It was the only day on the calendar that was “free”. When my Sunday New York Times arrived over a month ago and had a flyer in it about a show at the Wichita Art Museum, I did a double-take. Wichita? In Kansas? Then I grabbed my calendar to pick a date to go. A Friday three weeks away was the only day on the whole Month-at-a-Glance that had nothing on it, or at least the only one that could handle six hours of driving for art.
It was a show of pieces by Hudson River School painters curated by the New York Historical Society. Three words hooked me. Hudson. River. School.
When I was in fifth grade at William Cullen Bryant Elementary School, a docent from The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art brought a huge – to all of us – painting from the museum. She talked about it at length, asked us to “look more closely,” and urged us to answer “What else do you see?” with real words.
I was mesmerized by this piece. It was full to the edges with deep, dark corners of trees and bushes. Greens that ran to black but still showed leaves and vines. It was filled near the top of the frame with white clouds and a sky of every shade of blue. A top corner of the canvas held a foreboding cloud out in the distance that warned of change coming. It had animals and flowers and rocks and cliffs and possibly a waterfall. I am unclear on the waterfall, but there was water coursing through it somewhere.
I learned years later that, in the late ’70s, the pieces that went out with the docents to schools were replicas. Being very close to true size and with frames that were gold and fancy, if not as expensive at the originals, they were breathtaking to my 10-year-old self. They even showed brush marks.
I looked deeper, and, when we were told we could come closer, I did. I gazed in to the darkest corner for more and then up to the sky for relief.
I vividly remember telling my parents about it, probably yet that night. I nagged that we had to go to the museum “soon” to see it. I wanted to take them there and walk them to exactly where it hung, knowing I had no idea exactly where that was but sure that someone would know about the huge painting that a blonde lady had brought to my school just a few days ago! I wanted to show my parents what the docent had shown me. I wanted them to look closely and see more than I did. I wanted to talk about it like she did.
The docent kept mentioning the “Hudson River School,” and I just knew that was a place I should go to school. She made it sound like college, whatever that was. A place of learning with dark corners and majestic skies is what hooked into my brain.
I walked to school back then, and my family could have walked to The Nelson had we chosen to. I also walked to the Plaza Library at the corner of Ward Parkway and Main Street. The kids’ section was in the basement, but I knew that any books or information about the Hudson River School would be listed upstairs in the big card racks. I loved that building, and I really, really loved those 3×5 cards and talking to the librarians. Slipping into the Dewey Decimal language always felt special and foreign. And grown up. Sometimes they would give me “the look” that silently willed us younger people to realize we shouldn’t be upstairs. Not this time.
I was happy to know more about the Hudson River School and the painters who defined it using the pile of books I scavenged from the shelves. I spent a fair amount of time that day looking at many paintings in several books, but I was devastated to learn that there was no physical school. I had no desire then – nor do I have now – to be an artist, but I was crushed to find I could never, truly go there.
Except at a museum, which I go to every chance I get. The Hudson River School genre is no longer a true favorite, but it can hold me in its sway for the length of a special visit. I can still hear that docent and see that massive painting she carried into our room. I can still feel the old library and the gazes of those wise women behind the desk as I traipsed by them with my large format books to sit by the big windows.
Last Friday took me three hours down the road from my home and forty years back in time. On the ride back, as the sun was fading in the Flint Hills, I remembered that the original painting I saw when I was ten is still in the collection of The Nelson. I saw it a few years ago as I was hurriedly cruising through the museum on my way to a meeting. It stopped me in my tracks.
I stayed riveted to that spot just as long as I could, and I still can’t tell you if there is a waterfall.
p.s. All the photos above are tiny pieces of paintings I saw at the special exhibition at the Wichita Art Museum. I was enthralled by the skies and water in this particular set of works. The show runs through April 30, 2017. We also strolled the permanent collection and found the woman below. I love her.