The art museum

Social media dripped muck, and whenever I rolled in it, it soaked into too many of my layers, leaving stains I couldn’t scrub out. So I let it go and drove to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, trading electronic screens for picture frames, negativity for creativity.

I had never visited the art museum alone, and on that weekday at noon I had the place almost all to myself. My attention first settled on a huge oil on canvas, The Union of Love and Friendship by artist Pierre-Paul Prud’hon. Thirteen years earlier on a stroller-laden excursion, four-year-old Flicka had sounded out the words in the painting’s title.

“The Onion of Love and Friendship,” she announced at last.

“It’s Union,” I said.

And we had laughed along with her—and never let her forget it.

Often in the past, I had helped chaperone squirrelly elementary-age students on field trips to the museum. Some had stampeded through the place, threatening to topple precious antiquities with their romping. Others had sidled up to me like mice, flicking their gazes to my face. You’re doing a good job, I had whispered to them.

For the first twenty minutes of my solitary visit, I wore my pragmatism like a pair of comfortable yoga pants. What would I do if I owned all these artifacts? The antelope jade vessel from India’s Mughal dynasty would make a cute soap dish, the beaded moccasins crafted by an A’aninin artist would be cozy on my cold floors, the thirteenth-century earthenware bowl from Iran’s Seljuk period would be perfect for my salad at the next potluck, but the seventeenth-century glass drinking horn from the Netherlands would never survive my dishwasher.  

The works of art whispered to me as I neared them, sending my common sense on its way. And because my distractions were gone, I heard all the stories.

I forgot where I was going when I stepped into Gustaf Edolf Fjaestad’s painting, Winter Landscape. The floating snowflakes muted the sounds of the forest as I meandered through the trees. I found my way to the other side and for a few seconds, tufts of color in Dorothea Tanning’s Tempest in Yellow buffeted me. I swam through it, though, until I reached Edouard Manet’s The Smoker. I nodded at the brushwork, coughed, and moved on.

I joined the men in tempera who stood in line outside the barbershop in Reginald Marsh’s Holy Name Mission, but I squirmed, surveying the group. Would they ask why I, the only woman, had joined them? And would I dare ask them if World War I had smudged the darkness onto their faces—or had it been their own desperate choices?

Young Woman in Undergarments by artist Wilhelm List reminded me of my own list—my Target shopping list—and so I jotted down 'black tights' before I could forget again. Then, a locket, its chain snagged on a tree branch in Henry Koerner’s My Parents II, captured my eye. The elderly man and woman had their backs turned to me, but why did they sit so far apart in the woods? And where were their children, whose Hansel and Gretel-like faces peeked out from the locket? The painting refused to let me out, so I breathed in the shades of brown until I could slip away.

While I was trying to imagine the reason for a woman jumping, nude, from an upstairs window in The Barn by John Wilde, voices interrupted the gallery’s silence. Behind me, two men analyzed Paul Cadmus’ Aspects of Suburban Life: Mainstreet.

“See the dog on the leash out in front of the woman?” said one of them. “See the movement? The length of her stride? She’s going places while the men are watching her.”

I turned to look. The man who spoke wore his remaining gray hair in a ponytail. The other man leaned on a cane and sprinkled his own thoughts into the conversation. Today I had escaped ugly for beauty, but what had driven these gentlemen to the museum? Did they visit often? I approached them and explained who I was and what I did.

“Why did you come here today?” I wrapped my blunt question in a smile.

“Why do you write?” said the man with the ponytail.

“To make sense of the world.” The words had come out faster than I could think them.

“There you go,” he said, a smile flickering over his features.

“Have you seen the silver piece in the next room?” the man with the cane asked me. “It’s truly remarkable.”

“No,” I said. “But I’d like to.”

The three of us strolled into the adjacent gallery to admire the eighteenth-century silver wine cistern.

… whatever is lovely—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

“Have a beautiful day,” I told the men before I left them.

Refreshed, I exited the art museum and walked to the car. I had abandoned my to-do list and halted my hectic schedule that day for a necessary indulgence. In one of the galleries, I had left behind some burdens too.

And next week, maybe I would do it again.


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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.