On a grocery run across Pittsburgh with my brother-in-law a few years back, he pointed at the white truck in the next lane.
“Look at that Fed Ex truck,” Bill instructed. I did.
“Do you see the arrow?”
I stared at the truck. There was nothing but the company name on the side of it. I didn’t see any arrow.
“Come on,” he said. “Look at the logo.”
I looked harder this time, wondering what he was talking about. But wait, something was emerging, blinking out of the letters. Suddenly I saw it. Sure as anything, there was an arrow buried in the logo.
I have seen this logo on packages, storefronts, billboards, and trucks passing by for as long as I can remember. I had never before seen any arrow.
“Young people usually pick it out right away,” Bill told me. The older you are, he said, the less likely you are to see it.
I was glad I didn’t fail his test of youth. But mostly I was thrilled to have discerned what was buried in the negative space.
Intriguing to imagine an artist mulling over FedEx’s design challenge, eventually landing on an arrow as the best way to convey movement of goods from one place to another, the crux of their business. The designer managed to bury the symbol between two letters in a deceptively simple font, without appearing to make any effort to cram an arrow in between. Achieved like the best literature, like Hemingway writing a story about abortion without ever mentioning it.
Ms. Weinstein used to have us make drawings based on the negative space principle.
“Show me the subject of your picture without drawing a single line of it,” she’d say. Meaning: show me a house, but draw only the clouds behind it, the maple tree in the backyard, the neighborhood beyond; use charcoal smudges, ink cross-hatchings, whatever you like, but only work up to the edge of your subject. You couldn’t make a sloping line for the roof nor a vertical line for the walls; you could only shade the sky and clouds and trees that frame it, leaving a hole in the picture where the house in your mind existed. Show as much as you could using nothing at all.
There can be negative space in music too. At a Macalester concert a few years ago, I enjoyed a composition by a faculty member, a beautiful, twinkly piece that sounded sweet and poignant but I couldn’t have said why.
At intermission I ran into the composer. He said he’d written it around the tune of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, every note in the familiar song represented in his piece by the two notes surrounding the originals, creating that twinkly quality I’d heard. Not a single note of the original tune remained, but every note of his piece hugged the originals, butting up against them, leaving the tune unsung in the negative space of the piece.
“Did you hear the tune?” he asked, his eyes wide with hope.
He wanted me to say yes. He wanted me to succeed, for this would mean his piece had succeeded, but I hadn’t had the key with which to unlock the piece when it was in my ears. Maybe if I could have heard it again with this map to its logic in my hands, I would have heard the tune. But the answer was no. I had not.
I too am engaged in a project of negative space. I have published over a hundred essays on this blog. If you consumed them all with highlighter and pen, gobbled them down like a box of chocolates in one sitting, would you see what’s buried between the letters?
I am the sum of all the things I can’t put into words. I am not the things I write but all that I don’t.
I’ve drawn the sky so close there are times I can almost feel the breeze. The notes fall like darts, nearly grazing my skin.
She wears my love like a see-through dress, sings Bono on the radio, making me shiver. She’s trying to throw her arms around the world.
Can you see me yet?