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Sunflowers in Paint and Print

Sunflower facination is not just the territory of arts and craftspeople (who seem to have painted, appliqued, needlepointed and decoupaged them onto everything from sweatshirts to pencil holders in recent years). Many artists and writers have looked to this flower for inspiration. On these pages you will find some of my favorite interpretations of the sunflower theme, and there isn't a hooked rug among them.

"Sunflower" Georgia O'Keeffe

The Sunflower

The author, a Holocaust survivor, is describing an incident on his way to a work site outside of the camp:

Our column suddenly came to a halt at the crossroads.

I could see nothing that might be holding us up but I noticed on the left of the street there was a military cemetary. It was enclosed by a low barbed wire fence. The wires were threaded through sparse bushes and low shrubs, but between them you could see the graves aligned in stiff rows.

And on each grave there was planted a sunflower, as straight as a soldier on parade.

I stared spellbound. The flower heads seemed to absorb the sun's rays like mirrors and draw them down into the darkness of the ground as my gaze wandered from the sunflower to the grave. It seemed to penetrate the earth and suddenly I saw a periscope. It was gaily coloured and butterflies fluttered from flower to flower. Were they carrying messages from grave to grave? Were they whispering something to each flower to pass on to the soldier below? Yes, this is just what they were doing; the dead were receiving light and messages.

Suddenly I envied the dead soldiers. Each had a sunflower to connect him with the living world, and butterflies to visit his grave. For me there would be no sunflower. I would be buried in a mass-grave, where corpses would be piled on top of me. No sunflower would ever bring light into my darkness, and no butterflies would dance upon my dreadful tomb.

I do not know how long we stood there. The man behind gave me a push and the procession started again. As we walked on I still had my head turned towards the sunflowers. They were countless and indistinguishable from one another. But the men who were buried under them had not severed all connection with the world. Even in death they were superior to us. . .

~ Simon Wiesenthal, from his book The Sunflower

A Letter from Li Po

Exiled are we. Were exiles born. The "far away,"
language of desert, language of ocean, language of sky,
as of the unfathomable words that lie
between the apple and the eye,
these are the only words we learn to say.
Each morning we devour the unknown. Each day
we find, and take, and spill, or spend, or lose,
a sunflower spendor of which none knows the source.

~ Conrad Aiken

"Sunflower" Gustav Klimt

The Price You Pay for Sunflowers

(song poem)

you come out of that place again
i gaze into your face again
i try to read your eyes again
you walked right in and sat awhile
stroked the striped cat awhile
just as tho you'd never been away

and when i asked how you'd been 
you looked up from the cat and then
you sang a song so tender and so strange
closed youreyes and let it come
and when you finally got it sung
you answered
oh -- I'm just about the same

     time and time again
     i need to spend an hour
     with my sunflower friend
     light the way
     put a touch of color
     in the long dark day

i offered you a cup of tea
the way that you looked up at me
i knew you hadn't heard a word
i said
your mind so full of crows in flight
and pinwheel spinning starry nights
and no time in the dream to rest your head

but time is for the ticking clock
and you're between the tick and tock
bleeding from the passion in your brain
so put another bandage on 
and sing us all another song
and fill us
with the beauty and the pain

     of sunflowers
     time and time again
     i need to spend an hour
     with my sunflower friend
     light the way
     put a touch of color
     in the long dark day

the afternoon is dying fast
your songs are bits of flying glass
the colored edges cut into
my eyes
and looking through the salty mist
i saw that you knew how to risk
and father said -- all else is a lie

and when you couldn't take no more
you went out through an open door
looking for your blinding field of hay
you left us rich but feeling sad
cause you were sane and we were mad
but i guess
that's the price you pay
     for sunflowers

~ Ric Masten, Dragonflies, Codfish & Frogs
There is music which goes to this poem. 
It is published in this volume of poetry.

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