There’s a certain kind of traveler that loves art and beauty. She seeks it out and spends hours trolling through museums, wandering around cathedrals and looking, seeing so much that she may develop a sore neck, or worse, Stendhal’s Syndrome. Stendhal, a 19th century French novelist, was so overcome with the beauty of Florence that he developed symptoms of disorientation – dizziness, sweating, and overwhelm. Over the years, others have reported similar symptoms when faced with so much beauty. The lover of art and beauty is forced to take refuge in café breaks and deep naps at the hotel. Art, however, can provide the solution for too much beauty. Not viewing it, but doing it.
Simple art exercises provide a way for a traveler to absorb the splendors of travel in a deep, meaningful, and lasting way. Quick sketches done as a drawing or a brief writing of details offer an opportunity to slow down and really soak up a setting. Artist Frederick Franck, in his book The Zen of Seeing, encourages drawing as a way to turn overwhelm into depth an intimate way. “Atmospheres build themselves up out of a million imperceptible micro details, elements often too minute, too fleeting for the conscious mind to pick up. The eye-heart-hand reflexes notes down, so that the buildings, and even the faces that form themselves on the paper become unmistakably Roman, Indian, Parisian, or Japanese.”
By pausing to capture impressions, a traveler becomes more than a sponge, absorbing paintings, sculptures, and dramatic buildings. When you pause to create something in the moment, you are able to connect from the deep well of yourself to the thing you are drawing. A Provencal place, an array of vegetables from the local market, and a crumbling pile of Roman ruins come alive under the gaze of an artist. The world becomes more vivid when you look to see what you can draw or capture in a paragraph. Everything can be interesting, when you are willing to truly see it.
Franck’s books on the subject of seeing more through drawing are delightful. His drawings are expressive and well wrought. The sketches leap off the page and bring the viewer into the scene. It may be intimidating to the novice artist to see such craft. People often claim that they ‘can’t draw a straight line’, meaning that their artistic talents are nil. The same is true for writing. Postcards home often don’t stray from the formulaic recitation of events. Franck insists that ‘seeing’ rather than ‘looking at’ is the key not only to better art, but richer life experience. Capturing the essence of a place or a moment doesn’t require great artistic talent or extensive polishing. Simply slowing down, paying attention, and releasing expectations of ‘good’ drawing or writing is the recipe for expressing something that months later will recall a special experience from a trip.
Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, applies similar concepts to writing. Her technique, ‘free writing’, invites the writer to choose an object or a subject and write without stopping. No editing, pausing, crossing out or judgment is allowed in the process. When using this as a travel tool, you are able to engage with the details of a place. Your verbal snapshot of the bartender at the local café, or of the taxi driver who zoomed you through the streets of Paris become vivid reminders of a moment. Rather than write about a day in which you took in a thousand new impressions, you can zero in on one or two experiences and chronicle them in a deeper way. Like Franck, Goldberg insists that the work be allowed to unfold without judging it. The point is not to produce ‘art’ or ‘writing’ but to engage in the world through art and writing. The process, not the product, is what is valuable here.
What’s the result of all this paying attention? When we slow down, connect to our creative core and really see, we are more present. The whirl of impressions doesn’t tug at our senses, clamoring for attention. A reflective peace settles us deep in the scene, allowing us to become part of the landscape, rather than skimming over or passing through. It is no coincidence that both Franck and Goldberg are Zen practitioners. And while we don’t need to become Zen masters to experience the world deeply, adopting the method of slowing down and seeing can enrich our travels and our lives at home.
Using art as a means to engage with a place empowers you, not just as a witness, but as someone who is involved in the creative act. Journey of the Senses, an American tour operator, leads tours that focus not on a stream of sights, but on engaging profoundly with a few experiences. The trip to Provence includes a visit to a goat cheese farm, an olive oil tasting and a wine tasting. In California, participants are invited to connect with the landscape. Redwood forests, beach coves and grassy hills become the guides for slowing down and seeing. Alongside the visits are lessons in gesture drawing and free writing. Using these creative tools, participants get closer to the experience and take home not only a guidebook of their own design, but a memory that holds them more deeply. Drawings and free writes provide a more personal chronicle than photos. Looking over a notebook from the trip that includes your art and words is a visceral reminder of place and atmosphere.
Cooking instruction is another branch of art that can deepen a traveler’s experience. Dozens of cooking abroad programs can attest to the power of food as a way to explore a region. The palette of a region is a reflection of its unique history, art and heritage. The French call this ‘gout de terroir’ or taste of the earth. A participant in Arles bemoaned the fact that her bakery in California couldn’t make baguette with the same crunchy texture. The gout de terroir, which includes the method of growing, cultivating and cooking foods, provides a unique and regional flavor. Through market tours and a gradual building of palette of flavors, techniques and local ingredients, travelers literally take in the sense of a region.
A fun art exercise is to have participants wander a city’s streets, choosing one detail to draw. In a Journey of the Senses tour in Arles, participants sketched the doors found on one street. This allowed them to gain a deeper understanding not only of the architecture of the city, but of themselves. “When I stopped to draw the doors, I saw so much more. I thought I had a perceptive eye, but it was only when I slowed down to draw did I realize that I could see more detail, and get closer to what was around me,” said Sherell, a 2005 participant.
In a world that constantly calls for more, more, more, using art as a travel tool is an invitation for deeper, deeper, deeper. We travel to escape our normal routine. We refresh our spirits in the face of great beauty and achievement. By bringing ourselves into the creative dance, we give ourselves a richness that surpasses the photos we take and the treasures we buy and bring home. A renewed sense of confidence, a more sharply honed eye and an appreciation for the simple things are treasures that we can use again and again in our own town and on other trips.