Wednesday, April 23, 2014

An art history lesson

I've read that the act of creation can have real empathetic roots. I think that's because we have to think about who we are creating something for, and what they would want. Perhaps we're trying to give them what they want. Perhaps we're trying to do the exact opposite.


I was very lucky growing up - I was able to attend a specialized high school for the arts. I was a visual arts major - which meant that each year I took at least two classes alongside my regular academics. I would come in to school and paint, draw, sculpt, glue, sew or otherwise try to represent the things placed in front of me.

One year I took oil painting. We had a routine - first set up your station, pour the turpentine, squeeze out your paints on your palette, pick your subject (or use a subject already set up from the previous class) and paint. I loved the process of painting. I would squint at each form and shadow and see colors that I didn't see before - yellow in the reds, blue in the browns, and lots and lots of greens. As I moved my brush I moved my colors around the picture like I was decorating a cake; I wanted each bite to have a bit of purple, a taste of orange. I wanted the viewer's eyes to follow the trails of hue around the image.

One day, the teacher came over and said to me, "What is that, that spot of blue there?" I said, "It's right there, in the shadow of the apple, see?" She looked at the apple, then at me. She said, "You can't make stuff up - that's not what this class is about. You have to paint what you see. You are training your eyes and hands. Learn how to paint what you see first." She walked away.

I remember feeling mad. I was going to paint WHAT I wanted - and if she didn't like what I painted because she couldn't see the colors I could see, then I would just have to paint something she couldn't see. For my next subject, I looked out the window. While everyone else painted the still life on the table (an arrangement of plastic fruit, broken instruments and drapery) I painted the cars on the sidewalk four stories below. While everyone else painted a lamp, I painted the forest and highway a few miles away across the river. The next time she came around and asked me what I was painting, I told her. She just looked and nodded and walked away.

I wonder if creativity for me is not so much about empathy - and more about stubbornness. :)

Have you created anything lately?


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book review - Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

by Susanna Clarke

This book has all of the trappings that make me want to love it. It's got magic. It's got fairies. It's got great language and conversation - the sort that makes me zoom and fly through the pages like The Fairy King*'s own crows. I read another review which called it "Hogwarts for Grownups" (NY Times).

This book definitely had fun - an absolutely fun up and down ride. The pages were stuffed with activity, heavy descriptions of the landscape were balanced against light conversations where people were saying just what I hoped they would say just when I hoped they would say them. I was the fly on the wall during what was apparently the greatest magical upheaval that England had ever known; and it was a jolly good time.


What I didn't like, I suppose, was that I felt the book was just a hair too long. I'm one of those people who reads the Lord of the Rings Trilogy or the Harry Potter seven-gy for fun; so when I say 'too long' I really mean 'a bit dull at times'. She uses footnotes** extensively, and I felt they made the story drag.

Also, I had a few issues with the characters. Aside from the title characters, most of the other people were more like false actors in someone else's play. It seemed like they were such amazing, interesting, fun people; but they didn't breathe; they didn't live. I didn't close the book and feel like I knew them.

I will say again that I loved the fantastical plot and most of the time I didn't want to put it down, just that sometimes I just wanted her to 'hurry up' and get to the next good part. I truly wanted to like the characters more, and I didn't.

Overall, I give the book a 3 and a half out of 5. A good book with some great fun. I may read it again - and I may like it better the second time around. 

*The Fairy King is a character in the book.
**What do you mean 'extensively'? I mean that in every chapter, there were pages dedicated to short footnotes and longer drawn out sub-stories that took me away from the main story again and again.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Hating hurts

Back in college*, I knew this girl. She was everything I couldn't stand; she was whiny, she apologized for herself 30 zillion times every day. She needed help with everything; and if I couldn't help her when she asked for it, she'd apologize for asking and then ask if I didn't like her anymore. In short - she had very low self-esteem, and was really, really annoying.

I tried telling her to 'please go away'. I tried being a little mean, shutting the door in her face and walking away from conversations in the middle. She came right back. I told the R.A. that she was a 'problem' and could they please switch my dorm rooms to another building? He said 'no, that's not enough of a reason' and wouldn't let me do it. Friends asked me 'how do you tolerate her' and 'what is the deal with her, she knows she's not wanted?' I told them I didn't like her, that I wished she was gone.

Since I couldn't make her go away, I started avoiding anywhere I might run into her. I kept away from the student union, I turned around and went the other direction when I saw her coming. When I did go back to my room, I jumped whenever the door made a noise, thinking it was her. By the end of the school year I was feeling pretty bad about her, about dorm life, and about school altogether. Then the semester ended and I never saw her again.

Now I'm wondering - what would today's me think of old me? What would I do if I met someone like this now, perhaps at work?


Hating someone is no fun for the hater - I was distracted so my studies suffered, I was catty and mean and I don't like myself that way. I had taken an official 'position' - I didn't like her and I told everyone I thought this way. Taking a position is kind of like joining a political party, once I join it I will defend it to the end.

If I went back in time and talked to old-me, I might tell myself that by keeping this position, I was hurting myself. I needed to change my position and stop hating her. I needed to see the situation differently. Perhaps I needed to have empathy for her. She was amazing (as we all are) and deserves respect for getting up every day and putting herself through her day.

Do you work or live with someone right now, who you don't like? Do you think having empathy would help?


*Some of the elements of this story have been changed to protect identities.