Starry Night

I am a bit behind because of travel but I promise blog posts are coming. In lieu of a “new” post, I was cleaning out my Google Drive today and found this. This was my college admissions essay from way back in 2002. I always love going back and looking at old writing of mine and this is still one of my favorite pieces. Enjoy!

Starry Night. Vincent Van Gogh.

The Starry Night. Vincent Van Gogh. 1889. Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York.

Swirling stars…an eternal battle in the sky. I understood that battle well from the moment I set eyes on ‘Starry Night’, Van Gogh’s masterpiece. In the middle of a battle myself simply called ‘the art project’ by Madame, The chaotic swirls and menacing colors seemed my approaching doom…I might fail.

Failure, you must understand, was something I had dreaded my entire school career and something that had become a very real presence in Madame’s French class of my junior year. I’d fought to find my bearings in the class from day one yet I’d eventually found a comfortable stride and was doing fine with the grammar and verb exercises. Maybe that should have been a clue to me that there was trouble on the horizon.

Then came the Art Unit. Never underestimate the fear and awe I now hold in that one word…art. The Art Unit was the pride and joy of Madame who, using the masterpieces of Manet, Renoir, and Degas, taught her students an appreciation of art as well as the subjunctive tense. Within the unit itself was a mammoth project that took over every one of Madame’s students’ lives once we received our artist and mission. Mine was Vincent Van Gogh, the tortured artist who was doomed to be a failure in his own day. I knew little about Van Gogh when I began, knew more about myself…or so I’d thought. As I began the research for the project, my routine in French was broken, both at home and school. I felt like I was being stretched to my limit. Madame was asking me to interpret, see things that weren’t there, and understand the truths of life that the long dead painters were still saying through their masterpieces.

At first, I failed to understand how the truths of Monet were mine but gradually, I began to understand and see. The French painters were all about light, beauty, color…life. And life was all about falling down before walking for the first time. It was a concept that scared me when I first thought of it. I need to fail in order to succeed? The answer was no, I didn’t need to fail but I needed to understand that I was going to make mistakes along the way. My first mistake had been in thinking a mistake was a failure. Looking at the rough sketches of Van Gogh’s masterpiece, I saw the mistakes that he’d made. Yet, he learned from those mistakes and, in the end, created a piece of artwork that is still held in awe today.

I did not fail on the Art Unit but I made plenty of mistakes along the way, mistakes I now understood I should celebrate instead of mourn. The mistakes were not always trivial such as an etre verb always needs agreement or that beaucoup is always followed by de. Some taught me about my own virtues and vices such as patience and procrastination. From my own mistakes and those I saw in the masters, I ultimately realized that the French painters had their own mistakes to teach me and, if I just looked between the swirls and starbursts, I would see the success within the mistakes. Not only in a Van Gogh, but in my own masterpieces as well.

Hello There Stranger

Life often gets in the way of our best intentions. I was doing so well on my goal of writing once a week on this blog and then work sent me off to Washington DC for three weeks and all of the sudden, I didn’t have a lot of extra time to write anymore. It’s funny; I forget what it’s like to live in a place where I might have friends or family to do things with after work or live in a place where there are places that don’t close at 5PM as I leave the library. Most of the time I don’t miss it – the places to go part anyway. I do miss the people I could meet up with for brunch or have a friend to go to the movies with after work.
I always love going to DC because it is, in a way, like going home. I interned at the Smithsonian Institute as a grad student and my cousins thankfully let me crash at their house for the summer in the Capitol Hill district. If I am ever lucky enough to live in DC again, I’d love to be back in that neighborhood – its old brick houses, parks and scattered businesses seem like they shouldn’t be within walking distance of some of the most powerful places in the United States. One of my favorites things to do after work during that summer was walk back to the house, through the Mall, up the Hill, past the Capitol building and the Library of Congress and back into the residential streets of the Hill. There was a little café I could stop at or a bookstore that looked more like a crammed house of books than a place of business.
I am a museumgoer by nature so DC is a bit of a Mecca for me. I love picking up tidbits and facts and storing them away like a squirrel for winter. Museums, especially the Smithsonian cohort, seem to thrive on the miscellaneous. Why on earth did anyone ever save the paint box one of the Roosevelt kids used while living in the White House? But they did and now it’s proudly on display at the American History Museum. It is times like that in that I think the America’s Attic nickname for the Smithsonian is entirely accurate.
But the museum I could happily live in, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler style, is the National Gallery. You can keep the modern side of things – the modern school and me will never get along – but let me dwell in the French Impressionist rooms or the Dutch rooms and I will be one happy woman. I have cheerfully sat and stared at Van Goghs and Mary Cassetts for hours at the National Gallery. Rushed after work to have only 15 minutes before the museum closed to gaze lovingly at Monet’s Japanese Bridge, a bridge I’ve stood on myself way back in high school. These paintings are old friends and ones I sadly did not get to spend a lot of time with this last trip. I need to put aside a day for the National Gallery in the future to get reacquainted.
Of course, I was there for work and that meant spending time at the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Archives II, the behemoth NARA built in College Park, is overwhelming, cold and modern. Its reading room is lovely – huge and glass filled, giving a researcher a look out over a wood. It was easy to daydream in that room though and I found sitting with my back to the window helped my concentration. There was none of the romance of the archives at Archives II but I suppose it is a government repository; there is nothing less romantic than combing through the records of the Commerce Department.
I much preferred my time at Archives I, the downtown showcase building where one can make the pilgrimage to see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Most of NARA’s military records still call Archives I home and while Theodore Roosevelt’s investigations of navy yards in 1898 might not have been riveting, the old research room with heavy wood paneling and large paned windows made me feel like I had stepped back in time for a moment and the lounging archivists at the desk should be harried looking clerks, pouring over ledgers and wearing frock coats instead of wearing jeans and hooked into their iPods.
Library of Congress’s manuscripts reading room at the Madison building reminded me of my elementary school library. I swear they had the same green carpeting. It was a room that could bustle quietly as microfilm readers scroll and archivists fetch and roll out four boxes for researchers at a time. The noise was never obtrusive; reminded me of comforting study halls in the spring when you were just starting to get the sense that the school year did have an ending. Up in the Prints and Photographs division, that feeling was even stronger as I sat at a larger table that looked transplanted from a public library and dug through photographs of the Roosevelt family on vacation or on safari or flipped through stereographs in filing cabinets, a stones throw away from an old-school card catalog.
Of all the places I researched at in DC, I loved LC the most. The materials here were the sort you pour over, wanting to read more (if you can decipher the writer’s hand well enough). These are the materials you become an archivist for; the handwritten letters and diaries, the ephemera that has no right to have made it from 1906 to 2012 and yet somehow managed it. A digital librarian I may be, and I love what my work can do for people around the world, but to my mind, there will always be something…something more…about holding and interacting with the actual item that the digital realm can never quite hope to replicate. I am a digital brat but a little piece of my heart will always be analog.

My Name is Asher Lev

From Goodreads

I have never heard of this book until a colleague mentioned it to me. It’s a book that is often read by college freshmen. Since I missed that cue, I decided to read it to see what I missed. It makes sense to hand this to college freshmen though, the book explores parent-child relationships, the pain and fear of leaving home and learning that maybe your parents’ way of life isn’t going to work for you exactly.

Asher Lev is growing up in Brooklyn as an Hasidic Jew. His father is an important member of the synagogue who travels extensively for the Rebbe and his mother seems content to wait at the window for him to come home. Asher’s art though gets him through even as it causes many of his family’s problems over the years. His father does not understand his art and seems to see it as an affliction sent by God to try him. His mother spends their lives trying to be a bridge between the father and son, usually failing which leads to Asher’s masterpiece, Brooklyn Crucifixion.

I liked this book a lot and appreciated what it was trying to accomplish. I can’t say I much cared for any of the characters but that’s because I feel like I didn’t get to know them very well. So much of them is never explained, even Asher who is telling you the story. I also found them hard to relate to because honestly, I never had these sorts of problems. Asher’s story of growing up was completely foreign to me, even when generalizing it.

I loved the art aspects to the story though. I always wanted to have the sort of talent Asher is born with – his eye is supposedly spectacular when it comes to painting. I did like the author’s choice in not giving many details about his work until the last masterpiece which is the final crisis in Asher’s life with his parents. I learned early to appreciate art since I couldn’t seem to create it. Asher’s story is about the joy and pain in being able to create and what it does to his very traditional, very religious family.

This was the part of the story that I just couldn’t seem to care much about – the religious aspect. I don’t come from a religious family and though my friends were always willing to share their religions with me, which was fun to explore lots of different religions, I was always vaguely uncomfortable with religion in general. Watching how much Asher struggles with it, I again realized I don’t feel a sense of loss for not having that growing up. Religion always seems to complicate things, make you question what you feel is right for you. It can also have the opposite effect but Asher’s story just seems to show the pain of having that tradition weighing on you as you try to grow into the person you need to be.

Lastly, and where it seemed to be a good book for college freshmen, was the parent-child relationship explored with Asher and his parents. Asher is a disappointment to his father, a strict traditionalist who doesn’t comprehend his son’s artistic talents. His mother is caught between two needy men in her life who expect her to choose their side. Again, I could understand these issues but I’ve never experienced them; in fact, this book made me want to call up my parents and thank them. They always let me be exactly who I was, even when they weren’t sure where I came from. My whole family did. They sat through chorus concerts and high school musicals and tried to act interested when they asked what I was reading. I always appreciated that even if I didn’t say it. This book make me grateful that they always asked even more.

Overall, I liked this book; it made me think even if it was kind of a depressing book on many levels but it made me dive into all my art museum books this past week so it’s been lovely to have an excuse to revisit them.

The Phillips Collection

OK, while the best art museum in this town will remain the National Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection gets the prize for the best atmosphere of an art museum. While I especially felt under dressed here (though I usually do in this town), The Phillips Collection is comprised of two buildings, one a modern building and the other, an old house off of Dupont Circle. So, for part of your walk through the museum, you’re in a typical “museum” setting with perfect lighting and few windows. For the other part, you wander into the old Victorian house and feel like someone has let you wander their house, enjoying their art collection. It created a very intimate feeling to the museum which I enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Louvre but the small setting of feeling like I stepped into some one’s parlor to comment on their O’Keefe was a unique and special experience.

And then there is the painting that I went to see. I turned a corner and there it was, so much bigger than I expected. Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. It literally took my breath away and I had to sit on the bench in front of it and stare (around the two men who insisted on discussing the painting for what felt like eons directly in front of it). Renoir has always been my second favorite (not being a tortured enough artist for me to love as much as my Van Gogh). To see this painting, arguably not his best, but his best-known, work was a joy. It ranks up there with turning the corner to see Starry Night at MOMA or finding down in the basement Crows with Wheatfield in Amsterdam. I will admit, I thought it was smaller because of the film Amelie. The canvas in the movie is smaller that the painting actually is but I admit I also stared at the girl with the glass and smiled. The colors also blew me away. The flowers on the girl’s hat with the dog were so vivid and textured, I would have sworn they were just painted yesterday. Also, this painting has such movement. You expect to see the next moments at any second, as if you were watching a film instead of looking at a painting. I have said it before, but I’ll say it again, I wish I could see the world the way the Impressionists saw it. We all should be so lucky.