Anne’s Lace–and this time there was no poison ivy to hinder the harvest. I gathered blossoms to my heart’s content and we headed home eager to create a bouquet. My mother went to her basement and found a vase suitable for this task while I trimmed the blossom stems to the desired lengths. We placed the flowers into the vase and set it on the hearth. I set a copy of the book “The Artists of Brown County,” which contains a reproduction of Adolph Shulz’s “The Old Ogle Homestead,” next to the bouquet.
Later that evening, my mother and I sat in her living room enjoying each other’s company in the presence of our Queen Anne’s Lace bouquet. After a bit of time she remarked, “Isn’t that the most beautiful bouquet you ever saw, Steve?”
“Yes, Mother,” I said, “it sure is.”
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in August 2011. All rights reserved.