“Earth is crammed with heaven, Every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
After three months of near constant travel and work I am back in Seattle for a week to catch my breath. I have a lot of work to complete and great events on the horizon, but I am going to stop for a bit and reflect on the heaven and bushes afire that I have seen during my latest travels.
The heaven brought forth was the meeting of dear friends in several spots in Europe. I am so fortunate to have met and come to care deeply for people in many different places. Traveling to see them along familiar rail lines or unfamiliar highways through ripening summer fields was a source of great joy to me. Creating new memories while laughing, dining, or walking together will keep us in an embrace until our next meeting or even if we are never to meet again. This, along with a few photographs, is my sustenance. The heart holds joy and after a while, will release suffering.
I often visit museums to see the same paintings time and time again. Viewing The Sower and the Place du Forum and one of Vincent’s self portraits with those piercing blue eyes felt just like greeting old friends, or perhaps the echo of those meetings…with a touch of wistfulness and the longing to talk again.
I had the great pleasure to see several really fine exhibits and one new (to me) museum. In London I went to the brand new show at the Royal Academy titled Sargent and the Sea, and saw the Renaissance Drawings exhibit at the British Museum. Sargent and the Sea was a particular joy as it showed the artist in the beginning of his career, with paintings that exhibited vigor and freedom, what one might expect from a young man visiting seaside resorts around Europe. What was entirely unexpected was the quality and maturity of the work. While we might be familiar with the glory of Sargent portraiture, the mastery of his early compositions is stunning. The texture of and reflections in the wet sand that he created made me want to take off my shoes and wade into the painting. The side-light creating a corona around a child’s head made you feel the late afternoon sun, a feeling that you are caught between wanting to stay on the shore to take in the last rays of sun and warmth while beginning to think about dinner and rest.
The Renaissance Drawings exhibit at the British Museum was familiar territory for me as I have spent many hours in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. But there were delights: The painting of two cheetahs from about 1410 was a real surprise and it was eye opening to see the freedom of expression in the preparatory drawings that was rarely seen in a finished work. But to see the evolution of drawing from the early 1400’s to the height of the Renaissance was revelatory. The progressive refinement and use of perspective, texture, detail, and expression of movement and emotion all culminated in the masterpieces by Da Vinci, Titian, and Michelangelo that we revere.
Where is the photography in all this? It’s in our awareness of every sight, every step, every line, every shadow, every bush afire. While looking at a canvas by Seurat at the Kroller-Muller museum I was thrilled to see three distinct compositions in one painting. While talking with my mother about the Sargent works I could see clearly the use of negative space, separation of elements, and side-light to highlight portions of the composition. This charged me, energetically, to go out and SEE more deeply. The inspiration I derive from the Masters of Painting and Sculpture feeds me and helps me to refine my ability to create whole engaging images. Having that experience while preparing for a camera club lecture provided great examples and re-ignited my passion for describing how we can expand our awareness by feeding our brains and our souls with the best imagery available to us.
The gift of awareness is the greatest gift we can offer ourselves. Cultivate it. Take off your shoes and touch the warmth of the soil and surf. You will reap an earth crammed with Heaven.