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Aesthetics and Anaesthesia

The famous social catalyst Caroline Casey says that when we lose our senses we are also untouched by beauty. I had never considered that there was a relationship between "aesthetics" and its not-at-all obvious counterpart, "anaesthesia." I speak to this connection because like many people, I was just another busy yuppy trying to support my kids, pay the bills and make a life when the staggering events of 9-11 turned my neighborhood and my dreams into dust. No clients were calling; no money coming in; trauma on all sides; a city in mourning; police barricades rimming each end of my block, and deaths of several relatives combined into a tsunami that left me reeling in the wake. I was quite literally shell-shocked, with no sense of what to do next. In such a scenario, nothing makes sense. It was at this time that i discovered art. It was suggested to me, but i ignored it until nothing else worked. It was my last hope as my energies flagged, and i could hardly cope with what was in front of me, or behind me - grief, destruction, loss, disillusionment, and heartache. Just as we go into shock when we suffer a large bodily injury, we also go into shock when we experience a large psychic injury.

What I discovered, was that beauty brings us back to life, bit by bit. I began to notice, and hunger, for beauty in a way that i never had before.

I needed artistic nourishment like I needed food and water. I went to see plays, I heard poetry, listened to Rachmaninoff, and took up writing, painting, drama, and dance (not all on the same day). I noticed things, little things, i had never noticed before. This lovely little glass. That exquisite autumn leaf. The beauty in everything was as great as my loss, and it began to fill into the cracks of my shock.

It seemed that everywhere i landed, there was some strange new beauty. I even went to the museum, and this was the title of the Degas Show:

The day of my first painting class (like, in my LIFE), i was fried -- overstimulated, overcaffeinated, fatigued, completely at a loss as to what kind of work i could get next, and stressed out about it all. I arrived at the painting studio in New York's Greenwich Village, and lost all care while i simply contemplated how much paint, how much linseed oil, and how much thinner, would render the optimal mix. What shade of taupe did i want to use to shade in the torso of the nude model. Just the brush, the paint, and the paper. Stir. Scrape. Blend. Spread. Paint. Repeat. Three hours. And at the end of three hours, i felt like a superwoman. It was as if an invisible handler had poured gasoline into my tank while i wasn't looking. This was the beginning of the end of the shock-and-awe period, and i began to soak in the life-giving power of art. Every curve, line and shaft of light became fuel.

I can only say what i noticed about what happened to me, first, and then what i saw in others. I began to see with the eyes of appreciation. When i drew this nude, no part of me was saying, "She should lose weight." No part of me was scrutinizing her for signs of stress, or illness. Instead, I saw beautiful curves and angles. I saw alluring shadows and light plays. I saw a fetching arc of a jaw, leading down to a long neck. I was enriched and i didn't have to manage anything - not her, not the room, nothing. Just let the pencil find its line of appreciative truth. I found that i could draw not by trying, but by appreciating.

I began to pay careful attention to what happened to me, and to others, in the process of making art. The thing is, when people make art, they tell the truth. It's as if they swallowed a truth serum. I didn't get it, but my sister knew: she's an art therapist. In the midst of my shock, she instructed me to simply illustrate a scribble: choose a shape, make it larger, color it in, and make it larger and color that one in, until it speaks to you. And I did. By the end of the evening, I had colored in a huge teardrop.

That was my truth, squeaking out. I discovered more. Good, bad or indifferent, the truth just begins to come out all over the place.

I listened while a quiet Korean gal carefully painted while musing, "I hate my job." I listened while a NY building restorer made a mosaic of her dog, and talked about how angry she was about the noise in her neighborhood. I watched as she broke those pieces with careful satisfaction. Breaking things is a great tonic for anger. I watched as a young woman acted out her mother's life story and cried afterwards when the truth touched her, and she felt compassion for the steely character who had brought her to the States and raised her, working constantly. I sat by while a girlfriend sculpted clay while blindfolded, talking about her lost direction in life after the death of her daughter. She ended up with a dove. In each form, there was healing wisdom to be found. And finally, when the shock was mostly behind me, I awoke in the night with a vision of a pot i wanted to make. I had never made a pot in my life, but the vision was there. Within three months, I had moved out of the city and had located a clay studio where i could realize my vision, roughly illustrated below:

Finally, after drawing, and painting, and dramatizing and dancing, I had the liveliness back, and i could see much more clearly, and feel more acutely, the signature in each person's artwork. I have attempted to convey something of the way in which our senses are often dulled by pain, shock, or comfort; and the way in which art can bring us, and our senses, back into life, but this is just an awkward beginning. I will spend some time talking about art as prescription for particular human dilemmas.

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