This month, I (Josh) have the great honor to introduce a guest writer to our blog: Ruth Ann Pszwaro. Ruth and her family are good friends with our family too. So it’s pretty exciting to have her guest here.
Fika's Vision, Mission and Values
Last fall Colin, Trevor and I spent some time going over Fika’s Vision, Mission and Values. The plan in the near future is to share those with you guys. But for now, we are going to introduce a little of what our Mission is. Fika’s updated mission is “Cultivating Beauty Through Our Work”. I had asked Ruth to write and to personally reflect on what this means to her. If you know Ruth it’s clear that she chooses her words wisely and allows time to ponder her thoughts. Ruth is one of the Co Directors at the Grand Marais Art Colony. She comes to us with spending time in both the arts and community development work. I think she is a great option to introduce our mission to you guys.
So without further ado...
Ruth Ann Pszwaro
Cultivating Beauty Through Our Work
“How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things.” ~Elaine Scarry
Most of life is utterly ordinary. There are blips of adventure, excitement, and mountain top experiences. But let’s be honest, at least if you are like me, cooking, household chores, and sleeping probably take up most of your time on a given day. Fika’s mission of cultivating beauty through their work is a paradigm that redefines what beauty means, moving it away from the constraint of those few mountain top moments, and weaving it into the ordinary practices of our work. Our process of becoming the people who we become does not happen in one moment: at graduation, when falling in love, or buying our first home. It happens in all the very small, minute choices we make; how we spend or honor our time, how we cultivate beauty in the ordinary.
Drawing with Yarn I by Ruth Ann Pszwaro
Losing its Meaning
Beautiful is a word with an unfortunate amount of baggage attached to it. It is heaped up with the ancient philosophies of the world, centuries of stereotypes, pervasive brushed images in the media, all of our own memories, the words spoken about us, and the stories read to us. On the other hand, it is also a term that seems super simple. We all know what beauty means. We use the word all the time, so much so, that it has actually lost much of its meaning.
Drawing with Yarn II by Ruth Ann Pszwaro
A Beautiful Mind
My go to author on this subject is Elaine Scarry, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value in the department of English at Harvard University. How is that for a childhood aspiration! Timmy wants to be a firefighter. Shanai wants to be an astronaut. And Elaine wants to be Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value.
She did it and she has well...a beautiful mind. Number one disclaimer is that Scarry has thought so deeply and profoundly on the subject of beauty, I’m really going to work as hard as I can to lucidly regurgitate three salient points from her book, On Beauty and Being Just. And then I’m going to chase those with one Hebrew term and one Japanese term to round out the package. My hope is that as you reflect on these definitions of beauty, you will see yourself and your work in a more expansive light. Here we go!
Ice Flow Encaustic Print by Ruth Ann Pszwaro
BEAUTY as PARTICULAR
One of the things that comes up when you look into the definition of beauty is that it is less a quality than an effect. And in order to affect something in someone, there has to be a specific cause doing the effecting. Beauty is mostly true, perhaps only completely true, in the particular. And if we pursue the particular, it has the possibility of becoming more beautiful with our time and attention. For instance, the first time I had a true coffee drink, apart from the church ladies basement coffee that I doctored with five cubes of white sugar and eleven small creamer cups, was at Muddy Waters in Minneapolis. I had a cappuccino and truly hated it. However, I was with two friends who I certainly wanted to impress. So I endured it as best I could and expounded its goodness. Now, whether it was a good cup of coffee or not, I have no idea. It might have been a terribly brewed experience, but I had no way of judging. My palate had never been trained to understand what was good. I had a particular subject in front of me but its effect was lost.
So many years later, I’m still not sure I could tell you what good coffee is, but I can tell you about the coffee that I now enjoy. I know my pour-over method and how much water to add at what time. There is a beautiful, fitting element to my coffee brewing and it is particular but it has taken many cups to get to this point, and many more to come to truly perfect it. I will have to slavishly trudge forward, giving my coffee habit more time and attention.
Hanging the Laundry, Photo Transfer by Ruth Ann Pszwaro
BEAUTY as GREETING
Like my first cappuccino, sometimes the particular doesn’t strike you as beautiful right away but, perhaps with time or in a specific moment, it greets you in a new way. For Scarry it was palm trees. She found them cliche and, well...meh. But then one day, they greeted her in the soft breeze like a scale being played on piano keys and all of a sudden their greeting was poetic and beautiful. This kind of surprise welcoming brings us into the world in a way that says “you are invited to fully participate.”
The next thing that may happen is that your brain now catalogs that greeting and prompts the mind to search for relationality. It’s as if that beautiful thing or moment was now fitting into all your other relationships and finding context, just as a new friend would, who is getting to know you and your family. Like Legos, the palm trees now clip onto the beautiful greeting you found in the winter aspens clapping their hands or the fall oaks releasing their leaves. Your memories become more richly complex and connected at the same time.
BEAUTY as RADICAL DECENTERING
Think of that last beautiful moment that left you speechless. Recently for many of us on the North Shore, it has been the “wild ice” in the Boundary Waters. Standing in the middle of these experiences, it can be a challenge to even carry on a normal conversation. There is a certain humility that comes with giving beauty a place within the world like this. As Scarry writes, “It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.”
Our need to self-protect, guard, or advance ourselves is replaced with what Iris Murdoch calls “unselfing,” and what Scarry calls “opiated adjacency.” From here it gets really exciting as Scarry suggests that being adjacent in this way crosses over from mere appreciation to an actual ethical fairness that requires, in the words of John Rawls, “a symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other.”
BEAUTY as SHALOM
This symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other is similar to the Hebrew notion of shalom, which means peace, harmony, wholeness, welfare, and tranquility. Shalom is most true as a communal word: the beauty of living in peace, harmony and wholeness with one another.
Scarry explains that the word “fairness” is used to refer both to loveliness of countenance as well as to the idea of playing fairly, or fair distribution. It’s etymological background stems from a cluster of words that connect with aesthetic beauty and fitness, also meaning to join and unite, as in a pact or the making of a covenant. This etymological lineage affirms a meaning akin to “the equality of aliveness,” where the beholder of beauty and the beauty beheld “exchange a reciprocal salute to the continuation of one another's existence,” creating a fair distribution that is not vertical but lateral in nature. While there is a lot to be said around the justice of access and how we make new inroads for people to explore beauty, phenomena like wild ice defy social constructs and offer themselves to the world without regard for who the beholder is.
BEAUTY as WABI-SABI
Finally, so that I don’t leave you with only an unattainable vision of Utopia, we will briefly travel to Japan and look at their concept of Wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi is a cultural term that includes three ideas: impermanence, suffering, and emptiness. If you are looking at artwork, characteristics of wabi-sabi aesthetics include things like cracks, asymmetry, modesty, and roughness. Whereas often in the West, thanks to the Greeks, beauty is depicted as perfection; Japan’s tradition carries a sense of serene melancholy and spiritual longing. It conveys, according to Richard Powell, author of Wabi Sabi Simple, that “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”
While this might be disheartening, it can also be comforting. In the end, our work is not meant to bring us to a perfected state of being. There is always brokenness and things left unfinished in this world. And yet, there is honor and goodness in that which is temporary and imperfect. Incompleteness keeps us searching. Failure leads us to new knowledge. Conflict keeps our hubris in check. Spiritual longing teaches us we are more than the material world.
So raise your coffee mug!
There is beauty lurking within all that you do, and glinting through the familiar all around. Here’s to all of our small adjustments of balance and the shifting weight of beautiful things, and here’s to each of us cultivating a particular beauty that will quicken and animate the world around and within us.