In September, 2016 I started a year-long personal challenge of doing something each week that I’ve never done before then writing about it. This is week 25.
I’m very lucky to have parents that were both willing and able to make art museums part of my education as a little kid. My first visits were probably to the Art Institute in Chicago when I was in elementary school. The spectacle of dinosaur skeletons and hall after hall of dioramas (my favorite!) at the nearby Field Museum have overwritten the more subtle enticements of noseless Greek statues and indecipherable paintings. Still, those quiet, carefully-lit rooms became places in which I was comfortable.
My art-viewing eyes never gained much sophistication or patience. I still scour museums for the rare piece that makes me either want to smile or cry or roll the thing around inside my mouth. I rush by the rest with barely a pause, unwilling to linger and see what happens.
Recently, a friend posted about taking his writing students to an art museum with the intention of looking closely and then writing. He posted pics of them sitting in chairs with notebooks in their laps staring at the art on the walls. It looked lovely so I decided to give it a try myself at the Portland Art Museum. And if I couldn’t make myself sit and write then I would do the afternoon tour of their latest exhibit of African-American art and try to linger that way.
Here’s the thing: the Portland Art Museum doesn’t have many places to sit. Those benches that often are placed in the middle of the exhibit halls are decidedly absent from much of the museum. Here’s the other thing: I really wanted to find an excuse to not do this. I wasn’t feeling inspired. And yet, I know this is exactly the right time to push through my resistance and do it anyway.
I finally worked my way into a room in the contemporary section of the museum that had a video installation in it. A big, dark room lined with benches! The piece was called Cheshire by Sanford Biggers and involved a large electric mouth with flashing teeth on one wall, a soundtrack of a woman singing an exaggerated version of Strange Fruit and a video of different black men in a variety of street clothes and uniforms climbing trees.
In your mind, you’ve already poked your head in for twenty seconds and left, right? If it hadn’t been for the benches I probably would have done the same. Instead, I sat and watched and listened for the full 15 minutes or so. Since I was there alone, I turned on my phone flashlight and did a quick two-minute free write.
And now this piece is in my memory. It wasn’t beautiful or sad or particularly moving, but staying with it long enough let my brain work in a different way. How did it make me feel to watch some of the men struggle to get into the tree while others climbed quickly to the top? How did it make me feel to watch them sit there and then watch some of them struggle to get down? All the while that big grin flashed from the other wall and the dramatic voice rolled into me. It tapped into empathy and memory. It tapped into fear and excitement and failure. I thought of cats pulled from trees by firemen and men pulled from trees by klansmen.
And then, because I’d lingered long enough, I was just in time to join the public tour where I was allowed to linger some more, learn something deeper and play a bit. The tour guides gave out simple stapled sketchbooks before we started which I thought was a wonderful idea. I took a few notes and dashed a few sketchy lines into it. How do you draw the fold in cloth? How do lips meet chin? How does shadow meet skin?
I’ve been trying to loosen my grasp on the idea that art is an object. A product. A thing to see or read or listen to. Something made in suffering and deemed worthy by elites. I’m increasingly interested in art as a way to see the world and be in the world, which sounds pretentious on one hand, but feels the exact opposite. It seems that one of the places where these two ideas meet is at the museum. Yes, these are objects chosen by elites, but it’s also a space where you can move slowly and dwell. It’s an opportunity to take in beauty, think down different paths and occasionally be caught by something unexpected.