I'd like to switch gears just a little and tell you a story. Something that has to do with a moment in time when I was young and a tiny light turned on, or a latch was unbolted in my brain that allowed me to think that I would one day be an artist.
I grew up in a small Central Oregon town, and when I had just turned 11 my parents took my brother and I on a trip to Portland to hit the museums and to eat in a good restaurant and to soak up a little culture. One of the highlights for me during that trip, aside from staying on one of the uppermost floors of a downtown hotel and being giddy with the lights and thrill of the sounds of the street below, was the Portland Art Museum.
brother and sister, too cool to have their picture taken, on a cultural excursion,
taken outside of the old OMSI circa 1986.
A couple of things happened to me there, transformational experiences - the first of which was seeing the girls and boys with punk rock hairdos coming and going. I believe at that time what is now the Pacific Northwest College of Art was the Museum School, and students would have been milling around. I wanted to immediately go home and bleach my hair platinum like the black-clad girl in witch boots in line in front of us at the entry.
The other was that my parents had the insight to set my brother and I free to go our separate ways and to wander the museum by ourselves, to discover what we could in our own way. After a time and location was determined to regroup, the four of us broke apart and let the compass of our own personal curiosity pull us.
Eventually I found myself in a long hall lined with black and white photographs. Photographs of orchids, female nudes, and muscular, naked men. I don't remember specific details. I couldn't today, for the life of me, recognize what photographs I saw that day; but I later learned that they were the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photography became the center of the public's attention when The Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C. refused to show his more controversial series, The Perfect Moment, and whose name was frequently invoked when the spending habits of the National Endowment for the Arts were questioned.
I have a feeling that what I saw that day was a fairly tame sampling of Mapplethorpe's body of work, but it showed details that certainly made me curious; and made me slightly embarrassed to be looking at them closely. I honestly wasn't sure how I was supposed to react. At once thrilled, slightly titillated, and also engrossed in the beauty of the images, I felt a little unsure of whether I should be looking at them at all. I felt painfully aware of my age - was this appropriate? I was both assured and mortified when other viewers, adults, entered the room and looked at the images. I have a very, very vague recollection of a parent and child entering and quickly exiting again.
I circled the hallway and came back when the other visitors had left. I surreptitiously eyed the photos again and again, moving forward casually when others entered the space. I believe I left the area entirely, only to return a while later, lured by the graphic, secret nature of what I was viewing - but also its beauty.
What strikes me in retrospect is how lucky I was to have been able to experience that moment, alone, in an art museum. I feel as if museums can be, should be, places of safety and sanctity. By that I mean - where judgement is allowed to be suspended, and where we are given the chance to trust our own intelligence. By safety I mean - a place where a young person, or any person, can view something challenging, perhaps something altogether not safe, and consider its validity as art, or not. (I know that may seem to be a contradictory definition of safety.) The safety and sanctity of the museum that day allowed me the opportunity to have one of my first critical evaluations regarding "what is art?" and "how do I feel about this?" In fact, the way I felt that day was that art could be very powerful, and wildly different than what I might imagine, and that it could excite me to think about things in an entirely new way. This little moment seeded my desire to become an artist.