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Day 322: Learning to See Again

“Know that I am absorbed by my work…These landscapes of water and reflection have become an obsession. It is beyond my power as an old man, yet I want to manage to render what I feel…” -Claude Monet

The highlight of the time in Chicago was the Art Institute. Walking through the endless galleries of some of the most beautiful impressionist work ever made and having the luxury to stand up close, inches away to see the brush strokes and relationship to color that created these masterpieces taught me how to see again. Many of the most famous and extraordinary works of art are a lesson in seeing. The shapes are well formed, but most of the detail is suggested- the beauty comes through our ability to interpret. 

As I stood gazing at painting after painting, I realized a truth about seeing and it made me want to get out my paint brushes again. The ability to create visually, with words or any medium is both an act of recognition and a leap of rendering. The finished product of our creation shines our own personal light of understanding on the object of our vision and truly, whether a still life, a landscape or a portrait- the world is transformed by the artist’s vision.

Up close, many a masterpiece is strokes of color. The details of the faces come together in the viewer’s eyes more than they do on the canvas. Years ago, when I was first learning to paint was when I learned most about color. Trying to match the color in a tree, or the way light transforms green into a thousand shades, or even what happens to blue in the sky and the air altered the way I looked at the world around me forever. I was reminded of this quest to understand color again today. The bold leaps of purples and greens that created the distinction between near and far, the yellows and pinks that shined light or made shadows – color is how we see.

As I went from one painting to the next, the people in them, so full of life, both seemed to transcend the mortality of their life span and remind me how much of life remains unchanged. A few wealthy women, painted for their husbands looked like old friends of mine. Their unflinching gaze and calm composure is as alive today as the day, hundreds of years ago, that they sat looking at the artist.

Standing before the Van Gogh paintings, his passion and intensity is visible within the very depth of the paint he used, the large bold strokes, and the brilliant defiance of transmuting the world through color. I heard his voice saying one of my favorite quotes “I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.” I heard one of the curators telling the high school students that he never sold a single painting in his life. What raw unbelievable courage to see the world so clearly, to render it with so much heart and to never be seen in the doing. About this he said , “I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.”

Contemplating the wonder and courage of making art and walking through the many galleries of ancient eastern art, I was awed to realize that since recorded time began, and probably before that, we humans have made ourselves known through our capacity to see and render the world through our own creations. It is humbling and inspiring- this seeing again. All there is really time to do in this life is to bear witness in the most beautiful and lasting ways we can.