Friday, May 31, 2013

Appreciating the Arts

I had a crazy, old aunt.

Unlike in the movies, my aunt wasn’t a cheek-pinching, gushing, “come kiss your dear auntie” type. She was a flowing kaftan-wearing, long cigarette-smoking, red lipstick and nail polish type. She wore her dark hair wrapped in a loose bun at the back of her head and always had something  - chopsticks, paintbrushes, a conductor’s wand – poking through the messy knot of hair. She sat with her legs apart, elbows on her knees and laughed a manly laugh, loud, uninhibited, with her head thrown back. Her conversations were rich with things exotic to young girls, things like European culture, the newest ballerina from Romania, and her friendship with the Kennedys.

She was bold, beautiful and, still to this day, the most eccentric person I’ve ever met in my life. She was an artist.

My aunt loved all things creative. As the pianist for the Milwaukee Ballet, her days were filled with classical music, orchestras, and graceful, long-limbed dancers rehearsing for the evening’s performance. Her nights, when not at the ballet, were spent in front of an easel covering canvas after canvas in oils until the dabs and strokes and swirls of color resembled the extravagant visions in her head. 

Out of all her nieces and nephews, I was her favorite. As a pre-schooler, I felt special to have her attention. I was the little girl wearing new tights sitting alone in the velvet-covered chair right above the orchestra pit so she could keep her eye on me while she played for the ballet. I was the girl she lifted in her arms to touch the frame of one of her many paintings as they hung in the grand halls of the PAC. I splashed around in kiddie pools with Yuri and Peter and Romney, world-renowned dancers invited over to meet her “little Susie.”

As a school girl, I was aggravated to be her favorite. She singled me out for lessons in oil painting and piano when all I wanted to do at the time was learn the latest dance moves and see the current movies so I could fit in better with my classmates. She pushed my parents to enroll me in ballet class when other kids my age were learning to break dance.

As a teenager, I was embarrassed to be her favorite. Why did she buy me a portfolio of all the classical works of art or a book of poetry when all I wanted was a boom box? Why did she get me strange jewelry from Russia when all the other girls were wearing sets of multi-colored rubber bracelets? Why did she have to listen to opera with her car windows wide open so the whole neighborhood could hear how strange she was?

Now as an adult, I realize how blessed I was to be her favorite. Although the lessons in oil painting and piano didn’t stick, a love of the arts took root and matured throughout the years. I learned to appreciate all forms of art, from the whimsical to the macabre, from the surreal to the painfully real. I don’t necessarily like each piece I experience, but each one forces me to think, to feel, to form my own opinions.

Why do I like this sculpture, or why don’t I like it?

What is the artist saying through this dance?

What is this oil painting saying to me?

Do I think the artist took this photograph from a place of joy, or anger, or sorrow?

Is the artist's use of color or texture or space or form pleasing to me?

Creating art is a revealing form of expression. Bits of the artist, hidden bits, come out in the making. Appreciating art is a journey of discovery – of God, of Creation, of others, of self. 

This semester, I was excited to hear that our volunteers, Steve & Sandy Jensen, offered an Art Appreciation class to our college students.  What a beautiful way for these young people to learn more about their Creator, more about the people around them, and more about themselves as they seek to live a life of independence! 

I was planning to write a blog based on some facts Steve told me about the class and the field trip, but his email was so well-written, and so clearly showed his heart, that I decided to use it in its entirety.

"Initially, after being approved as volunteers, Sandy and I were assigned as tutors in study hall.  We developed a few one on one relationships with students, while we only had brief encounters with several others.  When study hall and homework expectations were re-conceptualized, we prayerfully considered how we could best serve the students and the college.

While college for us is a distance past, we still remember how much choir and the arts not only supplemented our education, but also gave us an outlet that balanced out the academic courses.  There is something refreshing about ending your school day with an elective that also allows you to be expressive.  We approached the college about the possibility of offering a choir once a week.  This was met with much support and enthusiasm for the second semester of 2011-2012 and through the entire current year.

When the fall semester of 2012 began, I came to the realization that there may be students who are not musically inclined who might be interested rather in the visual arts.  I approached the staff at the college, and it was mutually decided to offer a field trip to the Milwaukee Art Museum during the fall semester.  This was met with good response, and the trip was well received.

It was decided at that time to pursue the possibilities of a second trip in the Spring 2013 semester, this time to the Chicago Art Museum.  Recalling the benefit of Art Appreciation classes in high school and college, I felt it would enhance the experience to offer an Art Appreciation course that would be a pre-requisite for the field trip to Chicago.

Nine students signed up initially with eight finishing the course.  The classes met once a month on Sunday evenings and were well attended.  The introduction included reflecting on our Lord God Creator as the ultimate Artist, demonstrated in everything He created for our blessing and pleasure. 

The students had various previous exposures to Art, but all were enthusiastic about their particular passions and preferences.  Through the use of video and the internet, we attempted to give the students a broad exposure as to what is considered Art.  Once this was established, we focused on a few of the most popular genres, most notably Ancient, Classical, Renaissance, Impressionism, and Modern.  Specific artists that were most notable in their contribution to the evolving concepts of art and artists that are heavily represented in the Chicago Art Museum were also targeted to be presented in more detail.  Needless to say, each class hour went quickly, but as time went by a growing appreciation of God-given creative abilities and talent occurred in the hearts and minds of the students.

The semester culminated in the Chicago Field Trip on Memorial Day, 2013.  Six students were able to attend, and we were so proud of each one, not only in their mature behavior in everything from purchasing their own admission tickets to compromising on which exhibits would be a priority, but also in their recall of artists and genres and techniques. 

After a smooth and safe trip to Chicago in the school van driven by the Dean of Shepherds College, Angela Houk, the day started with a walking tour of Millennium Park.   

Then the students waited patiently in line for about 20 minutes just to be admitted to the building. 

Then began the Art tour which included, but was not limited to, paperweights, miniatures, photography, mosaics, statuary, Asian, Greek, Roman, architecture, furniture design, textiles, as well as the anticipated genres listed earlier. 

The students even learned that the huge outdoor amphitheater in Millennium Park has to be considered a work of art as it is too tall a building to be otherwise allowed in the park.

Enthusiasm ran high despite sore feet and tired bodies, and the students opted to go one more hour to make sure we saw the American Wing which included Grant Wood's American Gothic. 

The trip was capped off with a drive by Buckingham Fountain and Grant Park and an early supper at the two-storied McDonald's in downtown Chicago.   

Memorial Day proved to be a perfect day to travel as traffic was light and before we knew it, we were safely home, having been enriched and awed by the creative abilities of so many."


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