I know a man who built a window to nothing in the middle of nowhere facing north. The window is fixed on a solid structure so the wind can’t blow it away. The frame, top and sides, is of four by fours, the window itself consists of three panels of glass separated by wooden slats.
The view outside the frame is of vast distances, endless prairie, green for a short while in summer, white for a long time in winter, golden during harvest, brown the times between. There are no trees, no mountains, no hills to spoil the view. The entire immense bowl of sky in all its moods and variances is visible. The sun’s annual trek from the equator in winter to its northern boundary in summer can be charted. All the phases of the moon as well as a galaxy of stars can be studied.
The window restricts this panoramic view. Through it, the sun is visible only from late May to early August and, even then, its rising and setting is cut off by the sides of the frame. The stars are partially visible but never the moon, which always rises and sets further south.
Why would anyone do such a crazy thing? I wondered, as to build a window in the middle of an empty field facing north. Then I thought of my mother in the Canadian wilderness putting up a chicken wire fence around her garden to define a space small enough for her to handle, saying, in essence, I can control this much. What is outside this wire is too big for me to get my arms around.
I wanted to understand the window and its frame so I looked and looked through the glass until my eyes glazed over. I started to notice things – up in a corner of one of the glass panels, branches of a lilac bush, flowering in summer. In winter the branches appeared as black etchings against the white of snow. I saw a rain drop on a leaf. I saw a rabbit hop past, east to west. In other words, I saw what was lost in the large view, how details become undifferentiated, how the general obscures the particular. I saw that the variations of colour in prairie grasses, from a distance, appeared as one continuous carpet of a sort of beige brown.
The artist explained that the window is a living work of art. Every day, every hour of every day, the painting changes, depending on the weather – sun or cloud, rain or snow, depending on the sky, the angle of the stars, the shadows cast by the sun. Every season is different, in colour, texture and tone. The light is always changing, he said, and the light is crucial.
The frame is an organizational strategy, he went on. It allows the artist to harness and channel a vast amount of material into a manageable form, to control part of a larger picture that is overwhelming. The frame allows a whittling down to size to something the artist can make sense of and talk about.
It occurs to me that apart from paintings and novels, artists have to find a space for themselves in the real world (for want of a better term), a space they feel comfortable in, one not too big or too small, one that is just right for that individual. For mental stability, they have to be able to define themselves satisfactorily to themselves. I’ve known many fine writers who quit writing. Various reasons present themselves, but I wonder if a partial explanation is that these writers didn’t feel at home in the space where they found themselves. Some writers feel comfortable with the whole planet – think Stephen King, Danielle Steele, John Gresham, etc. Others become confused and lose direction there.
Or as the topic applies to life itself – we must take a piece of it, whittle it down to something we can understand, embrace, something we can love.