Amsterdam was a great place to finish our month-long European vacation of fall 2017. It was friendly, walkable, and people spoke English—three important factors when you’re running out of travel steam.
My husband and I spent our last night in Europe at the Van Gogh Museum. It felt like a fitting ending to our beginning in Paris where we saw his works at the Musée d’Orsay and snapped a picture of the dried sunflowers hanging from the shutters three stories up above the blue door of this apartment building in Montmartre. The flowers mark the spot where Vincent lived for a while with his brother Theo. You have to look very closely to spot the sunflowers.
27 days later with approximately 3000 photos on my camera, I decided to spend our last European night simply enjoying the artwork in the Van Gogh Museum without a lens in front of my face.
It was an interesting time to be in Amsterdam because the hand-painted film revisiting the cause of Vincent’s death called Loving Vincent had just released and there were advertisements for it everywhere, including this one just outside our Hotel Museumzicht.
We contemplated going to see it in Amsterdam (how cool would that have been?) but alas, we ran out of time. We saw it when we returned to Vancouver. That same fall, I read TheLetters of Vincent van Goghthat I purchased at the Van Gogh Museum. I’ve been meaning to read them ever since I heard Matthew Perryman Jones’s song Dear Theo several years ago that I link to here.
The letters are a work of literature in their own right, let alone a fascinating journey into the struggles of one of the greatest modern painters. I loved seeing his sketches for what would become his iconic paintings and reading his intentions behind them. Take his Bedroom in Arles, for example:
This time it’s simply my bedroom. Only here everything depends on the colour, and by simplifying it I am lending it more style, creating an overall impression of rest or sleep. In fact, a look at the picture ought to rest the mind, or rather the imagination.
16 October 1888, Letter to Theo
All of this Vincent immersion led me to reevaluate what I thought about him. I wrote the article “Lessons Learned from Loving Vincent” shortly after. It’s only now been published, but it’s published nonetheless and I’m thrilled to share it with you over at Still Point Arts Quarterly.
I’d love to hear what you think and what your relationship is to this much discussed artist. There’s definitely no shortage of art about him, which says something in itself. Beauty begets beauty. Next up on my Vincent journey: watching this film.
The day after Christmas, I sat in a dark room staring at 14 large canvases painted in deep purples and blacks, hung in an octagonal building known as the Rothko Chapel.
I grew aware of this chapel because of a poem by Jesse Bertron in Ruminatemagazine titled “Outside the Rothko Chapel, Where Big John’s Eyes Appeared upon the Canvas on the Eastern Wall.” It was one of the best poems I read this year. The speaker talks about taking a group of young students to visit this interfaith sanctuary in Houston, Texas, which also serves as a public art installation and centre for human rights. He notes the kids’ boredom and reflects on the differences between a museum and a church, between watching and being watched. I had a long discussion with friends about whether the poem is cynical or hopeful, and I lean toward the latter. It ends with these lines:
I know now what they know, to know you’re being watched will never satisfy.
Once you know somebody’s watching, how you long for them to speak to you.
This poem was hovering in my mind as I sat on one of the austere wooden benches looking at the art, opposite other people doing the same thing.
The 14 paintings depart from Rothko’s earlier canvases featuring horizontal planes of colours with soft, blurry edges, such as this one I saw at the Seattle Art Museum.
Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is considered an Abstract Expressionist painter whose objective, like other colour-field painters, was to show the human connection to the sublime, the primordial, the cosmic using large, meditative planes of colour. Yet Rothko rejected this label, as you’ll read below.
Talk about pressure to break down and cry! To not miss the point! On going to the Rothko Chapel, I wanted a spiritual revelation like many others have had viewing his work. These are the thoughts that flitted through my head instead:
This is much heavier than I expected. Thank God for the skylight. Wish I had come on a sunnier day.
Where do I look? There are so many canvases, which one do I choose?
How long are the attendants’ shifts? They must be super spiritual from being in this space for so long. I wish I could ask them what they see but is talking even allowed?
The kids in Bertron’s poem stayed for half an hour. I don’t think I can last that long and I’m an adult who works at a contemporary art gallery. What’s wrong with me?!
Should I sit on the bench looking towards the centre to see the whole room, or should I sit facing the outside and focus on one painting?
Is that the outline of eyes in the upper right corner of the canvas? Yes, I think I can see something there. Wait a minute, do I really see something or am I just pretending to see something?
Apart from showing how expectations did not match reality, I write down these thoughts in hopes of breaking down the elitist mystique that often comes with viewing modern art. It’s easy to look at others in an art gallery and assume they “get” the work because they look really serious and are nodding intently, as if revelations are cascading over them like a baptism.
I thought that about other people in the Rothko Chapel, and maybe they thought that about me. The truth is, I found the experience quite self-conscious, concerned with having the right etiquette and seeing the right thing that’s supposed to appear to help me decode the paintings.
And I had to keep correcting myself: Maybe there’s not something to decode. Maybe this is my brain wanting to rationalize everything, to understand and move on, and maybe Rothko was trying to get people like me to sit in the discomfort of the dark and just be. And I was missing the point terribly but then I would just strive harder to get the point, which seemed counter-intuitive and so my thoughts kept spinning round and round until I felt dizzy.
I expected instant gratification, but like any spiritual practice (prayer, meditation, worship, etc), I get the sense the Rothko Chapel requires repeat visits. I talked to one local afterwards who said she keeps going back because the light is always different and can really make the canvases come alive.
I can’t help but wonder what kind of revelation Rothko had when painting these works in his New York studio. He never got to see them installed as he committed suicide after finishing them. They were his swan song.
Even with all my self-consciousness, there were some references that came to mind when viewing Rothko’s works as it’s natural to interpret things, to find meaning.
The two sets of triptychs, where the outside panels are hung at a different height from the centre panel, immediately reminded me of church altarpieces. The one at the front of the room, however, has three panels evenly hung, with the centre panel a lighter shade than the others. If there is a main work of the chapel, this felt like it. Knowing that Rothko was influenced by Christ’s Passion (and some interpret his 14 paintings as the Stations of the Cross), I pictured these panels as the crucifixion scene: Jesus in the centre, flanked by the two thieves.
Opposite this work is a single canvas that also stands out because it has an obvious colour variation. The bottom quarter is painted darker with a frame running around the edge and proportions that evoke the painting of Christ’s death and entombment by Masaccio that I saw in Florence last year.
Maybe these interpretations are all missing Rothko’s point but for someone who strives to do things right and meet other’s expectations, perhaps missing Rothko’s point is just as necessary to experience the work genuinely. That and going when the light is shining.
We don’t go to Vancouver’s Eastside Culture Crawl every year, but when my husband and I do, there’s one artist we always visit. Actually, she was the only artist we visited this year. Because let’s face it: the Culture Crawl can be overwhelming. One year we did as many artists as we could in the labryinthine Parker Street Studios and agreed to not put ourselves through the crowds and chaos again.
So it’s a good thing our favourite local artist has a live/work studio in Railtown that’s relatively calm in comparison.
Galen Felde is from Vancouver and uses acrylic paints to convey landscapes of memory. She’s also branched out into installations. The first thing I notice about her work is the light. How it filters through a tree; how it bathes a bridge; how it ignites a blade of grass or a telephone wire.
Her work reminds me of Impressionism. Although based off real scenes and photographs, Galen’s paintings read like dreamscapes. She talked to us about how she combines multiple photographs together in her mind, or relies on memory to fill in the gaps. I get the sense she is more concerned with the emotional truth of a scene, rather than its physical attributes.
This is what she writes on her website:
Galen Felde‘s work focuses on human and environmental interdependence and issues of empathy. Tangled branches, leaves, light particles, architectural elements, wings and wire… are some of the key elements, magnified, distorted, layered and sculpted to form the substructure of Galen’s paintings in her exploration of impermanence and our awkward relationship with origins, adaptation and alteration of the landscape. Characteristic use of trace images and skewed focus suggest the construction of memory, the resonance of absence and the process of release.
Take the above painting, for example. It’s called Song for Sleep: Water Paths. (By the way, her artwork titles are exquisite, poetic. Some examples: Dream Cache, Sonnet for Lost Pine, Long Awaited: Heart Song, The Long Reach Back, to name a few).
Galen told us this painting was inspired by the wetlands around Killarney Lake on Bowen Island. “Have you been there?” she asked us. “No, but we’re actually visiting friends there tomorrow!”
She told us to look for the stream running under the boardwalk and to notice how there’s not a tree in the “real world” version like there is in the centre of her canvas. In her mind’s eye, though, there is.
I put “real world” in quotation marks because doesn’t the world of memory feel real, sometimes more real, than objective facts? This comes up frequently in discussions with my siblings around a childhood event. “That’s not the way I remember it!” one of us will interject as if there was one objective version that should all be implanted in our minds. This real world of memory reminds me of something the late Madeleine L’Engle wrote in A Circle of Quiet:
When someone comes into me when I’m deep in writing, I have a moment of frightening transition when I don’t know where I am, and then I have to leave the “real” world of my story for what often seems the less real world, the daily, dearly loved world of husband and children and household chores.
I love how she turns the “real world” on its head. L’Engle goes on to say, “It is through the world of imagination which takes us beyond the restrictions of provable fact, that we touch the hem of truth.”
What Madeleine L’Engle does with stories, Galen Felde does with paintings. Both artists construct a world undeniably real to them through memory and imagination, in hopes this world will speak truth to the person reading and viewing on the other side.
Kids don’t need an invitation to play. I have two nieces and a nephew who take any opportunity to transform their beds into trampolines, couches into jungle gyms, boxes into forts, living rooms into dance floors.
Adults, on the other hand, need to be told to play. In a world where speed and efficiency are rewarded, play is underrated but oh so necessary.
This temporary art installation by Downtown Seattle Association invites people to do just that: take a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and play. Their website says they “offer a variety of daily games and activations – from ping pong to foosball.” When I was there the other weekend, I noticed a play area for kids, as well as portable library with books for kids and adults to enjoy.
In their other location, Occidental Square, they had a life-sized chess game. This square was really empty on a Monday morning at 9am, but I wonder how much traffic it gets other times. Do people respond to these efforts at interaction and creativity? Do you?
Seattle isn’t the only city encouraging its residents to play. I’ve encountered similar efforts in New York City and Amsterdam through public art, life-sized chess games, public pianos, and letters to climb.
Where there are life-sized letters, there are people wanting to climb them. Heck, there are people wanting to climb almost anything. These jellybeans that were in Vancouver’s Charleson Park are a prime example. I think some of the most effective public artworks are ones that can be touched. Humans are so hungry for contact.
When I think of the word play, I think of a piano. Its presence in my various apartments over the years is akin to a good friend’s quiet constancy. For me, a piano is not just an instrument, but a physical space to unravel myself. I much prefer playing to my ears alone, but I appreciate the public pianos cropping up in virtually every city (or in Victoria’s case, along the beach where I played only to wave, wind, and husband).
The above images all strike me as examples of placemaking, a word popular in urban planning spheres for the last few decades.
Project for Public Spaces, based in New York, has a concise article summarizing this hands-on approach to making neighbourhoods and cities more enjoyable places to live, work, and play.
With community-based participation at its center, an effective placemaking process capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, and it results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well being.
I’ll share one last example from Seattle that literally appeared like a hole in the wall. I don’t know if it was a community-driven initiative, but it felt like it fulfills the last part of the above quote. I was walking to King’s Street Station from Occidental Square to catch the bus back to Vancouver when a sign on a gate reminiscent of a high-security prison stopped me.
Say what? How could something beautiful hide behind such ugly doors? But when I stepped inside, I kind of liked this incongruity between outside and inside, catching me unawares.
Just as adults need places to play, we also need places to rest like this Waterfall Garden Park. An oasis of quiet and calm. I sat on one of these chairs and listened to the music of the waterfall, feeling like I had found a diamond in the rough.
Do you have any stories like this of surprise urban retreats? What’s one of your favourite places to play or rest that you’ve encountered in a city? I’d love to hear!
How many people do you see in this public artwork?
It took me a moment to notice the boy on the right, surrounded by water.
Fascinating, I thought, as I then went on to explore the other public artworks in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park.
It was only when I came back to this spot and had some time to waste while waiting for a train to pass, that I noticed the sculpture had changed.
And I became even more interested in this sculpture.
I saw a lot of public art in Seattle last weekend while I was there for an arts marketing conference. It’s not difficult. As one of the tourism brochures states, “From the moment you set foot in Seattle, you can feel it: art is everywhere.”
Seattle, like Vancouver, gets a lot of rain, so it’s unsurprising that there are many references to raindrops and umbrellas. The raindrop seats in the bike rack shelter at McGraw Square were fun to sit and twirl around in, but the story doesn’t go much deeper than this. Same with the inside-out, wind-blown Angie’s Umbrella that marks the end of Pike Place Market and the beginning of Belltown. It’s visually appealing, but it doesn’t tell much of a story other than it rains a lot (and a quick Google search reveals that it’s named after the artist’s mother, just because).
This Red Popsicle standing 17 feet tall is fun, playful, and intriguing with how it’s leaning on just one of the wooden sticks. Public art can be as simple as this—something to brighten your day as you walk along—but there’s a reason the fountain artwork in Olympic Sculpture Park stayed with me and easily became my favourite piece that I saw in Seattle.
It tells a story. There are layers of meaning. Even the title of the piece, Father and Son, suggests this. It clues the viewer in to the relationship between these two life-sized figures. I found the artwork heartbreaking yet hopeful.
It makes me want to write a poem—how father and son keep missing each other, exposed at different times. Yet they continue to try.
Public art always has its critics, and nude artworks seem to heighten that. Father and Son was no stranger to controversy. I was saddened to read in this article from Seattle Times writer Danny Westneat that critics interpret the figures’ relationship as pedophiliac. Why does nudity get automatically read as sexual or erotic? Do we have that reaction to Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures?
This artwork has an interesting backstory. It was the result of million-dollar gift to the City of Seattle from the late Stu Smailes who stipulated in his will that the money be used for a fountain featuring one or more realistic nude male figures. The City handed it off to Seattle Art Museum who commissioned French-born, New-York based artist Louise Bourgeois.
So Bourgeois had boundaries to work within. She placed two nude male sculptures on separate platforms, with alternating cloaks of water falling first on one, then the other at hourly intervals. The nudity makes complete sense to the story she’s telling about the relationship between father and son. They are both reaching for each other across an 8-foot gap, alternately exposed and revealed. Alienated but attempting connection. Nudity is about vulnerability, she says.
Sure, the artist could have clothed the figures, but it wouldn’t have been as evocative, especially since the masculine script embedded in western culture is to be tough, strong, and not show emotion. Keep your layers on and your walls up. Known for her unsettling sculptures, Bourgeois is pushing back on this narrative. Also, how many artworks do you ever see of a father and son? Mother and child, certainly (I’m thinking of all the Virgin with child paintings I quickly grew tired of in the Louvre or Uffizi), but where are the fathers with their children?
In the same Seattle Times article, I appreciated what other Seattleites wrote in to say about the artwork when it was proposed:
“This sculpture just left me feeling like I wanted to scream — LET THE FATHER SHOW LOVE AND STRENGTH TO HIS SON!”
Another e-mailer said he saw hope in the notion that a father and son would attempt that reach.
“If it was a statue of me and my father, we’d have our backs turned to each other.”
If an artwork can evoke these kinds of responses, wow. That’s a powerful piece.
I’m reading Ruminate‘s Exposure issue right now and the artwork and writing inside echo these two nude figures standing in the fountain. The sheets are pulled back, arms outstretched, a gesture that asks: do you see me?
At the reading, I mentioned how we typically enjoyed the experience of seeing art in churches more than in museums and galleries for a couple reasons: 1) churches were often less crowded 2) there’s something significant about seeing art in the context it was made for.
Take Caravaggio’s painting above. The Calling of Saint Matthew is one of three paintings Caravaggio was commissioned to make for a chapel, off to the left side of the nave, dedicated to the disciple. A dramatic swath of light cuts across the canvas, mimicking the way the natural light from the chapel falls on his painting—something Caravaggio was aware of as he was making the work.
Caravaggio’s mastery of chiaroscuro (the effect of contrasted light and shadow) got me noticing dramatic plays of light and shadow across the canvas of Rome.
I’ve begun thinking about other artworks we saw in churches that wouldn’t be the same if we had seen them on the nondescript walls of a museum or gallery.
The photograph above shows a view of St Peter’s Basilica. Bernini’s soaring four-columned bronze canopy (called a baldachin or, as Rick Steves refers to it, “God’s four-poster bed”) that sits above the altar and below the dome is one such example. As soon as you walk into the massive cathedral, there is so much height and width to feel lost in (it covers 6 acres!) But the relentlessly long nave acts like the shaft of light in Caravaggio’s painting, leading your eye to a focal point.
This seven-story bronze canopy hovers over the Eucharist table, emphasizing the significance of this sacrament and enveloping it in a kind of “holy space” if you will. You get a sense of how big this sculpture is for it not to look dwarfed in the largest church in the world. The canopy connects the congregants gathering around its base to the dome above, lifting your eyes, as cathedrals brilliantly do, towards heaven. The bronze and gold also draw your eye to Bernini’s similarly coloured sculpture in the apse behind, enshrining the chair of St. Peter and the alabaster dove window that turns natural light into artificial rays of gold.
The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari was a treasure chest of artworks and our favourite place for viewing art in Venice. The heroic-scale Titian painting behind the altar beckons you closer, the light flooding in from the windows amplifying the light of glory the Virgin is ascending to.
Titled the Assumption of the Virgin, this artwork is infused with energy and motion. All gestures lead your eye up—from the earthbound apostles with reaching hands to the putti’s arms holding the cloud and to Mary’s raised arms. Notice how the colours do this too. Titian forms the base of a triangle out of the red-clothed apostles on the ground (Peter and John), with Mary in red as the apex, emphasizing her translation from earth to heaven.
Even the shape of the painting, with its rounded top, mimics the choir-screen arch you see when standing in the centre of the nave. So much intentionality. I love this consideration between art and space and wish the experience of stepping into modern churches was as inspiring.
What art have you seen that wouldn’t be the same in any other space? Maybe you’ve come across it in a church, or maybe it was in a gallery or museum. I’d love to hear!