Image Credit: Body Sky. By Amy Wright.

The Part of the Universe that Looks at Itself

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I grew up on a farm in southwestern Virginia tucked between the Blue Ridge Mountains. Spending my childhood at the feet of this worn and plundered range, I developed a sense of the sublime that runs counter to the ennobling vision of the Romantics. Rather than elevate humanity to soaring heights, the Appalachian sublime carries us like pebbles into streams washed down from the peaks. Among these ridges and valleys, my sense of separation from the landscape eroded. Alongside these rounded ancient peaks, I belonged to a vast geological timescale, even though a human lifetime has a comparative span slimmer than a pine needle.

Rather than dwarf the significance of any contribution I might make as a writer or artist, that landscape charged me to take into account a context beyond the daily one I inhabited. I understood that the opportunity to witness this beauty came with a responsibility to reflect the conjunction of human influence and insignificance within the cosmos. Relative to neighboring galaxy Andromeda, we are kin to those subatomic particles whose raison d’être we have yet to understand. Relative to the billions of microscopic cells that populate our gut, we are ourselves galactic—as Pearl and the Swallow-Tailed Comet” suggests. By leaping to eye-to-eye level with that spacebird, Pearl glimpses the icy splinters its tail contains while her own body radiates in spokes of assorted wheels and starbursts.

We do not often try to communicate the interaction between a universe variously beheld and its beholders, although communication—from the Classical Latin commūnicātiō—contains in its etymology the action of sharing or imparting ideas.” We barely comprehend how to behold ourselves. Yet the impulse to commune in our observations across perspectives, including the sway of nonhuman ones, to confront the revelations that expand and diminish us, drives everything I make.

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In this series, The Part of the Universe That Looks at Itself, I illustrate the gaze that peers into the vastness of space beyond the self, which in turn illuminates the one looking. We who marvel are beholden to honor our awareness. Consciousness is often described as a door, but if it is so, then it is a door we can see only by the objects that pass through it. My Blue Diver, Pearl, and other figures stand like silhouettes at that opening, the way meditators position themselves on the edge of the breath so their lungs can palpate the space they contain. The synergy of transmission animates my work, whether it takes the form of a conversation, essay, poem, or collage. The exchange I mean defies the economic one that more commonly motivates us to act. Rather than quid pro quo, I seek a currency that is quid pro sublime. No business operations are underway between us and Earendel, the most distant visible star, twenty-eight billion light-years away in the constellation of Cetus, but a transaction began the moment the Hubble telescope brought this early star into our field of perception and deepened when the Webbs infrared cameras revealed its composition. To comprehend it, we might picture the Lord of the Rings character that shares the stars name. Tolkiens Eärendil travels the seas carrying a jewel—only in my analogy, the jewel carried over the waves of space is the diamond that consciousness offers like an engagement ring to matter.

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Perception initiates a relationship similar to marriage in the sense that a partnership forms that invites transformation for both parties. In being seen, the perceived acquires properties from the perceiver, who in turn is granted an opportunity to comprehend what those characteristics reveal. While choice is implied by my metaphor, even resisting transformation spurs metamorphosis. Perception comes with its own laws, like gravity and quantum mechanics. Nothing can refuse to be turned on the nexus of interconnectedness, any more than we can refuse to be turned on the lathe of the breath.

Sometimes perceptions limits are blown open by an image of deep space. Other times, sunlight streams down to imbue a paper figure in a painting with a life of its own. Those who truck in this synergistic market are allies to whom I reach out, like the figures in my art reach out to connect, to counteract experiences of disconnection while we learn what we can bear to learn.

All images by Amy Wright.

  • Amy Wright

    In her collages, Amy Wright calls attention to the integration of art, science, and nature. She presented them most recently as the 2022 Wayne G. Basler Chair of Excellence at East Tennessee State University. She has also been awarded two Peter Taylor Fellowships to the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, an Individual Artist Grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission, and a fellowship to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

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