How to train yourself to see

When I was a kid, bored as hell trapped in my childhood bedroom by yet another round of illness/asthma, I often passed the time by drawing. I drew magazine clippings of celebrities. I drew the inside of my closet, or the tree outside. This was long before the hypnotic draw of smartphones, so my attention stayed focused for as long as I let it. I enjoyed bringing objects into being on the page, watching my skills improve, and looking up to realize hours had passed. That meant hours closer to whatever event: my sister getting home from school, dinnertime, or bedtime. Those were some dull days.

During Covid lockdown, also confined but this time to my own home and the broader, open air environs of my then-big backyard of Alaska, I felt trapped. As an adult, I’ve learned I crave and thrive on dynamism and change. If I wanted to experience any of that during pre-vaccine Covid, I had to create it myself. So, once again, I witnessed and I created. My range of activity went from sitting on my back porch observing how dew droplets perched across tendrils of grass sparkle an entire rainbow in the sun, to watching You Tube videos in an attempt to teach myself watercolors, to – of course – lavishing acrylic paint across canvases to transport myself, briefly and visually, into a new scene.

Finally, recently on a backpacking trip through an incredible and remote southerly section of Capitol Reef National Park, my husband pulled out a small satchel of colored pencils and a sharpener. As we waited at the foot of a natural “tank” – a pool of water formed over time in carved stone from accumulated rain and runoff – for our water to filter through a bag/hose system, we sat together in silence sketching what we saw. The sun lowered slowly over us, the vast cake-like formations of earth worn away through time to reveal reds, browns, pinks, and ivory deepening in hue.

I have learned that sitting still and noticing what’s happening is equally important to me as change. I could keep moving forever, striving for the next thing, and never actually know or enjoy where I am. So it’s a mixed bag that asthma trapped me for as long as it did (arguably again for round two when Covid hit and I refused to expose myself to a respiratory virus) – I would give the experience overall a 1 star Yelp review, yet it also taught me how to make the most of inhabiting and seeing a space, and also gave me some of my earliest and invaluable practice in art.

Creating is one way to train yourself to see, either someplace new, or in a new light. The act of translation and study is in itself an immersion. After I drew, I never saw my closet the same again. The tree in my yard was intricate and familiar. Every one of my paintings is a scene requiring so much focus that if/when I’m lucky to see the origin scene again in person, it feels familiar in a way that is soothing and kind of funny, like – fancy meeting you here, what are the odds?! (Below is a recent example of that)

Quietly sketching next to my husband while way out there in the backcountry felt both like a return to what got me started in art and creating, and somehow also a retreat from art as a purely outcome-based practice. I was sketching for the pure immersion of it. What was down on paper was secondary to how the practice shaped my own ability to see a little differently and, maybe, more.

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