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The Art Of Observation

I WAS just 15, a gangling high-schooler inlove with painting, spending one of many afternoons at the fine-art gallery where my mother ran the education program.

The children scattered across the gallery floor were barely half my age, most of them learning how to look at art for the first time. I watched with affection and admiration as my mother worked, opening up the girls' and boys' eyes and minds to creative possibilities with her questions and encouraging style.

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I also began to watch one particular third- grader who sat cross-legged among his classmates; he gazed intently past my mother at a bold black-and-white Franz Kline abstract canvas.

He seemed to be using his eyes in a way that totally engaged his mind. He was in a kind of visual overdrive, barely hearing the docent's explanations. Then she asked, "What do you all see in these rough slashes of paint?"

The boy's arm shot up: "A horse's head!" Others said, "A meteor!" "A dinosaur!" "A sad face!" As each voice joined the chorus, it was clear that all these young eyes were looking, and seeing, with peculiar intensity, responding to the depth and emotion of Kline's work.

Afterward, before they boarded their bus, the class teacher took my mother aside. Had she noticed the boy in the front row?

"Yes, he had great ideas, hadn't he." she replied.

His teacher looked thoughtful. "That's the first he's spoken in class all year."

It was a stirring lesson that seeing can be a catalyst for all our faculties, not just some select set of artistic sensibilities.

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* * * *

This photo reminded me of that event for two reasons. First, the image is like some of Kline's work, with its industrial-strength calligraphic gestures.Second, it could serve as a study guide to evolved seeing. It engages me on the level that modern painting must have engaged that introverted young boy.

How do we choose what to look at? When we look closely enough, or broadly enough, what do we see?

This picture is deceptively simple. It is not classically beautiful; nor does it carry an obvious message. But it grabs me, much as Kline's painting grabbed that third-grade group, and asks, "What do you see?"

A backward letter 'J'? Humanity dwarfed by the urban landscape? Contrasts of scale, between the concrete piers and the delicate catwalk?

What do you see?

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