Monday, June 28, 2010

The Four C's of Seeing

The following is the afterword I wrote for my memoir, "Anatomy of an Effup." In retrospect, it seems to break with the overall theme of the work and therefore I am giving it the old heave-ho. Still, it represents a fair bit of effort so I don't want to just stash it on some back shelf. Instead I am going to post it on here for your reading enjoyment. 

It's ridiculously long and parts of it have been posted before, but I hope you get something from it. 

Here goes...

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The truth about visual art is that it's not about having a magical power or really good fingertip coordination. It is about seeing. That's it. The rest is just practice. It is amazing to me how little anyone really sees the world around them - how much energy and effort we all expend to box it, objectifying and categorizing and symbolizing everything that comes before our eyes. We do this, I think, because we are very, very small and the world is very, very big, and often ugly. Fear grips us, and so we do violence to the world in hope that it will then make sense. "She's just a welfare queen," we say, or "that's just a wombat," or "televangelists are the Great Satan," or "white people suck."  This is how we are.

It is not, however, how our spirits yearn to be. When I learned to make visual art, I learned how to see. And thinking about this type of seeing has helped me to see, just a little clearer, the rest of my life. I hope it will help you, too.


"The Four 'Cs' of Seeing: Learning to See Contours, Contrast, Color, and Connections".

The first thing you must learn to see is CONTOURS. For the un-initiated, this just means the edges of things.

Here is what I want you to do. Go into a room where there is another human being and ask them to hold still. Grab a pencil and paper. Open your eyes. Try to look at that person.

I am sorry to tell you that you will fail. You cannot see them - not really - and so therefore you cannot draw them. Ever. This is very important, so I want you to remember it: when you look at someone you are not seeing them - you are only seeing an impression of what they seem to be from your perspective. At the beginning, when you are focusing on contours, all you are really doing is trying to look at imaginary lines between an object and the stuff that you see around it. These are called positive and negative spaces, respectively, and they are also not really there. You are not drawing reality, you are just drawing reality as it presents itself to you. Your eyes can see a lot, but they cannot see the capital "T" Truth.

So relax. Your main task is to communicate what you are seeing with only the power of suggestion. Try to see these imaginary edges of the larger masses of the person, and then try to mark them down. But remember: you are not capturing reality as it is - you are creating a new reality of your very own. The best way to get better at this is to practice. So as you walk around, try to see the world as you're actually seeing it, with humble eyes that acknowledge their own limitation.

Why is this important? Because the alternative is objectification, which quickly becomes a lust for power, which is the same as hatred. Objectification is probably impossible to avoid completely. What you want is a better informed, more humble objectification. I’ll explain that more in a moment, but let me first try to illustrate with the story of the erotic dancer and her four-testicle dog.

At the end of my first year as a planting foreman, I had been bumped from nine employees up to fourteen. I was stressed and fatigued out of my mind, which may be why I didn't jump immediately on the objectification bandwagon on the day I drove back into the campground where we were staying and a tired-looking brunette came up to me and said, "Hey, you wanna see my four-testicle dog?"

This was at a time in my life when it would normally have made me a little uncomfortable to hear a woman (any woman) say the word "testicle;" but like I said, I was too beat to bother. "Would I?" I enthusiastically replied, "who wouldn't?!?" So she called out to this big, shaggy hound of indeterminate lineage, leaned over him from behind, grabbed his front two legs, and picked his front end up off the ground. Sure enough - four testicles. It may have been the fatigue, but I just raved. I called the crew over and made them look at it. It's not so often you get to see a bona-fide-four-testes-fido.

The woman’s name, it turned out, was Deb. Deb the dancer. The erotic dancer. This, also, did not bother me. Instead, I was intrigued. She told me that she was waiting at the campsite for some friends, but that she was staying over at a motel and was on a tour of small towns in Northern British Columbia, working as a stripper and an erotic dancer and trying to put together some cash. This was really out of the ordinary for a guy like me, a little missionary jungle boy who'd never seen an in-the-flesh erotic dancer before – let alone one with a four-testicle dog. Somehow, though, I didn't try to put her in a box. I didn't objectify her as some "damned harlot of Babylon," nor did I picture her as an object of hidden lust, about whom I could fantasize later after publicly decrying her lifestyle. Instead, I was entranced. This was a world I knew nothing about, and I was seized by curiosity. I asked her question after question. Who was she? Where was she from? What was it like, traveling from town to town doing what she did? How did people treat her?

I think she sensed that I really wanted to know and wasn't just digging for dirt, because she proceeded to tell me all about her life. She told me of her strained relationship with her father, with whom she'd bounced from town to town growing up as a military brat. He was in Florida and she was saving up to go see him, to try to work things out. She told me how the ladies of the towns treated her with contempt, crossing to the other side of the street and angrily glaring at her in the grocery stores. She told me how the men from the clubs often followed her around after work, making her nervous.

I felt privileged that she was letting me into her world a bit, but just as we were starting to really talk, one of the guys from my throw-together crew who had been hanging around listening butted in. He was your basic Bible School Boy, nineteen years old and absolutely convinced that he had the truth cornered and was just milliseconds away from wrestling it to the floor in a hammerlock. He started to barrage this lonely, sad woman with really invasive comments. He wanted to know, he said, if she was aware of how badly her lifestyle was reflecting on her. The contempt in his voice was palpable, and I watched as Deb the Dancer visibly shrunk into herself, made an excuse, and walked away.

The Bible School Boy could not see Deb. If he had tried a little harder, he may have been able to make out her outline. But he didn’t, so she disappeared.

The second thing I want you to learn to see is CONTRAST.

Unlike a spray-painted stencil, the gradations of light and dark in the world of the eyes are both infinite and transient. They are always changing depending on time of day, location of the viewer, and the relative quality of the optical equipment being used. Those who like to name and control things in art call these gradations "values," and it is rather fitting, as the value we put on the various aspects of what we see reveals yet again the way we try to order, understand and control the world around us.

My last year of University the notable poet
Luci Shaw came to a round-table discussion at a creative writing class I was taking. At the time my, writing was categorized more by fear of disclosure than anything else, but my visual art was often raw and honest, exposing some very dark aspects of who I was and how I was living in the world – so much so that as I have mentioned before, it made certain people very uncomfortable. I asked her about this – the supposition that some of my work was too dark, and signified a problem with my soul.

She paused for a moment, as wise old poets often do, and replied with the same basic point I have been making here - that both light and shadow are necessary to depict and reveal the world as it really is to us. To know whether or not I had focused too much on the dark, she said, one would have to look at a lifetime of my work. There are different seasons of life for all artists, she went on, but all good art will have elements of both light and dark worked into them. I found that to be both true and comforting - but not easy.

Light and dark are organic forces. Our perceptions of them constantly shift as we live and move. They are real to us, yes, but not like cubes of sugar that we can fidget with and feed to the monkeys. Most beginning artists are extremely timid about drawing in the darker areas, but denying the existence of the dark shows that we believe it to be an actual thing (it isn’t). This gives it a power it need not have as it feeds on our self-delusion and fear. It also blinds us to the fact that as scary as it can be, the darkness that we see in our art creates volume, in a sense bringing mass and form to our otherwise two-dimensional experiences.

So to grow as an artist, stop living in denial and the fear that it engenders, and instead accept and explore the wondrous complexities of light and shadow that play across the world around you. Open your eyes and your soul will open as well.

Wow.

We're really zipping along all tickety-boo here. You've blown past the fear of the blank page, of contours and contrast, and will be painting your own Sistine Chapel before you know it. And speaking of the Sistine Chapel, let's move on to the third thing you are going to have to learn how to see - COLOR.

This is your reward for all this work. This is where it gets really fun.

You may be a little afraid of all that color, but color itself is not the problem - it's being in charge that has you walking the knife's edge. You know what? Forget about it. New experiences are always a little overwhelming. When I was in high school I mostly just used colored pencils to copy pictures of supermodels for my friends. Then I went to university and they made me buy acrylic paint. For my first masterpiece, I chose to depict a shoe. I slaved over it for days and when it was all over, I thought it was so ugly that I cried. I had a fair bit of raw talent, but fear and a whole lot of emotional baggage almost made me throw away the brushes forever. That would have been a tragedy because of one thing: Joy.

Color is the music of the visual universe, and contrary to the cold calculations of materialists everywhere, I think that although color does have its utilitarian purposes, it transcends those and exists for one main reason: to bring joy to all of life, even the ugly bits.
Shortly after my wife had announced her intention to leave me - I was browsing the internet and that random moment in the Smallville hallway came to mind. I had been processing a lot of the unhealthy ways that I had dealt with people in my life, and suddenly I realized that I had been unkind to Allison Mack.

So I looked her up on the internet. I found out that she was born somewhere over in Germany and had come to America at the age of two. I learned that she was passionate about her craft, that she studies dancing, and that she learned to crochet from the actor who plays Clark Kent's mom. She is also about my same age. At the bottom of her bio on imdb.com they had a personal quote. She said,

"The most powerful way we can live our lives is if we stick within the community... when you come together as a community to achieve one specific goal, it's really just a beautiful thing."

That really grabbed me. At the time, I had been reading a book by Wendell Berry, who writes a lot about the value of community. It had been on my mind a lot and my curiosity was piqued, so I googled Allison and found that she had a website... a blog. I looked it up, and it was actually fairly interesting. It turns out that this Allison was not just some Five-in-a-Can TV Blond, and that she was actually passionate about a lot of the same things as I was. Hmm, I thought. Hmm. It is just possible that if I hadn't been such a dink on that set, we might have had a good and challenging conversation. I might have even learned something.

There are moments when it feels as though my life has been a long succession of these missed opportunities for real, human connection. This is obviously a more dramatic example, since it involves bright lights and a celebrity. But in many smaller, less-glamorous ways I have developed a habit of allowing my fears, anxieties and judgments to come between myself and other people.
I went on Allison Mack's website. I wrote her a note a note of apology. Then, when she posted an "art challenge" to anyone who reads her blog, I got involved. She said that she'd been been reading "A Writer's Book of Days", by Judy Reeves, a book which provides a daily writing exercise. She said she was going to do them, and posted the first. It didn't give a lot of detail. It just said you had to write a piece that had to begin: "__________ is the color I remember." I took up her challenge, did the exercise, and then posted it in the comments section.

Perhaps my whole life has been a running farce of missed opportunities to connect and converse with people in a way that creates something new. But in that instance, at least, I got a sort of a second chance. Color painted over sorrow. Here is what I wrote:
Light brown is the color I remember – the chocolatey brown of the amazonian waters where I learned to swim, to almost drown, to love… to lust.
There is a smell these waters carry with them, a glorious musk compiled of tiny particles dragged from snow-capped alpine peaks, tumbled off smooth-worn rocks and pulled from mossy cliffs. Every year the rains swell the rivers and they reach out – first in fingers, then with broad sweeps of arms, laying a blanket of themselves over the whole Amazon basin and then sucking downstream tiny bits and pieces, drawing with them the stink of life and death and decay.
By the time this water flowed through the oxbow Peruvian lake on which I lived, the dank waters were so choked with this history of a watery life that to an outsider they were nearly unswimmable.
For me, however, each time I immersed the warm waters wrapped me in their amniotic embrace and I emerged, at last, feeling new-born and alive. It was a Baptism of Being – and although I now live in North Carolina, swimming only very rarely in the sterility of chlorinated pools – every once in a while I smell something so earthy and primal that I am transported in an instant back… back to the light brown waters of my childhood.

Life is full of color, those wondrous little moments that give the madness of it all it’s meaning. 

In the final weeks of my last year in Peru, my friend Benjamin and I walked the long, grassy airstrip down by the lake. This was the year that Benjamin learned of his mother's cancer, the illness that in a little over twelve months would claim her life. We walked as we had many times before, saying very little, and then sat on the sloped edge of the runway, staring off into the distance at one of those bizarre, localized storms that often happen in the Amazon. Two monolithic pillars of angry gray clouds were billowing and piling up side-by-each, probably about a mile up into the atmosphere and at least a few hundred feet apart. The moon glinted off the columns in shifting brushstrokes of silver as something brewed in the darkened center.

As we watched, lighting began to gurgle all up and down the insides of each of these pillars, illuminating them here and there with flashes of rich, glowing colors. There were swaths of green and gold, blue and crimson. There were pinks and oranges and yellows and all over little fingers of hot white fire danced and played, crackling and fizzling and sparking. Then long bolts began to flash intermittently across the space between the two clouds, searing bands that lit up the inner faces of those columns at intervals, to be echoed in the silences by the subtler hues being painted within.

Benjamin and I, who loved to talk and share and “explain” to each other the mysteries of the universe, were stunned and sat in wonder for this show, sharing nothing more than primal groans and shouts of wonder as it went on and on and on – for over an hour. We each wished, silently, that everyone else in the whole world could see this with us: our friends, families – Benjamin's mom. But it was the yearning joy at the impermanence of it all that burned this vision of the creative eye of God into my mind forever. This is the mystery and the music of color that plays on, largely ignored, as a perpetual soundtrack to our mostly blindered eyes.

For me, color connects to all the deeper, intangible yearnings of my glandular self - the things I want to know about but can't, so I just end up having to be satisfied with rolling around in joy. Color is a gift. Color is a feast of delights from the eyes to the soul. It is an orgasm without responsibility, an opportunity to find joy and meaning in the midst of ugliness. As an artist it is your job to show up, play, and smile. So do it.

Alrighty, then. Now that we're all having fun, let's learn how to see CONNECTIONS.

I started University full of turmoil and trauma, undisciplined personally but with an artist's eye and what many called an exceptional gift. There wasn't much of an art program at the school at that time – just two gifted female teachers in an old portable, actually – but the first thing they did was they went and wrecked drawing and painting for me, and then re-made it as something else... something much more interesting. "Why just copy something you see," they asked, "when a camera could do it so much better?"

These ladies didn't give a lick if I was a fabulous xerox-monkey, they wanted me to make something new, something filtered through the only unique thing I had to offer the world: me. It made all the difference in the world. I mattered. I had something no one else did – myself – and with that I could make something that no one else could. I could abandon my fear and self-loathing and rest in the hope that there was a creative God who made me this way, and it was all right.

So, too, can you. Open your eyes to the connections that only you can make. You are incredible - a uniquely placed compendium of influences that can uniquely love the world. Never let yourself believe that you have figured everything out. 

It is a beautiful thing, this life, and more beautiful still when I can accept the humbling and painful truths that set me free to love, and be loved, without fear. 

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