Alice Walker uses Virginia Woolf’s phrase “contrary instincts” to describe the creative spirit that her female ancestors valued while working and living in oppressive conditions. Throughout Walkers essay she made many connections between these “contrary instincts” and how she perceived the constraints on the knowledge of women in her childhood era. Although, the knowledge Walker talks about in her essays is not the kind that most people think of when they hear the word. It is the knowledge and creative spirit of ourselves that she talks about; the primary source of what we need to get us through life.
She made the relation of how women used art to express their creative spirit; their knowledge. Walker depicted how her ancestors expressed their knowledge through their creative spirits, whether it be through sewing a quilt or creating a garden. She tries to get us to realize that all we have to do is to find our hidden creative spirit and that will be where we will find our knowledge. Walker speaks about how creative spirit can be passed down from generation to generation. At the age of 17 Walker’s mother ran away from home to be married.
While taking care of six children, Alice’s mother also had to battle with a white landlord over her children’s education, make clothes for all of her children, make sheets and towels, can vegetables and fruits, and still find some time in the day to make quilts. Alice’s mother barely had time to deal with obstacles pertaining to her own creative spirit. Alice looked up to her mother because of all the suffering she endured while finding time for herself to be creative with her flower garden.
According to Alice’s views on the heredity of someone’s creative spirit, she believes that her creativity came from her mother. Walker states that “We have constantly looked high, when we should have looked high- and low” (744). She is referring to the fact that maybe the things that hold people back are the things that make our creative spirit. Sometimes people search for their creative spirit in some of the most interesting of places, when it is usually right there in front of them. Alice continues to speak of a quilt that is hanging in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D. C.
The quilt was made by an unknown black woman in Alabama from “bits and pieces” of insignificant rags. Even though it is only bits and pieces of someone’s creative spirit, it still shows right through the meaningless pieces of cloth. Looking back at the lives of my mother and grandmother I can only see these two women completely lost in a sea of children and chores. When could they find the time to let their creative spirits loose? Then I read Walker’s piece and my eyes opened. I’d forgotten about the gardens.
As in “In search of my mothers gardens” both my mother and grandmother have gardens. They planted flowers, ferns, and vines. They gave each other clippings from their most mature plants so that the plant could grow in the other’s garden. The two of them would tour each other’s garden to talk about what was growing well that season or which plant was on its last leg. Gardening was the common thread that bonded them as mother and daughter, and as women. They intertwined their creative spirits with nature to create gardens-to create themselves.
Alice Walker challenges us, as art does, to make sure that we do not overlook what might be true to our existence; of who we really are. She is trying to get us to look deeper than we thought we ever could, to find our creative spirit, our knowledge and heritage and to give it new life. “a woman who still struggles to sing the song that was your gift,….. It is not so much that you sang, as that you kept alive, in so many of our ancestors, the notion of song. ” (743) We cannot let our voices be muffled by your own lack of awareness.
Walker is showing us that it is our responsibility to represent our mothers’ and grandmothers’ voices, to keep their creative spirit burning through the night; and when we die it will not be a flame being put out, but a candle being extinguished so that the morning sun can shine. Judging an artist based on skin color or gender will get us nowhere. A piece of art can challenge your opinions, inspire your creative spirit, and take you on a journey to find your hidden knowledge. Art asks the viewer to go deeper to find the true core of their creative spirit. We must know a piece of art’s history to do it justice.
If we do not know its background behind a piece of art, we are only confusing ourselves even more, thereby depriving ourselves of history, which certainly belongs to us. It is in these artistic expressions that Walker tries to get us to find our creative spirit. For her mother it was her garden, as it is for my mother. Walker tries to get us to understand that our creative spirit is the knowledge of ourselves, and that our spirit is all we need to get us through life. Through art and other forms of creative spirit, we find knowledge; of what came before us and of the things that are passed on from our relatives.
Our creative spirit and knowledge is who we are and what we do. There is always room for us to grow through out our life time, to expand on the knowledge that we will pass down to our kids. In a sense it is as though our creative spirit is our trademark. When Walker chose the title for her piece, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” she made it very appropriate and fitting to the inflection towards knowledge and self discovery. When examining the essay from a literal level, you see that Alice was looking at her mother’s garden as an example of Woolf’s “contrary instincts,” and the creative spirit that she was so curious about.
Whereas examining her work from a symbolic level, the title is plural, showing that there are other people that may be in search of the creative spirit that is passed down from generation to generation; although it may not necessarily be in the form of a physical garden. Whereas instead people are still looking for their symbolic “garden” which Walker tries to get us to see. Through out her essay Walker shows us that it is not the diploma in our hand, but the spirit in our heart that will guide us to happiness in our life.