February was a tough month for art and artists. At the Perez Art Museum in Miami, Maximo Caminero, a disillusioned artist from the local area, smashed one of 16 vases that make up an exhibit by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. The vases date from the Han dynasty, and Ai painted them in vibrant colors to foster thought about history, cultural heritage, and modern times. In statements to the police Caminero seemed confused, first stating that he did it to protest the fact that the museum only displayed international artists and then that he was acting in solidarity with the Chinese artist, who once similarly smashed one of his own vases as part of another creation. Whatever the reason, the result is one lost piece of art.
Image from Demotix
In a second incident, a cleaning woman in Italy threw away part of an installation that consisted of crumpled newspapers, bent cardboard, and cookie crumbs. She mistook the art, meant to make viewers think about environmental issues, for trash left behind by the set-up crew. Perhaps the piece did its job too well.
Image from Flip Project Space
This is not the first time art has been “straightened up.” In 2001 cleaners at a London gallery tossed away an installation made up of an ashtray, used coffee cups, empty beer bottles, and crushed newspapers. In 1999 Tracey Emin’s piece “My Bed” caught the eye of the judges for the Turner Prize. It also caught the eye of a compulsive neat freak, who made the bed and picked up the area around it.
My Bed by Tracey Emin. Image from Wikipedia
Of course these stories online were followed by comments about modern art, what constitutes art, and the value of these pieces. People also made jokes about never cleaning their houses again or how the floor of their car could be worth thousands of dollars. It’s funny because we all have clutter and never consider it art. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe we should.
Reading the articles made me think again about art. I love art and always have. And I’ve analyzed enough literature to know that a red hunting cap is never just a hat or a green light just a fancy light bulb at the end of a pier. So it is with conceptual art. Those cookie crumbs? Depending on the circumstances, crumbs can elicit nostalgia, anger, confusion, hunger, exasperation, longing, laughter. An unmade bed? Everyone from kids to adults have their own interpretation of that. If I had to pick one thing from my house to exhibit it would be my kitchen table. I will never refinish that nicked and scarred masterpiece created with wood and paint, glue and clay, crayons, markers, glitter, and cups of tea worked on every day for 18 years and counting.
I come from a family of artists and photographers, and I’ve always had friends who are artists. Whenever I visited one of my older cousins, I was fascinated by her carousel of pens, pencils, paint, and markers—so much color in the shadowy corner of her desk. Another cousin taught me how to look at life as if through the lens of a camera.
When I was in kindergarten my teacher told my mother I drew well and I started taking art lessons. I can still remember the dream I had the night before my first class: all the students were at tables just like in kindergarten and we drew these amazing things full of color and imagination. I also remember the first art class—the excitement. The disappointment.
I was put in front of an easel and told to copy a round vase that sat on a little table in front of me. I cried. And then I took my charcoal stick and drew a picture of different kinds of fish swimming in the ocean. No color, but plenty of imagination. When I was finished the teacher said it was pretty good. Then I was told to draw the bowl. I did. It pleased the teacher, and my perfect circle amazed the older students. To me it was just a circle.
I continued to take lessons, but I think I learned more about life than I did about how to make art. I called my class “drawing pots and pans” because every week we had to copy another kind of vessel. I get it now, learning perspective and line and shadowing, but at the age of five I didn’t want to be so constricted. I wanted to feel like this:
Horse and Rider by Marino Marini, Hershorn Museum, Washington DC. Image from Wikimedia Commons
I still have some of the pictures and paintings I created at that art school all those years ago. Here are two:
Here is the “perfect circle” vase I drew in my first art class. As you can see the flowers maintain their perspective through a 5-year-old’s eyes.
The only thing I think about when I see this painting I did when I was 8 or 9 is how my instructor sat on my stool and, while showing me how to paint with a palette knife, got so carried away with his own prowess that he practically finished the painting for me. You can probably tell what parts I did and what parts he did. So, my painting? Not so much.
I also have a portfolio filled with doodles and drawings I’ve done at home over the years. I hadn’t looked inside it for many years, so I pulled the heavy case out of the closet the other night and took a peek.
I had forgotten so much—of what the portfolio held, what I’ve done, and whom I’ve been. Over the years that case has become a catch-all for postcards from friends, comic strips worth keeping, souvenirs, prints I’ve hung on walls of dorm rooms and apartments, and my own work, both written and drawn.
Here’s just a sampling:
(A special note—It’s okay to laugh. I do it myself. I can see the problems—I just don’t know how to fix them.)
I embroidered this for an art project in 5th or 6th grade, using a variety of stitches. Our art teacher, Mrs. Rhinehart, gave me a B. (How could she give that smile a B?) A boy in my class named Alex was so incensed by the injustice of it that he grabbed it and ran into Mrs. Rhinehart’s classroom to plead my case. He wasn’t successful, but he was sweet.
I had forgotten about this picture I drew while in high school. It has a certain happy, linear quality I still like.
“Oh yeah,” Jenny said about this one. “You were obsessed with gas stations.” Actually, as a child I just liked the homey look of these old places I saw while driving through small towns on our yearly trip from Hollywood to St. Louis. They were so different from what I grew up with. Besides, drawing the screens in that door and window was oddly therapeutic.
These three I copied from black and white photographs:
Here’s a picture of my mother and me, au natural, looking into a mirror at our house in Connecticut.
This is my sister and my father washing dishes in the house we rented when we first moved to Hollywood, Fla. I have two memories from this house:
1. The swing set in the backyard.
2. My sister launching herself over the head of our bouncy hobby horse and chipping her tooth on the tile floor.
Drawing folds in material is not really my forte.
This picture of me and my baby sister in our Oshkosh overalls is my favorite.
I’ve made my own environmental statements. I drew this for an art appreciation course I took in college—a small school “nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains” far away from the spread of “retail farms” in South Florida.
For those of you who might wonder why I didn’t pursue art more seriously, I offer Exhibit 1. Evidence that I have no natural affinity for perspective:
I would hate to meet this baby in a dark alley, as they say. Jenny was gracious when we stopped laughing at it. She said maybe I could have gotten a job at Pixar and reminded me of the first baby the artists there created for the short Tin Toy.
Pixar’s first foray into creating a digital baby for the short Tin Toy. This baby is a little scary too.
I still love creating things, but these days they look more like these guys:
And now I will leave you with my favorite portrait ever.
This Polish Nobleman hangs in the National Gallery in Washington DC. I memorized the route to the particular gallery where this hangs because I was fascinated about a man who would let Rembrandt paint him with such a frazzled, befuddled expression. Maybe he didn’t think much of Rembrandt or maybe he was distracted by worries over his standing with the king or his wife or maybe he wondered if he had crumbs in his mustache.
Whatever—there is definitely a story there. It’s Life. It’s Art.