The Ability to See

Only art penetrates the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive. – Saul Bellow

During my freshman year of college, I decide to register for a drawing class. We meet every Monday night on the third floor of a building right next to my favorite coffee shop. I love walking along the edge of campus in my grungy sweatpants, carrying my enormous cardboard portfolio, as rush hour floods the streets of downtown Charleston.

Our classroom smells like most art studios—elemental and chemical, a mixture of metal, chalk, and turpentine. The floors are linoleum and the lighting a bit dim. Every sound ricochets off the stark, cinder block walls. Our teacher is a short man, physically fit, with a buzz cut and receding hairline. He is passionate yet laid-back.

Each week, we look at slides of drawings done by famous artists and apply corresponding techniques to our own work. On this night, our assignment is to draw a replica of the Venus de Milo, a sculpture chiseled from marble in second century BC, currently housed in the Louvre Museum.

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Beyond the sultry S-curve of her hourglass torso, the most notable and characteristic of the statue is her lack of arms. Her right arm is lopped off cleanly at mid-humerus, as though a surgical saw has sliced through it, and her left arm is nonexistent beyond her jagged shoulder joint. She looks like a casualty of war.

The existence  of her arms remains a mystery. Some accounts say the sculptor never gave her arms. Others state that her arms were unearthed with the rest of her body in 1820, but were deemed unoriginal and never reattached.  

According to mythology, Venus is regarded as the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sexuality, military victory, and prosperity—a force to be reckoned with. Some sources say she is also the goddess of prostitution. No doubt, she seems to embody the full complexity of our femininity: a fractured beauty with both jagged edges and sensual curves, her body unearthed in fragments, partially pieced back together, and now on display like a trophy.

Her figure is haunting and hard to look away from. It makes me wonder if feminine beauty can ever exist purely, apart from fragmentation and consumption.

There’s a fine line between beholding beauty and exploiting it.

Our teacher angles a spotlight on her towering body to accentuate every shadow. I pick up my dark charcoal and get to work, the soft gray pigment smeared across my fingertips. Our teacher puts on music while we draw. Tonight’s selection is Bob Marley, No Woman No Cry.

As we work, our teacher comments to the whole class as he observes us individually. One thing he says sticks with me forever:

“Art is the ability to see. It’s not a matter of your hand’s ability to glide the chalk over the paper. It’s all in the eyes.”

That night, I hone in on the relationship of one thing to another, the space between them, the light sides and dark shadows. I realize that truth can’t be captured if it can’t be seen, and good art requires a commitment to reality, free from the haze of delusion.

***

I still have my drawing of Venus de Milo. She now hangs on the wall opposite my bed. Twenty years ago, on the night that I drew her, I couldn’t see myself in her, but now the connections are becoming clear.

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Her haunting beauty hints at the good parts of myself that have been fragmented or exploited, growing up in a family fraught with addiction and enmeshment. She embodies the parts that I’ve hidden or handed over too freely in order to win love or keep peace.She reflects the parts of my heart and body that I still struggle to offer without feeling consumed.

Her amputated arms remind me of the courageous patients I cared for as a military nurse, as well as the inner parts of myself that I’ve severed in order to survive. Her figure represents my sensitive heart and my fierce spirit, willing to go to battle.

I think back on my 19-year-old self in the art studio. There was so much life she’d lived, and so much that was still in front of her. She didn’t understand the ways the Venus reflected her own story. She was too close to see it.

Today, through the work of writing and therapy, I’m going back for my 19-year-old self in the art studio, as well as much younger parts of me. I’ve traded in my charcoal for paper and pen–words are now the medium with which I paint.

One word at a time, I’m identifying my life’s erroneous myths, reclaiming my lost fragments, and retracing the anatomy of my true identity. I’m realizing that the ability to see not only makes for good art. It’s also the core ingredient required to live an integrated and passionate life.


Libby Kurz holds a BS in Nursing and an MFA in Creative Writing. Her work has been published in various literary journals, such as Ruminate and Relief. Her first chapbook, The Heart Room, releases July 2019. A veteran of the US Air Force, she now resides on the coast of Virginia with her husband and three children. As a nurse and poet, she is fascinated by the physical body and it’s manifestation of complex human realities. She loves strong coffee, full-bodied red wine, big earrings, and bumming on the beach. You can find her here