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Optical Illusions

May 10, 2002

Do you enjoy optical illusions?

A fellow librarian told me about an optical illusion he’d seen: He wasn’t sure if he was seeing a faraway vapor trail from a jet or sunlight reflected off a nearby strand of spider’s web.

I don’t believe this illusion is peculiar to librarians, but I know exactly what he saw. I’ve seen the same thing.

One summer afternoon, I saw several streaks flash across the sky, as if something extraterrestrial or supernatural had flown by. As I stared, it happened again, and again, and at last I discerned that light was reflecting briefly off long strands of spider web drifting on the breeze.

Frankly, I found this a vastly more appealing explanation of the mystery than mere extraterrestrials. Of course, maybe they really were extraterrestrial vapor trails, and I simply couldn’t accept it.

Sometimes it’s fun, othertimes upsetting, when our minds can’t make sense of what we see. Visual tricks are a source of fun, though, especially for kids.

I can’t look at the stereogram, or “Magic Eye,” images. They look like jagged, colored static on the page, but if you stare at them until your eyes or your brain does something, a 3-D image seems to pop out of the page. It makes me ill even to try.

Children like to find hidden things in pictures, as in “Where’s Waldo” and “I Spy” books.

But the library has a couple of related books — “Look alikes” and “Look alikes, jr.” — that are so clever I think they would delight any adult, as well. I enjoyed them, anyway.

The pictures consist of photographs of dioramas. Nothing clever in that, but it won’t take you long to see that everything … or 99 percent of it … in the very realistic pictures is in fact something else from our lives.

Teabags as window shades; mini-blinds as house siding; Sony Walkman as a stove front; cocktail forks as balusters. On and on. I couldn’t help but chuckle. It really works.

A similar effect can be seen in our current art exhibit — Feather Art by Laurel Krause — although I sighed rather than chuckled. Her lovely pictures, including some that are almost photographic, are made entirely with feathers. The variety of feathers alone might delight you.

If ever there were an art show for fly-tiers, this would be it — not that it pertains to flies but to the fly-tiers love of feathers. You’ll have to see it: birds, butterflies, hummingbirds, plants and flowers. Retraction: some have painted backgrounds.

At the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, I saw what I took to be a painting among some traditional quilts. I walked towards it and only when I got very close did I see that it was, in fact, a “quilt painting”: Every “brush stroke” was a tiny, carefully stitched piece of fabric.

Like the feather paintings, it mocks the distinction between craft and art.

We have developed a tradition of hanging a quilt behind the library’s main desk. Our current “quilt” is an appliqued wallhanging by Carola Gough made of twelve panels depicting village scenes from her stay in Africa (1969-72). Much of the fabric was collected there, too.

A final note: You have just one more week to see the display of children’s art from Longfellow Elementary School. Take a few extra minutes on your next library visit to walk around. Even young artists like to show their work.

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