Naming Rainbows

Living in the area around Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton (ABE, in airport parlance), one can’t help but be aware that Crayola is based in the E sector.  We visited the Crayola Experience while still residents of New Jersey and if there’s any place that smells like childhood this was it.  One of the truly interesting aspect of Crayola is that it defined specific shades of color.  Or at least Crayola’s version of it.  Many of us have pretty clear ideas about the basic six colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple.  Sure, they added “indigo” to make it into a pronounceable name, and changed purple to “violet” to give us the standard seven, but this illustrates the point that I’m making—colors are somewhat relative.  Try to get anyone to describe, famously, puce (which I’ve learned is French for “fleas”).

A friend has recently been sharing stories from a book on the origins of color names (Secret Lives of Colors by Kassia St Clair), from which I learned about puce.  Although I haven’t read the book myself, it has become clear that colors indicate different things to different people.  All of this reminded me of a crisis I faced in my youth.  One of my teachers in middle school, in physics class, mentioned that not all people perceived the same color in the same way.  Or at least there’s no way to know whether they do or not.  Perhaps, he suggested, everyone has the same favorite color, but what they call it is different.  While the latter point seems unlikely, I took to heart that not everyone sees things the same way.  The same dilemma came back to me as my friend showed me various colors and said that her idea of what that color name designated was something quite different.

As in much of what I write, there are metaphors and analogies active here.  A paradox of religions is the great variety among them combined with the certainty that one’s own alone is “the truth.”  And all religious believers tend to be certain that theirs is true.  Like the color names we learn as children, we seldom grow up to question what we were told in our youth.  Some religions appeal to adult converts, but most people stay close to the orthodoxies of their youth.  Religions, like colors names, are a matter of consensus, for there are any number of shades and hues, and what we decide to name them is not revealed from on high.  They do, however, give the world considerable color.

 

Veni Creator Spiritus

Over 100 billion have been made. Not McDonald’s hamburgers, this time, but Crayola crayons. For many of us, Crayola is one of the distinct scents of childhood, and the vibrant colors Binney and Smith offered were inexpensive keys to creative expression. After a visit to the Crayola Experience in Easton, Pennsylvania over the weekend, I began to wonder how society might have changed due to the introduction of the inexpensive crayon. Reading about childhood in the Victorian era often feels like a Dickensian bleak view of want and wasting. Children learned their lessons in school, when they went to school, in black and white. The world of color was visible to them, but not ready to hand for representation. Maybe I’m under the spell of that Crayola smell again, but I wonder how giving a child a box of color changed the way the world was perceived.

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The Crayola Experience, like the showcase of Hershey, Pennsylvania, is not a factory tour. You’re not shown the inside of the place of business, but rather the public facing side of capitalism: the part that makes you want to buy. Even after the kids are grown. Nevertheless, the experience is one of wonder and imagination for young and old alike. Art is a deeply personal form of expression. Even as I sat at a low, brightly primary-colored table, shading away on my picture, I didn’t want anyone else to see it. This was my own self-expression. On the wall were quotes from children who were not quite so damaged as me, declaring why they decided to color the cow purple or the horse green.

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To participate in some of the activities you need to cash in a token; admission gives you three and more are available for purchase. The motto on the tokens is “In creativity we trust.” It is a motto that I can live with, for it seems that creativity is the realm of the divine. Otherwise, I find it difficult to fathom why a few hours amid such a juvenile pastime could be so utterly satisfying. It’s as if the rainbow, a religious symbol of my childhood, had been fractured out into countless variations and captured in wax for the expression of my soul. Breathing deeply of that paraffin recipe, I think how only the other major aroma of childhood—that of Play-Doh—can take me back to fantasies of innocent hours where the world demands nothing of you beyond being who you are. How quickly that grace period ends. And yet, for a few dollars we can go back for an hour or two, and remember what it was like to create entire worlds.