The Art Docent

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My absolute favorite exhibit was the Renaissance paintings. When I was 10 years old, I was easily impressed by almost anything. At the much wiser age of 13, I’m still fascinated by the realism of the faces and subjects of the paintings. They were almost always dead serious, which made them prime targets for jokes and sarcastic comments [tee hee, you call that a monk? I call that a Jedi! (Lame, I know)]. But there were exhibits that I did not tease, for fear that the mailbox statues would cast some sort of voodoo dark magic.
That place was the folk art.
I like to think of it as meeting Al Capone (you don’t mess around with the biggest gang boss in America and same goes for folk art). I swear those battered metal figures with the garish proportions (yes, those, the ones that stare at you with evil eyes) are alive! They are waiting for me to venture too close and BOOM! No more me!
My mind never strayed when I was near folk art. I was on guard, always on guard.
Thus were my times as a Jr. Art Docent. The docents were a first-rate team of art enthusiasts (selected in 3rd grade) who, every other month or so, would travel to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Our “job” was to “explore, discuss and appreciate all forms of art”. It might sound a bit boring (and it was at times, trust me)—but it was fun. I mean, we get to miss half of the school day to go to this beautiful, big, echo-y museum with our artsy friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were the wildest docents in the history of the MAM (because we were crazy)!
After three years of wandering from one exhibit to the next, going into the Matrix and Lightbox time after time after time after time, and making stupid jokes that only art docents could truly appreciate, our time as docents was nearing its end. But after three years we still had one more thing to do:
The 5th Grade Docent Project.
Ah, yes, this is what I remember most about being a docent. Our mission: To pick a piece of artwork (any piece) and recreate it in any method we liked. Best. Project. Ever (I mean, I get to draw and draw and draw)! My only problem—choosing the piece.
That was very difficult, since the Art Museum had at least a thousand different pieces of art. All I knew starting out was that I probably didn’t want to spend my time among the folk art.
I also knew that I didn’t want to hang out with “Self Portrait in Yellow”, this charming little gentleman (actually a rag doll) who talks in exclusively monotone, saying: “I am a leader, not a follower”….pause…… “I have few regrets,” …….pause…… and “I get angry quickly, and let it go just as fast.” His head is also being squished by a folding chair. I never got him….
One of the paintings in my top five was “Le Concert Rouge” (or “Red Orchestra”) by Raoul Dufy. I really liked the sharp contours of the instruments and musicians, filled in with blurry splashes of color. The overall mood of the piece was dramatic, set in a vivid red. I wonder what they were about to play. Habanera, maybe?
Choosing became very, very difficult.
After walking around the museum for a very long time I finally decided on Stormy Day by Milton Avery. Oil on Masonite (which is a sort of corkboard). 1959.
I found it on the 2nd floor, in the Bradley collection. Go figure. The 2nd floor always had the most interesting pieces—the metal dandelion sculpture, Picassos, African masks, blown glass, and even a tea room.
It was my favorite piece. It is one of these paintings that was so easy, a three year old could draw it—but it’s effective. I felt the spray of the ocean, taste the salty air, heard the frantic calling of seagulls. The funny part is, I’ve never even been to an ocean.
His other paintings were strange, though—almost (almost) as eerie as the folk art. I could tell that he was unconcerned with details. Avery (the artist) didn’t draw faces on his subjects. So they were very-- surreal – in art terms.
So while I drew Stormy Day (colored pencils on paper. 2010), I had to endure the empty stares of his other paintings.
It was definitely worth it.
Did I mention that The Milton Avery Gallery was right next to the Folk Art? Luckily, I didn’t see much of it because of a strategically placed wall (thank goodness for that). The only thing I could see was the weathered head of a wooden newspaper boy, peeking out from behind. He’d just stare with his ghostly yellow eyes. His lips formed an O as he screamed something no one would ever hear. That’s pretty eerie…
I ignored it to the best of my ability.
My remaining trips were spent drawing and researching Stormy Day. This, I’ll admit, also meant sneaking around a bit to talk with nearby friends studying Georgia O’Keefe paintings (Conveniently located in the gallery right next to mine).
Sometimes I ventured farther over to the docent/friend drawing Sunny the Dog. It was this bright picture of a Skye terrier in the long grass. “Sunny” was very popular with the Docents, and he was somewhat cute.
Somewhat…
Finally the time came to present our research to all of the parents—Parkview, Westlawn, and Thorson. I wasn’t really a public speaker back then. My plan was to write notecards and read straight off of them, which in the end made me a solid, informative (pretty good for a 5th grader) speech.
We did a tour all around the museum that conveniently passed all of our pieces. All I can really remember is being nervous when I stood in the Milton Avery gallery to present. Thank goodness for notecards!
To be honest, I really miss my times as an Art Docent. But I still do visit the museum often, when I can. I stop and enjoy the Renaissance paintings, the sculptures, and furniture. I’ve even visited the folk art gallery. With extreme caution, of course.





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