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Awakening the art of noticing

I remember the first time I was taken to a museum. I was about 9, I went with my mother to the Museum of Fine Art in Houston; and we walked through the main gallery, without speaking much, and then into subsequent galleries. I saw landscapes and portraits, some modern things that didn't make sense to me then; and medieval icons that also seemed odd and flat. There were religious themes and scholarly symbols. I remember that some were darkened by time and others bright. But that's about it. That's the thing: often people go to museums but they have no experiential context to appreciate, or notice, what they are experiencing.

Here's an example: I took my own kids to the Metropolitan Museum in the summers, when we used to visit relatives. I had expert guidance not to take small children to see more than four items, so in this example, we'll talk about the great work of George Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emmanuel Leutze:

It's a vivid memory for me because, like my own mother, I wasn't sure what to say about the work. I asked the kids what they noticed. In those days, my artistic awareness was still asleep. In fact, large parts of me were still kind of numb, but i didn't know that because it was the only way i knew. So here we were standing when they were young, and me not knowing what to say in the face of this immense work. Why would the kids care about history, or allegories, or Biblical references?

Ten years later, I was in a different level of awareness upon returning and then felt compelled to go as close to the canvas as possible to see how the artist had blended brushstrokes to create the atmospheric sky. I took out a pencil to see the proportional contrast between the men in Washington's boat, and the characters in the background. I stood appreciating how the different linear aspects - the oars, the flag, the boat - served to underscore and point to Washington as this icon. So much richer, the noticing. I also realized all those years later that most war hero portraits didn't touch me; I simply didn't relate to the soldier's glory as a peace-loving gardener in Texas.

So what was the difference? I had begun to draw, and paint a little. Artists make a thousand creative choices to organize and color in their subject in order to create a response in the viewer, or simply to express their own feeling. After doing some of my own drawings, I began to see the difference between well-rendered art, such as the classic image above, and art whose line had a lot of "life," such as drawings by Ellsworth Kelly. Check out this one, "Burdock," which i found so captivating:

I don't know about you - we all notice so differently - but what I LOVE about Kelly's line drawings is a kind of fresh simplicity that eliminates any distracting detail. Kelly captures the spirit of the plant in four lines. For instance here, I notice a lot of how the large leaf curves, bumps up and drops off and the edge, conveying a kind of relative weight while also buoyancy. It's like a little song - not a symphony but a beautiful simple melody. For me, what i notice was that his drawings made me feel alive. Whereas, by contrast, the historic painting made me feel distant. This is just about noticing what i see, and how i feel when i see it. Feeling, related to seeing. There is so much information in the simple linkage. Art is an expressive channel, and yet we often don't make time, and room to notice how it makes us feel.

Let's try an even more modern medium. How does this image make you feel?

I chose this water image because what I noticed was the dynamic and yet playful quality of this particular little wave. It's not a tsunami that inspires awe, or fear; it's not a still pond of repose. Here we have this sensuous little wave and tiny droplets that lighten the image. This is what i notice. And when i see it, i feel also kind of playful, like a YES! to the moment. What do you notice? Can you name how you feel while noticing it? Does it affect you at all? Do you resonate with the qualities you notice, or does it feel contrasting to your current experience?

In choosing and noticing, we feed our senses and create feelings - or the lack thereof. Learning to draw, struggling to convey what my eyes took in, and bringing different aspects of an image together in proportion helped me notice, and feel, how images relate to feeling. So if going to museums and looking at art leave you feel like a shuffling pretender, try making something, and then go back, and see how the famous creators did it.

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