In the News: Seeing but not Looking, Slowin’ it down in the Art Museum

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

In our current fast-paced, instant gratification world, slowing down and stopping to smell the roses doesn’t seem likely, or even possible. Granted, there are no roses blooming in the Midwest right now; so, instead of flowers, why not stop and look at the art? Tomorrow, Saturday, April 6th, is Slow Art Day. A global event that seeks to help people discover the joy of looking at art, Slow Art Day challenges us to visit our local museum or gallery and look at five works of art for 10 minutes each. Simple, right?

When was the last time, however, that you focused ALL of your attention on one thing for an extended period of time? I’m honestly not sure the last time I read a book, watched a TV show, or even went out to lunch with a friend that I didn’t compulsively check my phone every few minutes. According to various studies, the average museumgoer spends 17 seconds looking at an individual work of art. Not even half of a minute! Slow Art Day organizer Phil Terry found himself spending an hour in front of Hans Hofmann’s Fantasia (1943) during an exhibition in 2008 at the Jewish Museum in New York. A former member of the “I don’t know how to look at art” club, Terry realized that the longer he looked the more he saw, connected, and understood.

Museum visitors often fall into two categories: the Experience Seeker and the Quick Walker. The Experience Seeker is there to hit the highlights of an art history textbook: Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, Delacroix, O’Keefe, Degas, and Warhol. I, too, am guilty of experiencing an art museum to get that Instagram, completely ignoring entire galleries in my search. The Quick Walker attempts to see absolutely everything a museum has to offer, exhausting themselves in the process and never returning. Both visitor types elicit a “been there, done that” feeling, as they suffer from museum fatigue, or cultural overload, in fulfilling their initial motivations for visiting. Slow Art Day challenges both of these approaches to entering a museum. Instead of hurrying to see the highlights or fighting exhaustion from trying to see everything, the visit centers on five artworks. The purpose is not to garner “likes” on social media or to tick off a trip bucket list item, but to investigate a piece of art the only way we can: with our eyes. I’ve chosen three artworks from our museum that I find particularly revealing the longer you look at them to help guide you through the process of slow looking.

The black and white photo shows a run-down theatre in Indiana. The paint is peeling off the walls and parts of the ceiling have fallen in. Boards are resting against the back wall. In front, the seats are all aligned and dusty, showing its lack of use.
John Bower, American, b. 1949. Opera House, Delphi, Carroll County, Indiana. Silver gelatin print, 2007. Gift of the Artist, 2018.167.38. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

John Bower, Opera House, Delphi, Carroll County, Indiana. When I first looked at this image, I wasn’t particularly struck by it. I’m known in the office, however, for quickly writing off anything that isn’t colorful as boring. Therefore, the challenge of Slow Art Day to look at this image for 10 minutes was agonizing. It’s an Opera House, whatever! The longer I looked, however, the more I noticed. The photograph was taken in 2007, but it’s black & white. What looks historic is actually modern; the photographer chose to use black & white film. Why? Well, it’s not colorful so the mood of the photo is more dreary and creepy. An old abandoned opera house makes me think of ghosts a la Phantom of the Opera. The seats are like any others you’d see in a theatre, and are reminiscent of the 1920s, Titanic style furniture. Another site that is abandoned, but below the ocean instead of on land. They also remind me of the Embassy Theatre in downtown Fort Wayne. I know that the Embassy was restored, so why wasn’t this theatre? Why has the paint been left to peel off and the dust been left to collect? What made the Embassy worth saving when this building was not deemed so? The boards leaning up against the back wall look newer, maybe they are restoring the building and just hadn’t started yet? Maybe they were still waiting for funding or permits when Bower took the photo. The black & white makes it harder to see possible rust and dust, but the abandonment of the building is still clear. I wonder what operas were shown here, when the last one took place. Did they go out with a bang or did it slowly go under and time has simply taken its toll? I found that the longer I looked, and allowed the stream of consciousness in my head to continue, the more questions I had unanswered.

This black and white photo shows a woman walking alongside a car. Attached to the car is a poem, written on window blinds, to Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers. In the background is a large, white building with colonnades.
Leni Sinclair, American, b. 1940. Medgar Evers poem at the March on Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963. Archival pigment print, 1963. Museum Purchase, 2019.45. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Leni Sinclair, Medgar Evers poem at the March on Washington, D.C. August 28, 1963. Oh no, more black & white! It’s even photography again! I’m beginning to regret this event until I see that these photographs are black & white because they are historic! Taken in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, black & white film was cheaper than color. So, while color film was available, Leni either didn’t have the money or chose black & white like Bower did. But why would either artist choose to work without color? On further inspection, the black & white prods me to focus more on the subject than on the background. I’m not distracted by the colors, the time of day, what the person is wearing, or any other aspects color would highlight. The black & white infuses the works with a drama that would be absent with color. As a history major, I often feel out of my element working in an art museum. In an exhibition like this, however, I’m in my prime. I know Medgar Evers was a civil rights activist and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I know he was assassinated by a member of the KKK for his work to end segregation, and that King attended his funeral march. This photo struck me in a multitude of ways. First, Leni was in the crowd, among the people marching, to get this photo. A candid shot, I like that it focuses on a sign in the march instead of capturing an eagle eye view of the crowd. A more intimate portrait of the event, we can see how important Evers was to the people he championed and those behind his cause. The more I look, the more I notice. That the poem is written on blinds, in what looks like black paint, and attached to the side of a wagon or truck. That the women appears to be moving, as she is slightly blurry. She either took no notice of Leni taking photos or didn’t care. She wears normal clothes, shorts and light shirt, instead of dark, heavy funeral garb. The pillars behind her remind me of the Jefferson Memorial. That the poem describes Evers’ death and the lack of justice, perhaps in the trying of his case, because he is Black. What we now recognize as an historic moment, did Leni know it would be thought of that way? Is that why she was there, to photograph what she knew would be a historic event? Or did she simply believe in the cause and, because she was there, take photographs? Once again, I’m left with more questions than answers.

A woman, covered only by a yellow scarf, reclines on a settee as her servant brings her his head on a platter. Outside her window the city appears to be burning.
Martin Mbuguah, Grade 11. watchers of the fall (goddess of TOSKAGO). Painting. Gold Key recipient in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, 2019 National Gold Medal, American Visions Medal. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are a regional and national competition for creative teens aged 13-18. This exhibit showcases over 700 pieces of art and writing from northeast Indiana and northwest Ohio. One of the first pieces that confronts you when you walk into the gallery is Martin Mbuguah’s watchers of the fall, (goddess of TOSKAGO). The lavishness of the painting is what first draws my attention. The girl reposing on a chaise lounge, the golden light accenting her skin, the lush red fabric she lays on, and the ornamental details in the background create a full, enveloping scene. The waiter or servant behind her brings a head to her on a platter. Upon closer inspection, I realize both waiter and head the same person. (Fun Fact: they are self-portraits of the artist). The main scene is so luxurious it took me a few minutes to even recognize the second scene happening outside the window of the room. The buildings and streets are on fire, a man is standing with his arms thrown up in terror, and part of the blue sky is cloaked in black smoke. Has the goddess, like Emperor Nero, ordered her own city burnt and the heads of her opponents brought to her on a silver platter? Her house reminds me of Greek temples, and her pose is similar to Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Manet’s Olympia. Standing in front of it, the painting is large, taking up almost half the wall in length. In a room of 700 artworks, this one hangs alone, without distractions. The goddess stares back at me with hooded eyes and it makes me wonder, am I next?

What did I take away from my Slow Art Day? That black & white isn’t always bad, that what appears isn’t always what it seems, and that artists tend to give us more questions than answers. Are you ready to accept the challenge? Come visit FWMoA on Saturday to engage in your own Slow Art Day! What can you learn on your own without an “expert” to guide you? Take a friend and discuss your findings at your favorite coffee shop or restaurant.

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