The Eye of the Beholder
” The eye of the beholder reveals many mysteries Like mirrors of infinity, the layers of perception appear endless.”
~ Kim McElroy
A friend of mine once told me that every painting I made was created for someone. This was a very profound statement, for sometimes I would create a painting and despair when I find a home for it until years later. Other times, I would find someone to love the piece in a very brief time. One thing I have discovered; it is always a process of being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, it is a more mysterious process of connection than I expect. When an inspiration comes to me, I decide to follow through on the idea, I am unaware of the unseen forces that seem to move the person it was created for toward my circle of influence.
Horses’ eyes are incredibly deep, expressive, and reflective. Their eyes are the one of the largest in the entire animal kingdom. If eyes are like windows to the soul, they are also like mirrors that reflect what they see. Often, when I’ve looked in my own horse’s eyes, I have seen a vision of myself, or a reflection of the sky, or the land which we call home. Seeing these reflections in her eyes add meaning to the moment, for they give me a perspective of the moment and its meaning.
At the beginning of my career in 1987 I created a painting called The Eye of the Beholder, in which one horse is reflected in another horse’s eye. When I created the painting, I was so focused on the dynamic of creating the illusion of two horses looking at each other, I didn’t realize until later that both horses were also looking at me.
“Nothing in the world is single: All things by law divine, In one spirit meet and mingle Why not I with thine?”
~ Percy Bysshe Shelley
I revisited this concept years later, only this time I wanted to paint a woman reflected in a horse’s eye. When I conceived of the piece, I wanted the viewer to identify with the woman, so I created a woman in a pose that was thoughtful and introspective. Her eyes were downcast, giving an introspective aire to her mood. I chose a horse’s eye that was kind and soulful, with the bridge of the nose visible against the sky to give the impression of depth.. I decided to make the sky a cloudy gray to enhance the somber mood.
As I worked on the pastel, I had some difficulty in making the woman look like she was reflected in the eye, which involves some distortion, while still making the eye three dimensional. I had almost completed the piece when, as an attempt to rearrange the composition to focus more on the eye, I decided to crop the left hand side of the painting. I carefully covered the area to be removed with a sheet of paper to make sure it was the right idea. It seemed to help the composition so I cut into the painting, sliced four inches off of the image, removed the excess, and my heart sank. It was suddenly all wrong, how could I have made such an error in judgment? The painting was ruined.
As I sat in this depressed state my friend, Susan walked into the room. When she asked how things were, I said, “Awful, I just ruined my painting!” She walked over to my drawing table to look at it. I held the two pieces together, and then apart, and explained why I had cropped it. She pondered for a moment and said she hoped I could fix it. Then she commented that the woman looked Native American. “Really?” I replied. “That’s interesting, because the model is an Asian woman.” She suggested that I put some feathers in the woman’s hair to emphasize the connection. Suddenly an idea struck me. “Better yet,” I said, “I’ll put the feather in the horse’s forelock! But somehow I had to get this piece glued back together!”
I took the painting to my framers, who painstakingly mounted the pieces of the painting as close together as possible. This still left a small crack, which I tried to fill with matching pastel chalk. It was fairly effective, but I could still see the crack.
When I was confident that the piece could be recovered, I began thinking about the type of feather to draw. I wanted to emphasize the Native American feeling, and when I looked around my studio my eyes landed on a wall hanging made with owl feathers. This handmade sculpture had been given to me by a woman at one of my art shows. She had collected my greeting cards for years, and when she found out I was the artist she was almost speechless. She told me that of all the artists she had ever seen, my work touched her the most.
The next day she had returned, this time with a beautiful poem written on suede mounted with owl feathers. She explained that the feathers came from a barn owl that had lived on her property for years. Sadly, a neighbor had killed the owl. She had saved the feathers to remind her of her wild friend, and she now chose to give them to me in a gesture of goodwill. I had been incredibly touched by her willingness to pass along a precious talisman that meant so much to her. Now, years later, her gift was to become a part of my painting.
The owl feather and forelock were exactly what I needed to bring the painting to completion, but I still wasn’t satisfied with the visibility of the crack. I decided to camouflage it with the addition of feathers and a horsehair forelock. My friend, Dallas, a horsehair braider, provided the humanely gathered horsehair, and my picture framers artfully worked the hair into the mat to give the illusion of a three-dimensional forelock. The whole effect was quite striking, and I began to feel that the piece was better with these additions than it would ever have been. Also, in this way the crack was well hidden.
I told my framer how the piece had evolved. He was concerned about my inclusion of the owl feather and the interpretation of the meaning of an owl in Native American tradition. He said he had once painted an owl on a drum, and a Native American man told him that it was a bad omen, that in their traditions an owl represented a symbol of death and transformation. I loved Native American traditions and wanted to be in harmony with them. I decided the inspiration must have come to me for a reason. I named the painting, Vision.
I displayed the painting at my booth at a horse show a few weeks later. The first day, a woman came up to my display and stood for a long time in front of Vision. After awhile I approached her, and said this was the first time I had shown the painting. She seemed lost in thought. After a moment she commented how beautiful it was and said the theme had a very personal meaning for her. She didn’t elaborate, but quietly walked away.
Later that afternoon, she returned to my display, walked up to my table, and said, “How much is that painting? I’d like to buy it.” She took me by surprise, for usually I talk with people for some time before they decide to buy an original. So in an attempt to get to know her and why she liked my painting, I made conversation. I told her how that the creation of this painting had been an incredible journey. I told her the feather was of an owl, and that I had been told that some might think this an unwelcome omen. She looked at the painting, and said quietly, “Then this has even more meaning for me than I realized, for my son died three months ago, and I felt like he was speaking to me through this painting. He and his father were Native American. Though I am not of their heritage, I share their beliefs, and the owl is a meaningful symbol.”
I was deeply touched by her insights, and by her willingness to share them with me. Now I knew why I’d had the inspiration to include the owl, and also why the woman in the painting looked like she was sad. All of the elements had come together for a reason.
In the midst of that reverential moment, she had started to make out the check, when all of a sudden my reverie came to a screeching halt. I hadn’t told her about the crack! This painting had a flaw, and I’d better make sure she knew about it before she bought it. I was sorry to break the mood, but I told her I must show her something concerning the painting. We walked back over to Vision and I told her about the crack, and how it had come about. I went to great lengths to explain that I honestly felt that if it hadn’t been for cropping the piece I would never have come up with the idea for the feather. I was so concerned that she would think the painting imperfect, that I didn’t notice the slight smile forming on her lips. At last she said in a knowing voice, “I know why you did that.” Confused, I responded, “You do?” “Yes,“ she replied. “When Native Americans create a work of art, they always insert a flaw into the piece, for only the Creator can make something perfect.” I stood totally speechless. In that moment all of my path in creating Vision was became prophetic – for here, standing with me, was the one person in all the world whom I had created it for.