Ways of being

For photographer and assistant professor of art Lauren Greenwald, life is about discovery

University of South Carolina faculty tend to dream big. From education to international business, from aerospace to the arts to medicine and public health, they’re always coming up with a new approach to an old process or a novel solution to some vexing problem. This spring, USC Times, the university’s quarterly magazine for faculty and staff, launched the “Big Ideas” series to give faculty a platform to share their dreams and visions, whether they hope to transform their field, improve higher education or even change the world. These are their stories.

Even before I was making art consciously, the ways that I moved through space were very important to me. Every place I go puts me in a particular way of being. When I lived in Paris and New York, that meant walking around. When I was in graduate school in New Mexico, that meant road trip projects where I would drive into this empty landscape on a motorcycle, where I could feel the wind against my body. 

My medium is photography, but I don’t have a traditional foundation in studio art. I came to studio art by a very circuitous, winding road. I was an art history major as an undergrad — I studied architectural history — but my first major was pre-med. I fell in love with art history because it encompasses everything we experience. Art history is political history, it’s the history of economics, it looks at science, it looks at technological advances — it’s commentary on the visual world we create.

People say they don’t know anything about art, but we think visually, we communicate visually. And nowadays, everybody is a photographer. Think about Snapchat and Instagram. Even the emoji phenomenon is visual language. We don’t always speak the same language, but sometimes the visual language can bridge the differences.

One of the most profound experiences I had before I decided to go to graduate school involved taking my father and my stepmother through the Louvre. I was living in Paris at the time — I was working as a project manager, renovating and decorating apartments — and when they came to visit I took them to see some of the thing they wanted to see, and then we spent a day going through the Louvre.

These are people who don’t come from an art background. Their backgrounds are in business and medicine. But by stopping to talk about the various pieces, I was able to provide historical context and ask questions that could help them engage — even if they didn’t know who the artist was, even if they didn’t know anything about the technique.

If you just follow the arrows and the signs, you’re going to have a very prescribed experience. But if you take the time to open your eyes, it becomes a very different experience. If you go to see the Mona Lisa, maybe give yourself two hours to wander around the Louvre first, before you get to that painting that you’re “supposed to see.”

Our experiences form us. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I experienced a sort of profound dissatisfaction with what I was doing. I had a lot of moments where I thought, “What have I done? I’ve decided not to be a doctor. I’ve decided not to be an architect. I’ve kind of bounced from one experience to the other.” But when I talk to people about the life I’ve lived, their eyes light up. 

Life is so much more interesting when you give yourself the time and the space to explore. Don’t give yourself a specific path. Let yourself have those moments of discovery. The moment of discovering something is so much more interesting than saying, “I’m going to go look at this thing that I already know is there.”  

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