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


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