A visit to the Met the day before it closed, one artist reflects on how art helps us persevere | Column by Lora Vahlsing (Spring 2020 issue)
Earlier in March I attended a weekend yoga intensive in the Poconos, and my teenage daughter came with me. After the weekend, the plan was to visit New York for the week. As I headed into the yoga workshop, COVID-19 was becoming part of the daily conversation, although life for the most part was continuing as normal. All weekend, the yoga teacher kept talking about the importance of peace. Perhaps he sensed how drastically our world was about to change, and how much we would need the reminder.
By the time the yoga weekend was over, it seemed life as we knew it had already changed. We ended up going into New York City, and for the most part it was the place we recognized. However, with each passing day we started to see visible changes, and we were starting to change as well.
Riding the subway one day, there was a man who was praying out loud. Maybe under other circumstances it would have been easier to dismiss him as just another eccentric guy on the New York subway. On that day, under those particular circumstances, my daughter and I listened to his prayer attentively. I needed to hear his words as much he needed to say them. The man spoke of trust during these difficult times to come, and the necessity of kindness and grace. As we left the subway car, he made eye contact and said, “God bless you both.”
Art has been a significant part of my life for many years. I first turned to it as a teenager, almost by accident. Vogue magazine was mainly about the fashion, but they also had an Art section. It was in those pages I discovered Mark Rothko, Kandinsky, Ad Reinhardt, and many others. I could sense many of these artists didn’t quite fit in, that they were outsiders. Their outsider perspective allowed them an additional lens to view the world.
I recognized myself in their biographies, but also in their need to express and share what can’t easily be put into words. Until that point, I thought my only option was to fit in, but with art I realized I could create a place where I belonged.
Blessings often arrive in unexpected ways. My daughter had only a few requests for our stay in New York: Go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; eat Korean food; and shop at Muji. This was my daughter’s first visit to the museum, and we debated whether to go or not. The weight, and the effects, of COVID-19 was becoming heavier and more apparent. I had never visited an art museum under those circumstances, and a part of me wondered if it was frivolous to look at art during such a time. We decided to go to the Met anyway, and it was comforting and inspiring to be surrounded by beauty. I realized how much we needed it.
As my daughter and I went from room to room in the Met, it became clear how art has always been part of the human experience. We saw everything from tea pots to guitars, and we absorbed the diversity of imagination expressed in those pieces. In a room of American quilts, I remembered what a professor had once told me about a quilt exhibit he attended. One of the creators wrote about why she made quilts. She said she made quilts to keep her family warm, and just beautiful enough to keep her heart from breaking. We, as humans, can’t seem to exist without creating. Art is not a privilege, but a necessity.
When we returned to our Airbnb after visiting the Met, we heard on the news they had closed the doors of the Met that day, indefinitely. We had somehow managed to get our visit in right before they closed. I felt grateful my daughter was able to experience the museum, and that she was able to see so many artists she loved. In the days since we went to the Met, life has slowed down considerably. Many of us are leading very different lives. I think most of us sensed 2020 was going to bring about greater clarity, but this pandemic is not the way we envisioned it.
Albert Camus’ words come to mind now more than ever: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger —- something better, pushing right back.” And of course this is essential, this expression and affirmation that amidst all of this I can create something. It’s one of the most courageous and beautiful acts. Art is necessary precisely because it allows us agency: It both grounds and elevates us, and it can even keep our hearts from breaking during these uncertain times.