Art Speaks: Learning to See in a Room Full of Eyes

This is the first post in a series exploring The Bleeding Heart Manifesto in depth. Each post will take a sentence from the Manifesto and explore its meaning and implications for a life filled with art, faith, hope and love.

Art speaks. Stop and listen. Open yourself to questions, conversations and connections. Engage. Wrestle.

(featured art by Jessica Culling)

The entire Bleeding Heart Manifesto – in fact the entire Bleeding Heart project – stems from two words; art speaks. The implication is that art matters, that it can mean something and that we ought to listen. Even when the hearing is hard. Even when we need to wrestle. Learning to listen can be transformative. Learning to pay attention can awaken us to a world behind the world.

But art is often quiet. Sometimes art is nearly invisible as wallpaper, hiding out on the walls of your favourite coffee shop or behind the admission prices of a large public gallery. Art can be obtuse, or even resistant to interpretation. Some contemporary art seems to speak a foreign language, if it is speaking at all. Or perhaps it is a language we have forgotten.

Some art is loud. Performance art often begs to be seen or heard. Rock music certainly makes a noise. But amid the bang and clash, is anything really heard? If we could learn to listen even through this jangle, would we hear anything that matters?

There is much to be heard for those who have ears to hear. Listening is a journey. I am learning the language of art and it is worth the effort. I am grateful to my teachers.

I first learned to see in a room full of eyes.

Several years ago, I was invited to a small gallery by local artist and curator Edward Van Vliet. I arrived at Profiles Gallery in St.Albert, where Edward was working, to find a space smaller than expected. I took in all of the work in about 3 minutes. There were not many pieces, and the art was contemporary in a way that defied easy interpretation. It was easy to breeze by and let the work’s whispers drift over my head. But I’d driven a half hour to come here at the invitation of a friend. This friend was watching and waiting, eager to discuss my response. Edward had something to show me and I wanted to be sure I saw it.

I sat down on a black leather bench in the middle of an installation. I was willing to wrestle. I was surrounded on all sides by drawings of eyes, cut out and hung on string from the ceiling. There must have been hundreds of eyes, hanging like hand made mobiles over a crib. My initial reaction was surface level. Cool. This piece was cool. But meaning? There were eyes. So what?

Edward sat beside me and began to help me listen and see. He did not offer explanations, but questions. What do you see? Eyes. What are they looking at? Me. How does that make you feel? How does it feel to be watched? Are you confident? Are you afraid? What does that say about you?

These questions are likely a blurring of Edward Van Vliet’s words and my own inner dialogue. They opened me up not only to the installation of eyes, but to the world of art in general. Art like this, that seemed obtuse and beyond my comprehension, could be unlocked. It could unfold and bloom like the petals of a rose, to reveal a greater depth and beauty. Art could become a mirror, reflecting hidden parts of me back at myself. There was beauty waiting if I would only stop, look and listen.

Since those eyes looked into me, I have been learning to look myself. I am trying to pay attention at the leading of artists and thinkers like Edward Van Vliet and Jeffery Overstreet, whose mantra is 'Looking Closer’. There is much to be gained, I have found, by looking closer.

Our noisy world can numb us. The barrage of babel can stop our hearing. Art is asking us, everywhere, to wake up. Wake Up! Of course it is difficult to hear on first listen, as we are so often asleep. We are numb to our consumer culture. We are willing captives to our technology. We are numb to our own apathy. We are numb to our self deceptions.

As you go about your living today, so many voices will grab at your ears. With the internet in every pocket, information has become nearly as ubiquitous as air. It has also become as invisible. Like air, we breathe all of this information in and out, without noticing. We can barely distinguish particle from particle, fact from fact. It has all become noise.

And yet, in a sacred small voice, art speaks.

How do we break through to hear our voice? We must assume a posture of listening. CS Lewis prescribes an approach of surrender;

“The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” ― C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

The Bleeding Heart Art Space seeks to discover and share work with something to say. We are drawn to art that whispers under and through the noise and numb.

The gallery needn’t be the only example. We can hear these voices in a movie theatre, or calling from the stage. We resonate with late night radio. A story can pull is into an old book’s dusty pages and show us something about ourselves. Art has this power to connect, beyond time and space. Art speaks.

Listening does not happen in isolation. We can help one another see and hear, as Edward Van Vliet helped me amidst the eyes. Discernment is best in community, which is why each week we are hosting Arty Tuesday on this site. You are invited to share art that has spoken to you in the last seven days, and to comment on the sharing of others. You can join last week’s conversation here.

I also invite you to share your thoughts on today’s post below. Here are some questions to get us started.

What moments you have had, surrendering to the speech of art? Have you ever heard a piece of art call out? Has it ever aligned with something in your own heart, causing an inner voice to rise up and whisper, or shout, some truth in your ear?

As an artist, have you had the joy of knowing your work has spoken, either to you or a listener/view/reader?

Are there dangers involved in opening yourself up to a work?

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