Art by Lynda Lehmann
Lynda Lehmann : Think Small (No, I'm not Joking...)

Artistic Perspectives

Think Small (No, I'm not Joking...)

There is magic in minutiae.

By Lynda Lehmann | Updated 9/6/15

I know, I know! You're thinking: “All my life, people have been telling me to ‘think big!’ So why is this nut telling me to ‘think small?’”

Actually, I do have a reason. It's very simple. When you fine tune your vision, turn it towards detail, new worlds await! There is magic in minutiae.

It's a paradigm we've grown up with: more is better — look at the big picture — earn more money — enjoy the panorama, the big cars, the big houses, the big stars! Might makes right, and may the best (and biggest, or most muscular, or wealthiest) man win!

We have been conditioned to “think big” at any cost, even though it means overlooking sources of joy, wisdom, and inspiration. For us artists, especially.

Perhaps I am overstating the obvious, but I've discovered a truth that wasn't always obvious to me. This past year I have rid and relieved my mind of the “big picture” paradigm. I don't do it regarding politics, education, the environment, or public health issues, for in these realms we must not abandon the “big picture.” But I do it perceptually, with aplomb and abandon, much more than I used to. In other words, I sit (or stand) and stare. And I've discovered new worlds this way.

True, many people will not get turned on by morsels of pine bark whose texture is delicately illumined by afternoon light. Or by the abstract composition a lichen laced with pine needles on the forest floor proffers. But for us artists, such details are a treasure trove.

Maybe the catalyst for my newly cultivated interest in the small view was our canoeing on a Maine lake this summer. My husband and I would head out to the marshy end of the lake after sunset, when most people had gone inside for the evening to numb out in view of the tube. We would paddle eagerly into the grassy shallows, lay our paddles across the gunwales, and wait. A smile and a prayer later, we were freshened, soothed, and inspired. With the sound of the soft wind in our ears, we watched the swallows winging their way into the glow of twilight for a dinner of dragonflies and mosquitoes.

In sunset's aftermath, the rose-glow would spread over the lake with the same grandeur sunrise imparts, only with diminishing instead of increasing intensity. Crimson and orange ringlets burnished the ripples all along the lake surface, like so many shimmering bracelets of light, changing every moment. They would meld and flow and metamorphose, texture and breadth and frequency interacting like the counterpoint in a symphony. A crescendo of beauty, free for the taking. It is difficult for either of us to remain quiet for very long, but this light show, running a new variation every evening, was special. It was good enough to watch in awed silence.

This summer I surrendered myself to the phenomenon, and saw much more than I have in past years, seen. And I vowed to take the experience home with me.

The fact that I'm writing about it, means I probably have taken it home. I've always caught myself staring in fascination at a beautiful pattern of iridescent soap bubbles on my soaking pots, or at frost on my windshield (no, not while I'm driving!). But always with the barely-conscious injunction against doing so.

“Why are you staring? Why are you wasting time?” the echoes of ancient voices would ask. This year, I've whisked away those wisps of constraint on my conscious process. No guilt, no compulsion to move right on to the next thing. This is my life, my only life, and if I want to revel in minute visions of beauty contained in everyday moments, that's my business! After all, aren't I supposed to be an artist? At least, this is what I aspire to be. How can I do this if I'm afraid to let myself absorb my world?

In my artist statement, I wrote this about texture:

I feel that the surface texture of objects is a valid subject for artistic scrutiny. The treatment of texture moves us closer to an object's essence. Each surface is a microcosm in itself, a unique topography that at the same time, evokes similar patterns at ascending levels of intellect and experience. Isn't "texture," after all, the eternal and ubiquitous underpinning, indeed the most basic level, of “form”?

What I'm saying now is about more than texture. It's about detail — details of form like the seeds in the pepper you have just sliced, or the multitude of abstract compositions lying in wait for you on the sunlit pine bark.

Krishnamurti, the consciousness guru who wrote Think on These Things, told us we were in trouble because in all the affluence of modern life, we have come to expect entertainment at every turn. Instead of living life, we substitute entertainment for experience, seeking a passive, mind and motivation numbing, artificial busy-ness at every turn. We are culture and entertainment consumers, and our appetite for all manner of escape never ceases.

In living this way, we each truncate our perceptual and cognitive ability and deprive our spirit. We let problems go, as if they will solve themselves, while we fixate on the artificial adventures concocted for us by Hollywood. Instead of living, we build a vicarious perception, based on commercials and false images of what has import in life. We ignore fundamental questions about how we are going to survive on this earth.

I say, wouldn't it be wonderful if we were to nurture and grow our sense of wonder, then use our new perceptions and energy to form new visions for a new age? And as artists, isn't it our job to bring beauty into the world? So, narrow your field of vision! Zoom in! Tune in! Get myopic! Experience the microcosm! My guess is you won't regret it. •

© 2006 Lynda Lehmann. All rights reserved.

I dedicate this article to my friend Diane, who often feeds my sense of wonder.

Painting by Lynda LehmannAbstract Expressionist painter Lynda Lehmann studied Art Education at Penn State University and earned her BFA from Hofstra. More »
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