The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

January 20, 2013

Andra Bryan Stefanoni: Professor experiments in amateur way with observing beauty, change in ordinary

PITTSBURG, Kan. — The ordinary is an interesting thing — if only you look closely enough and do it for an extended period of time.

Try this experiment: Every day, look at an object or place that’s merely a routine part of your life. Really look at it. It can be as simple as the tree in your front yard or a building you pass by each morning on your way to work. Does it change? Does anything around it change? Can you find any beauty in it?

Bobby Winters, a math professor at Pittsburg State University, thinks so. He has been experimenting with this idea and these questions for a couple of years — not professionally, just personally, and in a simple way.

An early riser, he is able to claim the same parking space each morning on a campus on which parking is limited by arriving at work between 7 and 7:30 a.m. His standard spot is in front of Grubbs Hall on Cleveland Avenue, which is just around the corner from Carnie Smith Stadium. Architecturally, the stadium is extremely photo-worthy.

Standing next to it is the 60-foot Centennial Bell Tower. It was given as a gift by the graduating classes of 1993-96, and it contains an 800-pound bell cast in 1874 by the Meneely Bell Co. of West Troy, N.Y.

The bell originally hung in a church in Somerset, Pa. It was refurbished by Brosamer’s Bells of Brooklyn, Mich., and obtained for the tower by several PSU supporters. It, too, is photo-worthy.

But Winters isn’t going for gallery-quality photos of the bell tower or of the famed stadium, where for decades national championships have been decided. He simply wants to become a more dedicated observer of something so routine as the sunrise he sees as he steps out of his car.

He uses not a high-end camera but a simple iPhone, or occasionally his iPad, which he points eastward — not bothering too much with the finer points of composition — and snaps a photo. In those photos are always the same things: a telephone wire overhead, the road marked with parking spaces, the hulking shape of Axe Library, the clock tower and the sky.

But each photo is a bit different. On Jan. 24, 2012, the sky behind the clock tower appeared to be on fire, with the flames of sunrise licking upward. On April 27 and again on Oct. 12, beautiful clouds and color provided depth. On Aug. 29, one could just make out the faintest pinprick of a planet — Venus? Jupiter? — above the library. And on Sept. 28, fog took control and muted everything.

His routine of photographing the routine began, he said, just because the sky was pretty one day and he wished to capture it, to share it with Facebook friends. Now those friends look forward to his posts, notice slight changes and comment if he goes too long without taking a photograph.

“As I’ve gotten more of them, it has become a question of how many ways can this be pretty ... and what changes,” Winters said.

Last Tuesday’s photo wasn’t especially pretty, in his opinion. But as he walked across the Oval to the Student Center for coffee with a colleague, the scene became, in a word, gorgeous.

“I’ve discovered there is a rather small window of opportunity for some of the things the morning light does,” Winters said.

If he doesn’t capture it one day, he said, he’s banking on the sun rising again tomorrow.

Follow Andra Stefanoni on Facebook at facebook.com/andrajournalist and on Twitter @AndraStefanoni.

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