A Smithsonian Adventure

Not long ago I was fortunate enough to go on a very special guided tour of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). To my delight, my longtime quilting friend Eileen Doughty has been training to be a docent at the SAAM, where all of the work was created by American artists. She asked for volunteers to go for practice tours with her and I jumped at the chance. My husband and youngest son also attended the tour, and two other friends of Eileen were in our group.

Eileen focused on including the members of the tour in a conversation about  five works throughout the museum and she did a great job of getting everyone involved. I loved that she showed us pieces that were so varied in style. The thread that tied them together was that each piece was made in or represented a time of change in American history.

We started out with Skating in Central Park by Agnes Tait. Made in 1934, this piece was created as part of the Public Works Project in New York. Every group member seemed to notice different details.

Skating in Central Park ©Agnes Tait
Skating in Central Park ©Agnes Tait

Next we saw MVSEVM by David Beck. This fascinating piece was commissioned for the 2006 reopening of the SAAM after it was renovated. The details of the piece refer to collections in the museum as well as the construction of the museum building. Each side is unique and interesting. There are a variety of parts that move or can be opened. Mr. Beck is obviously a master of many different mediums. If you go to the SAAM this is a piece that you must see!

MVSEVM ©David Beck
MVSEVM ©David Beck

At first glance The Girl I Left Behind Me by Eastman Johnson seemed like a beautiful but not very meaningful piece. However, when we discussed it as a group it became so much more. Much like a critique in one of our quilting groups, having each person talk about what they saw made the experience and the painting come alive.

The Girl I Left Behind Me ©Eastman Johnson
The Girl I Left Behind Me ©Eastman Johnson

We moved on to The Library by Jacob Lawrence. As you can see, it has a much more modern, graphic style along with a striking color palette. The patrons of this particular library seem to all be studying art. We discussed who the patrons might be, why were they all studying art, that they all seemed to be very absorbed in their studies, and much more. At about this time our little group was joined by another museum patron that none of us knew. Eileen graciously welcomed her and our new group member made some wonderful contributions to the conversation.

The Library ©Jacob Lawrence
The Library ©Jacob Lawrence

Eileen finished up with a very powerful piece, Manifest Destiny by Alexis Rockman. It depicts a post-apocalyptic version of the Brooklyn waterfront and includes a tremendous array of interesting design elements. Displayed in front of it is Eric Fischl’s moving Tumbling Woman, representing someone who jumped from one of the Twin Towers on 911. Both pieces provided plenty of inspirational discussion.

Manifest Destiny by Alexis Rockman
Manifest Destiny by Alexis Rockman and Tumbling Woman by Eric Fischl

I’ve been to many museums over the years where I just looked at the art on my own. However, I feel pretty strongly now that sharing the experience with others, led by a knowledgeable guide like Eileen, brings the whole experience to a new level. Thank you Eileen for such a great tour!

After we parted ways with our group, my family members went on to look at some of the other art on our own. It was a treat to see some of the many other interesting works in a variety of mediums, including a few quilts (both by unknown makers).

And this wonderful wood carving by Ulysses Davis (Untitled Hart/Heart).

Ulysses Davis (Untitled Hart/Heart)
Ulysses Davis (Untitled Hart/Heart)

Thanks to Eileen we had a lovely and inspirational visit to SAAM. I left the museum with all kinds of new perspectives and ideas that might just find their way into some of my own work in the future.

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