Symbolism is a really interesting topic. There is symbolism in the arts... music, poetry, literature, dance, theater and painting. One of the reasons I stopped doing art altogether in high school is because of symbolism.
I was in my senior year at boarding school, and I got to take my first art class. Woot! The other students were awesome... really well developed, intimidatingly so. I hadn’t done art since popsicle sticks in 3rd grade or gimp lanyards and tie dye at summer camp. We were initially working in charcoal and our assignment was to go draw something. We didn’t really get much instruction on how to use charcoal, line, cross hatching or mass drawing. Here’s a giant sketch pad and some charcoal. Go out and draw. Nothing about composition or design. Cleary the modern school of art approach. Don’t sully their minds with classical detritus, as it could interfere with their creativity’s or some such rot. Don’t get me wrong, after four years of Latin, English, math, chemistry and physics or biology, I was happy to have an easy class.
So out I go with my charcoal and pad and do this rendering of my colonial 5 story dormitory with its cupola. Only there was a white cloud over the dorm. I didn’t know about negative space so... black charcoal, white paper... black cloud.
We did have critique... so I pin up my drawing thinking I had done a pretty good architectural sketch in charcoal, only to be told that the black cloud over the dorm symbolizes some sort of negativity or malfeasance toward the object of the dorm, i.e. my outlook, somehow. Hmmm... not that I felt that way, but it bothered me. I did not mind the Rorschach test as a five year old because, hey, they thought duck billed pallatapus was cheeky at five. But this was different, people were making up stuff about my art, more so making up stuff about my mind or mental state of which I was wholly unaware.
I didn’t want anyone looking into my brain; unless, I consciously understood why I made some representation in art... no Freudian doo doo, no Victor Frankl meanings. I’ve since gotten past it and learned heaps about symbolism thanks to my Mentor Walt Bartman. I now own a dictionary of symbolism, and google is my friend, retrospectively at least. I don’t know about, say, looking up symbolism proactively... like what’s the symbol for this or that.
After I was divorced at 50, a friend introduced me Bukowski’s works... so in modern art, I could do a piece made out of anything and call it symbolic of whatever... Duchamp’s Fountain urinal (1917) comes to mind. I’ve learned that the sun is symbolic of the mother, a rooster the father. I’m all set now, sunsets and roosters and whatever Sigmund said.
I had another experience in high school, though. I had this 5 tube acrylic Liquitex starter paint set (three primaries, white and black) and we had this unfinished plywood partition in the dorm between the corner room and the single room next to it. I painted this cat as a sphinx, with wings on the plywood. It was representational, but multicolored in an abstract way. The next day, I get a phone call from home and my mom tells me that my 17 year old Siamese cat died. that was way too woo woo and connected for me. So, I stopped doing art until I was probably 36 and went back to college.
Then I took some art courses at university (twenty year plan). At 36, my employer sent me to some transformational workshop (RIP Terry). They sort of changed the trajectory of my life, definitely opened my eyes to more unearthed stuff in my brain, unearthed to me, anyway. Out of that training I got to look back at my childhood and see what it was I liked and enjoyed. So one Saturday, I declared myself an artist. I no longer refer to myself as an artist. I’m just a painter. I still consider myself an artist and I’m passionate about art, just artist is a little pretentious, maybe. I could talk about art all day.
When I was painting in the Bahamas with Walt at a New Years, plein air painting workshop on Elbow Cay (2008), he told us that “flowers and fruits [nuts, like coconuts] are the sex organs of plants... go out paint them that way. No symbolism there, but something, intention maybe. That and innuendo for painting titles sell better than, say, Flower #5.