A Cleaner Canvas

Years ago, while working on design/build proposals for public infrastructure — think hospitals and rapid-transit systems — I always dreaded the editing of the architectural sections. Their text was starkly different from, well, everything else from project management to engineering to administration. It was . . . (insert ominous dum dum dum here) . . . artistic.

They wrote about the feelings their designs would evoke (presumably), and the sensations their choice of materials would produce (improbably). They wrote about fitting into the neighbourhood, but used high-falutin’ phrases like “visual continuity with the a priori streetscape.” They wrote about how their curated colours/artwork/design-lines would reflect/respect/restore the sense of location/history/purpose. Or something like that.

My problem was that I couldn’t tell good writing from bad: It all seemed over-the-top to me. My impulse — which I had to forcibly suppress — was to dig it *all* out, root and branch.

Just the facts, ma’am.

Team members I trusted assured me that this was not the optimal response. I struggled to learn the basics as they tried to explain them.

One wacky-to-me metaphor (transit stations as pearls on a necklace)?
Perfect! Don’t touch it!

Another wacky-to-me metaphor for the same stations, in the same paragraph (pages in a book)? Outrageous! Fix that immediately!

And so on, through almost-meaningless-to-me distinctions. It was hard to add value as I understood it — to help make the writing complete, clear, compelling, and cwick to read — when so much of it made me cringe. I could think like a project manager. I could approximate thinking like an engineer or an administrator. I could not think or edit like an artist.

At least it was only the architects who wrote about their work like this, who *thought* about their work like this.

That was then. This is now. Well, this is this past week. A recipe for a (cozy) pumpkin brown-butter whiskey cake caught my attention, and not just because it looked tasty, albeit a tad fussy for this household’s kitchen.

During the development process,
I deliberately chose to omit the usual cinnamon and spices,
and turned to brown sugar and brown butter
to channel the same warm, autumnal notes
on a cleaner canvas.

As a show of good faith, I am prepared to accept that bit about channeling “the same warm, autumnal notes,” although it reads like the back-label on a wine bottle.  But “a cleaner canvas”? A CLEANER CANVAS? Saints preserve us. That is not how I think about cooking, on the rare occasions that I do so think. That is not even how I think about writing, on those rather-more-frequent occasions.

And yet.

One of the key tasks in editing is to clear out the underbrush: a potentially wacky-to-you metaphor for getting rid of all the messy little words, phrases, and paragraphs that don’t add value equivalent to their weight, or that even obscure or detract from the main point. To, in effect, provide a cleaner canvas for the ideas that matter.

And as in cooking and editing, maybe too in life, eh? Maybe we can all benefit from leaving the regular spices/activities/reactions on the shelf from time to time. From pursuing a cleaner canvas.

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5 Responses to A Cleaner Canvas

  1. Now I understand why you so under-appreciate the beauty you create in your photos. You lack the language (not your fault) for “seeing” your subjects and what you do with them visually. Your artistry is “instinctive” as much as it is rational. You bridge those creative forms in your poetry. My aim, when I wrote the topic for the MA thesis I never finished (because I quit grad school to marry and move to the US), my intent was to derive or to create that language for critiquing and appreciating art, a parallel language to the one already used (in competing schools of lit. crit.) for critiquing and appreciating literature. I thought the secrets lay in psychology (how the brain perceives written imagery and graphic imagery differently) as well as in English criticism and in art objects. There was (and still is) no coherent theory of art or beauty to leverage rational discussions about art. Schools of thought have arisen and crashed. Commercial factors came to dominate tastes. Chaos reigns. And the chaos of the appreciation for plastic arts invaded literary thought through the New Criticism so that, now, however one feels about a literary work is accepted in lieu of thoughtful analysis that refers to objective values. St. Chesterton objects vigorously.

    I saw the same cake recipe. I would still use traditional spices but in smaller quantities than for pies. As someone who has painted on canvas, I can cope with the cook’s far-fetched metaphor, which you use much more aptly. I see the point about pearls rather than books as similes for rail stations because pearls are concrete images that speak instantly to the eyes for their intrinsic qualities and they are all the same, as the rail stations will be. Whereas books differ greatly, one from another, and must be read to unlock their mysteries, then, will be interpreted quite individually. Pearls are not complicated in their beauty. They are a type of natural architecture. Their social meanings also are simple and mostly “feel-good.” Books can mean almost anything including the furthest thing from beautiful and they come in so many different shapes and sizes that the mind struggles to create the consistency needed to match a repetitious architectural design feature. You notice that I am using the critical tools for language. Those tools for art are still being forged and, I think, will always be a branch of language + psychology + the technical terminology of the art genres.

    Have you tried the recipe? I imagine Cointreau would be tastier in the whipped cream than whiskey.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – 🙂 Not many have suggested that I lack language! One of my early school memories was being told to be quiet. But I do understand your point and agree that I do not have any language to critique art, and am discouraged to hear that there is no agreed-upon framework. In the face of chaos, what’s a girl to do? Carry on without a framework or terminology, I guess. And definitely substitute Cointreau. Many thanks for your appreciation of my photos, and your thoughts on the aptness or not of those long-gone metaphors. Do kids study metaphor aptness in school these days? We didn’t, at least not that I recall, and would have been better for doing it I believe. I expect it’s one of the tools of critical thinking.

  2. barbara carlson says:

    I can see clearly your piece is an allegory for man’s search for commitment.

  3. Pingback: One Right Way | Traditional Iconoclast

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