“The physical eye assesses and establishes the rudiments of compositional structure…Then, the eye of the mind (soul) intercedes, penetrates, and prevails in places uninhabitable by the physical eye alone.” - A Guide to Drawing 6th edition
I was sitting with about eight other developing artists in a studio at L’Ecole Marchutz just outside of Aix-en-Provence, France. All of the swinging door windows and shutters wrapping the cool terra cotta tiled studio were flung open to let the famous Provencal light fill the studio. We rarely used anything but natural light.
One day, my studio mates and I were gathered around our teacher Alan Roberts who was holding an image of a still life. I don’t really recall what was in the still life, but I do remember being struck by how “realistic” it seemed. It was beautifully painted, and was considered art-historically a “significant” work. We discussed the piece. Critiqued it. Talked about color and light and composition and so forth.
Then he pulled out a Cezanne still life, some fruit on a table with a ceramic bowl I presume. It was comparatively raw. The line was loose. The canvas shown through – was it even complete? The color was classic Cezanne and the composition compelling.
So, with both still lifes in front of us, Alan started talking about seeing and painting “the whole.” He talked about our relationship as artists with our subject and the ways the various elements of nature, even set as a still life, relate to each other. An apple relates to an orange relates to the negative space and shadow relate to the ceramic bowl. None exists as an independent object, but all as a whole.
Then, he turned both masterpieces upside down. We sat. Looking. Quietly. Finally, he asked us to talk about the two pieces again, as they were now presented.
I don’t know if everyone saw it, but my world had just changed - forever. Masterpiece #1, not the Cezanne, that was so compelling and beautiful, completely fell apart when it was upside down. I could almost hear the clashing and clanging as the individual elements of the still life seemed to fall off the canvas. One piece fell of the bottom right of the canvas, another to the left, another seemingly suspended in air with no relation to anything.
The Cezanne, on the other hand, still looked fine, less recognizable as specific objects since they were upside down, but nothing was falling apart. Cezanne had seen the objects, not just looked at them, and had painted the whole.
In this moment, I began not just to see art differently, but to see my relationships, my challenges and opportunities, the world differently. A sense of seeing the whole has guided my life and work since that exact moment (which is not to say I have always been successful at it!).
Seeing the whole helped me develop youth-led social justice and community change work, understanding and teaching that as a community, we are a whole. We are related as objects in space and shadow and energy, in color, in form, in substance, in the spiritual. If there is injustice for one, then the whole is unjust.
Seeing the whole helped me process and cope with my Father’s suicide, understanding the dynamics of mental illness, sexual abuse, religious guilt, and the life he had lived and the death he had chosen. To look at the components individually would have been to misunderstand him. It would fall apart.
Seeing the whole helped me navigate the low times of business school, the pivot of a startup from a field I knew and loved (education) to one I didn’t (healthcare), the adjustments of becoming a father while still being a husband, a son, and a brother. The whole gets larger and often more complex as life is lived. Seeing it becomes ever more critical.
But, seeing requires the transformation of the self first. Activism and art and life follow.
Seeing is about moving beyond the limitations of the eye and the mind to explore places “uninhabitable” by them, to find relationships and truth and peace within the larger world.