How Stories Are Revealed to Us — One Layer at a Time

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Have you ever stopped to consider where stories come from? I’m not just talking about the words on a page. It’s more than that. It’s the stories we view around us – at an art museum, on stage at a theater, behind the brick and glass storefront building, or behind the eyes of child.

Stories come in various shapes, sizes and formats. One single item can produce multiple story lines, which I call layers. Think of an onion. You peel back the skin to reveal multiple layers underneath. Every story is like that. It isn’t one single story being told; it is several, and not all at the same time.

I came to this conclusion while wandering the French Impressionism exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago recently, and again at the Shedd Aquarium. I later contemplated those same ideas as I watched movies and TV shows, and listened to music.

With each work of art, there is more than one story being told. First, there is a story about the work itself – how it came into being, the creator’s motivation and inspiration, and the tools and materials the artist chose to use to create it.

But behind the artwork’s story, there is a story about the artist. Where does she/he live? What was happening in their lives when they were creating this piece? Why did they become an artist? What message did they want to share?

I think of the French Impressionist artists and I wonder about their personal stories. Why did Van Gogh cut off his ear, and what did he really see when he painted The Starry Night? Why was Monet fascinated by the different plays of light throughout the day? How did Toulouse-Lautrec compensate for his physical disabilities?

Then there is the story of the museum and its relationship to the work and to the artist. Why is the museum showing this piece of work? How did they acquire it? How are they displaying the work – in a darkened room with a single spotlight on it, or in an open space with similar works?

I saw similar stories at the Shedd Aquarium and its display of sea life from around the world. From the smallest fish to the dolphins and whales, there are stories about each one. Why are they so important to our knowledge of the sea world? How is each one created? What does it eat? How does it move or swim?

Trace that same story to the region in which the fish live. Do they swim in the Caribbean, or in the Midwestern lakes? Part of the answer to that question is biological of course. You won’t find a stingray swimming along the shores of Lake Michigan, when it needs warm salt water of the ocean to survive.

Apply that layering approach to the people in our lives. Each one has a story. Some are obvious, carried on their sleeve. Others are deeply hidden, but you can see it in their eyes. “The eyes are the window to the soul.”  I believe that to be true, which makes me wonder about the people who frequently wear sunglasses, even on a cloudy day. What story about themselves are they reluctant to reveal?

Stories abound all around us. We only see the ones on the surface. There are layers of stories for each tree, each animal and each person we meet in our lives. But we are all like onions, with layers upon layers of stories within us. It takes a certain amount of self-awareness to know those stories are there. It takes even more courage to share those stories with others.

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