“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled,” writes art critic and author John Berger in his 1970s Ways of Seeing.
Berger, a mainstay for students of art and Western culture, examines how a large part of what we see when we look at something depends on our habits and conventions, the things we think we know.
As men and women, Berger notes, we may see things differently. Our teachers, our books, even our communities tell us what we’re looking at and what it means. Children see things differently, again. Lacking preconceptions, they may recognize qualities in a work of art that we adults do not. “It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain the world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it,” Berger writes.
With this issue, we try to set aside expectations and conventions to truly see a few new regions of our University and the world around us.
It is one thing, for example, to know that climate change is occurring; it is another to see the green coniferous forests of northern Wyoming turn red, and then yellow and brown as they succumb to pernicious mountain pine beetles, whose habitat is expanding. In this issue, writer Eric Sorensen introduces us to an alumnus who saw this change coming.
When he noticed a stunning hand-drawn map hanging on a library wall, one that hundreds of students and faculty pass by each week, writer Nicholas Deshais stopped and took a closer look. He wanted to know who made the map, and why. And who created several hundred others he subsequently found stored in the Owen Science Library?
And we may know that artist Harold Balazs ’51 makes fantastical works from wood, concrete, aluminum, enamel, and nearly every other medium. But do we see these pieces around us, even as we walk by them every day? In Pullman, in Wenatchee, in Seattle and Tacoma, and throughout Spokane? He has created more than 10,000 pieces; they are figuratively, and literally, all over the map.
While some of Balazs’s work is representational—a flower looks like a flower, a bird like a bird— other pieces are completely abstract. Forms that are simply forms. By creating something that never before existed, Balazs shakes us from our preconceptions, lets us see the unexpected, and provokes a little wonder.
He reminds us there is still so much to know, and to see.