art

The lenses through which we see may not be our own

When I was 18 or so, I went to Oregon to be a camp counselor. All the counselors had camp names–Seaweed, Alpine, Whinny, Weed, Shaggy, Scribbles, Moondog, Kramer. One of the ones I admired the most was about my age, but she was way, way cooler than I was. Or am. I only remember her real name, if that’s any indication. Anyway, she had a boyfriend who came to visit. I met him once, and he was coming to visit us at camp at some point in the summer. Just before he came, Turtle, whose real name I also remember, asked me what he was like. Or maybe she didn’t ask me.

See, in the family I grew up in, my parents just gave opinions, willy-nilly. They didn’t ask if anyone wanted to hear them; they just gave them, because no one but your family would ever tell you the truth, or some other adage designed to excuse the hurt such opinions could cause.

Anyhow. I started talking, talking, talking, telling Turtle about the guy, and then Turtle said something like, “How about you let me meet him first?”

It was the first time it ever really occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t be influencing other peoples’ opinions with my own jabbering. It was the first time, actually, that it ever occurred to me that maybe I didn’t need to have an opinion, really. And maybe it was the first time that it occurred to me that other people most definitely didn’t need to hear my opinions on everything.

(That last part is constantly a work in progress; the pressure to seem relevant is always there.)

Anyway, it’s been slowly occurring to me that anything we do or say; any time we appear, is meant to imply, to impress something upon the viewer, or the reader, or the persons you interact with. I’ve had this thought a number of times over the last two decades or so: People walking their dogs in their pajamas, for instance, imparts for me not an admirable sense of independence, but, rather, a sense of sloppy insouciance, a lack of pride in one’s appearance.

Likewise, when I walked down the street with my dog off-leash, it was meant to imply confidence over a blatant disregard for the rules, but I couldn’t have that much control over people’s reactions. Or could I?

When I wrote for the J. Peterman and Patagonia catalogs, those pieces were meant to convey very specific emotions built around getting people to buy things. Earlier this week, I gave some brief remarks on behalf of a nonprofit I volunteer for; I did it in a logo’ed top and an exaggerated houndstooth-print skirt and walking boots, an outfit I chose to convey the efficiency and yet, continued relevance and constantly evolving nature of the charity.

Sometimes these things go awry. Years ago I delivered an earnings report in a nice suit, but I did it leaning against the wall, in a posture meant to convey confidence and a modicum of intended arrogance (it was a complicated relationship) but I know for a fact–could sense it, even while I was doing it, that would backfire. And I once walked into a meeting of marketing people with my huge French cuffs deliberately undone, but they flapped while I was talking, causing a terrible distraction.

All of these things seem sartorially bent–it’s the easiest thing for me to think of–but really what I’m referring to is narrative. What I’m referring to is context.

Take, for instance, the podcast Serial, which I’m finally listening to. (If you haven’t heard it yet, pick it up here.) In the first season, the reporter tries to make sense of a murder case she feels has gone awry. I haven’t heard the end of it, so I don’t know what we’re going to find out. But there are so many moving pieces to this story–the characters, the settings, the very social backdrop of the time the murder took place–that I couldn’t help but wonder why this reporter chose to tell this story in the way she did. Why, for instance, is it crafted in segments like this?

Why does she feature the defendant’s voice in some episodes over others?

Why does she include her own musings as she’s reporting?

Why does she follow the very specific timeline she follows?

For me, all of these questions are leading to even more questions, and although I’m only just nearing the end of season 1, I’m worried that I’ll walk away from the podcast feeling like I’ve been played–that I won’t actually feel happy about the outcome of this particular series, because it will have just opened in me–has opened in me–the desire to see it for my damn self, to root through the stuff, before I can believe what the reporter has told me.

Some things are like this. Maybe the whole intent of Serial is to make you ask questions, make you realize what else might be out there that you’ve either misinterpreted, or just taken for granted because something you deem a higher authority told you so.

Or if, like Turtle, you’d been primed to see something one or or another because of something someone said.

It strikes me that this is a key part of art, the capability to shape someone’s view of things, to prime them with a narrative of your own making, before they even get to witness the thing themselves. Last weekend we took my dad to see a photo exhibition featuring pictures his friend Dr. Dean Hsu had taken on his travels around the world. Every part of that show–from the photo itself to the placement of the photos and the editorial choices made by the curators–was meant to imply and help you to form an opinion of the places Dr. Hsu had been, even if you’ve never been there yourself.

We walked around the town of Visalia a little bit between lunch and the exhibition. I took some photos of the buildings there, because I love the buildings of that era, and I like to do watercolors of them. They’re my safe spot. And before lunch, we took a tour of the cancer care practice Dr. Hsu used to work at. It was such a warm, lovely place.

I never thought about it this way before, but the intent of the drawings I do is meant to convey to you, the viewer, my own impressions of the place I’ve visited. So when you look at these pictures, the first of a window in Dr. Hsu’s office; the second of a building I particularly liked, I hope you get the sensation that these are places that made me feel warm and happy. Whether or not they imply the things I want you to feel is a mark of the work’s success–or failure.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing and teaching about intent and its importance in writing stories and essays, but this is the first time I’ve thought about my visual art this way. Which is funny, because surely there must be some kind of internal desire around each painting I do.

It’s good to approach everything, I think, with intent, whatever that may be. The conveyance of who we are and what we’re about comprises these small details. More importantly, we have the power to change the way that others see things, and I think that’s not something to be wielded lightly.

For my part, I like to keep reminding myself that these things have more weight that we might have otherwise considered–or intended.

What have you seen, read, or heard that’s irrevocably changed your opinion or the way you think and view things? Tell me in the comments below.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.