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Beauty, The Intuition of Truth

by Melanie Narish

As Sir Roger Scruton says in his short book on the subject, “Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways. Yet it is never viewed with indifference: beauty demands to be noticed; it speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend.” Such friendship with beauty was Elizabeth Butler’s personal experience of a classical education, eventually inspiring her to pursue a career as an artist.

According to the poet Ezra Pound, “The artist is always beginning. Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, or a discovery is of little worth.” In a similar vein, contemporary artist Elizabeth Butler doesn’t want to merely paint flowers—a subject that has been touched upon again and again—she wants to recreate the experience of seeing flowers for the first time.

“I want to show fullness and abundance. I arrange the flowers in compositions that challenge your sense of perspective and fill the frame for a powerful experience: to provide an arresting encounter with beauty for the observer.”

Elizabeth developed her technical skills through her classical training, beginning as a student at Tempe Prep Academy (Arizona) and proceeding to postsecondary study under Dr. Gingher Leyendecker. Using methods that included advanced life drawing, art anatomy, figure drawing, and figure and portrait painting, Dr. Leyendecker drew from a technical tradition of painting and apprenticeship that stretches back to the French Academic method of the 18th century. As Elizabeth explains, “An instructor helps you through the process. You watch it happen; you are given instruction; and then you do it. People say they can’t draw, and then I ask them, ‘Has anyone ever taught you?’”

Not only did she have instructors guide her, but the replication of masterworks gave her the opportunity to emulate great masters: her ultimate guides. “When copying a masterwork, it’s as though the problem has already been solved, and you are now trying to use someone else’s solution. If you copy a DaVinci using a different method, it’s just copying. You must follow his method to learn how he approached the challenges—like values and proportions. You learn about the method, and then you learn the discipline.”

Yet, when copying a masterwork, you also learn about yourself, says Elizabeth: “You walk through the artist’s solution and see how it fits you, how it sits with you. Then you must practice your own art to understand, ‘How do I make this work?’” Elizabeth’s apprenticeship and careful practice honed her technical capacity, but her disciplined classical training brought more: a deeper appreciation for beauty and excellence. “A classical liberal arts education prepared me to approach my art education in an intelligent and sensible way. I wanted instruction and methodology that would enable me to do something well. I wanted to develop my skills before studying concepts. Moreover, my classical education taught me that there was objective truth and objective beauty, which allows us to have objective conversations about art. Simone Weil once said, ‘Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul.’ That is to say, our intuition recognizes beauty, even before we discuss or describe it. The intellectual side comes later. Our imagination knows, and for some people that’s a little scary – even wild!”

Elizabeth describes the artist’s path as a way of finding universal truth: not reinventing but revealing truth. As she sees it, the job of an artist is to gather experiences and to produce something universal. “That’s why a work from centuries ago still resonates. The artist was grasping something universal. Beauty allows you to approach the truth.”

As of January, Elizabeth is displaying her work at the “Celebration of Fine Art” in Scottsdale, Arizona. She also substitutes and teaches studio art at a few Great Hearts academies in Phoenix. See more of Elizabeth’s artwork on her website: elizabethbutlerfineart.com.

By intentionally cultivating students’ abilities to recognize and produce beautiful artifacts–music, drawings, poetry, drama, etc.–K-12 classical education provides young people with the rudiments of a beautiful life.

As Sir Roger Scruton says in his short book on the subject, “Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways.

The printmaker bursts his throat telling us about light, telling us about the hillside unveiling in sequence each new day, each hour—the sun layered like paint on groves of olives or lines of dark cypress that spill, no, are quilted, diagonally across the field.

In 1877, George Eliot wrote that she believed she had coined the term “meliorism,” meaning the belief that the world tends to improve, and we can help to improve it. The word was probably in circulation before that, but she certainly drew attention to it and is always associated with it today.

With practiced grace, Mr. Kolb tucks a violin under his chin and places the bow on the strings, and the students’ own bows–silently, instantly–leap to their own instruments. He pauses to remind them to “Walk up to the first note, don’t play it,” and then he slices the strings and they launch into “French Folk Song,” a Suzuki standby.

Virtue is the flagship publication of the Great Hearts Institute. It disseminates stories, ideas, research and experiences in classical education to readers across the nation, helping them pursue the classical ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty.

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