Sunday, November 18, 2007

Lane in Fridaland

Is it possible to overdose on art? To see so many fabulous paintings, lithographs, sculptures, and drawings that your eyes pop out? The answer must be no, it isn’t, because last weekend I immersed myself so deeply into art that I would be a casualty myself in that case. I spent five days in Minneapolis visiting Ann, my dearest friend who I have known for over 39 years. I also visited with my sister Janet and her husband Dave whom I have not seen for eight or nine years. And there’s more!

Let’s see. I arrived on Thursday and found my way to Birchbark Books, the bookstore owned by Native American author and fellow North Dakotan Louise Erdrich. On Saturday, Ann and I met Janet and Dave at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and bought our tickets for the Georgia O’Keeffe abstractions exhibition there. Then, with time on our hands, we went to the Frederick Weisman Art Museum, designed by famed architect Frank Gehry, and viewed a contemporary Native American art show. The Weisman looks a little like aluminum cans randomly glued onto the sides of a building, but it is striking in its shining glory nonetheless.

The Native American art really caught surprised me (in a good way). I have personally been in so many museums featuring old Indian artifacts that I did not ever really wonder what artists were doing today. This exhibit showed me. They are beading stiletto pumps instead of moccasins. They are hanging tiny metal fish on metal drying racks instead of real fish. They are carving traditional symbols into non-traditional material and in non-traditional shapes. They are satirizing society’s foibles by reproducing giant butter boxes and changing the wording to reflect disapproval so that Land o’Lakes butter becomes Land o’Fakes butter and Land o’Bucks butter. The pieces in the show were extremely diverse and entirely engaging. I wish I had had more time to spend there.

We left the Weisman to see the Georgia O’Keeffe show. This Minneapolis Institute of Art exhibition focused on her abstract paintings and sculpture. I had never seen most of the paintings, having been previously exposed to her flower and cattle skull paintings. In this exhibit, O’Keeffe had pulled in so close to her subjects that they lost meaning as objects and became abstractions. Interestingly, this is what Michael has done in his photography in recent years – photographed large objects (like buildings) so intimately that they cannot be recognized as such any longer. Needless to say, I think his photographs are remarkable. The O’Keeffe paintings would have really resonated for him.

Aside: One of the O’Keefe paintings in the exhibit came from the Menil Collection right here in Houston.

The time with Janet and Dave was terrific. They spent most of Saturday with me and Sunday morning, too. We all went to the two museums together, then Ann and I attended Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show at the State Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. I enjoyed the program immensely. The set looks just like the one in the movie, with the little house and its “On Air” sign, the musician’s chairs centered in front of it. The gentleman who does sound effects stood right up front near the main microphones for Garrison and his guests. The funny thing, though, was that the crowd often drowned out the dialogue. While home listeners could hear every word with ease, I had to strain to hear over clapping and cheering and laughter.

Basket sat on a table in the lobby with slips of paper and pencils for people to write dedications Garrison would read on air. I had one planned for Michael, but seeing the people crowded around and the two piled up baskets of notes, I realized that I would likely be disappointed. I wrote my dedication anyway: “Here’s a great big Houston hello to Michael who is once again staying home with our teen-aged daughter while I go gallivanting around.”

After the show finished, Ann and I joined Janet and Dave for dinner. We weren’t exactly sure where we wanted to eat, particularly since we went out in an area Ann is less familiar with. Fortunately, and with the help of a dining guide, we found our way to an Indian restaurant that proved to be just excellent. Janet and I ate curried prawns while Ann and Dave had a chicken dish that had been praised in the review. We shared appetizers and cheese bread Indian style, had our meals, and then shared rice pudding desserts. Every bite tasted wonderful.

Sunday morning, I met Janet and Dave for breakfast and we had almost three hours to talk together before they had to leave for home. I enjoyed having time with them for myself and the chance to catch up.

Sunday afternoon, I met Ann and her father at the Walker Art Museum for the Frida Kahlo show, my original reason for the trip to Minneapolis. I had already gotten a glimpse of it on my first evening in town, joining Ann’s graduate level class on Frida Kahlo for an hour’s worth of discussion before walking across the street to visit the gallery. Sunday I got to look to my heart’s content though, unencumbered by group discussions. The exhibit is breath-taking. One entire room is made up of photographs of Frida, some formal, but many merely snapshots taken without regard to her fame (and perhaps she wasn’t famous then). The collection has always been in private hands – Frida willed it to Dr. Eleosser, one of her physician’s and a friend. His family sold the collection after his death to another private collector who is the current owner, I believe.

The paintings took up four rooms which opened up onto each other in a seamless fashion so that it did not seem as if you were moving from one room to another. The walls were painted white, a rather stark background for her vibrant paintings. A few paintings were quite large canvases, others were tiny miniatures, but most were the retablo-size that Frida liked to work with. I delighted in seeing favorites of mine and I developed a special affection for some paintings that I had not felt only seeing them in book plates.

Frida’s self-portrait from 1926, informally called by her La Botticelli, because of the painting style she used for it, presided over the entrance to the show. It stands out as one of my personal favorites. I also liked – much to my surprise – the painting Diego and Me. One of the largest paintings in the exhibit, it had a vibrancy never matched in any of its reproductions that I have seen. Another surprising favorite of mine – Dorothy Hale’s Suicide. It should have been morbid, but did not strike me that way. The way she depicted Dorothy Hale showed a wonderful sensitivity on her part, despite the fact that the American viewpoint did not understand the Mexican retablo tradition and therefore registered shock at the painting’s literalness.

I have always like The Broken Column more than any other Kahlo painting. It resonates with me because I have felt the kind of pain that she is feeling in that painting. Pain that is unremitting; pain that has pushed its way into your bed like a rapist who refuses to leave afterwards; pain that you can almost come to love because you get to know it so well. I heard a senior museum staff member talking to a group about how Frida’s pain underscored her paintings. In contrast, Rosely, the teacher for Ann’s class, vehemently objected to people over-emphasizing the effect of Frida’s health and pain on her work. As a person very familiar with chronic illness, physical limitations, and the frustrations of invalidism, I see it differently from either of them.

I see Frida as a woman who painted her way around her pain, who refused to surrender herself to it. The kind of pain that can’t be remediated, that you can’t escape, must be circumvented by force of will. In a way, one must embrace it; hold it so close it can’t move, in order to move one's self beyond it. I remember another trip to Minneapolis in the 1990s when Ann and I attended a workshop with Dr. Bernie Siegel, the gifted physician and healer. I had an attack of typical lupus pain that started in the middle of the night. This pain felt as if someone were driving red-hot railroad spikes through my joints with a sledge hammer. Called roaming arthritis, it bounced around my body from joints in my toes to joints in my hands, to my hip joints, to my knee joints, to my ankle and wrist joints, in no particular order, until I ached with nearly unbearable pain.

I did not want to awaken Ann, so I got up and went into the bathroom. I took my pain medication knowing from experience that it would not help. I sat on the edge of the tub and did the only thing I could do at that moment – rock back and forth, back and forth, trying to keep my moans of pain quiet. Not quiet enough, though, because towards morning, Ann heard me and came in to me. I believe the depth of my pain shocked her. We had discussed it, but she had never seen a full blown attack like this. Ann wanted to take me immediately to the Emergency Room. I refused. She may have been more shocked by that than by my condition. She could not understand why I wouldn’t go to the hospital and I could not really explain it to her coherently because I had the pain itself to cope with.

My misery lasted for several hours. After it lessened, I went back to bed to catch a couple of hours sleep before we had to be on our way to the seminar. When I got up, I felt much better and actually pain-free. Walking to the workshop, I tried to explain to Ann my rationale for refusing to go to the hospital. That kind of lupus pain can’t be remediated except with the strongest narcotic drugs, which hospital ERs are hesitant to give out to strangers. The visit to the ER would have taken a lot of time, been paperwork heavy, cost a lot of money, and when I left I would still have been in pain. The only antidote to my pain consisted of waiting it out, being stronger than it was, and living my life as if it wouldn’t keep happening to me.

That is why I adopted a child while I was so ill with lupus. That is why I went to Breadloaf and other writers’ conferences despite my physical limitations. That is why I continued to write through it all, if only in journals. And that is why Frida is my hero: she did it first and showed me how. All this is to say, The Broken Column is for me Frida’s most perfect painting. In it, she tells the viewer that she refuses to be broken by pain that she will gird herself against it by whatever means she can. Frida does not deny her pain, but she denies its power over her. She stands bloodied and victorious; her tears are tears of joy, I think, for staying in the game, not tears of pain. She never stopped creating even when the most she could do was paint her feet reflected in a mirror hung over her bed. Frida Kahlo should be the patron saint of hopeless causes, of artistic blocks, and of barriers. She certainly is my patron saint.

There is more to tell about my trip to Minneapolis, how much fun Ann and I had, the kind of fun only available to friends of long duration who can say one word and set of gales of laughter or rueful head shakes. After 39 years, we have those moments in abundance. And the pleasure of seeing her father and sister, whom I have known almost as long. The enjoyment of being able to get myself around with ease in a city I don’t reside in because I have been here so often over the years, and of eating Ann’s excellent cooking.

I am too tired to do that now. Perhaps I will tell you more in another post, perhaps not. So many wonderful events transpire in life that I will be on to the next any minute and I’ll want to tell you about that instead.



Notes from a Virtual Easel said...

OH! I am envious! What a wonderful trip : ). Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

Anonymous said...

Lane, Frida was strong like you. I am glad you two met. Your writing will bring joy to my sister, a writer, who is also in severe pain much of the time.