90,000 Miles to Me

11,489 Miles • Slow Art

Heading south from Denver, I saw:

  • Crook, CO
  • Fairplay, CO
  • a golf cart in the back of a pickup truck, being towed by an RV
  • and this bale of hay that really deserves its own photo:

bale of hay made to look like the cookie monster

Having a multi-museum membership has got me looking out for interesting museums that I can now go to for free! I’ve been checking the directory of reciprocal museums for anything near my route, then going to the individual museum websites to see what exhibits and events they currently have on offer. I saw this Slow Art event at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe and was immediately intrigued. 

I’ve taken a great deal of pleasure this last year in slowing down and being more intentional about what I’m doing. Planning and preparing food, for instance, sometimes takes longer, though with raw foods can be surprisingly faster, but is always more…more textural is the best way I can describe it. Like I’m more in touch—physically and perceptually—with what I’m doing.

Yet I’m not interested in Slow Food as a movement, or in making any of the various Slow Xs yet another label by which I have to define myself and conform to, but I definitely get behind the philosophy underlying them: of taking time to appreciate what’s in my life instead of hurrying through days and years and life, wondering where the time went. Where the joy went. 

On the Slow Art Day website, it said that the average museum visitor spends 15 to 30 seconds looking at each piece of artwork. It’s sad, but thinking about my own museum trips, that sounds about right. I’ll often find a couple pieces of art that I’m more attracted to, and will look at for maybe a minute or two. It feels like longer when I’m standing there, but it probably isn’t. 

Artists spend weeks, months, sometimes years getting every detail just right, and I glance at it for 15 seconds to a couple of minutes, and think I’ve seen it? A part of me has often recognized the disparity even while standing in front of a huge, detailed painting, yet it didn’t strike me, didn’t appeal to me, it wasn’t my style, or I didn’t “get it,” so I moved on. Not this time. 

In a guided group of about 10 museum-goers and a docent, for this one day, I will spend two hours looking at five works of art, pre-selected by someone else, which pretty much guarantees that there will be ones I don’t “get” or like or care for, but I’ll spend 20 minutes or so looking at each and discussing it with the group anyway. If I don’t like it, so what? It’s not going to kill me or ruin my day or waste my life to spend 20 minutes with a piece of artwork I don’t like, or even two hours with five pieces I don’t like if that turns out to be the case. I’m a big girl; I can handle a couple of hours of not-personally-appealing-to-me-art.

I got there about an hour early to spend some time looking around at the rest of the museum, finding my usual two or three favorites (the museum allowed pictures, yay). The picture above, Ghost Ranch, is one of those, my favorite in the museum. It was painted in 1940 by Gustave Baumann (1881-1971), a German-born American who lived and worked here in New Mexico for many years. The painting below is another of his, The New Comer, painted in 1958. I don’t normally like surrealistic things, but there is something about the owl’s expression that feels exciting or expectant or just innocently happy. I like it. 

At the designated time, I joined the group in the foyer for the event. The docent took us to each of the five selected pieces in turn, and at each we gathered around with portable folding stools provided by the museum, and we would just look at the painting or photograph quietly for five minutes or so; someone would get up and go forward for a closer look and go back, someone might jot a note on their clipboard printout, someone would fidget or move for a better view, it was all okay. At some point the docent would ask a question and begin a discussion, usually starting with describing what we saw, then someone would build on that, someone would bring up an interesting detail I had missed, someone would ask what some detail was that they couldn’t figure out, someone else would answer or propose a theory, and the discussion would slowly build. 

If you’re interested in trying this yourself, here are some questions the docent asked and suggestions she made. Relevant questions would depend a great deal on the particular scene, but these can be a starting point:

  • Focus on the shapes, forms, colors, textures. Is there repetition or movement? 
  • Notice what your eyes are drawn to. How does the artist guide you through the work?
  • What time of day/season is it, how can you tell? (Sometimes it wasn’t as obvious as I first thought.)
  • What are the predominant colors used, what emotions do they evoke? 
  • What is the mood or atmosphere of the work? How does it make you feel?
  • As you look longer, what thoughts or memories come up?
  • Does the artwork tell a story or illustrate a narrative? 
  • What message do you think the artist is trying to communicate?
  • Are there similar pieces or styles of art nearby? How are they similar or different? Any ideas as to why?
  • Does the title of the piece help in understanding it? If possible, look at this last to get an impression of the piece before having to label it. 

As for my own experience that day, I got much more out of the five pieces I looked at with the group than out of browsing the majority of the museum beforehand. The group discussion definitely helped, as people brought up some things I wouldn’t have thought of on my own, and the docent filled in a couple of helpful tidbits—it wasn’t an art lecture, though, and she didn’t tell us much about the works or the artists, she mostly just asked good questions. Even without the group, however, this is something that I could see doing again on my own. I may not spend 20 minutes at every painting, but picking out one per room to spend five or 10 minutes at, seems definitely doable. 

Of the five works we looked at, at the beginning I personally liked two of them and didn’t much care for the other three. One of the ones I didn’t at first care for, I ended up liking much more after this experience, and as for the remaining two, I have much more respect now for the artists. I might even go so far as to call it—gasp—appreciation for the art. Even though the styles and topics don’t personally appeal to me, in taking the time to look at them so carefully, I can see a lot more of how they were made, and the skill of the painters in rendering shockingly accurate details (in one case) and capturing a very specific mood (in the other case) is impressive. 

The next time I go to a museum, I’ll bring my mental list of questions to get me thinking more carefully about at least a few of the pieces. Perhaps I won’t spend any more time at the museum overall, and perhaps spending more of that time with fewer pieces will mean I miss seeing some galleries or even whole floors, but I think I’ll have a much richer experience by slowing down and really letting myself experience a few pieces well. 

Here is one last one I liked, Snake Dancer, 1967, by Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), an American of the Luiseño Tribe.


1 thought on “11,489 Miles • Slow Art

  1. well, i see you are taking art classes without taking art classes. personally , i like your way better. I took an art class in college,but i went to a museum by myself with no one to ask questions or lead me to appreciate it. so, i,m glad you found a way to do that. happy traveling.

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