One artist’s vision is another visitor’s transcendent experience

Charlotte York of TV’s Sex and the City once described “great love” as a love that “shakes you to your core, after which you are never the same.” I think the same can and should be true of great museum visits—especially first time visits to a new museum.

I had a core-shaking, life-altering museum experience on Sunday when I visited the American Visionary Art Museum, a museum devoted to showcasing the stories and artwork of self-taught practitioners working from places of inner reflection and intuition.

The American Visionary Art Museum experience is a welcome onslaught of color and diverse personal energies, reaching the visitor on multiple sensory, intellectual, and spiritual levels. I recently heard Jake Barton of Local Projects describe great museum engagement as something visitors “fall into,” and this seems apt to describe the complete immersion and fascination I felt from the moment I stepped past the visitor desk into the galleries.

I’ve realized I hold a special reverence for museums that are audaciously, unapologetically individualistic, defying traditional institutional norms and forging new ways of being. (For previous discussion on this subject, see my post about Glenstone.)

The traditional museum is often neat, unemotional, and subdued in its tone. The American Visionary Art Museum, however, lives charmingly and compellingly outside this box. It is intense, passionate, and bursting with opinions; it’s also polished but relatively “unedited.” The overall effect is incredibly respectful, compassionate, and in strong service of the Museum’s social justice mission.

Museums with this kind of passion and self-confidence seem perfectly positioned to facilitate transcendence and spirituality within and among their visitors. My experience at the American Visionary Art Museum supported this theory; the space was vibrant and alive, and reminded me why the museum is my church.

The Museum website lists seven education goals the first of which is: “Expand the definition of a worthwhile life.” The importance of this lesson was imparted to me from an early age by my mother who deeply embraced and celebrated people’s eccentricities. The Visionary Art Museum, with its deep veneration of imagination, intuition, and inner voice celebrates human eccentricity with humor and honesty, serving what I believe is an essential human need to be silly, creative, and vulnerable—and to witness these qualities in others. The experience was transcendent and reconnected me to the example set by my mother, a positive early-life experience.

The Museum takes a refreshingly direct approach to trauma and difference, directly addressing personal tragedy, injury and disability, mental illness, loss, racism, and family dysfunction. This frank approach reduces stigma and emphasizes the gifts that a unique identity and life experience can bring—while celebrating ownership of all aspects of one’s life (both good and bad).

Storytelling seemed to play a crucial role in the interpretation of the artworks, and I emerged at the end of my visit feeling like I’d just surfaced from a great book. Artist’s stories are the frame for interpreting the art, an approach that clearly communicates to visitors that people (and their experiences and visions) are the priority and the focus. The stories function in complete deference to the artist’s frame, ensuring the artist’s experience is unquestioned and the artist is held up as expert and owner.

I recently attended an inspiring session at the recent AAM Annual Meeting: Going Beyond: Empowering Visitors’ Transcendent Experiences (click to download) led by Dawn Eshelman, Charles E. Fulcher Jr., Ben Garcia, Amber Harris, and Lois Silverman. Reflecting on the session handout and my visit to American Visionary Art Museum, I’m reminded of the importance of building ritual into museum experiences and celebrating inner narratives. Also, the ingredient of “surprised expectations” (cited in Charles E. Fulcher Jr.’s Seeing Deeper program) was at play for me during my visit.

Back in college when I was planning a career in social work, I took a child therapy practicum where clients’ inner narratives and belief systems—however peculiar or troubling—were the guiding forces of engagement, growth, and empathy. We know intuitively that this work is crucial for children, but often forget how essential these experiences are for adults. I’m happy to be reminded of this, and to reconnect with a version of myself that is energetic, idealistic, imaginative, and eager to know my own and others’ inner experiences.

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Eshelman, D., Fulcher, C. E., Garcia, B., Harris, A. & Silverman, L. H. (2016, May). Going Beyond: Empowering Visitors’ Transcendent Experiences. Panel session at American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting, Washington, DC.

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One reason why art is amazing—and essential to our wellbeing

“The artist is really interested in how …”

If you frequent tours of art museums and galleries you will have heard this phrase used by staff and docents to introduce an artist’s intense preoccupation with an unconventional or unexpected way of seeing, examining, or representing the world.

For example, “The artist is really interested in how the traditional museum curatorial process can be used to comprehend a vast fictional earth”—is how I might have described the focus of Rachel Guardiola’s work currently on display at Arlington Arts Center, which I saw last week.

Is it fair to say that making art is a little like embracing an obsession in the most beautiful and productive way? If so, the art museum/gallery might have another relatively untapped asset in their social programming toolbox.

Deep interest (and the intrinsic motivation that accompanies it) can be powerfully absorbing, calming, and helpfully distracting. Similarly, proximity to this kind of intellectual devotion—especially where the outward manifestation is often beautiful and arresting and exists for its own sake—is probably also good for us for the following reasons:

  • Something about the deep interest that develops into art feels egalitarian and inclusive and maybe helps art-making become more accessible.
  • The explicit connections between an interest and a final product celebrate not just outcome, but experimentation and process. The celebration of process honors curiosity and questioning.
  • Willingness to share an interest with the world requires extraordinary courage. Art-making is an act of confidence and generosity.
  • Knowing that people are working to turn their questions and curiosities into objects of beauty, incisiveness, and humor is comforting. It means that art and culture are valued and protected in the world.

Where do museums and galleries come into this? Perhaps we could include more in our interpretation about what a body of work means to its creator, and open this topic in a way that invites further discussion. What deep fascinations or obsessions does the art spring from? What are the vital driving forces of the work? The question ‘What are you fascinated by?’ could be a great prompt for a public program (art-making or otherwise).

Even imagined content of this nature can be incredibly powerful. The label pictured below is one of many quotes on display at the reopened Renwick Gallery’s debut exhibition, Wonder, which tries to go deeper into the possible ‘process’ of each work, to imagine the artist’s experience, and (in this particular case) to hint at the wonderfully obsessive experience of pursuing something great.

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Perhaps, instead of feeling dismay when we hear a visitor say “I could have done that,” we might feel excited. It could be great if we were revealing enough about the “interest behind the art,” that our visitors felt similarly empowered to pursue their own passions.

The self-guided personal response tour

Inspiration 

Ray Williams’ (2010) article, ‘Honoring the Personal Response: A Strategy for Serving the Public Hunger for Connection’ made a case for art museums to assume profound relevance to individual lives.

I first encountered the article while completing my master’s thesis and immediately noticed that Williams’ proposal was reminiscent of my initial stirrings of professional interest in museums.

Williams’ (2010) ‘Personal Response’ tour invites participants to find museum works that resonate with special questions; the questions are designed to invite reflection and connect to personal experience.

Recently, I was reminded of the personal response tour by Shannon Karol’s post on DMA Canvas, which explored its use in promoting teambuilding and reflection among museum docents. Further research revealed the potential use of personal response tours for training medical students in empathy and self-awareness (see Gaufberg & Williams, 2011). I was intrigued by the versatility of the personal response and wanted to know more.

Why do we only look outside ourselves?

Museums often focus heavily on the cultural and historical context of works, under-utilizing the broad and powerful potential of art to serve the community, Williams (2010) argued.

In her post about Art is Therapy at the Rijksmuseum, Robin Matty articulated a similar idea after exploring the exhibition’s atypically personal approach to art, explaining ‘the standard art exhibit label doesn’t always mean much to the visitor’ (Robin Matty, The Traveling Museologist).

Traditional interpretative labels often imply we must look to external resources to understand and enjoy the displays.

But visitors’ personal histories can add immediacy to the visitor experience and contribute new richness and depth to the original works or objects, creating potentially useful resources for the museum and for other visitors.

My personal response experience 

I put together a short list of prompts to try out during a visit to one of my favorite D.C. museums, The Phillips Collection. Below are some of my highlights:

1. Find a work that makes you laugh: People who know each other at a party by Michael Schaff (Acrylic paint and colored pencil on construction paper, exhibited in Art and Wellness: Creative Aging) … Something about this slightly abstract, slightly disordered, and slightly absurd party scene delighted me, and made me laugh.

2. Find a work that, for you, embodies courage: The Migration Series, Panel no. 13: The crops were left to dry and rot. There was no one to tend them. by Jacob Lawrence (between 1940 and 1941, Casein tempera on hardboard, exhibited in The Migration Series) … When I discovered the title of this work, I realized that my interpretation was probably a little different than what Jacob Lawrence intended. Nevertheless, I found the work beautiful and empowering. Something about a focus on light …

3. Find a work that embodies love: The Dream by Marc Chagall (1939, Gouache on paper, permanent collection) … For me, this work was both domestically ordinary and dreamily surreal.

What I learned about personal responses in the museum

A personal response tour allows you to follow your own instincts and intrinsic interests when choosing what displays to seek out and focus on.

Formal, structured tours (while wonderful in their own way) can at times feel like a trip to the mall with someone who does not share your particular retail proclivities. Instead of looking closely at something that captivates you, you are compelled to focus on whatever the guide has chosen to focus on (or, to return to my shopping analogy, to feign interest in cooking gadgets for hours on end because that’s what your husband likes to shop for).

This self-directed quality does not preclude the personal response tour from being social; in fact, it opens up many possibilities for discussion and empathy. Seeing another’s perspective through the lens of a work or object may offer a more nuanced picture of that person’s unique experience. The personal response approach may also offer a powerful way of mentally logging and storing new knowledge.

These moments we share with a work can ignite curiosity and a desire to learn more. My sudden and intense love affair with Marc Chagall’s The Dream while visiting The Phillips primed me to later connect with another of his works, Composition, on a recent visit to The Kreeger Museum. The personal response is akin to an ‘emotional souvenir,’ creating continuity in the visitor experience and extending it beyond the time and space of the visit.

Finally, collections are both the lifeblood of the personal response, and the great asset of the museum. Therefore, museums may be uniquely situated to promote empathy, self-care, and sharing in this way.

Exhibition idea …

As I finish this post, I am arriving at what I think could be an interesting exhibition idea incorporating the personal response. The exhibition would encourage visitors to record their personal responses to the particular artworks or objects (perhaps on post-its?) and affix them beside the relevant pieces. Subsequent visitors could respond to either the work alone or the preceding visitor responses.

This would build on the concept of Art is Therapy at the Rijksmuseum, as discussed in Robin Matty’s post, by adding a new layer of interpersonal sharing and active participation. The exhibition would seamlessly coalesce participation, co-curation, and interpretation.

Reflecting on recent events in Ferguson 

Could the ‘personal response’ approach to interpreting museum objects provide some direction for museums striving to serve their communities in times of grief or trauma?

Your experiences

If anyone feels subsequently inspired to try a self-guided personal response tour I would love to hear from you. Also, if you discover any amazing prompts, please let me know.

(You could try this at ANY exhibition. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE AN ART EXHIBIT.)

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The curators of Investigating Where We Live (currently on display at the National Building Museum) shared their personal reflections about community and place and invited visitors to do the same.

References

Gaufberg, E. & Williams, R. (2011). Reflection in a museum setting: The Personal Responses Tour. Journal of Graduate Medical Education, 3(4), 546-549. doi: 10.4300/JGME-D-11-00036.1

Williams, R. (2010). Honoring the personal response: A strategy for serving the public hunger for connection. Journal of Museum Education, 35(1), 93-101. doi: 10.1179/jme.2010.35.1.93

At home in the museum

Recently, I have been thinking about domesticity and ritual in the museum and their therapeutic value in this context.

When I think about the therapeutic potentials of the museum, I typically think about the beautiful artwork, the evocative objects and histories, and the magnificent spaces. But what about the potential for museums to act as ‘homes’—as sources of ritual, familiarity, and comfort?

I felt the first stirrings of poignant curiosity on this subject during my recent visit to the National Building Museum. Having little organic interest in architecture or urban planning, I expected to like (but not love) the museum. I also expected, perhaps narrow-mindedly, to learn a lot, but to feel very little.

I think the visit was particularly moving because of where I am in my life right now—newly married, but also recently transplanted and therefore lacking stability or a community that I feel a part of. Though I am gradually building a life for myself here in D.C., the topic of ‘home’ is nonetheless a powerful, emotive one for me right now.

The Building Museum was a potent reminder to me of the universal relevance of home and community. The discussion of dollhouses in the exhibition, House & Home, swept me back to my childhood, reminding me why I feel such enduring affection for these idyllic representations of home life. The experience induced a conflicted sense of comfort and longing, with a hint of nostalgia.

Another exhibition at the Building Museum titled Investigating Where We Live highlighted how museums can shine a spotlight on ordinary lives, rendering their beauty. This sharp, insightful exhibition was curated by local teens during an annual summer program. The students’ thoughtful exploration of D.C. neighborhoods made me feel simultaneously homesick for laidback, livable Brisbane (my most recent home) and excited to forge a place in the vibrant D.C. area.

I am intrigued by the way that similar experiences often (appear to) collide in time. On the day following my visit the Building Museum, I had the opportunity to see Urban Bungalow, the new exhibit at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery. This quietly lovely show curated by fiber artist, Jennifer Lindsay, invites the participating artists to ‘envision the gallery as a home (and as a work of art),’ according to the exhibition page. The exhibition features an assortment of home-inspired pieces including furniture, jewelry, ceramics, and textiles. The collection is simultaneously eclectic and harmonious, further reinforcing, at least for me, the warmth of a home.

What I noticed (and what the exhibition page also alludes to) is the power of the gallery space to transform and elevate domestic routines into comforting and healing rituals. The displays evoked memories of both my past and present lives. I was reminded of my childhood and my parents’ fondness for Japanese-style décor, including (during my early years) a Japanese table where we would kneel to eat dinner each night. The exhibition made me realize that everyday life is artful and that art inheres in everyday life.

Themes of domesticity and ritual lend themselves well to public programs that promote wellbeing, connectedness, and personal expression. For example, Urban Bungalow features a Sashiko Embroidery workshop and a Hand Spinning workshop—both offering creative, DIY experiences. Whether we are cooking, gardening, knitting … we naturally find immense satisfaction and empowerment in creating something that has both beauty and utility.

When I think about museums as ‘homes’ I am struck by how valuable they could be to people who are currently disadvantaged, vulnerable, or socially isolated. Collections that explore ordinary and domestic life seem to be perfect for programs that affirm individual experience such as ‘Personal Response’ tours (see Williams, 2010), reminiscing sessions, and community-curated exhibitions. They may also offer useful resources for extending the comfort of the museum through outreach—for example to hospitals, day centers, and other community service organizations. For these kinds of endeavors to be successful, museums will have to think empathetically (see the work of Gretchen Jennings) about the needs and life experiences of their participants so they can use museum resources in ways that genuinely engage and represent their communities, make them feel at home, and properly utilize their talents.

To readers:

I would love to hear more about the routines and rituals that bring you comfort. Have you experienced similar moments of comfort in the museum when you connected with something familiar—maybe something lost—or something wished for?

Tomorrow, I plan to put aside my anxieties (or at least try to) in celebration of the domestic. For me, this will hopefully involve (in a yet-to-be-determined order) going for a run, making dinner for me and my husband, and sitting down with a book and a cup of tea.

For a beautifully-written personal perspective on domestic ritual and its connections to health, healing, and family, see this piece by writer, Donna Trussell [@donnatrussell] via The Washington Post.

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The social rest space at Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery reinforces comfort and creativity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Williams, R. (2010). Honoring the personal response: A strategy for serving the public hunger for connection. Journal of Museum Education, 35(1), 93-101. doi: 10.1179/jme.2010.35.1.93

Challenging and beautiful: how art can be a safe place to be scared

When I walked into Divergence, the current exhibition at Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, I actually felt something akin to fear. My first thought was, ‘I love this, but I can’t write about it.’

Still, I wanted to see the show and hear the curator and artist talks that were scheduled for that evening so I began slowly moving through the space, trying to absorb the works. I wanted very much to understand the connection between the exhibition and the Gallery’s mission ‘to [exhibit] fine art that explores the innate connection between healing and creativity’ (See ‘About the Gallery’). The Gallery is part of Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that works to utilize the arts in healing through community programs (See ‘About Us’).

Divergence features the work of Shaunté Gates and Njena Surae Jarvis and is curated by acclaimed artist, Martha Jackson Jarvis. I was privileged to listen to each of these individuals give insights into the exhibition in what Gallery Director, Brooke Seidelmann, fittingly described as a ‘moving dialogue’ through the gallery space.

photo 2 (1)Njena Surae Jarvis’s work features assorted objects—furniture, casts of body parts, sculpted bones, and woven rope—each one darkly colored, suspended from above, and gently lit by light bulbs affixed to the walls. My photos (posted here) capture the imagery that I found particularly bewitching (and to which my husband adorably responded, ‘Please don’t show me those right before bed’).

Shaunté Gates’ work comprises a collection of surrealistic mixed media canvases each depicting a single figure confined and tethered in some way and rendered in striking shades of black, gray, and deep red.

photo 3Comments from the guest book clearly showed that visitors had appreciated the show’s complexity. Several comments described the show as disquieting, yet beautiful and vital.

These lovely oxymorons proved immensely helpful for me because they pinpointed the seemingly conflicting, yet strangely compatible qualities inherent in the artists’ works. They also drew my attention to the dark liveliness of the exhibition.

Despite its energy, Divergence invites a very unhurried style of looking; it asks you to look, and then look again and hopefully notice something new. (This gentle pace is, in itself, somewhat healing and therapeutic.) Interestingly, in the re-look, we can subvert and extend our own initial impressions. For example, Njena’s work, with its disconnected objects and body parts, initially appears vaguely violent. However, as Njena explained, the true nature of the work is peaceful and meditative. Indeed, a closer look reveals that the works hang in a restful, rather than distressed, state. Similarly, Shaunté’s figures initially appear desperate and trapped, but later reveal a hidden agency and voice. As Shaunté explained during his talk, their blindfolds and restraints can be easily removed.

Michael O’Sullivan from The Washington Post aptly described these surprising layers of meaning: ‘Several of Jarvis’s bones, for instance, are fused with the furniture parts, suggesting less destruction than deconstruction. Or, rather, reconstruction. The sense of pulling something — or someone — together comes across as strongly here as does the sense of tearing something apart.’ (Michael O’Sullivan, The Washington Post)

Engagement with these works ultimately reveals strong themes of duality and contrast, as Njena explained. Thinking later on this idea of contrast, I realized how important contrast is in highlighting possibility—an essential component of hope and healing.

Moreover, the blurring of fantasy and reality in Shaunté’s work offers the chance to disconnect from our experience just enough to understand our personal obstacles a little better.

Many moments of our lives are filled with contradiction and conflicting experience. We can feel both vast love and paralyzing rage toward the same person, or deep empathy despite seething disappointment. Sometimes what protects us also tears us apart. An art exhibition is a safe space in which to accept these contradictions and simply exist alongside them.

The disconnectedness of the works helps invite the viewer to construct his or her own narrative. This is an exercise in agency and gives a great deal of power to the viewer. In fact, the more I write about this exhibition, the more I feel a sense of permission to interpret the works in any way I like since I feel they offer a genuine invitation to assume some control.

Divergence also gives viewers permission to enter a darker contemplative space. Darkness is important, Njena explained. I emphatically agree. My favorite moment of the night was when Njena described the darkness of her work as ‘a remedy for a dull life.’

This complex exhibition has left me wondering whether museums and galleries could do more to explore human vulnerability, to make visitors ‘work’ so that they almost experience discomfort, but then walk away with real insight, and so that they interpret works viscerally as well as intellectually?

Applying this learning experience to my own life, I decided that the trepidation I felt about writing this post and interpreting this challenging exhibition indicated how important it was that I try. So here is my humble attempt. I would love to hear others’ thoughts—especially those who have seen the exhibition.

‘The show invites us to walk life’s knife-edge to explore that which makes us sentient beings and connected,’ says the Gallery’s event page. Another way of saying this might be that the exhibition requires a little courage, but that it’s worth it.

(Divergence runs until October 25.)

Photos are ‘excerpts’ from See What You See Is You What You See by Njena Surae Jarvis.

Reference

O’Sullivan, M. (2014, September 18). ‘Divergence’ at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/museums/divergence-at-the-joan-hisaoka-healing-arts-gallery/2014/09/18/e3bc9548-39f8-11e4-9c9f-ebb47272e40e_story.html