On the nature of beauty

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“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases …”
– Keats

“Beauty, as well as truth, is eternal; but the beauty of material things passes away, fading and fleeting as mortal belief. Custom, education, and fashion form the transient standards of mortals. Immortality, exempt from age or decay, has a glory of its own, — the radiance of Soul. … Beauty is a thing of life, which dwells forever in the eternal Mind and reflects the charms of His goodness in expression, form, outline, and color.”
Mary Baker Eddy

I’m always amazed at how much the world expands when I block out most of it and bring just a tiny bit into focus through my camera’s lens. Somehow, by limiting my view, I see things that escape me when I set down the camera and look at the world through everyday eyes.

Crouching on the floor of the convention center yesterday, my body twisted into an awkward (and probably ridiculous-looking) position, I held my breath and released the shutter, hoping I’d found an angle that could do justice to the sleek lines hiding under years of corrosion on Tulsa’s famous buried Belvedere.

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While many of my shots were about picking up the texture and color of a half-century of rust, debris, and mineral deposits, a few were about the breathtaking design work that went into the creation of the Plymouth Belvedere. What I wanted to show, more than anything else, was the way the car’s architectural elements — the voluptuous curve of the roof, the long, streamlined fins, even the distinctive Deco typeface that spelled out “BELVEDERE” — transcended 50 years of degradation and left an impression of inherent dignity and class that no outside forces could destroy.

In thinking about it later, I realized that in its tarnished condition, the car was whispering a quiet truth about the eternal nature of beauty.

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Parked several yards away, its gold paint gleaming under another set of lights, was a showroom-condition 1957 Belvedere, an identical twin to the one that had gone into the vault 50 years earlier.

With its shiny chrome bumpers and glossy paint, the lovingly maintained vehicle cut quite an impressive figure, but what struck me most was the fact that the qualities it expressed — things like grace, speed, power, and elegance — were no less visible in its recently unearthed counterpart.

And why should they be? Beauty never has been and never will be dependent on age, physical condition, or any other external factor. Beauty is a quality of God, reflected and expressed by man in “multifarious forms,” as Mrs. Eddy puts it.

Like the lines of a classic automobile, it has a way of surviving adverse conditions and shining through the lime deposits and rust that sometimes seem to coat the human experience.

Emily

P.S.: I promised a photo of the survivor that took my breath away and nearly brought me to tears when I walked into the car show Friday night at Tulsarama. Here it is:

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I’d assumed this sign was gone forever. I’d seen pictures of it, but it had long since vanished from the shoulders of the Mother Road by the time I took my first trip west on Route 66 a few years ago. Evidently it was in the hands of a private collector. What you can’t tell from the picture is that the smoking cowboy actually blows a series of three smoke rings that light up in sequence. It’s a tremendously eye-catching effect. Beautiful work, and a beautiful restoration.

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6 Responses to On the nature of beauty

  1. Oh my dear lord in heaven! The Round-up Motel sign lives?!?!? Do you know where this will be/is permanently displayed?

  2. It’s my understanding that it belongs to a private collector who owns many other historic neon signs. I’m told this is the first time he’s allowed part of his collection to be displayed publicly and that he has intentions of opening a neon museum “someday” but doesn’t have any firm plans at this time.

  3. Ace's driver says:

    That Round Up sign is the best news I’ve seen in a while. I do hope I get a chance to see/shoot it myself. I was so disappointed a few years ago when I drove to Claremore just to photograph it after seeing it in a book.

    Your picture reminds me of being surprised and delighted to see what I am pretty sure is the original neon Palomino Motel sign from Tucumcari in Las Vegas’ Neonopolis.

    On the one hand, both signs are out of their original context…on the other, they survive.

  4. I’ve got to get out to the Neonopolis. I’ve been dying to see the “WHOA! Palomino” sign ever since I saw it in the Vintage Neon book. Such a fun, campy, kitschy sign.

    On-site preservation is always preferable to off-site preservation, but sometimes the latter is the only option.

  5. Ron McCoy says:

    Emily, that was a beautiful essay and a truly amazing and emotional slide show. The music was perfect!

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