October 2020: From Beth Fisher-Yoshida

Dear SPS Faculty,

I was looking at some blank canvases I have sitting on a shelf and realized it has been a while since I had sketched or done artwork. Yes, decorating my house is a form of artistic expression, but not quite the same. I consider myself a dormant artist because while I do have a background in art, I do not provide myself adequate time to indulge. And actually, it is not so much an indulgence as a necessity in being able to calm my mind and regain some sort of spatial balance in my overworked left brain.

One concept that continues to fascinate me is foreground/background orientation. I studied art in high school and university in New York and then when I lived in Japan and studied art it took on a whole new level of meaning. In some styles of art that cover the whole canvas, there is a background and foreground and usually it is all covered. In Japanese brush painting, the paper is the background and what you paint on it could be the foreground, or is it?

This is the part that is so fascinating to me and that we can apply to anything in our lives and in our teaching. What we pay attention to becomes the foreground and the object of our attention. So in a Japanese brush painting (sumi-e) the white background of the paper has its own richness in meaning and can also be the foreground. In a conversation it can be the silent spaces between utterances that take shape and set the context for future comments. You’ve heard of the expression, “pregnant with meaning?” Silences can be magical in mediation and dialogues. Foreground/background is also the subject of those perception tests with the old woman/young woman.

When people receive feedback the information received is not only about their performance, but also what the giver of the feedback notices, what they are foregrounding. We can also engage in meta-level perspectives of noticing what we are foregrounding and paying attention to and what is not getting our attention. We also have the agency to shift our attention so that what was once out of our framing can now take central stage if we want it to and if it is relevant.

I think this is important because it also influences our state of mind. We can focus on inconveniences or we can focus on what gives us life. Many of us miss the interaction we have had with students in the classroom and that can be foregrounded when we feel inconvenienced by yet another Zoom engagement. Or we can take some time to shift our focus and think about the benefits of engaging virtually with our students and what can happen in a Zoom session that is harder to replicate in the physical classroom.

We can influence what we foreground and background and the first step is becoming more aware of when we do this and exploring the reasons behind it. Then we can intentionally pay more attention to what we put in our background because it wasn’t important, we were avoiding it, or it recently came to light and we decided to indulge. I know I will be paying attention to what I foreground this weekend when I begin the draft sketches for the canvases.

Thank you,

Beth Fisher-Yoshida