Art has always been a comfort to me. It is enough to spend time with a painting by Frida Kahlo or Rembrandt to remember that our suffering is universal and timeless. Communicating with art has allowed me to go through ruptures, professional disappointments and deaths. What I learned over the next few months is that studying art history could also help my family get through the seemingly endless period of anxiety and the unknown about the pandemic.
My husband Steven has a genetic condition that caused a life-threatening reaction to his treatment for lymphoma two years ago, and it also puts him at high risk for serious illness from COVID. As a result, our family of five has been strictly quarantined for the past 16 months. Last summer, as his level of work increased, he went without a smile for days. I got PTSD every time I saw the muscles in her neck tighten. Finding ways to reduce her stress seemed like something I could do to keep her cancer at bay.
A solution presented itself in October, when my 13-year-old asked me to help fill a knowledge gap for his virtual quiz bowl team: art history. James knows that I have worked in art museums as a development associate and have written an art-themed novel. Over the years, I had subjected him and his siblings to regular museum visits with the promise of an ice cream at the end. I saw an opportunity to not only increase the IQs of all my children in art history, but also to help Steven relax.
Steven says he fell in love with me the day I showed him around the National Gallery of Art for five hours, that I opened up new worlds beyond his all-consuming study of medicine. He seemed excited about the idea of a nighttime escape through art lectures during his forties. Our seven-year-old daughter, Rebecca, was also won over by the idea. But Marc, 11, who doesn’t have a poker face, was not.
“Art is for the fancy people,” he said. “We are not fancy.”
I knew what he meant. We’re decidedly jeans and sneakers, and the art on display in marble buildings, which costs hundreds of millions of dollars at auction, can be intimidating. But much of the “great art” contains messages about social justice and can stimulate creativity and empathy. My kids didn’t have to like art, but I wanted to make it more accessible to them.
“No, we are not,” I said. “But art is for everyone.”
Marc remained skeptical, but he was rejected. Over the following months, I gave 157 10-minute lectures – starting with the Paleolithic fertility figurine “Venus of Willendorf” (c. 28,000 to 25,000 BCE) and ending with the large sculpture in the shape of a sphynx by Kara Walker, “A Subtlety” (2014) and sandblasted canvases by Cai Guo-Qiang. Marc would drop his head on the table if he got bored – criticism in its purest form. I learned to choose facts that engaged everyone, that made them lift their heads to at least take a look at the image I was holding up on my iPad, for example:
My program had successes and failures. “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques-Louis David (1801-1805) inspired a lively discussion about propaganda and how members of my family would like to be represented in art. But the fluffy and overly sentimental Pre-Raphaelite Rococo paintings received collective yawns from my team.
The work that most caught Marc’s attention is undoubtedly the double portrait of Amedeo Modigliani, “Jacques et Berthe Lipchitz” (1916). Marc delighted in telling everyone about this painting, perhaps less for the image and more for the opportunity to underline the second syllable of the subjects’ last names with a naughty smile. Marc’s reactions to my art talks made Steven laugh, a sound that makes my heart beat faster. The return of his smile meant that my project was successful.
There were other unexpected benefits. Not only did James start to dominate art topics in quiz bowl exercises, but my kids can now identify all of the artwork sold by Animal Crossing’s character, Redd the Fox. “Las Meninas” (1656) by Diego Velázquez). Marc and Rebecca also answered several questions correctly in the Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe categories of Jeopardy. Suddenly, art had relevance and value to them.
I cannot guarantee that my children will remember these works of art in the future. But in years, they will be able to laugh at the memory of their mutual bad mood that I nevertheless gave another talking about art when they would have preferred to spend the whole meal discussing something else.
Now that Steven, James and I are vaccinated and the world is opening again, new stimuli have replaced my discussions of art. Recently, Marc admitted that they “weren’t as bad as he thought”. It sounded like great praise. No matter how monotonous or frustrating our quarantined lives have become, discussions of art have provided a sustained ritual, something to calm, amuse, and bond our family. And who knows, maybe now I can convince my family to visit another art museum without spoiling them with ice.