The Zen of Seeing

The Zen of Seeing

No one sees a flower, really, because to see takes time. Like to have a friend takes time.

Georgia O’Keefe

The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light.

Matthew 6:22

Above the mantle in my living room hangs a favorite painting in a dark gold frame, a large abstract of shells scattered on a beach, though from across the room you wouldn’t know that, unless you came in for a closer view. Then you would see that the thick brush strokes of gray, rust, black, and teal are actually shapes of quahogs and littlenecks, mussels, and broken bits of sea glass strewn across a patch of tawny sand. The perspective is unique — as if you’re staring down at a pile of shells freshly delivered by the tide. In the far left corner of the painting lies the artist’s name and date, Franck ’61.

The man who painted this, Frederick Franck, was a Dutchman, a physician, as well as an artist and author of a dozen books on art, philosophy, travel, and religion. He lived for three years in Gabon, the former French Equatorial Africa, working alongside the renowned physician Albert Schweitzer, in his jungle hospital. Franck loved to draw the human face and Schweitzer’s was one he often drew. Franck  moved in impressive circles and was the only artist permitted to observe (and draw) all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council. Giancarlo Roncalli, better known as Pope John XXIII, became an intimate friend. Franck would later write that Roncalli’s face “was fully alive, without a trace of falsity or pretense. . . . He was a fat man, not handsome, but beautiful, for he was a genius of the heart . . . maskless.”

Forty years ago Frederick Franck wrote an eclectic book on drawing which would become an instant classic among art students and poets, dabblers in Eastern religions, anyone attuned to the hidden matrix where beauty, nature, and God entwine. Since 1973, when the book first appeared, there have been scores of volumes published on the subject of paying attention as artists, as writers, as people of faith. To see nature as God’s mirror, creation itself as God’s Body, another incarnation, to interpret the radiant world as pulsing with divine language. These were radical ideas not so long ago, though earlier generations understood them well. Like the concept of veriditas, or greening, in Hildegard of Bingen’s writings. Or the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins — the world is charged with the grandeur of God. In a determined attempt to jumpstart my own failed drawing practice, I decided it was time to sit down again with a Dutch master, to rekindle what happened when I first picked up The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation.   

Everyone thinks he knows what a lettuce looks like. But start to draw one and you realize the anomaly of having lived with lettuces your whole life but never having seen one, never having seen the semi-translucent leaves curling in their own lettuce way, never having noticed what makes a lettuce a lettuce rather than a curly kale. I am not suggesting that you draw each vein of each leaf, but that you feel them being there. What applies to lettuces applies equally to the all-too-familiar faces of husbands . . . wives. (pages 26–27)

As I read this passage I happened to be sitting outside in front of one of my husband’s raised garden beds, in which were growing, as it were, six little heads of Romaine. So rather than read further, which would’ve been much easier, I decided to take the ballpoint pen and lined notebook paper and draw what was right before me — and do it quickly, without proper paper or the need to prettify my work. I did opt for color because the green was so lush and bright with the afternoon sunlight shining through the leaves, so I found a couple of green markers and sat there in the sun happily coloring away, like I often did as a child. Did I capture the head of Romaine perfectly? Not at all. But did I begin to glimpse its infinite beauty, the curtain of one leaf folded inside another, the veins like tiny circuitry? I did, indeed.

The subtitle of Franck’s book attests to what he most wants to impress upon his readers: there’s a profound difference between looking and seeing. We do a lot of looking these days, says Franck, but we see less and less:

Never has it been more urgent to speak of SEEING. Ever more gadgets, from cameras to computers, from art books to videotapes, conspire to take over our thinking, our feeling, our experiencing, our seeing. Onlookers we are, spectators . . . “subjects” we are, that look at “objects.” Quickly we stick labels on all that is. . . . By these labels we recognize everything, but we no longer SEE anything. (pages 3–4)

Keep in mind these words were written three decades ago, before laptops and smart phones and Netflix and on-demand everything. I can only imagine what Franck would say about our culture today. He was not a technology basher per se but someone who understood how easily distracted we humans can be. The faster we move through our days, the less time we allow ourselves the pursuit of wonder. Our preference for speed and efficiency, coupled with our love of anything new, must surely affect how we SEE one another, mused Franck. And so he embraced a great notion borrowed from the East: Zen.

Rather than focusing on a historical personage, such as the Buddha, the concept of Zen is really about learning to see the True Self in each person we encounter, without labels or choices — I believe this way, she believes that way. It is about learning to see with the eyes of Christ, if you will. Mystical language can only approach what is real and true through image and metaphor. Frederick Franck found his truth in drawing: “To see the human condition in the old woman, in the child, in the model on the stand, and to let the hand trace it, this act of adoration, is called ‘drawing from life’” (page 74). That is Zen. “I am the light of the world,” said Jesus. And then, “The kingdom of God is within you.” That too is Zen.

For Franck, drawing becomes a way to see the essence of a person, a bee, a tree stump. Drawing as an act of devotion akin to prayer or meditation. His book is as much a sketchbook of his own work as it is a treasury of quotes from artists and poets, scholars and monks, who have practiced this way of devotion. “Seeing/Drawing is, beyond words and beyond silence, the artist’s response to being alive. . . . It transmits a quality of awareness” (page 120). He asks us to recall how we felt as children, what particular memories arise of a moment when we were all awareness, when there was nothing separating us from the world around us. “The first intimations of Zen, of the opening up of the eye . . . come early in life. . . . Everyone must be able to recall revelations similar to mine. I have no monopoly” (page 114). But I can’t draw, someone will inevitably say. His answer might be: Perhaps not formally, but how long has it been since you’ve tried? And can you not listen, touch, smell, pay attention?

In one of the most tender sections of this wise little book, the four drawings of his beloved wife, Claske, Franck speaks to the emotional challenge of drawing a familiar face:

Sometimes it is unbearable, almost too excruciating, impossible, to draw someone you know very well, you love. Long ago you have seen through the social mask the others see, have seen all too clearly into the riddle of that face. While drawing it, you see its vulnerability revealed, the first signs of aging, fading, disappearing forever, as a monstrously cruel unfairness. (page 100)

Marianne Wiggins wrote a remarkable novel called The Shadow Catcher about famed photographer and Western enthusiast Edward Curtis. In it, Wiggins asserts that Curtis’s iconic portraits of Native Americans have come to represent how we still see them — with their stoic faces and tribal regalia — to this day. Great technical craft and exquisite images, to be sure, but are they true, are they real? According to Wiggins, Curtis was a master manipulator of his scenes and subjects, more a theatrical director than the artistic purist we want to believe in. And so for Frederick Franck, photography holds the inherent danger of misrepresenting what it records. Even painting, which he eschewed in later life for its claim on his ego, could not be trusted in the same way as a simple sketchbook and a pencil or pen in the hand.

So will I ever move on from drawing heads of lettuce to heads of people I know and love? Perhaps. When my children were small I would sometimes draw them sleeping, with a book fallen over in their hands. Or from a photograph, where one of them is wearing a new pair of purple pajamas and silly hat. But that was a long time ago. I was much too busy caring for them to find time to draw them. And they rarely sat still. Since then, like Franck, I’ve found it easier to draw people I hardly know. And how did I come to have such a beautiful painting by a famous Dutch artist hanging in my house? That will have to wait for another day.

Come, Lord Jesus

What the Morning Says to Her