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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

A sense of place

Having recently completed a change of residence with all of the attendant challenges, not least of which was a brief sense of dislocation, I wanted to write about this feeling we often express about the place we live. Love it or not, that place can harbor complex and vibrant memories. Not only are we surrounded by objects that are themselves tokens of past experiences, likely we have chosen images that speak to us emotionally. After all that is why we chose them. Rarely do people hang things on their walls that are symbolic of nothing—except of course those rooms that are designed by people to convey nothing too distinctive—so as to leave no one feeling anything in particular except perhaps the ennui of beige.

As it happens, I have not hung a single painting yet. I agreed to defer those choices so that all of us who live under this roof can make that choice together. Not only is this in the interest of emotional harmony, but also the result of an agreement reached with the designer who helped choose some new furniture and layout for the room in which we spend the majority of our waking hours at home. The place feels unfinished without the art, but I am actually enjoying the process of imagining what might go where.

An abundance of artwork, more than we have the space to accommodate, sparked this thread about how we develop a sense of place—what that even means. In the simplest terms that sense is a feeling of belonging. We may belong to many confederations: families, clubs, parties, bowling leagues perhaps, but that is not the sense of belonging to which I refer. Rather I am talking about that special feeling of peacefulness that may inspire us on a walk in the woods, at dawn or sunset by the ocean, or any other particular locale where we are one with the universe. Can artwork—the things we hang on our walls inspire that same feeling? In my experience, yes, and I think I know why that is.

Just as a vivid scene in nature takes us outside of ourselves—reminds us of the larger frame of existence, so too art has the power to encourage that same perspective. We linger as we look and our thoughts drift to a place far from the intersection of time and space we presently occupy. In a certain sense, place is nothing so definite as we might seem to convey with our words, it exists in our deepest interiors, in our minds and in the feelings that arise within us as we contemplate our relationship with all that surrounds us.

As I think about what might go where, I am consciously trying to search out the feelings that each piece conveys. The perfectly imperfect turned wooden vase that sits on a shelf is nature’s beauty itself, humble but far more exquisite than any utilitarian urn could ever be. The grove of trees, brown and slumbering against the backdrop of a misty primeval forest is timeless—surely a scene that exists beyond earthly boundaries. The watercolor by the best known of a family of inspired artists echoes a stillness that is achingly lonely, as if asking the viewer to step into the scene and relieve the emptiness.

Each piece has something to say—a subtle mystery that will never be fully solved. They are not decoration—but statements about us, who we are, who we hope to be. So, I will wait and think and study before we hang them on our walls. I will think about our sense of place, and theirs.

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