Molly Maine
The Bone Bower (2013)

Bower (n)
1a. A dwelling, habitation, abode. In early use lit. A cottage; in later use a poetical word for ‘abode’.
b. esp. a vague poetic word for an idealized abode, not realized in any actual dwelling.
c. A fancy rustic cottage or country residence.
d. A covered stall or booth at a fair. rare.
2a. An inner apartment, esp. as distinguished from the ‘hall’, or large public room, in ancient mansions; hence, a chamber, a bedroom. Still in north. dial.; in literature only archaic and poetic.
b. Especially applied to a lady's private apartment; a boudoir. Now only poetic.
3. A place closed in or overarched with branches of trees, shrubs, or other plants; a shady recess, leafy covert, arbour.
4. A structure reared by the bower-bird

This series began when my fiancé Michael’s grandmother died. She had a stroke and we spent a week in the hospital sitting with her. The day she died Michael’s mother had gathered summer flowers from his grandparents’ garden. We placed the flowers on her body. “Once someone dies the body is like an empty shell,” Michael’s mother said to me. Since that day, I wanted to make a series that related to that image: the body like a shell encircled by blooming flowers.

The first time I saw the Dame à la licorne tapestries at the Cluny in Paris I spent over an hour just looking. It was hard to leave, I found them so enchanting. They are absolutely magical in person. I saw one child so engaged with them he stood staring with his mouth open, his hand moving unconsciously to touch the fabric. The bountifulness, the mysterious narrative, the decorative arrangement of animals and plants, and the exuberant variety and cohesion of the tapestries were all things I wanted to explore as a painter using contemporary imagery. La Dame à la licorne, Dutch floral still lives, and La Primavera by Botticelli are the primary visual sources that inspired this series. They each evoke a humanist celebration that’s at the core of my work.

In the summer of 2011, while I was still mulling over the germ of this series, Michael found a deer skeleton in the woods outside his house in Ohio, near where his grandparents had lived. There was something so profoundly wonderful about finding those bones strewn in the woods. We treasured each new one we found nestled under leaves and half buried in the mould among small orange mushrooms. That fall we had a show together consisting of Michael’s photos of the skeleton and my previous series of paintings, Ghosts as Cocoons. Those paintings were inspired by Wallace Stevens’ poem of the same title, which describes decay as a prerequisite for beauty and fecundity. All four 6’x5’ paintings illustrate the transformation of one living thing becoming another: a natural alchemy.

The night before we returned to Ohio for Christmas in 2011, I remembered the flowers on Michael’s grandmother as well as the deer bones we had saved and knew I wanted to make paintings of the bones and flowers in a circle, with the flowers in each circle changing with the seasons. We spent days in the snow that winter photographing bone and flower circles with me as a figure. None felt exactly right until I began to use the deer skull as a mask. The figure became something different—more like an empty shell.

In this current series, as in Ghosts as Cocoons, I address issues of finding beauty and meaning in a wholly naturalist world, but this time the narrative is more personal. Only one painting in the series takes its title from literature—Caterina and the Nightingale, from a tale in Boccaccio’s Decameron, a wonderfully bawdy story about love told (as all the stories in the Decameron are) against the backdrop of the plague in 14th century Florence. For this series, I felt a strong visual connection between the bone circles and the central ‘islands’ in the Dame à la licorne tapestries. I also incorporated elements of the flower backgrounds in the tapestries into the patterns used in paintings, especially in the figure’s cloak, for which the silhouette was partially inspired by local Portland design. A central intention is to draw the lived world of renaissance humanism and classicism into the present.

As we were leaving Cleveland to come back to Portland I was sitting in the living room packing up my deer skeleton to come with me. Two young bucks walked right by the window. I like to imagine they were related to my deer. I like to imagine they were saying goodbye.