Do You See What I See? A Poetic Vintage Art-Science Primer on the Building Blocks of the Perceptual World
By Maria Popova
“To see takes time, like to have a friend takes time,” Georgia O’Keeffe reflected in the spring of her visionary career. “The art of seeing has to be learned,” the great French novelist, playwright, essayist, and filmmaker Marguerite Duras — another artist of uncommon vision — wrote half a century later as she considered the essence of life in the winter of hers. And yet we move through the seasons of our lives missing the vast majority of what surrounds us. How, then, do we master the art of seeing — that elementary existential skill that furnishes our primary means of apprehending and befriending the world?
Partway in time between O’Keeffe and Duras, a lovely answer comes from the imaginative and prolific mid-century children’s book author and artist (and, later, Peabody-winning documentary journalist) Helen Borten in her 1959 picture-book Do You See What I See? (public library) — a poetic primer on the building blocks of the perceptual world: line, shape, and color.
Although the foundations of art rest upon these elements, Borten also shines a sidewise gleam at the foundations of science. In depicting a world strewn with “lines making patterns of beauty,” she suggests not only aesthetic beauty but mathematical beauty. There is a Euclidean splendor to her bold illustrations, combining woodcut, painting, and printing techniques, and her lyrical words. “Bend a line far enough,” she tells the reader, “it becomes a circle.”
Up and down lines pull me up, up, up with them, until I feel as tall as a steeple and as taut as a stretched rubber band. I think of lofty things — giant redwood trees a lighthouse rising above the sea, a rocket soaring high into the sky, noble kings in flowing robes.
At the heart of the book is a primer not only on what and how to see, but also on what and how to be. Two centuries after William Blake asserted that “as a man is, so he sees,” Borten invites the young reader to become the sort of person who sees the world with uncynical eyes of wonder and generous curiosity.
I see the world as a great big painting, full of lines and shapes and colors, to look at and enjoy.
Do you see what I see?
Couple Do You See What I See? with Borten’s 1968 gem The Jungle, which she created after becoming one of the first women to explore the wilderness of Guatemala, then revisit Ann Rand’s lovely geometry-driven concept book about how the imagination works from the same era. For a grownup counterpart, savor cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz’s magnificent On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes — a revelatory look at what we fail to see just by being ourselves and how we can lift the habitual blinders of our perception.
Published July 16, 2019