The Iris

by Marie Paquet Nesson

The Zen artist tries to suggest by the simplest means the inherent nature of the aesthetic object.
From “Zen Buddhism and its Relationship to Elements of Eastern and Western Art” by Fredric Lieberman

My iris story begins with what I hoped would be a career of both fame and fortune. Some year in the mid-1950’s, Jordan Marsh, the venerable old Boston department store, now nonexistent, put out a call for a teenage model. I mailed in a Brownie camera photo of myself along with a much labored-over essay, “Why I Want to be Marsha Jordan.” Alas, mine was not chosen. Neither were my friends’. The disappointment, however, deterred neither them nor me from making Jordan Marsh a favorite Saturday afternoon destination. Taking the trolley from our suburban homes into town and examining the latest window displays somehow confirmed our superior sophistication, the Marsha Jordan winner notwithstanding.

Years later, sometime in the mid 1970’s, after a twenty-year absence from Boston, I still felt the lure of Jordan Marsh. The slow trolley ride was no longer, but the much faster MBTA Green Line took me nearly to the doorstep of my favorite department store. On this day, the display windows were arresting in a pallet of white, black, gray, and small amounts of red. Japanese-influenced designs in both home goods and women’s fashions were starkly simple.

And, maybe just to be sure that the Western eye was educated enough to buy all things “in the manner of,” a Japanese brush painting demonstration was taking place on the ground floor. Beyond the long glass jewelry counter which groaned with every kind of jade, a fifteen-foot square platform, three feet high, had been erected.

Three Japanese men were seated along one side of the platform stage. Two of them looked to be in their 50s and were wearing Western suits complete with shirts and ties. The attire made them look awkward as they sat cross-legged on the floor. The third man was very old. He looked timeless. He was spare. He wore a simple kimono of a muted color. He looked perfectly appropriate sitting there, not cross-legged, but neatly on his slim folded legs.

All three had plain white sheets of paper in front of them. Each was creating a brush painting. The first two men made rather intricate landscapes and, on completion, stood, walked to the opposite side, and laid their work to dry. Side by perfect side, they lay there, drying. The third artist made paintings as spare as he. Several strokes only, completed a flower or animal. Upon finishing, and remaining seated, he held his painting aloft and, with a gentle fling, the painting floated across the platform on its own and landed, even more perfectly than the rest, beside the previously placed painting.

I was standing behind his left shoulder. My eyes were on the blank white paper before him as he began again. He held his brush of black paint in his right hand. My eyes remained on the paper. Suddenly, I saw his strokes pull an iris out of the paper. Literally! I saw the iris move. I saw the iris move out of the paper. It was as though I were watching some sort of film.

The finished flower, although beautiful, was overshadowed by the magic I had just witnessed.

Irises have been my favorite flower ever since I was a child in my mother’s garden. They are, still.


(first appeared in
Constellations vol. 1)