A practice of gazing upward.

cloudspotting

Written by Kieu

Once upon a time, patches of clover dominated our lawn in the warmer months, covering the yard like urban sprawl and undulating like the canopy of a miniature forest. No matter how often dad mowed them down, those patches always regenerated, lush clusters of vivid green dotted with white buds. I spent a large portion of my childhood outside barefoot, and I loved digging my feet into the coolness between clover and earth. Better yet, I would find the largest patch and nestle, letting the coolness envelope the length of my body—a respite from the summer heat. As a bonus, I could gaze up at the sky and delight in the shapes and, on breezy days, the movement of the clouds.

The clover is much sparser these days, having ceded territory to orderly grass, but looking at the sky still brings me joy. Growing up in a predominantly flat landscape, I fell in love with uncrowded, expansive skies. It’s a humbling experience, to realize how small I am, but it never made me feel insignificant. Skygazing also gives me a sense of calm. In many ways, it’s a mindfulness practice; it’s about being present, observing the moment and the environment, and allowing my thoughts to roam without trying to corral them.

My last year in college was very overwhelming, and it was during that time that I started going for long drives. I would hit the highway, pick a direction, and head away from the city. Being alone with nothing but the road and sky for company was peaceful—it gave me time to think, or not think. I would turn off at whatever place struck my fancy and explore smaller paths through farmland and tiny towns, pulling over to take photographs from time to time. I chose to capture quiet landscapes, often bearing the marks of human activity but devoid of any figures: ramshackle barns, tractor marks baked into the dirt, and overgrown fields.

I was equally in love with book arts at the time, and photographs from that fall semester, of those rural landscapes, became a book. Photographs from the spring semester became part of my thesis project. Instead of empty landscapes, I turned my lens toward the sky, transferring the blue and the clouds to medium format film with a borrowed Hasselblad.

Those square frames became twelve by twelve inch prints, arranged into a grid of twelve by eight. I had made a version of the sky that could be brought indoors, and the squares of disparate clouds formed a giant, collective cloudbank. I could stand, or sit, in front of that skyscape and meditate, just as if I was outside with my eyes lifted up.

When I graduated, I left the piece—eight boards of mounted prints—in the care of friends as I prepared to move to Japan. Of course, they became migratory too, and the piece eventually ended up in a Rhode Island town, in the basement of the childhood home of one of those friends. That basement subsequently flooded. Along with the other things that were beyond saving, those eight boards of sky were placed by the road as rubbish.

In my mind, I imagined the prints had loosened from their bindings, edges flapping, maybe hanging on by a corner. I imagined empty squares where photographs had become dislodged completely. When my friend relayed the news to me, I found that the loss of the piece did not sadden me, especially since there was a twist to the story: in the dark of night, some individual (or individuals) had seen those squares of sky as they passed by, collected them—maybe freeing what was left on the boards—and posted the prints around town. Even in its destruction, my beloved work was bringing small moments of joy to others.

The only memento I have left is this mockup. These squares were sliced from contact sheets printed with no regard for color correction. Their sole purpose was to allow me to play with the arrangement and create a map for the final piece. Held together with masking tape and sporting dings and tears, it’s an imperfect echo of that giant cloudbank that I once stood in front of, but the memory it calls forth is just as beautiful as that experience was.