I’ve been reading John O’Donohue’s book on Beauty so I googled the word Beauty in hopes I could find other insightful reflections. But I found pages of links to eyeliner, hair products, fashion tips, teen magazines…and plastic surgery and plastic surgery. The superficial skin of beauty is a very western perspective.
When I was in college, I was approached to do some modeling. I had done a bit of it when I was 14 and 15. It was the summer of 1988. I had landed my first National modeling assignment. On the road to Portland for the photoshoot, I was hit by an oncoming car that had run a stoplight, going about 50 miles an hour. The car smashed into my car, sending it skidding to wrap around a telephone pole. I suffered 5 broken ribs, spinal injury, lung contusions, chronic pain for about 2 years following and enduring pains that have stayed with me since. The car was so crunched that they had to cut me out of it. Even though I was wearing a seatbelt, my head went through the windshield. It was strange. I remember floating away from my body viewing things through the space between the two seats. At least I think I did. I was in ICU for a few days and held at the hospital for about a week. I’d been struggling with an illness and the accident prompted a reoccurrence. At that moment, my life felt at the height of potential, as much as it could be at the age of 20. I was loving school, deeply committed to my studies in art history and was excited about modeling – a high paying job that would feed my vanity! And in one flash, I was bedridden, back in my childhood bedroom being cared for by my parents. On and off I was in bed for a year as I slowly finished my degree.
But something happened. I wasn’t the same afterward. I began devouring the books of Carl Jung, Neitzsche, Victor Frankel and returned to my classical music studies with a deep hunger. I took a class called Quantum Physics and Eastern Mysticism and I reconsidered my worldview after learning about the wave-particle duality. And I started painting.
The famous neuroscientist Oliver Sacks says that sudden blows to the head or being struck by lightning can rewire your neuropathways in such a way that people can “awaken” with newfound proclivities toward music or art. I kind of think this is what happened to me.
We all have had these ah-ha moments. It’s these moments that allow us to wake up and refresh. To see the positivity of things and the beauty that surrounds us in the most microscopic presentations. These moments awaken us to reverence. Reverence allows us to awaken to Beauty. But the challenge in life is to stay awake after we awaken.
I finally began to understand the phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” If you’re viewing a sculpture, it’s not about how beautifully the sculptor exacted the eye, it’s about the viewer getting their mind right. The viewer’s mind being awakened to the beauty that is everywhere.
John O’Donahue states: In order to become attentive to beauty, we need to rediscover the art of reverence. Reverence bestows dignity and it is only in the light of dignity that the beauty of the mystery of a person will become visible. A sense of reverence opens pathways of beauty to surprise us. The heart is full of thresholds where beauty awaits the wonder of our gaze.
Reverence happens when we slow down and accept that life as we know it is in flux. Respecting the transience of all things heightens our senses toward the beautiful.
The American Painter, Andrew Wyeth used to say “If you sit somewhere long enough, Life will appear.”
Wyeth lived a slow, rhythmic life and was intentional about his environment. It could be said that he lived his entire life in a meditation. That meditation was about wandering the hillsides until he’d be captivated by the light hitting an object. Then he’d sit and paint that light as it danced on a fence post or a field of grass. The beauty for him wasn’t about the fence post being beautiful, or his painting being beautiful. It was about the whole existence of the moment. Beauty was found in the semblance of sunlight, connection to home and place, his father, neighbors, and American battles fought on that land. When an artist paints from a soul place, there is a hunger in the moment, an urgency to get the energy of that moment down and record it. When that happens, the life energy is felt behind the paint. It’s that life energy behind the paint that distinguishes between pretty and beautiful.
Helga Testorf was Andrew Wyeth’s life-long model and muse. She is a good friend of ours. A while back we were talking and she said “How is it that I got to live in this Paradise? It’s hard to grow a garden by the sea.”
Helga is Prussian, and always cryptic in her insights. After unraveling its meaning, I took it to mean that she has never stopped paying reverence to the life she is living, a life that is bigger than anything her mind could conjure. The elements are the flux, and those imposing elements, like the sea air, upon that thing she holds dear, the cultivated garden, remind the senses to stay awake. Stay awake to savor the interplay.
The meaning of Beauty cuts all ways at once. Beauty can represent deeply woven tapestries of shifting meaning. Beauty is allusive. Beauty represents an essence that can make us feel apart of something bigger than ourselves.
In the digital world, images flash before us every third of a second. But it takes time to absorb Beauty. Beauty isn’t meant to be a sound bite or a screen capture. Its design is too intricate for that.
Light reveals Beauty but never the same way twice. We are creatures of habit so we fall into habits of seeing, and this makes us think we live in the same landscape from one day to the next. Beauty lies at the threshold – we often need the dark to feel the release to the light. The first bud springing from a naked branch reveals the threshold of spring. There is something about the balance between the abundant and spare in this natural composition that is arresting. But for me, once the tree completely blooms, I am less captivated. We live on Vashon Island, in this part of the world, most likely because we revere the beauty of this place. Islands lie at the threshold of land and sky – where clouds often play with light and suddenly introduce shadow and reduce a glistening sea to an eerie steely plate. By living here, we feel apart of nature’s choreography.
Joseph Albers was an artist of the early to mid-twentieth century. He wrote a book called The Interaction of Color exploring spontaneous contrast. Take the same color, yellow for example. As a color by itself, it can be a pleasant yellow. Place it next to the color of a plum. Place it next to the color of moss. And you will be convinced you are seeing two totally different colors of yellow, one perhaps more vibrant or muted than the other.
I bring this up because I can look at the deep blue sky and my first response will be “That is incredible.” But follow that blue sky down to its edge, where the edge touches the sea, and that horizon is illuminated by the sun and I will say “That is Beautiful”. I think Beauty is so often about the synthesis of things coming together.
In David Abram’s book Spell of the Sensuous, he demonstrates that there is an inherent beauty in the vast tapestry of language between all living things. We are immersed in the interwoven language of this animate earth. Flock migrations present themselves as inky calligraphic gestures above us. Somehow, in their mysterious communication, they change course in an instant. While we think this is collective decision making, Scientists have found that it is actually a result of each bird listening to their environment. They are individually responding to things like humidity and velocity but doing it at the same rate so that to us, it looks orchestrated.
I think this has something to do with what Andrew Wyeth said: “Sit still long enough and life will appear.” If we are attentive enough to our environment, we will find beauty in its common language. Feelings of aloneness and isolation will drop away. Our ways of seeing will expand.
I had a moment like this once in Maine. All my life I’ve been terrified of snakes. And on the island, we have these emerald green snakes. I came across one one day in the tall grass. I startled it. But it really startled me. But I decided to take the opportunity to overcome my fear of snakes by talking to it and sitting and watching it for a while. And that is what I did. As it realized I wasn’t going anywhere, it froze. But then I witnessed the most incredible thing. It began moving, but in microscopic advancements, so much so that it was barely detectible how, but it was slowly moving its way toward a big rock. Its body inched up the rock, bending at nearly a 90-degree angle so that its belly was at the rock and the rest of its body was upright. And then it started doing something. It started swaying its body slowly back and forth, delicately, like a whisper. Then I realized – it was becoming a blade of grass. As the grass moved with the breeze, it moved with the breeze.
I love the phrase “An enemy is someone whose story you have not heard.” Well, the time I spent witnessing this snake actually healed my fear of snakes. NOW, I can look at these emerald green snakes and say they are Beautiful (the others I’m still working on).
As a painter, I spend my days trying to find beauty. The visual orchestrations I create along the way are records of this ongoing search. When I’m at the piano, I get to immerse myself in what composers call the language of the soul.
Beauty can be Spiritual Splendor, or Beauty can present itself through pattern, order, and harmony. I like to think that the Splendor is the big brush and the harmony is the small brush.
We know today that art doesn’t have to be pretty. Beauty can be dark, ugly and merciless just as it can be redeeming. As an artist, I wonder often about the Universal Language of Beauty. Are there common qualities that every individual on this earth would say “That is awesome and beautiful.”?
I love the story about Stravinsky’s premiere of The Rite of Spring, in Paris, 1913. Stravinsky’s music to this ballet was the first introduction to abrupt rhythmic changes and dissonance. The crowd hated it. The audience rioted and old ladies were hitting each other with canes. Camille Saint Saen was known to have stormed out complaining of the terrible misuse of the bassoon. A year later, after a performance of the same piece though, Stravinsky was heralded a hero and he was carried on shoulders along the streets of Paris. Neuroscientists theorize what happened. Parisian culture had never heard dissonance in music before. As sound waves enter into our ear and bend the little hairs and register as tone, neurons in the auditory cortex are organizing them so they can register as sound. But the neurons are conservative things that only know what to do with sounds they’ve heard before. So it has been theorized that while the crowd was waiting to hear pleasing tones, and get their little dopamine rush, the opposite happened. People went mad. But over time that music has come to be the quintessential piece marking 20th-century music.
The famous American Painter Bo Bartlett, says that the job of an artist is to wake people up. I think it is to wake people up to a rush of feeling - not comfort them with pictures that are pretty. To make a pretty thing can be to make a thin thing. To wake people up to a rush of a feeling – and that feeling comes from a synthesis of parts– energy, spirit, life force, spareness, form, proportion…tapping into the invisible and presenting it through your own filter.
There is a Chinese proverb that says painting is to estimate the beauty of things and that one should not take outward beauty for reality. Likeness can be obtained by shapes without spirit, but when truth is reached, both spirit and substance are fully expressed. He who tries to express spirit through ornamental beauty will make lifeless things.”
In the story My Name Is Asher Lev, Asher as a young artist tries to make sense of the world by painting what he feels, but at once tries placating the family’s demands on him to comply with the religious system he’s been to obey. He also wants to win the approval of his despondent mother who only wants him to paint birds and flowers. You get the sense that he thinks if he paints a pretty enough picture, the picture will win her love for him. In this early scene, his mother says “You should make the world pretty, Asher.” And he responds, “I don’t like the world, Mama. It’s not pretty. I won’t draw it pretty.” He then goes on later to draw his mother. He recounts that the drawing felt incomplete. It bothered him so he closed his eyes and looked at the drawing inside his head. Then he reached for her ashtray (she was a chain smoker) and he grabbed the butt of ash and began smearing it to achieve contours, but not at the sunlight. The drawing was taking on a life of its own and it was alive when suddenly Asher sees his father watching him. He stops to apologize for anything he might have done wrong, saying he only wanted to “draw the light and the dark”.
There is a story that one day as Andrew Wyeth was painting in the fields with a friend, he was delicately painting the blades of grass, the light hitting the ground, and the dark contour where it gave way to the stream's bank. And in a moment, he pauses from the delicacy of fine brushstrokes and he picks up a clump of mud and smears it onto the paper – exacting the perfect contour of the banks with all of the life force that river bank possessed.
Beauty is not an inanimate object. It is a rush of a feeling felt through the culmination of elements and life force.
Like Asher, sometimes I think life isn’t pretty. Sometimes sorrow weighs on our hearts like a deep freeze bending down a tender sapling. But the challenge is to stay awake and find beauty in the elements around us. To name things, or beautiful feelings can serve as a daily salve that can bring respite from our troubles.
Brazilian songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim wrote “The Waters of March” to serve as his personal respite. So in the spirit of naming what is Beautiful, I’ll close with "The Waters of March".
A stick, a stone,
It's the end of the road,
It's the rest of a stump,
It's a little alone
It's a sliver of glass,
It is life, it's the sun,
It is night, it is death,
It's a trap, it's a gun
The oak when it blooms,
A fox in the brush,
A knot in the wood,
The song of a thrush
The wood of the wind,
A cliff, a fall,
A scratch, a lump,
It is nothing at all
It's the wind blowing free,
It's the end of the slope,
It's a beam, it's a void,
It's a hunch, it's a hope
And the riverbank talks
of the waters of March,
It's the end of the strain,
The joy in your heart
The foot, the ground,
The flesh and the bone,
The beat of the road,
A slingshot's stone
A fish, a flash,
A silvery glow,
A fight, a bet,
The range of a bow
The bed of the well,
The end of the line,
The dismay in the face,
It's a loss, it's a find
A spear, a spike,
A point, a nail,
A drip, a drop,
The end of the tale
A truckload of bricks
in the soft morning light,
The shot of a gun
in the dead of the night
A mile, a must,
A thrust, a bump,
It's a girl, it's a rhyme,
It's a cold, it's the mumps
The plan of the house,
The body in bed,
And the car that got stuck,
It's the mud, it's the mud
A flight, a wing,
A hawk, a quail,
The promise of spring
And the riverbank talks
of the waters of March,
It's the promise of life
It's the joy in your heart
Some content drawn from the readings of John O’Donohue Beauty, Umberto Eco’s The History of Beauty, David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous and Radiolab.