{aesthetic of joy} Yellow

8 December 2014 by Ingrid

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{aesthetic of joy} is a new series I’m trying out that goes to the heart of what this blog is about. The idea is for each post to zoom in on a specific element (a color, pattern, or shape) and explore how it can be used to create a sense of joy. I’d love to know what you think of this idea.

A few years back, a researcher named Orlagh O’Brien did a study where she asked people to name the colors they associate with different emotions. Joy was overwhelmingly yellow. Yet only 5% of people choose yellow as their favorite color, making it the world’s least-liked hue.

I’ve always found this tension is interesting—how can the most joyful color also be the least-liked?

The reality may have something to do with the way we see yellow. Our eyes contain three light-sensing pigments corresponding to different wavelengths of light. One responds to the long wavelengths in the red range, one to the medium green wavelengths, and one to the short wavelengths that we see as blue. When we see different colors, they excite different pigments to varying degrees. But you’ll notice that even though yellow is considered a “primary” color, there’s no specific pigment activated by it. To see yellow, not one but two pigments need to be activated to nearly their full capacity: yellow occurs when both red and green pigments are highly excited. In addition, the yellow range is located in the brightest part of the visible spectrum, right near the middle. Put these two facts together, and yellow is the lightest and most vibrant color our eyes perceive, apart from pure white.

Yellow is the most attention-getting color, but also the most fatiguing for the eye to look at for long periods of time. Thus yellow mirrors the nature of joy. To be in a state of joy every moment of the day would be exhausting, but to have a few moments of joy punctuating a day feels wonderful. Likewise, a yellow world is too much, but small pops of yellow catch the eye and brighten our mood, so to speak. To choose yellow as a favorite color implies monogamy, and yellow is too intense a color to settle down with. It’s a sometimes-playmate, a cheerful visitor, like a friend from out of town who only visits once a year and always wants to go dancing.

So yellow is best used in pops, like a doorway or a small car, or a jacket. In this way, yellow can be surprising, a beacon to come nearer and check something out. In Dublin a few years ago there was a city-sponsored initiative called the “yellow bench project,” which scattered vivid yellow park benches around the city imprinted with the words: “By sitting on this bench I’m open to conversation with a complete stranger.” The boldness of yellow suggests something different is going to happen, perhaps something unexpected.

Mostly, yellow is the color of moments. But occasionally someone dares to use yellow at scale, as in image 06, below, and the result is awe-inspiring. In 2013, Wolfgang Laib created Pollen from Hazelnut, an installation that filled the atrium at New York’s MoMA. I like this because it feels so unnatural to experience that much vibrancy at once, and yet the source is natural. Scattered, these small grains of pollen are joyful only to bees, but in bringing them together, we are able to comprehend the scale of a joy unnoticed in our midst. So the work is the act of concentration rather than fabrication, revealing the hidden color that surrounds us.

Yellow is too much, and that’s its beauty. There are moments in life that should feel abundant, and yellow offers that abundance, that generosity of light reflecting back at us. Perhaps my favorite use of yellow is when it spills outside the lines, as in the playful installation by Spanish design studio (fos) in image 01, threatening to brim over. It feels much bigger than it is. Even a small bit of yellow can be a ballast for a much larger expanse of grey. New York’s taxicabs are just the right dose for a city of steel and cement. On bad-weather days, I wear yellow rain boots as a kind of counterweight. Yellow has more energy than it needs: plenty for us, and plenty to go around.

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Images: 01. (fos) 02. door 03. Delpozo 04. car 05. Josef Albers 06. Wolfgang Laib 07. grapefruit tart 08. Ellsworth Kelly 09. Marni

Field trip: Matisse’s Cutouts at MoMA

24 November 2014 by Ingrid


I took off a few days last week for a writing holiday, but I couldn’t go back to work without taking a little inspiration jaunt to this exhibit of Henri Matisse’s cutouts at MoMA. Has there ever been a more exuberantly joyful artist than Matisse? I find my whole energy seems to change when I walk into a gallery of his vibrant, animated work.


The cutouts are especially joyful because they pare back the elements involved. With paintings, there’s perspective and light, texture and narrative. But with the cutouts, it’s a pure, liberating experience of just form and color. They are bold and immediate, as if because they are simpler, they take a more direct route to the unconscious. In fact, they seem to be the culmination of a lifelong quest to bring together color and contour. From the curators:

Throughout his career, Matisse searched for a way to unite the formal elements of color and line. On the one hand, he was known as a master colorist: from the non-realistic palette that earned him the designation of a fauve or “wild beast” in the first decade of the twentieth century, to the light-infused interiors of his so-called “Nice period” of the 1920s, he followed a course of what he described as “construction by means of color.” On the other hand, he was a master draftsman, celebrated for drawings and prints that describe a figure in fluid arabesque lines; “my line drawing is the purest and most direct translation of my emotion,” he once said. Through the cut-outs, he was finally able to unite these two branches of his practice.

I resonate to this: sometimes a simple line, which emerges as an extension of the whole body, can have more feeling than a complete composition.

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Sometimes when I visit an exhibit, I find myself zooming in on one feature. I become almost obsessed—I tune out many gorgeous works because I’m captivated by one particular element. Last week, my fixation landed on this wonderful leaf form that recurs over and over in Matisse’s cutouts. The shape has a few different variations. There is a pinnate form that looks like an exaggerated white oak leaf, and a more palmate shape that resembles a stag horn fern. Others look looser, like the wavy blades of sea kelp.

All of them are wonderful because of their curved surfaces and the interaction they create between the forms and the white space around them. They corrugate the space, aerating it and giving it movement and energy. This effect is even more dramatic when the color contrasts are so pronounced, as with this Violet Leaf on an Orange Background, below.

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Matisse produced the cutouts late in life, and I love this image of him with all of the clippings at his feet. He often worked on compositions large-scale across the walls of his studio, literally surrounding himself with these vibrant forms. As his mobility was decreasing, it seemed to give him a way to stretch out. He built The Swimming Pool after a day spent watching divers at a nearby pool, to bring the water into his studio. He said, “I will make myself my own pool,” and ringed an entire room at the Hotel Regina in Nice with splashing, paddling forms. When building The Parakeet and The Mermaid, he worked across two walls of his Nice studio. The curators note:

Spreading from left to right, without regard for the presence of a radiator, the vibrantly colored forms created an immersive environment. “I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk,” Matisse noted, “There are leaves, fruits, a bird.”

What I love most about the story of this work is that as he neared death, Matisse reached out and brought the joys of life closer to him. And in such a beautiful way. If you’ll be in New York before February 8th, I highly recommend a field trip to see it in person. If not, definitely check out the well-done microsite for the exhibit, and let me know what you think about the cutouts in the comments!

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Link: “Henri Matisse: The Cutouts” at MoMA until February 8th, 2015.
Images (top to bottom): The Parakeet and the Mermaid, 1952, via. A view of the exhibit when it showed at the Tate Modern, via the MoMA exhibit microsite. Composition Green Background (Composition fond vert), 1947, via.Violet Leaf on an Orange Background (Palmette) 1947. Two Masks (The Tomato), 1947, via. The Sheaf, 1953, via. Henri Matisse in his studio, photographed by Lydia Delectorskaya, via. The development of the Parakeet and the Mermaid in Matisse’s Nice studio, via the MoMA exhibit microsite.

All images credit Succession Henri Matisse / Artist’s Rights Society, New York, except those sourced from MoMA.

The hidden surprise inside Norway’s new passports

20 November 2014 by Ingrid

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Check out Norway’s beautiful new passports. First, how sleek are the covers? So simple and beautiful. But what’s really amazing is inside.

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Designed by Neue Design Studio, the pages feature abstract graphics highlighting the country’s natural wonders. They’re lovely in their own right, but place them under UV light, and the scene turns to night. The sun becomes the moon, and a pattern reminiscent of the aurora borealis becomes visible.

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The intent of the design is as a security feature, but what joyful security! So many times you see elements like seals or holograms slapped on top of a design; it’s so rare to see them actually considered and integrated into the thing itself. And in a way that brings such a sense of delight. Definitely makes me wish the U.S. would hire some similarly clever designers to rethink our passports!

Source: Slate

Via: @njokigitahi

Object of affection: Jun Kaneko plate

12 November 2014 by Ingrid

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Two joyful worlds collide in one plane. Soft polka dots, the kind that would be at home on the back of Dalmatian, met by three pure color fields, on loan from a De Stijl painting.

It’s deceptively simple, in the Japanese way. Polka dots and primary colors: the kinds of things a random aesthetics-of-joy-generator might put together. But look for awhile and let your eyes adjust. You see the spots, not mechanized nor arbitrary, but each unique and carefully placed. Following them from one to the next, they describe gentle curves. And they respect the colors, lining up at their edges like an audience at a chamber music concert, rising up for the soft wave of a standing ovation at their seats but crossing no significant boundaries. And then the colors, primary but not. Poppy red, Aegean blue, and a yellow just slightly bleached by sunshine: a sweeter, better-tempered palette than the standard one.

When I saw this plate in my Pinterest feed, it stopped me in my tracks. It seemed such a perfectly joyful object. There is so much sensory overload these days, it’s rare that one object can be so captivating, but that’s what this “objects of affection” series is all about: those few things that are really worth our attention. Naturally I had to spend some time trying to understand why I fell so hard for this ceramic oval. I realize that when an object really speaks to us, there’s often a thoughtfulness hidden under a layer of ease. And upon uncovering it, it becomes even more dear to us.

Link: Jun Kaneko
Image: Untitled, Ovals, 2011. Photo by Colin Conces.

How is your heart?

10 November 2014 by Ingrid

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If you’re like me, when people ask you the question, “How are you?” sometimes you end up replying with a sigh and saying, “I’m soooooooo busy.” It may seem like an innocuous response. But “busy” does something to us that’s not actually too healthy: it makes us overly focused on what we’re doing, rather than how we’re feeling and experiencing the world. It works as an excuse for bring frantic or late or inattentive to others. And (worst of all, from this writer’s perspective), busy crowds out joy.

Think about it: when you’re busy, you don’t have time to stop and smell the roses. When you’re busy, you don’t have time to play in the park. When you’re busy, there’s no aperture in your life for spontaneity or silliness or celebration. When you’re busy, all those joyful things become work. Busy doesn’t give any pleasure and it doesn’t make any memories. It is an expenditure of energy with little apparent reward.

Busyness is easy to get under control if you know where to look. I learned a lot about this from a wise coach, and here is her excellent advice on the subject. (I don’t always get it right, but I’ve gotten better.) Today I came across a new idea for taming “busy” that I hadn’t heard before, in a piece by Islamic studies scholar Omid Safi called “The Disease of Being Busy.” To him, it comes down to the question we ask of each other in the first place.

In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is your haal?

What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” When I ask, “How are you?” that is really what I want to know.

I am not asking how many items are on your to-do list, nor asking how many items are in your inbox. I want to know how your heart is doing, at this very moment. Tell me. Tell me your heart is joyous, tell me your heart is aching, tell me your heart is sad, tell me your heart craves a human touch. Examine your own heart, explore your soul, and then tell me something about your heart and your soul.

It’s not about the words themselves, though having that question baked into the language certainly helps. He’s saying: Ask about feelings, rather than doings. What a wonderful question to be asked—it signals to me that someone really cares, and isn’t just asking for courtesy. And I love this idea that we can prompt each other to shift our focus away from the errands and the inbox towards what really matters for each of us.

So, dear reader, how is your heart this morning?

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My heart would be happy, I think, if I imagined it covered in tiny flowers, like the one in this sculpture by Camila Carlow, who sculpts internal organs out of foraged vines, buds, and berries. (Though to be honest, it’s the lungs that really steal my heart.)

Link: On Being: The Disease of Busy
Images: Camila Carlow via DesignBoom. Prints available here.

Feed your inner child

6 November 2014 by Ingrid

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I’ve been having this recurring dream, and it’s just about as obvious as they come. I’m taking care of a small kitten—sometimes, it’s a puppy—and all of a sudden I realize I haven’t given it any food. In a panic, I try to put the kitten in a bag while I run to the store so I don’t have to leave it alone.

When your inner child shows up in the middle of the night demanding to be fed, is it always with such a guilt trip?

Adulthood asks so much of us, it can be easy to forget there is a childlike essence in there too. The number of moments requiring self-control seems to grow with each passing year. And while I generally think of myself as having a very active inner child, in the months without blogging I feel like maybe the opportunities for that energy to express itself were fewer. I realize now that this is the place where impulses to play and to imagine run free for me. Without the blog, I may have been inadvertently starving my inner child.

The good news is that once you realize it, it’s actually pretty easy to tap back into your inner child. If, like mine, yours is waking you up in the middle of the night, here are five ideas for reconnecting with it:

1. Do a happy dance. The beauty of a happy dance is that it’s deliberately not a “good” dance. Don’t do it in front of the mirror. Do get someone else to do it with you, as studies show joy has significantly more impact when shared.

2. Make a weekend to-do list. Only put on it things that are fun, like “Make pancakes” and “Go to the movies” and “Run around in the park.”

3. Spend an afternoon doing something no one in their right mind would pay you to do. When you were a kid, you painted or collected seashells or climbed trees for hours without noticing the time go by. But as an adult many passion projects become chores. By doing something you love that isn’t worth money, you’re more likely to be learning or exploring something.

4. Look at large-scale art. Large objects, like these balloon-shaped sculptures by Katharina Grosse, trigger a perspective shift that reminds you of what it was like to be small. Even better if the art is full of color and pattern. The swirls on the balloons remind me of the bouncy balls I used to get from the vending machines at the grocery store as a kid.

5. Go on an adventure. Remember what it was like to go on a nature walk as a kid? I used to come home with all kinds of mundane treasures foraged from the woods: pinecones, oddly shaped stones, red fall leaves, feathers. This summer I discovered trail running. I’m not much of a runner but there’s something so fun about being in the woods and jumping over rocks and roots, I never seem to notice I’m actually running.

How you know when your inner child needs attention? What do you do to get back in touch with it?

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Images: Installation by Katharina Grosse
Via: Total Inspiration

Fall and rise, fall and rise

4 November 2014 by Ingrid

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Oh hi there. (She says casually, as if she’s been here all along, and you were the one who just turned up after several seasons’ absence.)

So, I’m back. Let’s not make a fuss about it. (Except she loves a good fuss.) Let’s just carry on like it was before I left. 


I guess an explanation might be in order.

Earlier this year I made a choice to take a break from blogging. It was coming up on five years since I started Aesthetics of Joy, and the anticipation of that milestone made me start reflecting on why I began blogging in the first place. This blog was born, in part, to help me through the process of writing a book of the same name, about how neuroscience and psychology could help us design objects and spaces that foster positive emotion and wellbeing. The cadence of blogging pushed me to articulate ideas before they were fully baked; your comments and stories helped me better understand the dimensions of the subjects I was exploring. 

But five years in, the book hadn’t progressed much. I struggled to find the large stretches of time I needed to be able to string a work of that scale together. I found myself battling time constraints, struggling to drum up motivation, paralyzed by fear of failure, and spinning around an uncertainty about how to tell a story that had accrued five years of nuance. When you’ve had so much time to dream about something, inevitably nothing you write measures up to your dream of it. Every clumsy rough draft felt like a small puncture in the wonderful book of my imagination. I drafted and redrafted the same sections; I had mini-epiphanies interspersed with a lot of confusion; I wrote three pages in a day and deleted them a day later. The whole experience was like dog-paddling in the deep end: a lot of flailing and froth, and a persistent awareness of just how much water there was below me.

At some point in I read this post by Derek Sivers. He talks about the tension between having a public presence (like a blog) where you have people you regularly engage with (he uses the slightly aggrandizing word audience) and the need to go deep to do the sometimes boring work that you may need to do to achieve a goal. It made me start to wonder: was the blog less a support to my book work, and more a distraction? When there was a choice between working on book or blog, the blog always won. It was less demanding and more satisfying, with an immediate reward and feedback. By comparison, the book felt like moving a glacier.

Around the same time, I read Steven Pressfield’s War of ArtIn it, he describes the concept of resistance—the force that keeps you from doing your most important creative work. He talks about how resistance can be sneaky, hiding in the least obvious places. Had the blog become agent of resistance? Was it just a way for me to avoid doing work by doing “work”?

Pressfield’s answer to resistance is to be a professional. A professional sits down every day, inspired or not. A professional does the work, whether it comes out good or bad. So I decided to take a break from the blog, and impose some discipline. I made a gant chart, gave myself aggressive timelines, and asked some loyal friends to unabashedly shame me if I missed my marks. I set early-morning alarms, and sat down with glazed eyes in the quiet pre-dawn dark to write what Anne Lamott calls “shitty rough drafts.” 

The months passed, and I made progress. Then an obstacle would creep up—I would get the flu or have a deadline at work—and the draft would go off to the side. I realize I am often too firm or too gentle with myself. Do you have this problem? Sometimes I feel like one of those religious penitents from the middle ages, beating myself up because I got a few days behind schedule. Other times I just want to shirk off to watch Pitch Perfect for the third time and pin pictures of flowers onto Pinterest. 

So here we are in November. I have a mostly-done book proposal, though still with a few holes. But I learned something over these last few months that brings me back here even with an incomplete in my personal grading column: I need to blog. See, somehow in the five year journey that has been Aesthetics of Joy so far, I managed to convince myself that I blogged for you. But taking a break from blogging has reminded me that this kind of writing is ultimately a selfish act. That may sound strange since I make no money off this blog and it does take quite a bit of time. I’ll try to explain it.

The most striking thing that happened to me in the time away from the blog was that I felt myself grow uninspired. I wondered how this could be true, because without the blog, I had more time to read and reflect. What I realized, though, is that inspiration isn’t just about seeing and hearing, but about absorbing and integrating. Inspiration is only good if you plan to create something; otherwise, what’s the point? Why shop if you don’t plan to cook? Why chew if you’re not going to eat?

Without the blog, I had no impetus to engage with the material I was encountering. I became like teflon for inspiration. Nothing stuck, and I began to wonder what was wrong with me. Yet the moment I decided to start blogging again, it was as if an engine revved somewhere inside me, and my eyes came to life again. It reminds me of the Anaïs Nin quote, “We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are.” With the blog, I see everything through the lens of the potential for joy. Without it, is much quieter. My mind, which normally runs 10 channels of activity simultaneously, had a few channels go silent.  

Now I’m like a dog let outside after a long day and suddenly reminded of all of the scents in the world, running this way and that trying to chase them all. There is no quiet now, only the clamorous urgency of all the words in the world, climbing and tumbling and hurtling over themselves to bridge the countless gaps between us. 

I don’t know if I’ll be a more consistent steward of this blog than in the past. I have a rich and varied life, a job I love and a wedding to plan (more on that soon!) and a book still in-progress. And I would rather fall and rise, fall and rise, on waves of real passion than churn out some daily pabulum that springs from an “editorial calendar” rather than the heart. 

Still, know that I’m back with more love than I’ve ever had for all of you who stop by once in awhile to share a glimpse of delight in this world. And I can promise color and abundance, lushness and light, and exuberant geekery for the mysteries of how joy works in our minds. I plan to experiment with formats and layouts, style and content. You may even see some look and feel changes next year. More than ever, I hope this will be a fun place to play. 

Image: Dive in Float by Samantha French, a wonderful Brooklyn-based artist whose paintings just at the surface of the water exactly capture my feelings about coming home to this blog. 

Joyful violence?

16 June 2014 by Ingrid

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Can violence ever be joyful?

I tried to address this question in a piece I wrote for an online MoMA exhibit called Design and Violence. It’s not the first time I’ve written about the axes produced by Best Made Co. (see here and here), but it is the deepest I’ve gone on the subject. The axes fascinate me because of the tension they embody: they are real tools capable of violence, yet with a playful, toylike aesthetic. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

The two ends of the Best Made axe embody an unlikely tension, playing on our most primal instincts: approach and avoidance. The handle’s lollipop colors have an appetitive quality that sparks our desire; the blade’s sharp contours speak a warning to our unconscious brain. Pleasure and pain: the potential for both arises simultaneously. The Best Made axe dwells in two worlds, one joyful, one violent. Yet in each, it is a misfit.

But is possible that these two worlds can overlap? Can we imagine a space of “joyful violence” where the Best Made axe is truly at home?

You can read the full piece on the Design and Violence site, here.

The very best part of writing this piece was seeing a response from Peter Buchanan-Smith, founder of Best Made, who shared the story behind the axe’s colors:

When I first started Best Made and selling these axes no one would give me liability insurance. So I decided to attach a few of cherished virtues to the axes (courage, compassion, grace, fortitude) as a non-legal, but more emotionally binding measure of built-in liability insurance. When someone raised their Best Made axe, they had to have happy thoughts.

Aesthetics of Joy as insurance? It’s a neat thought, to use color and pattern as a way to shift mindset, to distinguish the tool for certain purposes but not for others. It’s as if to say: there are some approved uses of this tool, like chopping wood for your log cabin, that feel consistent with its design, and there are other uses, like felling a protected species of tree (or worse), that are unapproved — all through aesthetics. The colors are like an instruction manual or a warning label, but that speaks directly to our unconscious mind.

Designed to prevent violence? What a clever idea.


Hey, what’s up with Aesthetics of Joy?

This is the first post here in quite some time. If you’re a regular reader, you might be wondering where I’ve gone these last few months. Have I given up on Aesthetics of Joy? 

I hope you’ll be happy to hear that I’ve just been taking a little bit of a break from the blog to focus on the book proposal for Aesthetics of Joy. Because the blog is such a love of mine, it can be hard to focus on the slow, deep work of the book when there are so many things I want to share with you here. So, I’ve taken a little bit of a vacation from blogging while I finish up the proposal. Hopefully you’l see me back here in the fall, with a slight redesign and a *lot* of new ideas to share. In the meantime, have a beautiful summer, filled with sunshine, simple pleasures, and lots of joy. 

Till soon,

Object of affection: Aurora pots

27 February 2014 by Ingrid

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This world has its share of accidental joys. Some are large, like the roadside misadventures of a UPS truck filled with industrial printer ink. Some are small, like balloon let go by its owner, floating up towards the clouds. These momentary surprises don’t change our lives, but they can divert our attention, reminding us of the magic in the world and calling us towards joy.

Designer Phil Cuttance seems to be a keen observer of small, accidental joys. He took inspiration from the bright swirl of oil in an urban puddle to create these Aurora Pots, which imprint the fleeting effect of oil on water on a series of hand-cast pots. Cuttance describes the process of creating the unique color effects:

A single drop of polish is dropped onto water. The beautiful, and usually momentary, slick that is created is then scooped off the water’s surface and onto the pot lid; each unique slick is captured permanently.

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These pots captivated me immediately, but the design begs a question: what is the point of making our transient experiences into permanent things? As humans we have this impulse to preserve, memorialize, capture our best moments, our most joyful happenings. But should we use objects in this way?

In Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton writes about a related impulse towards possession:

Endeavoring to purchase something we think beautiful may in fact be the most unimaginative way of dealing with the longing it excites in us, just as trying to sleep with someone may be the bluntest response to a feeling of love. What we seek, at the deepest level, is inwardly to resemble, rather than physically to possess, the objects and places that touch us through their beauty.

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It seems futile and naive to try to anchor our fleeting delights in objects, to pin them down in solid form. But balanced against that is the need for objects in our lives that remind us of life’s wonders, a need to bring these wonders into a place where our joy at their colors and shapes can be renewed at regular intervals. Seen this way, the Aurora Pots do have value. They also have the virtue of subtly changing with the light, so that they continue to be new to us day after day. In that sense, they defy their solid form and may become less like objects and more like a series of experiences.

What do you think? What is the value of creating objects that capture fleeting moments? Is it worth doing, or are we better off just experiencing them in the moment, and then letting them fly by?

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Aurora Pots by Phil Cuttance available for purchase through the artist
Via: The Fox Is Black