I Spy in the Art Gallery
Lessons in Imagination and Enthusiasm
A Chance Encounter
I had a painting in an art show in Marin County, California several years ago. It was a juried group show, with works from both local and national artists. The art was quite good, and there was plenty of space for each piece. The space was well lighted and laid out elegantly. This was one of my early local shows, and I was excited to be there taking it in.
The painting I had in the show was “Salmon Creek,” a landscape painted with watercolor on silk. It is a larger piece for a watercolor, framed in hand-worked ebony and bocote with silver hardware. The painting shows a small hamlet of houses tucked into a hill between a river and the ocean. In the foreground is a body of water. The water is covered in rippling reflections of the houses, the hill, and the sky. This view of Salmon Creek is from an area I frequented while living in Bodega Bay, on the Sonoma coast of California. You can stand on the bridge and look across the estuary waters to a cluster of houses, then over a small hill to the ocean. Wild calla lilies grow there, alongside California poppies and succulents. Birds fly overhead, clouds pass over the water, and the ocean waves provide a naturally looping soundtrack to the scene. It feels like a spot that time has forgotten to change, an old fishing village, a quiet and mysterious place. It looks particularly full and beautiful as the sun is setting and the light dramatizes each detail of the landscape.
I was walking through the gallery spaces looking at each piece along the way. Just before I got to where my painting was hanging, a group of children walked up to it from the other direction. They stopped in front of it and looked at it. Something about it caught their attention. Then they started talking to each other about the painting, telling bits of stories about the houses in the painting, about who lived there, and where it was. I was really struck by this moment of watching them wonder and imagine about the scene in my offering. I felt rewarded in a deeply satisfying way by their genuine interest and how the painting got them rolling with their own stories. Spontaneous stories from kids. What a pleasure.
Some years later I was participating in an artists’ collective gallery in Healdsburg, California. I would welcome people to the gallery, tell them about the artists that they were interested in, and then often just leave them to walk around quietly and look at the art. In my time working there I met a lot of people, all sorts of different characters. I noticed how people walked through the gallery and looked at the art. Some barely noticed the art, they zoomed through the space and left. Others would spend a lot of time standing in front of a piece. Some people wanted to talk a lot, others just wanted to look at the art alone.
Sometimes something fun would happen. I had just finished a new painting and hung it in the gallery. It was a small piece titled “Springtime Sea”. I painted it from my imagination, using some of my favorite stylizations of nature in one painting. A blossoming cherry tree sits by a stretch of ocean of patterned waves, the sky is painted with washes of orange to blue, and large puffy clouds float in the sky and through the branches of the tree.
A young girl about 9 years old walked into the gallery with her aunt, whom the little girl was visiting. She spotted my painting immediately, and really responded to it. I remember the happiness on her face as she stood there looking at it. The two of them walked through the gallery and perused the paintings, sculptures, and other objects on display. I noticed how much attention the girl had. She was obviously observant and focused, and had an innate interest in art.
Just before she and her aunt left they went back to my painting. All the while they did not know that I was the artist, so I was getting to watch this happen anonymously. The girl really wanted the painting. She wanted to take it home with her, and asked her aunt if she would buy it for her. After some consideration the aunt decided that yes, she would buy the painting for her niece. Then I told them that it was my painting, and that it was particularly special to me that she was going to have this painting to grow up with. I encouraged her to do her own art, and told her about how much I loved drawing and painting when I was her age. They left with the painting wrapped up, with big smiles on their faces. I was smiling all afternoon.
There is something about the honesty of children that is so refreshing. They don’t have years of exposure to art, and they do not yet know all of the rules. They don’t have attitudes. Their eyes are fresh without the limits of mind that knowledge can foster. They just like what they like. In my experience they are a great gauge for my art. I am always interested to talk with kids about art, to see what they respond to, and why. What they say often surprises me. Moments like these give me great feedback, and also make what I do meaningful and delightful. I welcome the criticism and praise of children.