I grew up in a place where beauty was hard to find. The neighborhood was practical but dull, afraid of color. Only an occasional spark of beauty broke through in a paint job on a hot rod or fresh blanket of snow.
Perhaps some inexplicable chunk of karma tumbled down a slope of time and ran into my young life, but I started trying to see beauty around me in the dreary industrial neighborhoods. I wasn’t very good at it, but I remembered a few times where ochre rust, freighters churning up the river, glow of coal fires or the visual rhythm of rail cars parked by the hundreds on sidings touched something in me.
College is where I first spent time with visual artists, went to galleries, read “Art Forum” and even got myself a gig writing art reviews for the college paper. I married an artist, and started taking photographs.
In 1973 we moved near the harbor in Baltimore so I could go to graduate school and study something practical. I liked the quiet of those pre-gentrification, wild, abandoned urban areas.
To walk to school I had to traverse what I can only call a ‘no-mans land.’ Ringing the school, like a medieval moat, were a few completely leveled blocks. That stretch was eerie, like traversing the Bermuda Triangle. In two years I never saw another person cross by foot. Even the small bands street people that roamed the neighborhood avoided it and auto traffic was rare.
My first crossing I saw a collarless dog had very recently died and was stretched across a broken remnant of sidewalk looking like it had just gone to sleep. The sight was a little creepy but I assumed someone would be along shortly to pick up the fairly large dog carcass.
It never happened. For a long time I watched the dog decay. That creature became something of a landmark in my crossing of the urban desert. Then it became a familiar. The two of us were the only ones who braved the empty space. The surprise of it was that at some point it became beautiful. Penetrated by a bright sun on a clear-aired day the skin was a rich brown, translucent like amber. How beautiful life is, I realized, and how even death, an honest death like that of a scrappy free-range city dog, was beautiful.
I discovered when I could be open to beauty in the least likely of places it became more available everywhere. The barrier to experiencing beauty, the one inside of me, had begun to break down and I haven’t stopped seeing the world in the richer way I learned in the poorer places.
Beauty isn’t in the eye of the beholder, it is in the moment itself when that moment touches the heart of the beholder. Experiencing it changes us, unveils our connection to the world. In reality, beauty may be the most practical thing of all.
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