04 July 2008

Basking in the Art of America

My first stop in Washington, DC, was the museum that I loved when I was a kid: the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

I had wanted to begin our whaling trip there because of memories I had of the giant blue whale that soared over the marine wing of the museum. As I began to research the trip, however, I learned that this whale was no longer part of the museum--you have to go to New York's Museum of Natural History to see a full blue whale (although we later saw some skeletons in New Bedford, Mass).

In fact, the marine wing was closed for renovation, so Jonah, Owen and I headed for the mammal wing while Julie, Ellie and the Gates gang checked out the insect zoo.

I love the 'stuffed animals of the exhibits, and so did the boys--they had really loved Chicago's Field Museum last summer. They posed (right) with a chunk of seal blubber.

Later we visited the dinosaur room, in which so many different skeletons are on display, it is almost overwhelming!

For the afternoon, I decided to check out a new (for me) museum, the Smithsonian's Museum of American Art, which shares the old U.S. Patent Office with the National Portrait Gallery. I love art museums (it's a vice, I know--and the rest of my family hates me for it). When I visit a good exhibit, my pulse quickens, and my imagination begins to race. I really get stoked for these things!

To make things worse, I spent 2nd semester teaching American Literature at my high school. When I teach literature, anymore, I try to use music and art to augment the lessons kids learn about how American culture advanced through time. I had a heart full of American artists like Alfred Bierstadt, Georgia O'Keeffe and Winslow Homer; now I was ready to get an eye full.

We split up again. The Gates Gang (with Ellie in tow) toured the International Spy Museum across the street. I took Jonah and Owen.

Touring an art gallery with a kindergartner and a 2nd-grader is a real challenge. I knew that--if I was going to get anything out of this visit--I would need to provide a context for the boys to enjoy the paintings, too. Otherwise it was going to be a terrible afternoon.

The first gallery was an exhibition of landscapes. Before we started, I took the boys aside. "Okay, we're only going to look at a few pictures here," I told them. "For each one we look at, I want you to answer, 'Where is it?'."

They nodded.

"You can say 'desert' or 'Colorado' or 'Tennessee' or whatever you want."


We went to the first painting, a pretty straightforward picture. Seashore, said Owen. "That's the beach!" Jonah chirped.

We saw desert, New Mexico, a big river. We stopped before an abstract painting with lots of lines going up and down (brilliant, Georgia O'Keeffe). Where is it?

"That's New York City!" Jonah shouted. Owen looked at the marker. He looked back at me, stunned. "He's right."

I was stunned too. I'm not sure where Jo-Jo got it. (Later in the trip, we would visit New York.) At that point, I knew the visit would be great.

I had planned to skip the abstract paintings, but the boys were hooked, and their imaginations were fully dialed in. Nothing got past them, they figured out where everything was.

We moved into the collection of portraits of American presidents. Jonah was still on track. He pointed out George Washington, got a little tripped up on Jefferson (all the wig-wearers looked the same to him). He needed only a little help with Lincoln, and we journeyed through the other presidents with ease, including a fascinating exhibition on Lincoln's 2nd inaugural and subsequent assassination/funeral.

The last part of the tour was the one I had looked foward to the most, a trek through 300+ years of American history and art.

Our previous travels informed the kids of this wing--there were lots of bison and Indians, which we had learned about on trips West the previous two summers. I was blown away by the monumental Bierstadt painting, "Among the Sierra Nevada, California (1868)." It was ten feet high and almost 18 feet wide, and it simply was breathtaking.

The print they sold in the gift shop just didn't do the original justice. I will include it at right, just for you to reference, but you will have to take my word on the magnificence of the original.

This is painting is what makes being an American such a great experience. There are places in this country where you can stand, look up at the mountain peaks, and get the feeling that angels are singing all around you--like you are looking directly into Heaven. Thank God, there were painters who shared this view and were actually able to capture the emotion on canvas!

There are fireworks going off in my mind at the memory of this painting, and I witnessed it almost three weeks ago (there are fireworks going off outside, despite the rain, because it is Independence Day, which may also explain my patriotism).

I will close with one more picture from the MAA. In the modern wing of the historical exhibit, we found this sculpture of a mother playing with her baby. It was a remarkable sculpture, because the fluid lines and the playful postures made this a work of art that was enjoyable from almost every vantage point.

You can see that even Owen found a good angle from which to study this piece.
By the time we met Julie and Ellie again, I was on cloud nine. The boys had had fun. I had gotten a mind full of art and a heart full of my country. I had blown some serious money in the gift shop. All was right with the world.
(Later, when I report on our Father's Day visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, I will purposely leave out the dis-interest the boys showed there. All you need to know, dear reader, is that I got it right...once.

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