Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Today I sorted through a dozen photos I’d taken when J and I saw an exhibit of model planes, trains, and automobiles at the Museum of Fine Arts last December. That exhibit is long gone, so it was fun to revisit photos I’d left on my camera and nearly forgotten about.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I enjoy reliving art exhibits when I go through my pictures, regardless of how much time has passed in the meantime. Sometimes when I’m looking for inspiration, I’ll click through my Flickr albums of past exhibits as a way to nudge my Muse. Even if I don’t “use” any of these archived photos in a blog post, I do “use” them as visual prompts: something to look at to stir my creativity, like smelling salts used to revise an unresponsive patient.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Looking at pictures stimulates my noticing muscle, and for me, noticing anything interesting–whether that be an unusual idea or intriguing angle–quickly converts to language. When I notice something interesting, my Inner Narrator perks up and wants to understand and explain that thing. Even if I”m writing about something completely different from whatever I”m looking at, the act of looking seems helpful, even if only as a distraction: something to pull me outside myself, and something for me to fiddle with, like intellectual worry beads.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I suppose there are people who use music in this way, a backdrop of sound serving to invigorate, inspire, and drown out distractions. For me, though, sight is more evocative than sound. I’m adept at ignoring sounds–a skill I acquired after being married to a musician for more than a decade–so sight is the sense that most directly gets me thinking. When I look at something closely, a string of sentences automatically appears and ultimately accumulates into some sort of narrative.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

This is why I stockpile pictures from museum visits. Those visits are an immediate inspiration, lighting up a visual part of my brain that isn’t accessible any other way. But long after that immediate inspiration fades, my photos remain like preserves stocked on cerebral shelves: flavors from an earlier abundance.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Henry David Thoreau famously said that firewood warms you twice: once when you chop it, and once when you burn it. In a similar vein, I find that art inspires me twice: once when I see it in person, and once when I revisit my pictures, stashed away like souvenirs from inspiration gone by.

Hokusai

Whenever J and I go to the Museum of Fine Arts, I find myself spending almost as much time looking at other museum patrons as I do looking at the art itself. I find it fascinating to watch how people interact with art: how much time do they spend looking at an individual work, or how much time do they spend fiddling with the buttons on their audio guide? Do they like to gaze at something thoughtfully from afar, do they sit and consider an entire roomful of art in a single glance, or do they go straight up to a piece and snap a picture before moving on?

Hokusai

I guess you could say I appreciate art appreciators. I find myself wondering what people are thinking as they silently stare at a given work: do they like it? Are they puzzled by it? Do they find it intriguing without quite knowing what about it intrigues them?

Hokusai

Much of my own art appreciation happens on a nonverbal level–there are works I simply like without being able to explain why I like them–so I often wonder whether others interact with art in a similar way, wandering through the galleries in search of something that Simply Speaks to them, regardless of whether it’s a renowned or well-known work.

Hokusai

In any given exhibition, there’s always one or two works that draw a crowd, either because they’re highlighted by the curators as being Important or because they’re just pretty to look at.

Hokusai

But what intrigues me most of all are the quiet, overlooked corners where you’ll sometimes find a lone soul having a private moment with a particular work. What is happening in the mind of a lone observer standing face-to-face with a centuries-old masterpiece? Is it some sort of communion where the artist’s vision reaches beyond the frame, spanning the centuries to trigger a response in a person he could have never known?

Hokusai

Click here to see more photos from Hokusai, which is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts through August 9th.

WWI recruitment posters

Earlier this afternoon, while procrastinating my ever-present paper pile, I spent a half hour sorting through pictures I’d taken back in August, when J and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see an exhibit of World War I recruitment posters.

I want YOU

The exhibit included pieces from Britain, France, and the United States, including the iconic image of Uncle Sam pointing to viewers with the caption “I want YOU for the U.S. Army.” It was interesting to see the various visual techniques artists employed to grab viewers’ attention while communicating a simple appeal to enlist. The posters featured the usual patriotic images you’d expect from wartime propaganda, along with altruistic reminders that “everyone should do his bit” and a stoic, quintessentially British claim that it’s better to face bullets on the front than be killed by a bomb at home.

Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?

One of my favorite posters featured an understated guilt-trip, with a sheepish but respectable-looking man unable to answer his children’s simple question, “Daddy, what did YOU do during the Great War?” Better to face bullets on the front today, apparently, than to feel unmanned by the earnest questions of your still-unborn children tomorrow.

There was one image I shot, however, that promptly ended my procrastination and sent me back to my paper-pile. In one corner of a brightly colored poster urging young men to “serve in France” was a simple imperative to DO IT NOW.

Do it now

This is my Day Sixteen contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

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.

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