By Laura Stevenson
What have you looked at today? What have you seen? Is there a difference between what you have looked at and what you have seen?
Within the last year I have researched topics related to vision and perception. While most may think looking and seeing can be used interchangeably, there is a difference between the two. I am a visual artist interested in learning more about what may often be unseen: in various places, in the news, in our daily lives.
Personally, I think about what I see versus look at on a daily basis, and how some of these things involve conscious choices to go beyond looking and to focus my attention to sincerely see. I ask questions like What and who will I truly see? What might we gloss over as a result of the choice to only glance at something? I wonder about what I completely miss. There are many things we do see and understand, and there are thousands of things that we may not see on any given day. There may be things that I think that I see but truthfully may not understand. Furthermore, you and I may look at the same thing and comprehend it in completely different ways.
Research on vision and perception has influenced my work as an artist, but travel experiences within the last few years have given me an even wider range of information to process and consider as I work in my studio. I was accepted by the Nagel Institute to participate in a two-week immersive experience in China in the summer of 2018. Artists from the US and China gathered together to discuss and learn about various topics relating to art, religion, and culture. Following the seminar, all artists created work in response to the experience and it became a traveling exhibition, titled Matter and Spirit, that will travel throughout the US for the next four years.
When returning to my studio after my travels to China, Matter and Spirit led me to explore new mediums and concepts relating to invisible realities of China’s culture and people. I felt an urge to continue working through significant questions relating to China’s complexity, specifically in regards to Chinese socioeconomic conditions, political infrastructure, and religious persecution. It seemed best-suited to explore these concepts through mixed media and interactive installations, which prompted me to explore using electronics and RGB colored lights for the first time.
Everything I learned about the culture gave me just a small glimpse of China that both historically was and presently is very complex and multifaceted in virtually all areas of life and society. Complexity started feeding visual ideas of overlapping imagery where layers would be revealed or isolated under certain lighting situations. The immersive experience, informal conversations with participants, and books read about China prior to the seminar ultimately fed my visual ideas in exciting new ways.
In February, I had a solo show titled Out of Sight at Taylor University. As I worked throughout 2019 to build the body of work, I was curious about vision and perception as it relates to people and their interaction or lack thereof. While composing groups of figures, I think about my personal choice to engage or disengage with people I am surrounded by, both familiar people and those whom I don’t know or have never met. Several books that I’ve read recently address barriers that feed the “us and them” mentality, keeping us from engaging with strangers, neighbors, or people who may not be like us. Webster says that amalgamation “implies the forming of a close union without complete loss of individual identities.” As I create, I ponder about what this concept of amalgamation could look like in our increasingly polarized society.
At the beginning of March, I returned from an art residency in India through Art for Change where I briefly experienced a fascinating culture complex with a myriad of layers. There were many things that I looked at within the two weeks, but may not have really seen due to a lack of understanding. What I observed and experienced prompted curiosity to ask questions and learn about things that I do not yet know, fully see, or understand. My creative practice prompts more questions to ask myself than finding answers. Questions like what or who do we not see or understand because of fearing what may be different or beyond our comfort zone?
Certainly, there will be things in this world that remain invisible. There are things I may never see first-hand or gain understanding from observing. Nonetheless, active, keen seeing requires energy and taking the time to be present. I believe it often involves a conscious choice and openness to seeing what is before us with the intent to learn and understand. What will I give my undivided attention to in order to see and perhaps better comprehend? I am continually seeking to see anew as a way to understand and engage with people, art, and the world around me.
What will you see today and how will you respond?
Laura Stevenson is an artist and Assistant Professor of Art at Taylor University in Indiana. She works in a variety of mediums ranging from painting, printmaking, and sculpture, to interactive installations. Stevenson’s work shows interest in discovering more about what may often appear as unseen in cultures, the news, and our daily lives. Visit laurastevensonstudio.com and follow her on @laurastevensonstudio on Instagram.