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University helped put the pieces together

by Shannon Proudfoot, BA’03 | May 8, 2017

Shannon Proudfoot, BA’03, is an Ottawa-based writer covering politics and public policy for Maclean’s magazine.

Just inside the front entrance of my elementary school, near the principal’s office, was a statue along one wall. It was about two-thirds life scale – a creepy and incongruous size – but because it sat on a pedestal, its head was maybe six feet off the ground.

The person it depicted wore a long brown robe cinched with a rope at the waist, Birkenstock-type sandals, a trim brown beard and a soulful, warm-eyed facial expression. He also had a couple of birds and forest creatures perched on his shoulders and at his feet. All of that, in my youthful knowledge of Catholic iconography, meant the man was the animal-loving, Franciscan order-founding, vaguely hippie St. Francis.

The statue also had small, bloodied wounds on its feet and the palms of its hands, which I knew from my fine Catholic education were the visual hallmarks of Jesus’ crucifixion. This was confusing and confounding. But in that fantastic, strangely brilliant way you do effortlessly when you’re a kid – and never manage to recapture for the rest of your life – I just mashed the two thoughts together with a mental shrug in order to resolve the cognitive dissonance.

Somehow, the statue was both Jesus and St. Francis.

Case closed.

Fast-forward eight years. I’m midway through my undergrad in Art History and Criticism at Western, and particularly loving Romanesque and Gothic architecture and the jewel-like, slightly spooky realism of Northern Renaissance paintings. One day, I’m sitting in the largest lecture hall in the Visual Arts Building. The lights are always dimmed so we can see the glowing images that accompany all of our lectures, leaving just enough visibility to take notes – and just enough to lull sleep-deprived undergrads into the occasional unplanned nap, which shows up later in your notes as a half-completed word suddenly interrupted by a straight line sliding off the edge of the page.

The slide projector ticks softly from one image to the next each time the professor clicks the remote in her hand. Soon, we’re looking at and talking about Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in Ecstasy, a Venetian Renaissance painting from the late 1470s. The work is remarkable for how Bellini uses nature and a stubborn sort of naturalism to depict the experience of religious grace. There are no seraphs, no laser beams of God’s favour shooting across the canvas; rather, Bellini renders his main character in a deep and detailed landscape that dwarfs him with its earthy transcendence.

And then our professor explains to my class that as St. Francis stands before his humble cave, with his head thrown back and his back slightly arched by the power of the experience, he is receiving stigmata as a tribute to his devoutness.

Right at that moment, hundreds of kilometres and nearly a decade removed from that weird statue in the front hallway of my school, now in that darkened lecture hall, surrounded by my classmates, I involuntarily whisper-yelled into the droning quiet, “Oh, now I get it!”

This, ideally – maybe minus some embarrassing public muttering – is how a university education works. At first, you’re just collecting intriguing trivia and bits of isolated knowledge, like your brain is a fishing tackle box that’s being stocked one square at a time. But eventually, the bits and pieces of what you’re learning start to leap over the little dividers, dissolving the partition walls between them and making sense of little mysteries you didn’t realize were stuck in the back of your brain.

By the time you hit the job market, and your undergrad days fade to gauzy memories, chances are a lot of the factoids you picked up over the course of your degree have evaporated. But what remains are the ways of thinking and digging and puzzling out that you learned, the engaged, geeky excitement of seeing pieces of the world stitch themselves together before your eyes, and the ability to summon all the bright details back with a little cramming.

Shannon Proudfoot, BA’03, is an Ottawa-based writer covering politics and public policy for Maclean’s magazine. Follow her at @sproudfoot on Twitter.

This article appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Alumni Gazette
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