I doubt anyone likes admitting they’re “stuck” in any way. It could be my sister stuck in her vehicle in a snowdrift, many friends and myself stuck in difficult economic circumstances or soul-sucking jobs, stuck in our creative processes, ebbing motivation to get out and experience more life in this mixed up, suffering world we live in but want to remember as beautiful, too. I felt stuck for months after the stem cell transplant, made more grueling when I had such trouble reading and writing, my main ways of wandering when stuck. No sooner was I free to wander out among strangers again than I got a bad case of flu and ended up stuck again in the hospital, albeit briefly, this month.
For my 65th birthday, though, a few weeks ago, I wanted to wander away from where I am now. I went to Houston on a short road trip with my daughter, our destination a beautiful art museum called The Menil Collection where there are several buildings, including The Rothko Chapel and a Byzantine Fresco Chapel. It had been a 30-year dream of mine to visit this place at least once in my lifetime.
While my heart wants to wander more in the outdoors, that isn’t happening yet, so I rely on art to feed my mind and soul, these consciously restless urges to wander and learn. Wandering is often about surprise, encountering the unexpected or unimagined, and that becomes a source of joy and inspiration, awe and perplexity driving curiosity. In our brief time at The Menil Collection, I learned many things and came back ready to write about some of them. Then, I got sick, and some of the magic has worn off but I am so satisfied that I made that trip when I did.
Some of us prefer to wander around a museum without speaking, without even interacting too often with a companion. We like to discover on our own and come back to share the discoveries. Some museums inhibit that impulse to wander, but The Menil had lots of space and light. And, thankfully, no curated notes of interpretation, just the names of artists, their artwork title, and medium employed. Space and light have always been my guides, like my own version of Sirens calling me, so to speak.
The Rothko Chapel is an ecumenical space built to contain magnificent large paintings by Mark Rothko. The interior changes with the light falling through a ceiling skylight, and thus the paintings change, too. The space is meant to be quiet and reflective, and I was fascinated that so many students from a nearby university dropped in at the end of the day to sit and meditate in front of the paintings, even if only for a few minutes, seated on meditation cushions on the floor, or wooden benches set out like pews. Art is about light and shadows as much as any subject.
In the Byzantine Fresco Chapel there was an installation that was literally out of this world. Again, I wished for more time to sit with it, an immersive experience of sitting in a darkened building with high ceiling, watching a gigantic mobile of mirrors turning in response to sound that was based on the “Pythagorean Theory of the intervals and harmonies among celestial bodies.” (Pythagorean Theory of Music and Harmony). The sounds were literally taken from outer space recordings captured by The Voyager I and Voyager II stellar spacecrafts in 1977. While there is no audible sound in space, the tones are audible to human hearing back here on Earth; the variety of tones were created by “the interactions of the solar wind, electrically charged particles emitted by the sun, with the magnetic fields of planets and moons in our solar system.” The music of the spheres is vibrational and harmonious after all, just like every living thing on this planet in its purest state of being, intention, or evolution. My wandering was both inward and outward toward the reflections cast by the 150 mirrors twirling in response to those vibrational tones as they thundered throughout the building and vibrated within my physical body. It was an awesome moment in time, not to be repeated but to remind me of how amazing the world is, even when we cannot wander out into it, let alone into outer space (most of us).
I also learned about the philosophy of how art, spirituality and social justice were the interrelated, interdependent objectives for the de Menil’s approach to collecting, commissioning, and sharing their collection with the world; the museum is free (as I believe all art museums should be). The story of the Byzantine Fresco Chapel is stunning in terms of the good that came from the de Menils managing to purchase and restore exquisite, ancient frescoes that had been stolen from a Cyprian church and broken into fragments to sell, illegally. The de Menils built the Byzantine Fresco Chapel for these frescoes, with an agreement that they would display them in a consecrated space and after 15 years, return them to the Holy Archbishop of Cyprus, which occurred in 2012. The chapel was then deconsecrated and this amazing installation, “The Infinity Machine,” is the first art installation presented, with a rotating calendar of installations in the future. At first I felt disappointed to miss the frescoes, but how lucky I was to experience “The Infinity Machine” and continue to wander in the places it has sent me creatively!
Maybe most of you will never make it to Houston and maybe art museums aren’t your thing, but what I wanted most to offer here today is that art nourishes us in so many ways, so many dimensions, as do literature, outdoor exploration, genealogical research, antique hunting, used bookstore wandering, etc., etc., ad infinitum. I have felt stuck for a long time, in various places or situations I wish were different. I have not had the same, familiar access or means to wander in the ways that have always nurtured my soul. I haven’t seen Mono Lake in years and I miss the rugged coastline of California’s Pt. Reyes Peninsula, the Sierra Nevada, the high deserts of the Great Basin. I have tried to “bloom where I’m planted” but sometimes seeds just go dormant until they get the right environment again to blossom and grow. I am storing metaphorical seeds wherever I find them!
Wandering the art museum is my way of remembering more than who I am and what I am enduring or yearning for to be otherwise; reading and writing are just as important, but sometimes too subjective to give me that sense of true wandering. How we keep hopeful optimism alive despite the awfulness we see in the world, on so many levels, in so many different places, is a necessity for maintaining some sanity and compassion, to not become embittered and closed off. I am listening, again, for the music of the spheres. I am searching to understand what the harmonic intervals of my life must be in order to create. I am soon leaving a particular set of intervals, looking forward to new wandering up in Nebraska.
References: Quotes on “The Infinity Machine” taken from the brochure accompanying the installation; The Menil Collection and The Rothko Chapel can be introduced by these links: https://www.menil.org/