A short introduction to the Sublime through a short story of how I was inadvertently introduced to the Sublime
Or also, a story about how children are already so intimately familiar with some of the most profound concepts of what the world has to offer
What is the Sublime if not a spectacle of the landscape, and nature, and human emotion?
When I was 5-ish, my grandparents took me to see what I later learned (in my 30s) was a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian of historical art. There’s quite a lot I remember from that exhibition in precise detail, specific works from specific artists that I wasn’t able to identify until after I graduated from art school at 31 but looking back, I’m pretty amazed that I’ve stood in front of some of these monumental works. But one piece in particular stopped me in my tracks, and I was frozen there in time. I stood, captivated, in front of Frederic Edwin Church's Aurora Borealis. My grandparents thought they lost me, because they kept going through the exhibition but I was still there in front of that painting when they retraced their steps and found me.
By the time I was 5, I’d had a very hard life, and the imagery of Aurora Borealis hit me somewhere deep that my 5 year old self could feel beyond explanation—a profound sense of loneliness, isolation, and smallness amidst the greatness of the world. I didn’t feel any fear, horror, or anguish. I felt an embodied sense of comfort; the painting was the depiction of truth, the world as I knew and understood it, full of aching beauty and wonder but also hardship and peril. And though I couldn’t articulate this at five I could instinctively perceive the feeling of humanity’s place as not the center, but just one part of a multitude. It just felt honest, and right.
I chased that painting my entire life and could describe it in perfect detail to people which I did, all the time. But I didn’t know how to research or look things up until after graduation, and even then it was a struggle to figure out that this painting was probably housed in some institution somewhere. Finally, after an innumerable amount of failed Google searches, I was rewarded with the result—a high resolution image of the painting in all its splendor, and every emotion I felt at that moment when I was 5 came flooding back to me again at 30-something. But this time, I knew what it was. It was the Sublime.
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