Better Vision.

It’s six weeks into the spring semester and I have an answer to my question, “Why am I, a fiction writer, taking a studio art course?” Simple: I am improving my vision.

I don’t mean that I’ll be able to drive without my glasses, or never need to buy contact lenses again. I mean I am learning to look at my work differently: more broadly, deeply, closely, and distantly.

Peripheries of Perception: Project #2 required us to select an object(s) that had meaning for us, and consider the method we would use to transform that object. I chose a thick pile of papers on which I’d written various drafts of a recent short fiction. My goal was to transform the multiple versions of the story into one visual object that communicates the essence of the story.

First, I needed to distill the story to its essence – not the who-did-what plot aspects, but what is the one word or phrase that communicates the experience of the story. It is a short fiction titled “Holy Mother of God” and I realized the story is a prayer. The reader experiences the unfiltered prayer of a little girl beginning to question faith. The story begins with the girl telling the Holy Mother that things between them are still cool, even though there has been no response to her prayers. Perhaps the Virgin has been too busy.

Second, I considered ways to represent prayer visually. I got excited over some not-so-great ideas. For example, I thought of creating origami Virgins from my paper pile. I rejected the idea as too obvious and uninspired. I thought of cutting the papers to form a free-floating mosaic of the Virgin’s face, suspended as a mobile and sensitive to the breeze so viewers would wonder, “Do I see the face of Mary?” Better than the origami, but then I realized something just as important as the creativity of an idea: the practicality. I had two weeks, limited studio art skills, and many other life and academic obligations. Back to the drawing board.

I decided on cutting into a stack of the printed pages with an Exacto knife so that the resulting holes and gaps would form a shape that could be seen as an image of the Virgin. I would frame the result, much as unexpected images of the Virgin, whether they appear on closet doors or grilled cheese sandwiches, are made into precious objects.

So I was set: I had an outline of a Mary-like image on my top page and an Exacto knife. It took a lot of “looks” at the project and my ideas to get to this point: looking at the story to find meaning; looking at that meaning to see how it could be visually represented; taking a look at my ideas to see how achievable or relevant they were.

I hunched over the page with the Exacto knife, so close my nose practically touched the paper. Nick, our professor, looked over my shoulder and asked how things were going. I said great, and explained how I planned to cut through the whole outline before pulling the paper bits. He stepped away, took a look, then asked, “Why?”

Because I had a plan, I said. I needed to finish step one before going on to step two. He suggested I step away from the page and the table, and take a look at what had already taken shape. Jane, our visiting artist, joined us, and the three of us considered the page.

That’s when I saw it: the still loosely attached and somewhat lifted bits of paper had already created a discernible shape on the page. The effect of an “unfinished” step one gave the image an ambiguity that communicated the fragility of faith I was trying to communicate. I would have missed this, and never realized it, if I’d kept such a tight focus on the product and the process.

Stepping away and taking a look from a distance or a different angle might be obvious to someone more experienced in studio art. I do it in my own way as a writer, e.g., re-imagining a story from a different narrative perspective to find what I might miss. Seeing the value, literally with my eyes, in an art studio reinforced the importance of approaching my craft from different angles to get the sharpest image.


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