Friday, March 14, 2014

Recharging the creative batteries: an Art interlude in Missoula, MT

This week, while on a teaching tour through the US, I made a 1000 mile driving detour through Montana. This was uncharted territory for me, and Big Sky Country beckoned. The moniker is well-deserved, by the way. People and places are a constant source of inspiration for my "life above the neck," as a late beloved college professor used to call it. 

Checking out the neighborhood on Google maps, I saw that the well-reputed Missoula Art Museum (MAM) was just around the corner from my hotel. On a bright and crisp winter morning, I set out on foot to explore. The museum is a tiny jewel, tucked away in a modern downtown building. MAM’s mission is “to engage audiences and artists in the exploration of contemporary art relevant to the community, state and region.” The friendly staff explained the exhibit layouts, and I headed up to the third floor to begin an excellent cell-phone guided tour. On a random Wednesday morning, I was one of just a handful of visitors, not counting the gaggle of fifth graders who were taking a tour with their teachers. Where else do you hear the word “dodecahedron” these days? 

As I took my time to thoroughly absorb this small yet excellent collection of contemporary American works, a few pieces stood out for their message or technique. Many of the artists were unfamiliar to me, so I looked them up afterward, and found some pretty amazing biographical facts. Below, I discuss both the art that struck me, and then the fun facts about the artists I discovered later. 

1. Throwing Three Balls in The Air to get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts), by John Baldessari

The Art
That's a pretty straight line.
This was a series of 12 offset lithographs depicting three pink balls suspended against a bright blue sky. Sometimes, treetops were visible. In other photos, just the three balls and sky. The viewer never sees who's throwing the balls, or what's happening on the ground. The balls were always captured in a slightly different formation. I loved the message here: chop wood, carry water. Try, try again. Practice makes perfect. I appreciated the dedication to the goal, and the rigid documentation of the process. What made me smile was the actual task the artist chose to pursue: trying to get the three balls to line up in a straight line in the air. I thought about a few instances in my own life, where I tried and tried to do something that maybe, in retrospect, didn’t make a lot of sense, or didn't really serve me. If I'm going to do something, I want to do it well. With a limited amount of time and energy in this life, it's important to spend it on something meaningful. 

Not so straight.
The Artist

John Baldessari is a conceptual artist working in photography, film, video, billboards, and public works. In his early career, he was a painter. Quite dramatically, Baldessari burned all of the work he produced between 1953 and 1966 in a ceremony in 1970 to mark his transition from abstract painting to text-based art. Subsequently, he focused on photographic work. While we can’t comment on the scale of the loss to humanity that the destruction of his work caused, we admire his courage and audacity in such a bold new start. 
2. Self-Portrait, by Chuck Close
The Art
From a distance, this print looks like a vivid photograph of a man with a striking similarity to Walter White from Breaking Bad. When viewed close up, however, the painting is a wild agglomeration of colorful circles and squares. The collector who loaned the work to the museum said it reminded him of the complexity of people, at how a first glance can be deceiving, and there’s so much going on we don’t know about. These words rang in my ears when I looked up Mr. Close later that day.
Self-portrait from afar
Mr. Close, up close
The Artist
Charles Thomas "Chuck" Close is an American painter and photographer who made his mark in the art world as a photorealist, creating massive-scale portraits. A catastrophic spinal artery collapse in 1988 left him severely paralyzed, but that didn't stop him. He continues to paint and produce work in high demand by collectors and museums. 
Interestingly, Close also suffers from prosopagnosia, aka face blindness. He is absolutely unable to recognize faces. Painting portraits serves as a memory aid for him. Talking about this disorder, Close has said, "I was not conscious of making a decision to paint portraits because I have difficulty recognizing faces. That occurred to me twenty years after the fact when I looked at why I was still painting portraits, why that still had urgency for me.” Talk about an a-ha moment. Another prime example of how strongly our minds shape our experience in the world. Had he not suffered from this disorder, what would his art have looked like? 

3. Debwe exhibition, by Karen Goulet
The Art
Debwe is the title of the current exhibition at MAM of recent works by the artist Karen Goulet. Debwe in the Ojibwe language means “speaks the truth honestly," a concept  that is a strong driving force for Goulet. The exhibition features a series of star quilts and paper weavings. We were reminded of the word courage, derived from the Latin root cor, or heart: “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” Acting and speaking from a place of authenticity, a place of truth, is something that resonates strongly with me. I tip my hat to Goulet's ability to tell stories through these beautiful handmade pieces. 
Star quilt
Labrynth to the stars
The Artist
Goulet is a Native American - more specifically, a member of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation. She is a professional artist, poet, and educator. In an interview with the artist (made available as a cell-phone tour of the exhibit), she explains how she learned the craft from her parents, who in turn learned it from their parents. The knowledge is handed down through the generations, and she feels very connected to her family, her tribe, when she’s creating her works. She says, “Weaving and quilting are my way of talking about culture, weaving past and present together in a way that I aspire to keep stories new. In every piece of art I make is my admiration for the people I am from.” I appreciated the homage to tradition and to ancient knowledge kept alive. It was a reminder to pay respect to the millennia old lessons of yogic tradition that has, miraculously, made its way from India into my life, thousands of years later and thousands of miles away.
Finding inspiration
I don't claim to be a scholar of art, just a curious person who has visited more museums all over the world than I can recall. There is always something new to learn. I find inspiration for my practice and teaching in unexpected places and times, not just in a yoga studio. Yoga is so much more to me than a practice “on the mat.” It’s a way of thinking, a way of viewing the world, a way of connecting, a way of being. It's a cultivation of the core vibration we carry. I know that my soul longs for beauty, art, and intelligence, and I try to feed it often, from a wide variety of sources.

The MAM is located at 335 N. Pattee St. Admission is free. http://missoulaartmuseum.org

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