Friday, February 10, 2017

An Artist's Evolution; Part III

Working at the Wadsworth Atheneum changed my life.  It saved my life.

After living in a mental institution I needed to get back my self confidence.   Visitors could check in their coat and backpack with the security guard, and then they would talk to me.  Sometimes our transaction was only a matter of paying the entrance fee.  But about half of all the people who walked in had a question.  They might ask directions to a special show.  We provided maps of the museum and helped people find what they wanted to see.  And when we answered the telephone, we directed calls to curator's offices, or helped with traffic directions and parking.  In rare occasions we would be asked where to find a specific work of art.  Quickly I discovered that in order to do my job well I needed as much education about the Wadsworth as I could get.  When a new program of docent training began I applied and was accepted.

Public speaking is an old friend.  In high school my senior year I was captain of the debate team.  The learning curve how to be a public speaker had been steep.  When I had my first debate as a junior I nervously chewed on a necklace while I spoke.  And with the necklace in my mouth I whispered.  Because the judge couldn't hear anything I said the score out of a possible 50 points was zero.  After a zero score, there was no place to go but to improve.  Then I got it into my head that our school's bedraggled, losing, debate program could be better if I was captain.  So the summer before my senior year I went to debate camp at Baylor College and wrote a debate training manual.  They voted me captain not because I was popular or smart, but because I was the only one who had thought to prepare for leadership.  As a captain the way I helped the debate team was by emphasizing debate preparation.  I tried to make it fun.  I would schedule a study night at the town library with a spaghetti dinner afterwards at my house.   Before every debate there was study and a dinner at my house  With this strategy there was a huge improvement.  Our debate teams started winning big.  And for myself I had a year long run of perfect 50 point scores.  My partner was a freshman and the weakest debater on the team.  I wanted him with me so that my score would pull up his score.

So I had the skill to talk to an audience.  But why was I now interested in talking about art?  It was because with art I always asked the question "Why?"  As a child I had gone to art museums with my family and to myself asked questions such as "Why is this piece of garbage in a museum? Why is that considered art?  Why do I like this artwork?  What was the artist thinking?"  When it comes to art there are usually more questions in my mind than answers.  And I like to live with a longing to connect, both emotionally and intellectually, with a work of art.  I have been fascinated by art for a very very long time.  In college at Barnard my student ID gave me free entrance into any art museum in New York City.  On weekends I both studied and feasted on art at museums.  Bizarrely, it never occurred to me to make art an academic pursuit.  So the docent class at the Wadsworth Atheneum was my first introduction to art history and I was so happy to realize that many of the answers to "Why" about art could be learned by reading.

As a docent the best training advice I learned was how to activate a visitor's brain.  For example, when you read a book a specific percentage of your mental attention is activated.  When someone lectures to you, a different (and lower) percentage of your attention is captured.  And finally, if I stand in front of an artwork, the guaranteed highest percentage of attention I can get from the museum visitor is to ask a question about the artwork.  When you ask a question the listener searches their mind for an answer.  But ultimately I think the duty of a docent is to simply get the visitor to look at the artwork.  I like answers that lead the viewer back to the artwork.  It never ceased to amaze me how swiftly museum visitors flew through an art gallery.  A mere glance at most paintings.  As a docent I wanted to slow down the experience of looking at art.  I wanted the masterpieces to get their deserved attention.

How did working at the information desk and becoming a docent save my life?  It caused me to perform a task where I gave the best of myself.  Because I love art so much, I gave my all for it.  And in giving my all, I discovered that while my new mental illness came with deficits of cognition, there still was a lot of the old Karen left.  I had lost a part of myself during institutionalization and breakdown, but the core personality still existed.  The Karen who liked challenges still existed.  The Karen who was curious still existed.  The Karen who was ambitious still existed.  The Karen who had discipline still existed.  And the Karen who could talk to crowds still existed.  There was only one concession the museum had to make because of my mental illness.  It was a matter of time.  I could only do one tour a day.  I had tried to do two back to back tours (what all docents sometimes had to do) and had found that at the end I almost fainted from mental exhaustion.  I don't have the mental endurance that a healthy person has.  No docent liked back to back tours.  They were draining for everyone.  But I alone was excused from this double chore.  Because I had a mental illness.  And that did piss some people off.

There were so many experts who worked at the museum.  And every Monday morning (while the museum was closed to the public) the total docent body got an hour and a half lecture on either the newest exhibition or some other facet of museum life.  Docents were expected to always be learning.  And it was probably during one of these lectures, when a curator was explaining the skill behind a painting's composition, that the question first popped into my head, "Isn't he jealous of the artist?"  To know about art, and devote a career to explaining art I thought must automatically lead to jealousy of the artists you study.  Because it was the artist who knew the joy of creation.  All commentary afterword by the experts must pale in experience.  Did the experts mind living in the shadow land of the artist creator?

Of course swiftly the answers came to me.   I myself was jealous of the artist creator.  And people who have careers in the art world do not necessarily feel that they live in the shadow of the artist creator.  But the imaged fun that the artists were having making their art really did start to interfere with my satisfaction of being a docent.  I began to wonder if it was at all possible for me, a non-artist, to get into an art school.  In the same city as the Wadsworth Atheneum there was a good art school, The University of Hartford Art School.  Why not make an appointment and talk to someone about my chances of getting in?   I thought that for this interview I should at least have an artist portfolio.  So every day, for three weeks, I did a drawing a day.  I took a pencil and make a drawing.  Then I went over the pencil lines with a very fine felt tip pen in black ink.  And when the ink was dry I erased the pencil markings.  At the end of 21 days I had my artist portfolio.  The University of Hartford Art School was kind enough to let me come in and talk to a representative.

During this appointment I got a huge shock.  I will explain my shock in the next installment of "An Artist's Evolution".