Feeding the eyes

J. Ruth Gendler, USA

Artist, writer and teacher, she has been interested in the intersection of art and writing, language and vision, since a child and is the author of 'The Book of Qualities'.

(Submitted by The Art of Living Team)

The more I study and imagine how people and animals see the world and process what they see, the less certain I am about what the words visible and invisible, realistic and abstract, beautiful and ugly mean. What's abstract and what's realistic depends on the kind of lens you are looking through.

The pattern of stars looks like an electron map. A physicist photographs flawed crystals under the microscope, and with their crisp, geometric shapes and bright colors, they look like contemporary abstract paintings. It is the flawed crystals that have the beautiful forms.

What is invisible, whether it's the ultraviolet patterns on white flowers as vivid as launching pads to bees or the heat of the infrared that snakes see, may simply be something that our eyes are not structured to see.

Through attention and study, empathy and imagination, we appreciate how partial our seeing is, how many other ways there are to see, how much beauty we see, and how much beauty we don't see. Taking a walk with different people offers a vivid reminder that by training and affinity we have very different eyes. The prairie eye, the forest eye, the cat lover's eye, the cloud lover's eye, the eye that notices doors and windows, the oak and alder eye, the suspicious eye, the generous eye.

Walking in a familiar place with a new friend, walking in a new place with an old friend, walking with young children (is it because they are so close to the ground that they are willing to stop, explore, sniff out so much more than the rest of us?) I am always surprised by what we say to each other and see together. I hike with an old friend in the Colorado mountains as she identifies wild flowers, reads evidence of elk in the grass, talks about her recent trip to Tibet. The words come not just from us talking, but from our being together in this place. My friends, with their vision and their language, enlarge my world, help me see beauty, give me my eyes.

My eye changes according to what is on my mind. Walking around my neighborhood on an early Sunday morning while I'm anticipating taking down an awkward fence that breaks up my backyard, I see all kinds of fences - short wooden fences that mark a line but don't block the view, modern chain-link fences opposite beautifully weathered gray-brown fences, tired old falling-down fences next to young, cheerful fences, rough logs on the same street with sharp white pickets.

I didn't realize that fences could be so eloquent, awkward, charming, beautiful. I see how the same fence is repeated around the neighborhood to such different effects, left bare, painted red, painted green, white, or weathered. I see the way people's fences do or don't look like their houses, and then I watch the people come out of their houses, the way their houses do or do not resemble them. During the walks I take after my fence is down, I've stopped looking at fences. I'm focusing on studying the shadows of flowers and trees, the play between rocks and grasses. And then at different ways to construct a stone path.

To practice seeing more carefully is a wonderful assignment. To attempt to see more purely, to practice seeing out of one's own eyes. Alternate close observation and big imagining. Take a walk, and immediately afterward record ten images in words, in energetic sketches. Take a walk and imagine what someone else looks at, how someone else sees, what a cat notices, what a hawk focuses on, what a tree standing still in the same place knows.

The eyes feed the mind. Sometimes we try so hard to "change our minds," to not think certain thoughts. One of the most overlooked ways to change one's mind is to attend to what one looks at, to practice feeding one's eyes. To "change your mind," to interrupt anxiety or to practice gratitude or notice more beauty, pay attention to what you are literally looking at. Is it feeding the part of you that wants to be fed?

See where you are, not so much to locate yourself emotionally but physically. What are you looking at? Observe yourself in your surroundings. See who you are in this place. Do you want to keep your eyes here and change how you are using them? Look up, look out, look away. Look ahead, look into, look back. Do you want to go somewhere else and see something different?

Look at what you are looking at and see where you are. See who you are, see what you are a part of, not just to identify yourself, but to look at the world outside yourself and feel the exchange between your small self and this immense, astonishing world.

Excerpt from the book "Notes on the Need for Beauty" by J. Ruth Gendler. Published by Da Capo. Copyright 2007, J. Ruth Gendler.

Image credit: The King's Sadness, by Henri Matisse, 1952.



Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
Subscribe to our newsletter
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

* Required field