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Sharon F. Cramer: Perception of beauty continues to evolve

Recently, I heard a radio piece about dialogues individuals were being asked to undertake – either young people asking their older selves to what they should pay attention, or older people, looking back and giving advice to their younger selves.

It reminded me of an assignment I introduced each semester in one of the courses I taught at Buffalo State: Future teachers were asked to imagine their “future images.” Some pictured career achievements, connecting with their students, imagining home or family; others described adventures outside those predictable realms. The opportunity to think ahead, unencumbered by reality, was an unfettered way to let the imagination soar.

In my case, as a beginning faculty member in 1985, my “future image” was very work-oriented. The tiny sliver of nonwork time I had was spent in our many local museums. Feeling immediately at home, I resonated to the subtle colors and shapes artists used to depict their worlds. I sought out traditional views of beauty. Looking into the artists’ depictions of sunsets, landscapes and animals, I looked around Western New York more carefully, and took in the variety of architecture and locations of natural beauty, by which we are surrounded. I totally ignored paintings or photographs of less beautiful (or abstract) scenes.

Now, 30 years later, I am my “future image,” and am startled to realize that my taste in art has been transformed. Just as I once liked Marshmallow Fluff, and now it is cloying and too sweet, some of the traditional images bore me with their symmetry. Instead, I linger over the offbeat, and let my imaginary finger follow the curves in a layered painting.

The show, “Interior Views: The Richardson Olmsted Complex,” (, which opened on Nov. 21 and will be up until Dec. 17, would have been ignored by my younger self, dismissed as one that had no visual lyrical poetry. But when, in 2013, I entered the actual Richardson Olmsted Complex, as a docent, I was edged into seeing the many arches and curves (endlessly repeating throughout the buildings and stairways) as puzzles for the mind to solve.

I began to see how the twists within different heating grates in the building offered abstract depictions of birds, or freedom. Unchained from the real, my mind saw every space as abstract shapes that invited investigation. And the photographs in the CEPA show persuaded me to slow down, and reconsider the Richardson’s hallways, tunnels and walls even further. The textures of ancient paint peeling were captured by several photographers, and instead of being bored, I was intrigued.

Like the photographs of Ellis Island, before it was renovated, many of the Richardson photographs show the deteriorated space as it was left in 1974, when patients were moved to the new psychiatric center. They allow the viewer to summon up the silent voices. Other photographers show the care that the original architect, or the restorers, took to create a form of beauty within a space that could have been purely utilitarian.

The show allows for transitions, for the viewer to turn from a monochrome view of gears to a color-suffused portrait of a hallway. Some of the photographs, viewable on the CEPA website, captured spaces that have already disappeared, as construction is underway for Hotel Henry. Viewers are literally seeing time-lapse photography of an iconic space. And to think, I might have missed it all.