Monday, June 13, 2011

Chihuly and a Child

This past weekend, I went to Boston's Museum of Fine Art for the first time in over 3 years. My wife and I used to be members, but once our son was born, we realized there would be far fewer trips to the MFA for us. But you can't walk around Boston longer than a few minutes these dayswithout seeing ads for the Chihuly exhibition, and I knew I had to go.

I was first introduced to the glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly about 5 years ago, while visiting the Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, MO (one of my favorite botanical gardens in the world, and I've been to a lot of them). Chihuly's works were scattered throughout the gardens, and I was mesmerized. It was like walking through Candy Land. The bright, delicious colors and Seussian shapes left an impression on me, and I knew I would have to visit them again now that they were so close.

Yet there was still the issue of the kids. Taking my almost-two-year-old was not an option--the thought of taking her to an exhibition of glass sculptures was nightmare-inducing. But I thought my now 4-year-old son could handle it. So on a cold, rainy Sunday, he and I set off for the museum. We'd see the Chihuly pieces, and depending on how things were going, move on from there and possibly see some of the new Art of the Americas Wing.

It turned out to be one of the best visits to an art museum I've ever had. The Chihuly exhibit itself was as enjoyable as I'd hoped. It didn't quite have the same "oomph" as the Botanical Gardens because it was a very different context, but these are still some of the most accessible sculptures one will come across. By "accessible", I mean I can't imagine a person looking at these sculptures and not thinking they look cool. Maybe "cool" isn't a very fancy word to describe art, but just check out this boat full of stuff (I did not take my camera, regrettably, but this picture is from the actual Boston exhibition):
It's a party. It's an alien invasion. It's a parade. In a boat. And made out of glass. It's cool.

And my son thought so, too. I didn't get to read a lot of the descriptions of the pieces as I normally would have, but instead I got to hear my son's interpretations, which I think may have been an order of magnitude more interesting: "Look at the flowers!" and "It's a giant slug, Daddy!" Exposed to his unchecked imagination, I saw the sculptures in a way I never could have seen on my own. At one point we were walking under the "Persian Ceiling", which is one of the more publicized images from the collection (in the slide show from the link above, it's the first slide). My son--who at my insistence kept his voice at an "indoor" level the whole time--looked up and said, "It's a baby!" As I looked up, a rather grim woman caught my eye and said, "He's talking about the cherub up there."

And that's when it really clicked for me. A lot of these people couldn't see this art the way my son could. They had too many preconceived notions of what everything was supposed to be.  Why couldn't it be a baby? Why couldn't that other sculpture be a giant cactus? I thought that was the point of art like can be what you want it to be. But because we adults read the descriptions or listen to the audio tours, we lose the chance to come at these pieces with a blank canvas.  My son had a blank canvas...the grown-ups had paint-by-numbers.

The joy of seeing art through my son's eyes extended beyond the Chihuly exhibition and into the galleries. The way he zeroed in on specific aspects of a painting while ignoring the "main event", if you will, was fascinating. Take this painting, The Fog Warning, by Winslow Homer:
I took my son up to this painting thinking he would be impressed by the big fish in the small boat. Instead, he pointed at the tall ship way off in the background, excitedly talking about the "pirate ship" that was coming closer to the man in the boat. I'd barely even noticed the ship in the background. This was a common theme throughout our visit to the museum, which lasted over three hours. He found details I had missed. He would make up a story, explaining to me why the people were doing what they were doing. Occasionally he would ask questions, but usually he was just looking for ways to fill in the gaps in his own stories.

I can't stop thinking about this visit. I've always enjoyed art in nearly any medium, but I've often become hung up on the "how" at the expense of the "what". I'm a scientist...I think it's natural for me to wonder how Dale Chihuly and his team make his amazing sculptures. I'm sure it's an interesting process. But it took my 4-year-old to help me step back and strip the "how" away, from the Chihuly pieces to paintings that were centuries old. He helped me forget the idea that a piece of art isn't supposed to be anything necessarily.  A painting or sculpture can be whatever I want it to be: a story, an idea, or sometimes just a picture of somebody's stinky butt. Thanks, buddy.  Thanks for reminding why works of art--not to mention kids--are awesome.

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