Tuesday, December 17, 2019

When We Stop Teaching Children Long Enough For Them To Teach Us

When our daughter Josephine was a toddler, one of our frequent father-daughter outings was to visit art museums. I know this isn't a possibility for every two-year-old, but she was temperamentally capable of looking without touching, moving from room-to-room without running, and generally behaving herself in a way that didn't cause the security personnel to verge on heart attack.

In fact, she is the person who taught me how to enjoy an art museum. Up until the advent of a baby in our lives, I had treated my regular visits to view works of art as a sort of cultural chore, one I found rewarding for sure, but a chore nonetheless. Like most people, I tended to start at the beginning and work my way around the walls, pausing at each canvas to make a study, moving systematically from painting-to-painting, sculpture-to-sculpture, installation-to-installation, getting my money's worth, filling my cultural bucket, which I would later proudly admire being full.

Josephine, however, had other ideas. One of our first museums was the Henry Art Gallery on the University of Washington campus. To my frustration, she chose to move quickly, leading me from room to room, pausing only occasionally to make a comment. "That's a horse!" "Those people are dancing!" "Who is that?" There was one rather macabre piece made from video screens that showed female body parts in a way that made it appear as if the model had been chopped to pieces while still alive. Thankfully, Josephine missed it entirely as we raced past. But she was teaching me how to view art in a gallery. When we were done with the first round, we started again, this time a bit more slowly. Then, after this second circuit, we went around again, and this third time through she saw it.

Artemisia Gentileschi

I was prepared for her questions, for her horror, but instead she approached it with wide-eyed amusement. She blinked at it for a several minutes, then burst out laughing. "That's a funny one!" That was an interpretation that hadn't occurred to me. As a toddler, Josephine was always an enthusiastic and non-judgmental art admirer, never playing the critic, an approach I still strive for today, especially when I find artwork challenging.

We moved on then, returning to our circuit of the rooms for the third, fourth, and fifth times, but now, instead of simply viewing art, we were hunting it, discovering it over and over. "I want to see the horse one again." "Where was the dancing one?" "Let's find the funny one now." Again, it was an approach I'd never before considered, one that seemed to reveal new aspects of the artwork with each go round. "The horse has spots on its tummy." "The dancers are barefoot." "Her mouth looks like a caterpillar!"

Karntakuringu Jukurrpa

We were living downtown, and our most local art museum was the Seattle Art Museum. It was there that she discovered the benches, something I suppose I'd known about, but had never considered in my days of getting my money's worth. We would sometimes sit in front of paintings like one would in front of a television, but instead of a story being told to us, we would tell the story together.

"Why is she looking over there?"

"I don't know. Maybe she's looking at her little girl."

"I think her little girl is telling her mommy that she's hungry."

"I wonder if her mommy is going to make her some lunch."

"No, because she's a queen and queens have to sit on their thrones."

Sometimes that was our entire museum visit, sitting on a bench in front of a painting, musing, which is how Josephine taught me the value of purchasing annual memberships to art museums. Suddenly it was cost-effective to turn into SAM to look at a single piece of art.

Albert Bierstadt

One afternoon, we spent some time with a depiction of Jesus driving the money-lenders from the temple. In the spirit of concocting our own stories, I didn't share the Biblical one with her, although I did tell her the central figure's name. She was disturbed by the image, which seemed to show Jesus angrily flailing a group of cowering men. Her take on the story being told by the painting was not a flattering one, but it clearly made an impression on her. At least once a week for the next couple months, she would spontaneously suggest, "Hey, let's go look at that painting of Jesus whacking those guys." And we did.

Josephine is a grown woman now, but I still visit art museums the way she taught me to do it. With new exhibits, I always start by racing through, taking in the whole show, not worrying that I might miss something. I always then make a second and third round, more slowly each time, finally settling on three or four pieces to really study. I maintain an annual membership to SAM where I visit at least once a month, usually to sit on a bench in front of a single painting, telling myself the story I see there.

Yesterday, I stopped by SAM during my lunch break to sit in front of a single painting for 15 minutes.  And although Josephine now lives in New York, it was like having her with me.

I don't know why I'm telling this story other than, I suppose, because I've been reminded that we can learn a lot when we stop teaching children long enough for them to teach us.

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