Through a series of rather unexpected events, I found myself early last Saturday morning sitting in a deer blind out in the vastness of southwest Texas. The utter stillness in a place like that at daybreak is unlike anything I’d experienced before.
The scene I took in as I peered out through the openings looked a little like one of acclaimed painter Julian Onderdonk’s Texas landscapes, just with all the bluebonnets taken out. Scrub live oaks, cactus paddles, and scattered white limestone rocks dominated.
The silence was literally palpable. Everything seemed frozen in place, even your breath. Everything stopped. That is, until I slowly came to notice that, no, everything hadn’t stopped in the least. On the contrary, once your senses adjust to the stillness and silence you start to notice everything. A faint whisper of wind almost imperceptibly moved the branches of a little tree off to my left and it was as though an explosion had gone off. The smallest nuance of motion or sound suddenly ignites your senses to a degree you’d have not thought possible.
As I sat focused on a feeder about 75 yards away, I started thinking about a 1965 film by artist Andy Warhol called “Empire.” It consists of eight unblinking hours of the Empire State Building filmed over the course of one night, shot from a neighboring skyscraper. On first glance, nothing happens — the sun goes down, the sky gets dark, the floodlights on the building turn on. But like I experienced last week, once you slow yourself down, you start noticing more things that are happening, they’re just not what you had expected as “things that happen.”
From the thick underbrush to the right, a small doe suddenly emerged and walked cautiously toward the feeder. My host picked up his rifle but then set it back down. “Too young,” he said. I marveled at how that deer unknowingly passed from safety to peril to safety in just a few steps.
Without pausing to contemplate too deeply that such is the inevitable condition of all of us, it reminded me that in a similar stillness, our interaction with great art carries us back and forth across the line separating reality and unreality, the imaginative world and the material world.
I just now realized that this is the second column of mine in a month to involve hunting, something I certainly didn’t anticipate. But I remember commenting in my earlier review of those hunting and fishing paintings in the exhibit at Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum that the ones that convey stillness were the ones that worked best. It took me actually being in a deer blind to understand why.
It’s in attentive stillness and silence that we are most open, most in tune with our surroundings, and most able to perceive importance in the slightest nuance. This is the case whether one is in a gallery at a museum pondering a painting or waiting on a chilly morning for a deer to come into view. This is how we should best approach art. Even a painting depicting action reveals its nuances and complexities only in response to stillness and contemplation by the viewer.
This is part of why, in our increasingly clamorous, impatient, and ready-made society, both art and hunting now seem oddly countercultural. It’s the reason that hunters have begun putting little signifying stickers on the back windows of their pickups. Maybe art backers should have something similar.
Stillness and silence are what hunting and art both demand. Who would have guessed that they have so much in common?