Tag Archives: art

In the Middle of the Art

This was unexpected.  I had arrived in Zurich the day before, with plans to spend two days roaming this city.  En route to a company leadership training in Germany, it was the first time in months that I had left my sandy home town.  I was greedy for some new scenery.

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Zurich at night

A dragon guarded the entrance to my first destination.  The castle-style Swiss National Museum was attended by a German-speaking curator, whose eyes surveyed visitors as if he knew that most would snap iPhone selfies and spend hours ogling his treasures, but have no idea of their real value.  After he had accepted the tribute of a ticket and allowed me to proceed, the heavy double doors opened slowly, automatically, to an enormous room, full of brightly lit display cases and dark red walls.

Prominently displayed in the center were four donkeys.  

An unexpressive Jesus sat stiffly on each one.  The figures seemed to be composed of simple wood and paint; their angles were unrealistic, ugly.

They were hauled through the streets in regular processions for celebrations, hundreds of years ago, a plaque informed me.  But why bother to save four that looked so similar?  And why give something that did not seem too valuable such an exhibition?  I did not understand.

An alarm sounded from somewhere in the room.  Another tourist and I eyed each other with the question, “Is this something we should take seriously?”

The Paris attacks had occurred less than twelve hours before.

The sound— perhaps a falsely triggered security or fire alarm— faded, and I thought again of the King on a donkey.  Of His peaceful entrance, subversively surprising a city in turbulence that was seeking a political savior.  Perhaps we did need all four to help us remember.

Later I visited an art museum, whose features included several moods of Van Gogh; a giant, disheveled Campbell’s Soup can from Warhol; a handful of powerful sculptures from Rodin, stylized Renaissance paintings of love and spirituality; and immense panels from Monet.

My sister and I always look for Monet when we explore— from our first art experience together at a little museum in Rhode Island, to the Met in New York, to the places we were privileged to see in Paris.  One in particular, the Musée de l’Orangerie, features waterlily paintings that cover entire walls; the viewer is encircled by them, immersed in their colors.  The story is that Monet donated this exhibit to the people of Paris, to help heal their souls after the terrible experience of World War I.

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Claude Monet, Seerosenteich mit Iris — Kuntshaus, Zurich

I remembered them as I sat alone before the massive irises and lilies in Zurich’s museum.  A few days later, an artist would host some of our meetings in South Germany’s Art Factory, an abandoned roof tile factory turned into a haven for travelers and artists.  “I have heard it said that ‘Art is God’s secret weapon…,’” she told me.  “It makes sense.  No one would suspect; when things are very dark, art brings hope, it heals, it shows beauty.”

Between museums, I visited Fraumunster Cathedral, with stained glass windows stunning in size and color.  They fell short, to me, of capturing the greatest moments in the story of Jesus.  But the riotous color reflected the infinitude and intimacy of the moments when Christ took on flesh, and awakened my heart to long for more than the representation… for the real.  Each piece of art I saw that day expressed longing, love, or lust from the artists; their disillusionment, depression, and desires to gain peace; their defiance or acceptance of their societies; their fears, pains, hopes, joys.  Maybe the reflection of what is real, and the stirring of longing for more, were the point.

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View of Fraumunster Cathedral in Zurich, from the tower of Grossmunster Cathedral

After I had admired the windows, I crossed the street to Grossmunster Cathedral.  I was expecting less there; I had been captured by the story of Katharina von Zimmern, Fraumunster’s last abbess, who knew both how to lead and how to let go of power in an era where few women were allowed to do the former, and few human beings knew how to do the latter.  Tourists milled around the Grossmunster sanctuary; sound technicians were setting up for a sacred music concert the next day.  I walked up the side and found a postcard, printed in five languages.  The words:

Almighty God,

unto whom all hearts be open,

all desires known,

and from whom no secrets are hid:

cleanse the thoughts of our hearts

by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,

that we may perfectly love thee,

and worthily magnify thy holy Name,

through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

—Book of Common Prayer

The front stage was marked, “Please no conversation here.  Listen to the silence.”

I sat and listened.  A Renaissance painting seen earlier had portrayed Jesus’ baptism with everyday life happening around Him, and against the backdrop of European mountains.  I chuckled at the inaccuracy at first, remembering the “real” wilderness of the baptism site.  Perhaps the artist did not know any better.

But it is more likely that he did, and still had in mind something deeper, more vivid and more real.  The holiest moments can take place right in the middle of life as it usually goes.

All the cathedrals, all the great works of art, they are not the keepers of silence, or beauty, or hope.

They are simply places that we can remember.

Thanksgiving week.  The Young Leaders girls learn how to bob for apples.  Their laughter echoes in our community center; their head scarves are soaked.  I take a break from mixing biscuits and mashing potatoes the next afternoon, as the sun is setting in stunning color, to go to visit the Young Leaders boys; the moon, stunning in size, is rising when I go home.

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Hand turkeys from Young Leaders– part of learning about Thanksgiving in the United States 🙂

The teachers bring their families later that night, an Arab/American Thanksgiving.  Our table is filled with all the traditional fixings, give or take (a two-day turkey search had ended with chicken; and someone brought FullSizeRenderhummus to go with our glazed carrots and green beans). Strong Arabic coffee and sweet tea
accompany homemade aple crisp, blackberry pie, and kanafeh, a local cheese and honey desert.  Someone starts to sing, first in Arabic, later in English; others share stories over dishes in the kitchen.

And my heart is full thanksgiving, from this cathedral, amidst the art.

 

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The Art of Arabic Dance

I took a deep breath, hands resting against the steering wheel, then stepped out into the night.  The dark and silent road reminded me of my stay in that house a few months ago.

My former host mom and I had contacted each other occasionally since.  It had been a while since I heard from her, however, so her message that afternoon surprised me: “A few ladies are coming over for a little party tonight.  Come join us. Eight o’clock.”

It’s difficult to know what you’re getting into when people say “a little party” here.  They were in the sitting room, where we had never sat while I lived with them.  The ten-year-old threw herself into my arms for a hug; her younger brother also allowed a quick embrace, before they fled upstairs to the family room.

I introduced myself to the other guests: a well-made-up momma with a restless infant, a contented-looking grandmother, and a handful of other ladies– all coiffed to perfection.  When my host mom entered, she was wearing black leather boots and a leopard-print dress.

We all exchanged kisses on the cheek, and small talk on our lives, as more women entered the room.  They would arrive with head coverings, long robes, and plates of food.  Then they would disappear briefly into the kitchen, and re-emerge with unveiled hairdos, mid-thigh skirts, and four-inch heels.

I repented of my terribly comfortable– and terribly worn out– purple flats.

A friendly shouting match over song selection ensued.  The woman closest to the stereo solved it by abruptly turning up the music, so much so that no one could talk.  The only option was dancing.

My host mom started things off, joined by her best friend, Amany.  The rest of us sat in a circle, clapping in rhythm and watching the graceful arc of each arm, the subtle twist of each hip.  I had been to enough parties to know that these “simple”-seeming movements are not easily duplicated by someone who has NOT been reared on hummus and pita bread.

A few others took their turns in the middle, until they finally persuaded the oldest woman present to perform.  Perfect, controlled movements of her knees, hips, and shoulders, almost faster than the eye could see, astonished me for about half a song.  Then she cut herself off and sat down.

“I’m old,” she muttered.  “I can’t dance all night.”  But her smile-lines deepened around her eyes, communicating: I’ve still got it.

After repeated cajoling from the other women, the young momma plopped her child into his grandmother’s lap and took the center.  She danced with skill equal to the oldest, but had more flexibility.  Kicking off her stilettos, she drew her whole body– eyelashes to toenails to fingertips and everything in between– together into a living, swirling work of art.

Grandma patted the baby’s back in time to the beat.   I remembered the words of a wise old teacher: Some emotions are inexpressible with everyday words.  That’s why we need poetry, music, art….

and dancing.  

Contented as I was, I knew what was coming.  The ladies looked my way.  “Your turn,” they said, uncertain of how much urging I would require.

Exclamations of surprise and approval accompanied me as I stood up.  Standing up showed I was willing, and that went a long way.  I also knew it was better if I was not alone.  “Dance with me!” I said, drawing the woman beside the stereo with me into the middle.

The rest encouraged me like I was a kid who had just colored a cute picture.  Amany even smiled and said, “You dance like my nine-year-old!”

Given how nine-year-olds here dance, I thought, that is just fine.

Then they pointed to the corner, where the oldest woman was sitting.  She was waving her arms, trying to tell me something, but I could not hear or understand her over the music.  So she roused herself and stalked into the center of the circle, her eyes alive with merriment, confidence, and sass.  She put her hands on my waist.

“From here down you dance like an Arab.  But from here up you dance like a foreigner!”  And she commenced again with waving, showing me how to move my arms.

I got home around 11:30, my stomach stuffed with their desserts, my clothes saturated with their second-hand smoke, and my mind straining to remember their advice.  Let go.  Stay strong in the core.  Make small moves– they have great power.  Be flexible and consistent, together.  Encourage those who hold back.  Hold stuff for them if they need you to.  Teach the ones who are struggling.

You don’t need to keep your arms close.  You aren’t being called to protect yourself.  Open up.

Be always willing.  Even when there is awkwardness.  Even when you look like a child.  

Even when there is darkness.  

I am learning to dance.

i thank You God for most this amazing

E. E. Cummings:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

Riding in the passenger’s seat, in a borrowed convertible, studying the way sunlight slipped through the leaves on late-summer trees– leaves that were just beginning to hint yellow.

The lines from this poem tumbled forward in my mind, trying to express in small measure the glimpse of infinity given by that moment.  The moment passed.  And a few hours later, the memory still with me, I was boarding a plane to the Middle East, returning home after two weeks with friends and family on the U.S. East Coast.

Landed in Rome, with a ten hour layover and an objective: to see the Sistine Chapel.  On the way, though, I feasted my eyes on hall after hall of sculptures, tapestries, and paintings in the Vatican Museum, recognizing a few but most unfamiliar to me.  The arrangement displayed the art of ages, showing certain pieces’ connections to the broader stories of Rome, the church, and art– some of them grievous and some great.

For example, the 2,000 year old Belvedere Torso.  Perhaps the five-hundredth sculpture I had laid eyes on that day, but its story held me.

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Michelangelo, they say, took this sculpture into his studio.  He sketched it from every angle for more than a year, and called it the greatest masterwork of sculpture known to humanity.  Armless, legless and headless– for him, it was the source of inspiration from which he would create many of his own works, including dozens of the figures in the Sistine Chapel.

When the reigning pope ordered him to complete the missing pieces of the sculpture, Michelangelo refused.  “It is perfect,” he said.

Friends gave counsel like Michelangelo’s stance on the Belvedere, as I prepared to return to the Middle East: Focus on what is present.  Draw inspiration from it.  Make something new, don’t replace what has already been let go.

I feel sometimes like I’m missing appendages– like parts of me have been severed, leaving me awkward and off-balance.  I am marred by what I don’t possess and trying desperately to replace, to be made whole, making the false assumption that the core cannot be completely beautiful if significant pieces are still missing.

I was resolved to see with different eyes when I came back.  I would focus on the beauty of the present, practice gratitude, smile, enjoy the good stuff and the hard stuff…. It lasted approximately one and a half days.  I still miss my missing pieces.  I still hope for being whole.  I still long to see the restoration of peace here.

On day two, I went to the university.  “We would like you to teach American & British Poetry this semester,” they said.  “Your class begins tomorrow.”  So I began searching for the greatest works, the most beautiful poems of the English language.

And I quickly found that these works connect with both the core and the missing pieces.

Poetry gives expression to the things that are incommunicable through everyday language and structure.  In our first class, we discussed Langston Hughes’ “Dreams.”  A beautiful poem of perseverance, hope, and ambition, is it not?  I rob my students of the depth of his work if I don’t tell them about the context– of the author as an African-American in the early-mid 1900’s, of the racism that exists today.  My students receive the challenge to “hold fast to dreams,” not only when the sun shines, but also in the face of injustice.

And as I return to life here, I can’t ignore the pieces that are broken, or backwardly attempt to recreate what has been.  Instead, will I allow both the beauty and the brokenness inspire me, to be part of making something new?

Sunlight is streaming through the date and fig trees, outside my basement here.  A different view.  But I still say, with E. E. Cummings,

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

 

 

 

 

 

Wildflowers Live Here Too

I was riding on the back of a motorcycle in Asia when I glimpsed it.  The “motorcycle taxi driver” had taken the long way home. Tired, I wished I had remembered to tell him about the shortcut back to my host family’s place.  I was staying with them for a month while researching their city, and it had been tough– beyond anything I had experienced in the previous year of living in the country.  But we were too far in to take a shortcut.

This route brought us to a different horizon, on the city’s edge.  Instead of smothering smog and sun-concealing concrete, I saw low houses and fields lit up by a glorious orange sky, that was fading to pink, then to dusky blues.  My breath was caught.  Now I wanted the ride to be as long as it could be.

A talented friend, Shawna Handke, gave me a piece of her artwork while I was still in New York (you can see more here at her website).  Wildflowers Live Here Too, she calls it.  I love the movement, the color of the flowers–IMG_1082 and the stark beauty of the solid buildings.

The stories this week include some large piles of concrete, hard edged, pretending they possess power to delete the sun from the sky and keep the ground without life.  I will tell you only one: from a woman who eagerly helped our group pack first-aid boxes to give to refugees.  She is also here in flight of that war.

She showed pictures of her two kids, her mother, her sister, all smiling.  Then she showed a picture of dust and rubble.  “That is all that is left of our home,” she told me.  The difficulties of displaced people go far beyond material provision– loneliness, lack of family network, loss, insecurity… Although now she has become part of community exercise, she said she would go for weeks with no one to talk to, when she first arrived here.

The Wildflowers picture looked bare on my wall, and I found no frame.  So one night, inspired by Brene Brown’s challenge in Daring Greatly that gratitude is a PRACTICE, I grabbed a post-it note, jotted one thing to be grateful for that day, and stuck it on the edge of the picture.  Same thing the next day.  Two days after that.  The frame is a work in progress– sunset-colored notes reflecting the flowers that, in Shawna’s art, tower over black-and-white buildings, and somehow seem far more permanent.

  • My friend’s 6-year-old daughter smiling and greeting me as “Khalto,” the Arabic word for “auntie.”
  • A quiet place outside to sit with my music, journal.
  • A trio of messages from dear friends, coming when I needed them.

A fistful of wildflowers.

And perhaps, I can be a friend– a wildflower to my new acquaintance– as she, with her dedication to helping other displaced people in this town, is a wildflower in my eyes.