Do you look ahead or to the side or just watch where your feet are stepping? Should you look directly at anyone and feel OK about a direct look? Do you know when is it good or bad form? Some of these questions hit me in the elevator last week. I’ve debated this before. Of course the variables change and so do the rules. What interests me most are the checks we live with – personal rules and social protocol.
Last week – There was this girl who stepped into the elevator and faced perpendicular to me. I could see out of the corner of my eye, that she was short, 20 something with long, straight, dark blond hair held back with an Alice band. Her face was long and pale. The band wasn’t able to hold the hair well and the cotton shapeless outfit spelled youth, arts student and earth child. She gazed up at me, to ask me something. Normally people are not so direct. I’m not too comfortable with gazing although I am very good at looking. I noticed her eyes were open really wide and they looked directly at me as I talked.
I only managed a few seconds of returned gaze. I wasn’t able to keep my thoughts together under this gaze. The intensity was startling. The 1st issue was because of this internal running commentary going on about looking at people and secondly it was about participating in her reality. It was too personal. I chose to look sideways. Unfortunately I started to laugh at myself but she interpreted it more with what I was saying and the conversation was lightened. I think I saw amusement being sent back at me, as she noted my off-center gaze. Perhaps she too has the same internal conversation.
Through a certain amount of personal shyness I am sure I have rarely looked anyone in the eye, most of my days. Contrarily, I am also a starer. As an artist I stare very intently. My husband and friends, in our early acquaintance, found those stares a bit uncomfortable. Our art class model used to comment on my stares. I stare at all sorts of things when I’m listening or looking.
Some days I become very bold and just stare – however it isn’t without risk. I once was shouted at – “What do you think you are looking at?!!” by a very large person. I thought it was obvious and even though she was alarming in her reaction, I found the situation very funny. Perhaps it was rude but in all truth I was having a great old time looking at her, watching her walk towards me. I wasn’t critical, I was just looking. When I was a young person I often walked along looking at the ground! When I traveled to and lived for a bit in California that all fell away – thankfully. It was unexpected – nowhere else had that effect on me.
As an artist I look at everything. Colour, shapes, movement, negative space – they are all food for thought. One of my most common looking strategies is when I let the visual image come in uncensored. This is a distancing strategy. I manage to look without engaging in details. My work is very detail oriented and critical in nature. It can be that work and the social looking are not always played properly. They can be misinterpreted in kind.