On a recent backpacking trip I decided not to learn the names of any new wildflowers. When I see an unfamiliar flower my response is curiosity: I examine the color, the shape, the scent, the leaf structure. When I see a flower that I can identify, I say, “Oh, that’s a sticky monkey-flower” – and hike on by. A pre-set notion of what the flower looks like often prevents me from seeing it.
I find a similar process at work when looking at a print I’ve just created. Often there’s a gap between what I imagined in my mind’s eye and how it turned out. When that happens I find my eyes go there, to that place where the image in my head and the image in front of my eyes differ. Then I usually chew the cud. While I’m chewing I rarely see what’s in front of my eyes at all, because of the dissonance between my intentions and reality; it’s a challenge to view my print with curiosity and fresh eyes. Often I’m able to do so later, after a couple of weeks, and not infrequently I actually like what ended up happening. What can speed this process up is showing the work to someone else, having them tell me what they see. This seems to hit the “refresh” button behind my eyes.
At the end of every printmaking class we gather to look through the new prints together. In doing so, we help each other see our work fresh – or, as one of my students put it, “to stand, mesmerized, by the beauty we’ve created.” The expansive act of admiring other people’s prints can also open us to the beauty in our own. And, sometimes, we pull a print and it astonishes us – our eyes are too delighted to find fault! Merty McGraw made a few subtle changes to this print after she first printed it, but for the most part she stood with the rest of us, mesmerized by the beauty she’d created.
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