From a young age my desire for beauty has been an integral part of who I am. While I am naturally drawn to beauty, I was also taught to intentionally appreciate it. I remember my father bringing me into the woods surrounding our home in Louisiana, and teaching me about what surrounded us. He taught me which birds and trees are which, what certain animals eat, and why they behave how they do. More importantly, he taught me to experience the wilderness. He shared with me the peace that being alone with God in nature brings one’s soul. I am imprinted by these fond memories and lessons that my dad taught me in those forests. I know I was made to experience the peace that beauty brings, because the taste of it delights me.
I recently stumbled upon a personality classification, and after researching it, I can say with surety that I am a Highly Sensitive Person. These are people who, “process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly because their nervous systems are biologically different. This is a specific trait with key effects that have often been confused with shyness, inhibitedness, fearfulness, introversion, as well as other effects.” A trait of a Highly Sensitive Person is having Sensory Processing Sensitivity, which is a “hypersensitivity to external stimuli, a greater depth of cognitive processing, and high emotional reactivity.” Who I am and the sense of my personality traits is more intelligible to me in light of these definitions. They explain my emotionally volatile adolescent years, when I took on the struggles of those around me. I can see this was due to my hypersensitivity to people and deep capacity for empathy. It explains how deeply criticism affects me and how elated I am by compliments. It explains my acute awareness of and ability to observe my environment. It also describes how overwhelmed I am by hectic environments. Why tapping, drumming, or repetitive noises like clocks ticking make it impossible for me to focus. Why people talking, walking, or moving too quickly often irritate and fluster me. I’m not drawn to the bustling or noisy, instead I desire calm, beautiful spaces to marvel in. These spaces where I am fed are both outdoors- in a forest or on a mountaintop, and in interior spaces like churches and museums.
A significant side of me is sensitive and introspective. It is these parts of me that find homes in art museums and beautiful churches. My favorite thing about these places is the atmosphere and space that seems created specifically with someone like me in mind. I think a library must have the same nourishing effect on someone whose greatest love is reading. The thing that ignites my spirit the most is visual beauty. And so experiences such as participating in a beautiful liturgy in a church surrounded by beautiful art feed me. Another place I am fed is in well-curated, spacious museums.
The first such museum I remember visiting was the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a ten year old. At that age my experience viewing art was primarily through illustrated storybooks. I remember walking through the rooms fascinated by works of art that I never dreamed could even exist. The next museum of this sort that I visited was the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna when I studied abroad in college. It was filled with room after room covered from floor to ceiling with masterpieces, however it was spacious. This environment allowed me to contemplate and relish the art around me. I am very fortunate to have studied in Florence, Italy for two years. Of course some of my favorite memories from that time are moments I spent enjoying beautiful churches and Florence’s wonderful museums.
As a person easily prone to anxiety and overstimulation, these spaces are a safe haven for an artist like me. It’s in them that I do not need to move faster, people aren’t yelling, and ideally there are no visually disturbing images that invoke despair. In those places, whether it is a church or a museum with beautiful art, I have the luxury of standing in front of a piece of art as long as I want, soaking it in until I am satisfied. It is in those spaces that I am inspired, filled up and allowed to look, see, and be. I believe these spaces are crucial to the artist’s imagination.