The Art of Seeing
by JR Fischer
Like many of us these days, I live a life that combines my responsibilities and my preferences. I am an artist, by default, formal education, and desire. But as my life has been molded into where I am today, I also make my way in this world as a Travel and Hospitality Services Professional. Perhaps think of me as a considerably lesser-cool version of Anthony Bourdain… if he were a hostess his whole life rather than a chef… with a thick Fargo-esque Midwestern accent… and instead of a television program, he had a mediocre Instagram account. Perfect.
In visual art it often becomes important to take a common perspective, whether it’s your own or the world’s, and to simply change it. This can sometimes be in the form of an abstraction, a peculiar angle or point of view, or something as simple as a new frame. These changes, which sometimes can be drastic, have the incredible ability to allow the viewer to walk away with a new understanding or experience of what an image has the potential to become. The image may also have the power to evoke varying emotions with how the artist presented the visual information.
Travel, which I undertake often as an obligation, gives me the opportunity to take this idea of shifting perspective and to turn my walking and working in this world, as an act of understanding art in itself, and then having the ability to share it with others. As I move about, privileged to make a living being far and away, observing life from new angles and varying heights, I am repeatedly surprised to humility. I am grateful that my understanding of this world is being continuously redefined. The following places are a few examples of my stopping to notice with new eyes.
The House on the Rock, Spring Green, Wisconsin
For those who aren’t quite familiar, The House on the Rock is about 40 minutes outside of Madison, Wisconsin. It initially opened as an architectural attraction due to its unique location (yes, on a rock) and its Frank Llyod Wright-esque style. Over several decades, Alex Jordan, the mastermind, filled “rooms” with his vast collections of items and random inventions. I feel obligated to refer to rooms in quotations due to the scale. These are hardly rooms, but more like airplane hangar or warehouse-sized spaces. These rooms include the world’s largest indoor carousel, an entire self-playing orchestra played by mannequins, massive music machines, an indoor old-time village, and much, much more. It’s all things kitsch…on steroids…with a touch of creepiness. It’s as if Willy Wonka had an extreme fascination with dolls and Tiffany lamps, rather than chocolate and candy. It also could be a good candidate for an episode of Hoarders.
When I first visited The House on the Rock, I spent three hours walking through, which I feel is a pretty substantial amount of time to spend in any one place. But by the end of it, I was already planning when I would return. It was completely overwhelming in the best way possible, a complete visual and audible feast. It would be impossible to absorb every detail in a day, a week, or even a month. I felt compelled to include The House on the Rock because of the hope and inspiration it instilled in me as an artist. I felt an intense appreciation for the creator, and if it weren’t for his imagination, this amazing house full of mystery wouldn’t exist for so many people to enjoy.
La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
I had the opportunity to visit this basilica in October of 2016. I was going off of a strong recommendation made by a coworker from the previous year. She knew I was an artist, and was very adamant about me going to see it. She eagerly showed me photos on her phone of the towering scroll-like pillars and detailed façade, and much like anyone being shown travel photos, I acknowledged them in a semi-interested-yet-skeptical fashion, but appreciated the enthusiasm and passion that she expressed while sharing.
When I first arrived at the site, it was swarming with crowds (much like every other church or notable landmark in western Europe.) I have a tendency to get quite anxious within crowds, so I was initially hesitant and not overly excited to be added to the shuffle of people. With audio guide in hand, I ventured around the exterior, it was raining off and on, so I kept it brief. The moment finally came to enter (insert dramatic angels choir sound bite here.) It’s really hard for me to not be cliché’ in describing this moment, but it was truly as if the crowds disappeared and all became quiet except for a light hum. I have never seen or experienced a church like this! I was raised Catholic, so believe me, I’ve put in enough time spacing out and staring at gaunt Jesus’s, backlit apses and dramatic ceilings to feel the general church vibes. This was nothing like the Catholic Churches I was used to.
What pulled me in first was the light flooding through the stained glass. It was a cascade of warm pinks, oranges, blues, and greens across the walls. They were calming and fresh. Next, my eyes took me to the tree-like pillars that towered over and branched out. My eyes followed them up, as they connected together into starbursts on the arched ceilings. Much like the creator of the House on the Rock, I felt an immense rush of gratitude for the artist and architect of this building, Antoni Gaudi. Although La Sagrada Familia is technically a building specific to the Catholic religion, the space felt very welcoming and open to all bouts of faith, almost comparable to being out in nature. This experience stood out to me, I had never experienced a church with that sort of energy, and it was completely refreshing to be surprised in this way.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, Glen Arbor, Michigan
Last summer, I ventured out on a solo camping trip that made a loop around the Midwest. Starting in Minnesota, into northern Wisconsin, up and over the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and down into mainland Michigan. My main goal was to spend a few days at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park. After having a not-so-great travel experience the previous month, I was desperate for some quality time in nature and to get some solid use out of my camping gear (which is sadly neglected for at least 5+ months out of the year.)
I was able to nab a campsite for a few nights at a campground within the park. There was a trail that led to Lake Michigan close to the campground. Early that evening, I walked over to take a quick dip. I’m typically a pretty big wimp when it comes to diving into cold waters, but I was on Day 4 of not having access to a shower, and my dry shampoo resources had been completely depleted. Swimming was purely out of necessity at this point. The water was cold, crisp, and clear. The initial shock of the contrast, turned into an appreciation of how refreshing it felt. Eventually, it felt more enjoyable to have my body submerged in the water than exposed to the cooling, evening air. After the dip, I returned to land, wrapped up in my towel, and sat on the pebbled beach in a meditative state, staring out at the bluish sunset. My hand started seeking out the smoothest egg-shaped pebbles and piled them into a mix of greys, whites, and charcoals.
The next day I took a hike up to the dunes and found a spot to sit and journal. Glen Lake was presented in front, and Lake Michigan behind. As I looked out, I watched the breeze shift the sand, and then continue to gently sway the tall pieces of prairie grass. The sand had this amazing ability to transform and wash away any sign of humans from the day before. Once again, I was lulled into a calm, meditative state of mind within this beautiful National Park.
My automatic reaction after traveling to this park was to compare and rank it to other National Parks that I have visited. By no means does Sleeping Bear Dunes NP have the super dramatic scenes that draw crowds of people like the Grand Canyon, Zion, or Yellowstone. It’s a slow burn, and spending several days there made me appreciate it even more. The details slowly emerge, the views of the clear lake, the beach filled with tons of smooth pebbles, and the diverse habitats that varied from woods, to prairie, and then to the actual sand dunes. These small, subtle moments all added up to create a really powerful and positive feeling, which completely transformed my experience.
The beautiful thing about travel is that these impressionable moments can be found near and far. Whether sitting on the grass in a local park or flying across the ocean, the opportunity to be surprised and learn new things will constantly be there. Much like viewing art at a museum, the world is a collection of opportunities waiting to be experienced, interpreted, and noticed. The feeling may reveal itself immediately, such as the La Sagrada Familia, or it could take a little longer to realize, such as Sleeping Bear Dunes. As the details of my travels slowly get lost and muddied within my memories, the impact of that initial feeling is something that I carry with me always.