Monday, June 3, 2013

Experiencing art (even when you can’t touch it) at the Phoenix Art Museum

This article originally ran in the May 2013 issue of Times Publications.

I have a confession: I have cultivated, in three decades of living, almost zero real appreciation for art. I don’t mean performance art -- I like a good play and love of music runs strong in our family. But “real,” hang-on-the-wall or stand-in-a-room art? Except photography, I just never “got” it. I never tried to get it.

Yes, some of these paintings will prompt many questions. That's a great thing.

Still, I figured just maybe, my son enjoy a trip to the Phoenix Art Museum last month. I just hoped he wouldn’t be too bored.

I should have known better. We had a wonderful time. I’m sorry I didn’t visit sooner.

We weren’t even out of the lobby when we saw “The Last Scattering Surface;” a sculpture of glass, aluminum, and light by Josiah McElheny that combines industrial techniques and big-bang cosmic illustration. My son was hooked.

Next we spent a while wandering through walls of butterflies. Not real ones -- clouds and swarms of black paper butterflies swirled up the walls and ceiling, leading toward the Diane and Bruce Halle Collection, “Order, Chaos, and the Space Between,” featured through May 5. (Don’t worry if you missed it; the museum has great exhibits following as well.)

The Halle gallery was captivating. Exhibits of glass, cement, thread, metal, and much more illustrated wildness and pattern, creating a snapshot-in-time of Latin American artists pushing boundaries of creativity.

I learned a lesson many parents learn on first museum visits: Watch your kids and their hands. As we approached a bold painting and I looked ahead, my son brushed a sculpture with a finger. Naturally, a museum worker politely asked him to use his eyes only. Then, he did it again -- this time “accidentally”-on-purpose, with a shirt sleeve, on the same sculpture. We had a brief but enthusiastic conversation with the same (extremely patient) worker. My son was on her radar. We continued to peruse the gallery, his hands firmly in his pockets. Lesson received.

This made for a humorous moment with an exhibit we saw a few minutes later. A pile of mint-green hard candies, individually wrapped, formed a pond-shaped pile on the floor. A sign invited visitors to take one and explained that the piece is ever-changing.

But the lesson from the sculpture loomed large, and my son only circled the pile. His hand reached out … and darted back to his pocket. Not allowed! Can’t touch!

It wasn’t until another worker invited him to take a piece that he dared snatch one up. So the lesson isn’t “Don’t touch anything,” but rather “Follow the rules.” And pay attention to learn the rules. The same as the “rule” for enjoying art. Pay attention.

If you aren’t sure younger ones will have the patience for “grown-up” art, you can still check out the museum together. The PhxArtKids Gallery explores interactions of color and shape, and invites kids to build their own art; from drawing to building copies of mounted pieces. For us, it reinforced lessons in exploration that we were already learning: look from a distance and closely and think about colors, shapes, and lines. Wonder how the artist thought and felt as he or she made the piece. Young kids will glean a few lessons, and older kids will learn even more. You might also pick up some great ideas for crafts at home!

I was most surprised at his reaction to “Ahmed Alsoudani: Redacted,” a series of layered and chaotic paintings influenced by the artist’s time in Iraq. Machines, animals, faces, eyes, and more swirl together in a vivid commentary on chaos, violence, and life. I thought it would be too abstract. My son studied each one.

We perused many of the other exhibits, and I watched as the museum inspired not just an aesthetic appreciation for art in my son, but an in-depth analytical  analysis: “Why did they do that? Why is this there instead of here? Why these colors? What does this mean?” If anyone tells you art is weird fluff and no real thinking, tell them to watch a kid at an art museum.

My son’s favorite was definitely Yayoi Kusama’s “You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies.” It’s a darkened, mirrored room illuminated only by strings of color-shifting LED lights hung from the ceiling, ending about a foot from the floor. Mirrors replicate the points of light into infinity, but we were barely visible. Go in, adjust for a moment, stand, and really look. It’s the kind of disorienting freedom and sense of wonder you usually only get from serious stargazing. And kids will love it. My son didn’t want to leave the room, and I can’t say I disagreed.

From European classics to contemporary art, the Phoenix Art Museum is like several museums in one. Plan ahead and see the exhibits that most excite you. Keep your family’s particular interests in mind -- but whether you’re visiting with young ones, older kids, teens, or just having a special adults’ day out, the Phoenix Art Museum’s got you covered. (Just don’t touch most of the exhibits.)

For more information, call (602) 257-1222 or visit


Carole DeAngeli said... Best Blogger Tips

I've always had great experiences at the Phoenix Museum of Art, and it was fun to 'watch' your son experiencing the various dimensions and aspects of art. May it lead to more exploration and appreciation. Wonderful post!

Kimberly Hosey said... Best Blogger Tips

Thanks, Carole! I'm sure we'll be back many times.

Nina Potts said... Best Blogger Tips

The firefly installation is my favourite. On rare occasions when I can just stand in there for a while with no other museum guests its oddly peaceful (this is not possibly on a First Friday night!).

I understand the urge to touch the art. I admit to touching it. I have an intense interest in art (preferably old and european) and would go nuts if someone touched it, but then I get an evil voice in my head whispering "just touch it, it probably feels good". Evil brain. This is how fresco's get ruined...

Anyways, I love the pictures of the butterfly installation, I haven't had a chance to see it yet. As always your son's perception amazes me (especially now that children live in my house).