Art museums take my breath away. I am always awed by human creativity, the ways that people choose to express themselves, and how often they make simple objects needlessly beautiful. Then I stand in front of Greek marble sculptures and know that people have been doing this for a very long time. I wander to the next gallery that has ancient stone statues and I realize we have been creating art for even longer than we’ve had recorded history. That long ago sculptor was driven to create by a very similar creative impulse that leads me to write. Standing in a museum I can see all of this and I feel connected to all of the best of our history. Humans are amazing. It is nice to be reminded of that, because wading around the internet and watching the news so often shows me how humans are terrible.
I sat at the table and listened to my friend Mary plan her birthday dinner. It was to be a multi-course formal event. She picked anchor items then she planned complimentary courses. I listened to her discuss with her husband the merits and detriments of various pairings. Once the dishes were selected, they talked at length about the order of presentation. I squelched my impulse to reassure them that their guests would be happy with any order. This wasn’t about appeasing guests, they were discussing the artistic presentation of food as part of a formal dinner. I was watching art in the planning stages. Later this evening I will get to participate in the culmination of the planning, shopping, chopping, and cooking. This is not an art that will ever end up in a museum because it’s very nature is ephemeral. It is my friend raising a necessity (food) to an art form and I’m honored to be able to participate.
We began our tour of the Chicago Art Institute in the miniatures gallery. In the 1930’s Mrs. Thorne took dollhouse decoration to an art form. She commissioned teams of artists to create accurate miniature replicas of period rooms. Every single one was stunning. I was most charmed when there was a doorway or window that I could peer through into a back bedroom or a garden. I very much wanted to shrink myself and go explore those gardens. I suspect that Mrs. Thorne was ridiculed on more than one occasion for wasting her time and resources on so frivolous a pursuit as miniature rooms. I think that every artist or creator has their work belittled at least once. Yet her creation is marveled at today. Her rooms are carefully preserved by museum staff so that they will be available for my great grandchildren to admire. I am grateful to the museum conservators for this and for the Greek marbles that they tend, and the impressionist paintings, and all the other things that fill my soul when I look at them.
The last gallery we wandered through at the art museum was the Folk Art gallery. I looked at weather vanes and homey little chairs. I pondered why Folk Art is different than Art. The sign on the wall implied that the difference was in training and skill. I don’t quite buy that. Some of the folk art pieces were every bit as lovely as pieces found elsewhere in the museum. Then I thought of Mary’s planned birthday dinner and of the thanksgiving dinner I created for my family last November. Mary’s dinner is an art, mine was a folk art. Mine sought first to be comfortable and pleasing. Mary’s seeks to be beautiful and esthetically pleasing both to eyes and educated palettes. There is intrinsic value in both sorts of creation. It is true that Mary and I laughed at some of the items in the Folk Art Gallery. There was one clock case made of layer upon layer of wooden strips cut into zig zag shapes. It was busy and while not exactly ugly, definitely not something I’d want to look at often. Yet I could see how much loving work had gone into the creation. Some artist loved making that clock case.
In the Thorne Miniature gallery the European rooms ran along one wall while the American rooms were on the other. Stepping from one side of the hall to the other provided a distinct contrast. The European rooms were all large and highly decorated. The American rooms were smaller and practical. Yet both were beautiful. Just as Mary’s elegant dinner and my homey dinner are both beautiful. Just as folk art and fine art are both beautiful, even when they are kind of ugly. I love that humans make things needlessly beautiful. I love that we are all artists, creating in different mediums. Some create books, others well-run classrooms. Some make buildings, others sandcastles. Some embroider tapestries, others knit scarfs. Some create with expertise and skill, others with skill-less fingers but a strong desire to make something anyway. That is how we all begin, with pure desire to create. The skill comes later.
Art museums remind me that we are all artists, we all create in our own way. I think if we spent more time remembering that, the world would have more of what is lovely about humanity and less of what is not.