Saturday, October 8, 2011

Learning to See (Part 1)

On any Sunday I would find myself at my father's side, standing before a masterpiece in some gallery. There was a ritual to follow. Silence at first. I watched him from knee height, absorbed in his fascination for the image in the frame. A Constable, Manet or Titian, it mattered not. The stance was the same. Hands by his side, head tilted slightly upwards, a barely distinguishable smile that I had learnt to recognise and only a son could see. A tall. proud man, well dressed, creased and cuffed trousers, shiny brown shoes, a soft open necked shirt, hair well groomed and glimmering in the dimmed light of the gallery.

After the silence came the questions.
What do you see?
I would explain. Trees, people, a woman and a child, a man lighting a fire, leaves on the ground.
Tell me what they are doing.
Resting. Preparing lunch.
Then a bit more silence.
Now I want you to be the artist.
I can't paint.
You can see. See what time of day it is. See how close the woman is and how far away the man is. See the space between the trees, the colour of the leaves on the ground, the clothes they wear, the look on the faces. Here. Hold up your hand. Point to the child. Paint the eyes. I did as he suggested. Carefully I outlined the eye, then the other. I could see the sparkle. It blinked at me. There was always so much more to see.
Now smell the smoke from the fire. It's gum smoke and it bites at the back of your throat and makes your eyes water. Smell the dust from the ground and the mould from the leaves. Smell the richness of the air with the odours of the Bush.
Can you feel the leaves under your feet? The heat of the morning falling to the ground. No breeze. The weight of the child on the mother's lap. It's you. Now feel the weight of life on the father's shoulders. I never understood that bit for a long time.
What's for breakfast? Can you taste it? Some milk, perhaps, for the baby. Porridge on the fire, honey from a hive. Tea.
WeetBix and cold milk.
He laughed quietly and nudged me affectionately.
Yes. WeetBix.
Now listen. Carefully. A whip bird calling. Something moves in the trees. The clatter of sticks as the man builds the fire, crackling into life. Can you hear their heart beat. I could hear mine.
Silence. I could hear my father breathing. Other patrons pass by but don't stop. A woman stares at us as if we are lost. We are, in a wilderness of wonder.
Its like a window, Dad.
Its the artists window. He wants you to see what he sees. Every time you look through his window you will see something new, a little more of the artist and what his world looks like to him. That's a very special thing he does for you.
I wish I could paint.

Use your camera instead. Show people your world through your window. I can hear him say it now.
Will they see what I see?
You'll have to show them how.


  1. Art museums are a favorite distraction of mine. I am lucky, this area of Ohio has several cities with outstanding museums; Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, and Cleveland. Even here in Springfield, we have a small art museum. i know where the impressionists are and which painting is handing on which wall. The Singer is in the East Wing on the north wall. The Picasso is in the Modern Wing next to the wire sculpture.nThe impressionists and the super realists that preceded them always get the most of my time.

    As much as the paintings, I watch the people. Sometimes alone & sometimes in small groups. Sometimes silent and often in small discussions. Each one seems to get something entirely different from the painting in front of them.

    To this day, I have never heard a single person describe a painting as a window. I have never seen one as a window. Now I feel the urge to go to the Dayton art museum this weekend and look at the paintings in a new light. As a physical window, one in which I can see the world beyond the paint strokes and beyond the colors.

    Thank you, Tom.

  2. Perfect! This is a wonderful story that makes such a profound and valuable lesson.

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  4. Wow I was brought there right with you in your wonderful story

  5. This has to be one of my favorite posts of yours, Tom! What a great, heartfelt piece that serves to make us all look a little deeper when we encounter art, as well as a bit of a peek into what makes you, well, you. This is my favorite blog post I've read this week. Your dad would be really happy to see this.

  6. I found you today thanks to ToadHollow and this is one the best blog posts I think I have read! I love how it is written and the lesson about appreciating art. I can imagine you standing there with him next to you.

  7. What an elegant story. Thank you for sharing it. Simply a brilliant post.

  8. Inspiring as always. Just keep on doing what you're doing Tom.

  9. Thanks for sharing a very beautiful memory of your dad. Very touching and the details are vividly amazing. It reminds me of the saying...dont judge a book by its gotta seek deeper.

  10. Thanks for prodding my ability to see. Thanks to Mike Victorino for linking me here. I'm just starting as a photographer, and sometimes feel like I lack purpose. Wandering around taking pictures of the same old same old. Tomorrow I am going to remember that the pictures I take might be windows for others.

  11. I love this post. I have come back to read it several times. I find it inspiring, and I can relate on many levels. This is the type of dialogue that I need to engage in my photography, with my subjects, in my life.

  12. Thank you for such a wonderful post. I often tell photographers whether I can hear the water, smell the air, or feel the love, and such. This post will remind me to look even deeper to appreciate what the artist is sharing. I will save this for my favorites. Thank you again for this.