Improving community and meaning through art

The arts have the capacity to touch something essential in us. When my eldest was five years old, I went to the local library and consulted several printed books by different masters: Chagall, Matisse, Rubens, Warhol, Picasso and Pollack. As we turned the pages together, he was drawn to some works and uninspired by others.

I asked two questions: 1) How does painting make you feel? and 2) What about work that made you feel that way? With two simple requests, I was able to entertain our child for hours.

We have a special relationship with the arts: painting, sculpture, literature, cinema, music. These muse gifts have been a fundamental part of the human experience and serve many functions in our lives. Our ancestors made ceramic figurines, bird bones and ivory flutes more than 35,000 years ago, long before the first grain vessels.

People tremble with fiery fervor when they talk about Rothko’s color field paintings. Walt Whitman has been called a prophet. Andrei Tarkovsky’s films are “prayers through cinema”. These religious metaphors are not just hyperbole. In September 1982, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane was canonized as patron saint.

Source: The Creation of Michelangelo, in the public domain on Wikimedia

However, despite this possibility of transcendence, art sometimes escapes us. We may come across a painting that we find beautiful or a song that makes us want to dance, but we cannot discern its relevance to the raw and mundane imperatives we face every day.

I’ve often wandered through the works of a museum or flipped through a modernist classic with no idea what it has to do with real life.

After our playful investigations of the catalogs of paintings, I took our son to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. Le Joslyn has a formidable collection of Paolo Veronese, El Greco, Renoir, Rembrandt, Degas, Pissarro and Grant Wood, among others. It also has many important Western American and Native American treasures.

Five-year-old boys aren’t known for their concentration, let alone their ability to wander carefully through museum spaces. Yet with these two simple questions, our child stayed engaged all day.

We weren’t just looking at pictures on a wall, but actively engaging with the works and learning to identify and connect with our feelings. By paying attention to the intricacies of lines and hues and the placement of things, we saw how simple strokes could color an entire emotional life. By doing this together – asking questions, discussing and exploring – the experience also became communal.

    Untitled family portrait by Nico Amortegui, used with permission from the artist.

Source: Untitled Family Portrait by Nico Amortegui, used with permission from the artist.

There are still a myriad of classical works that I don’t “understand”: what makes this “art”? Of all the possibilities, why did the curator select this piece? How could someone pay so much for this? Further study of painting, music or poetry would further open up the work.

However, curiosity, attentive vulnerability, and two simple questions made these pieces accessible, taught me something about myself, and made the works personally meaningful.

Above all, they created a doorway to a shared experience – connecting me to people across time and space and bridging time between parent and child.

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