Expression Through the Humanities

When I was younger, I lived next door to Johanna Harmon, a renowned oil painter whose living room functioned as a large art studio. The sunlight spilled in through the wall of windows, illuminating enormous canvases scattered throughout the space. I remember looking around the room, fascinated by the mixes of different hues on the palettes, the personalized inspiration boards, and the works-in-progress. For a young art-loving girl, it was a dreamy place. It was a space for inspiration and for creation.

Harmon’s gorgeous pieces capture a similar feeling to those of impressionist painters Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot, as well as notable contemporary realist painters. Harmon is the first to have earned the Gold Medal for best of show in the Oil Painters of America National Juried Exhibition twice, once in 2007 and again in 2013. She has received numerous other prestigious awards throughout her career.

Despite the titles and honors, what is most impressive to me about Harmon’s work is her ability to capture life through her art. Her website describes her artistic intentions well: “For Harmon, painting means not only expressively rendering a model’s outer appearance but also reflecting the inner life… It’s one reason her art radiates a deep human warmth and has gained the attention and respect of collectors and her peers.” [1]

Over the years of being neighbors, our families built a close relationship. On multiple occasions, Johanna asked my sister and I to model for her. What strikes me is that she always wanted us to feel comfortable and just be ourselves. I remember one particular day where my sister and I got so caught up in this book we were “fake-reading” that we forgot what we were doing and laid there giggling, looking at the pages while she worked. The results of each session were spectacular, and are still some of my favorite depictions of my sister and me.

To me, each of these works capture the feeling of the quiet moments of my childhood. I don’t know how to describe it other than the warmth and peace of friendship. Through her art, Harmon is able to successfully depict the bond of sisterhood in the simple in-between moments of everyday life.

Like any artist, there were also works she created that she didn’t love. Sometimes, Johanna would generously gift her ‘mistakes’ to our family. I remember her explaining that she liked a specific painting of me handing her seashells, but she couldn’t quite get the twinkle of my eyes just right, and that the other canvas was just a little too large. We graciously accepted her so-called mistakes and have treasured them ever since.

I have spent hours looking at these paintings, trying to find traces of the “mistakes.” Funnily enough, these are some of my favorite works. I feel that they capture my inner spirit and personality in its purest form, and they make me a little nostalgic for my youth. They might not be perfect, but neither is human life. The little twinkle in my eye might be uncapturable, but my posture, my gaze, and my soft smile are all evident. The other canvas might be too large, but the way I mindlessly stare into the distance, the way my mom ties up her hair, and the way my sister fiddles with her hands when in deep thought are present in the piece. As Johanna pours her heart into her work, I can see real people coming to life on the canvas. It is an interesting phenomenon to see yourself the way someone else sees you, and it’s not often that one has a chance to analyze themself in art.

This early exposure to fine art helped create a foundation for my love of the humanities. When I admire art, I think about what is really being depicted. I can spend hours in an exhibit trying to understand the depth of expression in each piece. I often think back to Johanna’s canvases, the not-so-rough drafts, and the art of being alive. It is so incredible that we as people are able to capture our own perception of life through creative works.

To me, the humanities encompass human expression. Whether it is painting, writing, performing, speaking, or any other creative work, the potential for creativity springs out of an attempt at expression. There are certain feelings that can only be relayed through music, ideas that only come alive on a canvas, and stories that exist only after being written. To be human we create, we express, and we live.

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine utilizes writing to express his innermost thoughts and ideas about Christianity. In Book One, Part Four, he addresses a dichotomous God that echoes Harmon’s desire to capture “inner life” and “deep inner warmth” in her art:

“You are the most hidden from us and yet the most present amongst us, the most beautiful and yet the most strong, ever enduring and yet we cannot comprehend you. You are unchangeable and yet you change all things. You are never new, never old, and yet all things have new life from you. … You are ever active, yet always at rest. You gather all things to yourself, though you suffer no need. You support, you fill, and you protect all things. You create them, nourish them, and bring them to perfection. … Your works are varied, but your purpose is one and the same. You welcome all who come to you, though you never lost them. … You are my God, my Life, my holy Delight, but is this enough to say of you? Can any man say enough when he speaks of you? Yet woe betide those who are silent about you! For even those who are most gifted with speech cannot find words to describe you.” [3]

In this passage, the saint explores his perception of a God whose juxtaposed attributes create the perfectly balanced opposition. Despite his lengthy and eloquent considerations, Saint Augustine finds that “even those who are most gifted with speech cannot find words to describe you.” Although we capture a glimpse into his perception of the Lord, Saint Augustine still feels that his words cannot sufficiently communicate his feelings for God. This feeling of insufficiency, however, does not deter from the impact of his written work or the success in creating something significant.

Recently, my conceptualization of creation was expanded. My friend Zoe is an industrial design student and shared some of her thoughts about the importance of creation with our church congregation. She noted her feelings of frustration that everything she creates looks like she made it. Try as she might, she cannot quite make something that doesn’t have some sort of personal touch, even if she is trying to avoid it. She shared that when she looked around at what other people produced, she was amazed and felt confused as to why her designs seemed different.

At one point, Zoe realized that the beauty of creation is that it features a personal touch. In the scriptures, it is noted that “all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” [2] All things that have been created are evidence of Him, and they look like He made them. He is manifested in His creations.

Upon hearing my friend’s insights, I came to realize that creation is in itself an expression of life. When we create something, we are revealing a part of ourselves—be it our perceptions, our emotions, our ideas, our hopes, or our fears. The humanities are an array of personalized creations that manifest the creator’s deepest sense of self. True art is made by depicting the profound. Perhaps our “mistakes” are simply attempts to express ourselves. There is something cathartic about creation that aids us in the search to understand who we are.

This essay was written by Anna Pulley, a Humanities Center undergraduate fellow.

 

[1] See https://jharmon2.fineartstudioonline.com/ArticleDetail/3117.

[2] Alma 30:44

[3] See https://www.aub.edu.lb/fas/CVSP/Documents/Fall%202017-2018/Fall%202017-2018/Augustine.pdf.

 

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