On Falling In Love (at Columbus and Cleveland Art Museums)

I’m an art-historical novelist, so I know the feeling; I’ve been here before. The first time I saw Michelangelo’s David, of course. While dancing with Degas. On Night Watch with Rembrandt. With Georgia in Santa Fe. Every time I encounter Vincent,  Pierre-Auguste, Johannes (yes, I’m on a first name basis with Van Gogh, Renoir, Vermeer). And oh… when I first saw the work of my very own Renaissance rockstar…

Transfiguration_RaphaelIt’s the flush of love. The first pin-prick of obsession. Just a glance, and I am hooked. From that moment forward, these artists grow in my mind. I can’t stop them even if I want to.

I don’t want to.

They become my companions. I read about them, study them, talk to them. My life would not be the same without them.

But I did not expect to fall in love again… Certainly not in Ohio.

Not that I have anything against Ohio; it’s a lovely state with welcoming people. I have enjoyed every lunch, reception, and book signing in this friendly place. It’s beautiful, especially in spring. And even before arriving, I knew the Cleveland Museum of Art boasted a world-class collection, so perhaps I should have expected to find a new crush in Ohio.

But when do you ever expect to fall in love again?

At the Columbus Museum of Art — our first stop in the state — many suitors flirted with me.

There was Edward Hopper’s Morning Sun. Leichtenstein’s Oval Office. A rare landscape by my paramour Degas. And Alison Saar’s Nocturne Navigator on spectacular display in the brand new Walter M. Walter Wing. Oh how they tried to tempt me…

But then, from across the room, I caught a glimpse of a small painting, and suddenly I couldn’t focus on what my companion was saying. My head went all fuzzy. Had I seen the painting before? No. I had not.

How had I not?

How had I missed it? And if I’d never seen it before, how could it capture my heart in an instant? More famous works surrounded it, but my eyes did not waver. I walked slowly, purposefully toward it:

IMG_4210Was it the snow? The play of light? The carriage whizzing through a two-dimensional, static picture? Was it the sense of drama in a stormy night, that carriage hurtling off to… somewhere. “Winter, Midnight” says the title. Yes, Midnight. A carriage off to someplace wonderful, dreadful, important at midnight in the middle of a snowstorm

My heart thumped in my ears, my eyes darted across the canvas. What was the story? Would I ever know? I checked the artist’s name. Childe Hassam. I didn’t recognize it. American. Clearly impressionist. I snapped a photo of the painting and the title plaque. Eventually, I moved on.

But I looked back.

Fast-forward to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Again, artists called to me from the walls. Botticelli, Titian, Peale. Manet, Monet, Warhol, Van Gogh, Renoir…

There were more seductive masterpieces in this museum than I could consume if I spent weeks inside her walls.

But again… a bit of warmth on my cheek, and I turn. I am drawn. I walk closer. Two paintings, side by side:

A dark, rainy night, people walking to… where? A flood of traffic on a busy street. Something is happening. I don’t know the story, but maybe knowing there is a journey — but not knowing what it is — strikes the magic. The titles read, Fifth Avenue.

Yes, Yes. New York, of course.

My breath short, I check the name. This time I recognize it. I had snapped a picture of that same name the day before:

Childe Hassam

American. Clearly impressionist. What else do I know?

Nothing.

But why does that matter? Why do I need to know in order to feel? I don’t. I am captivated by the possibilities, the mystery, the stories hidden in those brushstrokes.

Childe Hassam.

A quick search on my phone: American, we knew that. Impressionist, obviously. Lived in France, not shocking. And I did already know one of his paintings: Avenue in the Rain, part of the collection at the White House. It’s famous. Still, I’d never known his name.

800px-The_Avenue_in_the_Rain_Frederick_Childe_Hassam_1917

I don’t know where this beginning will lead, but I know this is why I go to museums. To feel that rush of excitement, that joy of eyes widening with beauty and possibility. It’s why we should all spend more time in museums like those in Columbus and Cleveland. Because even when we think we’ve seen it all, there’s still a potential of finding something new and spectacular that captures your imagination.

Art doesn’t exist so some historian can dictate what is important or why it’s important. Art exists to move you. To make you empathize with your fellow man. To make you wonder why anyone would go rushing through a snowstorm at midnight… even though you, in your heart, know there are a thousand reasons to go rushing through a snowstorm at midnight. Because that is the truth of being human.

###

For the rest of my trip through Ohio, I picture everything as a Childe Hassam painting. I see the atmosphere, the light, the weather, the city as if through his paintbrush.

One moment in particular:

A reading and signing for the Ohio Writers’ Guild at a trendy bar called Denmark on High. The bar is on busy High Street in the Short North of Columbus. A storm is rolling in. It’s a dusky, misty night. I can’t find parking. I am late. When my reading is scheduled to begin, I am still on the street. The host calls: Where are you?

I am late. I run, rushing to something important

I head upstairs first, to the second floor bar overlooking the street. The street lights, the hazy nighttime; it’s a beautiful bar that calls to me, but I can’t stay. The reading is not in the upstairs bar, but downstairs in the wine cellar in the basement — stone and dim light. It’s perfect.

The crowd is waiting, sitting at tables drinking wine, nibbling cheese. I am escorted to the podium, then I leave it and pace as I talk — like I always do. I share my story; well, not my story, but the story of Leonardo and Michelangelo. The crowd leans in. They laugh, they cheer. These are the warmest people I’ve met yet. I sign their books, and they sign the dog-eared copy I carry from signing to signing; my own keepsake of the road. Dennis, the newspaper guy, and I sing the praises of story; story is not dead! The owner, Clyde, brings his artist bartender down to meet me; he, too, is obsessed with his own passion of cocktails. Bob, the cynic, buys two books despite himself.

And whenever I think back on that night, I will always see it painted in Childe Hassam’s quick brush. Circles of light, a storm hanging in the air, me running down the street, off to someplace important

What will happen next? What IS this story? What is this journey I am on? I don’t know. But maybe it’s not the end we need to know, but the hint of the journey we are all on together that strikes the magic.

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When was the last time you fell in love at a museum?

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