As far as books go, Everything Flowers (Chronicle Books, $22.95) may just be my favorite to come out of the Bay Area this year. And not for its revelatory prose or whip-smart characters (it has neither). The small volume is filled with Clare Rojas' quietly woman-centric, garden-toned designs that – can a book do this? – make me feel supported. I found myself breathing deeply while reading it, as if I'd just shook an asymmetrically packed satchel from my shoulders.
Resolved: I'd either get the heliotropic flower design tattooed on my skin, or I would meet the illustrator. Life being what it is, the latter proved to be the most accessible mission -- and I'm glad that it was. Being in a room with Mission School vanguard Rojas is an experience akin to sitting quietly with Everything Flowers – or for that matter, listening to the breathy guitar folk of her alter ego, singer Peggy Honeywell. She creates calming, deep, feminine moments.
“I feel so much pain being a woman in this world that I just wanted to create a safe place for them.”
Rojas barely seems to take up space in the interview room we've somewhat incongruously occupied at Chronicle Books, the company that published her most recent bound project. But behind her quiet presence, there's a solidity. You have to lean in close to hear what she's saying – in making you come to her, it's like she's subverting the model of self-promotional artist.
Everything Flowers, like the rest of Rojas' canon, draws on the “super Americana, super Ohio” quilt art she saw her mother create when she was young. Rojas is fond of telling a story about visiting the place her mother used to attend quilting circles. All the cars in the parking lot, she says, were of the radical bumper sticker variety.
“There's a certain energy and power with the way women express themselves,” she reflects when I ask her why she draws on these historical forms for her own very modern work. “When you make somebody lasagna it's like love – and not sexy-time love either.”
When Chronicle Books approached her to do a book from which they could also cull art for pretty notecards and a gardening journal, it seemed a perfect fit for Rojas. After many years of what she felt to be acutely political work – the feminist mythology obliquely present behind her past gallery shows – she was ready to “let go of politics and just focus on beauty.” She was ready to draw some flowers, to heal for a moment.
She says. But as she takes me through the gorgeous pages of the book, it's clear that some of the images (which were created between 2004 and 2010), hold significance for her past the simple desire to represent beauty. But good luck finding out the dirt on them – Rojas is an extraordinarily private person for our world of status updates and “about the author” pages. She tells me she's “shy” about the paintings in the book, their hidden meanings so deeply personal that she feels weird seeing them on the page for others to examine. The most I get are small chinks in the armor I can peek through if I feel so inclined:
“Becoming an adult, figuring out what you stand for – the garden couldn't be a better metaphor for growth.”
Turning to a page with a fuschia design: “That one, I just enjoy painting flowers.”
A radiating eye: “This one's political for me.”
What are these politics Rojas keeps talking about? Again, personal. “I always feel like politics start in the home. If we can't get it straight there...” she shrugs her shoulders, and holds my gaze.
It could have made for a real boring interview. But there's something about Rojas that put me at ease, even if I didn't understand quite what she was talking about, or even if we were talking about anything at all besides the literal words coming out of our mouths. After so many years of creating art in San Francisco, she is comfortable in her work. I'd entered the safe space.
"Blue Deer," whose original now hangs in gate room G of SFO's international terminal
Now, I'll look at Everything Flowers and read my own stories on its pages, my frustrations and quiet victories as a female. This too, it seems, is part of Rojas' plan. “You can only tend your own garden. If you're happy and taking care of yourself, that resonates too.”
Everything Flowers book release
Fri/6 6-8 p.m., free
220 Clement, SF
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