We See What We Expect to See


DSC_1215Portrait Bust

When I first learned to drive I was worried that I might hit a pedestrian. My neighborhood had narrow, car lined streets, and I anticipated a moment when a little kid might run out between two parked cars. A few years went by without an accident or incident, and I began to relax. One night I drove home from work at about two in the morning after a busy, hectic shift at Godfather’s Pizza. I was aware that the bar patrons were headed home after closing time and kept an eye out for drunks along the curb. I saw a hulking form in dim light in the distance that looked like a large man standing by the road. I slowed down when I approached him, and the half-lit shape turned out to be a mail box.

Years later I attended my nephew’s wedding near Cleveland. My daughter Annie and son Alan came along for the trip. My daughter has similar hair and skin color to her mother, but is 33 years younger. On two occasions Annie was mistakenly greeted as my wife by relatives who saw her standing near me. My uncle was about three feet away when he asked her about her teaching (my wife was a professor). My daughter, of course, was mortified to be misidentified as my spouse, but that wasn’t the end of it. At the wedding she wore a dress that bloused out at the waist that inspired a drunk woman at the reception to spread a pregnancy rumor. The tipsy matron’s family had had its share of forced marriages over the years, the inebriate was on the look out for distended bellies among the young women at the gathering, and she saw what she expected to see.

I’ve spent years teaching beginning drawing to students with little or no background in fine art. Most are graphic communications majors and prefer their computers to a stick of charcoal. I teach them the basics of perspective as best I can, and have said “Parallel lines appear to converge as they move away from you,” on countless occasions. I explain that the side edges of a table appear to converge so that the back edge looks smaller than the front edge, that an illusion of depth can be created by following this rule when drawing the table on a two dimensional piece of paper. But many students insist on drawing the side edges so that the back edge of the table is exactly the same width as the front edge. They know conceptually that the front and back measure the same and draw them accordingly. When I follow up and show them that they’ve lost the illusion of depth these students often look at me in disbelief. Some challenge me. One women told me that I must see things differently than she did.

And perhaps I do. Observing colors, tones and lines in still lives, landscapes, portraits and figures has taught me to doubt my assumptions. What I think I see and what is actually there are two separate things. Painting and drawing realistically can be an investigation into What Is. As an oil progresses in several layers I begin to notice colors I hadn’t seen at the beginning and details that appear to emerge from nowhere. I get the impression after working on a subject for an extended period of time that the visual world is nearly infinite, that more and more can be observed if I am willing to put in the time.

But I am mainly aware of the open possibilities of experience when I am painting. I still make assumptions in social situations about another person’s character and intentions based on my past experience. I interpret behavior and assign motives without waiting for an individual to fully reveal their qualities. I do this out of self-protection and a need to prepare myself for all eventualities. But this narrows my experience down to seeing what I expect to see.

And there have been times when my expectations have been fulfilled and my suspicions have been confirmed. But at others I’ve been surprised by unforeseen depths in a person I had assumed was shallow, by kindness hidden beneath a rough exterior, and by playfulness in a man who appeared to have no humor and imagination.

I believe that the world can open up and reveal immense vistas if we simply wait, watch, and observe without judgment. Then a girl with a bloused out dress isn’t pregnant, a mailbox is simply a mailbox, and the back edge of a table appears to be smaller than the front edge. And the student who appears to be fairly thick says something insightful and intelligent. And the light on a curve of my wife’s temple reveals her beauty to me once more. And the neighbor who appears to be a heartless and cold reveals his gentle nature when talking to his dog. There’s more out there to be heard, seen, felt than we can ever fully take in, more abundance than we can ever appreciate.

I have a cold this morning that has been lingering for several days. My joints ache a bit and my head feels like it has been stuffed with cotton. But the sun is bright today and the trees outside my window are swaying gently in a breeze. The red pick-up truck parked on Chilean Dr. adds an exclamation point to the surrounding green. A man in a white hoody walks past with quick, determined steps as two garbage men clad in fluorescent green safety vests collect the garbage at the end of the driveway. A car passes by in a blur and I briefly see a sixty year old man with a fringe of white hair speed past in a silver sedan.

The world looks strangely beautiful, even though I’ve seen this view before, and I feel a sense of happiness until my nose begins to run and a cough begins to collect at the back of my throat. I get trapped in the mental loop of wishing that I felt better. But then I listen to my exhalation of disgust, to the click of the keys on my laptop, to my wife is stirring in the living room and to the garbage truck rumbling in the distance. And in this particular moment it feels good to be alive.



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