Blessings, Life Lessons

Thank You, MAM

“I always get these,” my sister says.

She passes me the phone-like interpretive device she collected from the smiling, white-toothed attendant.

“I learn so much more when I have them.”

We’re in the spacious atrium of the Milwaukee Art Museum, ‘the MAM’ as locals call it. It’s a favorite of hers and I’m excited to explore. Soaring white beams separate huge floor to ceiling windows. They frame Lake Michigan and the steel-colored sky. People whisk past us speaking in hushed tones. I feel like I’ve entered a cathedral.

Our day together begins with Rashid Johnson’s “Hail We Now Sing Joy” traveling exhibit.

“Woah,” is all I can manage as we enter.

I’m facing the largest piece in the exhibition, called Antoine’s Organ. It looks like a giant cubic shelving unit housing a variety of plants, books, and odd collections. The mid-June discount garden section of a Home Depot comes to mind.

“I don’t get it,” I immediately think to myself. I don’t say it out loud, but inwardly I roll my eyes and dismissively mutter, “Pfft…modern art.” I ponder how long I need to feign interest before we get to the ‘real’ art.

My sister presses numbers into the interpretive device and I dutifully follow her lead.  Jazzy music plays in my ear. The artist’s interview begins and I’m drawn into his world.

Johnson tells stories about his childhood in Chicago. He shares profound moments from his life, and how they influence his work. He discusses what he included in the sculpture and why. The more his smooth voice shares, the deeper I’m amazed. This isn’t only a sculpture, it’s a part of him.

Minutes later, a black-clad, grey-haired woman slides plants aside and climbs into the sculpture’s center. She begins playing jazz standards on a hidden piano perched within its second level. Music fills the gallery hall. In my ear, Johnson describes wanting to bring energy and life to the piece. He hires local musicians to play within it. Sounds weird, but it works. Live music emanating like a heartbeat from the center of a giant sculpture is…quite honestly…a little bit magical.

Suddenly, I get it. I understand this bizarre, two-story, piano-hiding, plant-holding, shelving unit thing. It hits me. I may be a middle-aged, suburban white woman, yet Rashid Johnson’s experience seeps into me. I can see—just a bit—through his eyes.

I feel equal parts impressed and ashamed. I retrace my thoughts.

Pfft…modern art.”

“This is weird. Who gets this stuff?!”

That’s too ‘out there’ for me.”

I’d dismissed this before I’d heard a single story behind it.

How often have I done this? How often do I glance, draw a conclusion, and adopt it as truth? How much have I missed because I chose opinions over curiosity?

Our world is filled with quick retorts. Trending tweets. Snappy comebacks. We’ve elevated sarcasm–by definition: mockery with the intention to cut or hurt–to an emulative quality.

And I can’t help but notice where we’ve landed.

At first glance, I snickered at this exhibit. I didn’t understand it, so I went for the inner eye roll and sarcastic quip. Yet when I listened to the artist’s stories, I connected to the larger message. I understood it completely even though my life experiences are different. Even though at first glance, I saw no bridge in sight.

Art moves us. It connects us to bigger stories. It teaches lessons about far more than art.

Be like my sister. Get the interpretive device. You’ll learn so much more if have one.

9 thoughts on “Thank You, MAM”

  1. Nancy Simpson says:

    Katie – Wake up call. “How often do we chose opinions over curiosity?” How true.
    Love this.

  2. Wanda Schlafly says:

    Love this sentiment. I hope to apply it to people I meet for the first time, finding out their stories before dismissing them as irrelevant to me and my life. Thank you for sharing so beautifully!

    1. Katie O'Connell says:

      Thank you, Wanda! It was a big ah-ha moment for me. I’m practicing that, too. your words give me hope! ?

  3. Gloria Spielman says:

    My husband and I spent our 30th anniversary in Milwaukee and went to the MAM, arriving right as the ‘wings’ were opening. Yeah, some art doesn’t look like much until you see it in motion, or hear it, experiencing the ‘moment’ of art creation. Thaks for sharing and writing this article. A good reminder to not dismiss,but allow things ( and people) time to reveal their value. Nice !

  4. Peggy says:

    Beautiful! I try to adopt this sentiment when visiting hospice patients. They usually have had some amazing experiences and love to share them.

  5. Martha McSweeney Brower says:

    I love this, Katie. Reminds me that I want to be open like Forest Gump and experience life as a child. Thank you for this beautiful piece. -Martha from Maine (and Madeleine Island school) <3

    1. Katie O'Connell says:

      Martha, thank you so much! Interacting with that exhibit taught me a lot. I keep reminding myself of that rich experience every time I start closing off from something I don’t understand. I’m trying my best, but sheesh…this is hard!Thanks so much for reaching out. (PS: recently heard from Claudia from Madeline Island School, too! 🙂 Nice! )

  6. Kathy Sanders says:

    You are so amazing Katie! Thanks for that beautiful piece!

    1. Katie O'Connell says:

      Thanks for the beautiful compliment, Kathy! Peace to you <3

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