Another iPhone photo.
These were taken in one of the galleries of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. I had high hopes for them, but for some reason my iPhone took a sequence of photos at very low resolution, and these were among them. Perhaps I can use these as a group. I did nothing to the files in Photoshop, which is unusual for me. Very often I crop images, and typically I do a little color correction and sharpening.
When I first started exhibiting photographs, in the early 1990s, I used metaphorical names for my abstract and semi-abstract works. In the past few years I’ve turned away from that; now most of my titles for such photographs simply say what things are. It doesn’t always work well, and sometimes I break my new rule. I’m uncertain about whether this photograph should have a different title. It’s a manipulated image of a bench and shadows at a Dairy Queen in Hoisington, Kansas. Pentax K-50, 18-50 mm zoom.
No art lasts forever, but some art is much more transient than the rest.
A good friend of mine posted a link on my Facebook page tonight that shows photographs of a Van Gogh painting reproduced large on the landscape via vegetation planted on a 1.2-acre plot. The artist is Stan Herd, who specializes in “land art” designed to be seen from the air. Most of his pieces are eventually plowed under or grown over.
The same transience characterizes the work of the well-known artist Andy Goldsworthy, who works primarily with sticks and stones, leaves, ice, and other materials found in nature. Most of his works are not destined for long life either. They melt, get blown away, wither, or are destroyed by water. Even more transient than Goldsworthy’s or Herd’s works are patterns made by artists on sandy beaches or snowy slopes, some of which last only a few minutes before seawater washes them away or the sun melts their borders.
Some conceptual artists play on the notion of transience by doing conventional work but deliberately planning its destruction. And the very nature of performance art is transience. Only the photographs and videos documenting these various types of art have any longevity, although they too will die some day.
It’s supremely ironic that my friend happened to post this particular link this evening that led me to muse about the transience of art—because this evening, after years of uncertainty, I had finally brought myself to put some art into the recycling bin.
When my husband died, in May 2008, he left behind three big acid-free boxes stacked full with 200 to 300 abstract paintings and other artworks interleaved with acid-free sheets. Most of these works were done with undiluted watercolors on paper. Some were done with ink; some were done via photocopier. Many of the paintings are flaking; some are wrinkled. Some are quite good; many are not, partly because Steve never discarded any of his efforts and partly because his mother and I have skimmed off the cream of the crop. They epitomized Steve as much as anything did. They were the best things he ever produced. To whatever extent anyone has a legacy, they were his legacy. And even though we were divorced a few months before he died, they became unofficially mine upon his death.
At least, I took them. A friend helped me clear out the house that Steve and I once shared, which I’d deeded over to him in the divorce. But neither of us could pry open the high cupboards in the sunroom that I thought contained the boxes of paintings. In a near panic, I dragged in a neighbor who worked and worked and finally got the doors open. I wept in relief. Although I didn’t know what I would do with the paintings, they were the most alive thing left of Steve and they had to be saved.
But where does art go when it has no future?
I framed a couple of the paintings for my house. But Steve and I had no children. He had no siblings. His father died less than five months after he did. In short, after I took the boxes to his mother and let her choose what she wanted, I was at a loss to know what to do with the paintings down the line. Like my own photographs, which will be thrown out or deleted by someone unknown to me after I die, his art has no prospective home.
I’ve kept the boxes for seven years. It seemed unthinkable to get rid of any of the paintings. But I recently told Steve’s mother I would bring them to her, along with the quilts she made us, to ensure that they would still be “in the family” if I died. A smart woman, she hit upon the idea of taking some of the paintings to next year’s family reunion in case any of Steve’s cousins want some of them. She couldn’t take 300 of them, however, and most people don’t much care for abstract paintings. The reality is that most or all of those paintings will be thrown out by someone after my ex-mother-in-law dies.
As I was going through the paintings one last time, choosing a few more that I hate to part with, I found myself putting aside some that I knew would never find a home among Steve’s cousins. Then I began putting aside more that I knew wouldn’t find a home. And finally I assumed the role of Steve’s curator, deciding which paintings were best and which should be sacrificed to make things more manageable for his mother.
Who was I to judge that? But it seemed best for me to do it—a favor, a burden, a debt, an obligation. At one point I just sat down and cried, because it seemed I was discarding his soul, a concept I don’t even believe in. I’m not sure which I was mourning more, the art or the artist. In some dimension, they are one and the same.
Days 14 & 15: Lawrence to Carbondale.
After an initial delay on Sunday morning, I made it at last to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City for my second visit. I spent most of my time in the Bloch Building, the 2007 addition to the museum by architect Stephen Holl. From the street to the east, the addition looks something like a series of connected trailers rising up a hill. But from the inside, it’s phenomenal, with light coming in from windowed towers and interesting angles everywhere. I hate to say this, but I found it far superior to my beloved St. Louis Art Museum’s more recent addition, both architecturally and in the modernist collections that both additions house. I spoke to a museum guard about the photos I was taking of the interior. He pointed out how each gallery opened up a new view via a few steps down into the next, leading the visitor through the building. In fact, he said, a photographer had been there earlier that day on behalf of the architect, who visits periodically.
I’ve included here small, low-res details of four or five of the works at the museum, hoping that constitutes “fair use” for copyright purposes. Most of my time was spent in the modernist collection. I never even made it to the photography galleries (irony!), and though I visited the main sculpture court, which has several Rodins, I was disappointed to have missed the Isamu Noguchi sculpture court. A next visit is in order. I spent my last 45 minutes at the museum trying to track down a still-life of lemons that I recalled vividly from my first trip. (I collect art postcards, and am often vexed that museums so seldom have my particular favorites in their shops.) I asked one guard if he recalled a painting like that. “Let me ask someone else,” he said. “I haven’t been here too long.” I couldn’t tell if he was actually contacting someone on his phone, and I told him Don’t worry, I’ll keep looking. I said I thought it was a European painting, and he said American.
I’d already made a mad dash through the European galleries, so I headed for the American art. No luck. I found another guard and asked her the same question. “Let me ask someone else,” she said. “I haven’t been working here that long.” She said she’d be back in a minute and I sank onto a bench to rest my feet and knees, still sore from the fall at Estes Park. Two minutes later she came around the corner with the first guard in tow. We both started laughing. But the first guard had, in the interim, gotten some information and gave me the exact number of a gallery that featured a painting with lemons.
Well, I’d been in that gallery, and this painting hadn’t stopped me. Memory is a tricky, tricky thing. Either that, or this was in fact a different still-life. It was a fine painting, and I took photos of it, but in my mind a very different painting still exists, with luscious, incredibly realistic lemon slices and…a fish, I think. Hmmm….
At closing time, I headed out of Kansas City for Boonville, where I stayed overnight. The next day, Labor Day, I was home by mid-afternoon, unloading the car and looking forward to getting the doggies out of the kennel on Tuesday. I was very tired, but I’d done my trip. It wasn’t like hiking across Africa or climbing Everest. It wasn’t even Paris. To most people it will seem a very modest achievement. But to me, debilitated after years of depression and anemia, this road trip loomed pretty large as an accomplishment.
I think I’m ready to do it again in a different direction.
Day 13: Colby to Lawrence.
My destination for today was Lawrence, Kansas. From there it would be a quick drive to Kansas City on Sunday. Knowing I had plenty of time, I took back roads much of the day.
My first stop was at an old favorite: the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum in LaCrosse, Kansas. It was my third visit (I’m not making this up). There was a time years ago, before my late husband and I stumbled upon this place, when I no doubt thought barbed wire was barbed wire was barbed wire. Ha! Not a chance of it, and this little museum, which is always deserted, will set you straight. It has hundreds upon hundreds of variations of barbed wire, plus the tools needed to string and tighten it, plus all sorts of auxiliary items. The director estimates that about 500 patents exist for different types of barbed wire. But each patent can cover hundreds of variations; the total is mind-boggling. One Glidden barbed wire patent covers some 2,400 variations, for example. Among my favorite exhibits at the museum are two barbed-wire tornadoes and a huge crow’s nest made of scraps of barbed wire.
Before leaving, I asked the director where I might get a sandwich to eat. He suggested the Dairy Queen in Hoisington, about 15 miles to the east. It was an inspired choice, because if I hadn’t stopped at the DQ and idly picked up a brochure on the counter, I’d never have known that Hoisington was having a Labor Day festival and that one of the activities was helicopter rides, 40 bucks per passenger.
While I ate my cheeseburger I mulled that over. I’d never flown in a helicopter before, or even been inside one. The prospect was scary, yet enticing. When would I get such a chance again? I could at least look. So when I was done at the DQ, I backtracked, drove through (or rather, around) Hoisington’s downtown, and found the helicopter site. The copter looked awfully small. The pilots said they couldn’t afford to take up just one passenger. Okay, I said, I’ll wait a couple of minutes and see if someone else shows up.
Meanwhile I asked a bunch of stalling questions: Do I weigh too much to go? (Not even close; they could take a 300-pound passenger!) Wasn’t it too windy to fly? (No, helicopters love the wind!) I had fallen a couple of days ago and my left leg was hurting; would I be able to pull myself into the helicopter? (They’d help me!) I sat in my car, still ambivalent. Then a black SUV pulled up: father, mother, son, daughter. The son was first out, and it soon became clear that he and his dad were going up. The pilots waved me over, and I found myself plunking down two 20-dollar bills. I and the boy, who looked to be about 10, would be seated in the back, where there were windows. The pilot (a woman! yes!) and the dad would take the front seats, where there were no doors. “I’m scared,” the boy said matter-of-factly, without any visible sign of anxiety. “I guarantee you I’m more scared than you are,” I told him unwisely. “It’s bumpy,” he said (we hadn’t left the ground, but it did feel bumpy with the engines on). “Should we hold hands?” I said. “I’m going to hold on here,” he said, grabbing the bar between the back of the front seats. I did the same. And then we were up and off!
We were all wearing headsets so that we could hear the pilot and each other. “This is awesome!” the kid yelled as we began to fly over Hoisington. I was with him one hundred percent. I believe I might even have added “Woo!!” I was taking pictures like crazy, and the kid and I kept announcing how fun it was. It was wonderful fun. It was even fun when the helicopter banked significantly, though I was grateful I had a window next to me and not an open door. The ride, which lasted only four minutes or so, was far too short. I wanted to keep flying. Heck, I was ready to take lessons. But Lawrence awaited. I waved goodbye to the family, who were in fact from Hoisington, and headed down the road to Lindsborg.
This Scandinavian town was new to me. I got there at 5 p.m., so most places were closed except for an exceptional fair-trade shop called Connected. But Lindsborg hosts a sidewalk herd of painted dala horses. Wikipedia: “A Dalecarlian horse or Dala horse is a traditional carved, painted wooden horse statuette originating in the Swedish province of Dalarna. In the old days the Dala horse was mostly used as a toy for children; in modern times it has become a symbol of Dalarna, as well as Sweden in general. Several different types of Dala horses are made, with distinguishing features common to the locality of the site where they are produced.” In Lindsborg, the paintings on the horses may reflect the business where a given horse is located, or the interests of the sponsors or artist. One thing I noted is that the dala horses, which are chunky creatures, have no tails. I enjoyed photographing details of the paintings.
And then, as I was leaving the vicinity of Lindsborg, serendipity struck. I finally found what I’d been looking for all over Kansas and eastern Colorado: sunflowers! A whole big field of sunflowers with their heads still up (though, oddly, not facing the sun but facing east). I did what I could with my Pentax and my not-so-long lens, trying to get the best photo I could for me and my sunflower-loving friend Dinah.
At Salina I rejoined I-70. The rest of the drive to Lawrence was tedious, but it seemed to me that, all in all, I’d had the best possible day on the Plains.