Are you really engaged with the artwork when you walk into an art museum? Or are you too busy thinking about what you know about the art and artist? Perhaps you’ve even noticed other people reciting facts and background on a piece of art to whomever they’ve brought along. When I was younger, I was that person. I’d be all about the artist’s life, the colors and brush strokes used, the behind-the-scenes story I knew, and on and on.
We art teachers know a lot of stuff. We’ve taken art history classes and engage students in all sorts of ways. So when we go into a museum, we can fall into this way of engaging quite easily and automatically. In this episode, I talk about one of the most meaningful things for me when it comes to works of art, the emotional connection, and how knowing too much history can get in the way of it.
3:15 -Why I decided to study art education instead of art history
8:39 – An excerpt from my essay about a Picasso painting that knocked me off my feet
11:03 – The magic that happened when I looked at that Picasso art again 10 years later
15:25 – The lesson I learned from a squirrel that held my curiosity for an hour
19:22 – Choosing which way you want to engage with artwork
Be a Podcast Guest: Submit a Voice Memo of Your Art Story (Scroll to the bottom of the page to submit your story.)
Cindy Ingram: Hello and welcome to The Art Class Curator Podcast. I am Cindy Ingram, your host and the founder of Art Class Curator, and The Curated Connections Library. We’re here to talk about teaching art with purpose and inspiration from the daily delights of creativity to the messy mishaps that come with being a teacher. Whether you’re driving home from school or cleaning up your classroom for the 15th time today, take a second, take a deep breath, relax those shoulders, and let’s get started.
Hello and welcome back to The Art Class Curator Podcast. I am so excited to be with you today to talk about one of the most meaningful things to me with works of art. That is, of course, the emotional, personal connection to works of art. I recently emailed my email list, you might have gotten it, about this new program that I am currently in the middle of called the Art Connection Circle. The email talked about connection to art and whatnot, and had you all reply to the email if you were interested in learning more and I got such amazing beautiful responses to that email. I can’t even tell you, I was just filled with joy reading all of your emails. I did my very best to respond to each one personally. But one of them really stuck with me and I thought for sure this is a great podcast topic. I can’t find the exact email. I tried to search for it with some terms that I remember us using but I can’t get the exact quote. But basically, what the email said was that this person found themselves, when they went to art museums connecting with art, they found themselves really engaging with the art based on what they knew but not what they were actually seeing there live in the museum.
I found that to be so poignant because I’ve seen that to be true of myself in the past too, especially when I was younger, but also while walking through a museum and observing everybody that’s there, you’ll see people walking around with a friend or someone and they’re just sharing information that they know about the artwork or the artist. It’s like, “Here’s van Gogh. This is about his life. These are the colors he liked to use. These are the types of brushstrokes that he liked to use. This is the story I know about the artwork,” that kind of stuff, and we as art teachers know a lot about works of art. We’ve taken art history classes, we’ve engaged with the works in many sorts of ways and so we know a lot about them. When we go to an art museum, we could fall into this pattern of knowing and engaging with the artwork through that lens.
I don’t necessarily think that’s all bad, but I do think that maybe there’s another way and that’s what I want to talk about today. I’ve told this story recently. If you listened to my interview with Lisa Carpenter a few weeks ago, I told her the story of when I decided to study art education instead of art history. I’ll tell you that again just in case you didn’t hear that story originally that is very relevant to this particular topic. When I was younger, this was in 2004, I was in the middle of applying to graduate programs in art history. I was applying to PhD programs, I’ve taken my GRE and I was writing all the essays. I had my list of places I was applying to and some of them had already been sent off. On New Year’s day of 2004, I visited Houston. At the time, the MoMA in New York City was being remodeled and they sent a lot of the art down to Texas. That was so very exciting for me as a young early 20s person who could not afford to travel to New York City to be able to see these artworks that I knew and loved and that I’d studied and everything.
We drove down to Houston from the Dallas area and in the morning, we went to the museum and came back after we saw the exhibit because we couldn’t even afford a hotel room. We were pretty broke back then. When I got to that exhibit, I immediately made—this is not a part of the story that I told Lisa said the other day—but what the first observation that I made upon entering, the very first room, I believe, had The Starry Night in it, had some van Gogh, had The Starry Night, and probably other artwork from that era. I don’t remember what else was in the room. But the thing I noticed was that there was an audio guide and there were just tons of people because it was a holiday, a lot of people took the day off, this was a time where people are going to the museum. All of the audio guide tour stops had just droves of people standing in front of them with the machine to their ear. Now they do it on cell phones but back then, they had this little handheld thing that you held up to your ear and you typed in the number and it told you about the art. I noticed that no one was looking at the other artworks, it was only the ones that had audio guide stops. I was like, “Wow, that is really interesting.”
I didn’t have an audio guide. I usually don’t get them, mainly because I want to experience it for myself. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. They have gotten really good though. I’ve noticed that they’ll play music and they’re pretty cool, but I like to be with myself and the art without a third party interjecting into my ear. Anyway, that was the first observation I noticed and it made me start to wonder, “Is that helping or hindering people’s enjoyment of the art?” I think it’s probably both depending on the person. That was my first observation. Then what happened next was there was this long room that you walked into and then you turned a corner to get to the next room, and when I walked into that room I saw Picasso’s Girl Before A Mirror and it knocked me over. I had been aware of the painting before. I had always been a fan of Picasso. He was one of my favorite artists. I just really always resonated with his art. I was just completely blown away. I cried. I couldn’t leave it. I stayed in front of that painting for so very long.
I ended up writing a whole four-page essay in the car on the way home—no, it wasn’t even in the car, I don’t remember because I didn’t have a computer, how did I write it? Anyway, I still have it so I might read you a bit of it in just a minute. But I was not only mesmerized by my connection to it, I felt a deep connection to the subject matter, the girl looking into the mirror and not seeing herself reflected back but seeing this distorted purpley thing. At the time in my life, I had felt a lot of social anxiety and had been newly diagnosed with social anxiety and I really resonated with that message and painting. But the other thing that I really started to think about was how powerful this connection is to art, how I can look at a painting and I can feel so deeply. It was almost scary how powerful that feeling was. It just overtook me. It came really the first time that I recognized my deep capacity for art connection and it made me recognize that one of the first times in my life where I have recognized that more information is not necessarily the right path. I’ve always been a learner. I want to know everything. I want to understand the world. I have a constant curious thirst for knowledge and information. That was one of the first times that I realized that to exist in the question, to exist in the moment, was magical. I wasn’t going there to learn about the art, I was going there to experience the art, to be with it, and to learn about myself through my engaging with the art. That was a really important distinction that I don’t know that I had ever really fully realized up until that point.
Before I move on to keep talking, I want to share with you a little bit of what I wrote that day. It turns out it wasn’t four pages but six pages. I went and looked for my little essay that I wrote. I wrote a whole bunch about other stuff too. I wrote a bunch about my social anxiety and things but let me talk to you about what I had realized about the painting after I saw it. Here is a little bit of an excerpt from my essay that I wrote in 2004 after looking at this artwork.
As I stared into this dark contrast of the blue and orange mirror frame, my mind started to wonder. I realized that what I was looking at, according to my own eyes and heart, was pure unadulterated perfection. This painting, with paint so rich and so deep, is perfect. I became scared of it, which is the main focus of why I’m writing about it today, but mesmerized at the same time. Scared of this feeling that it created in me and scared that this feeling, if I continue to study art history, will never come back. I’m afraid if I stare at it long enough, it will lose this perfection. Additionally, I worry that if I take my eyes off of it for just a second, it won’t be the same when I look again. I begin to realize that I don’t want to deconstruct modern art and take away its essential meaning and value. I want to leave the mystery in the paintings themselves. I want to see the artworks for what they are and not for the analysis and art historian who could be me someday pinned on it. Had I been more familiar with this particular painting, would I have reacted in such a way? If I knew more about the particulars of the subject matter or that particular time frame in Picasso’s life or what he was thinking about the day that he placed those aqua stripes on the woman’s stomach, would it have still knocked me off my feet as it did yesterday afternoon?
I fear becoming too close to modern art that it loses its excitement. Did staring at and deconstructing the Man with a Pipe ruined the rest of Picasso’s similar cubist works for me? I’m sure it did because at the MFAH, I walked right past two works identical in palette and style to Man with a Pipe because it seemed to be old news. I know I will not have this reaction again to Girl Before A Mirror if I am to someday make it to New York City because it cannot be duplicated or fabricated again and again. I’m not naive enough to believe that each time I see a work of art, I will have the same reaction.
I go on and on in this essay. I started to talk about artworks that were once exciting to me and that now are not because of my education and stuff. To continue on with Girl Before A Mirror just to illustrate the truth of this—I never have done any research on that painting but I have seen it three times now in person and each time, I had a completely different experience with it. It is really beautiful to me how I can go back again and again to a work of art that I connected to and I can experience them in new ways. Sometimes they do lose their magic. Sometimes, the next time, I don’t have as much of a connection to it but that connection changes and then the memory of the past connections join in. The second time I saw Girl Before A Mirror was another pivotal point in my life; it was in 2014. Oh, it’s exactly 10 years later. That is great. I had listened to a podcast about someone traveling around the world, and I realized I deeply wanted her life. I was like, “I want to do that.” Then what I realized at that moment was I haven’t been following my magic and I haven’t been living my life to the fullest and that I was feeling stuck. That’s the year that I made some really big decisions in my life. I started my business, did some personal work. One of the first things I did was I booked a trip. I hadn’t traveled in many years. We just didn’t have the money to travel for so long. But I listened to that. I was just like, “I’m going somewhere.”
I’ve always wanted to go to New York City. It’s just this place hanging over my head like, “I have to go there,” and I just couldn’t make it there. Anyway, on a whim, I went there. It was really a life-changing year but what happened when I looked at Girl Before A Mirror this time was I had reconnected with the magic that it had had 10 years before and it also reconnected me with my love of art. I had been working in education, I had been working with art but I had lost touch with that emotional connection and I had lost touch with myself. I feel like I lost myself for a period of time. I had gained a bunch of weight. One of the reasons I didn’t travel was that I couldn’t fit in an airplane seat and in 2014 was when I realized I could get two airplane seats and so that was pretty exciting. At that time, when I looked at the painting the second time, I realized again this was me looking into the mirror and not resonating with what I see. Both times, there was this feeling of a disconnect with me that I needed to work on connecting with myself even more. That painting is always a reminder of who I am and who I want to be and how to get there. It’s been guiding me all along these years. I can still talk about it with such joy because it has helped me through my life again and again; this painting has.
Had I known who that was and what was going on in Picasso’s life when he did that, and if I’d come into the museum that day ready to spout art historical facts about Picasso, I would have closed myself off to that connection. This story is here to encourage you, when you’re engaging with works of art, to turn off that part of your brain that wants to explain, that wants to say, “Oh, this reminds me of this other artist,” or “Oh, this was his blue period,” or this was his whatever or this related to that. All of that stuff can increase your connection to the artwork. It can provide really cool interesting stories and value to the artwork. But if you’re not careful, that can take away the joy, the spirit, the life, and the magic from that art connection.
I was talking recently with one of my coaches. We were talking about this idea of knowing too much. I told her the story of the Girl Before A Mirror. I had also told her this story of what I did one time, this four hours of silence exercise. I highly recommend you try it out, it was brilliant, so I was going to do four hours of silence and what it teaches you is really what your mind is up to and how your thoughts are just constantly moving. It really allows you to be present with yourself and your thoughts. I had already done it once before but the second time I did it, I was at a lake house. We did like a family vacation to a lake house. This was last year when my girls were doing remote learning. They did their school work in the morning and my husband was working. Everybody was working, so I just sat by this window at this lake house and stared out the window. I was like, “No one’s allowed to talk to me for four hours. I’m just going to close myself in this room. I’m going to sit here on this chair with this blanket. I’m just going to stare at this window.”
What I realized in that moment is I spent a good hour analyzing a squirrel. I watched every movement of that squirrel. I watched it. He just never left the area. It was just climbing up the tree and eating some nuts. The squirrel was just hanging out. In my four hours of silence, I wasn’t allowed to get out my phone, I wasn’t allowed to Google things about squirrels,and so I just allowed myself to exist in my curiosity about that squirrel and exist in my wonder of who he or she is and how they are and how they came to be and what their purpose is on this planet. It was so fun.
The more I know about the world, the more I realize there still is to know, especially with science, I love studying space and I’m obsessed with watching space shows and things like that, and it just blows my mind that the more we know about space, the universe, and everything beyond, the more we don’t know. For someone who’s always been a black and white thinker, there’s a right and a wrong, and there’s a correct answer and an incorrect answer, these interactions with art and these interactions with information, curiosity, space, and psychology, it helps me realize that there is no true one answer and that we can look for those answers within us. The answers are within us. That’s something I talk about with teaching all the time, that a lot of teachers will resort to telling about the artwork in their classes, they’ll give information, they’ll tell a story, they’ll read a book about the artist to the class but they don’t stop to show the artwork and talk about it. We’re skipping the part that has the most area for growth. The most area for excitement and energy is that space spent not knowing, that space spent in wonder, that space spent in curiosity, that space spent in conversation, that space spent in just being present with the artwork.
I started to talk about this conversation I was having with my coach and I just went off on some other random tangent. What she had talked to me about was that she had a father figure in her life that had told her that when you’re—and I’m probably going to butcher this because she was telling me his quote and then she couldn’t remember exactly what he had said and now I’m rephrasing what she had said about him, so this is like a telephone situation—but that when you’re engaging with an object, there are two ways you can do it; externally and internally. But I don’t even know if externally versus internally is the right thing. You can come at it from this place of, okay, what I know about it, what it reminds me of, that art historical information or we’re just saying objects so what information you know about it, its function and whatnot, or you can just be present with it and let it communicate with you what it is there to communicate with you about.
When you’re engaging with a work of art at an art museum, clear your mind of what you know about the artist, clear your mind of what you know about the technique, and just allow the artwork to seep into your being. Be with it. Be present with it. Be mindful of it. Notice it. Then you’re going to make those connections and you can bring in what you know and that can add some rich textures to it. But start with just engaging with the artwork with it and take the pressure off. This is a shorter episode but it’s really important to me and I think it’s important to teach our students to really be present and mindful. I have only just very recently realized that what I’m doing when I’m looking at art is meditation, because I’m a very black and white thinker and I’m a very right or wrong person, things are right, things are wrong. To me, meditation is this way, you sit and you clear your mind and you do a body scan or you do a meditation recording. That is how you meditate. Any other ways you’re being mindful, any ways I’m being mindful in my life or in front of a work of art, or listening to a piece of music, that’s not meditation because I’m not sitting a certain way and doing it this right way. Just allowing myself to view that space as meditation, that space in front of the artwork as meditation, has allowed me to give myself some grace and allowed myself to really sink into that presence with the works of art. It’s just a subtle mindset shift as well.
That was a little bit of a side note but I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. If you have anything pop up, please feel free to email me at email@example.com. If you’re interested in having these conversations about art that are about the deep inner work that can come with works of art, I would love for you to join my email list. We have a new freebie which is a meditation about connecting with works of art. If you’re interested in checking that out, you can go to artclasscurator.com/meditation. It is not just for teachers, it is for anyone who is interested in exploring art in this way. Go to artclasscurator.com/meditation. Thank you so much for joining me today at The Art Class Curator Podcast. I look forward to seeing you again next week. Bye.
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