A Light Afar by Matthew Ballou


When I was a kid – perhaps 10 or 11 years old – my stepfather gave me a sighting scope as a gift. It was meant for hunting season but I found its greatest purpose was as a means to draw distant lights close. At first it was celestial lights: the moon, stars. Eventually I aimed the scope at closer, earthly lights.

Perhaps because I grew up in a small town I always had a sense of yearning for what was beyond. I think I’ve retained that desire as an adult, as a teacher, and as an artist. For some reason my experience with that telescope catalyzed my innate need to look out. I keep doing it.

Wolcott Hill, at whose base I spent the first 18 years of my life, was a site for much lightgazing. Accompanied by my cousin Chris or just on my own, I often trained my lens at harvest moons, at the Pleiades, at Mars. But just as often, standing there in the darkness above my hometown, I would look out horizontally – traversing the black landscape – across the valleys and lower hills. Being several hundred meters above the surrounding area, Wolcott Hill afforded a long view toward that distant horizon. There, southward to the Southern Tier of New York state, my eye often found a singular, strangely evocative light. I pointed that way often. I returned to it again and again for many years.

I sight in. I find it. A white barn looms out of the deep night. The scene trembles as I focus, my heartbeats and shallow breaths transferring to the scope through the touch of my hand. A strange blue glow tinges the grass below the barn light. Beyond that pool of light there’s only murk. I glimpse the gravel driveway. A pole on the outskirts catches slight illumination. No home visible nearby. It is that ghost-white barn that is the focus of my vision, its broad door showing age. It is all miles away, lifetimes away. It is as enigmatic and stimulating as the moon to me, mysterious and strange. Where is it? Who lives there? What is their story? What is happening there?

In looking I looked beyond the banal to another, stranger, unknowable banality. To the keeper of that barn the scene I spied was, perhaps, nothing of note at all. The person who put up the barn, placed the light, and replaced the bulb when it burnt out may never have considered that it was all a grand mystery, much less a guiding light for some preteen 20 miles away. It was the very action of perception – of my reach toward the light – that transformed the everyday tableau into a sign indicating something more.

That telescopic apprehending reach is emblematic for me. The narrative implicit in my view – the story I told myself about what I saw – was so important to me. It was a reverie to dream of that light. It was so then; I dreamt as I looked. Seeing meant dreaming.

And still today, I dream as I look. It’s still an important act to me. To stand at the edge of some place and look out over an abyss of unknowns to discern a lone shoreline… I’ve always done that. We have – all of us – always done it. It’s part of what we are as humans to reach out on an eye line to find some anchor on that horizon edge.

whitebarn2Yearning through sight is key to the history of art. Beyond all of our ideas, beyond all of our conceits and fancy turns of phrase, beyond any affectation we may attempt to construct is the fact of the image as a seen event. Our natural desire is to understand, to focus beyond sight, to reach out past the banalities of presentation to sense the incidence of meaning embodied in the manifestation of what lies before us. Our action of looking is embodiment of desirous dreaming. We don’t merely identify, we feel. Our perceptions of artworks are not reducible to an exercise in trivia, at least they shouldn’t be; we seek an illuminating, stimulating dream.

I look for art experiences that work like that sighting scope I had as a 10 year old. My hopeful reach toward some strange indication of an order beyond me was essential back then, and it’s even more necessary now. It is so easy for us to pretend we’ve got it all worked out, to live in a safe zone of milquetoast creativity, to rely on ideas and theories that others tore their guts out to establish. Ultimately, it will be our own impassioned gaze that matters.

True seeing means succumbing to dreams, and dreaming will always lead us beyond ourselves. This is, of course, part of what Paul Valéry meant when he said the now-classic phrase, “to see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.”1 To focus on the naming or rest on finding the facts of something is antithetical to dream-seeing, antithetical to insightful meaning-making. We, as artists, grope toward unity that lies beyond arithmetical definitiveness.

So it is that the light of my distant white barn was more, much more, to me than merely the light of a white barn. Our true seeing of art – our true reception of deep experiences – will ALWAYS transcend easy definitions, simple rules, or reductive explanations. We are complex; we “contain multitudes.”2 We perceive a vague light from afar and then dream its implications into our understanding.

That’s almost a definition of art, isn’t it?

Author’s note: Included here are two paintings of that white barn. Each is 12 inches in diameter, gouache on paper, 2012. Both are titled “When I was 10 I had a telescope.”

1 See Lawrence Weschler’s “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees”
2 See Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” section 51.