This summer, we traveled to the beach. We went to visit my mother and my aunt. They both live in a beachside community. You are picturing a house on stilts by the shore. I am going to paint a different picture. Both of them live in year 'round homes which are not at all the "roughin' it at the beach" type of houses. Instead, they are beautifully decorated showplaces which are hung with amazing art. Both homes are veritable feasts for the eyes.
We stayed primarily in my mother's home because, of the two, it was far more appropriate for small children. My aunt's home is a museum. Literally. The very house is equipped with serious hurricane protection, blackout blinds, and a security system that rivals a fine art gallery. That's because it is a fine art gallery. My aunt collects art. Not long ago, much of the art in her home hung in a museum. Now, it is in a beautiful house on the water.
One Sunday afternoon, as a thunderstorm brewed, we were driven up from the sand and surf and into my aunt's house. There, my children of all ages, in their swimsuits, walked from room to room and stood in awe of fine American art. I showed them my favorite, an 1895 Theodore Robinson painting called Washing Day. We searched in vain for my husband's favorite, William Harnett's Table Still Life (I think it's in New York), and then we stepped back and let the children fall in love with their own favorites. Stephen was smitten by the Portrait of a Girl with the Red Shawl, a Robert Henri painting that my aunt purchased for my uncle's sixtieth birthday. As the children gazed, Aunt Diane told the stories of the paintings. It was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, a most glorious and memorable art history course, all on a Sunday afternoon.
Mary Beth sat up on my aunt's bed and just took a tour around the room. Aunt Diane told her about Sunlight and Snow and how the woman who lived in the house from which Richard Miller painted the picture, found old canvases separating the compartments of the boot box in the mudroom and found even more discarded canvases in the attic.
She pointed out the patch on N. C. Wyeth's The Faded Tablecloth and explained that it had once been a window, by Wyeth didn't like that light in his studio so he closed it up. When he set to paint the still life, he painted it true to life, complete with the patched wall. From Wyeth, they let their eyes wander to a Whistler etching and Aunt Diane explained to Mary Beth how etchings are created.
Around the room they went, and my little girl listened, enraptured to one fascinating "backstory" after another. As I took it all in, I recognized that the "backstory" isn't incidental, it's germane. One doesn't have to know the story to love the painting, but the stories do help make the painting come alive in a special way.
Left to wander and to wonder, my children truly could not get enough of the visual feast. I watched as the air conditioned chilliness took hold of the damp bathing suits and teeth started to chatter and lips began to turn blue. A six-year-old boy stood in rapt wonder with his four-year-old sister in front of a statue of a a dancing girl. I could barely pry Stephen away from the Girl in the Red Shawl. I wish I could take credit for this sophisticated appreciation of art. I cannot. Truly, the environment captured their hearts and their imagination.
It did my heart good to see them so enraptured and to watch their relationship with my aunt blossom so beautifully. Her passion shone through everything she said and did with them and they began to understand that this world was a part of their world, too. They were also getting to know my uncle, who died five years ago. American art was his passion and his passion is being passed to his nieces and nephews. At the end of the afternoon, after hours of contemplation, Mary Beth led my aunt into the office. "That," she said "is my favorite of all." She was pointing to a large painting behind the desk. My aunt pulled Mary Beth close in a hug. "That was uncle Tom's favorite, too."
When we went back to my mother's house, they paid close attention to the art hung on the walls there. They noticed some fine American art. They also noticed paintings created by my mother's other sister and by Aunt Diane herself. A growing appreciation for visual art was taking hold.
On our last night at the beach, my mother encouraged my husband and I to go out to dinner at a nice restaurant and have a proper "date." Without thinking twice, we carried out from a nearby Italian bistro and ate on the balcony facing the sea at my aunt's house. She had returned to New York for a buying trip and we had the place to ourselves. After dinner, we wandered from room to room and drank in the art. We remembered that after our wedding, twenty years ago, we had no money and strict mandate to return to work bright and early Monday morning. We spent Sunday at the National Gallery of Art. Art was our honeymoon. We bought two prints that day and had them framed for our home. True, the weren't "real, live originals" as Stephen has become fond of saying, but they were beautiful. We committed to continue to pursue the family passion in our own new family.
In the days following our beach vacation (I'm not calling it a trip anymore--isn't it amazing how little time it takes to gild a memory?), I thought often about how beauty in our environment affects our lives. Our lofty plans to have a home filled with beauty had been a bit derailed. In truth, there were paintings stacked in a storage room in the basement that I'd never gotten around to hanging. As we added children, beauty gave way to practicality and things became a bit more--um--utilitarian with every birth. I didn't have the time to do much about my thoughts. We turned right around five days after the Florida vacation and drove to Long Island for a family reunion to celebrate my great Aunt Ida's ninetieth birthday.
We stayed in a very blessed cottage. To say that this cottage took my breath away upon entering is not to exaggerate. It was truly beautiful. The walls were painted a delightful green and huge windows let in the light filtered only by the splendid trees outside. Skylights brought the beautiful blue sky into the rooms below. It looked as if Miss Lavender of Avonlea had bumped into Beatrix Potter amongst the trees and flowers (and many bunnies) outside and they had conspired together to design a place of beauty and grace.
On the walls were murals of soaring trees with puffy pink flowers, birds, and bees and butterflies. Karoline kept trying to pick the flowers that "grew" along the baseboard. I was inspired once again by the beauty of my surroundings. On the morning of the birthday party, I wrapped a present for my Aunt Ida. It was two framed collages of portraits of my children. I mused about how fitting it was that these were pictures to hang on the wall. Truly , they represented the "art" of my life. I hadn't wrapped the pictures at home because I didn't want them to get bumped and ripped in the van. So, I wrapped them there. And I got a bit carried away in the creativity of it all. I had brought a few things from home with which to embellish packages and I threw myself into the task at hand with great gusto. My husband watched with a bemused smile. "It's in your genes, isn't it?" he asked.
I don't know that it was genetic at all. I think I was more inspired by the spirit of the cottage and I was prodded along in creating beauty by the beauty of the place itself. And it got me thinking about home again.
When we returned home, we discovered that the basement had flooded. I was literally being forced to re-think environment from the bottom of this house to the top. I began to dig out of the basement and re-create the space with beauty in mind. My house needs to be efficient but it doesn't need to be devoid of beauty. And, as so often in my life, as I worked, I thought about my children and education. The work of my hands reflected my new attitude. My educational plans need to be efficient and full of beauty. Beauty is useful. It has a very useful function. It inspires and soothes and ministers. I wonder at why someone would eschew art. A life without art is sure to become cynical and devoid of joy.
So, with a very soggy basement and a house in need of sprucing up, I was left to do all my planning for the coming year in my head as I mopped and de-cluttered and hung pictures and repainted. And you can bet that all that planning, which has yet to be committed to paper or computer memory, is rooted in the good, the true, and the beautiful.