Saturday, April 24, 2010


The only thing I dislike more than artificial flowers is when I am fooled by artificial flowers. Sometimes you just can't tell until they don't die. (The only thing worse than a brown-orange Christmas wreath hanging on a door in March is a bright green one.) An artificial flower will never enter this house if, er... I can help it. But my resolve is weakening. At church, if a bride asks if it's OK to have artificial flowers at a wedding, my current answer is, "No -- unless you can fool me real good."

Twenty years ago I had a classic wooden picket fence built around our back yard. It was functional, and I liked the way it would weather into that old gray look as the years passed. The years have passed. It has weathered. It is rotting. I'm thinking of replacing it with a fence made of artificial (or "composite") materials, and I just ordered composite planks for a deck to replace our crumbling back steps, and I'm thinking of replacing our cedar shake siding with fiber cement shingles ("Hardie Plank") instead of painting it for the third time in twenty years. I should say here that I haven't run any of these ideas past my bookkeeper yet, but long-term economy is certainly part of the equation. And calculating the environmental effect of building a fence out of cut-down trees vs. recycled garbage bags is another (related) subject for another time.

However -- economy and ecology aside -- the reason I'm thinking about any of these options that I wouldn't have considered twenty years ago is, as it turns out, tied to the ancient artist's technique of trompe l'oeil -- to "trick the eye." While on the one hand it may seem phony to say that as long as I can't tell the difference, then go ahead, on the other hand, this is part of a grand old tradition practiced even by the old masters. But it's not limited to high art; there is precedent in the builder's craft as well. Grand Victorian homes often feature a paneling effect that achieves the desired wood grain by clever painting. Is it OK to say that as long as my eye is tricked, I'll buy it?

I'm still persuaded that genuine flowers on the church altar (and similar expressions) are representative of the organic realities of the faith: God's creative will for a good earth and a good life, the reality of death, and the promise of new life. But we now allow those flickering little electric candles (verrry hard to discern at only a few feet away) to decorate the pews at a wedding so that the church won't burn down.

This proclivity for all things natural has been an important part of my generation's ethos. We think of our parents' generation as inventing artificial stuff, and we've reacted against it: Back to the land, and back to wooden picket fences. But I'm wondering what's at stake here (no pun intended). I don't have an answer to that. It's a real question. I'm wondering.
Images: Top - Fence made of recycled plastic and wood fibers. Bottom - A trompe l'oeil "dome" at Jesuit Church, Vienna, painted by Andrea Pozzo. The eye is fooled, indeed.


Anonymous said...

This whole topic of artifice is one so rich that it would need an evening-long discussion around a cozy fire, glasses of red wine in hand. But if that's a trompe l'oeil mantle above the fireplace, don't try to set your wine glass on it! The main purpose of trompe l'oeil was to simulate the appearance of something else, without any real attempt to achieve that other item's function. Our modern world has now given us materials and methods that perform the old functions better than their predecessors, but we are not happy unless they also simulate the appearance of the beloved old. I read your blog on what might be called an "artificial" book. I have in my mouth several "artificial" teeth. And you are considering building and "artificial" fence. Each of these is born of technology which makes it arguably better than its "real" forebear, yet we are not happy unless it looks just like the original. The artificial book allows the reader to pretend to turn pages, just like a paper book. My artificial teeth are color- matched to their food-and-wine-stained neighbors. And if the plastic planks of your ersatz wood fence doesn't look just like wood, you'll be afraid of what the neighbors (and wife and know-it-all friends) will say. You will never have to paint that fence. You will never have to replace a rotted post. Yet you and I want it to look as much like its paint-shedding, post-rotting predecessor as possible. It must be a very human need, this clinging to the beauty of the old ways and materials. But if the material in your new fence succeeds in being a dead ringer for actual wood, there is something that we will find even more despicable about it. Craftier. Sneakier. More artificial. We will never be satisfied.

Richard Jorgensen said...

Your words are wise, my friend. I suppose, by extension, we could say that the factory-milled boards of my wooden picket fence are an artificial copy of the hand-sawn variety. A corollary to my blog (and your observations)is that if money (and time) were no object, I would prefer real wood -- as long as I had "people" or time to stain, paint, or replace it when needed. If money were an object (which it is) I wouldn't consider an inexpensive chain-link fence. There is something here about the eye and the touch.

Beret Froehle said...

Interesting topic, Dad. I was in a local coffee shop on Friday and while I was waiting for my latte the owner was bring 2 huge, beautiful pots of flowers outside to decorate the entrance. I commented on how lovely I thought they were and the girl making my coffee whispered to me, "they're fake." I was #1: surprised and #2 shocked that fake could look so good and #3 fooled by fake flowers for the first time in my life (as far as I know)!

As far as the fence goes, as the owner of a "charming fixer-upper" I say, go with the fake. Anything that won't have to be replaced in the next few years is a big PLUS!