Updated: May 31, 2021
“…all I could see from where I stood/was three long mountains and a wood/Over these things I could not see: these were the things that bounded me—”[i]
My career as a visual artist was short-lived and painful.
The oil painting class I took as a freshman in college was fun and exciting. I knew some things about color, but now I was learning about form and using oils, a medium I’d never tried before. I loved the smell of the oils and the turpentine. I loved going to the studio after classes, uncovering my paintings and continuing to work on them. I was hoping to major in art.
The class was small, so I got individual attention from the professor, a man whose own paintings graced our women’s dormitory. I found I could copy some great artists’ renditions fairly well—Monet’s “Sunflowers,” for instance. A photo in the school paper features me at that very painting, brush in hand, my professor at my side. He appears to be pointing out something or other I could improve on. I was feeling pretty good about that painting. But copying is copying, after all. It was Monet’s vision, not mine.
One assignment was to sketch and paint something from nature. I chose a tree. I made up the tree in my head. My professor took one rather short scrutinizing gaze and said, “Now—I want you to go outside and really look at a tree.”
At the end of that year, I decided to major in English.
I had come a little farther than the child who colors a line of green at the bottom of the page and a line of blue at the top and a yellow sun poking out at the corner. But perhaps, not much.
It is a truism that an artist must learn perspective. Objects are not flat. Things far away are not the same size as things closer up. Color itself, in life, is not just uniformly red or green or brown—there are nuances that make up the shades and tones of an object, unless, of course, it’s a barn wall. Even then, if it is an old barn, like mine, the red paint on those old boards will show some gradations.
Artists are not the only ones who need perspective.
The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, in her early poem Renascence, felt a kind of strangulation with her limited scope. She was “bounded” by what she could see. When she looked around at her horizon, she always came back to where she started from. She ached to know what was beyond her vantage point. What were the secrets of the universe on the other side of her view?
“And all at once things seemed so small—”
As anyone who ventures beyond the front door—or turns on the TV—finds out, there are all kinds of perspectives out there. My freshman year at college affected me no differently. I was learning to love learning. Other perspectives challenged me, interested me. My small horizons were expanding. Seemingly insignificant, minor changes in my habits became unconsciously imbedded. I went back home at breaks pronouncing the final long “o” in Ohio, rather than dropping it to an “uh” the way I had all my life. I started saying “dinner” instead of “supper.” There were surely other, less minor, things I was unaware of. This began to dawn on me when one of my high school girlfriends said to me, “Well, people change.” She did not mean it as a compliment. I wanted to scream out, “No! I’m really just the same inside! I haven’t changed!”
But in ways not apparent to me, of course I had.
The question, then, is: how will the perspectives I so unconsciously imbibe change me? In some cases, I may not want to be changed. I want to hold on to my cherished—and, as I think, well-considered—beliefs. I may avoid informing myself of opposing ones for that reason. On the other hand, without even trying, I may expose myself to perspectives that are without a foundation that makes them tenable. Thus, I need a perspective on my perspectives, a lens, a way of seeing what is really there.
In the 1600’s in the town of Delft in Holland, a curiosity-driven “natural philosopher” named Antoni Leeuwenhoek was experimenting with a glass lens he had made himself. He placed a drop of lake water on a slide and peered at it through the lens. He was “shocked to see, not a clear pool but a veritable aquarium” of little creatures swimming around. He had invented the microscope, opening up a whole new world of knowledge: there is more to our surroundings, he found out, than meets the naked eye.[ii]
Similarly, a few blocks away, an artist was also experimenting with a different kind of lens in a very different way. He was using the camera obscura, an earlier invention that he discovers aids him in seeing form and color, shadow and light in new and unexpected ways. By using this method, he is able to render to his paintings a more luminous quality than those artists who have gone before him. He is Johannes Vermeer, noted for helping us understand how “light affects the way we see the world.”[iii]
These two men unwittingly give us two metaphors for examining our perspectives: the need for a lens that will show us what is “really there,” and a more refined light by which we discern with a clearer vision society’s reasoning—and our own—than we could without it. Then can we better scrutinize our cherished and often subconscious way of seeing.
The narrator in the poem Renascence, struggling against the borders that confine her, continues to rail at her finitude and the limitations of her view until—in trying to reach the sky—she is granted
“…a glass/ through which my shrinking sight did pass—”
It is a fearful but life-changing moment. She begins to grasp that there is a view of the world that comes from outside it, a view that truly expands her horizons and hones her thinking, that lends her a perspective that is not based on the finite—in a word, not coming from herself or any mortal creature at all. It is a God’s-eye view.
But it concerns mortal creatures. There is a fatal flaw in the universe, a wound at its core. And as she contemplates the sorrow and suffering as God must see them, she realizes they have been there all along, but she has been able to ignore them.
This new sight does not come without a cost. “For my omniscience paid I toll/in infinite remorse of soul—”
The cost is the death of her uninformed and heretofore untested thinking, necessitating an admission of her own culpability: “Mine was the weight of every brooded wrong—”
It is a death, I venture to say, that each of us must face—or pull our chosen borders in after us and shut the door.
But this death has a resurrection: the poet cries out to God for a “new birth,” and she is given “a sense of glad awakening” that leaves her breathless with joy and wonder. At the same time, though, she knows she cannot allow herself to remain within her former borders:
“O God, I cried, no dark disguise/can e’er hereafter hide from me/ thy radiant identity!”
The infinite God was now to be her chosen lens through which she would gain a truer perspective on herself and her world.
She muses, in reflection: “The world stands out on either side/no wider than the heart is wide/…the soul can split the sky in two/and let the face of God shine through—”
Here, she finds, are a lens and a light.
As I sit by my kitchen window, my gaze rests on the trees that border our property. There was great wisdom in my art professor telling me to “really look” at a tree before I attempted to paint one.
There may be greater wisdom still in really looking at my perspectives on the world and its wound. The God who revealed himself in the Bible gives me both the lens that filters my thinking and the light that shines into my unknown or closed-off corners.
[i] From Renascence by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Collected Poems [ii] From Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and the Reinvention of Seeing, by Laura J. Snyder, 2015 [iii] Ibid.