|At the Aquarium, ©Adriana Díaz, 2001|
Wednesday, August 5, 2015
The Art of Seeing
Soon I begin to teach a painting class to senior citizens. Some have painted for years, so it will be a very collaborative process. As I’ve been advised that some have problems with their vision, I’ve been thinking a lot about seeing. I have a whole collection of books on seeing: Some are about drawing, some are commentary on the way our seeing is trained by mass media. There are also excellent reflections about seeing in books about writing. Here, for example, is advice from the Japanese haiku master, Matsu Basho: “ . . .when you see an object, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself, otherwise you impose yourself on the object, and do not learn.”
This philosophy is at the core of learning to draw. There is a wonderful set of books written (by hand) by the late Frederick Frank, who taught drawing through that Eastern philosophy of Basho. One of my favorite teachings from Frank is that if you cannot draw a thing, you are not seeing it. Drawing is a practice of coordinating the eye and the hand. So the drawing is a record of your seeing.
Of course we use our sight on a daily basis to maneuver through the world, and we don’t have time to stop and let go of our ego in order to commune with the objects around us. In fact, John Berger, in his seminal series, Ways of Seeing, pointed out that “We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” So, the challenge in creating art, or in perceiving anything in a new way, is dependent on stopping the eye, and focusing the self. Basho might say, let “the thing” teach you. “The thing” may be an object or a person, a philosophy, an invention, or an idea.
Seeing can be an unconscious ability we take for granted, or it can be a practice: a way of being fully present in the world. How we see is far more dependent on our behavior than it is on the technical ability of the eye to see. You will be amazed at how much the eye can show you once you stop and focus.
In the Introduction to Freeing the Creative Spirit, I recount an experience I had in college, when I was learning to draw. Actually I was learning to see, but the class was called Drawing 101. The intense seeing during drawing class opened my heart and mind to how much of the world I’d never seen. It was difficult and demanding, but amazing. Usually my sight reverted to utilitarian seeing as soon as class was over. Except, one day it didn’t.
“One morning . .my eyes didn’t go back to their old pattern. Instead, the sight I was cultivating stayed with me, and as I left the art building and crossed the patio . . .I was literally stopped in my tracks. Every boulder, every leaf, every wooden bench seemed to be speaking to me.
I can only say that I felt as if each thing were revealing itself and calling out to me. . .The air, the light, the objects, even my own body, seemed porous and exposed. A window to another dimension of life had opened to me. I felt stunned at first, then privileged, as if I’d been allowed into another realm of the universe.”
I stayed in that state for two days, then “the window” closed. Nothing in my religious practice had given me such an experience, though I’d been a devout Catholic throughout childhood. So drawing took on the dimension of a sacred practice to me. Even after “the window” closed, I felt that I’d been let in on a secret, a parallel energy life of the planet. Seeing, the kind of seeing that Basho taught to haiku poets, is also a powerful way of being a conscious and grateful presence in the world.