Updated: Feb 21, 2019
I struggle to understand whether art serves as a form of escape or a way of tuning into deeper realities. When I listen to the music of Gustavo Santaollala or watch the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, I find myself drifitng away from the world's tiresome frenzy, even if just for a few brief moments.
But then I start to wonder, "Which of these two realities is more real - these elegant soundscapes or the sound of my neighbours arguing? This cinematic scene or the view of the bustling street outside my window?"
The two worlds co-exist and dialogue with each other - sometimes conversing in harmony over a cup of tea, and sometimes throwing pots and pans at each other in the heat of an argument, each fighting for their own worth.
As artists, we constantly live in that tension between what the world shows us and what we choose to show the world. I often find myself caught between the two, unsure of where to look and where to point your gaze.
A couple of weeks ago, a dear colleague and talented writer, Sebastian Altmark, was chatting with me on a crowded subway on our way back from a shoot. We were discussing films, scriptwriting, and storytelling, and then he turned to me and casually asked a profound question: "Ashley, what's your purpose?" A bit taken aback by the weight of his inquiry, I awkwardly laughed and offered a halfhearted reply: "To be happy?"
We continued talking, but the question still lingered in my mind for days. It woke me up at night, it greeted me as I was sipping my London Fog, and it followed me as I walked along the string of boutiques, cafes, and bistros in the Montreal Plateau.
A week after my conversation with Sebastian, I found myself enjoying a lovely cup of green tea with Linda Rutenberg, an award-winning photographer whose stunning photos have been exhibited around the world. Before meeting up with her, I noticed an interesting quote on her website: "Look, look and look again, then maybe you will really start to see." When I walked into her studio, I smiled as I looked at the photos hanging on her walls, including a few images from my favourite series of hers, Garden at Night.
As we were talking, I began asking myself, "How did she find her purpose? What does she see that others don't?"
And as she told me about her lifelong journey as an artist, I began to realize that the bold and beautiful stills surrounding us were the product of years of looking and seeing.
Her work also reveals a delicate balance between ordinary realities, such as walking through a garden, and realities that we didn't realize were there, such as the magically eerie qualities of flowers when photographed in the dark.
If she was able to develop her unique style by being more attentive to the art of looking, then I would like to aspire to do the same.
I've recently been challenging myself to focus my attention more deliberately on the faces, objects, and spaces that I encounter.
For example, yesterday morning, as I was walking to work, I noticed a construction worker standing on top of a monstrous black machine with a cloud of white smoke behind him. I was listening to Santaollala's "Deportation-Iguazu" on my iPhone, and suddenly, this ordinary reality took on a new reality. I started to see the beauty of that simple moment - the leathery skin of this stranger in oil-stained overalls contrasted sublimely with the elegant movement of the fumes dancing to the music from my headphones. I stopped and looked, and I delighted in seeing a beautiful slice of time.
And I think that's where art begins - in that tension between the world and how we choose to see it.