““I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.”—The Color Purple by Alice Walker
My favorite pair of gloves are purple. They are not quite dark enough because I want the shade to conceal stains. That sounds practical, but I also prefer the shadows, which are not always practical. Just now I have fabrics spread out over the floor again. I am looking at a triad of deep purples and lime-sage greens and brilliant bittersweet, all batik. Waiting all over the floor because I have no wall space. Not practical.
My walls are painted pale tints of plummy gray, but what draws me to purple is the darkness. Purple has a royal association for many people, a sophisticated color. It might remind me of pain. As one example, I have been thrown from horses, kicked and bitten by them. People do die falling from a horse, but for pure suffering during recovery, I cannot recall anything more painful than that perfect purple-dark bruise risen on my shoulder that took a month to begin fading. That is what I think of first when I think of purple.
Violets have volunteered in our front garden. There is mostly only sand from where we removed the deck, the montbrecias coming up everywhere and mowed half down by the rabbits. (The rabbits have become large, and yesterday we watched one eat an entire dandelion—good bunny.) but just at the edge, between the expanse of sand and the hedge. a violet.
Many things that are called purple are not purple at all. Male purple finches have a reddish head. Purple prose is the overblown decorative fluff that gives English teachers a headache. On the other hand, blueberries are more purple than blue. The indigenous blue huckleberries make purple pies. Carrots were originally a purple root—the orange we know today is a sport that became so popular in Europe the original color is an oddity in modern markets. Few would consider purple carrots anything but fantasy.
The tall flower spikes of Digitalis purpurea, as its name suggests, is usually light purple. When we were young, my girlfriends and I plucked the hollow flowers from foxglove spires as tall as ourselves. They bloomed on the edge of the woods and we slipped a glove onto each finger. We knew the flowers (and the stems, leaves, and roots) are toxic. Digitalis is the medicine my grandfather took for his heart, and too much can kill, but we ran with our purple-gloved fingers fanned before us in games. I always assumed that the foxglove of childhood games and that I saw along my drive to work each June was native. But it is an invasive species, just another European, like most of my ancestors. Maybe this is the source of my complicated love affair with purple.
The Purple Heart is a military medal for physical injury in the field of battle—implying nothing about the actions of the wounded, other than to honor the wound. An award for suffering.
Pretty purple things: amethyst and iolite and tanzanite and the opaque sugilite. The thick petals of orchids can be many colors, but the color “orchid” is violet. I have dyed wool lavender with iris flowers. That iris tint fades in sunlight. It is fragrance as much as hue: violets and lavender, the tuberose, iris, lilac scents. Somehow I associate purple as much with folly as with bloom—the pain bruises.
Yet, as a textile artist, it is the color I reach for, covet, value and strand in weaving. I choose to spice yellows or orange in a composition, to spark pinks or green. It is a hue that wants to shove gray around. And that is probably appropriate since purple has a long association with power. The ancient Tyrian purple dye worn by popes and sovereigns for thousands of years was harvested from the mucous of three species of predatory sea snails, known collectively as Murex. The fluid protects the unhatched eggs of the shellfish and drives off predators. It can be harvested by killing the snail, but also through “milking” the mucous gland of the creature. Rare but stubborn, the color, a clear reddish-violet to my modern eye, withstands fading through wear, light, and washing. The dye was already ancient when Aristotle, who was so right about some principles and so very wrong about so many particulars, detailed its production.
In the mid-nineteenth century, a British chemist invented the first aniline dye, originally called Tyrian purple and then marketed as mauve, a delicate, slightly grayed, reddish-purple. (Mauve pronounced with a long O, not a soft ah sound.) The first chemically created color ever. It is on the edge of being a cool color, found on the color wheel opposite yellow-greens.
In youth I leaned to warmer colors—orange, vermillion, russet reds, dusty pinks, burgundy, and wine red. My preferences changed over the years and purple moved from a supporting role in accessories to center stage. This shift is reflected not only in what I wear, but in what I want to touch. I wore bellbottoms striped in black, lime, pink, and purple when I was fourteen. I dyed my hair purple when I was sixty, a joke on the old ladies of my childhood who used rinses to counter yellowing that turned their gray hair from murky yellowing gray to distinctly violet.
Purple is the foil that makes paler, more timid tints dance. Purple is the look-at-me color, associated with power, with royalty, nobility, Lent, Easter, and Mardi Gras, but very rarely named as favorite. Studies suggest that it is a color preferred by artistic folk, more often women than men, older adults rather than younger ones, and that was the character of the room when I took a class taught by Jungians on Art Therapy.
Sandra Cisneros had to fight conservative design review to paint her San Antonio, Texas Victorian home purple, a periwinkle blue, and pale blue-violet tint by my estimation, but the color proved to be historically accurate. There are painted ladies in San Francisco—not women, but the grand tall Victorian mansions of that city—painted in shades of violet. A favorite house in Seattle is a smokey violet shade I found on a paint chip called “Stetson” with a bright red door in the 70s before that became cliché. Hyacinth macaws are purple, and the queen of England is known to wear tints of that particular blue-violet. It is stitched into the border of a a sari or the facing of an Afghan dress.
It makes a pattern in concrete sidewalks, city sidewalks built with glass “prisms” faceted to direct light to anyone working in the spaces beneath. Clear glass pavers were made with manganese to clarify the glass, but eventually the iron that once clouded the glass swaps ions with manganese and over years of exposure to sunlight, the clear glass turns purple. There are such sidewalks across the country in Texas and British Columbia, Seattle and New York City. Nearby in Astoria, broken pavers have been replaced. Many have been damaged over the years, but the surviving glass in sidewalks is generally quite purple.
Violet is on the edge of wavelength in light that humans can see. Shorter X-rays and gamma rays and ultraviolet exist beyond the visible violet, just as microwaves and radio waves lie on the other side of the light spectrum beyond red. The rainbow shows purple inside the sweep to fairy gold. Some gifts seem the work of the supernatural. In The Color Purple, while discussing their view of God, Shug tells Celie she thinks God wants to be loved, “I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.” We are supposed to appreciate the gift.
We are supposed to appreciate the gift of that richness and precarious pleasure, the flower that blooms for a day, the shellfish that guards its eggs with purple mucous, the semi-precious gemstone, the pebble in the water, and even the fresh bump on an elbow, the toxic flower that cups a fingertip, the fine line between the violet we can see and the next shade over that is invisible to our eyes. There is beauty, but concealment too, a warning both ways. My purple gloves are meant only to protect my hands from the cold. In sunny weather I require some other protection. It is ultraviolet that burns our skin.