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The Wonder Report: April 1, 2022
How Art Makes Us Human
Today is April 1, which brings with it the potential for all kinds of great practical jokes. When I felt tiny snowflakes tapping my cheeks as we took the dogs out first thing this morning, I felt sure that was one of them. I also was delighted to find Ed Cyzewski’s annual April 1 book launch spoof in my inbox this morning: Inspired to Influence: An influencer’s boot camp to find your purpose, capture joy, create a life that counts, find spiritual satisfaction, and revolutionize your life to become authentically and uniquely you just like me. If you know Ed, you’d know this has to be a joke. But it’s still funny.
When I was young, my brother Gerry and I were always trying to catch Mom and Dad in an April Fools prank … before they caught us. As a parent myself, I’ve never been very successful with the perennial jokes. But it is a day that always feels a little bit light-hearted, which is exactly the kind of day we need as we carry around the heaviness of the world.
The last few issues of The Wonder Report have born their own kind of heaviness, so this week, I wanted to do something to raise our spirits. Alan Noble says for him, “the greatest comfort in belonging to Christ is that the things most central to my experience of life find their home. Love, beauty, justice, joy, guilt, pleasure, longing, sorrow, delight—it is these things, not in the abstract but in particular moments and with particular people, that give life most of its grandeur.”
This week, I want to talk about a couple of my own particular moments of grandeur, when art, nature, and reading … things central to my own experience of life … helped me feel a little more human. I hope these experiences help you call to mind moments of deep, glorious humanity in your own life.
Let’s start with a trip to the art museum.
1. Young Mother and Child
It’s been an exceptionally busy few weeks of work for me, with extra client projects and unexpected writing assignments filling my to-do list. After months of flailing focus and barely getting by since Mom died, I’ve had to push my attention muscles to full capacity. And it’s tiring. Yesterday, when it was time to get back to it after a quick lunch, I couldn’t. I was suddenly and inexplicably exhausted, overcome by a headache and barely able to keep my eyes open. So I took the afternoon off and laid on the couch.
Which is why this morning, when I had the great idea to spend a couple of hours at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, I should have stopped myself. I should have looked at the to-do list and insisted on staying the course, making up for lost time yesterday and pushing through. Instead, I thought of yesterday’s exhaustion and the level of creative work yet to do and realized that pushing on wasn’t going to work. I needed to be inspired.
I’ve visited the museum a couple of times since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, mostly because their health and safety guidelines made me feel comfortable doing so. But I hadn’t been since restrictions were mostly lifted and the museum was back to full capacity. It took me 10 minutes to find a parking spot. I began to wonder if I’d made a mistake. But once I finally parked the car and made my way inside, I felt the stress melt away.
There were several exhibits I was interested in seeing and several galleries I wanted to visit, but the thing I most wanted to do was wander through the recently renovated Clowes Pavillion. It’s always been a gallery unlike any in the museum, featuring a “stone-floored atrium with limestone columns, a fountain, and a staircase leading to a series of small, ornate galleries patterned after the Clowes family home,” writes Sam Stall in Indianapolis Monthly. Since it was first built in 1972, these galleries have been home to the “old masters” collection—Rembrandt, El Greco, and Rubens—donated to the museum by the Clowes family. But when the space got a refresh, so did the curation.
Now, many of the favorite old masters are still there, but so are some new paintings and sculptures, grouped thematically rather than chronologically and geographically. As soon as visitors enter, they’re introduced to the idea with a pairing of Paolo Uccello’s (Italian, 1397–1475), “Portrait of a Young Man,” from around 1430–35, with Andy Warhol’s (American, 1928–1987), “Stephen Sprouse,” from 1984, allowing the artworks to be “in dialogue with one another throughout the galleries.”
In one gallery, all the paintings and sculptures highlighted the influence of women in art history, from sitting as subjects for the great masters to working as great masters themselves. I walked casually by a few of the paintings, scanning the curator notes. But eventually, I found my attention drawn to a pair of paintings each with a woman and child.
The first was “Madonna and Child” by Barbara Longhi, a 16th-17th century Italian painter. This piece was striking not only because it was painted by a woman, but also because the woman in the painting, presumably Mary the mother of Jesus, is reading to her infant son, something quite extraordinary for the time.
But it was actually the other painting that caught my attention first, a Copy of William Bouguereau’s "Young Girl and Child" painted by his wife, the 19th century American copyist, Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau.
Several things drew me to the work: the gaze of mother and child, the chiaroscuro highlighting their faces and the creamy skin of the pudgy toddler, the protective embrace of the mother. But I also noticed the young woman standing in front of the painting taking a photo. I saw her profile first, and when she turned to leave, I was stunned.
“You look just like the woman in the painting,” I said, before I even realized what I was doing.
She laughed nervously. “You think so?”
“I do. It’s uncanny.”
“I kinda think so, too,” she said, “but it feels weird to compare myself to the Madonna.”
“But you do, you look just like her,” I insisted, reaching out to touch her shoulder in a way that was overly familiar. Again, without thinking.
“And the little boy—he looks like my little boy,” she said. “The picture looks just like us.”
“Well I’m so glad you were able to see it today,” I said as she walked away to find the real-life boy who’d wandered away from the painting.
I left the Clowes Pavilion still a little shaken from the encounter, the way art had come to life not only in the dark-eyed young mother standing in front of me but also in the conversation with her, the unexpected connection.
Later, as I was about to leave, I saw a security rover chatting with an older woman who’d been separated from her group. Normally, these gallery attendants keep to themselves, quietly observing. As the woman walked away, I found myself walking up to him.
“What’s your favorite exhibit here?” I asked.
He laughed. “How could I have a favorite? There’s thousands of pieces here.”
“Well, what’s your favorite gallery then?” I asked.
“Have you been to the Clowes Pavillion yet?”
I smiled. “That’s why I’m here today.”
He told me about a Rubens painting he loved, and a depiction of the suffering of Christ he couldn’t stop thinking about, “even though I’m not normally into that kind of thing.” And then he asked me if I’d gone into the back room, the one with the digital light display.
“There’s a painting there of a mother and a child,” he said. “It’s extraordinary. There’s just something about her eyes. It’s her gaze or something.”
“I just saw it,” I said, as I flung my hand to my neck dramatically. “It’s stunning.”
“I look at it every time I’m here,” he said. “It’s that gaze. They say Mona Lisa is like that. I’ve never seen it in person, but this painting. It’s like she’s looking at me.”
“You’ll never believe it, but when I was just down there, I saw a woman looking at the painting and when she turned around, she looked just like the woman in the painting.”
“No sh*t?” he said, he own hand flinging up to his mouth. “Sorry. No kidding?”
“Yes! I couldn’t believe it,” I said.
“Did you get a picture? I mean like with the woman and the painting?”
“I didn’t,” I told him.
“You should’ve captured the moment,” he said, turning back to the gallery to continue his security roving.
And maybe I should have. Maybe I should have asked the young mother if I could photograph her next to the masterpiece.
Or maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe instead, I’ll just remember the racing of my heart, the brush of my hand on her shoulder, the way she looked for her son, and excitement of an otherwise subdued security guard who was so overcome he spewed out an expletive. A picture would have been a nice reminder, but these moments of human connection transformed me.
I wonder … how has art connected you to others? Have you ever had an experience where art came to life, like my encounter with the young woman? In what ways does are make us more human?
By the way, this article might offer a few extra insights on how art can transform us. It’s a good one: Engaging with an artwork leaves you and the art transformed from Psyche.
2. Gamin by Augusta Savage
Not only did I go to the museum to see the renovated Clowes Pavillion, I also wanted to see the Art in Bloom exhibit, a collection of floral arrangements inspired by works of art in the IMA permanent collection.
There were several beautiful pieces, but the one that moved me the most was an arrangement by Choi-Ha Cassell and Kasha Lantz, inspired by Harvard renaissance sculptor Augusta Savage’s “Gamin.”
According to the curator notes, “Gamin is French for street urchin and this sculpture was intended to emphasize the dignity and strength of the young men living in Harlem.”
The floral arrangement, perched on bricks and a concrete vase, not only highlighted that same depth of humanity, the colors and shapes of the flowers “sculpt the beauty and dignity of the human face of Gamin.”
3. Spring Blossoms
Nothing does my heart so good in spring like seeing the new blossoms and leaves erupting on the trees. Here are a couple of photos that have me smiling this week.
4. “Dolly Parton Is Magnificent” by Mary Townsend
What is it about Dolly Parton that makes people of all ideologies, ages, and places love her? Surely it has something to do with that giggle and her larger than life hair-dos. And it almost certainly involves her songs “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You,” the latter made famous by Whitney Houston.
But philosophy professor Mary Townsend thinks it’s more than that.
“Dolly Parton is not simply a good person, or a beautiful poetess; she is both beautiful and good, in a way the philosophy of character strives to explain but can’t always illustrate convincingly,” Townsend writes. “Usually, our heroes disappoint us with flaws or scandal, or our admiration and interest wanes and we move on to the next person to admire. But the more I come to learn about Dolly, the stronger my feelings become.”
If you also happen to be a Dolly Parton fan, or even if you’re not (maybe especially if you’re not), I think you’ll love this essay from Plough that explores the idea that Alan Noble has started us on today, that notion that we should “keep walking toward the beautiful,” because that is what it means to be human.
We’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report. Thanks for joining me here each week. It’s a privilege to share this space with you and to enter into these conversations together. It’s my favorite part of the writing life.
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