Rediscovering Barry Lopez

Looking through old sketchbooks in the studio this afternoon, I spent some time with one from 2009 that had come with me on a family summer road trip through Canada and Alaska.

Sketchbook page from 2009. Haines, Alaska.

Sketchbook page from 2009. Haines, Alaska.

That spring, as a junior in college, I’d gotten a rare C on an essay I wrote for my Cognitive Neuroscience class for taking too many narrative liberties and not adhering to writing guidelines specified by the American Psychological Association. With time I see that there were certain professional skills (and writing styles) that young scientists needed to learn, but all the same I felt lost and frustrated. It felt impossibly unfair that, even at a liberal arts college, I could feel so trapped by the seemingly rigid cultures os science and art. I don’t recall how I came to be reading, Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, on that summer trip, but I do remember being in the backseat of our minivan, rolling past giant pine trees and having my heart burst with gratitude for this passage:

“Of the sciences today, quantum physics alone seems to have found its way back to an equitable relationship with metaphors, those fundamental tools of the imagination. The other sciences are occasionally so bound by rational analysis, or so wary of metaphor, that they recognize and denounce anthropomorphism as a kind of intellectual cancer, instead of employing it as a tool of comparative inquiry, which is perhaps the only way the mind works, that parallelism we finally call narrative.”

Returning to school, that passage was a touchstone as as a ground out precise summaries of studies and played by the rules to pass my exams. Although lately, I don’t think of my work as narrative or specifically metaphorical, his words on the necessity of narrative and metaphor served for many years as a key permission slip in my thinking about why I drew, and what drawings were for.

I didn’t recall that I’d also copied down this paragraph, but reading it, and thinking of myself, at 21, carefully copying it down, it went straight to my heart. It’s weird how much it can feel like I’ve changed, but it’s things like this that remind me that so much of what drives me today has been essential to me since the start.

There is a word from the time of the cathedrals: agape, an expression of intense spiritual affinity with the mystery that is ‘to be sharing life with other life.’ Agape is love, and it can mean ‘the love of another for the sake of God.’ Or, more broadly and essentially, it is a a humble, impassioned embrace of something outside of the self, in the name of that which we refer to as God, but also includes the self and is God. We are clearly indebted as a species to the play of our intelligence; we trust our future to it; but we do not know whether our intelligence is reason or whether intelligence is this desire to embrace and be embraced in the pattern that both theologians and physicists call God. Whether intelligence, in other words, is love.

Sketchbook page from 2009. Passages from Barry Lopez’s  Arctic Dreams

Sketchbook page from 2009. Passages from Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams


I love when you can really see the clouds on a flight. This trip, from Cincinnati to New York in the evening, was particularly impressive!

I haven’t done a series of aerials before, just a few sketches. I am inspired by Yvonne Jacquette’s work, especially where she includes the wing of the plane. I feel like that’s the gut check on the bizarreness of the scale you’re looking at, not to mention the bizarreness of what you’re actually doing.


I like the way libraries smell. I like the way everything feels accessible, organized. I like to see the grids of books on shelves and grids of shelves on floors and to think about the weight of the floors on top of floors in a humming Rubik’s cube of information. Letters lined up in words, lined up on pages, tucked into covers. All the information feels present, possible, suspended—like quiet dark birds sitting up on telephone wires.  

Clara McClenon,    Treetops (McCarren Park),    2018, Charcoal pencil and gesso on paper, 5 x 7”

Clara McClenon, Treetops (McCarren Park), 2018, Charcoal pencil and gesso on paper, 5 x 7”

Growing up, I had a sense that I’d real all the books in the library one day. It just seemed inevitable. I’d check out towering loads at a time, hauling them home in bulging tote bags and stacking them on my bedside table. I figured I was on track. I got top grades. I liked all subjects. I read mountains of books. Devouring information, I felt assured that, by the time I was older, I’d have it all figured out.  

I’d thought that books were bricks. In reading, I thought I was building something I could climb, like a pyramid ascending to knowledge. It felt sturdier to build a wide base, so I read widely, pulling from biology and history, music and chemistry, literature and art. I read about dreams, cooking, magic, robots, etiquette, psychology, and economics and always felt eager for more.  

No one told me how much I’d forget.

It started with novels. College friends would ask for recommendations and titles would come to mind…. but I struggled to recall even basic plot points. Around the same time, I was struck by panic when I looked back at my Latin American History syllabus and realized I couldn’t remember what I’d written my midterm on (though I’d earned an A in the course).

As a student, learning about things meant having the answers for the next level. You memorized and took a test. You passed Pre-Cal and went on to Calculus. You rose from Freshman on to Sophomore. Learning was to get you past thresholds: final exams, semesters, grades, graduations. It all conveyed a sense of accumulation and ascent. But with a leaking brain, forgetting as fast as I was learning, I worried that I wasn’t qualified to level up. I secretly hoped there’d be a final exam before graduation. Shouldn’t there be a checkpoint to make sure I really knew everything?

There wasn’t. My GPA and course credits awarded me my degree without question. I sold my textbooks back to the bookstore, lugged my library books back to the library, and ripped my notes from their spiral bindings so I could lay them in the recycling bin.

I’d hoped learning meant reaching a high point where I could look out and understand everything at once, but my years of study hadn’t built me a pyramid and I certainly didn’t feel like I had anything figured out. Graduating, I felt disappointed, disillusioned, and a little bit lost. Not only was I no longer a student for the first time in 17+ years, but my whole sense of the purpose of my education felt shaky. It wasn’t just the forgetting that bothered me. I ached to know the world, but every step into a subject had only revealed the immensity of what there was to learn. More than ever, I felt the futility of accumulating knowledge from an infinite pool. What had been the point of my relentless curiosity?

A few months back I came across a study that sought to understand the impact of exposure to the humanities (music, visual arts, literature, theater, etc.) on medical students. Analysis of the study’s survey data revealed a significant correlation between exposure to the humanities and positive qualities like empathy, wisdom, and tolerance for ambiguity. The researchers noted that, of course, correlation is not causation. We can’t say that exposure to humanities made the students wiser. (Or visa versa.) In fact, the author suggested that there could be an underlying factor linking exposure to the humanities and the positive personal qualities they’d measured. One such factor they suggested? Curiosity-- the desire to know and learn.

I don’t always like curiosity. It’s sent me down strange paths to seemingly dead ends. It’s left me with dry, scratchy eyes from following too many links through too many articles on my phone. It’s led me in circles of indecision. But it’s a spark.

I sit in front of a tree and look up at its thousands of leaves, and the flicker of light, and the branches and twigs. It’s a library and I can’t read it all. Paper and pencil in hand, I’m saddened and humbled and awed-- overwhelmed, as ever, by the immensity of information.

But I begin. Line by line, mark by mark, look by look… and somewhere along the way I stop worrying about how I’ll ever get to the finish because I’m just in it. I’m beyond my intellect. In drawing, I’m reminded that the real fruit of curiosity isn’t accumulation, but presence.

I don’t think of learning as an ascent anymore. When I read, which I still do, hungrily and widely, it’s because I want to keep coming home to what it feels like to be here. And that’s a million contradictory things, and that’s too big to know, and it’s achingly familiar.  I keep learning (reading, looking, drawing, listening) because I yearn for not for mastery, but mystery. I keep learning because I love the world and I want to be close to it.

To Know the World

“What can we know of the world? What quantity of space can our eyes hope to take in between our birth and our death? How many square centimeters of Planet Earth will the soles of our shoes have touched?”  - Georges Perec, Species of Spaces[1]


The minivan of my childhood made it to every state but Hawaii and, as my dad puts it, “all the Canadian Provinces with roads.” Growing up, summers were spent zigzagging out of Texas and out into the plains, the Badlands, the Rockies, the blue Pacific coast.


Sometimes it felt like I could see everything. Fields, mountains, driveways, birds. The car window framed the world and I was watching every second. No commercials. No rewinding. We stopped to tour a potato chip factory outside of Birmingham and met exactly whom we needed to: Don, who could smell a spud and say where it grew. His hands moved assuredly in and out of the machinery. He passed me a cheese curl hot off the line. I put it in my mouth and knew everything I needed to.

Back on the road, I felt the weight of all the turns we didn’t take hanging like the buzz of cicadas. Wondering about alleys and insides of doors, backyards and bathroom stalls, what else was on the radio. Wondering about how wide I could open my eyes. Wondering what I might miss if I closed them for a catnap.

Sometimes I feel impossibly small, impossibly slow, impossibly limited.

I go to the studio.

I shut the door.

With paper, with charcoal, I begin to draw. In drawing, the world blossoms before me.  

[1] Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (New York: Penguin Classics, 2008), 78.

A Weird Thing I Worry About

A little bit of nothing?

A little bit of nothing?

Vision depends on context. At a basic level, what you see depends on what’s around what you see. This is essential in drawing— just take a segment of one of my favorite drawings by Van Gogh.

What is it of? Dots? Boredom? Nothing?

 Put back at home in the lower right corner of a drawing of a cottage garden it’s – ta da! – a pebbly path.

Vincent van Gogh, Cottage Garden, 1888. Reed pen, quill, and ink over graphite on wove paper, 24 x 19 ¼”.     [1]

Vincent van Gogh, Cottage Garden, 1888. Reed pen, quill, and ink over graphite on wove paper, 24 x 19 ¼”. [1]

Ebbinghaus Illusion. Although the two orange circles are the same size, the one on the left appears smaller due its context.     [2]

Ebbinghaus Illusion. Although the two orange circles are the same size, the one on the left appears smaller due its context. [2]

In Psychology 101, perception is often explained through optical illusions.  For example, the Ebbinghaus illusion presents two circles, one surrounded by larger circles, the other by smaller. Although the two central circles are the same size, the one surrounded by the little circles appears larger. It’s a context effect, and it breaks my heart every time. If even simple stuff like this is warped in my mind, how can I hope to see anything truly?

The Ebbinghaus Illusion is a textbook example, but context effects in early visual processing are something we experience all of the time. Walk out of a dark theater on a summer afternoon and you will be blinded by the sun. The colors you perceive in the evening are different than the ones you perceive in the morning, as Monet captured in his series of the cathedral at Rouen. In the Ebbinghaus Illusion, you can measure the circles and verify that they are equal, revealing the truth that ought to be perceived. But what’s the true color of Monet’s cathedral?   Your experience in place and time inevitably affects the information you get from your environment.

Composite of Claude Monet’s paintings of the cathedral in Rouen, 1892 – 1894.     [3]

Composite of Claude Monet’s paintings of the cathedral in Rouen, 1892 – 1894. [3]

Context effects are an issue that extends beyond early visual processing into every level of perception and cognition.  Working at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain, I assisted with research on the relationship between visual attention and visual working memory. Experiments documented that the context of vision isn’t just visual information. It’s also experience. The things we pay attention to enter our memory. Memory, in turn, guides attention. You know what you see. You see what you know. It’s a chicken or the egg kind of thing—context effects mean there’s never a clean start.

 History is full of examples of the ramifications of context effects. For example, during the 19th century cholera epidemics, physicians saw their cholera patients’ symptoms through their experience with poisons. Patients, afflicted with vomiting and diarrhea, looked like they were trying to get a poison out of their body, so physicians gave them substances to further encourage the exit of fluids. The patients nearly always died. Now, with our contemporary understanding of the disease, we see that they were killed by dehydration.

During the epidemic, one physician went against all accepted thought and gave his patients something to drink. The death rate plummeted. Thrilled, he called his colleagues to report his results. When they arrived and saw the healthy patients they said, “If these people had really had cholera, they would be dead.” They couldn’t see the cure. Their context was blinding them.[4]

To not be blinded by context, we must become aware of it. Malcolm McCullough writes in his book Digital Ground, “‘[C]ontext’ is not the setting itself, but the engagement with it as well as the bias that setting gives to the interactions that occur within it. ‘Environment’ is the sum of all present contexts.” [5]  To avoid being blinded by context, we must understand our environment, and the biases guiding how we are informed by it. But how?

 Understanding context requires understanding our place in the world. Knowing means knowing how what we know shapes what we know. Nothing is alone. Nothing is simple. Not a fact, not a thought, not a mark.




[4] Sonia, Shah, Pandemic (New York, NY: Sarah Crichton Books, 2016).

[5] Malcolm McCullough, Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 48.

Beautiful Places

When I’m feeling low on inspiration, I find it very helpful to turn to beautiful places. Yesterday, I went up to The Cloisters in Upper Manhattan. It’s a museum featuring medieval architecture and art in a striking park high on a cliff overlooking the Hudson river.

“ The Cuxa Cloister ” by  Ivan Herman  is licensed under  CC by 4.0

The Cuxa Cloister” by Ivan Herman is licensed under CC by 4.0

It feels so good to sit inside there. I love the arches of the cloisters and their peaceful sense of containment—the layering of inside and outside and inside, the layering of dark against light. In other areas of the museum, the stained glass takes center stage. I’m always awed by how stained glass can really let you see light as its colorful strokes dapple the walls, quiet and alive.

Stained glass light at The Cloisters

Stained glass light at The Cloisters




As David Hockney put it, “Drawing makes you see things clearer, and clearer and clearer still, until your eyes ache.”

Seeing begins with opening an eye to light. I don’t understand what it means for light to be a wave and a particle, but I have seen white light refracted into a rainbow, which helps me understand that the light we see is just part of a larger invisible spectrum. For example, there’s ultraviolet light, which I’ve heard that bees can see, and infrared light, which I imagine as being like the dim glow of the nocturnal reptile house at the National Zoo, humming and warm.  Light (of all kinds) enters our eye through the contracting pupil, focused by a sliver of lens, and touches the retina in the eye’s rear curve. 

“Île aux Orties near Vernon” by Claude Monet, 1897, oil on canvas,   28 7/8 x 36 1/2 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, CCO 1.0.

“Île aux Orties near Vernon” by Claude Monet, 1897, oil on canvas, 28 7/8 x 36 1/2 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, CCO 1.0.


In the array of cells at the back of the eye, two main types of receptors respond to the light, beginning the process of converting light energy information into electro-chemical information that can move through the nervous system.  Rods, the first type of receptor, are sensitive to contrast and motion. They can function under low light and are concentrated in the peripheral areas of vision. Cones, the other type of receptor, are sensitive to detailed information and color. They are most effective under high illumination, and are concentrated in the central point of vision—the fovea. 

Information from the responses of these photoreceptors passes to bipolar cells. For rods, there is a high level of convergence, meaning that many rods provide the input to one bipolar cell. The rods are, in this way, averaged. Although this means the “truth” detected by each rod is lost, convergence facilitates vision in low light since small signals are added together. It also enables motion detection, since movement doesn’t occur at a single point, but rather across points.

For cones, there is a much lower level of convergence.  A bipolar cell gets input from one cone.  The signal is preserved more clearly, retaining detail.

The responses of the bipolar cells stimulate ganglion cells. There are more than a million of these in each eye, and it’s their long reaching axons that project from the eye bundled together in the optic nerve, synapsing in the brain. From the limited sliver of light entering the eye, to the particular responses of rods and cones, to the averaging of ganglion cells, to the processing of the visual cortex, imperfect signals form the basis of our understanding.

That’s how visual information begins to move from the world, into the mind. That’s how I begin to draw. 


Before I knew I was an artist, I was proud to be neuroscientist, memorizing molecular pathways and anatomical structures. Today, I couldn’t pass a quiz on the specifics I studied—but I remember one thing that was true. Above all else, being a scientist taught me the power of contradictions.


Vision, our dominant sense, is particularly full of contradictions. Standing in a field, our two eyes take quick snapshots of the patterns of light in the environment. By some miracle of the brain, these little pieces build one coherent picture. The field looks like a field, not a confusing collection of shadows and angles. We perceive it as whole.

And yet, that whole is just a fraction of reality. There is an unfathomable amount of visual information that we simply can’t take in. Compared to a hawk, we are painfully nearsighted. Compared to a bee, we are basically colorblind. I can’t look to my left and my right at the same time. I can’t inspect a pebble while I gaze at the clouds.

This paradox of vision-- its splendor and fallibility-- is at the heart of my practice as an artist.  For me, this contradiction provides a powerful description of not just how I see but also how I know. To know something, like to see something, can feel certain, but it’s never the full picture. Knowledge, like vision, is constructed and limited. Moving from the realm of science, to the realm of the studio, drawing provides a visible way to explore the link between seeing and knowing. Drawing also brings awareness to the contradictions within each act.

 Antony Gormley put it this way: “Drawing is not so much a mirror, or a window, as a lens which can be looked at in either direction, either back toward the retina of the mind, or forward toward space. You could perhaps not look so much at drawing as through it.” [1]

That drawing has these two abilities—to be a lens looking out into the world or back toward the mind-- reveals drawing’s own contradictory power. It’s what makes it well suited to thinking about seeing and knowing.  

Drawing is searching, gathering.

Drawing is complicating, generalizing.

It’s abstracting, obscuring, clarifying.


Drawing is a summoning.

It brings to the surface.  It calls to mind.


It’s a line going for a walk.[2]

[1] Antony Gormley, 1979. Quoted by Anna Moszynska, (London: The British Museum Press, 2002), p. 5.

[2] “A drawing is simply a line going for a walk.” – Paul Klee