“There is no end or purpose to existence, only ceaseless creation and destruction, governed entirely by chance.” Stephen Greenblatt, paraphrasing Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
The chance that a saguaro seedling will survive to adulthood is almost non-existent. First, the seed has to find its way into the shade of another plant, manage to survive months of dryness while only being able to store a couple of drops of water, and stay warm enough not to freeze during cold winter nights. The seedling must deal with these challenges for anywhere between 38 to 135 years. The probability that a saguaro survives to adulthood is so slim that the forests of 60 ft tall saguaros in the Sonoran Desert seem like they shouldn’t exist.
My work explores the chance of survival, the probability of existence, a struggle with unpredictability, specifically those surrounding the human body, coming to terms with control, power, and lack there of, and the likelihood of producing something complete or finished.
These themes are questioned through building a surface out of layers, pulling forms from the background, accenting particular moments, and by the use of previously conceived societal frameworks and images.
“The support of friends, strong motivation, and a good pair of shoes have indeed given me super powers.” I said this well over a year ago as I was chronicling my “Champion journey,” part of the Healthy Monadnock 2020 program to make southwestern New Hampshire the healthiest region in the nation. It has now been over three years since I started, three years of making healthy changes and especially three years of race walking, a long-distance, hip-swiveling, foot-racing event. Three years, and NOW, I’ve race walked a marathon. How did THAT happen??
After several more races of varying lengths, I decided I wanted to set the bar really high. I wanted to celebrate this new strength and wellness I have been feeling. I wanted to see just how far I could go. At first, I tentatively said to a couple of people, “I’m going to race walk in the DeMar Marathon this year.” I’m not sure I believed myself at that point. I don’t know if others believed that I believed it either. But then, at a particular friend gathering, emboldened by their support, I declared it aloud. “I’m going race walk a marathon before the end of the year.” Specifically, I knew that I needed to do the DeMar in Keene, New Hampshire. Keene is where my wellness journey started, where so many friends have watched and supported me on my path to strive for my healthiest self. Keene is where I learned to race walk with the guidance and camaraderie of my friend, Linda. On May 10th, I officially began training.
My actual training was mostly solitary, accompanied only by my tiny iPod Shuffle and various world music club dance bands. My journey to DeMar was made possible by an intricately woven community. Whatever I needed, there was someone who would slip into play, ninja-like, with exactly what I needed. Words of encouragement? There were at least five to six different friends willing and able to give those at any given time. Recommendations on training? Two other friends were RIGHT there. Recommendations on the best non-soy protein bars? More friends! Parking for positioning my car at just the right juncture for my longer training race walks? I even had that. I had at least two different driveways I could have used! Overnight shipping replacement Nike Frees when I needed them IMMEDIATELY for a 15 mile training day? I definitely have to shout out to fellow champion, Ted McGreer and Ted’s Shoe & Sport for that one. From loaning me a Camelbak for training to mapping out training routes in Maine and California when I was on vacation, there were always friends and family right there with me.
I also felt that with each increase in mileage, with each passing week, I was more and more capable of doing this major, difficult, thing. My own fire and determination kept on burning no matter what. If I can radically change my diet and wellness and lose 102 pounds, I can surely race walk 26.2 miles! Even on the REALLY rough days, like the 14-miler when I didn’t have any food and got sick for two days or the 18-miler when I pitched forward and crashed to the road trying to race walk and fiddle with my Camelbak, and chew my snack, I STILL felt okay. I felt more than okay. In thunderstorms, coldness, darkness, 90 degrees and burning sun, on dirt, pavement, hills and flatness, I simply KNEW I could do this and I was never alone. I carried the support of my community with each step.
On the actual day of the race, of course I was absolutely not alone. My friend Linda, who decided to join me for the last eight miles, recommended I find another friend in the race to keep the miles flying by. And I did just that. For seven miles, I befriended a wonderful man from just outside of Boston. We shared race and life stories while we kept pushing each other with our respective paces. After he dropped back, I knew it was only a few more miles until Linda was jumping in to join me. Plus, there were the countless enthusiastic, supportive race fans, friends and complete strangers, cheering, singing, dressing up in amusing costumes, holding up signs, and holding all of us up as we all continued on this difficult, exhausting and exhilarating journey. And so I’ve come full circle and can say once again:
“The support of friends, strong motivation, and a good pair of shoes (even ones shipped overnight!) have indeed given me super powers.”
In walking, according to cultural theorist Paul Connerton, we constitute ourselves as a coherent organism. Walking is at once an act of organic self-unification and an act which builds up for us a coherent environment. Walking, for us all, demonstrates our total organism.
Next time you walk, whether its 10 feet or 10 miles, allow yourself moments within steps to bring an awareness of your presence. Walk slowly and patiently, taking a breath as you lift your foot, and exhaling as your foot meets the earth.
In walking, we draw with our passing our very own time line. It’s mind boggling to take a few moments, turn around, and see the many empty spaces in thought we have all too hurriedly ceased to acknowledge.
I am pretty darn old and have had plenty of amazing physical journeys in this world. I have been stopped by gun-toting border patrols in Cote d’Ivoire and gotten lost backpacking along the “Lost Coast” of California. I swam with whale sharks in Western Australia and tracked snow leopards in the Himalayas. But I want to tell you about a recent journey that beats all of these experiences for shear, unmitigated, nail-biting suspense and drama: I learned to video.
Sure, for most of you who grew up with iMovie and Roombas and smart phones that do everything but walk your dog for you, that may not sound so transformational. But for me, a relative luddite, one could say a technophobe, learning how to shoot, edit, and produce videos that don’t look like total doo-doo was a huge and very satisfying accomplishment.
I’ve climbed lots of mountains, and learning to produce videos was a very similar kind of journey: namely steep. There was the moment near the beginning where it all looked so big and overwhelming and lost in the clouds that I considered waiting until another time, when I was more sure. There were many times when I was in the thick of it, deep in the forest of new techniques, overwhelming material, head-down plodding, when I didn’t know if I would ever come out on top of it all. And there was the exhilaration of reaching the top, and being able to see all that I had accomplished with new perspective and sense of purpose.
Unlike a mountain, which has a finite top, videos can always be improved upon, adjusted, tweaked, fine-tuned, honed, and otherwise fiddled with. In fact, one of the greatest challenges is knowing when to stop. At any rate, I share this sample of my work as an example of my journey, and perhaps how far I still I have to go:
the feathers are spread out all over the gravelly ground. spatters of blood add color to a landscape dominated by browns, grays and soiled whites. the air is thick and the mood is somber. death hovers; tears perilously balance on the edges of eyelids. people of many ages stand with me–girls as young as 10 and older men and women in their thirties, even forties. and then, the people my age–we’re all here to bear witness, but we’re also here to make sacrifices.
the life of one chicken seems insignificant. chickens, after all, are certifiably stupid animals. they do little but walk around on their spindly little legs, clawing at bits of earth and, every so often, attempting to fly–a feat they cannot accomplish, in spite of the fact that they do indeed possess wings. a fairly low maintenance farm animal, even the smallest backyards can accommodate chickens and chicken coops. some chickens lay eggs, some chickens are pets, and some chickens are raised to be killed.
some people would call us murderers. standing on that ground smeared with blood and fallen feathers, the slitting of a neck and the squawking–those ceaseless high-pitched screams–as the only consistent sounds permeating the stiff air, it would be hard to argue otherwise. we raised these chickens, named some of them, fed them, loved them. and only to stand by each other, as we each take turns slitting their throats.
i do not derive joy from slaughtering chickens; rather, an emotional void takes over my body in the face of this action. but in the moments following their deaths, i am reminded that this road less commonly travelled is an important one: these killings will fill my stomach and the stomachs of many others. and at these times–when the animals die in my hands–i can eat honestly, filling my consciousness even more than my stomach.
According to the dictionary beauty is a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form that pleases the aesthetic senses, esp. the sight. To me, beauty is the place where nature and human elegance connect. My creation exemplifies this.
The top portion of my gown is made with leaves. Not just any leaves, Fall leaves. Fall leaves represent wisdom, experience, character, and uniqueness that only comes with time and exposure to life. Their unique, deep purplish-red color give them the look of a tough sturdy leather, leather that is like the thick skin of a person who has endured many test and trails. These leaves represent the beautiful memories of the past and the promise of a new beginning in the future.
The sheer, bottom portion represents the free flowing grace that is poured upon each one of us in abundance. It heals the hurts, strengthens the weak, and shows favor to so many. Its song soothes the soul, and brings peace and joy to the heart. Beauty is the place where nature and human elegance connect.
Erica Siclari | Fiorello H. LaGuardia H.S. ’13 | Brooklyn, NY
For the Beautiful Minds Challenge I decided to bring light to something I find very beautiful, cycles. I find cycles to be beautiful mainly because cycles are imperative for understanding our world, and with that understanding come discoveries that have and will continue to predict future events. Without cycles, scientist would not be able to predict anything. Facts would be random pieces of information instead of important clues to a puzzle. Cycles are beautiful because they are the key to knowledge.
In my video I recreated a cycle of plant life in an ecosystem. Each plant is going through its own biological cycle along with a cycle in its ecosystem. In addition to the plant life cycles I needed to present the cycle of time (day-night) and water in the video in order to indicate that cycles are not only found everywhere but they all work together to sustain life.
I wrote a short poem to emphasize the beauty of a cycle in a more creative genre of writing:
Beauty is a Cycle
Beauty is a cycle
A sequence of events
Folding maladroitly into a flawed shape
Each cycle resembles a circle but isn’t
These imperfections are what make it unique
Cycles are unique but they are not random
They are mathematical
Whether the object is biotic or abiotic
The same basic rules apply:
What was once created will never again be once it has been destroyed
Something else will inhabit its space and claim it theirs
Oblivious to a time before its own
Something so real
Is often overlooked
But taking a moment to witness something as real
As a cycle is true beauty
Beauty cannot be defined in simple terms, as the meaning of beauty varies between each individual. However, most individuals circle back to a generalized meaning of beauty, settling on expressing the ‘true you’ behind the layers of society-driven examples: being yourself without any sort of filter or alteration to make yourself fit in.
Through extensive planning and underpainting, I built up layers upon layers of paint and ideas atop the canvas. It acts as a background for the sculpture element of my piece, showing a pair of mannequin hands puppeteering a pair of marionette handles which control a group of businessmen. The businessmen are all drab and exact replicas of each other, doing mundane activities that take little to no effort or creativity. Breaking out of the canvas is the representation how creative, unique, and different people feel: smothered by the pressure of today’s mundane society and expectations. All the feelings of these individuals are condensed into the body and mannerisms of one orange-haired man.
Ridding himself of his necktie (which is far too similar to a noose for his liking), suit jacket, and crisp white shirt, he has broken free of the grasp society held on him. Underneath the uniform that he’s forced himself to wear, is a bright patterned shirt – just the start to his individuality escaping its confinements. Atop his head is his bright orange hair, the only thing he could get away with in the dull, cubicle work he had previously. He would get dirty looks for its bright color and longer-than-crew-cut style. But he didn’t care. He was going to express himself however he could.
He was someone who wanted to attend art school (maybe even Marlboro College) but settled for a desk job to appease his parents, friends, and the expectations of society. But not anymore. Now, he has broken free. He severed the ball and chain attaching him to some no-name company and he is on his way to being himself, without hiding anymore. After all, being yourself is the most beautiful thing of all.
The following submissions — posted in alphabetical order by the entrants’ first name — each earned a invitation to the Beautiful Minds Symposium at Marlboro College, February 21-23, 2013. Enjoy the incredible thoughtfulness, creativity and diversity of ideas!
New Year’s Party in The Jolly Old Beast
Alexander Peters | Tampa Preparatory School ’13 | Tampa, FL
The 1850’s would mark the beginning of a new relationship between mankind and the earth. No longer was our planet a divine utopian vision fashioned for our existence, but rather an inherited sphere that had in fact fashioned us. Dinosaurs, the “terrible lizards,” as the scientist Richard Owen dubbed them, apparently had once ruled the landscape in absence of the many examples of fauna that would be recognizable, ourselves included. What posed a problem was the public’s lofty grasp of this concept. Nothing seemed to compare to these animals and all that was available to observe were unskilled scribbles and lumps of rock that meant nothing to an untrained eye. The pioneers of this field were lost in what they were looking at. It would take the hand of an artist to reach the masses and share this novel and humbling concept.
Benjamin “Waterhouse” Hawkins, a born illustrator and sculptor of the natural world, took on this challenge. Working in his homeland of England, the hub of prehistoric discoveries at the time and the very place where anyone had ever identified a dinosaur, Hawkins began his work constructing life size models of the monsters. What was there to go on? Hawkins observed a set of bones belonging to a gigantic herbivorous creature discovered by a man and his wife in some roadside gravel. It had a spike, not too dissimilar to a rhinoceros, broad weight baring bones, unique hips that distinguished it from other reptiles, and teeth of an iguana. Hawkins brought forth a stunning life size menagerie, producing many prehistoric beasts. Among them were the iguana toothed giants, aptly named “iguanodon,” Hulking quadrupeds sporting a nasal horn on their mammoth, beaked heads. Megalosaurus, a disgustingly huge carnivore also swaggered the grounds of the newly constructed Crystal Palace Museum in London.
On New Year’s Eve, 1853, Hawkins invited the founding fathers of the science of paleontology to an unforgettable dinner party, which he hosted inside of one of his pieces, in the open back of his fabulous iguanodon. Some of the most respected scientists of the era, including Curvier, Mantel, Owen, and many others, rejoiced in the event, their eternal legacy now represented by something more than ill attempted drawings and scientific notes. It was the melding of the left and right brain. Art assisted science in a mission that dethroned man from his throne as the principal product of creation, giving us a much grander title. We are certainly not the only species to have ever ruled the earth, but we are the only that can look back and marvel at the wondrous variation of life, as participants and observers. That night almost two centuries ago, myth met fact, extinction met the living, imagination met examination, and the hands of creators met the hands of surveyors. Truly a moment of beauty.
Things have changed quite a bit in that time as far as understanding dinosaurs and their kin. Specifically, iguanodon is now more accurately delineated as a partially bipedal, swift moving plant eater that sports a spike on each thumb, not on its nose. Megalosaurus is currently depicted as a warm blooded predator related to the dinosaurs that would become birds. The original data of those early explorers of the past has been cast aside but there spirit could not be any more inspiring as our understanding of just how grand life on this planet continues to amaze. It is probably best summed up by a song those scientists made up at that New Year’s party, “The jolly old beast is not deceased/ There’s life in him again!”
Alex Ruiz and Odette Blaisdell | Bard High School Early College ’15 | New York, NY
Alex: The question of why our piece is beautiful was extremely frustrating to answer. We couldn’t come to a consensus, we couldn’t even think. Part of the reason that we could not decide whether our piece was beautiful or not was because I felt un-entitled. Who am I to say what is beautiful? What is beauty really?
Odette: Confronting this question forced us to consider what beauty itself is. Answering this made beauty into a looming, frustrating creature, so when we tried to define it, I began to resent beauty overall. Trying so hard to define such indefinance takes away its power. Beauty was no longer beautiful when we attempted to explain it.
Alex: Instead, we examined what is ugly. We thought, perhaps, we could define beauty adversely in this way. Our efforts were futile, not because we couldn’t list things that were ugly, but we quickly discovered that ugliness itself is as indefinable as beauty itself. And though we couldn’t explain it, we still desired to reconcile our feelings with something tangible. Thus, that’s how the process of creating the piece began.
Odette: Our piece began with the image of hairy fingers. This image was completely arbitrary, chosen when Alex said she pulls the tiny hairs from the spaces between the joints of her fingers. Though this idea was no more inspiring than any other image, maybe because it was so random we thought it was an appropriate beginning—something we could expand upon and change. And in a way, the ugliness of this image made it easy to just start working recklessly because there was no pressure to actually capture beauty.
Alex: The impulsivity of how we worked was both frightening and exhilarating. In a way we stepped into this project blindly and because of that it required an incredible amount of faith in something we knew nothing about.
Odette: The many layers and the extended process are part of the beauty of our project. First, we had a month long mission of drawing fifty fingers each. Next, we collaged them in the form of a hand, and filled in any negative space with charcoal details of palm creases. We briefly included words of things we considered ugly, but ultimately we decided to cut them out and leave the hand isolated. Then, by chance we found an old window screen and brought it outside with a tube of black ink to experiment on our piece. The video shows the rest of the process in a compilation of photo and video that transformed our still image into something locomotive. In a way, this is what beauty does: it moves. When something is beautiful, it absolutely pulses with motion–it cannot keep still. Of course, our piece is not beautiful because it literally moves in the video. It has a movement beyond the video. It has motion in the fingers all pointing at each other, and in the viewer’s eyes tracing the directions of the charcoal. Of course, seeing one movement doesn’t encompass everything that’s ever moved, so our piece only has some of the many traits of beauty.
Alex: Despite all of the confusion about how to define our piece, I think a few aspects of the piece possess qualities of beauty that can be found in all objects. Amongst these universal qualities of beauty, I think lies chance, which was a major part of our piece. This is the part of the piece which controls itself, transcending us, the viewer, and even the subject. For example, the chance that our video may have captured some of the fluidity and warmth of the light on that day, which left shiny imprints on the ink as Odette spread it, or the tension with which the screen shifted over our collage, or the fact that fingers, each made individually and without much relation to the others, were able to fit together into to the shape of a hand, or the softness of the paper- all these small elements which were not necessarily in our control, but by chance we were able to capture, resembles a sort of beauty to me. These aspects of the piece which weren’t planned are just as evocative to me as I hope they are to some viewers- my experience when viewing the piece for the first time in it’s completion was just as infantile as your experience viewing it will be.
To expand on the idea of honesty, I think this piece should also be considered beautiful because it was made in the way Odette and I saw it. This is not to say that it is beautiful because we created it, or that it is beautiful because what we personally think is beautiful defines beauty for all of humanity. Rather, I think it is beautiful because Odette and I tried to create it with unbiased eyes- my own perspective and subjective take on beauty I am sure is just as muddled, conflicted, and enigmatic as any other individual’s.
As we stated before, much of the process of creating this piece was random. Therefore, I think it can be said that much of the essence of our piece lies in the idea that reality as we see it, with it’s randomness included, is enough in itself to be considered beautiful. Ultimately, in making this piece we were exploring and becoming comfortable with the idea that what we see is enough to be beauty. A simple finger is enough. Beauty does not have to be eternal, rich, or even rewarding. The ecstatic feeling which comes from viewing beauty, at least I think, lies ultimately in that honest, unrepeatable chance that we get to experience something new, and strange, and in that specific moment that we see it in- beauty is when we feel that moment of impact as so many elements outside of us converge inexplicably, yet undoubtedly. When I witness beauty, I feel fully alive, and fully aware of that convergence: beauty is a pressure point.
Beauty is Healing
Alyssa Jarvis | Antigua Girls High School ’13 | St. Peters, Antigua
Beauty is a thing of elegance that many people yearn for.
A passage way to possibilities, that can’t be bought by rich or poor.
Beauty is perfection only placed upon the chosen.
And just like age it evolves, never frozen.
Time is but its slow death, causing it to fade in the blink of an eye or wipe of sweat.
I believe beauty is our demise fighting to get what was not placed upon us.
Wanting a birth right of beauty.
That we can never trust.
Beauty is my angry scars on my hands and face
Beauty is the horrid past that I cannot erase
Beauty is sin.
Indulgence of vanity.
Decadence of impurity
Beauty is our biggest whim.
We are wrapped around its finger.
And our patience stretched thin
We yearn for beauty.
We die for beauty.
We change for beauty.
Beauty is Beautiful
But the most beautiful part of all
Is picking yourself back up no matter how hard the fall
So I’m stitching up these scars
And making myself new
Because deep down, though you may not see it
I am beautiful too.
Anna Berger | Burr and Burton Academy | Dorset, VT
Growing up in Vermont, I have been accustomed to a landscape so beautiful I could not imagine a childhood without it. We are surrounded by rolling green mountains of forest and ever flowing springs. Needless to say, this is accessible in many backyards. As I’m headed towards another step in life, I have come to realize the importance of this environment. That in order to sustain this beauty that we have known for generations, we must work to create the smallest of human footsteps. Not just take from our land and resources, but also give back so that we can not be left with nothing. Rather leave these lands in better condition to improve both habitats and natural life cycles. To create a beautiful life for ourselves, let us start with changing aspects of our daily lives. Every decision we make to improve the way we live will lead us to another. With positive energy and the drive to make a difference in our own communities, we can experience a life more beautiful than we have ever known.
Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder
Cat Clauss | International Polytecnic Highschool ’13 | San Dimas, CA
Hello my name is Catherine R. Clauss and I am 17 years old. I live in San Dimas California and I go to the International Polytechnic high school in Pomona California. When I first heard about this contest and decided that I would enter a piece, I honestly had no idea what I was going to describe, or depict. But as I sat there in my desk at school and looked around I remembered every thing I had learned from my past group members. I remembered their different opinions, and their different ways in which they saw the world. Each was unique and to me… beautiful. So I created this painting. I know when you first look at this and think of the prompt you may think “This girl didn’t understand the prompt.” But I did. What you see is a bunch of different people, of different ages, and ethnicities, with different things around them. Those different things are the things that individual would think is beautiful.
The old Indian women has her young granddaughter behind her, ready to carry on the traditions of her people, who are shown in a large crowed below the girl. This represents the old woman’s idea of beauty because she loves her customs and religion, and thinks that it is beautiful that her granddaughter and all the generations after her will learn and uphold the traditions she holds so dear. While the 20 year old Asian is surrounded by his home, technology (including the computer coding behind him in the back round.), and some of his culture’s traditional items, like the Kimono. (The middle eastern dragon is often depicted in the Asian culture as a serpent shaped creature, with a brilliant mind, and sometimes even a protector.)Things that surround him in his life and his family’s history and culture that help shape his opinion. The Middle aged Native American is surrounded by scene of nature which he would consider beautiful due to the fact his culture is very oriented on persevering nature. The Caucasian female, would think works of art or writing would be beautiful, as she is surrounded by a painting palette and a quill. The African American teenager is surrounded by fashion and music, and a car she would really like. Last is the young Mexican boy surrounded by different toys and extinct but cool, creatures. Also shown is a scene where he sits with his mother on a wooden rocking chair. These are things that express the beauty of a child’s mind.
Some may think that I am just showing off what others would think are beautiful but I am not, I am showing the beautiful fact that everyone has their own opinion or idea of what beauty is. An idea that is shaped by the ways the person is raised, and the things that surround them as they grow. Things like tradition, family, friends, school, the area they grow up in, all these things help shape their opinion of what beauty is. And their opinions change as they grow and develop their minds. Even when they are as old as 80, their minds and opinions are still changing. This is the beautiful thing I wish to show all of you. The individuality of each person and their thoughts on the question “what is beauty?”
Thank you for your consideration and I hope you enjoy my piece as much as I enjoyed creating it.
Daniel Wallock | Besant Hill School ’14 | Santa Barbara, CA
The following story has citations from actual medical files.
One day, two loving parents went to the hospital for a check up. The doctor said that one of their boys would not make it. A few weeks before the birth of their sons, the doctor said they might be able to keep the boy alive. On the day of the boy’s birth he parted from his twin and drove in a ambulance all the way to LA. The boy went through hours of intense heart surgery. The boy spent weeks in the hospital hooked up to machines. He was born with 7 congenital heart defects.
After a long time in and out of hospitals the boy was allowed to come home. The boy had a full-time nurse monitoring his heart. He was lucky to be alive. The boy’s parents couldn’t leave the house for the first years of his life, because they were so scared he would die while they were out. The boy fought death for the first seven years of his life. At age seven, his heart started to stable out and it was the first time doctors thought he could live.
When the boy was young he was very curious. He loved to experience the things around him. The boy believed the world was limitless and loved to explore. The boy had a passion for life. The boy was unaware of his conditions and embraced life everyday.
As the boy grew older he lost his sight for beauty. Other kids bullied the boy for being slow or weak. The boy’s brother was very mean to him. Even the boy’s best friends were mean to him. The boy began to believe that this was normal. The boy slowly began to believe he was worthless.
For a long time the boy was blinded by fear. The boy pretended that he didn’t have heart conditions, so as not to feel weak. The boy rejected himself, because he feared that other people would reject him. The boy spent a long time believing that he shouldn’t be alive. The boy became hopeless and no longer could see a point in living.
One day the boy went in for a heart check up, and the doctor told him, “You will need imminent open heart surgery” (Dr Bilal Harake, April 2010).
The first thing the boy asked was, “Could I die?” (The boy, April 2010).
The doctor told him yes and continued to say that it wouldn’t happen.
The boy had only heard that he was going to die.
After going to the doctor the boy became extremely scared. The boy stopped talking to anyone. The boy stopped going to school. The boy believed that he was going to die. The boy was so scared. The boy stopped eating and drinking. The boy dropped everything in his life.
The boy spent most of the days sitting on his bed waiting or at the fish store. The boy would go to the fish store everyday and watch the fish for hours. At the fish store he wouldn’t talk to people, he just watched the fish. The boy admired the fish and when he walked into the fish store he felt happy. The boy watched the beautiful fish in that tanks. The boy dreamed of swimming with the fish. The fish were the only way the boy could escape his thoughts of death. The boy unconsciously observed how the fish lived their life with no idea of the fact that they would die. The fish never struggled with their thoughts they just swam in their tank. They didn’t know they were taken from the ocean, they were just happy to be in that moment.
Finally it was the day of the surgery. The boy was in the hospital surrounded by tons of people he hadn’t seen in a long time. The boy shook in his bed as they put the iv in. He feared what came next. The boy watched everyone who loved him leave the room. The boy said he didn’t want to do this. The boy was engulfed in fear. The boy thought this would be the last time he would ever breathe, as the nurse counted down, “10, 9, 8, 7, 6” (Nurse, June 2010).
Around 13 hours later the surgery was complete, the boy woke up and looked down. The boy saw a pool of blood that cover his chest and pooled on his stomach. All over the bed was blood stained. The boy couldn’t move because they broke his chest and ribs. The surgery went way longer then expected and the boy lost a lot of blood. The boy’s parents walked in and the first thing the boy said after surgery was, “I am so grateful to be alive, but I don’t like my life.” (The boy, 6-15-10)
After a week in the cardiac intensive care unit, the boy learned to walk and breathe again. They also let him come home. The boy came home and started to see old friends. Although the boy was grateful to have survived his surgery, he continued to do nothing. The boy still believed that he should be dead. The boy was still blinded by fear and couldn’t find anything that made him feel good. The boy started school and started to become sick again, he spent most of his time alone. One day the boys parents told him he could no longer live at home. They told him that they were sending him away because they were scared that he would continued living a miserable life. The boy’s parents told him they wanted him to love his life and sending him away was a gift, but the boy didn’t want to leave home.
The boy spent 2 years living away from home. During the two years the boy was isolated from society and technology. The boy worked everyday to change his life. The boy spent most of his time reflecting on his life. Through courage the boy was able to express how alone and worthless he had been feeling. The boy worked hard and he slowly regained his sight. Every time the boy pushed through his fears he opened his eyes a little more. The boy was still scared though, but this time he was not scared of being worthless, he was scared to accept that he was alive.
In February 2012, the 16-year boy stood in front of a group of people and accepted his life. The boy wrote a letter that said everything he wanted to say if he were to die. The boy stood in front of a room full of everyone he loved and read this letter. The boy opened his eyes, that’s when he began to cry and laugh. The boy felt extreme sadness realizing that he was wasting the life he was lucky to have, but he also felt extreme joy and gratitude. The boy went on with life, no longer blinded, he was able to appreciate the moments of his life and see beauty in struggle. The boy dreamed everyday of sharing his life, he wanted to inspire and help others. The boy wanted to show other people what it means to be alive. My name is Daniel, I am that boy.
My name is Daniel; over the last 2 years I have traveled around the country working to rediscover myself. I spent a long time feeling that there was no point in living, I was scared and I felt alone. In 2010 my parents, my school and my therapist told me that I needed to leave home. I left home because I was extremely depressed and I was surviving, but I was not living. Over the last 2 years I have worked hard to change my life. Now I am able to see the beauty in my struggle and embrace my life story. The struggle I experienced allowed me to be grateful. The struggle I experienced allowed me to feel alive. Before I wrote my short story, I spent a few weekends reading through every piece of writing I had from when I started school as a kid to when I came back home from therapeutic boarding school. In the process I cried and laughed. I felt extreme sadness, but I also felt indescribable joy. Finally I sat down and wrote. Beauty is to experience struggle, to experience joy, and to be alive. The story I wrote means a lot to me because it truly encapsulates feelings I have been trying to convey for along time. My story is beautiful because it tells my story. My story is beautiful because it exposes what it means to be alive. Beauty is the ability to appreciate and embrace life. I believe beauty is the ability to feel.
Jacob Kydd | High Mowing Waldorf School ’15 | Arlington, MA
Beauty is not necessarily perfection. Sometimes an object’s flaws are more beautiful than its flawlessness. The natural perfection of an apple itself is beautiful, but its flaws make it unique and therefore more real and tangible. The question is: why do flaws accentuate beauty. I believe that although absolute perfection can be beautiful in a way, it is never unique. Flaws are what really bring out the individualistic nature of something. A unique object is more beautiful than a perfect replica. A hand-made flower pot is more beautiful than a factory made one even with, and because of, its flaws. In my painting the cracks on the apple demonstrate how flaws can increase something’s beauty by unifying the perfect and imperfect.
The Hidden World of Fluid Dynamics
Josh Wolper | Moravian Academy ’13 | Easton, PA
Science and art are one and the same; they only differ in perspective.
Fluid dynamics surround us everyday, from pouring cream into coffee to navigating the flow of traffic on the way to work. We sometimes find difficulty in appreciating things that we take for granted, such as the fluid flow of blood, working its way through us even now. Yet, the wonder of fluid dynamics does not stop at their incredible importance, they also encompass an incredible beauty. This beauty, when examined, inspires a desire to look closer at the things we see everyday. We miss so much in our lives. We are constantly in motion, hurriedly moving from point A to point B. But this leaves so many gaps in our lives- we miss out on point C, and point F, and even point U. It is important that we appreciate the beauty that surrounds us everyday. This is possible if we all just STOP for a moment…
And take that second glance at the dew on the grass. Or notice the way the wind dances with the leaves in late autumn. Or watch that cream spread and swirl throughout the mug. Or to even watch the orchestrated chaos of traffic and its incredible fluidity.
Everything around us is beautiful, we just have to take the time to see it.
Beauty is the Awe Inspiring Warmth of Sun Touching the Soul
Kinsey Thomas | Sandia High School ’16 | Albuquerque, NM
Beauty follows rules unknown to man, and cannot be defined by the perfect slant of a woman’s nose, or the depth of the cleft in a man’s strong chin. Beauty is the asphyxiating pressure on your chest when looking upon something that raises the serotonin levels in one’s body to immeasurable levels. The truth is beauty cannot be calculated, there are no rules and the guidelines are fuzzy at times. Instead, society has created a face that “is beauty,” dubbing everything else as not worthy of being beautiful. Being beautiful is not a shade of platinum blonde or being able to bench seventy-five percent of your body weight. A sterile but professionally designed house doesn’t make it a beautiful home, just like the perfect curvature of a freshly trimmed juniper is not a true look at nature’s physique.
Beauty is raw and powerful, not brittle like that bones of a little girl starving herself because beauty has been defined by a malnourished model that wears her skeleton outside her skin, with every bone visible. It isn’t the boy consuming unnatural substances so that he can gain muscle mass when he doesn’t even realize what his body so chalked full of hormones will become. Beauty is less of a look and more of a feeling, the awe inspiring warmth of sunlight touching the soul. The sun is vital for life on the planet, and the warmth of its rays can make even the grumpiest of cats bask in life. Beauty is life, and everything in it.
Beauty in Chicago
Mary Malina | Providence St. Mel ’13 | Forest Park, IL
Before I started my submission, I couldn’t find a way to put my perspective of beauty into words. Because of this, I decided to ask the people of my city what they thought of beauty. I asked both strangers and people that I knew. Through this project, I had the opportunity to learn about different opinions of beauty from all types of people. My submission is beautiful because it sends the message that no matter where you’re from, how much money you have, or what your ethnicity is, you are able to see the beauty in others around you as long as you open your heart.
Beauty is Science, Art, History and Nature Combined
Mohammed Ismail | St. Joseph School ’13 | Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
We, human beings, have discovered many things, and based on that knowledge we acquired through time, we have given all of them names. We have been naming them from the beginning: technologies, celestial bodies, places, ideas or anything we can all hope to imagine. Our beautiful nature is our ideology the way that we feel and imagine or philosophize. So it is unquestionable that beauty exists, but what does beauty mean? What is beautiful? These are the questions that we seek answers for.
Since the beginning of our formal education, we have been taught to answer questions by demonstration, rather than defining them. Beauty is hard to define, and demonstration leads to defining. Every one might have his own feelings, his own ways to explain almost everything, beauty is one that might be a mystery to most, everyone tries to uncover beauty, but” beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. But if you show any one something beautiful, he/she will surely tell you if it is beautiful or not.
I went for a tour to the Fasilades castle, and I took these pictures, when I showed them to other people, the comment I always got was, “what a beautiful picture”, but for me they were just like any other pictures I had taken. These pictures were with my godfather, and once when I needed them most, I had a difficulty in attaining them, because he was not around, I tried to look for other replacements, but there were none. It reminded me of an old saying in Ethiopia which goes like this, “Gold in your hands is just like copper”, which is obviously right. We know the beauty of something when it is not with us or when we have lost it. So when I found it, it was more beautiful than ever for me, because I thought I had lost it, when I needed it most. Is there beauty in losing? No, it was truly beautiful, losing it just showed me what was there, and what I didn’t realize.
Some people say beauty is art, some say science, most argue it is nature, and few, in history. What if there is something that combines all these, something that has all this at its disposal, and shows it proudly and gracefully for those who know where to look, and truly want to see. Then it must be the one, the most beautiful thing known to man, and that I believe I have found. This is the center of the once great empire of Fasilades, situated in Gondar, Ethiopia; this is one of the most prized possessions of our country, this is one of the reasons why Ethiopia is symbolized as a beautiful lady, with her skirt the shape of Ethiopia on the map. Within its walls, are six castles, these castles had been built by generations of emperors that reigned over its empire, it has the history of at least six great kings, including the great king Fasilades himself, who brought peace and prosperity to the time. The architecture and the technologies used in building these castles were very advanced for that era. The engineers used these great technologies to build these wonderful castles they had planned and dreamed for their great kings. They chose the best area, for politics, society and luxury. Science is beautiful. These castles were designed in the most skillful and artistic way to reflect the society of that great age, to last for the coming generations, to remember them by. Art is beautiful. These palaces were created by mankind, but it is nature that perfected it. Most say nature has degraded it with the help of time; it is now in ruins, its greatness is gone, it is just a place to remind us how great we were, but that to me is ignorance. Off course it reminds us of our past, and how power full we were, but it only adds to it its beauty, adds to its historical beauty that already is there, if you can see open mindedly and deeply. History is beauty. It is ruined but is whole, it is modern but ancient, it is artificial but natural, and it is somehow a reflection of physics: to be at the same place at the same time, just like Albert Einstein predicted. Of Biology: To be alive and dead like a virus. Of chemistry: to be in different phases at the same point. To see a stone organized by men, to make a wall to protect them from the enemies of nature and man himself, now gives life to nature, to bear a plant, that is full of life and hope from a stone, that is cold and dead, how ironic, but life is beautiful, nature is beautiful. This Place is Beautiful.
The Shoe-Box Song
Nathaniel Brown | Home School | Potsdam, NY
Beauty is a multi-faceted thing. It is the traditional definition; of beauty in sight or sound. Beauty is also in emotions. The most beautiful thing is, I believe, happiness.
I was recently asked to do an announcement in church for Operation Christmas Child, a program our church participates in. It distributes donated shoeboxes filled with presents to poor children all over the world. For this announcement, I wrote a song.
This is beautiful for three reasons.
1) The cause is beautiful, bringing happiness to poor children.
2) Music is beautiful.
3) Laughter is beautiful. People were audibly laughing in the pews.
U’i i ka hana no’eau (Art is beautiful)
Nikki Ama | James Campbell High School ’13 | Ewa Beach, HI
My drawing shows where I’m from and who I am. The theme is Hawai’i and the aina, which means “land” and how the land shows off the natural beauty and culture of Hawai’i. Self-expression is also a way to show a beauty that many people never see.
The Hula dancer represents the culture of the people who live here. Hula is the traditional dance of the Hawaiian people and every movement tells the story of great battles, inspiring tales of strength and cunning, and the struggles that the Hawaiians have fought and overcome. With Hula comes chants, or oli’s which are the voices of the Hawaiian people and also tell their tales.
Musical instruments like the hollowed out gourd produced beats and rhythm for the oli’s and in their own way tell a story with its deep monotone sound. The Hula dancer’s hair flows into the wave-woman because the people of Hawai’i and the ocean are one and like the Hula dancer, the oceans of Hawai’i tell their story with every crash against the islands rocks.
The rocks, too, are like art. The Ko’olau mountain range looks as if it had been crafted by the hands of a larger being and show off the islands beauty and strength. The canoe represents the craftsmanship of the people and is considered an art form and in the drawing, the stone hands use a canoe to create mountains and ridges.
I formed an “A” with the surf board, fish, and canoe for the word aloha since that is the theme for Hawai’i. The surfboard is also symbolic because people here like to surf since the oceans are beautiful, and that is another type of self expression.
All these illustrations pull together what I see in Hawai’i. All flow with each other and reside with each other, because the people, the culture, the land, and the sea are what makes up Hawai’i, and that is what I call beautiful.
Beauty is…Simply Me
Octavio Duarte, Eric Rivera and Christian Alcaraz | Arroyo Valley High School ’15 | San Bernadino, CA
Beauty can be a single image or drawing that can capture and portray the different cultures, backgrounds, and the life-styles of just one person.
My fellow partner Octavio Duarte, is the artist of the image and the teenager we will be evaluating for this project. Octavio is literally the “man behind the display.” Art has become a very huge influence in his life, and the image that will be shown is a collaboration of his backgrounds, cultures, and his life-styles. We began analyzing his backgrounds and by the looks of it, Octavio is Latin-American with a little amount of a Japanese heritage.
In the final image, the bird is settled and surrounded by Octavio’s culture and background. It is sitting on top of the Japanese cherry blossom and is surrounded by the Mexican sugar skulls. The way the bird is facing is showing symbolism to the way that, Octavio see’s and lives in a life full of a Latin-American culture, since it is looking directly at the skull. The cherry blossom’s pedal that is placed in between the bird and the skull is used as a way of showing that even though he practices more of his Latin-American culture; he is still taking a glimpse and learning more of his Japanese background. The letters above the skulls, bird, and blossom are in the language of the angels, and it is quoted by Ayn Rand, which states “The question isn’t who’s going to let me; it’s who’s going to stop me…,” Representing Octavio’s spirit of ambition wanting to reach something greater without paying attention to those who want to stop him from doing so.
The different versions of the drawing represent Octavio growing as a person and discovering new facts about himself. The first version includes a similar bird, quote, but the skull on the left, and the tree is different; it’s just roses that symbolize that he felt good as himself and as a person, and he even thought of his life as beautiful as a blooming rose. The skull on the right is of a girl and she is maturing into a different look as well as Octavio maturing and beginning to look different. The second version of the drawing includes the exact same bird, quote, roses except for the same skull on the left. This time the skull on the right has a more matured look and is far more detailed. Also the flower that is in the hair of the skull on the left now has a more detailed view to it. The hair has grown and looks completely different as well.
Finally, the third version of the drawing includes a whole new item; the roses have now become a Japanese cherry blossom. The reason behind this is that as Octavio grew even more and dug up his past information using letters and pictures, he has discovered that he has Asian roots. That’s why the bird now sits on that cherry blossom as it is looking at the skulls and that pedal derived from his Japanese heritage. So in the end as the title states “Beauty is… Simply Me” it doesn’t mean he thinks beauty is his physical appearance, but him, as a person, where he is from and who he is.
Beauty in a Moth
Yasi Zeichner | Vermont Technical College VAST program ’13 | Northfield, VT
This spring, my siblings and I found a large, dried, brown chrysalis. We kept it, wondering what kind of butterfly or moth would hatch out of it, and hoping it would be a novelty of some kind. When the insect began to break through, we gathered round to watch the process. This is a slideshow of the transformation of the moth that emerged; a Polyphemus moth.
I think these photographs show beauty in many ways. There is beauty in the warmth and depth of the colors on the moth’s wings, and beauty in the intricate details of the insect’s whole design, from the eye-spots and stripes on its wings, to the fuzzy hairs on its body, to its little black-tipped feet. The fact that such a magnificent creature can emerge from a dry, drab chrysalis, starting out almost all body and no wings, and in the course of two or three hours, pumping its wings to their full size and then flying away; that is beautiful. Also, beauty is in the way that Nature puts such care and love into every detail of this little insect, despite the fact that the moth will only live for a few days. I think that if we slow down sometimes, and take the time out to watch some of the little things that are happening all around us, we will have the chance to observe some amazing processes, and see beauty at work. I also think there is beauty in taking the time and effort to make little, seemingly insignificant things beautiful, as Nature did with the Polyphemus moth.
One of things I like best about Thanksgiving is that it is one of the few days a year people open their homes to friends, family and yes, near strangers.
I’ve spent Thanksgiving in a lot of different places in the twelve years since I left home for college – at friends’ family gatherings in New York, at a farm school community feast, around a wicker table in Malawi, and trying to cook a full sized turkey in a tiny dorm room oven. In each of these cases, I joined friends of friends of friends, or had similarly loosely connected folks join me. Are there any other days in our calendar when we assume that no one should go cold or hungry or have to spend the day alone? When we are willing to put up with a little awkward conversation in order to ensure that everyone can feel they have something to be thankful about? Could we make a commitment to bring the beauty of this openness, generosity and sharing to other parts of the year?
Yes. And at the same time, I am reminded of how much beauty there is in the communities we hold close. Other bloggers have described a gut-level experience of beauty. For me, that warm glow comes during easy-flowing conversations with old friends, that bone-deep certainty that someone would come through for me in a pinch, collaborating to create a colorful and satisfying meal, and feeling pride in my sisters’ accomplishments.
I wonder how I could “make something beautiful” that expressed this feeling? A photo collage of friends and family? A story about a transformative moment in a relationship? Or can this only be truly expressed in things others make and share with me? A quandary for the long weekend…
Some final questions from resident philosopher, William Edelglass, to help propel you to those brilliant submissions!
My colleague and dear friend, Amer Latif, is a scholar of Sufi poetry, especially the work of Rumi. In a Rumi poem Amer has translated, Rumi questions God, asking where the poet should seek the Divine. And God answers, “Seek me in your beautiful conduct.” What does it mean that our conduct can be beautiful? And what would it mean that in the very beauty of our conduct we can find God?
Taking this a step further, what is the relationship between beauty and the Divine? This summer I gave several talks in Estonia and went to an Estonian Orthodox Church for services on two Sundays. The music and icons and ritual were so beautiful and I felt a deep connection to the Divine. Thomas Aquinas argued that beauty is an attribute of God, and that when we experience beauty we are connecting to God. I have also felt this in the mountains and singing with friends. Is this encounter with beauty, both natural and artistic, an encounter with God?
“What is the Spanish word for snow?” my friend, Catie asked me. I came and sat next to her and the little girl next to her.
Catie smiled, and pointed at the picture of a house covered in feet of powdered snow in her hand. “Nieve, snow.”
The girl’s face lit up with wonder, as her eyes looked at the picture and then turned to look at her own surroundings. Sand, and plywood and cardboard houses, and scrawny dogseverywhere. The air smelled of dirt, sweat, and the chemical plants not far away. “Nieve,” she sighed. “Me gusta.” I like it. And she smiled.
At the age of sixteen, I had never seen such poverty, if poverty even does justice to their stories. Dirt and sand clung to the bottoms of the children’s bare feet, and scraggly dogs ran between their legs and in and out of the ply-board and cardboard houses. The air smelled of urine and nothing green could grow. Yet, these poorest barrios of Lima, showed me a form of beauty that I had never seen before.
Each day, I assumed the role of translator for the children and my friends, and watched the barriers of language fall down. When I came home, it was all I could talk about, the power of language. While we were separated from these children by barriers of culture, of age, of wealth, these began to break down when I helped them communicate with us. It allowed us to enter, however slightly, into their lives. Speaking to the children in Spanish was more than just speech; it was proof that we wanted to interact in their lives. It showed that were cared about them. It built trust. Watching these barriers between us fall down as the children told us what their favorite colors were, who their siblings were, how old they were, was beautiful. In the midst of all this dirt and sand, the friendships we made with these children were pure beauty.
Beauty is light. The warmth of the sun on your back, the patterns thrown on the ground through the leaves on the trees, the moon through a window in the middle of the night. A lava lamp, the lights on a Christmas tree, a single candle flickering against a wall.
Beauty is a lantern and the silhouette of a robber as a train comes rushing toward him.
Beauty is a dying man’s journey through the Elysian Fields.
Beauty is the light in the elevator as con men rob a casino vault.
Beauty is the glow of fairies as they dance around a boy who refuses to grow up.
Beauty is three teenagers with three candles exploring an abandoned mansion.
Beauty is florescent lights, a train, the glow of fairy dust, sunlight, a lantern, a candle. Beauty is light.
Technology is the application of science. Science is beautiful! But in the application of science, its beauty is very often obscured or completely hidden. That can be necessary when the science is dangerous or fragile. Power lines are kept out of reach and engines and computers alike are enclosed within metal and plastic.
It’s not always necessary, though. Sometimes science is hidden within technology so that technology can look or feel or sound like something else – or nothing at all. Think of how new products are smaller, quieter, faster, or smoother than they used to be. Part of why I’ve always liked to take things apart is that it reveals a certain kind of beauty to me.
Do you remember dialing a phone with real push buttons? Or even a mechanical dial? And then someone at the other end started talking? Remember the grinding noises your computer used to make?
Remember the first time you saw windmills lining a ridge?
Remember when we landed a robot on Mars?
Or the first time you felt a plane taking off?
I think those are the sorts of moments where technology reveals its beauty.
When I was in graduate school we were asked to make the most ugly pots we could imagine. I know this is a common assignment, designed to coerce students to reexamine what we value in our work. I worked counter to all my conventions; I made pots using only my left hand, slathering them in slip and covering them with narrative drawings reflecting my broken heart. The resulting pots were uncomfortable and awkward, but not ugly. Did I fail, or was the assignment a success? It is still unclear to me whether I failed by being unable to force myself to make something I considered ugly, or succeeded in broadening my perspective on what constitutes a beautiful pot.
Active engagement in making moves the work like a pendulum between the poles of failure and success, each serving to inform the other. The act of making the most unattractive pots I could imagine sowed the seeds for my subsequent ideas. I now embrace variation in the slip and continue to incorporate elements of the drawings I used on those sloppy, bumpy, wobbly, unkempt jar forms.
If, as they say, beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, then makers should make what they see as beautiful. Staying true to our individual sense brings the definition beyond the sunset, rainbow and kittens. Securing for ourselves what we understand as beauty and finding ways to communicate this comprehension creates a richness in dialogue, an opportunity to instruct and the possibility for growth.
In this way, we may satisfy our own creative needs.
As a person who responds primarily to the visual, I see beauty everywhere. That’s easy. It’s the sunlight coming through the spores on a patch of moss.
A painting by Diebenkorn, a photograph by Ansel Adams. A decaying piece of birch bark on the forest floor (I was going to talk about the beauty of decay, but my friend Kevin McCamant beat me to it).
But hearing beauty?—well, that’s easy, too. The opening strains of Mendelsohn’s Octet, the closing chords of “Hey Jude.” The first song of the season from the white-throated sparrow, a chorus of spring peepers, the wail of a faraway train passing in the dark of night.
Smell? Or rather, scent. (Scents are beautiful; smells—not so much.) The first whiff of the ocean as you cross the bridge into Maine, especially if it’s low tide. The waft of her perfume as your mother leans over to give you a good night kiss before going out for the evening. Freshly mown hay on a hot summer afternoon.
Now it gets trickier. Touch. Does a touch feel beautiful, or does it feel tender, soothing, warm, soft? Can touch be beautiful? Do we say, “this feels beautiful?” Is it the caress of a lover, the body sliding into clear cool water, the feel of a dog’s warm head under a crippled elderly hand? Thick warm socks on a cold morning—that’s a beautiful feeling.
Here’s one Josie didn’t ask about in the video: Taste. Do we talk about food as tasting beautiful? Delicious, sweet, comforting—yes beautiful: Macaroni and cheese; good strong coffee thick with cream; a ripe tomato still warm from the sun.
What I end up with is this: I think it is the magic in the perception of things that makes them beautiful. Ice skating alone on a startling pink sunrise, reflected on the surface of a pond. The gentle touch of a dragonfly as it lands on your bare shoulder. The surprising taste of chunky salt in a bar of dark chocolate. It’s the little sensory surprise, the little gasp “oh!” that makes something beautiful.
Now the question is, how do you capture that gasp?
I can find beauty in just about anything. This picture is of rust on an old door on the building across the street from the jail where I work and I find it beautiful.
Beauty is more of a felt thing than a thought thing for me: there can be an element of surprise, a swelling of the heart, a smile and/or tears in the eyes. It catches me, transforming my sense of perspective and scale, pulling me into its dimension.
It can also be ironic, or perhaps even paradoxical, like the rust in the photo, generative in its colorful decay.
Some recent thinkers and artists have argued that beauty is not the support for ethics and justice that earlier thinkers had imagined. Instead, they have argued, the valorization of beauty is an expression of privilege: only people who have all their basic needs met could really care about beauty. Moreover, attention to beauty lifts us out of the ethical demands of a world in which there is suffering. Instead of contemplating beautiful scenery or works of art, we need to respond to that suffering, it is argued. And if we do make works of art, they should not reflect the tastes of the privileged but should disturb them, to draw our attention to social and political truths which are obscured by the devotion to beauty. What is the relationship between beauty—say, for example, the beauty of a painting by Mark Rothko — and morality, justice, and politics? Ought we to be skeptical of beauty and strive to escaped the “cult of beauty”?
What I mean is that beauty is so wrapped up in aesthetics, which are so subjective and yet socially inscribed, that I don’t believe anything is purely, ultimately, innately beautiful. I fear that we limit ourselves in our thoughts of what could possibly be beautiful – day to day, we enter into routine and forget to really see, hear, touch, feel…
Therefore, I think we should question why we think something is beautiful to see what it implies about what we don’t think is beautiful. It’s easy to see where I’m going with this – I often wonder why I turn heads (and apparently invite comments on my “beautiful” appearance) when I strap on a pair of heels, as opposed to when I go to the corner store in my sweatpants. I wonder, doesn’t ugliness have its own beauty, and maybe beauty its own ugliness? This is why I attempt to disregard beauty all together.
When I think about this question in relation to my own experience, I often think about people’s labeling of themselves as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ dancers. As a dancer and dance-maker, I run into so many people who, upon hearing what I do, comment on their inability to dance. Do they not believe they are beautiful dancers? To me, the awkward stumblings of these pedestrians are more innovative and inspiring than the calculated precision of a ballerina. The way I see it, what qualifies as beauty – or ability to create a “beautiful” dance – is the motivation behind the person performing a dance, their own joy in movement. I see the uninhibited commitment to movement (whether that movement could be see as beautiful or ugly) as beautiful. And there, I’ve admitted my own surrender to beauty.
Maybe it’s arbitrary to do so, but I don’t want to call it beauty. Beauty implies form, implies an image – just as the word “movement” implies a particular shape. Why can’t we define a particular “beauty” or “movement” by intent or by how it arose. I want beauty, like movement, to be a process, not a hard image which bodies try to recreate.
In lieu of flushing all these snip-its of ideas out, I pose to you this video as a site of investigation:
Between individual feelings of pleasure in the beautiful and objective properties of the beautiful object, there is also the question of the cultural contexts in which we cultivate our tastes. The first time I saw Tibetan opera it was culturally interesting but not particularly beautiful. But after several years of living with Tibetans in northern India, regularly hearing Tibetan music, and seeing many hours of traditional opera, I did find it both entertaining and more and more moving and beautiful. Does one have to enter into another culture to appreciate its aesthetic productions and find them beautiful? Do some manifestations of beauty just take more time to appreciate than others? What is the relationship between beauty and cultural contexts?
My roommate and I this year are half best friends, half the same person. We finish one anothers sentences, like the same kind of music, and wear the same size shoes. Soulmates are not necessarily a romance thing. A soulmate is a person who understands you, and loves you, even the pieces that drive them nuts, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, a soulmate is also a roommate.
There is beauty in not having to explain why you’re cranking loud rock music at 11pm, and there is also beauty in dancing around your dorm room folding clothes just because you can.
There is beauty in laughing so hard with someone that you literally fall on the floor and can’t breathe.
There is beauty in discussing, in September, where you want to live together the next year, and in making the assumption that after another year of living together, you’ll still want to live with each other.
There is a strange kind of beauty in singing “What Is This Feeling” from Wicked with your roommate every time you get in the car.
There is beauty in sitting on opposite sides of the room playing Words With Friends with one another, and yelling “Play a word! Play a word!” 30 seconds after you send a word.
There is beauty in watching TV shows and movies together that you won’t admit you watch to anyone else because they’re so bad.
There is beauty in accidentally staying up until 2am talking about life across the room in the dark.
There is beauty in having a bad behavior spray bottle for one another, and then deciding that you’re going to drive each other nuts with it, and so seriously debating getting water guns instead.
There is beauty in being in class together and reaching for the other person’s water bottle without asking because you don’t need to.
There is beauty in having an unspoken agreement to leave the windows open until it’s literally so cold you have to close them or get frostbite at night.
There is beauty in living together, and knowing you have someone there for you all the time.
The mind isn’t always a beautiful place. Leontius, for example, couldn’t restrain himself from looking at the naked corpses lying at the executioner’s feet. At first, he covered his eyes, turning away from the grisly scene. Eventually, his prurient interest won out. His eyes popped open and his legs propelled him forward for a closer look. Embarrassed to find himself standing over the bodies, Leontius cried out, “Look, you damned wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.”
A modern reader might diagnose Leontius as psychotic. His contemporary Athenians, however, had a different vocabulary. According to Socrates, the great doctor of cities and psyches, Leontius was a man whose inner desires were in revolt against the authority of reason. The “damned wretches” were not the bodies before him but his own unruly passions. The cure for this uncomfortable condition was not medication but dialectical philosophy. Once Leontius reasserted the rational part of his soul – through reason, argument, and experience – his mind would achieve its natural beauty.
Socrates was impressed with Leontius’s anger, a spirit that usually aligns itself with reason. Leontius’s strange public outburst, he explained, shamed the appetitive aspect of the soul into submission. If Leontius’s ruling function could then show the “damned wretches” some love and kindness, his soul would get back on track. While not providing us with the rest of the conversation, Socrates gives us enough information to chart the course. Begin with a terrible embarrassment and then call out the wretches. Next, lovingly guide them in a healthier direction.
I am most impressed Leontius’s public performance. His recovery not only requires humility and courage, it also demands a wild sense of humor. He is training his inner demons like dogs to a whistle. “Leave it!” he shouts as they rush towards the pornographic. “Come!” he commands, bringing their crazed unruliness back home. No longer ashamed of their puppy ways, the man with the beautiful mind can channel their exuberance to his own delight and to the comic relief of any spectators. How lovely that we humans can improve and still be entertaining!
Beauty is where your head turns when it seems to be out of your control. We see and touch and taste things all day long, automatically doing what we’re doing. But on occasion a switch flips inside us and our senses connect to memories—places we’ve been or a voice we heard once—or to some animal impulse deep within, preserved from our days as hunters and gatherers. The connection happens without us knowing, until we feel a jerk in our gut, like someone tugging on a fishing hook and line that was dormant for years. Whether it is inherent in an object or dependent on the genius of some compartment in our brain, beauty, when it matters most to most people, is something we feel. It stirs, shakes, pokes and prods, like new organs growing and dying inside us.
Beauty isn’t just something that pleases your senses—it’s something that triggers that organ-growing effect inside of you, that makes you step back from the comfortable touching and tasting and seeing you’d been contentedly doing all day long. When you experience beauty, you open and escape, however briefly, from your own little world and recognize how big and all-encompassing everything around you is. Beauty transcends individuality. It’s almost as though it causes you to connect more deeply with some energy or source of power in the universe, even though you probably don’t know what you’re connecting to, or even that something touched and changed you at all.
You might try to translate the feeling into something familiar, but the beauty that pulls you up always puts you back down, like being cast back into a veil of salty gray water. You have to resort to fishing analogies to describe the feeling because beauty is beyond language and, with it, comprehension. As close as you may come to capturing that experience, you are still left with just a shadow of what you experienced, and must hope that something in your description resonates with someone else who has also known beauty. And maybe realizing that you’ve felt the same way they have makes you both remember that touch to your soul, or hook in your gut, and feel it again. Remembering beauty connects the two of you, which is the same thing as when you experienced it in the first place—it opens you up to realizing the world is bigger than you, that you’re connected to everything. And that connection is what is beautiful.
As someone who spends her time studying science, I have come to truly value what the natural world has to offer. Here at Marlboro, I have the luxury of spending my time looking at all different aspects of life on Earth. For example, this past semester, I began taking Comparative Anatomy. When I walked into the lab last week, a model of a human skeleton was staring me in the face. Across the room stood the actual skeleton of a cat accompanied by a few bird skulls, a dog skull, and a hyena skull. To anyone else these may be just bones. But they aren’t simply bones. They are a contributor to life and that’s magnificent.
I find that the beauty is in the life form entirely, but the root of this form is the skeleton. These bones are the basis of our structure, some of our mobility, and our self-protection. How can something so seemingly fragile be so important? For example, the tailbone of a cat appears as though is could snap in an instant and, yet, without at least some of that tail, the cat lacks the strong sense of balance it requires for everyday life. Similarly, that same cat relies on its ribcage to protect many of its vital organs. However, with some impact, it’s possible that a few of the ribs could crack. Without even thinking about it, living organisms put a lot of faith on these breakable forms to allow them to live their daily lives.
Further more, I find the commonality of structure just as beautiful. It’s amazing to me that humans and cats have many of the same bones in their skeletons. For example, our skulls are categorized into the same three sections as a cat skull. By looking at these structures, we can see similarities between humans and many other organisms, which can provide a basis by which all organisms relate to each other. Our bones are the same. The pure foundations of our forms are what we all, as living beings, have in common.
While the skeleton of any organism is fascinating to study, the bones themselves are not necessarily what is so beautiful. It’s how living things rely on them so heavily, how they provide us with the ability to exist in life as we know it, and how we are able to believe that something that appears so fragile will be strong enough to carry us and other organisms wherever we need to go. Because of bones we are here and we have structure and that is what is so remarkably beautiful.
Another set of thought provoking questions from Professor William Edelglass:
Is beauty a property of things out in the world, or is it really “in the eye of the beholder”? To experience something as beautiful is to be moved, to feel a certain pleasure. And we can sometimes say why something is beautiful. We can indicate the properties of a tree or a painting or a song that might lead others to recognize its beauty. Thus, we act as if beauty is when we feel a particular kind of response to things, as well as a property of the object. But when I experience beauty — say the glory of Palestrina — I never experience it as something which is relative to me. I feel it as something that others should also feel, that they are missing something important if they do not feel the pleasure of this particular beauty. Can this dilemma between subjective feelings of beauty on the one hand and objective properties on the other be sustained? Or does one have to abandon one or the other to have a consistent understanding of beauty?
On Saturday, I was leafing through the local weekend paper and came across a photo spread of the Paralympics. Across the page were photos of amazing athletes with what many of us would think to be impossible challenges. Many of the athletes were playing their sports from wheel chairs. Some were leaping or running with one or both legs supplemented by prosthetic running legs. Other aquatics athletes were swimming or diving with an arm missing or both legs amputated at the knees. The looks of determination, strength and joy were so inspiring I started to tear up. If these folks can do these amazing things with the impediments they face, what is holding anyone else back from their goals?
What I find beautiful is that grit and magic we do find within us to push ourselves beyond what we thought humanly possible. This is when we discover our “super powers.” When Vermont was ravaged by Tropical Storm Irene last year, the whole state rediscovered their super power of caring for each other, doing what needed to be done in order for their neighbors to be okay, to dig out, to clean up, to get back on their feet. There wasn’t necessarily a plan in place for exactly how everything needed to happen. People simply responded. They came together, looked at who and what was in front of them, and did what made the most sense: picking up trash, making food, lending a hand, being good to each other.
In improv theater, actors are constantly tasked with exactly this problem every time they are onstage together. A set of circumstances are randomly assigned to a group. They arrive on the scene and go. When they perform, pulling ideas out of what seems like nowhere, audience members are awed. It does seem like magic when these actors seamlessly pull together and perform what ends up sounding like a cleverly written Tom Stoppard or Woody Allen script.
Where else do you find that magic, those super powers that give someone or even you the strength, knowledge, determination, the shear awesomeness to do what you didn’t think was possible?
The magic that all of these people are drawing on is that of working hard to hone the skills of handling what seems impossible. All of these folks in their communities, gyms, fields or rehearsal spaces have been super heroes in training, working together, learning from each other how their individual or combined “wonder twin” powers prepare them to take on big challenges. Super powers are truly beautiful, and they change the world.
Let’s just forget for the moment that T.S. Eliot considered the last two lines of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to be a blight upon an otherwise lovely poem. Keats wrote: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Okay, let’s also forget that the quote is craftily lifted from Sir Joshua Reynolds, an 18th century English painter. Finally, and this is my favorite, let’s ignore the fact that our man Keats distilled this fetching bit of wisdom, with the sleek simplicity of a mathematical proof, from contemplating a dusty old vase. At face value, I mean really, can you imagine a finer description of beauty than John’s?
If you’re living in the captivating psychological thriller known as the teenage years, you probably can. Is it an “Ode on a Double Latte,” or a computer program that randomly generates the mating calls of all known mammals, or a kinetic sculpture of the Big Bang constructed entirely of matchsticks? All it takes is a bit of that crazy, way-out-of-the-box, cross-multi-inter-disciplinary, Harry-Potter-meets-Lady-Gaga thinking that happens when you’re watching YouTube videos and thinking “this yoga breakdancing is awesome but would be even cooler if…,” imagining what the character in your favorite book would look like in person, or just laughing with friends.
And just think, first prize is $1000, or enough for a Grecian urn full of lattes. I kid you not—beautiful, eh? And that is all ye need to know.
- Philip Johansson (aka Potash Phil)
Senior Writer & Editor
Marlboro was founded in the wake of World War II with the explicit goal of redefining democracy in a world of uncertainty, a world where ideas such as fascism and communism were fresh, raw, and frightening. With the foundation of democracy in mind, Marlboro pushed its students to participate democratically through Town Meeting.
As the editor of Marlboro’s school newspaper, The Citizen, I have seen and participated in my fair share of democratic messiness. Marlboro is a small institution and is dramatically affected by the actions and opinions of the individuals who make it. When people talk, they talk to each other, they challenge each other, and they force each other to fully articulate their opinions. A diversity of thought and opinion forces them to think harder and learn how to interact more reasonably and intelligently with one another. When people are silent, the college stagnates, and so do students’ minds.
When people talk, the result is a gorgeous, frightening, and entirely unpredictable organism. The beauty of Marlboro is that people are not only encouraged to speak their minds; they are expected to. And if people speak enough and are able to find common ground, they can make real and tangible changes to the college. I’ve seen it happen over and over. I have seen students stand up, either through a speech or through articles in The Citizen, and demand more from their school, and I have seen those demands transformed into action.
Marlboro absolutely needs disagreement and its resulting discourse. Marlboro needs opinions that clash. Marlboro’s students, no matter how much they have changed over the past six decades, still expect their voices to be heard. And they should make them heard, because nothing here is more beautiful than the knowledge that someone is listening.
In Plato’s Apology, an early dialogue about the trial of Socrates, Socrates famously claims that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” By this he means that a life lacking in self-understanding, a life without the kind of inquiry and exploration that for him was characteristic of philosophy, would be constricted, with limited meaning and value. My students are often skeptical about such claims to set up a hierarchy of lives; they tend to recognize value in a multiplicity and diversity of ways of being in the world, including an unexamined life, whatever that might be—though they generally wouldn’t choose such a life for themselves.
But I can’t help wondering about beauty. Is beauty so important in my life that I would regard a life limited in beauty as fundamentally lacking? What would my life be without the commonplace moments of transcendent beauty: when I walk to school in the morning and marvel at the sunlight catching dew on a spider web; hearing students singing in harmony under the apple trees below my open office window; watching the first snowfall bring a kind of purity to the landscape?
As Plato pointed out, so much of what we take to be of utmost importance in our lives, we may not understand. I think of this when I think of beauty, for even as I recognize how singularly significant it is for me, I am not sure I understand it very well. Indeed, the more I think about beauty the more perplexing it becomes. Below I pose a question about beauty, the first of several I will offer in the coming weeks, to express some of my perplexity.
What are we referring to when we describe something as “beautiful?” In English, “beautiful” has a broad range of meaning. It includes, of course, the beauty of the Marlboro hills when the morning light plays with the rising mist.
Katheryn Lloyd ’11 in the Marlboro College Library
As a librarian and researcher, when presented with a question like “What is beauty?” or “How do I explain why my creation is beautiful?,” I immediately think about finding information on how others, be they scholars, bloggers or anyone, have approached the subject of beauty. In an academic environment, we often stress the importance of building on the research completed by others before us.
The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of the word beauty back to 1325, then in its Middle English form of bealte. 1325! The OED also provides eight different definitions of beauty. Just as there are several different definitions of the word beauty, there are many different ways to approach the question of beauty and, in turn, different disciplines that tackle the study of beauty from the arts to the sciences. Even the Library of Congress devotes several different subject headings connected to the study of beauty. Just a few examples: aesthetics, art —philosophy, beauty—personal.
I think we often forget how significantly the words we choose to search for information influence the results we get. Gee, that sounds obvious, but think about it and test it out. Try substituting the word aesthetics for beauty and vice versa. Try ambling around in your research. Try many different searches. Explore. Read. Get a bit lost.
If you are looking for inspiration or places to search, you might want to check out a few of following great freely available online resources and well as visiting your local library: