Thursday, October 13, 2016


I listen to public radio in the car, and as a result I often hear only parts of stories, which can be incredibly frustrating.  It happened the other day; I heard a section of a story talking about how the emotion of "awe" hadn't ever really been studied and discussed before, while other emotions - love, hate, fear, anger, etc - were commonly studied and understood.  Unfortunately, I have no idea what show I was listening to, so I can't find it again to listen to a complete podcast.  But anyhow, it got me thinking about what makes me feel awe, and how different individuals respond with awe to different things, and the relationship between awe and creativity.

For example, some people feel awe when they see amazing structures, like magnificent churches, iconic buildings.  My husband is an architect, so buildings are more meaningful to him than me. I like seeing fabulous structures, whether buildings, or bridges, or monuments, and am very impressed, but I do not feel awe.

The natural world is the thing that does it for me, without a doubt.  I am, for example, awestruck by crystalline snow falling at night, by a glorious sunset over the lake, by ocean waves, breaching whales, and expanses of sand, by witnessing a great blue heron up close, by the flutter of dragonflies, and by listening to the haunting calls of loons at dusk.  About a dozen years ago, my family traveled to Alaska and for 10 days I was repeatedly overcome with awe at the majestic landscape.  The picture below was taken when my son and I took a helicopter ride over the Denali wilderness.

And of course, I am in awe every time I sit in my kayak, still, in the middle of a quiet lake.  I often just put down my paddle for a few moments and breathe in the magic, watching a leaf or feather float across the water, listen to the call of a bird, hear the splash of a fish or turtle.  Here's a video sample for you. 
 And still samples, too. 

 As artists and art educators, viewing great art can inspire awe.  There's a Rembrandt in my little local art museum, and frankly, when I visit, I don't much care if I see anything else in that museum as long as I see that Rembrandt.  I can be awestruck by paintings by Matisse, or Vuillard (as in the painting directly below), or Kandinsky, or a glass structure by Chihuly, or by a unique contemporary piece, such as Michael Oatman's "all utopia's fell" at Mass MoCA (as seen in the second photo below), but what grabs you might be totally different than me.

I'm always amazed, for example, when visiting MoMA, to see the museum-goers with their jaws dropped, standing in front of van Gogh's Starry Night, in total awe.  Starry Night doesn't do it for me.  It's a small painting, not my favorite van Gogh, and frankly it has become trite.  I can skip it completely.  What is it that makes use each react so differently from each other to different things?  Why, for example, am I blown away by hot air balloons overhead, sounding like dragon breath each time they flame their burners? 

I have always been particularly awestruck by the glorious colors of autumn leaves, and by the glow of autumn light shining through the trees.  I have tried, over the past few days, several times, to capture that golden glow.  Each time, I have looked at my photos in total frustration, because the magical quality of the sunlight just isn't the same as what I witnessed.  If I did a painting of the autumn leaves and sunlight, I don't think I'd be any more successful. 

What inspires awe in you?  It doesn't have to be visual; it can be a piece of music, something beautifully written, such as a poem or story, or perhaps the liturgy from a religious service.  I know that, for example, listening to the jewel-toned voice of the female cantor (singer) at the recent Jewish High Holy Day services at my temple, and some of the beautiful writings in the new prayer book we used, moved me deeply.  How can you tap into the raw emotion of awe in your students?  Is awe something that happens naturally on its own, or can we somehow nurture it in our students? How can we tap into that reverential feeling of awe and use it in our artwork and in our teaching?  I'd love your thoughts!

Meanwhile, I'll leave you with a couple of images of my lake at night.  The first photo below is an error that really intrigues me.   The final image was an exposure of a couple of minutes, taken well after dark. 


  1. Beautiful Phyllis! I would tell my students that whatever it is that takes their breath away- that's the feeling of awe. And they should try to capture that in their own work. Nurture? The world is so visually full- but many only see a small part of it. Direct your students to see differently- maybe it's something common that you view close up, or what your area looks like from the air. Maybe it's something from half way around the world...teach them how to observe, and to describe what they are seeing. Share the things WE see- soon they will see magic everywhere. My favorite thing with snow: if it's sunny out after a big snow stick your shovel carefully into a pile of snow. Pull the shovel out carefully. You will see the space created by the shovel glow blue! Whoa!! I know there is a scientific reason for this (and if they want to explore that, fine) but it is still amazing. ps I was able to play the video (it needed a flash player)

    1. Thanks, Lorraine. Viewing things closeup can me recall meaningful. I took an oceanology class once where we had to sit and record what we saw in a little tidepool. At first glance it looked like nothing, but after a minute or two, you'd begin to notice all sorts of activity that had been going on all along! I've done a similar thing with students - the "12 inch walk". I gave the kids a 12" cardboard viewfinder, and they drew whatever they saw inside it. It could be a patch of grass and anything in the grass, or an open drawer, for example.

  2. Hi. I am a teacher in the UK. Would you mind if I used a couple of the images from your Fractured Faces post to show my children as samples for them to work from? I will not be able to show them the post directly as our school Internet filter does not allow blogs through. Therefore I would be copying the images for use in the classroom. We are studying Cubist art and I'd love them to try to create similar images. Thanks for considering this.

    1. Sure! Go ahead and use them! Just tell them that the pics came from another art teacher like you!