Meredith C. Carroll: Art is in the mind of the beholder
Meredith Pro Tem
My best friend in college was an art history major. While she had a deep respect for Botticelli’s command of supple figures, sinuous lines and pagan undertones when studying “The Birth of Venus,” all I could see was a naked lady standing precariously in a giant clamshell, trying halfheartedly not to freeze.
As such, there have been times when I’ve felt a few pangs of regret at never having taken an art appreciation class. Like earlier this month, when my husband Rick and I spent a few days in Santa Fe, and we were reading about how it was a haven for artists of several different genres. Still, I held out some hope that years spent living blocks away from some of the greatest museums on the planet had given me a little culture through osmosis.
It rained the first day we were in Santa Fe, so we decided to take the scenic drive to Taos. Besides the lovely views, the little towns we passed through were dotted with all kinds of interesting-looking studios and galleries nestled into dusty, windy roads. Rick told me repeatedly to speak up if there was anywhere I wanted to check out. So we made three stops. Two were for the bathroom. The third was because I was hungry and wanted to get a snack in a general store that looked like it was fresh out of a John Wayne Western.
The lights were off when we went inside. The only sign of life came from a guy huddled in a corner, engrossed in a phone conversation, his hand covering his mouth over the receiver. He didn’t acknowledge us as we browsed through the selection of warm Coke bottles, Lay’s Chile Limon potato chips and Dinty Moore beef stew cans.
I brought some Doritos to the front counter and had my wallet ready when he begrudgingly came over and, without consulting the bag of chips or the cash register, asked me for a buck. When I asked if there was a bathroom, he shook his head and stared at the front door until we walked out of it.
Rick asked again if I wanted to poke around in any of the neighborhood art studios, but I was way more interested in theorizing if the Coen brothers might have possibly based any of their psychopathic murderous characters on the clerk who had just taken our dollar.
The next day we tried to broaden our artistic horizons a bit more and check out the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe, but as it turns out, it was closed for the week. The person at the museum’s front desk let us know, though, that they had two spaces left on the private tour of the O’Keeffe research library across the street ” something only offered to the public a few times a year, when the museum closes.
As we stood for close to 90 minutes while the docent opened drawer after drawer filled with O’Keeffe’s pastels, oil paints and rock and skeleton collection, as well as other personal effects, the pangs of regret returned. While I had a working familiarity of her portraits of orchids and other assorted flowers, it wasn’t enough to really treasure getting an up-close view of her assortment of blouses.
Then the docent told everyone to gather around while she pointed to a piece of white notebook paper with a single line drawn on it in pencil at a soft 90-degree angle.
“This sketch is the basis for many of the shapes you see in O’Keeffe’s work,” she said.
Delighted gasps, oohs and ahhs could be heard rippling through the group.
I raised my hand. “Um, how do you really know that? It looks like it’s just a line drawn on a piece of paper. How do you even know which end is up?”
The docent peered down over her glasses and looked me up and down. She explained the extensive research done by the curator and other scholars over the years. Specific works of art were cited.
Everyone else stared at me like they could smell the bathrooms at my office this week after a sewer pipe burst.
When it was over, Rick and I browsed through the museum shop filled with pretty note cards and sophisticated, artsy gifts. I got a bottle of Georgia O’Keeffe water, and we left for the town’s five-and-dime store so I could buy a dead scorpion ensconced in a little plastic dome filled with red glitter and adorned with a Santa Fe, New Mexico, sticker to add to our tacky souvenir collection at home.
Too bad I didn’t take a college class on culture, either. But at least I have some of that under my fingernails.
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