The dragon's eyes

Here’s a confession: most of the time when I go to the Museum of Fine Arts, I wander without reading the placards that identify and explain each work. Instead, I eschew the edification of curatorial commentary and let my uneducated eyes lead me. What I’m looking for on these museum-rambles isn’t an art history lesson but something far more primal: I’m looking to feed my dreams.

Dragon and Clouds

I’m not a particularly imaginative person. Most of my waking hours are spent dealing with the-way-things-are, not envisioning the way-things-might-be. By night, I seldom dream anything memorable…and when I do remember my dreams, they tend to be filled with boring, mundane details, like yesterday’s laundry or tomorrow’s groceries. I’m the last person on the planet, in other words, who would dream of dragons: most of the time, I’m mired too deep in the daily drudgery.

Dragon and Clouds

A museum, however, is a stockpile of the strange. If your own imagination is starved, you can go to a museum and glut yourself on the fantasies of others. I’ve never dreamed of dragons, but Soga Shōhaku clearly has, his version of the legendary creature sprawling over eight painted panels that span some 35 feet. Shōhaku died in 1781, but the dragon of his dreams lives on, mesmerizing people like me who could never imagine such a creature on our own.

If you want to see Soga Shōhaku’s “Dragon and Clouds” yourself, it will remain on display at the Museum of Fine Arts until July 6th.

Quilts and Color

This weekend, I met Leslee and A (not her real initial) at the Museum of Fine Arts, where we saw “Quilts and Color,” an eye-popping exhibition of handmade quilts I’d been looking forward to all semester. What better way to celebrate the end of a long academic year than by admiring beautiful pieces of prolonged and meticulous handiwork?

Quilts and Color

Although I’m certainly not an expert when it comes to quilts and quilting, I’m definitely a fan. In 2009, A and I had seen an exhibit of quilts by the late Radka Donnell at the New England Quilt Museum, which I wrote about here, and before that, Leslee, A, and I had seen a juried exhibit of contemporary quilts at the American Textile History Museum, which I (unfortunately) never blogged.

Quilts and Color

When you look at a finished quilt, you see a Big Picture that was painstakingly assembled from bits and pieces. The contemporary art quilts Leslee, A, and I had previously seen featured irregular shapes, odd abstractions, and jarring color juxtapositions: all the aspects of modern painting, but on quilts. The pieces on display at the MFA, on the other hand, are more traditional in terms of composition, following block designs popularized by Amish, Mennonite, and other folk artisans, but they stun the senses with vibrant color combinations that at times seemed to vibrate with an almost hallucinogenic intensity.

Quilts and Color

Sewing a quilt is like running a marathon: it’s an accomplishment I admire with awe from afar. I know how to put one foot in front of the other, but I can’t imagine having the stamina to train for and then run a 26.2 mile race. Similarly, I know how to stitch two pieces of cloth together, but I can’t imaging having the patience to design, piece together, and then stitch the kind of intricate designs on exhibit at the MFA.

Quilts and Color

When I was younger, I enjoyed doing cross-stitch and other small sewing projects: there’s something soothing about the repetitive ritual of placing stitch after stitch. Because of this, I admire quilts as much for their meditative discipline as I do for their technical complexity. Making a quilt is a lot like writing a dissertation: you start with a blank canvas, then you fill things in gradually, one word or one stitch at a time. The end result seems impossible, but each step is doable.

Quilts and Color

Recently the Internet has been abuzz over a graduation speech given by Naval Admiral and former Navy SEAL William McRaven, who encouraged graduates from the University of Texas at Austin to make a habit of making their beds:

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.

Quilts and Color

I might not have the patience or the diligence to complete a quilt, but I do manage to make my bed every morning. Instead of a quilt, J and I have a rust-colored bedspread that complements the light brown furniture in our bedroom and brings a pop of color to the room. And just as Admiral McRaven suggests, it gives me a small sense of accomplishment to start the day with a smoothly made bed.

Quilts and Color

Someday, it would be nice to have enough time to sew a quilt, or at least to try. In the meantime, I’ll content myself with the knowledge that I share the world with a Naval admiral who believes success starts with a neatly made bed and countless quilters who have made the world more beautiful, one stitch (and one bed) at a time.

Click here for more photos from “Quilts and Color,” which will remain on view at the Museum of Fine Arts through July 27th. Enjoy!

Endlessly repeating, with legs

I did indeed go to the Museum of Fine Arts on my birthday, as planned, and I took the requisite shot of my legs reflected in the shiny base of Josiah McElheny’s “Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism,” a cube-shaped case containing rows of mirrored-glass bottles whose reflections repeat toward infinity. Given an endlessly repeating reflection, the temptation toward reflective photography is equally infinite, so it seems somehow fitting that I’ve revisited (and re-photographed) this same piece over and over and over.

Ad infinitum

Birthdays are a natural time for reflecting on the repetitive nature of our (sadly) finite lives: none of us, after all, is getting any younger. We might revisit (and re-photograph) the same artwork time and again, but we can’t step into the same proverbial river twice. The “me” who photographed this piece in 2014 is different—older, wider, but not necessarily wiser—than those earlier incarnations who photographed this piece in 2010, 2009, and 2008. Looking at those pictures, now, I can date them primarily by what I’m wearing: I no longer carry that purse; I still wear that skirt and boots; I no longer fit into those jeans; and I literally wore out those sandals, which the manufacturer sadly doesn’t make any more. “Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism” is part of the museum’s permanent collection, but everything around it (myself included) has done nothing but change since it was acquired.

Endlessly repeating, with legs

The illusion of McElheny’s piece, in other words, is that of objects endlessly repeating without changing: something that never happens outside the artificial realm of art. We humans repeat ourselves for a time, returning to the same scenes to do, think, and say roughly the same things over and over again…but our current selves don’t perfectly mirror our previous selves. Artworks, on the other hand, don’t have birthdays: they don’t gain weight, wrinkles, or gray hair, instead freeze-framing a particular moment in time that we changing and aging humans can never return to. Only in novels do portraits age instead of their subjects, Dorian Gray’s peculiar predicament being one that none of the rest of us share.

Bottled

I recently finished Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which tells the curious and convoluted story of Ursula Todd, a woman with endlessly repeating lives. Ursula has a seemingly infinite number of chances to live the life she was destined to lead: whenever her life takes a turn down a less-than-promising avenue, darkness falls and she is born again. Like the protagonist in the romantic comedy Groundhog Day, Ursula Todd has (and apparently needs) multiple chances to make the right choices in her life; the rest of us, it seems, are fated to botch and bungle our way without hope for an infinite number of re-tries.

Self-portrait with endless reflections

It might be tempting to wish for endlessly repeating lives, but perhaps we should be careful what we wish for. A few days before Henry David Thoreau died, he was asked by a family friend what he thought about the afterlife, and Thoreau famously replied “One world at a time.” Even without the hope or threat of endlessly repeating lives, our days repeat themselves with startling regularity: another day, another dollar; another year, another birthday. Some mornings when I’m taking the dogs to and from our backyard dog pen, I marvel at the cyclic redundancy of such mundane chores: surely in a past life I was a farmer tending livestock, my entire world revolving around the in-goes and out-goes of animal care. We might not have infinite lifetimes to attain our destiny, but we do have a lengthy repetition of days. What is a life, after all, but a collection of moments, “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” repeating themselves, one after another, for a certain spell, a finite resource not to be wasted.

Like a Styrofoam storm cloud

I’ve been doing a whole lot of nothing these past few weeks, trying to take full advantage of the time I have off from teaching. During the academic year, I keep busy juggling my face-to-face and online teaching obligations; during the academic year, there’s always something to do. My online classes started last week, and my face-to-face classes start next week, so soon enough, I’ll be neck-deep in paper-grading and other teaching tasks. But at the moment, I can let my brain lie fallow, a season of rest before the business of a full semester resumes.

Like a Styrofoam storm cloud

Initially, I felt a bit guilty for this year’s lazy lack of productivity. Most of the time, I feel obligated to get something done during academic breaks: this is, after all, a prime opportunity to focus on my own writing rather than my “day job.” But this year, I’ve felt the need to step away from the niggling urge to be perpetually productive. Sometimes you just have to leave your mind alone, and that’s largely what I’ve been doing these past few weeks. I’ve continued to write in my journal, and I’ve been reading a lot, but I haven’t been blogging or taking many pictures. (These images of Tara Donovan’s untitled installation of Styrofoam cups at the Museum of Fine Arts are a significant exception.) In time, my enthusiasm for writing and photography will return, I’m sure, but for the moment, I’ve been enjoying the rare (to me) luxury of being lazy.

Like a Styrofoam storm cloud

Farmers allow their fields to lie fallow for a season to restore soil fertility: even though Walt Whitman famously declared that “the earth never tires,” sometimes her creative energies become depleted. A fallow field is a blank page that quietly whispers “not yet” rather than “no.” A fallow field isn’t permanently retired: she hasn’t been put out to pasture like a swaybacked nag. Instead, a fallow field is simply resting, incubating in her earthy gut the promising seeds of future fecundity.

Like a Styrofoam storm cloud

After several days of unseasonably mild temperatures, we’ve lost most of our snow cover, leaving the rain-soaked earth as bare and muddy as in spring. Right now the grass in our backyard is a sickly shade of yellow-brown: fallow. Instead of mourning our lawn as dead, however, I know it’s merely dormant, marshaling its energies for an inevitable spring.

The birthday girl

It’s been a few years since I’ve kept my tradition of going to the Museum of Fine Arts on or around my birthday. (I took the above photo in 2010, when I celebrated my 41th birthday.) Today, though, is a perfect museum-going day. While much of the nation is in a deep-freeze, it’s unseasonably warm, rainy, and soupy-humid in Boston, with swirling wisps of snow-melt fog. What better day to celebrate one’s birthday inside where it’s warm and dry?

Giant baby head in snow

So today I have an afternoon date with John Singer Sargent, whose watercolors are on display at the MFA through January 20th. Water in the form of winter rains can leave you damp and shivering, or water in the form of watercolors can transport you to another time. On a gray and rainy January day, any influx of light and color is welcome.

Jeppe Hein's "Please..."

Yesterday I had a meeting at Northeastern University, so instead of taking the T straight to either the Northeastern or Ruggles stops, I got off at Fenway, walked along the Muddy River, then cut through the Museum of Fine Arts on my way to campus. I had time to look at just one exhibit–“New Blue and White,” a collection of contemporary works inspired by traditional cobalt-and-white ceramics—so I circled through that exhibit several times, looking at the pieces and taking pictures before I continued on to Northeastern, which is virtually across the street from the Museum.

Blue and White

This is what I like best about having a Museum membership: the ability to pop into the MFA on my way to something else, quickly checking out a single exhibit or simply enjoying an air-conditioned, beauty-rich reprieve on my way from Point A to Point B. When you spend an entire day at a Museum, you run the risk of museum-fatigue, your achy feet and glazed-over eyes feeling the effects of trying to cram too much culture into a single outing. But when you explore one tiny corner of a museum, there is little risk of fatigue. Instead of trying to swallow an entire smorgasbord, you can sip and savor just a small spoonful.

Blue and White

Museums work best, I’ve found, in small, frequent doses, not marathon cram sessions. When I was a graduate student at Northeastern in the 1990s, the University had an arrangement with the MFA where students and faculty got into the Museum free simply by showing their ID, and I took full advantage of this, going to the Museum whenever I had a break between classes and wanted a quick reprieve from the demands of juggling doctoral studies and teaching.

Blue and White

In retrospect, that habit of taking short trips to the MFA—either on my own or with my students, whom I’d give an assignment requiring them to find a work of art they liked, then write about it—was perhaps the most valuable thing I took from my years at Northeastern. For me, trying to “cover” an entire Museum in a single trip is too much like work: there’s too much to see, and there’s more than a bit of anxiety or guilt involved, as if it were a moral failing if you miss or improperly absorb something. It feels like a kind of failure—a stress-inducing thing—to try to cram an entire art education into a single session as if there were going to be a test afterward that you have to pass, or else.

Shooting blue

When you establish the habit of visiting a world-class art museum both frequently and casually, dropping in now and again, as you’re able, you come to see art itself not as an abstract or elite thing saved for special occasions when you’re feeling particularly cerebral. Instead, you come to see art fondly and even affectionately: an expression of natural creativity that belongs to the entire human family. Familiar, oft-visited pieces become dear to you, like extended family members you enjoy seeing again and again.

The works in “New Blue and White” reminded me of John Singer Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” which stands flanked by the blue-and-white Japanese porcelain vases that appear in it.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by John Singer Sargent

Sargent’s “Daughters” is a painting that frankly makes me happy whenever I see it, and I’ve visited it more times than I care to count, first in the old wing, then in the new. Only when you’ve been to a single museum many times can you enjoy that kind of relationship with particular artworks, seeing someone else’s daughters (and the décor they posed against) as being part of your extended family.

Blue and White

“New Blue and White” is a temporary exhibit on view through Saturday, so I saw it just in time: the next time I drop by the Museum of Fine Arts, something else will be on display in its place. That is, of course, yet another reason to visit a museum early and often: in addition to the longtime friends you’ll see repeatedly, you’ll also meet works that, like you, are just passing through.

Click here to see more images from “New Blue and White.” The title of today’s post comes from Jeppe Hein’s sculpture featuring neon tubes spelling out the best way to enjoy a museum:

“Please enjoy relax steal dance touch flirt smoke wonder feel muse eat sing listen talk ask touch neon look communicate touch each other use camera flash.”

Michelangelo's Cleopatra

Last weekend, J and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see an exhibit of Michelangelo’s drawings and to wander the museum’s Art of the Americas wing. As we passed from the “old” to “new” wings of the MFA, we passed through the Shapiro Family Courtyard, where we saw hundreds of hand-sewn flags made by quilters around the world in response to the Boston Marathon bombings: a cheery installation aptly named “To Boston With Love.”

Shapiro Family Courtyard with quilt squares

It’s funny how the Shapiro Family Courtyard has evolved over the years since the “new” wing of the MFA opened in 2010. At first, the courtyard seemed like a looming and cold expanse–an empty and impersonal space to be endured as you passed from one half of the museum to the other–but then the addition of Dale Chihuly’s “Lime Green Icicle Tower” in 2011 gave the space both focus and warmth, like planting a big, towering tree in your backyard to liven up the space.

Lime Green Icicle Tower with quilt squares

The Shapiro Courtyard has come to feel like a backyard–Boston’s backyard–with a constant stream of patrons dining at the New American Cafe and an ever-shifting array of temporary exhibits brightening it. The hand-sewn squares of “To Boston With Love” underscore this homey feel, looking like laundry hung to dry between high-rise tenement apartments or colorful Tibetan prayer flags flapping in a lively Himalayan village.

To Boston with Love

Although I would have never dreamed of crisscrossing the Shapiro Family Courtyard with either laundry or prayer flags, the result is aesthetically delightful, creating a simultaneously cozy and cosmopolitan space where both neighbors and nations can congregate and find community.

Shapiro Family Courtyard

In addition to the handiwork of “To Boston With Love,” J and I saw three visiting masterpieces from New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Northeaster” by Winslow Homer; “Lachrymae” by Frederic, Lord Leighton; and “The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil” by Edouard Manet.

Visiting masterpieces:  Homer, Leighton, Manet

Like the humble, hand-sewn flags of “To Boston With Love,” these three paintings were send to the MFA as a goodwill offering in the aftermath of the Marathon bombings. A tribute from the people of New York to the people of Boston, these three paintings were handpicked to either complement Boston’s permanent collection (Homer, Manet) or speak to the mood of grief that hung over the city in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy (Leighton).

Homer and Leighton

Visiting a museum is one way of figuring out your place in the world: given the creative endeavors of the ages, what contribution might you add, here and now? When quilters and museum curators heard of the Boston Marathon bombings, they had the automatic human response, wondering “What can I do to help,” and the automatic answer to this question, it turns out, is “Send what’s close to hand.”

The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil, by Edouard Manet

Museums are a great civic asset: not merely receptacles of tangible treasures, but places to see and be seen as you mingle with other museum-goers from near and far. Individually, few of us can afford to own a priceless masterpiece; collectively, though, we share a space where that wealth is openly enjoyed.

Admiring Michelangelo

Both the Metropolitan Museum and quilters from around the world shared their treasures with Boston during her darkest hour, and I for one would like to return the compliment by sending warm greetings and gratitude from Boston, with love.

Quilt squares for Boston

The drawings of Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane will be on exhibit through June 30, and both “To Boston With Love” and the three visiting masterpieces from the Met will remain on view through July 7. If you can’t make it to Boston, click here to view my photos from last weekend’s visit to the MFA: enjoy!

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