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We were invited to dinner with one of Carole’s fellow art teachers. They lived in a fairly new housing development, where all the houses were cookie cutter matches, up and down the streets, with the streets lined up-and-down the newly developed Arizona desert. Urbanization was filling up the outskirts of Phoenix like water filling up a pot. 

Our hosts were a very nice young couple with two kids; Carole and Margaret were friends over years of teaching in the sprawling Peoria Unified School District and we both knew Margaret and Curt well. But this was the first time we had come to their house. It was a shock. 

Through the whole house, there was not a single picture on the walls. Not a clock, nor children’s painting on the fridge, nor framed Bible verse — not even an Olan Mills family photograph with the stiff smiles and Sunday dress-up clothing. Nothing. An empty room is spooky.

I don’t think I’d ever seen a house so blank. It was as if they had just moved in and packing boxes were stacked in the corner, except there were no boxes and they’d lived in the house for years. There was a full set of furniture and curtains on the windows, but no art. All the more surprising since Margaret was an art teacher. 

Even cheap motels put decorations on the walls. 

This is not to complain about Margaret and Curt. The dinner was fine and we had a great night together. But the house haunted me afterwards. A house with blank walls is a house without a soul. You feel it in the gut. A void, an emptiness. 

Something on the wall seems almost instinctual, from the cave walls of Altamira to the poster of Farrah Fawcett taped up in the dorm room. If nature abhors a vacuum, house cannot abide a blank expanse of plasterboard. Something — please, something. A framed halftone image from Target of a tree or a cliched Parisian street scene. Something.

In Medieval Jewish folklore, a golem is a clay statue that comes to life when a magic incantation is inserted into its mouth. And so a home becomes alive when a painting or photograph is hung above the sofa or piano. 

When I moved into my first rented house, after leaving the college dorm, I hung photographs on the wall and a color-field painting made by Doug Feeney, a fellow collegian. I even put a frame around the wall phone, as if it were a Duchampian ready-made. Wasn’t I clever. 

Later, in another house, I filled the entire dining room wall, from top to bottom, with photos I made of all our friends. There must have been 30 or 40 pictures there. I couldn’t afford matting and frames, so they were all scattered across the wall, held up with masking tape. They kept us company. Because I was a photographer, most of the art in the houses I have lived in were decorated with my own work. But a good deal of the work that hung was traded for with other artists. This is a great thing about having artist friends and about making art. We mix and match. I now have enough art to fill a gallery. 

I most value art made by my brother, who is a working artist, and by my late wife, Carole, who was a visionary. She made a painting of the tree at night that grew outside our Phoenix house; it is surrounded by stars and the bluest dark sky I’ve ever seen. It now resides over our dining table, sharing the wall with an embroidered copy of a detail of the Unicorn Tapestries from the Museum of Medieval Art in Paris. 

The tree painting is not only a fragment of Carole’s soul remaining with me after her death, it is a window into the larger world she had access to. 

And that is one of the functions of art in the home. For many, it is a photograph of the family or of the parents or grandparents. It is a reminder of our unbreakable bond with the past — both our growing up and our ancestors. 

In old British manor houses, the walls are covered with the stiff, starchy paintings of lineage going back centuries. “That was the third Marquis of Snotsbury. He was hanged as a horsethief.” Thieves are hanged; artwork is hung. 

Sometimes the art is a souvenir of someplace that was meaningful to us: that trip to London or the landscape or our childhood. Sometimes, it is just a pretty picture. For my religious grandmother, it was praying hands and scriptural verses. We find meaning and display it. 

Unfortunately, the art in the house is often just a pro forma accessory, something perhaps picked out by an interior designer. Such art usually offers no emotional connection, just the fulfillment of a middle class expectation. The decor in such cases is usually not more than tchotchkes — something merely to fill the vacuum. Very tasteful — but soulless. 

(I remember that time in college when I painted a large abstract canvas in reds and ochers and gave it to my parents to hang over their sofa. It stayed there perhaps a year. But then, my mother asked me if I could do another one to replace it, one in blues and greens that would better match the room’s decor. I did it for them, after all, they were my parents. But I was miffed. I have rebelled against anything “matching” ever since.)

The interior design impulse means that for some, a concatenation of artwork, collected from various sources over years, is simply not unified enough. It really helps such an impulse if you are an artist yourself and can fill the house with your own artwork. Then it all hangs together. 

And, as I said, most of the art in my house is by me, but there is no unity at all. That is not a quality I admire. I love diversity — a kind of Postmodern mix of everything. I have Hopi pottery, African Tsi-Waras, a Ganesh of sandalwood and a bronze Shiva Nataraja. 

There is some Blue Willow crockery and a gorgeous giant etching made by Carole’s childhood friend, Ruth Haggerty. 

A snow scene by Georgia artist James Lyle. A vintage cookie jar in the rotund shape of a G.I., that we named “Urnie.” And a life-size copy of the Venus of Willendorf made by Tempe artist and friend Bill Tonnesen. 

In the bedroom is a gigantic painting of an abstract nude by Virginia painter Steve Wolf. 

And over my computer is a framed drawing of me made by my granddaughter Carol Lily Cloos when she was 8 or 9. 

And next to my computer, at eye level so I can look at it every day, is a pencil drawing that Carole made of a dead starling. It is resonant in ways that make me weep. 

Over the piano is a large painting by my brother, Craig, that is one of his typical flying antelopes, and in the bathroom there is his “portrait” of our late lamented cat, Ruthie, complete with spaying scar on belly. There is also a Japanese Ukiyo-e print of two graceful women in the snow, under an umbrella. So, there is no order or reason, just a collection of things I love. 

I have several dozen of my own photographs that I framed and showed at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, and now I have them stored away, but I retrieve a group and I switch them out occasionally on the walls. Currently, most of them hanging in the hall, office and bedrooms are images of Monet’s gardens at Giverny. 

All of them give character to the house, and more to the point, to life lived in the house. The house isn’t just a group of walls, doors and windows, but a personality.

I sit across the table from my brother at the seafood restaurant in Virginia and he doodles on a napkin with a Sharpie.

My brother is an artist — primarily a printmaker, but more recently a painter. And while he isn’t terribly prolific, he is constantly drawing. His mind is always coming up with visual ideas and he jots them down. Most never go anywhere, but he just cannot stop himself from playing. It is his way of processing experience: What he sees he transforms.

Lee Friedlander

It reminds me of the photographer Lee Friedlander, who describes his addiction to making photographs as “pecking.” Like a hen darting at cracked corn on the ground, he clicks his camera — peck, peck, peck. Some of the results of his pecking turn into finished photographs he displays in galleries and publishes in books. But there is an improvisatory quality to his work that comes — like a jazz musician woodshedding — from constantly working his instrument.

Among the images caught by pecking, Friedlander will periodically find something he hadn’t considered before, and thus his body of work takes a new direction, constantly refreshing his art.

In part, the importance of this kind of sketching is that it is not art — or rather, not meant as art. It is more the flexing of an esthetic muscle. One can become intellectually paralyzed if all you aim at is writing deathless prose, or painting the museum masterpiece, or composing the next Eroica. Not everything needs to be The Brothers Karamazov. There is great value in just pecking. It keeps your senses alive.

Mel Steele

I periodically visit my brother-in-law, Mel Steele, who is also an artist, a very accomplished artist who regularly sells his paintings to clients both private and corporate.

I often spend a portion of my time doodling — pecking — with my tiny point-and-shoot digital camera. We would sit on their patio talking about the things one yammers on about with one’s relations — old times, where former acquaintances have gone, the horror of recent politics, the joys of fishing — and I would distractedly point my camera around me at the things one seldom notices.

I wasn’t thinking of making art. I barely paid attention to what I was doing with the camera, but I pecked. The result is a kind of notebook of the things we lived among, seen in some different way, so as to lift them from their context, to suck them out of the everydayness they languish in.

 It reminded me of an assignment I used to give my photography students, some 35 years ago, when I taught the subject at the same school where my brother also taught. “Make a photograph of something so I cannot tell what it is.” I made sure they understood I didn’t mean to make it out of focus or poorly run through the darkroom, but to find something we see everyday, but pay so little attention to, that when faced with its presence, we might be baffled until that moment when, the proud student, having fooled us all, tells us what we’re looking at and we all let out a gasp of breath and say, “Of course, now I see it.”

Try it: 

Quiz photo No. 1 (Answers at the end of story)

These pecked pictures are mostly details. 

Quiz photo No. 2

They are not the grand view or the concatenated whole, but the tiny bits out of which the larger scene is built. 

Quiz photo No. 3

Most of us pay attention only to the whole, when we pay attention at all; for most Americans — maybe most humans anywhere — only use their eyes for useful things. They see the road they drive on, the cloud that tells them it will rain, the house, the car, closet. But every house has a door, and every door a door-handle; every car has tires and every tire a tread and each tread is made up of an intricate series of rubber squiggles and dents. Attention must be paid.

Aime Groulx

Many years before, when I taught photography at a private art school in Greensboro, N.C., the artist Aime Groulx, who ran the school, made a photograph he called Doorknob to the Doors of Perception. I still have my copy. It was his version of “pecking.” 

Doorknob to the Doors of Perception

Paying attention to the details means being able to see the whole more acutely, more vividly. The generalized view is the unconsidered view. When you see a house, you are seeing an “it.” When you notice the details, they provide the character of the house and it warms, has personality and becomes a Buberesque “thou.” The “thou” is a different way of addressing the world and one that makes not only the world more alive, but the seer also.

(It doesn’t hurt that isolating detail makes it more necessary to create a design. You can make a photo of a house and just plop it in the middle of the frame and we can all say, “Yes, that’s a house,” and let the naming of it be the end-all. But if you find the tiny bits, they have to organize them in the frame to make something interesting enough to warrant looking at.)

Side panels of a pickup truck

Sectioning out a detail not only makes you look more closely, but forces your viewer to look more closely, too. Puzzling out what he sees without the plethora of context makes him hone in on its shape, color, and texture. It is a forced look, not a casual one.

So, when I gave my students that assignment, it wasn’t just to be clever, but to make them pay attention to the minutiae that are the bricks of the visual world they inhabit. And paying attention is a form of reverence.

The mental view of the world is telescopic. It zooms from the blue watery globe in the blackness of space, down to the map of the U.S., to your state, to your city — each step focusing on closer detail — and then to your street, to your house, to the room you are sitting in to the armrest you are tapping your fingers on, to the hairs on your knuckles. Always more detail. 

Turn from the tapping hand to the floor and see the woodgrain in the flooring, or the ceiling and see the cobweb you had not noticed before. The clothes you are wearing has a texture and a color. The wrinkles in the shirt of blouse are replications of the drapery in Greek sculpture. 

Each of these details is a microcosm, worth looking at — it is your world, after all. What did William Blake write? “To see the world in a blade of grass. And heaven in a wild flower. To hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.” 

Or, as he scribbled in annotation to the pages of Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses, “To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is alone the distinction of merit.”  

The general is the world of politicians and businessmen, of carnival barkers and evangelists. Dogma, ideology, commercial advertisement, are founded on generalizations, while what genuinely matters in our lives is the particular. It is generalizations that permit the destruction of Bamiyan Buddha statues, the bombing of synagogues, mosques and Sikh temples. The stoning of homosexuals. It is generalizations that lurk behind the Shoah. It was generalization that justified the enslavement of a race of people. 

To know any individual is to know the stereotype is a lie. The world, and its peoples, are infinitely complex and varied. So much so, that no broad statement can ever be anything but a lie. And so, there is actually a moral level to this paying of attention to detail, to the minutiae, to the individual. 

And so, you peck. Finding this bit or that bit, that shape, that texture, that precise color. This is the context of your life. 

You can focus your attention on color. How much yellow is in your field of view at this moment. Look around. Single it out. Or blue. How many different blues can you spot right now? Paying attention is being alive; paying attention is reverence. Attention must be paid. 

Duck eggs

Your life is not made up of the broad swathes, but of the minute details, and when we pay too much attention to the big picture, we are likely to miss the particles that give that picture its character. 

And when you come to make your art, write your novel, dance your dance, that detail means there is a truth to what you do, a reality behind the fantasy that gives it depth and meaning. 

Exercise makes your muscles strong. Pecking keeps your senses alive and alert. Peck Peck Peck

Click on any image to enlarge

Answers to quiz: No. 1 — the twill of denim jeans; No. 2 — dried coffee stains on a white table top; No. 3 — garden hose on patio tiles.