Chapter 1

Seeing Eye-to-Eye

                             A TRIBUTE TO DR. RICHARD E. HELLER

I met Dr. Richard E. (“Dick”) Heller in the summer of 1976. I was 28 years old and he was 70. I had just been appointed as an Assistant Professor of Anatomy at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. Although I was an accomplished neuroanatomist, I had never taken a course in “gross” (total body) anatomy. Yet, that was what I was going to have to teach.

Dick Heller,
by Ron Clavier, Oil on Canvas, 1982 (private collection)
Dick was a retired surgeon who had served with the U.S. Army Medical Corps in WWII. His duties took him to a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (“MASH”) in Italy. While there, he had a chance to become fascinated by sculpture in bronze; and he returned to Italy after the war, to learn the (“lost wax”) technique for himself.

Dick lived with his wife Ruth in a stately Chicago brownstone apartment across the street from Northwestern’s Ward Building, where anatomy was taught. A few days before my arrival, he had approached the Department of Anatomy with the offer to help out in the Gross Anatomy lab. My colleagues realized immediately that the best use they could make of him was to have him be my “lab partner” as I hurriedly prepared to greet the students and teach them what little I knew.

That, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. He became my cherished mentor, teaching me to appreciate the unity of art and science, and the importance of truth. Once, when I was struggling with a commissioned portrait, I called him. The physical features of my subject were there; but the painting seemed flat and lifeless. I was devastated. But Dick identified the problem right away. “Don’t paint what you see. Paint what you know!” I’ve never forgotten that wise advice. 


Over the years, I visited Dick and Ruth in their home several times. Each time, I couldn’t take my eyes of the artwork, which included signed works by Picasso and Miró. My favourite piece of all was the small bronze sculpture entitled simply “Moebius”, which Dick had completed in 1960. My love of this piece was not lost on Dick.

Years later, when my family took a car trip to Chicago, I stopped off at Dick’s building to present him with the portrait I had done of him. He accepted it with tears in his eyes, and turned to walk back into his building. Then he stopped and said “Don’t leave yet!” He disappeared into the lobby and after 5 minutes he returned with a small cardboard box. “Don’t open it until you get to Toronto” was his only instruction. We both knew this would be the last time we’d see each other.

Of course, the box contained “Moebius”.

 (bronze sculpture) by Dick Heller, 1960
The following definition of moebius by Francisco Domenech gives voice to my fascination with this piece: “The Möbius (sic) strip is “ object that defies common sense and our prejudices about what is intuitive...It is a two-dimensional object that has sneaked into our three-dimensional world...” (Francisco Domenech, “Möbius and Impossible Objects”,Open Mind BBVA, 2018).”

Moebius revisited

Sixty years after Dick brought “Moebius” into the world, I have transformed it, photographically, into “Moebius Revisited”. I can’t think of a visual that better represents the thinking behind my artwork: “...defying common sense and prejudice about what is intuitive.” I photographed Dick’s Moebius from several different angles. I then chose two perspectives of the image that looked to me most like the silhouettes of two human heads facing each other.
"Moebius Revisited, (Photographic image by Ron Clavier, 2021)

Seeing eye to eye

What do we mean when we say that two people don’t “...see eye to eye”? The most common interpretation of this is that when two people look at exactly the same thing, they often don’t see it exactly the same way. All too often, this can lead to anger, unwillingness to be persuaded, and dismissal of the other view as “wrong”.

And yet, there can be a much more positive way of seeing “eye to eye”. This can be demonstrated by a simple exercise: Hold your index finger about 8 inches in front of your face. Now, keep your left eye open, and close your right eye. You will see your finger from one perspective. Then, without changing the position of your finger, close your left eye and open the right. You will see that the same finger includes things (like a fingernail) that you couldn’t see with the other.
This simple exercise doesn’t result in anger or dismissal; in fact, it’s just the opposite. it shows us that the more different ways we look at the same thing, the more we understand, and hopefully accept as being “true” about it.

Visual Implications:

When we look at something with both eyes open, we see things literally “eye to eye”; and we refer to the experience as “binocular” vision. This is also known as 3-dimensional vision since seeing “eye to eye” allows us to perceive depth.

Social Implications:
Many people see societal things very differently from how we see them. The list of such things includes: political, economic, and philosophical viewpoints; and stereotypes of race, religion, sex, age, and many more. If we insist that our personal way of seeing these things is the only ‘right” way to see them, we invite the trouble I referred to when people don’t see “eye to eye’: elements of anger; unwillingness to be persuaded; and dismissal of the other view as “wrong".

Artistic Implications:
What can be more exhilarating, more central to learning, than to step into the mind of an artist and see how they experience the very same object as you? Nor does it matter whether that artist is world-renowned or a preschool child. Both can enlighten us with the capacity to defy common sense, and arrive at a deeper truth about something. Whether it comes to us as visual, musical, literary or any other form, challenging what is intuitive arouses and thrills us. It speaks to our natural love of whatever is new (i.e., “neophilia, about which I’ll write more in the last two chapters of this series).