A Museum Bridges the Gaps

I knew he’d be there, waiting.  I’d seen his photo and heard a story or two, so I wasn’t fearful of missing him. He wasn’t going anywhere.

Still, when I turned and saw him at the end of the gallery, I was taken aback, both by his air of patient weariness and by his obvious disregard for the people who’d clustered around him. Edging closer, I listened to their conversation.

“What’s his name?”
“Don’t think he’s got a name.”
“He sure enough looks real. I was about ready to ask him the time.”
“Yeh, and if he’d answered, you’d have been right surprised.”

At Crystal Bridges, it doesn’t take long to become comfortable enough to join in.

“He reminds me of my dad,” I said. “That’s how he’d look when Mom made him go shopping with her.”

After the laughter subsided, one of the women looked at a man I took to be her husband and said,

“That’s right. I’ve seen that look. But the artist ought to have put a woman on that bench, too – for all the times we’ve been dragged off to hardware stores and farm sales.”

Clearly, Rod Bigelow, Executive Director of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, had it right. Asked about his favorite piece in the collection, he said,

“My favorite work of art changes regularly, but today… it’s a Duane Hanson sculpture titled “Man on a Bench”.  It’s literally a depiction of an older gentleman sitting on a bench. I like it because of the way our visitors interact with the sculpture – they’re surprised by it, intrigued, sometimes taken aback in that they think it’s real. It elicits great response, from all ages.”


There’s a lot to interact with at Crystal Bridges, beginning with WalMart heiress Alice Walton. Once she put her energies – and her considerable money – behind her vision of accessible, quality art for the people of Arkansas and surrounding states, the reactions were swift and often predictable.

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The Art In Nature’s Insult

In kindergarten, we were overwhelmed. In first grade, we forged alliances. By second grade, we were in the middle of the fray, taunting fourth, fifth and even sixth-graders with impunity. “So’s your old man!” “Your mother wears combat boots!”  “Cheater, cheater, pumpkin-eater!”

As our vocabularies developed we grew bolder and moved on to true insults. “When they were giving out brains, you thought they said canes and said, ‘I don’t need one!'”

Even at that age, the ability to give and fend off a good insult became the measure of our mettle. We enjoyed participating in a tradition reaching back to Shakespeare and beyond, a tradition marvelously and creatively maintained by sharp-tongued repartee artists closer to our time. Continue reading

Shedding Daylight

Gary Myers is an artist whose work I admire and whose blog I’ve followed for several years. He lives just north of Elmira, New York, in the memorably-named town of Horseheads.  His paintings, recognizable, unique and strangely stirring, have hung in such galleries as the West End in Corning, New York, the Principle in Alexandria, Virginia and the The Haen in Asheville, North Carolina.

A museum exhibition titled Internal Landscapes: The Paintings of GC Myers, officially opened at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York on August 18. Continuing through December 31, the show groups together larger paintings from the last few years with a few very early small pieces that represent the beginnings of his work. A highlight at the Fenimore is the first public showing of The Internal Landscape, a painting whose progress readers of Gary’s blog were able to follow. Continue reading

Taking It All Away

As parents will to children and teachers to students, most craftsmen seem to enjoy passing on accumulated wisdom in the form of pithy sayings. Some are humorous, like my carpenter friend’s reversal of common-sense advice that always leads to giggles. “Measure once, cut twice”, he intones with a straight face before we both laugh, knowing how many disasters from the past still lie scattered along that ill-advised path. Other snippets of practical wisdom are more serious and reverberate with truth. No less a wall-tender than the poet Robert Frost knew the distinction between a job and a career. He described it as the difference between working forty hours a week  and sixty, a reality some discover too late, and much to their chagrin. Continue reading

Art and Life Say “Howdy” and Shake

I hadn’t meant to linger, but when Hazel caught me just outside the post office doors, there was nothing for it but to say good morning and fold up the to-do list.  Like everyone in town, I knew the truth Hazel freely confessed. She came to the post office as much for the socializing as for stamps, and when she bumped into you, she expected to be humored.

That day, it was my turn.  We covered her loss at the weekly domino party (“they cheated”), the small size of her figs (“not near enough rain”) and the relative merits of oilcloth versus paper table coverings at a picnic. She’d just begun dissecting the virtues and faults of her grand-daughter’s new boyfriend (“polite enough, but not much use on a tractor”) when a fellow I recognized but didn’t know by name parked his truck and ambled up the sidewalk.

Hazel fairly beamed. “Harlan!” she said. “Why aren’t you out with them cows?” Harlan just grinned. “Now, why would I be spendin’ time with a bunch of old cows when I can come here and spend time with you?” Turning my direction, Harlan touched the brim of his hat with a finger. “Mornin’, ma’am.”

Hazel always remembered her manners. “Have you met this young lady?” “I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure,” Harlan said. “I sure haven’t. We’ve howdied, but we ain’t shook yet. Pleased to meet you, ma’am.” The introductions made, we proceeded to shake hands, right then and there. Continue reading

Shaping the Gift of Reality


Long before encountering a palm tree, years before skimming across watery ribbons of lapis and azure entwined through the heart of Caribbean islands, lifetimes before walking entangled and thorned into tumbles of bougainvillea and the shadows of tropical dreams, I loved Winslow Homer and his art.

A prolific and engaging American watercolorist, Homer (1836-1910) moved from New York to Prout’s Neck, Maine in the summer of 1883. Despite his love of the New England coast, he often vacationed in Florida and the Caribbean. His mastery of his medium and his unique vision of the islands produced exquisite renderings of sun-drenched homes, palm-fringed beaches and great, vivid falls of blossoms redolent of nutmeg and honey.

During a first visit to the Caribbean, I was intrigued to discover how completely its marvelous realities entangled themselves in my mind with Winslow’s work. It seemed impossible to separate the threads. I had expected to think, “Winslow Homer’s painting looks like this.” But as I gazed about, wriggling my toes into sugar-soft sand and tasting the salt-heavy air, I came to a rather different conclusion. The Caribbean looked liked Winslow Homer. It was as though the artist himself had absorbed, intensified, and re-presented the sea, sand and sky in such a way that his paintings were distillations of the islands – purer than reality itself. Continue reading

The Foreign and the Familiar


It was, I thought at the time, rather like going to church. The spare, sweeping space of the galleries, the click of heels across marble and wood, the sound of parents shushing children into silence and the sight of impassive, stolid guards lined up along the walls like ushers felt familiar, even if the painting and sculpture did not.

I was young and slightly timid, well-educated but inexperienced in the arts.  With an eye still incapable of discerning distinctions and little appreciation for technique, my first experience of a “real” art museum felt like a visit to a foreign country.  I might as well have been in Tanganyika, a country that still existed the year I found myself plucked from my familiar, everyday world and transported to the National Gallery of Art.


Previously, my museum-going had been confined to the Des Moines Art Center.  Building additions, including one designed by I.M. Pei, have changed its appearance over the years and expanded the space available for exhibits, but in its original incarnation it was positively cozy. With creamy stone facades, immaculate lawns and lush trees, it could have been any upper-middle class home in any upper-middle class Iowa neighborhood. It was as familiar as the neighborhood playground or the Dairy Queen, and as comfortable. It played to its audience, and did it well. Continue reading