What do we really see? This is a question I have asked myself often, especially after I’ve finished a painting and I sit and feel into what I have put on canvas or paper. What I have found is that whether it’s a work of art or simply just looking at nature, people or places, there is always a deeper way of looking at anything. Do we, as the old saying goes, ‘look through rose coloured glasses’ or ‘see only what we want to see?’’
One very clear example of this for myself was many years ago during a phase of deep introspection. You know I’m sure you’ve been there too – what is life about – why am I here – something is missing in my life – I know there’s more – I know I am more – I’m looking for the light – I’m looking for the way!
At the time, I was part of an artist studio group, painting every week, coming together with a tutor, a well-known artist from Europe. He was eccentric – all part and parcel really. He was living a ‘role’ – that of unappreciated master of talent whose last word on what art is should be listened to by all. No session was complete without a glass of red wine in his hand, his brush in the other, his beard bristling and swaying as he moved paint with passion across the canvas. The more wine he consumed the more loudly passionate he appeared to become.
I appreciated the talent that he had and listened to some of his advice but not all, knowing for myself what I wanted to express with my brush. For others in the studio his advice and active influence on their work was waited for with baited breath. For me, he knew to not put his brush on my paper or canvas and seemed to have a respect for my work and would put it on display and stand back and give a considered ‘hmmmmmm’ standing with his fingers on his chin and a deeply contemplative look on his face. In general, he loved my work. I did not paint scenery or realistic works – I loved to paint ideas or what I felt and his comments were technical in nature.
I often completed a painting at home and brought it into the studio for comment by the ‘maestro’ on studio days. One week I worked on a painting in line with my search for ‘the way’ – a way back to myself. It depicted figures (one was myself) in a subterranean world with another world over the top of it – two worlds existing in the same space. The above world was full of light, open, flowing. I had painted a doorway to that light filled world that was partly open. The figure, that was myself, stood in the dark subterranean world looking at the open doorway and was about to walk through.
The ‘maestro’ was holding court over the studio as I walked in the door. He walked, winding his way through the tables, espousing disparagingly on someone’s work. He effusively came up to me, welcoming me to the studio, as was his way, ‘kiss kiss – hug hug’. I settled into my spot and unpacked my equipment.
I set out paints onto my tray, got my water and anything else that was needed, and was ready. I placed my painting of the two worlds that existed together flat on the table, as it was a detailed watercolour and not an oil or acrylic that could be on an easel. I felt I had captured so much in that painting, that I had a choice to walk through that door way and that the meaning – the unseen aspect of the painting – was so much more than what was seen with the eye. For me the painting represented not just myself but the world, both the seen, and the unseen, and represented what was possible, a doorway to a life I was meant to be living. He eagerly came closer and inspected the painting. Others came around to view the painting, standing around the table awaiting the ‘maestro’s’ evaluation of my work.
Then it happened, something that had never occurred before and was so unexpected. He picked up a large paintbrush dipped it quickly in black paint and slashed a large black cross across the partially open doorway to the light dividing the two worlds in the painting.
I was in shock, not only because he had touched my painting, but also because I was physically ‘reeling’ in shock. My body started vibrating and I felt that I did not fit into it anymore, almost like walking a step behind myself. I felt sick and could not speak. Others gasped as they stood around the table and some hurriedly scuttled away back to their tables and easels, as obviously the ‘maestro’ had not approved of my work with a sudden and most vicious attack.
I left the studio and my body shook and vibrated out of kilter for weeks, only settling down after I burned the painting and made a decision to not continue at the studio. What had been seen and what had been felt in this painting? What had so enraged and shocked him to have this kind of reaction? Why was I so affected by his action of violently destroying that door – it was only a painting – or was it?
What would be visible to the eye for many people was a painting of artistic merit depicting in detail a place of imagination. What was felt from the painting was something altogether different! For me it was a very personal painting full of symbols that I wanted to share with everyone. The painting was showing a way through from the darkness to light, showing that there is a doorway – a way – if I chose it. I knew it existed. The feeling of the painting gave a sense of ‘what are we doing down here?’ – an underworld. What is going on as we walk through the shadows that I had rendered in the painting? There is a doorway to the light – let’s find it.
What did the ‘maestro’ feel from that painting that so panicked him into not commenting but immediately destroying my work on that day? Could it have been a reflection of something inside him? Had he looked and decided that life would only be taken as ‘what can be seen by the eye is what is real’? Yet his paintings often contained symbols and were not always ‘realistic’ in nature. Perhaps not having found that doorway for himself or not wanting to walk through it he felt he must destroy all trace of it. So, his attack was immediate, absolute, unprovoked by anything ‘seen’ almost in fear of what might be ‘seen’ in the painting by feeling, as it held something that could not be denied.
Do we all do it without even being aware what we do? Like a protection – not really wanting to see what is before us, or making something look good or justifying what we see or believe in to make it more acceptable to ourselves to survive, rather than walk through that doorway – the way – back to our true being, a way of living within all of existence.
In a panic, have we destroyed things and relationships in our lives because of what we have believed we have ‘seen’ without allowing ourselves to ‘feel’ the possibility of what is there to really be seen?
For myself after the initial shock and vibrating out of kilter for literally a month, that is the one painting that I have done, over many years that is still very, very clear in my mind! It symbolised for me that I chose to walk through that door, to live in the light of myself and no longer dwell in the underworld of shadows; Clearly reinforcing for me that what I see and what is there to be seen, whether by the eyes or the ‘seeing by understanding’, is not the whole of what is there to be seen or recognised in a deeper and more meaningful way, and to not discard feeling the way of ‘knowing’ what more is there to be ‘seen’. Wow – what a sentence – but read it again and you will see what I mean!
So – what we see is not always what is there – in fact what is there is so much more than what we see.
Barbara H., Australia