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Positive Feedback ISSUE 68
july/august 2013


Investigations of an Artful Mind: A Brisk Walk through the Museum
by Daniel Zimmerman


[All drawings by Daniel Zimmerman]

We were in the art museum again, and I set out at a brisk pace. If I could, I'd tell you a more complete story, how my visits had only gradually become like this. But such a history would very likely become tiresome. Suffice it to say, the days are gone when I tried to stop at every painting.

I do remember trying to look at each one when I was a student, even as a young man, but no more. It takes too great a toll. I don't have the endurance for it. Let me try to explain.

The way I approach going to an art museum, is like preparing to walk the streets of a large city. It's vitally important to know your limitations; otherwise you'll be drained very quickly, and why die before your time?

There are people, however, and there are paintings that pour life into you, and allow you to pour yours into them. They permit exchange.

I have strong feelings about this. Whether I'm looking at paintings or engaged in the creative process itself, I desire to be surprised, having grown too familiar with both what I see in galleries and my own studio. I'm only 65. I know I've got a lot to learn yet, but I'm inclined to think that an artist is not like other vocations. Who you are and what you do emerge slowly through the years. Becoming a painter, for example, might even take a lifetime.

To be sure, an amazing level of acquired technique can be reached when one is very young, but the art I'm talking about is not simply a demonstration of accumulated skill. It's a hard-earned awareness that the best paintings never come about by skill alone. Of greater importance is remaining vigilant, whether you're groping about with your brush, or, in this case, blowing by a wall of pictures.

If you can remind yourself that you don't really know what you're looking for, you're more likely to notice when something beyond the scope of either knowledge or skill suddenly appears.

So I walked briskly, on the lookout.

As I continued, the thought came again how paintings were like people. They ran the whole gamut: intelligent, adept, tedious, arrogant...too many characters to list. Actually, I was fond of each one. But rarely was my affection returned and recently the situation had gotten much worse.

As I said before, my method had changed. I could not stop at every painting. I had to keep moving. An odd thought crossed my mind. "There's got to be a painter in here who hasn't seized up!"

(Seeing another museum guard, I slowed down a bit.)

Let's see. Where was I? Oh, yes. When a painter tightens up it's like a door slowly closing. Before we know it, we forget what it's like to be able to go back and forth. We get tighter and tighter, and the paintings we paint suffer from our nearsightedness.

They didn't notice when I breezed by. They were busy expressing themselves, being seen. I knew that business well. Painting can become a one-way conversation, especially when you think you're getting better at it. And your pictures can get to be like people who just talk at you. They don't seem to see anybody else in the room, even when somebody else tries to get a word in edgewise.

In my experience, most paintings are like this. They get fuller and fuller of themselves. Please hear me right—I love people, but my capacity is limited. I'm not God. So these days I walk briskly, looking for paintings that will notice when I enter the room.

I have in the last several years developed more of a sense what I'm looking for, and, on this particular day, I had a feeling that I was getting warmer.

I whisked by several large paintings. They weren't even aware that I was walking by. Quickly now, keep moving. But wait. What is that… what's going on?!

I stopped short, even though the continuing inward momentum of my walk caused me to reel for a few moments…but I did not actually notice it much. This corner of the museum was… different.

Even in my approach I had begun to feel a faint suggestion of wind… and what I can only describe as an undercurrent of otherworldly electricity.

There was no one else in the room. I was struck by the human size of the canvas. It was a portrait, and it hovered before me, like another person. While I had been swiftly scanning the galleries this painting had been patiently waiting. In fact, the mystery could not unfold until we were both present.

"So this is what skills are for," I thought. I leaned in very close. The brushstrokes were thick enough to cast nearly imperceptible shadows and yet, the picture was transparent somehow, thin enough to see through.

Again, I was face to face with it. Here was a life as obscure and puzzling as mine. We both stood there gazing across the century at each other.

A few gallery visitors looked over my shoulder. Just as quickly they turned back toward a large painting to the left. I heaved a great sigh of relief, for the portrait and I had just begun to have a conversation. Wait! Could that be a whisper? I must be hearing things. But that wasn't all…

I had been asked a question. In hushed wonder I began to respond.