The Dragon Made Me Do It- Allen Memorial Art Museum

A thousand years ago in the Fall of 1966 I was bitten by this dragon. 

Sort of. I was in my first semester of my Freshman year at Oberlin College and was enrolled in Art History 101. It was a perplexing time- I had come to college knowing I was meant to be a sociologist or an historian. Something had gone badly awry. To my surprise and consternation, the art history survey class was the only class I was enjoying. This wasn't supposed to happen.

To get to the art history class I had walk through the Allen Memorial Art Museum's courtyard. In the middle of it was this dragon fountain happily bubbling away surrounded by decorative plantings. It was an oasis of calm in the tumultuous first few weeks of school, but beyond that I gave the serpentine critter little thought.

Here's Allen Memorial Art Museum (pretty classy place).

As we entered the waning weeks of that first semester the Art History class gave us a special assignment.  Each of us was to make an ink wash drawing to give us deeper insight into the Chinese scroll paintings we were being shown.  

Casting around for something to draw I remembered how restfully quiet that courtyard fountain and garden were and headed over there with my brush and ink. The plantings that circled the fountain seemed inviting and I ended up doing way more studies of their leaves than were required. The dragon watched me as I worked, not saying anything but seeming to like my company. It was way more fun than plowing through the mountains of assigned readings from my other classes. 

In class next week I hung my most successful drawing up on the wall among all the other students' offerings and was shocked to see how much more I enjoyed my drawing than the results the other students brought in. Huh! 

After this I found myself taking unnecessary detours to walk through the galleries of Allen Art Museum. It was funny, I didn't really know much about how to look at a painting in those days, but somehow all the work hanging together on the Museum's walls exerted a collective pull on me. The more I went, the more I wanted to stray over that way again. There was a sense that something was bubbling up from underneath and getting ready to reveal itself. Did the dragon and his gurgling fountain suggest this all to me? Perhaps in his way he did.

That aside, I used to stand and marvel at the glistening silks in this Rubens painting. It was probably for me one of the first times I consciously noticed the expressive power that results from contrasting warm against cool color. Looking at the painting now I marvel at the tension and the harmony between the golden fabric and the ghostly cool flesh on the woman's arms. 

 Oberlin also has this Meindert Hobbema oil A Pond in the Forest from 1668. What a pacing and rhythm he had in how he grouped his forms. I think I was drawn to this painting largely because it reminded me so much of the forest of my boyhood home on the shore of Lake Ontario outside of Rochester. We all need to find ourselves in the works of art we admire. Hobbema seemed to have been painting in my backyard.


The Allen Museum also had the first Thomas Cole painting I was to see, Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill) from 1825.


  1. I love to hear how people find their way in life. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story!


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