Sunday Salon: Eye of the Beholder

Sunday Salon with Becca Rowan


When I was a freshman in college my favorite class was Art History 101. Since I was a literature major with a music minor, I was surprised to find myself enjoying the class so much. Especially since I had always considered myself someone with not one smidgen of talent for the visual arts.

I used to arrive early for the 8:00 a.m. class and slide into a plush theater seat in the brand new auditorium. I’d pull out the small writing desk attached to the arm, get out the fat blue notebook emblazoned with the University of Michigan logo, sip my coffee, and wait for Professor Andy Harwick to amble in. He was the quintessential art history professor, in his mid-30’s, with shaggy blonde hair that hung nearly to his shoulders. He wore a crumpled brown corduroy sport coat over wrinkled Levi’s, and stumped around the stage in suede workboots. He carried his own cup of coffee, and often looked as if he’d just crawled out of bed as he paced back and forth in front of the large screen that served as the backdrop for his lectures.

It all seemed sophisticated and ultra-collegiate to me, sitting in this darkened room with at least 100 other students, sipping coffee, and studying the world’s great works of art projected before me in larger than life size.

But I soon became captivated with more than just the atmosphere. What Professor Harwick lacked in style of dress he more than made up for in his teaching skills. In his lectures, each painting became it’s own story. He was able to describe details that made the artist’s vision come to life, and made me realize the ways art reflects the history and culture of its time.

Even more than that, I learned to appreciate the visual beauty art provides. Wandering through quiet galleries and museums, staring into the canvas of a Monet, a Renoir, a Picasso or Degas, letting the colors and composition wash over me, I am filled with a kind of peaceful awe that’s different from the feelings I get in a concert hall or reading a great book.

Art, whether on the walls of a museum or my own living room, becomes a window to another world. Like a time machine, it invites me in and transports me to a different place – whether it’s a field of wildflowers in Giverny, a battlefield in Guernica, or before a simple table set with a “still life” of ripe fruit and cheese. And because I don’t aspire to create art of my own, I don’t feel pressured when looking at art, don’t feel the stirring of my own creative impulses as I often do when reading or listening to music. I’m not tempted to analyze or evaluate or compare. I can simply see and appreciate the beauty before me, let my imagination take me inside the painting and see whatever it wants to see.

Art also becomes a gateway to feeling. I brought home one of my mother’s favorite paintings after she died: it’s a small watercolor of a African woman dressed in a colorful dashiki and dhuku, carrying an infant in a papoose on her back and holding a small girl by the hand. The viewer sees them from the back, but ahead of them stretches a pathway and distant sunrise. The colors are muted reds, golds, blues, and greens, washed with a pale yellow haze. There is a deep sense of love, trust, and contentment in this painting, one that speaks of the bonds of motherhood and the immensity of its attachment. It hangs on my bedroom wall, right across from the chair where I sit and read each morning. I spend some time every day just looking at it, and always feel enriched by the gentle hope it portrays.

Though I can’t recall enough detail from that long ago art history class to intelligently describe my favorite works of art as I might a novel or a piano sonata, I know they speak to me in unique and important ways. One of the characters in B.A. Shapiro’s novel, The Muralist, has this to say about creating visual art: “We want to get at what life feels like. The emotions we all share. Our commonality. To make our invisible life visible. Or experiencable.”

Making the emotions of life visible and connecting the heart of the creator to the eye of the beholder.

It’s a beautiful thing.

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking with the dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

2 Replies to “Sunday Salon: Eye of the Beholder”

  1. This is a beautiful piece. You bring up a really interestng point about not being a painter/visual artist so when you look at the art it can reach you in a way different than writing or music. That really resonated with me because — well, because I see it and sometimes (not always, but often) see the detail with questioning. How did he do that? I like the texture of the paint — I should try that. The pointillist dots — that really works, how did he have the patience. Sometimes I see the small and the big gets lost, maybe? My favorite painting at the DIA is called The Nut Gatherers. I’d already had art history in college but wasn’t really pursuing art as a do-it-yourself passion. It’s a painting of two girls sitting under a tree engaged in deep conversation. I couldn’t tell you a bit about the technique. I can only say that when I look at that photo I am transformed back into a younger me, sharing deep conversations with my friend, oblivious to time and place.

    There is much to be said for acquiring the vision to analyze and learn, to study deeply. But you remind me that there is as much, if not more, to be said about just soaking it in — atmosphere, color, feeling — all of it. Because really as in almost any art, it’s not always about the technique but the feeling, the memory, the impact of the piece. How it touches your soul.

    A lesson for which I needed a reminder.

  2. Thanks, Jeanie! I’m glad you enjoyed this piece.

    I, too, love The Nut Gatherers. We had a reprint of it on our dining room wall all the time I was growing up 😉

Comments are closed.