Why We Need Art

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By Janet Call

We gathered just outside the doors of the Senior Center for our excursion to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. It had probably been decades since most of us had boarded a bus for a field trip, but we displayed the same behaviors as our high school selves: jockeying for the best seats, checking out our fellow travelers, making sure our belongings were within easy reach, and chatting about our expectations for the day. The hour-long trip there passed quickly, highlighted by spectacular views of dazzling orange and red autumn leaves that were still reluctant to part from the trees that held them up to the intense rays of the sun.

We entered the museum as a group of about a dozen, but after the short formal lecture explaining the special exhibit—works of art recreated via flowers and plants—we left to explore on our own. The odyssey was remarkable. Observation of not just the paintings and photographs on the walls but also the interactions of the viewers with them reminded me of the need for and power of art in a world that is often broken. 

From her wheelchair, a woman sat transfixed in front of a magnificent portrait of a ballerina poised to begin a graceful pirouette. She raised her arms ever so slightly, but for a moment she too stood on that theatre stage ready to perform. Another gentleman was drawn to a picture of some hunters accompanied by a dog that stood protectively at their side; he pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes, no doubt touched by the memory of a faithful pet of his own. A particularly poignant painting of a World War II scene caused nearly every visitor to halt and consider the overwhelming cost of war then and now. A tall, stately man placed his hand on his heart and gave a quick salute before moving on. These moments captured the unique ability of art to document our personal history and that of others.

Another area housed a particularly vibrant collection of modern abstract art. An elderly couple, each with a sturdy walking cane, immediately served as art critics. The woman declared that the colors were beautiful and bright, while her partner disparaged the fact that the paintings weren’t “of” anything. “Nonsense,” his wife replied. “They look just like you on your crabby days.” The two were both a bit hard of hearing, so their commentary, which continued for several more minutes, entertained those of us nearby. Later, at an adjoining exhibit, two middle-school boys with baggy pants and untied shoes stopped to gaze at a particularly grotesque depiction of a female dressed in Gothic attire. “Hey, that’s yo mama,” one said to the other. His buddy laughed and the two continued looking for their mamas from the brush strokes of famous artists. I recognized one of the men from my senior group who had overheard the exchange. With a hearty laugh, he declared to no one in particular, “Look, that is my mama,” as he paused in front of a stern, Victorian image of a young mother. Interactions such as these permeated the day, highlighting the fact that art speaks directly to us if we let it.

Other exhibits offered an escape to faraway places and times. The detailed, precise hieroglyphics of an ancient time, the raucous view of a 20’s jitterbug, the solemnity of a stained-glass window, and the intricate patterns of a mountainside both entertained and distracted us from an otherwise ordinary day. A display featuring black-and-white photography transported us to mountaintops and underwater alcoves, captured nature at its fiercest and finest, and revealed the rawest of emotions. A visitor commented to his companion that a picture renders words unnecessary and that we could solve most of the world’s problems if could really see them rather than talk about them.

When it was time to leave, I headed to our designated meeting spot, where I noticed a young mother pushing a baby stroller into the museum. An old man who was exiting greeted her, taking a moment to look at the baby gleefully babbling and wiggling her feet. “I have seen the world today, young lady,” said the man, “I have gazed at some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. But you know what? There is nothing inside that even holds a candle to what is right here.” The mother smiled and thanked him, and the two parted ways. That interaction revealed how art takes multiple forms if we just take the time to realize it.  

The events of the day reminded me of the last lines of a famous e.e.cummings poem:

“for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”

In this complicated and often disheartening world, there is something magical about the art experience. It enables us, regardless of gender, culture, ability, experience, or age, to learn incredibly valuable lessons about ourselves and each other. 

Janet Call is a loving grandmother, an avid reader, and wine connoisseur. She retired after over 40 years as a teacher and published her first novel Empty Desk at age 68.