Thirty years ago this summer I was hiking through a forest in upstate New York with my 5-year-old son. He had skipped ahead around a curve and came running back, wide-eyed. He took my hand, hurrying me, saying, “I want to show you.” We were in a park that was centered around three spectacular tiered waterfalls, but what had entranced my little one was an equally little waterfall. A stream falling over two-foot-high, moss-covered rocks, surrounded by soft ferns, splashing into a clear, shallow pool before continuing on its way. Trees branched overhead, sunlight glinting through their leaves, dappling the ferns and sparkling the water. Luke swept his small arm over the scene and said, “Is this beautiful, or what?”
This is beauty as interrupter. We’ve all had the experience: you are living your life and are suddenly stopped short by beauty. And things aren’t the same after that moment, however subtly, sometimes fleetingly. I had a photo of that little waterfall scene on my desk for many years until it faded away. But I never needed it. The vision is as vivid today as it was an hour after it happened. There were so many beauties to celebrate in that moment. The quiet, green lushness of the scene, the joy of my little boy, his desire to share it with me, my love for him, even my inward laughter at the way he framed his exclamation.
It doesn’t have to be nature or even beauty in an obvious form. Another boy, three decades earlier, was stopped in his tracks by a completely different scene. Bill Strickland was a 16-year-old student close to flunking out of high school. He was born into a thriving neighborhood in Pittsburgh. But by his teens it had suffered from a number of blows, starting with the steel factories leaving for China. In an all too often repeated example of stunningly bad urban design, an elevated highway was built so that it bifurcated the neighborhood. The lively commercial area was cut off from the customers that had supported it. Stores closed, businesses collapsed, white flight stampeded, and the Manchester area of Pittsburgh was left to dereliction.
In the midst of this devastation, Bill was stopped short by a lump of clay. Passing the art room of his school, he noticed the teacher, Frank Moss, working on a potter’s wheel, centering a mound of clay. Then, as the wheel turned, he drew it up between his fingers until it became a vessel. Bill was entranced, and nothing was ever the same again. He spent the rest of high school making ceramic art. Moss became the kind of mentor we could all use and should all emulate.
And he had a remarkable protégé. While he was still in college, Strickland started the Manchester Craft Guild in a church building to help at-risk youth in his neighborhood. Some years later he blended it with the Bidwell Training Center, an organization that trained ex-steel workers and people on welfare for new jobs. Thus was born the Manchester Bidwell Corporation.
He helps his students by bringing them beauty and fostering their ability to make it. The building he eventually built was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Frank Moss had once taken him to see the Wright-designed home, Falling Water, outside of Pittsburgh. Ever after inspired by that vision, Strickland’s building is full of light, hung with Amish quilts and other world-class art. Hand-crafted tables and shelves hold exquisite ceramics. Everyone is greeted by the sound of water from a fountain in the entry courtyard because “I think that welfare mothers and ex-steelworkers and at-risk kids deserve a fountain in their life.”
He also feels they deserve excellent food served in a beautiful dining room, education that leads to good jobs, music to lift souls, flowers everywhere. He feels that his craft students deserve a gorgeous gallery and elegant art show openings. He hired a man who was used to saving souls for Jesus to go and round up parents to come to the openings, asking him to tone down his religious zeal for this part of his work. He wants his students to “know every day of their life that they have value at this place I call my center.”
His success rate is phenomenal. Over 80% of his high school students go to college, over 90% of his adult students go on to good jobs. His very engaging 2002 TED Talk tells his story and includes both jazz and his famous slide show. He has since worked to spread his ideas to other cities. At its heart his concept holds something simple: beauty interrupts. It interrupts our brain’s wiring for negativity, it interrupts our heart’s sinking into despair, it interrupts a life spiraling downward. In his center “wherever your eye turns there’s something beautiful looking back at you. That’s deliberate…in my view, it is this kind of world that can redeem the soul for people…if you give people flowers and sunshine and enthusiasm you can bring them right back to life.”
Although human beings are capable of creating incredible beauty, by and large, we don’t bother. We save it for special buildings, gardens, canvas, paint, clay. We don’t value it enough to surround ourselves with it outside of our private spheres. I have driven many, many miles around the United States and north into Canada. There are countless beautiful, even breathtaking places, often enough directly flanking main roads. The photos accompanying this essay were all taken when I pulled onto a shoulder if there was one. Some were taken in the middle of the road.
But once you turn off the highway, it’s astonishing how ugly things can get. Exit after exit with the same dreary lineup of gas stations, motels, fast food restaurants. If you penetrate farther away from the highway you may well find a town with some attractive homes and neighborhoods. Even — ever rarer — a nice downtown. But they will be surrounded by streets full of strip malls and fringed with box stores. In our thrall to the automobile, our towns are full of car dealerships, tire centers, mechanics, auto body shops. Old neighborhoods full of gardens, porches, and idiosyncrasies will have been replaced by bland blocks of apartment buildings with often empty retail space on the street level.
As if assuming the least is the best we can do, we call these blighted areas utilitarian. The word has come to mean simply useful. But when the seventeenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham was defining the terms of utilitarianism he used the famous phrase, “the greatest good for the greatest number.” This has been used to justify war and totalitarianism, so it has a mixed pedigree. But if we ponder it in terms of the world we build, what fosters the greatest good? There are innumerable facets to this and no end of opinions on every aspect, but one that seems consistently missing in our calculations is beauty. Why do we not treasure beauty everywhere? Why do we value our senses and souls so little? By not fostering it, what are we telling ourselves as we pass through so much spirit depressing ugliness?
Bill Strickland has found that beauty literally saves lives, starting with his. Not because it’s pleasant to look at or hear, though that’s a lovely aspect. But because the impact of beauty lifts us out of our habitual responses to the world we live in. In his case, his students are living in a devastated environment. Those of us who don’t face those life wrenching challenges are nevertheless prey to the desolating consequences of our built world. One of those consequences may be our all too passive response in the face of people-destroying neighborhoods like Manchester. “We need beauty,” the poet Mary Oliver said, “because it makes us ache to be worthy of it.” It sets up a longing that reaches beyond our self, our boundaries, bringing our mundane concerns into deeper meaning and a vaster harmony.
If you have ever been to your town’s planning board meetings, you know that the process of agreeing on anything about building our world is a fraught endeavor. Nevertheless, it’s a crucial debate as we face ever-expanding urbanism, a population destined for 9 billion by 2050, and an environment crashing around us. Worldwide, the equivalent of London is being built every seven weeks. At that speed, you can be certain that utilitarian is the operative word. Beauty, if it’s on the list at all, figures in the debate as an afterthought.
And yet we were formed by and for a beautiful planet. We evolved with rivers, mountains, forests, vast grasslands, canyons of surpassing beauty. With birdsong, water rushing over falls, starlight. Not cement, asphalt, metal prefab buildings with neon signs, the honking of traffic, smog-covered skies. We have built a world beyond our evolutionary capacity to encompass. And we are indeed overwhelmed by what we have wrought.
The task of redesigning our built environment is enormous. And we all feel a fierce urgency to solve problems by tomorrow. But since that’s not in the cards, I turn to economist Kate Raworth’s take on another monumental task. Of transforming our consumer culture she wrote that it was likely “to be one of the twenty-first century’s most gripping psychological dramas.” She thus lets you know that it will take time, that it will be challenging, that it has deep roots in our current psyches. But also that the drama can be played out. That it’s one of the tasks of the human race to wrestle with its wrong directions and work to find better paths.
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