Beauty: the great interrupter

Roadside beauty: mountain tops in clouds on the road between Lake Louise and Banff in Alberta, Canada by Betsey CrawfordAll people everywhere possess an innate hunger for, and right to, what is sustaining, good, and beautiful.
~ Bill Strickland ~

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. 

Roadside beauty: driving through the Pawnee National Grasslands in Colorado toward a stormy sky by Betsey Crawford
The Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado

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.

White topped Mount Redoubt seen from Kenai, Alaska by Betsey Crawford
Mount Redoubt seen from the road in Kenai, Alaska

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.”

Roadside beauty: the extraordinary drama and coloring of a mountain, river and wild sky along the road in Alaska by Betsey Crawford
Roadside Alaska is full of drama and remarkably blue light

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.”

Valley of the Gods in southeastern Utah by Betsey Crawford
The Valley of the Gods in southern Utah

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.

Otherwordly scene of autumnal tundra in Tombstone Provincial Park, Yukon by Betsey Crawford
Roadside beauty: otherwordly scene of autumnal tundra from the Dempster Highway through Tombstone Provincial Park in Yukon

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.

Sunset filling sky and reflected in water of Lake Coeur d'Alene, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford
Lake Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

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.

Roadside beauty: driving through Death Valley in California by Betsey Crawford
Death Valley, California

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More on beauty

The power of allurement,
the mystery of beauty
The call of wild beauty
Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) with butterflies in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford
The power of radiance


8 thoughts on “Beauty: the great interrupter”

  1. Beautiful, but of course! You’ve dedicated your whole life to beauty — in your surroundings, on the Earth, in your art and writing, and in the people you’ve loved. 🥲 Thank you from one of them. ❤️

  2. My dear Betsey –
    I love this! It is just what I needed right now. Beauty still is – it still is a *thing*! You know I’m a ring-leader for others to join me on the beauty-bandwagon too, so you preach to this devoted member of the choir. But we all need reminding. I love knowing about Bill Strickland and how beauty really can be form of important and effective activism. His story makes me wonder how I can play bigger.
    I’m sure you know this, but I wanted to put his words on this page too – John O’Donohue defined beauty as “anything in the presence of which we feel more alive.” You and your words are by definition just exquisitely beautiful. I love you and appreciate you so much!

  3. Betsey, this essay is so beautiful and full of life. And it is SO important. Your emphasis on beauty reminds me of a story my father told me many years ago about a ghetto in a large city, somewhere in the States. Instead of trying to deal with the amount of crime and violence that paralyzed the community, the town councils decided to focus on beautifying the area. I’m not sure what was added or changed, but the premise was that if the people that lived there experienced beauty, they would want to maintain it. And it did happen. The crime went down substantially. It was an investment in beauty, not gun control or policing. So simple, and so utterly subversive.

    I loved your description of pulling off the highway as you travelled to photograph these vistas of beauty. Grand, sweeping vistas that take your breath away, but then to be brought back ‘down’ by the mundaneness of strip malls and suburban landscapes. I’m ashamed to say that with an Ontario provincial election coming up this week, our Conservative premier is almost a shoe-in because he’s giving people what they ‘think’ they want. More highways… so they can get to work and back faster, and so ‘we’ can exploit the precious metals in the upper part of Ontario that is currently out of reach. These highways take no prisoners, particularly creatures and sensitive ecosystems… but it appeals to the immediacy of the ‘pocket-book.’ I’m frustrated and angry by the lack of imagination and vision, the confusion about long-term priorities and lack of connection with Nature… but that would take me into a rant. Instead, I just want to thank you for your whole-hearted applause for the power of beauty. What a gift!

    1. Thank you so much, Andrea. I love your father’s story. I’ve heard other versions of such practices, but we sadly don’t seem to learn more widely from them. I’m writing this after your election and so know your fears came true. It’s hard to understand, and happening all over. Easy to see how we’re in the fix we’re in.

  4. So inspiring! It’s so true—beauty touches the heart and in that moment brings us home to ourselves. In beauty is unity, grace, peace, awe— the magic of our aliveness. Thank you for bringing so much beauty into the world through your words and images.

    1. Thank you, Marcia. Your lovely words — unity, grace, peace, awe — are so true. I can’t figure out why we are so remote from beauty in our built world.

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