Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Window or Mirror? Observing ego through art

"You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul." ~ George Bernard Shaw

Askew metal tree
Field trip 
Week before last the kids and I paid a visit to the recently expanded NC Museum of Art. The state of the art building is just as artistic as the content it carefully displays. I admit the primary driver for taking them was out of that typical motherly need to expose my children to culture, but I ended up with a few insights of my own.

Not just for children
The museum has some useful free literature for children that ironically ended up being more interesting to me than my kids. As someone who does all kinds of writing, I always find it interesting to look at how other writers interpret and compose based on different criteria so I picked up a bunch to thumb through.

There was one brochure I almost didn't grab but glad I did. It's called the Owner's Manual, and it facilitates how to experience the museum art beyond the obvious. My kids didn't even look at it when I excitedly tried to share it with them. I, however, couldn't put it down. The book does a lovely job making it so visually lively and simple that it could be turned into a wireframe or graphic mock-up for interactive development in a very short time.

Little book, big thoughts
In the "Things to Discuss" section of the Owner's Manual, one page caught my eye: Windows or Mirrors? It has the reader consider the following:

"It has been said that art is both a window and a mirror - it can frame a scene or reflect ourselves. For the next painting that grabs your attention, consider whether it's a window or a mirror."

I got to thinking about that bit of guidance so I grabbed my iPhone and thumbed through the pics I took that day. I thought about why I lingered with some pieces of art and not others, why I bugged the staff and combed the art directory to find a painting I'd seen prior to the museum moving to the new building, why it was important for me to send pictures of my favorite paintings to a few people, why I felt compelled to write this post.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
Portrait of Emy
Windows or Mirrors? Maybe both...
I don't think it's an either/or situation when it comes to art. The experience is far too subjective. I think the visuals we are drawn to are both reflections of us (as in a mirror) and opportunities (as in a window or door) because they raise awareness that can then inspire.

When I saw Karl Schmidt-Rottluff's painting of his wife called Portrait of Emy, I was immediately drawn in. A radical style back in his day, Schmidt-Rottluff was seeking to explore and reflect her passionate personality which is clearly seen within and round this intense woman. While her expression conveys a kind of pensive, serious disposition which is typically associated with dullness or depression, it's quite the opposite. Being a participant and an observer in life can intensify and deepen one's overall experience, I think, and the vibrancy and color of this painting clearly says she did just that.

David Park
Another painting that stopped me in my tracks was David Park's Daphne from 1959 which is also an example of radical style in a conventional, proper era. The colors used, the openness, the clear intent to face life head on, the reinforcing of that intent with the the natural setting (I'm avoiding the tired Eve in the Garden of Eden reference), and the overtly intense colors took my breath away. David was an out-of-the-box thinker who as a child occupied himself with drawing, painting, making puppet shows, and playing music. His family definitely represented the lifestyle of the times, but with the help of an aunt, he pursued a life in the arts. It seems this painting represents his comfort with pushing boundaries.

Donald Sultan
Venice without water
I bothered the staff of the museum about a painting that haunts me that used to be in the old building. None of them seem to know what I was talking about, but then my 12 year old son, Ethan, surprised me with remembering the name: Venice without Water by Donald Sultan

Venice is a classically beautiful and historic city under constant threat of demise. Engineers are working feverishly to stop the flow of water into the city. The question this painting suggests is what would happen if the water was completely removed. Water has long had a place in literature, religion, and folklore as noted in this article about symbolism. Water often is used to cleanse, wash away, and regenerate. For me, the absence of water is the absence of life, and this painting is a stark reminder of just how barren things can be when out of balance.

Pausing at the reflecting pond
NC Museum of Art
Reflecting on windows and mirrors
This point of this post, dear reader, is not to engage you in dissecting and analyzing my own personality and perspective. I can do that on my own time. :) 

The point rather is to encourage you to take time observing ego. Figuratively stepping outside of yourself and watching what you pay attention to, considering the thoughts, feelings, and questions that pop-up in your mind over the course of your day, and observing how you interact with others. Through these moments, you gain deeper understanding of who you are at your core - your values, beliefs, boundaries, passions, character, moods, tendencies, verbal and behavioral inconsistencies, and aspirations. 

My journal from
It's pauses like these that create the opportunity to develop healthy self-talk where you can coach, question, and mentor yourself. It's also an opportunity to challenge your assumptions. We're all great fiction writers at the end of the day. In the absence of information we usually make it up so observing ego gives us a chance to gut check the stories we tell ourselves. Not having this internal meter can reek havoc on our emotional self and emotional relationships with others. So go on, have a peek at yourself from time-to-time. Happy ego observing...

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