“Are you an art student?” I asked the museum guard, who looked oddly young for her job.
She watched me carefully, as though my silver hair and black leather shoes had raised her suspicions. “I was. I graduated two years ago with a degree in art.”
Ah. I’d misjudged her age. There is nothing so tender as young adult pride.
Still wanting to build a bridge, I pointed to the Lori Nix exhibit that surrounded us. “Do you know anything about this artist?”
If anything, she grew more tense. The short answer was no.
With an inward sigh I moved on.
I hadn’t come to the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in search of conversation. I was there to take in the excellent collection housed on the campus of Johnson County Community College. After a week of parenting turmoil my thoughts needed a new direction. The art was my objective. A little conversation would add a cherry on top.
I climbed the stairs to the permanent collection, where another young woman stood guard. This was the room I remembered, with its Samurai robe made of dog tags, and a contrasting explosion of color on the wall behind.
When I spoke to the second guard, I phrased my opening question more carefully. “Are you part of the art world?”
She rewarded me with a smile. “I have a degree in art history, and I’m looking at grad schools. Museum Studies, maybe.”
I asked her favorite piece in the collection, and she directed me to Alison Schulnik’s Skipping Skeletons. I’m glad she did: I might have glossed over it otherwise. But that encounter came later.
I thanked the guard for her time and stepped into the next gallery, where an object that looked like a bronze rocket ship drew my attention. What in the world?
Louise Bourgeois’s Woman with Packages is an abstract picture of the artist’s feelings about being a wife and mother. The three packages represent her young sons. She chose a needle shape for herself (see the eye at the top with her head inside?). As a mother and homemaker, she was required to mend, and “repair damage.”
The artist’s explanation made my heart expand. Here was a visual expression of the way I’d been feeling all week. With a hurting child at home, I had turned myself into a needle to repair the damage. I breathed more easily at the knowledge that someone else once stood in my shoes.
I found the Allison Schulnik painting (the friendly guard’s favorite) in the third gallery. Schulnik creates art as “Monuments to the rejected, forlorn or foolish.” Skeletons chasing one another through the flowers certainly fits her purpose. Next to this macabre fantasy, a relatively mundane Man Lying on Platform takes a leisurely look around the room.
The last gallery on my afternoon tour was labeled, “Kansas Focus.” Inside I found a long list of unfamiliar names. Birger Sandzen. Wilbur Niewald. Doug Osa. Paulina Jones Everett. They made me feel undereducated about my adopted home state. I dug a pen and notebook out of my purse to record their names for later research, and suddenly found the first museum guard at my elbow, a lime green mechanical pencil in her hand. “Can I get you to use this instead of your pen?” she asked.
“Absolutely.” Whew! Now I wouldn’t accidentally spray ink from my ballpoint pen onto a priceless piece of art.
The Kansas Focus gallery displayed varied subjects, media and styles, and yet felt very accessible, perhaps because of their shared sense of place. Artist Keith Jacobshagen said it this way:
“I’m a Midwesterner who has stayed put
to make sense of where I live.”
Me too, Mr. Jacobshagen. Me too.