Forty years ago my then-husband and I planned a marathon Scandinavian summer tour. I was four months pregnant. By the following summer our opportunity to travel along the Norwegian fjords would be replaced by diapers and grandmothers in California who would demand bonding-time with this soon-to-be-here infant.
Itinerary planned, we made an appointment with the travel agent to sign for the tour. Then Dan got a phone call. Would he consider spending the summer in Washington DC as an aide to the President Carter’s science advisor. The deal was sweetened by a lunch in the White House Mess.
Then, he asked what it would take to convince me to spend the summer, pregnant, in DC. Hot, humid DC. No fjords in my future. We bargained, and I ended up with a six-week half-day sculpture class at the Corcoran Gallery. The as-yet unknown additional perks included a transit strike, allowing me to walk up and down Wisconsin Avenue into Georgetown in the stifling heat, with the gas fumes from the bus-less streets only DC could offer in July. And, just down the block was the Hirschhorn with its fabulous 20th century art collection.
I loved the sculpture class, but my lasting memory of that summer was my daily visit to the Hirschhorn, a contemplation of the abstract Picassos, the Louise Nevelson boxes, the spaghetti-stranded Giacometti’s. I stood in front of these works daily, tracing, in my mind, their curves, their lines. They became dear friends.
Eventually we moved full-time to DC. For the next 18 years I periodically paid a call on these old friends. Sometimes one was missing, a “cousin” standing in for the young ballerina by Degas or Dali’s melting clock. But they were always there waiting for me.
Then in 2010 I moved to Arizona. I paid a final visit to my friends, storing their lines and shapes in my memory. I thought of them frequently, mentally tracing, their shapes. A year ago I began doing my abstract sculptures. I noted how my fingers seemed to know how to move through the clay, where to pull, and when to pinch. It was like they had held the memories of these sculptures within their muscles.
I planned a trip to visit my grandsons in Columbia, Maryland. A friend and I planned a two-day extension to my trip. I would go back to visit with my Hirschhorn friends. The weather was gray. More rain expected within a day or two. I pushed through the circular doors, rushed in. “No need to see the paintings in the inside galleries. I have come for the sculptures,” I announced to Marge. We approached the first room. Something was wrong. There were no sculptures displayed. Around the entire circumference of the space was a collage of stripes. As we progressed around the room, the stripes grew figurative, gradually. This was Picketts charge?
Maybe a few of my friends survived on the second floor? Next to the staircase sat the disgustingly fat man piece I had never related to. But the inside gallery was almost empty. A few beams of light crossed the interior space. None of the fabulous collection Mr. Hirschhorn amassed was on display.
We went out to the sculpture garden. Every piece out there was wrapped tightly for the impending rain. Gardeners were trimming back tree limbs, and the entire space was cordoned off. No reunion this trip!
We went back inside to get further details. This show has been hanging for six months, and would hang for another year. I was livid, and expressed this to the staff. I knew there was nothing they could do!
We salvaged the day by walking a few blocks over to the African American National Museum. Normally opened to only ticket holders, and jam-packed, this week the museum was open to all. Crowds had stayed away because of the constant rain. We bought lunch in the cafeteria—crispy fried chicken, shrimp and grits, collard greens. All tasty. Then we immersed ourselves in African American history for the next three hours. A well-spent afternoon, not the one I had been wishing for.
I saw my 34-year-old son that evening. I started to describe my experience. “Oh Mom! I love the Hirschhorn because they are so avant-garde, so willing to challenge what one normally expects in an art gallery!”
“But celebrate nothingness?”
“Absolutely! And besides, you got to see the African American museum. Know how many people are still waiting to see it, two years after it opened?”
“Yeah. I hear tickets for it are going for two years from now,”
On my next visit I think I will focus on the National Gallery and East Wing. Those exhibits do not change. The National Gallery’s collection will never be co-opted for a celebration of empty space! And as I lament the absence of my “friends”, I wonder. Am I an Old Fogey?
I had just turned two. My older brother, Paul, was scheduled for out patient surgery on his eyes-fifteen minutes, maybe. Then he would start kindergarten. We brought a little kitten into the waiting room, and we took our seats. All four of us, my Mommy, my Daddy, and my baby brother. I held the kitten. Whenever my thumb got close to my mouth, my father cuffed me. “Too dirty,” he growled. Time passed. fifteen minutes, twenty, an hour, two. Nobody came out. Finally the nurse who was my mother’s friend peered in, she had been crying. “He died,” she sobbed. My parents both cried. I had never seen Daddy cry. They said nothing to me. I was good. I followed them out of the hospital. We left the kitten on the chair. They dropped me at a stranger’s house where I stayed for several weeks while they adjusted to the loss of my older brother.
I have never, in some ways, moved beyond this earliest memory, my abandonment. Seventy years later the headlines scream about our government tearing children from their parents. Some of these children are two, too. I feel their earliest memory.
These headlines, this summer have forced me to revisit this trauma. Nightmares have returned.
"With all the beauty surrounding me here above the Verde Valley, how could I not create more beauty?"