“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time,” wrote Georgia O’Keefe. “If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for a moment.”
How many of us truly take the time to look at anything in the world about us? To see beyond a passing glance or a brief registering of an object or plant or tree or bird or person?
Do we stop to notice the way the light touches something and creates color and shadow? Can we see that there is more than one shade of green in a blade of grass or a leaf? Do we train ourselves to really look at something beyond the surface to the very nature of the thing itself?
Back when I was an art major in undergraduate school, I learned how to train my eye to be awakened to the subject that was before me; whether that be another person, a still-life, a door, the corner of a room, or something in nature. Before I ever even began to sketch or draw or paint, I observed. Confucius wisely said, as he so often did, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” How many of us miss the beauty that is all around us because we do not have the eyes to see it? Artists, poets, and photographers train themselves to seeing. To being aware and present to what is before them.
My art teachers taught me to stop identifying objects but to see them as lines, shapes, contours, shades and shadows. Psychology professor Dr. Stine Vogt writes that artists see the world differently than non-artists because they “turn off the part of the brain that identifies objects” by focusing instead on the “curves, colors and shadows that hit the retina.” When someone only draws the object, they end up drawing an icon of the object rather than the object themselves.
That is why great artists not only see differently from others but they cause us to stop and see something that we too often overlooked. O’Keefe’s flowers, Cézanne’s fruit or Monet’s waterlilies.
“Genius gives birth,” Jack Kerouac wrote, “talent delivers. What Rembrandt or Van Gogh saw in the night can never be seen again. Born writers of the future are amazed already at what they’re seeing now, what we all see in time for the first time, and then see imitated many times by made writers.”
Why is this?
Because artists are actively looking. They are watching, noticing, remembering. For them, seeing is active, not passive.
How many of us would take the time to not only see but study and paint bamboo, for example? Japanese artist Okubo Shibutsu became famous for his and is considered the greatest painters of bamboo painters. Why? Because he first noticed the way that the moon cast a shadow on bamboo as he had not seen on anything else. He began tracing with sumi (a type of black Japanese ink prepared in solid sticks and used for painting and writing) such bamboo shadows on his paper window.
Do we even really stop and look at paintings that we consider masterpieces or great works of art? A study found that the average person spends a total of seventeen seconds looking at a piece of art in a museum. Seventeen seconds. That’s it. A person cannot even register the details of an artwork in that brief period of time.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “To learn to see- to accustom the eye to calmness, to patience, and to allow things to come up to it; to defer judgment, and to acquire the habit of approaching and grasping an individual case from all sides. This is the first preparatory schooling of intellectuality. One must not respond immediately to a stimulus; one must acquire a command of the obstructing and isolating instincts.”
We do not take the time to see because we do not take the time.
We place little value or importance on seeing. We are too busy to see. Or we simply snap a selfie of us with a work so that we can post it to social media to present the experience of being in a place without ever really experiencing or seeing that very place we are in.
Seeing requires patience, requires us spending time being present to something as simple as a flower. While walking in nature, I came to a stream and as I stepped down the rocky banks, I stopped. There on some of the smaller river gravel was a Blue Swallowtail Butterfly. I sat down and just watched it. I looked at the contrast of its gradations of blacks and blues to that of the small stones and even the leaves of green and brown that were around it. It was living art right before my eyes.
I love how the poet Mary Oliver describes looking:
I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
As though with your arms open.
Her description of looking as “standing around as though with your arms open” is transcendent. It is to look with expectation and willingness. It is looking as participating. It is being open and alive to the wonders that surround us daily in life.
Great artists help us to see. They force us to pay attention.
One can ignore a flower in nature, but find ourselves unable to do so when it’s been painted by Georgia O’Keefe. We look at her bold, bright colors on the canvas and take notice. We are made aware of what we so often take for granted. As she, herself, once said, “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”
Part of the reason that she painted flowers on such large canvases was that she understood that on such a grand scale one cannot ignore its beauty.
When we being to see creation that flourishes around us, we keep ourselves open to possibility, to allowing the force of the world to break into our own personal realities and connect us to something larger than ourselves. We are present to what is now visible to us. We move beyond recognizing or registering to seeing: the Carolina Wren with its gradations of browns and blacks on its feather, resting on the limb of the Japanese Maple with its blood-red leaves, or the way the sunlight touches it. We notice the crystals in the smooth, cold wet rocks of the stream. The landscape becomes alive to us. Seeing helps us to gain understanding. Everything becomes sublime and intricate and alive.
That is why I am glad we have artists who are brave enough to not only see but who force us to see. That they can speak in colors and shapes so that we can understand this translation and begin to see for ourselves a black iris or red canna or blue morning glories. This is the gift of the artist to those of us who are willing to stop and begin to look as if we were seeing the world for the very first time.