Beyond the Ordinary

Ahmad Babbahar – Blues Musican

Driving home from Seattle one night, I noticed the way television sets reflected off ceilings or out the windows of apartments and houses—sort of a free light show. I spent some time thinking about it as I drove on to the ferry. I live in the boondocks with few neighbors and where those kinds of light shows aren’t common. I do however have a road that runs the length of my acreage. It came to me that the squirrels might enjoy TV at night because shouldn’t entertainment belong to nature as well as the city? For months after that drive home, I hit every garage sale to buy all the small black and white TVs I could find. I ended up with what seemed like miles of extension cords leading from my workshop to 12 TVs scattered around the property. In the evening I would turn them on to various channels—depending on what I could get from the antennas—to create a light show. For a quarter mile along the road, lights flickered in the trees and if you rolled down the car window, you could hear snippets of sound from different TV shows. For about a year, people would slow down on the road in the evening to see or hear the installation; it also kept the squirrels entertained. It would be difficult to do this today with the changes to the way broadcasting works but I do have the memory and experience of it along with many others.

As a kid in the early 60’s I listened to a crystal radio with a single earpiece while reading books under the covers in my attic bedroom. Wolfman Jack broadcasting from Mexico and season tickets to the Washington Philharmonic shaped my understanding of music (my mother believed in broad exposure). The appreciation of far more possibility came when my Grade 9 Humanities teacher, Robert Hilden, introduced the class to Miles Davis. Despite the school record player with bad speakers, the first time I heard Davis I discovered a whole new way of hearing, meaning and feeling in music. That experience was a moment of clarity and revelation for me and I found myself hungering for more of the same.

How I see beyond the ordinary was built over a long period of time. To a degree, I attribute it to growing up with some physical difficulties. As a kid, I had to learn to walk several times due to polio and the resulting operations. It always interested me how people moved their bodies which required observing others move and how I might control my own body to imitate that. This taught me to closely see details and pay attention to their interactions with the environment and others. The skill of seeing more and differently was also fostered by my parents in other productive ways. We spent a great deal of time in airports sending my Dad off to build a better world and waiting for him to come home. My Mom would play a game of sorts where we would watch people in the airport and learn about different places and ways of doing things. This led to making up stories for the people we saw traveling, inventing reasons for the trip and whole stories as they passed our seats. It made the waiting much more entertaining to have a collection of stories wander by. Imagination is trained and exercising it as a child helped me to develop it.

How I saw the world expanded when my mentor and art teacher, Gerry Conaway, introduced me to the ideas and thinking that went along with Conceptual Art. He pointed to the connection between ideas and the message in art and once I understood that art work, either made or found, was more than just the subject in the image or form, I began to make connections to all sorts of disparate ideas and media along with things in the real world. The notion that art or message was possible in the things we see changed the way I looked at the everyday world. I started to take a deeper, closer look at common objects and situations and even the people I met. At last, I had an outlet and semi-acceptance in art for all that time imagining stories for the world. It freed my search for something to say in my art, to run wild with some varied results. It can (and did) get rather crazy and it was a great deal of fun.

This period of learning to see was for me, also a time of development of how message is built into art and what kind of message or idea is important to audience and the history of art. It was the beginning of my understanding of what the conversation of art is, about the idea of art for art’s sake and the philosophical conversation of art. I began to recognize the dialogue between the social and the political in art and why it matters, and how it is the hardest one to control so it doesn’t become simply pandering to the masses or a popular idea of the time.

During this period, I apprenticed with Richard Beyer in Seattle. Rich began his art career late in life and built a successful practice. His belief that all art is political lead us through many a late-night discussion on the purpose of art and how it fits in the world. Rich taught me to see art in the now and how it fits into the future. Reading the writings of artists and philosophers shaped even more of how I saw things to the point that I became obsessed enough to turn them into art. As my education on seeing progressed, I learned to not only see things others did not, but I also strengthened the mental craft of being an artist by learning to make connections others didn’t perceive.

At the risk of stating the obvious, photographs are based on seeing. Learning to see in ways that are beyond the ordinary is essential to making work that will stand the test of time. This “seeing” along with something to say is what makes good work that is more than just pointing.

It also helps to have an active imagination.

4 comments

Love this piece, Ray. One of my best feelings as a Dad is when my kids “see” something that I might have missed, be it in our backyard or on our travels. I don’t care so much if they pick up a camera (thought my daughter is pretty good with one) but that they stop to look around and not miss things.

I know that feeling Mark it is one of the best.

A very wonderful story , thoughtful and interesting. I loved it.

thanks Shirley – one among far too many stories I probably shouldn’t tell as often as I do

Leave a Reply to Mark Cancel reply