Food for the Soul

Once again I have fallen in love with an artist. We went to the Blanton Museum yesterday to see the exhibit “El Anatsui: When I last Wrote to You about Africa.” Having read about the show and seen photos, I had high expectations, but this exhibit still blew me away. This has happened before. Several years ago, also at the Blanton, there was an exhibit of Hiroshige’s “100 Views of Edo.” (A full collection set of these prints is at the Brooklyn Museum of Art,  which I intend to see next time I’m in New York.) I bought a booklet of postcards, selected nine and mounted and framed them in a gilded frame. The piece hangs in our bedroom, next to my closet door, where I sometimes find myself gazing with my mouth agape as I did when I first encountered the work.

Austin collage artist Lance Letscher’s work has had a similar effect—both inspiring and humbling. What is it about certain art that does this? El Anatsui’s and Hiroshoge’s (and for that matter Monet’s and Van Gogh’s) works are very different, so what grabs my eyes, my heart and my soul?  They inspire me because they make me want to make art; humble me in the same way reading John McPhee’s prose or Mary Oliver’s poetry makes me wonder why I even try to write.

El Anatsui

El Anatsui, Untitled, 2007, Blanton Permanent Collection

Color, composition, content, competency. The first two things that capture my attention are color and composition. In El Anatsui’s work, the first thing you see is the scale, scope and grandeur, especially of the large metallic pieces, which hang like sumptuous medieval tapestries on the gallery walls. But his drawings, paintings and sculpture are equally compelling: flat wooden serving trays, large carved wood pieces, wonderful line drawings and a few older acrylic paintings. The large “tapestries” are even more powerful when you get up close and see that they are made of pieces of metal—caps and bottle wrappings—from liquor bottles and soda cans. He makes the point that these pieces connect Africa with Europe (and the U.S.) with what they brought to Africa (alcohol and sugar) and what they took out (human beings as slaves). “Akua’s Surviving Children” brings one to tears: made of driftwood Anatsui found on the beach in Ghana and then burned the tops of, it represents the Danish slave trade. The burning was his way of cleansing the spirits.

Akua's Surviving Children

And what a generous artist he is—a teacher from Ghana who has shown in the Venice Biennale, he tells galleries to allow the installers to arrange the pieces in a way that they find pleasing and appropriate. There are two videos in the exhibit, one showing in stop-action the installation of one of the large hanging pieces, and another in which Anatsui talks about his work.

I bought the exhibit book to learn more about my new favorite contemporary artist, and I expect to return before the show closes January 22; I may even take my five-year-old granddaughter. Included in the show is a beautiful little chapbook of poems written by fourth-graders about the works. The Blanton has one of his pieces in its permanent collection as well.

There is also a wonderful show of French drawings from the museum’s permanent collection. Drawing has been one of my favorite activities since I could hold a pencil, and I took many semesters as part of my art training, so I love to see exhibits of drawing that give it the respect it should have. My ex did not consider drawings “real” art, worthy of being hung and framed. He must have thought drawings were just doodles, sketches, preparation for more important works. They can be all of those things, and they are art.

We now have some of my drawings framed in our home.

Jill Wiggins: Tree at McKinney Falls, pencil

Something Gary and I have always enjoyed doing together is visit art museums. I rate cities by the quality of their museums: London, New York, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston are favorites so far. I have yet to get to Paris, Amsterdam or Rome, but they are on my list of places I must see, especially Monet’s gardens at Giverny.

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