What Do You See?

by Daemond Arrindell

Several years ago, WITS writers had the pleasure of being led through the galleries of the Seattle Art Museum by some of their educators in preparation for a joint project we were embarking on in a few weeks. Some of us were lagging behind and lost sight of the facilitator. Teachers often make the worst students when we are not the ones in charge.

The facilitator stopped the group in front of a painting. I honestly don’t recall much about the painting itself, though it did remind me of depictions from the bible: grandiose and full of symbolism.

What do you see?”, she asked.

I don’t remember who responded or the wording of the response but, but I do remember that it was an emotion.

Tell me where you see that,” the facilitator replied.

What do you see that tells you that?

Her questions continued for each response. For each thing we saw, she wanted to know what in the painting showed us that, what led us to that conclusion. Not in an air of condescension, but out of curiosity. Challenging us to think about our thought patterns.

I LOVED this practice. This Socratic questioning leading us deeper and deeper past our own assumptions. And when it comes to what we see with our eyes, we tend to make a lot of assumptions, which automatically limits our imaginations and our creativity.

This fall, in each of the residencies I facilitated, I gave a lesson on imagery. In some classes, this went on for more than one period. We often think of “images” when it comes to imagery. It’s a fair assumption – it’s got the word “image” in it.

But imagery isn’t just limited to one of our sense. Imagery can engage ANY of the five senses or can be focused on our emotions. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, then poetry that utilizes imagery helps to enrich it.

But images can be tricky, because of the way the brain seeks out patterns. And when it recognizes something it has seen before, well it decides, “oh you belong to this group,” and pays the something no more attention.

What I was hoping to do was to encourage the students to get past the patterns they assume these images fall into and treat each image individually. In this lesson, I challenge the students to ignore the simplification their brains try to indulge in and re-engage their imaginations.

We begin with the image below. I ask the students to tell me what they see. I respond the same way the SAM facilitator did. “Where do you see that?” “What tells you that?”

Speaking of patterns, for some reason, one student in every group is sure that the picture is from Brooklyn, NY. I close this section with,“Tell me the story of this picture.” Some say that the shoes hanging from the wire denotes it as a drug spot (a myth they’ve likely gotten from the internet or TV). Others talk about young people marking their place in time and a select few say that the shoes are a memorial for a friend who has passed away.


I talk to them about the stories pictures tell us and that each of us can see completely different ones. But oftentimes those stories can be based on the assumptions we make before we really look deep.

To break patterns, a structure can be helpful, and lucky for my students, I just so happened to have one. We are going to be looking at the rest of images within a specific context.

We aren’t looking for the story, per se. Instead we will focus on the details. And perhaps the details will change the story for us. And so I ask them about the details of this picture:


I ask them to tell me what they see in terms of: color, shape, texture, temperature and emotion.

I inquire what colors they see and where – to actually point it out to me. When they jump ahead and start naming parts “teeth” and “eyes” I follow it up with “how do you know” questions and “what in the picture tells you…” type questions.

They are slowly beginning to think differently about the image. What textures – how do they think this would feel if they could touch it? “What do you see that tells you that?” Their thoughts on emotions present in the image are always interesting, especially their reasoning behind it.

Next I want to push them even further. They get into table groups. One person in each group will turn their backs to the image I am about to display. This person will not get to see this:


The others will write down their description of the image but can only do so in the context of shapes, colors, texture, temperature and emotion. They will then convey verbally to their peer and that peer will share with the whole class what descriptions stood out to them. 

They want to tell the story that they assume is the truth of what is happening in the image. They want to put labels on the two people in the center – who they are, where they are from, etc.

But they are limited and have to focus on other details, and in turn communicate very interesting things like mood, tone and feelings when looking at an image this way.

I mention briefly that we do this with people as well. We see certain aspects and characteristics of a person and presume to know who they are, what they are about. We place them in boxes before getting to know them. And this is done to us as well.

The final image is the subject for their writing. Chosen specifically for its vibrant colors and abstract nature, it works well for the context. I tell them that I want them to keep thinking about what they see within the context of what we’ve been doing so far, but to really let their imaginations run wild. And then I show them this:


The response often consists of a lot of “whoa”s, quickly followed by a wide range of “I see a bunny,” “I see the United States,” “I see a dude running.” And then I give them the structure for the writing:

When I look at the picture,

I see…

I see…

I see… 

When I look at the picture,

I hear…

I hear…

I hear…

When I look at the picture,

I feel…

I feel…

I feel…

When I look at the picture,

I am…

I am…

I am…


And then the heads go down and the pencils and pens start making that sound I love – imaginations scratching out their own individuality. Some students change the lines of the prompt to suit them better, which I encourage as it allows them to step even further away from limitations. Here are some of the results:

I see an autumn colored blur

I see an autumn colored abstract

I see confusion standing in a crowd of people in a stadium

I hear confusion as if I was in a train station

I hear thinking, Da Vinci, Einstein and Edison

I hear the pulse of an angry old man

I feel warmth

I feel comforted

I feel equal

I am the blur

I am accepted.




When I look out the window of a moving train,

I see a blur of colors, green, blue, white, brown

Like a painting

I hear my mother talking and people around me

I hear a small buzz from how fast we are moving

I hear a rhythm as the sounds mix together

I feel tired and calm

I feel lost in a country I’ve never been to

I miss being able to express myself more freely

I feel cold glass against my forehead

I see a destination, a city of lights

Too many people to tell apart

I see a blur of colors




When I look at the picture,

I see a blurred man who’s lost his way

I see a mixture of colors

Red for love, blue for depression

orange for the fiery anger built up in the layers of paint

that only began because of one mistake

in the once perfect image

I see confusion as I tilt my head over to the side

and my thoughts spill out

I hear the frustration of the painter

I hear the hidden emotion behind the brush strokes

I hear the heavy signs of disappointment

I feel the stone-like heart resting in the blurred man


I feel th emptiness, loneliness

I feel the chaos that only exists in the soul of a painter

I am the woman that sparked the love,

the disappointment, the anger, the depression

I am the muse to the unfinished picture

I am the painter of the painter.

– Shani


One Response to “What Do You See?”

  1. ann teplick Says:

    Daemond, great piece. Thank you!

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