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Black and White (and Grey…)

In my daily life I interact with a large number of people who live in black and white.  They tend to have strong opinions and voice them loudly, and they tend to feel that “anyone who isn’t with them is against them.”  I find it strange.


Black and white are useful – beautiful even – for seeing the shape of things.  They are essential for the beginning of understanding, but they are only the beginning.  Between them are endless shades and shadows of light and dark that give the depth and breadth of life.

Canadian photographer Ted Grant once said that “when you photograph people in colour you photograph their clothes.  But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!”  I think he is talking not just about the black and the white, but the endless shades of variation in shadow and texture created by the mixing of the two.


When I was much younger I began to be in love with words.  As a result I was often encouraged to take up a career in law, but law is not for me.  I don’t do well with black and white.  I live in the greys.

My hometown is famous for its grey days.  Some people find them sad, but I find them lovely all the time.  The absence of sunshine doesn’t mean the absence of light… it gives us a chance to see the shape of things as they really are, without the dazzling blues and greens of summer.  Today is just that kind of day… highs and lows of grey.


Thinking about the spaces between black and white reminded me of these classroom artworks I had been saving for awhile.  They aren’t as flashy as the beautifully coloured pieces that often catch my eye in the school hallways, but they have a special way of seeing spaces and depths that you wouldn’t notice otherwise.

Going through the pictures as a group, although they are from different ages and skill levels, related to my thoughts about seeing subtle variations without the influence of colours… I have recently been reading Madeleine L’Engle’s classic story A Wrinkle In Time to my children at night, and we all loved the chapter with Aunt Beast on Ixchel.  While reading we found some beautiful passages about seeing without seeing… In my mind they connect perfectly to these images too.


“What is this dark?  What is this light? We do not understand… They say that it is night now on our planet, and that they cannot see.  They have told us that our atmosphere is what they call opaque, so that the stars are not visible, and then they were surprised that we know stars, that we know their music and the movements of their dance far better than beings like you who spend hours studying them through what you call telescopes.  We do not understand what this means, to see.” (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time)

Aunt Beast and the other inhabitants of Ixchel don’t need light or colour to see the essence of a thing, or to feel and know what is around them… they have a greater depth of sight and understanding that we could hope for.


“We do not know what things look like, as you say,” the beast said.  “We know what things are like.  It must be a very limiting thing, this seeing.” (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time)


“What a very strange world yours must be!” the beast said, “that such a peculiar seeming thing should be of such importance.  Try to tell me, what is this thing called light that you are able to do so little without?” (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time)


What I love the most is Aunt Beast’s conviction that she knows exactly what things are like, without the confusion of seeing.  Something about that makes me feel these images in grey have more depth and soul, like Ted Grant says, than ones overflowing with colours… Life on Ixchel is filled with understanding in spite of the opaqueness of their world.


“If it was impossible to describe sight to Aunt Beast, it would be even more impossible to describe the singing of Aunt Beast to a human being…It was a music more tangible than form or sight.  It had essence and structure… It seemed to travel with her, to sweep her aloft in the power of song, so that she was moving in glory among the stars, and for a moment she, too, felt that the words Darkness and Light had no meaning, and only this melody was real.” (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time)

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“…she realized now that here on this planet there was no need for color, that the grays and browns merging into eachother were not what the beasts knew, and that what she, herself, saw was only the smallest fraction of what the planet was really like.  It was she who was limited by her senses, not the blind beasts, for they must have senses of which she could not even dream.” (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time)


Being human has many wonderful moments, but it has it’s limitations too.  We are bound by our humanity to a limited understanding of the breadth of the universe (although we learn new things every day, as the grey photos of dwarf planet Pluto have proven this week alone!)  I need to remind myself every day to expand my own understanding as far as I can in the variations of grey that make up our daily lives and interactions.  We are not black.  We are not white.  We are together, in they grey.


In the meantime, I will aspire to be inspired by Aunt Beast.  It’s no wonder to me now, as a real life grown-up, that this book was so meaningful to me at age nine.  I hope it has the same lasting effect on my own little people.  Maybe one day they will read it aloud to their own families…


“What can I tell you that will mean anything to you?  Good helps us, the stars help us, perhaps what you would call light helps us, love helps us…This is something you just have to know or not know.” (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time)


“We look not at the things which are what you would call seen, but at the things which are not seen.  For the things which are seen are temporal.  But the things which are not seen are eternal.” (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time)

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(These last two pictures are by two amazing young ladies who have just left us to go off to high school – (M.D. and C.A.). I was honoured to teach them and will miss them both terribly, but I am already looking forward to seeing what great things they will accomplish with their great talents as they grow.  Thank you both for your inspiration!)


4 thoughts on “Black and White (and Grey…)

  1. A really well done black and white picture feels more important than a colourful and attention grabbing art piece. Adding grey adds another layer of perspective in a black and white piece. Wonderful black and white sketches.


    • I will lend you my copy! I was amazed as I read it again with my “adult eyes” how much wisdom is woven into the story. Plus it starts of with “It was a dark and stormy night”…

      Like Mrs. Whatsit, “wild nights are my glory!”


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