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The Art of Seeing

by Celia Coates

LOOKING BACK LIFE WAS BEAUTIFUL is a book by a pair of Korean grandparents who painted charming pictures (Grandpa Chan) and wrote accompanying descriptions (Grandma Marina) to stay in touch with their grandchildren when they lived far away. What they created together began as a simple posting on Instagram and then was enjoyed by so many people, that it went viral. Here are Grandma Marina’s words about what she saw during the gallery show that was held later for part of their large audience.

She gave what she wrote the title, I Just Looked On,
“On the first day of our exhibition, a man came into the gallery tapping a long, thin stick on the ground in front of him.
He had a helper, too, who walked alongside him.
They can’t have come to see the pictures, surely?’

 But my commonsense thinking was too commonsense that day.  I was wrong.
They stopped and stood in front of each picture. I can’t even tell you how nervous I felt as I watched them. The helper would stop in front of a picture and describe its every detail. After she had spoken for a while, they would move along to the next one. They both looked very content.

 I wanted to stand nearby and listen, but I thought I should be careful not to disturb them, so I just looked on from across the gallery.
I looked on with my heart trembling.
Can you imagine what the pictures might have looked like in that man’s mind?”

This small and sensitive story caught my attention. The pictures we see in our minds are beyond important – they are central to who we are and how we live.

Sometimes one thing catches my attention and then another thing comes to mind and I begin to put them together – it’s like creating a collage.

The second scrap that was added for this post came from the book by Betty Edwards, DRAWING ON THE DOMINANT EYE. It was her definition of imagination,
“The ability to mentally form new ideas, images, or concepts about external objects not physically present.”

That’s a little narrow for me. Yes, imagination is about what the mind creates but not just about external objects. Grandma Marina was wondering what might be going on in the imagination of the blind man, a kind of imagining his imagination.

Next, I remembered an old book by Sir Kenneth Clark, the British art historian who published LOOKING AT PICTURES in 1960. (Some readers think I include too many quotes in my posts. But that is how my mind often puts things together, so here are some more.)

Clark wrote,
“I fancy that one cannot enjoy a pure aesthetic sensation … for longer than one can enjoy the smell of an orange, which in my case is less than two minutes; but one must look attentively at a great work of art for longer than that….”
He added,
“I believe one can learn to interrogate a picture in such a way as to intensify and prolong the pleasure it gives one, and if … art must do something more than give pleasure, then just ‘knowing what one likes,’ will not get one very far. Art is not a lollipop…. The meaning of a great work of art, or the little of it that we can understand, must be related to our own life in such a way as to increase our energy of spirit.”

“Energy of spirit” – this was an amazing thing for him to write in 1960. I wish I could ask him what he meant. Although I would not want to be without any of them, seeing is my favorite of the senses – after the sixth sense – and it certainly increases my energy of spirit. What does this pair of words mean for you?

Clark wrote about “interrogating” a picture and Betty Edwards wrote about developing our ability to perceive by disciplining how we see, by teaching ourselves how to look at the world around us. (The subtitle of her latest book about the “dominant eye” is Decoding the Way We Perceive, Create, and Learn.)

She wrote,
Drawing images of what we see requires the special seeing/drawing abilities…that are apparently limited to human beings alone out of all the creatures of this planet (unless someday we find a chimpanzee or an elephant out in the wild drawing another chimpanzee or elephant). Amazingly, prehistoric humans practiced this singular innate human ability to see and draw in aesthetically beautiful, realistic cave drawings of animals created as long ago as 35,000 BC. Today, the practice of that innate capability is limited to a small minority of people. By not valuing and not continuing this specific kind of seeing, are we missing something? If in childhood we were all trained to draw … the way that nearly all of us are trained today to read and speak and write, would it make a difference?”

 Edwards has a lot to say that I found useful, information that I do not know myself, so here’s more quoting.
“Drawing slows down perception. Visual information that might be glossed over, or actually not seen at all in more casual ‘looking and naming,’ provides a pathway to the real goal, understanding. This is the difference between fast seeing in order to name, and slow seeing through drawing, which provides a pathway to choose true goals of drawing: perception, comprehension, and appreciation.”

 In recent centuries people have been taught to emphasize words and downplay the importance of images, and Edwards says,
“The dominance of written language over seeing/drawing is now complete: language, words, and writing largely rule human life.”

But there is hope!
“Gradually, however, a new change seems to have been taking place over the last hundred years. Visual imagery has begun to increasingly challenge the dominance of spoken and printed language in ordinary life.”
Now we have photography, movies, TV, all the visual communication presented by the internet, and emojis.

Again, from Edwards, a definition,
“CREATIVITY: The ability to find new solutions to problems or new modes of expressing ideas, to find hidden patterns, to connect unrelated things or ideas, to bring into existence something new to the individual and to the culture. Writer Arthur Koestler added the requirement that the new creation should be socially useful.”

Combining words and pictures (like the useful pairing of the blind man and his helper) produces a wider understanding for us than using either alone. That’s also what Grandpa Chan and Grandma Marina did with combining his lovely paintings with her poetic words. Once upon a time I created an art room as a “visual Keynote” for a series of conferences. Listening to the words of the invited speakers and teachers was wonderful and the learning was enriched, I believed, with people being able to see and involve themselves with related art projects. The most frequent comment I heard was something like, “I can’t draw” or “I’m not creative.” That’s an ongoing problem! We are all creative, we all have imaginations as well as intellects. And we can learn to use words and images together to live more fully – and happily.

Long ago, our ancient ancestors knew the power of images and created some paintings that still touch us today.

*     *     *     *     *
LOOKING BACK LIFE WAS BEAUTIFUL: A Celebration of Love from the creators of @drawing-for-my-grandchildren, Grandpa Chan and Grandma Marina, 2020

LOOKING AT PICTURES, Kenneth Clark, Beacon Press, Boston, 1960.

DRAWING ON THE DOMINANT EYE: Decoding the Way We Perceive, Create, and Learn, Betty Edwards, A TarcherPerigree Book, An Imprint of Penguin Random House, 2020