On Unseeing

Jan 15, 2020 | Unseeing | 5 comments


I remember the first time I read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. I was just starting University and I found an old yellowed copy at the used bookstore nearby. For anyone who doesn’t know, Berger’s work rose out of a British television series in the 70’s of the same title. Throughout the program and book, Berger discusses the many ways we see things, not the physical aspect of it all but the societal and political convention as from which we view art. And I might add, therefore, the world.

His book has been a long standing first year art student read – or at least it should be if its not anymore. Not an assigned read, but a stumble-across brittle paged paperback that each aspiring artist should at least pick up once.

I’m not really going to talk about Berger – go read it. But the concept of what he was exploring about got me thinking about things. I just turned 42 years old. I have been creating art, living life, working jobs, and raising a family for a while now. A big part of me feels like I should have a little more figured out by now, a little more smooth sailing, a little less seat of my pants. But that is not the case. For whatever reason 42 was a bit more jarring to my delicate psyche than 40, and Berger popped into my head.

I think he was almost right – we need to adjust our ways of seeing. Almost. What I really think I need is to adjust my ways of unseeing. So much of what I do, my roles in life, have a seen set of standards, of expectations; of things I feel like I should know how to do. Or at least I feel like other people expect me to know how to do. But is that true?

This idea makes perfect sense to me when I put it in the context of painting. In my artwork I gravitate toward exploring the unseen. I am interested in what surrounds us but is not in physical form. When I am painting, or drawing, or doing whatever it is I do in my studio this makes sense. I am able through paint or line to see the hidden abstracted mess that weaves my life together. It’s the translation of this way of thinking to outside that studio that is a stumble for me. I forget, when I am picking out apples at the grocery store, that connection between people is a sacred thing. I forget again, when I’m vacuuming the living room, that the phrase living room is a beautiful idea that deserves hours of exploration. And I forget, as I go over the monthly bills one more time, that the riches I would really seek could never line the walls of my bank account.

So, 42 is going to be my year of unseeing. Of learning to unsee everything in front of me. I’m afraid the common has lost its glory and the everyday has lost its beauty. That is not how we are called to live. For over twenty years now I have created and painted and thought about how my work could speak about unseen things to others. Now it’s time to see how the act of creating this work could speak into the unseen in my everyday.


  1. Christine Gallo

    Beautiful, Rachel. I am inspired by you, and although I am not an artist I can relate to many things you’ve said in your post. I may even look for this book! Thank you for sharing your art and your words with us.

  2. Janine Russo

    Officially my first reply to any post-comment.

    Officially, my first post-comment.

    Can’t stop thinking about what you wrote.
    I looked up John Berger, read some.
    Wish I lived next door…
    So we could adjust unseeing
    With both eyes.

    Also wish,
    I could do 42 again.
    Since 50 reminds me
    Of what I should have seen
    back then.

    And, Norma Dubie.
    I have your college copy marked up poetry book
    You gave me.
    Going to read that now.
    And see your words in the margins.
    The back cover of the book says….
    “the sudden details in each poem trap us into his arresting visions.”

    Arresting Visions.
    What does that really mean?


  3. Dale Sawan

    You gave me a much needed cause to pause.
    Thank you.
    I love you, mum

  4. Jennifer

    This is lovely. Thank you for sharing. Your writing is as thoughtful as your painting. I will definitely seek out this book as I do not know it. “Unseeing” is such a poetic way to describe that release of all the expectations and assumptions and messages that detail the “should’s” of daily life; the “can’t’s” and “not enough’s”. I needed this today and am grateful you took the time to share. Many thanks.

    • rsawan

      Jennifer, thank you so much for your encouraging words. I will admit sharing my thoughts in words is risky to me; paint always seems so much easier. So I am relieved and grateful for your beautiful response.


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