In spring we dust off our outdoor selves and, hopefully, gain new perspective on ourselves. Everything appears differently in the bold light of the season and this illustrates the subjective nature of the act of seeing itself. Take photo albums, for instance. When I look at family picture books, aged and oxidised by the loving ravages of time, I often imagine what my kindred participants who have long left earth were thinking when they captured their illuminated perceptions. In that split-second moment, preceded by a lifetime of priorities and values, experiences and reactions, these people expressed a slice of their whole selves. So much reveals itself by the pressing of a camera’s shutter button (or it’s smartphone equivalent).
We’re all artists of a sort when we’re behind a camera lens, after all, and the paths of real life are traced lovingly through the tubular lenses of our eyes that themselves reflect the thoughtful pathways of our mind. In looking at our studies as a series of snapshots we may discover ways and means that our view of our selves and our lives have evolved along with all those textbooks we’ve absorbed.
On the Land as we Imagine the Land
Woody Gwynn describes a personal process of creative depiction in terms of his landscape paintings of the American Southwest. It’s an almost cartoonishly desolate realm where coyotes bring to mind Wily cartoon characters. But it’s not a timeless realm. Gwynn describes a transformative process of representation that has evolved over the centuries and itself alters as cultures recall their own histories. Images of this old West, says Gwynn, “suggest slow passages, at a walker’s pace, through states of mind and ancient cycles of seasons, perhaps between realms of the living and dead” (Gwynn 151). If we open the lens of our own lives, we find that each moment is measurable, not in terms of the stark Poe-like metronome of a mindless clock mechanism, but as a series of uncertain amblings as we navigate our life’s course. All human existence is reducible, after all, to where our feet take us. And our life paths are but extensions of our mind’s ruminations across countless internal and external landscapes. In our minds we’ve travelled many miles before we’ve taken a step.
We alter the course of our own history by the visions we take of ourselves traversing this path of existence. In the 1800s an artist named Poussin utilized “carefully orchestrated recessional planes” in intricate procession asking us to “follow a single implicit assumption: that landscape is there to be seen and ordered by human will” (Wynn, 153). Lo, but if life were so simple today! These colonial desires, replicated in asinine mind maps cut and pasted out on floors of career and personal planning classrooms of decades past, come to be replaced by more realistic punctuations of life where subtleties and setbacks enter the fold of our representation.
Time and Space and How We See ‘Em
Spring’s not all sunbeams and sundials, after all. Time becomes shorter as the draw of the great outdoors calls us into its arms. “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans” famously intoned John Lennon. In the visual realm this finds expression as the 1800s gives way to the modern day where artist depictions of natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon suggest that “the chasm is a grand visual spectacle” (Gwynn 153).
Rather than yawning vistas to be mapped, gorges the bottom of which strike sublime fear in the heart of one’s existential fears about mortality and infinity, the great open space of the West came to be seen as beautiful in its own right. Gwynn’s work expresses “a new kind of artistic encounter with nature” that “dispenses with the landscapist’s traditional props for evoking human associations-nostalgia, sentimentality, and the merely picturesque” (Gwynn 155). In modern times the Earth appears as art in itself; likewise, if we step back and look at our educational journey, there’s nothing out of place, per se. Instead of asserting a narrative design, akin to a colonialism of the mind, Gwynn “plays thoughtfully with formal questions-moods of line, textures of surfaces, subtle harmonies of color” and these express some of the deeper sensations of the human experience (Gwynn 153).
Asking ourselves daily how we are feeling in our studies helps to personalize the experience just as does an artist’s living near the landscape s/he paints. Not sure if you feel up to memorizing those key course terms? Maybe paint about it for awhile or take some photos of spring sprouts! If there is one truth truer than all the others at AU it surely is that, if we are to succeed, we have to be enjoying, or at least appreciating, the process. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and certainly not by mindless automatons slaving away with only their future goals in sight; this nose-to-the-grindstone mentality can only burn itself out. At AU, if our mind’s on just our goals, then the material we are presently learning will struggle to find permanent purchase on our minds. Just as the West ceased appearing as an ominous wild to be tamed, our studies can take on a gentler hue as they stimulate our creative instincts. And while I’m not saying we should paint the past in rosy hues, it helps to find a perspective that allows us to see progress even in our failures. Canyons are beautiful even if we don’t bridge every single one.
Gwynn, W. (1996). ‘Landscape Painting and the Social Meaning of the Earth’. In Contested Terrain: Myth and Meanings in Southwest Art. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.