Zen and the Art of Seeing

Nature as artist
photo copyright, 2013, Molly Larson Cook

There are few things in nature more beautiful to me than dessicated flowers.

I know this may sound odd, but take my word for it – or take Irving Penn’s or Frederick Franck’s – if you prefer. Photographer Penn created a most wonderful book of flowers in which he included every phase of particular flowers from bud to dessication.

Franck is the author of The Zen of Seeing, a beautiful drawn and handwritten book announcing the difference between looking and seeing which includes this striking passage:
“…when I start drawing an ordinary thing I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle: the branching of a tree, the structure of a dandelion’s seed puff.”

I was about to write that no artist should be without Franck’s book, but my next thought was that no one who wants to find peace in the craziness that is our world today should be without it. Franck’s work changes the way we see – and experience – everything, whether we are artists or not.

We do a lot of looking: we look through lenses, telescopes, television…Our looking is perfected every day…but we see less and less…Ever more gadgets, from cameras to computers, from art books to videotapes, conspire to take over our thinking, our feeling, our experiencing, our seeing…Quickly we stick labels on all that is, labels that stick once and for all. By these labels we recognize everything, but we no longer SEE anything. We know the labels on all the bottles, but never taste the wine.”

Think about it for a moment:

— crowds at art galleries holding up their phones as if at a rock concert in order to snap a photo of a famous painting

–the Instagram idea that unless there’s a photo of something (person, place or thing), that person, place or thing has no value

–selfie culture at every interesting or boring place on the planet to record one’s presence for posterity.

Looking, looking, looking but not seeing.

Truly seeing anything is a quiet activity. Truly seeing requires calm and patience. Franck subtitled his book, “Seeing/Drawing as Meditation.” Perfect.

From Franck, as well as one wonderful art instructor, I learned the practice of Contour Drawing (or as Franck prefers – SEEING/DRAWING), an exercise that forces the artist to SEE rather than look. Contour Drawing is a practice that challenges anyone who tries it in three ways.

First, the process itself of drawing an object while looking ONLY at the object and not at the paper. Second, by being extremely patient as you work. And third, by accepting whatever you produce as the truth of what you saw, of what you know of that object.

If you are unhappy with the result, know that as you get better at relaxing into the Zen meditation of Contour Drawing, the result will be more and more gratifying.

Here is my favorite lesson from Franck’s book filled with lessons:

Everyone thinks he knows what a lettuce looks like. But – start to draw one and you realize the anomaly of having lived with lettuces all your life but never having seen one, never having seen the semi-translucent leaves curling in their own lettuce way, never having noticed what makes a lettuce a lettuce rather than a curly kale. I am not suggesting that you draw each nerve, each vein of each leaf, but that you feel them being there. What applies to lettuces, applies equally to the all-too-familiar faces of husbands…wives…How wondrously strange and miraculous: I SEE! I see a lettuce! I see you!”

On Saturday this week, we are going to retrieve my paintings from storage where they have been since September while we went through the house-buying process and the move and then the cold winter months. The paintings and I will be overjoyed to see each other.

But in the meantime, I bought myself a new sketch book, so I can make whatever shift it is that’s calling me from the abstract Colors of Jazz to perhaps something less abstract or more grounded in drawing, which is where I started so long ago at Maine College of Art.

I won’t be letting go of colors…they remain – for me – the animals that wag their own tails.

I’m open to the shift and have promised to be patient with myself, steady as I go or not.

Patience has not been my strong suit, but the move, the winter, the pandemic, and the increasingly challenging state of the world seem to have triggered a personal paradigm shift that I want to explore in the years that remain of my one wild and precious life. I’m not sure what I’ll find.

20th century Canadian abstract artist Emily Carr might have summed it up best:

 “You will have to experiment and try things out for yourself and you will not be sure of what you are doing. That’s alright, you are feeling your way into the thing.”

Thank you, Emily. I needed that.

2 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Seeing

  1. You are so right…When I titled my jazz novel “Listen” every musician I knew told me it was just the thing. You can hear and you can listen…

    Hope all is well in sunny Sandy Eggo!

  2. Right on Molly. It is the same with other senses, too, such as hearing and listening. Thanks for the reminder.

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