Do we know how to see, to watch, to attend?
I took an intro to drawing class some years back at the Button Factory, a brick factory turned community arts centre here in Waterloo.
My teacher was a genial, white-bearded man with the sort of monastic disposition that comes with being resolutely attentive and devoted to a craft. He was pale, with white tissue paper skin covering arms without a hint of muscle tone. Yet at the introductory session, I marveled at the way he swung those arms across the large paper on his easel, tracing swirling ovals lightly with his pencil, seemingly unconnected, yet within a few moments merging into a remarkably realistic portrait of a Labrador Retriever.
He gave us our first assignment: draw your hand. The class – seven or eight of us – dutifully held up non-pencil hands as a model, and got to work. After 15 minutes, we’d all drawn the same thing: a hand, outlined in thick, bold lines, palm forward, fingers pointing up. Similar to the hand you see illuminated on a crosswalk.
This is the sort of hand beginners always draw, the teacher remarked, especially in a culture as left-brained, conceptually-focused and analytic as ours. Instead of drawing a hand as we see it – attentive to value, dimension and texture, we draw the abstract concept of “hand.”
Hidden in plain sight
So he had us do the same assignment again, but this time, hold our non-pencil hand bent down at the wrist, fingers pointed forward, as if we were reaching out to grab our nose. This was, he asserted, an exercise to help us draw with the right side of our brain, the side attuned to the visual and perceptual. Suddenly we were confronted with the thing itself – a concatenation of light, shadow and shapes, set free from the conceptual hand that had so quickly come to mind earlier. It wasn’t an easy exercise; a few members of the class, perhaps more left-brained than I, found that as they drew, their wrists went neutral, their fingers straightened, and their hands returned to that abstract idea of “hand.”
In retrospect, it seems to me like something mystical happened that evening in the Button Factory. Rather modestly mystical, anyway – not quite a tremendous reverie or powerful sense of union with the divine. Mystical in the sense that I felt like I was suddenly given new eyes, and with them the ability to see a reality, a truth that was hidden in plain sight all along.
Do we know how to see, to watch, to attend? I’m curious now, how often I walk around, thinking I’m perceiving reality as such, but instead filtering it through a filter of preconceived abstractions and notions. Through my ego, too.
I think of my tribe, this Reformed tradition, and its wariness of mystical flights of fancy. As analytic and left-brained as ever, relying on abstractions and drawing thick confident lines.
And I wonder, what are we missing? What are we unable to see?