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.
It was only a couple weeks before my inner resistance snapped and I was willing to admit I didn't want to be a Sociology major anymore. Scurrying over to the Registrar's Office I changed my schedule for next semester, dropping sociology and history and adding two introductory studio art classes. They proved great and I was home.
Allen Art Museum wasn't like the grandly imposing Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was the opposite of intimidating. Like the quiet dragon it was happy to welcome you but left you alone to take it in in your own way. Usually you'd be alone with the paintings, undisturbed and unruffled by tour groups or long and ponderous wall texts.
Thy had some amazing holdings in its Permanent Collection. Here are a few of the "old friends" that I made there.
Sort of on that same dragon theme, there was a great oil by Rubens, The Finding of Erichthonius. Three daughters of Cerops have been given a sealed basket by Athena and cautioned never to open it. Of course they do and find to their horror a half-human half-serpent baby. Naturally they go insane and hurl themselves off a cliff. Well, who wouldn't?
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.
Of course in Art History 101 we touched on Mondrian, but there I'd only seen images of his latest work. In 1967 the Museum acquired this early observational oil by the artist. Again it showed me Mondrian paintings came from somewhere, both a literal place, and that the artist had a history and evolved only slowly into the hard core abstractions by which he's best known.
The Allen Museum also had the first Thomas Cole painting I was to see, Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill) from 1825.
Cole would initiate the first home grown movement in American painting, the nature-enshrining Hudson River School that would come to fascinate me shortly after I left Oberlin.Would I have become an artist had I not had that rendezvous with Allen Art Museum? Yes, I am sure I would. But it would have taken me longer to reach the decision. And I think my early footing would have been on a lot less solid ground. A friend once told me my blog posts often sound like love letters to art museums. I plead guilty. And this is yet another, but to one of my especially sweet first loves.