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Finding the Beauty in "Negative Space"
Posted 04/28/2016 05:06PM

Finding the Beauty in "Negative Space"

In his first Babbott Lecture, English teacher Peter Melman built on an interpretation of Alexander Archipenko's beguiling sculpture, Woman Combing Her Hair

In his first lecture as the 2015-2017 Frank L. Babbott Chair, Upper School English teacher Dr. Peter Melman asked the Packer community to strive to imagine and create meaning in their lives.

Established in 1977 to "recognize the scholarly pursuits and teaching excellence of faculty members at Packer in the fields of literature and the arts," the Babbott Chair is one of the highest honors bestowed upon a Packer faculty member by the Head of School.

Before Dr. Melman came to Packer in 2008, he served as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Hunter College and as a teacher at Hunter College High School. He has published short fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, and essays. His first novel, Landsman, a work of historical fiction that detailed the participation of Jewish soldiers for the Confederacy, was named a Notable Book of the Year by the American Library Association in 2007 and as "notable first fiction" by Publishers Weekly.

Head of School Bruce L. Dennis remarked that the honor recognized Dr. Melman's "exceptional work inside and outside of the classroom and his capacity to challenge students and encourage a love of literature and language."

Dr. Melman will deliver his second lecture as Babbott Chair in spring 2017.

Read an excerpt of the 2016 Babbott Lecture:

"Woman Combing Her Hair," Alexander Archipenko

But back to her for a minute. Just look at her. Her body. It's beautiful, yes, but it's structured. Built. Provided for. We see that kink of leg, her half-arm, the fluidity of hand becoming hair. It's presented before us. Hell, it's been sculpted for us.

And yet, what's so struck me by this idea, at long last, after thinking so deeply about it, is that our best lives are there, written on her face. See, our lives, who we are as people, our perspectives as individuals, are all ... just ... negative space. Nobody can prove to you what her face looks like. The contours of her brow, whether her nose is aquiline or pug or Roman. What about her lips? Are they full, or thin, are they smiling? A grimace? Are her eyes large, or almondine, too far apart or too close? Or, you know, maybe it is a "him." Or maybe we don't have to speak in binary terms, after all. Maybe they're a "they." Maybe they're not beautiful at all. Maybe they're disfigured. But only you can discern all that. Only you'll ever know.

That's what her face is saying. It's saying in its vacancy that it's up to you, to me, to all of us ... to intuit her, individually. That's where your perspective, matters. Irrefutably. It's a Rorshach test, a visual caesura. It's Po from Kung Fu Panda unrolling the Dragon Scroll for the first time. Who are you, what do you believe, what are you going to imagine where only blankness exists?

This isn't some "When you're older, you'll get what I'm talking about" bit. This is now. To craft an image. Of yourself, for yourself, as best you know how.

And it's time to start.

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