Back in graduate school days, my professor said that rainbows and unicorns were the hardest images to use. They are so clichéd that it is just about impossible to do anything new, or that will take you past the surface. After recalling this challenge, I decided to dig a bit deeper into the meanings of unicorns and rainbows. Rainbows seemed easy: clearing skies, pots of gold, and inclusiveness all come to mind. Still, I wanted to know more. I had not given unicorns a thought in years until I remembered a long ago visit to the Cloisters where we saw the famous tapestries that depict the beautiful and sad tale of a unicorn’s seduction and capture.
[Clockwise from top left: "Toby" original drawing by RineBoyer; Unicorn forest rug by SongPony; Unicorn pitcher from YesterdayAndTomorrow; Aurora the Unicorn by FauxFauna; Unicorn acrylic on paper by CalefBrown; "The Lady With the Unicorn" original oil painting by NaiveStudio]
We think of unicorns as mythological, but the ancients believed they were real. They were one of a crowd of elusive beasts inhabiting many old bestiaries.
[Clockwise from top left: Save the Narwhals T-shirt by CrazyDogTshirts; "Double Cone" print by ilovedoodle; Horn ring by Metalicious; 3 ft. Narwhal by MorningStarDesign; Narwhal and jellyfish painting by MikeBoston; Lollipops (assorted flavors) by AmysSweetDream]
At the Cloisters, what appeared to be a long, spiraling cane leaned against a wall. When I looked closer, I discovered it was a unicorn horn — rather, what had once been believed to be a unicorn horn. It was a tusk from a narwhal. I had never heard of the narwhal so it seemed just as exotic and strange as a unicorn; more so, because I had no idea what a narwhal was or looked like.
[Clockwise from top left: Rainbow mittens by ATIdesign; "Rainbow Abe" by JustinRichel; Rainbow spoons by SucreandSpice; Rainbow keyboard decals by NoisyBoyStore; "The Good Life" rainbow quilt by SewDarnQuilt]
Unlike unicorns, rainbows are real, depending on the right combination of light and moisture. Usually depicted as sky-bound arcs, it is impossible to actually touch a rainbow. A domesticated rainbow is created by a prism catching the light in just the right way, but when I reach to grasp it, my hand becomes the rainbow instead.
I never took up my professor’s challenge. After this recent thought exercise, I think I would approach it by contemplating that some things, no matter how much we wish for them, will never be real, while others, although real, will never be ours.
Cate Fitt, a.k.a. knitfitt, has been a member of Etsy since 2007 and is an experienced critic, curator and juror. She earned her MFA in fiber in 1978, later receiving an artist’s fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Through the years, she’s been a maker of one-of-a-kind hand-painted clothing, pottery, jewelry, and linocut and monotype prints. She lives in a little house close to the James River with two whippets named Moose and Peach.