The fall semester begins in two weeks and I’m trying to find a starting point/points for art-making this academic year. (It’s my last one, which means thesis time.) This is what I was thinking about/where I had landed by the time my end-of-semester review came around last spring.
I. new glasses
In first grade, I was prescribed glasses for the first time. As Mom drove us home in the green minivan, I remember raising and lowering the frames from my eyes and reveling in the newfound crispness as it passed by. There were trees and a field of tall grass and telephone wires, and all of a sudden this world of soft color had brand new sharp edges.
This physical shift in the way my eyes processed information, in turn, changed the way I see the world. Perhaps this is why I love line as an art element, an instinctual and affirming reaction to something I didn’t know I was missing before that first pair of glasses.
Either way, those lenses were important. After gaining the ability to see, losing it becomes terrifying. I’m reminded of this every time I misplace my glasses or knock them off my bedside table – there’s an awareness of vulnerability that comes with the inability to see clearly. It’s uncomfortable, and produces a visceral reaction: find your damn glasses. NOW.
Let me see.
II. a window
Last spring, I noticed a window. “Last spring” mattered because I’d been walking past it for at least three years and never seen it before; this window mattered because I was surprised by its loveliness in an otherwise nondescript setting. Tiny, it sat at an odd height on the brick wall and was lined by four small potted plants on the inner sill.
Noticing that window was a turning point for the way I think about sight. Somewhere in the years since first grade and new glasses, I’d gotten the idea that seeing is wholly intuitive. (And surely I, as a visual artist, could see well enough on my own.) This was my wake up call: if I wanted to experience beauty, notice interesting things, and see people otherwise overlooked – I’d have to pay much better attention. For the first time, seeing was something I realized I needed to learn how to do – like anything else, improving takes practice and discipline. And like many things – it didn’t come naturally.
Learning to see (that is: learning to notice and to pay attention) requires presence. It demands presence actually – of mind, eyes, body, spirit – in a way that this gets-stuck-in-her-head kind of girl is not used to. I know to pay attention in museums and classrooms and intellectual conversations but this new practice is teaching me to honor the everyday as well.
That window taught me that for the artist, everything is reference material. And as a person, there’s value in seeing and engaging with the “is” instead of always reverting to the sometimes easier “what if”.
The first verse of the well-known hymn “Amazing Grace” ends with these words:
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see
We read stories of divinity touching blind eyes, giving sight in the days before modern optometry – and healing eyes blinded by pride and fear and the inward-looking desperation to be enough.
My experience of grace is this: first, to be found. Seen. Held. I’m learning the palms-up posture of receiving, and the related gesture of offering – grace to myself and to the people around me.
Now, by grace, I see.