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Speaking pictures

Our everyday surroundings speak to us, but are we listening? What are we finally perceiving, as billboards and iPods battle for our sensory attention? Comment's series continues with an appeal for a little more awareness, a little more joy in seeing—and understanding—the visual narrative around us.

The first pair of glasses I ever owned had lenses half the size of my face, and thick pink frames. Pale pink, in a hue only a little girl could pick out. I remember wearing them out of the optometrist's office and being completely riveted by everything that passed by during the car ride home. What really drew my attention were the front windows of people's houses. With my nearsightedness corrected, those big living room windows with their curtains wide open were just waiting for me to see what was hanging on the walls and showing on the television. The previously indistinguishable details of domestic trappings were laid out in all their mundane glory. I could see into other people's homes.

This memory represents two things for me—I love being able to see and I love being able to see into things. Popping in my contact lenses each morning, I'm still struck by what a gift it is to have my surroundings emerge out of the blurry mess of astigmatism and reappear in total clarity. But my delight in being able to see in detail and to see inside applies also to ideas and concepts. When a person thoroughly understands a concept, he or she is said to see and to have insight, regardless of how physically impossible it may be to see that concept. The language used to describe mental comprehension is positively rife with visual references and metaphors.

Among the many works of literature that forge a connection between human understanding and sight, one that sticks out for me is Sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poetry, first published in 1595. In his treatise, Sidney praises the power of poetry and describes it in Aristotelian terms as a "speaking picture—with this end, to teach and delight." Sidney's words remind us that we cannot mentally comprehend the world without language—since words describe to us what we see—and that powerful language is often dependent on visual imagery and metaphor. I love poetry, and I wonder sometimes if we need a reminder that the physical world, the original speaking picture, is speaking to us all. And it isn't just speaking through a vista of the mountains or in the sun setting over a northern lake.

At the very least, the literary connections between vision and thought give me a sense of just how imaginative seeing is; how it is a mental exercise. I may be walking down an ugly street in a city, but when I look at something, be it a building or a stranger's face, and look to see what else is inside of it—what associations, memories, thoughts, or words appear before my mind's eye—then I am taking delight in my physical sense of sight. I love to stare at something, to pay attention to a thing as insignificant as the shapes and shades of the little stones in a patch of pavement. And when the physical surface, the intricacies of the pavement, traps my eye so that for a moment it is all I see, and all I think about is what those stones look like, my reward for looking is that for a time I forget about the cares of the day.

Although the phrase is cliché, the term mind's eye is fitting, for what could better sum up the individuality of the 'I' than the idea that each person has a unique visual perception and consciousness of the world? The more I see people walking around with ear buds plunged into their heads and cell phones attached to their ears, the more I wonder what effect relentless distraction from the physical world must have on their visual sense and ability to form a personal, visual narrative of life. Much has been said about the ever-increasing pace of life and the consequences thereof. For my own part, I think one of the impoverishing things about our rushing around in daily life is that we don't look at what's around us.

However, one thing that the structure of modern life has sought to ensure that we always have opportunity to see is advertising. Advertising strives to create a visual zeitgeist of communal desire in which individual perception is subjected to a monolithic standard of what looks good, what is beautiful, what needs to be purchased if we are to make a proper show in this life. Advertisement seeks to deaden our visual curiosity for life by assuring that whatever is worth looking at is in the ad. Furthermore, if we are to consider ourselves worth looking at, we should purchase whatever it is that's being peddled. Endlessly repeating images of commoditized women and men are meant to appeal to our visual imaginations in an effort to get us to buy perfume, jeans, and so many other products. The hypersexualized depiction of women and the distortion of femininity propagate and legitimize an approach to visual pleasure that is belittling to men and women (not to mention children). Men are encouraged to be like the foolish young man in the book of Proverbs, given over to lust, while women are told that there is no place for them in visual culture unless they can achieve a 'perfect' body and become objects of male desire.

I think it's good to occasionally take a close look at the advertisements we're daily exposed to and consider just what it is we're looking at. When the act of looking is meant to reward thoughts of desire, and to trigger a consumer response, we become jaded and rely on cynicism as a form of mental protection. But tuning out our physical surroundings and turning up the iPod is not necessarily using our imaginations.

Although the culture of capitalism would leverage our mental delight in seeing to drive us into an increasingly superficial world where white teeth represent success and happiness, we need to keep looking around, and let our everyday surroundings speak to us. I love travelling and seeing a different city or country for the first time, but the excitement and pleasure of seeing can also take place in a neighbourhood I've driven through a thousand times. I just listen to my eyes.

I love seeing:

  1. The inside of people's front rooms—still.

  2. Fabricland! I love looking at the colours and shapes in all the fabric without considering whether or not any of it's fashionable.

  3. A pair of squirrels chasing each other around a tree trunk. They'll freeze for a moment—each one poised for battle—and then start whipping around again.

  4. People waiting for the bus. There are the foot-tappers, the pacers, the watch-checkers, and the people who look like they're waiting for destiny to pull up.

  5. Fruit! I love seeing all the different groupings of fruit in the produce section at the supermarket. Something about the apples makes them look like they're all just happy to be there.

  6. Staring through the little window in the oven door and watching muffins rise.

  7. I love seeing children take the most roundabout route to traverse a sidewalk while their parents walk a straight line.

  8. My paint brushes standing bristle-side-up in a big old mug. They stand there like troops awaiting their orders.

  9. I love seeing people with really long fingernails. It's fascinating—how do they tie their shoelaces with those talons?

  10. Orchids. Orchids are the only flower I can think of that have little dragon jaws in front of a halo.

  11. Hands. Especially when it looks like a person's hands don't match the rest of them.

  12. Stuffed animal versions of moose. They're so silly and cute but I can't help seeing how they're the fitting portrayal of the mighty moose.

  13. Rows of houses.

  14. Picasso's painting, The Weeping Woman. She's figuratively broken apart by grief and yet so beautiful. I did a pencil-crayon copy of her for a grade nine art class and then suddenly came upon her at the Tate Gallery in London seven years later. I imagine the experience was something like meeting one's favourite celebrity in the flesh.

  15. Turmeric. When I add it to a dish that has onions, it makes the onions look so bright and fluorescent it's like they're right out of the '60s.

  16. The moon. Who can resist the moon?

  17. I love envisioning what a character from a book looks like. A good example is Milly Theale from Henry James's The Wings of the Dove. She is both odd-looking and beautiful.

  18. Children's look of relaxed concentration when they colour and draw.

  19. Cookbooks with lots of pictures.

  20. Cream and sugar sets that share a little plate.

  21. Hand-embroidered tablecloths.

  22. Grapefruit segments—they're the rulers of the citrus universe.

  23. Birds. I don't think I could ever grow tired of looking at birds.

  24. The underside of leaves, where you can see all the little veins.

  25. People I love.
Help us spread the word:
Stephanie Sikma Stephanie Sikma
Stephanie Sikma holds a Masters in English from McMaster University, as well as an honours B.A. in Fine Art and English, also from McMaster. ... read more »

Posted in Arts.

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  1. March 2007: Things we love
    Comment Magazine - Things we love

    For this reason it is worthwhile to reflect on the things we love: as we consider our loves, we come to know ourselves. It is out of our loves, our commitments, that our identity, our character, grows. It is out of loves, our commitments, that our beliefs, our convictions grow. It is in shared loves, shared commitments, that we discover our truest friends and most enduring communities.

    As our authors in this issue of Comment consider certain parts of their lives—the cities in which they live, the spheres of life in which they work—and the things they love in those parts, we hope that you will be drawn to consider the things you love, and that as you think about these things you will join us in asking the big questions about love and our selves. What is love? What do we love? What do our loves make of us? We also hope—and here I wax Augustinian—that as we consider the things we do love, that we will become more deeply aware of the things that we ought to love.

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