Capturing wonder through the arts

Following his TheoArtistry research on the nature of wonder, photographer Michael Thames considers art and art-making as a way of encountering the wonder that awaits us within, and beyond, our world.

Wendell Berry once wrote that it takes us several hours to actually inhabit a place which we can pass by on the road in the span of a moment. He offered that this is a sad symptom of our fundamental uncoupling with place; an effect, he wrote, of our means of travel far outpacing our means of perception. If memory serves, Berry penned his thoughts in the late 1980s, well before our information-saturated context of today in which our minds are even more attached to silicon chips and LCD screens than even the roadways of years past. We do not have to look around long to observe the displacing effects this new norm has on us all – this artist included. Technology, regardless of decade, is at once stimulating and numbing. For us today, it certainly seems like we don’t see nearly as much as we used to, let alone know how to be present, even as we find ways to experience more and more. Our sense of wonder, that peculiar mix of immediate and transcendent awe (to which Berry’s statement appears to be tied), seems to have taken one of the biggest hits in our present-day paradigm.

Of course, we understand that not everyone will either desire or embrace the same sense of profound presence that people like Berry or, say, Annie Dillard seem to do so fully and passionately. Indeed, perhaps not everyone can. Actually inhabiting our places, experiencing the wonder in the intricate as well as the grand, seems to be becoming more and more of a luxury these days. At the very least, it can be a kind of intellectual hobby. Economics and individual bandwidth unfortunately play a role here. And even if folks have the capacity both in time and headspace, not everyone will carve out time to just sit on the porch in wonder, taking time to observe birds or people or leaves or smells, undistracted and unconcerned. Still, it seems there is a kind of primal inclination toward wonder baked into all of us. It is a desire, a need, to encounter something so overwhelmingly other that it counterintuitively seems to point to something – and I would add, Someone – beyond itself. Wonder helps us to see things anew, and perhaps even aright, if even for only a short time. But it is that thing which nevertheless orients us, like ‘a pure, cold, difficult music’ that cuts to the heart, burns into our souls, and jars us more fully awake. It is, in a very real sense, restorative.

I think this is the biggest part of what my own art tries to recognise and ‘capture’: our essential need to encounter and be engaged with something that is wholly other, something which is fundamentally outside ourselves and beyond our individually crafted means of seeing the world around us. If wonder points to some sublime reality beyond itself, the thing by which that wonder gains even the faintest hint of meaning, then this matters at a foundational level. The difficulty with any art lies in cutting through the noise of the everyday and exposing that basic need. With my medium of photography, this can be exceptionally hard to accomplish: you can only ever use what is actually there. Your tools are your camera, some technical knowledge, and simply the physical aspects of objects in the world as you find them. So how can one point to the transcendent or ineffable using only the Creation we have before us? My own experience has shown that while it is one thing to produce a technically good or interesting ‘scene’ (in short: a nice postcard), it is entirely another to create something which gestures at, or awakens in us, that sense of orienting wonder.

Of course, my efforts are confined to my own (perhaps mysteriously aided) perspective and the way I tend to experience and express wonder myself. But the big goal is always to help others see or experience some wonder in some way (I hesitate to use the word ‘vision’: the phrase always seems to point the beholder right back at the artist, which I find to be unhelpful. Such a system for me is a kind of inward folding or pointing at myself – exactly the opposite of what I am trying to accomplish). But in the end, it is always a two-part experience. The viewer will always – always – bring their experiences, personalities, and deepest longings to a meaningful encounter with any artwork. Whether it is a sense of sensucht, or joy, or sublime awe, or even a joyful giggle, the final referent of that experience stands. The most an artist can hope for is that they get to play a part in someone else’s experience of wonder, to facilitate a moment of freshness and awe which helps them to look outside themselves and at something wholly other, and that the viewer enjoys a positive change as a result.

For myself, I hope people are drawn into a scene in such a way that they are able to block out everything else and imaginatively inhabit the space I’ve presented. I want them experience the image in a such way that wonder is the natural by-product, and so they catch a glimpse of the ineffable, the Divine (if ever so faintly), and so come away changed. The extent to which I’ve ever been successful here I do not know, and will ever leave for others to judge. As for me, those few moments where my art has met my own personal wonder have been enough.

“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.” – Wendell Berry

A black-and-white photograph by Michael Thames, entitled "Window to the World," taken in 2019.
Michael Thames, “Window to the World,” digital photograph, 2019.


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