Saturday, January 25, 2014

Not Everything is as It Seems

Looking at the surface of anything rarely reveals its truth. Take a pineapple, for instance, with its horrifically scaled surface surely useful as weaponry if in a pinch, and imagine who, of the first to lay eyes on one, would have guessed the interior contained such sweet heavenly goodness. I envision the first one who hurled it like a rock at a tropical invader would have discovered its truth when it hit the ground with a *splat* and burst forth its fruity interior. But let's hope we don't all have to be violently cracked open for our below-the-surface to be seen.

The practice of seeking, this seeking what lies below the skin, only came to me a few years ago, in Las Vegas of all places, though in one of its morally redeemable spots, the Bellagio Art Gallery. The opulent Bellagio Hotel in the heart of the the Las Vegas Strip houses an impressive collection of works by masters of  visual art -- Mary Cassatt, Claude Monet, Ansel Adams, and Georgia O'Keeffe. Admittedly, upon my visit to the gallery in 2008, my description of O'Keeffe was, and this is a quote, "That chick who painted skulls." I did not hold a very high appreciation for Ms. O'Keeffe's work, only viewing it from the surface as I did.

While on a momentary escape from the pulsating lights and low-grade cacophony that is Vegas in all it's sensory-overload magnificence, I happened upon an art gallery in the middle of a casino, paid my admittance, and entered its serene enclosure. I was soon greeted by the works of beauty and thought, which transported me to a level above the clouds where silence gave way to the faintest sound of angel's wings. I truly love art galleries, wandering through the visions of artists, dreaming of having the ability to walk into some of the more captivating pieces and live within them. To me, the artists were creating perfect scenes - or perfect collections of shape and light - not only for themselves, but for all to enjoy, wishing to merge with the vision on the canvas for just a moment in the collective effort to find our own perfect world.

My lofty expectations of art were quashed when I turned the corner to see a painting of a cow skull. O'Keeffe's famous painting hung on the wall in front of me, and I walked toward it with a face, I am sure, that looked like I had just sucked a bag of lemons. I never understood this painting and would quickly turn the page anytime I saw it in a book. Why would I want to look at bones? And of a cow, no less? I stepped closer, almost asking the painting why it dared to muss up this nice exhibit with it's bony self and how it dared to think it could ever be on par with a Monet. My mental conversation with the skull was interrupted by the small placard on the wall to the right. The placard, speaking for the painting, explained how O'Keeffe had discovered the skull on one of her walks in the high deserts of New Mexico. The state of the skull, stripped of its skin and bleached by the sun, resonated with O'Keeffe and how she felt after discovering her husband's affair. She, too, felt stripped bare with her emotion and heart left to lay, unprotected, in the harsh light of day.

Now, I get it.

Having traversed the choppy waters of a difficult marriage, I understood O'Keeffe's emotion. Moreover, I understood the skull. I, too, had felt ripped clean of any protective layering I once enjoyed, and knew the experience of standing alone without any feeling of shelter. I stared at the painting for several minutes, transfixed by its honesty. I knew that skull. I knew that feeling. And now, the skull was beautiful.

Who knew having a conversation with a cow skull in the middle of Las Vegas would bring such insight? Surely Ms. O'Keeffe was keenly aware of her artistic impact on the world, but I would hazard a guess even she could not see this one coming. Since then, my patience to seek what sits below the surface has developed, often revealing its truth in unexpected ways. This, of course, generates either interesting anecdotes or deep awareness, both of which are worth the time, and I encourage looking beyond the immediate, opting not to take things at face value. More could be there; more will almost always be there.

Since then, life continually shows me its surprises laying just below the surface, many of which add depth to the world around me. Some are inspiring like reconnecting with an old high school friend and hearing of his years-long struggle with addiction, while I look at him and see all the resilient strength of a survivor. His ability to describe his battle, with soaring triumphs and aching pitfalls, is a testament to the bravery of his spirit and the surety that he will be victorious. A part of me could not help but wish I could travel back in time, find him in the halls of our high school, and try to somehow protect him from what life had in store.

Yet other discoveries are amusing, like recently discovering Batman is a cowboy. Oh, yes, the actor Michael Keaton (who was the first movie Batman in 1989 and, in my opinion, the best Batman) is indeed a cowboy, owning a ranch in Montana where he rides and does other horseman-ly things. When not on the big screen, where we all watch him create his memorable characters and we are sure we know the comedic/dramatic man he portrays, he actually finds rest in the saddle, a character he has never played on screen. Didn't see that one coming. Holy buckets, Batman. Giddy up!

Whether anecdote or awareness, we all have something just beneath the surface. Many of us hold it tightly, hoping to never be discovered, while others hold our truth just as tightly, but secretly await the one person who takes the time to ask. How much we could learn of each other if we just took the time to ask, to listen, to contemplate, or to imagine the layers upon layers of truth which, when peeled back, can reveal an understanding so pure that a dried bone of a person can be transformed into a work of art in our eyes.

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