Mindful Mountains, Cheerful Trees: Looking Closely at the Phillips

Fifteen brave participants joined me during Jazz ‘n Families Fun Days for an all-ages gallery exploration, “Mindful Mountains, Cheerful Trees: Looking Closely at the Phillips.” By observing our thoughts and works of art in the galleries, we practiced mindfulness.

Prior to the tour, I had created a set of mind jars, spurred by the excellent children’s book Moody Cow Meditates.

Mind jars awaiting new friends in the Phillips' Courtyard.

Photo: Meagan Estep

When you shake a mind jar, the swirling glitter represents crazy, overwhelming, troublesome (or excited, or thrilled) thoughts—basically our frazzled minds on a normal day. As you watch the glitter settle, your mind begins to do the same.

We started in the Courtyard, where each person picked a color of glitter and poured it into a jar. Then we swirled and swirled, thinking of all the thoughts, feelings, and emotions occurring for each of us that day. Watching his mind jar, a ten-year-old observed: “I feel my mind settle. I am calmer now.”

Participants enjoying meditation and the mind jars in the Courtyard.

Photo: James Brantley

Then we gathered inside before Morris Louis’s Number 182 and Blue Column. Participants mentioned the words “serene” and “peaceful” while looking at Louis’s paintings. For me, the colors had never danced before my eyes so vividly.

The Phillips Collections opens its doors for the annual Jazz and Families Weekend, celebrating art, music and creativity for young and old at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC on Saturday, June 1, 2013.   DC Councilman and Mayoral candidate Jack Evans, a longtime arts supporter, helped open the event.(James R. Brantley)

Photo: James Brantley

Being mind-full is much more difficult than being mind-less, but the benefits are endless. I’ve decided to keep a mind jar on my desk here at the Phillips, so I can remember to let my thoughts settle throughout the day.

Recreate the experience at home using this mind jar recipe:

You will need:

  • Quart-sized glass Mason jar
  • Hot water
  • Glycerin (look in the pharmacy section of your grocery store) or light corn syrup
  • Dish soap
  • Fine glitter in any color

Process:

Fill Mason jar 3/4 to the top with hot water (not boiling!). Add 1/4–1/2 cup of glycerin. Glycerin will act as a slowing agent for the glitter, so the more you add, the longer it will take for your glitter to settle. Stir the glycerin in with a fork or whisk for one minute.

Add a few handfuls of glitter—how much is up to you. How many thoughts do you have in your mind right now? What colors are your emotions today? Choose your glitter based on how you feel.

Shake the jar.

You’ll notice that some glitter remains at the top of the water (this is surface tension—an underlying science lesson, too!). Add 4–5 drops of dish soap and shake gently. The glitter should begin to fall without creating too many bubbles.

Your mind jar is ready to go! Add more hot water if you want the glitter to fall faster; more glycerin or corn syrup to decrease the speed. And more glitter as you see fit.

Meagan Estep, Teacher Programs Coordinator

An Exquisite Corpse for Seal

For a recent Phillips after 5 collaboration with Arena Stage, we wanted to create a game for our guests that would bridge visual arts and dramatic literature. We started with an old parlor game embraced by the surrealists known as the exquisite corpse, in which a group takes turns drawing or writing a passage on a piece of paper, then folding the paper to conceal all but a glimpse of their creation, and passing it on to the next participant. At the end, a monstrous collective work is revealed.

During Phillips after 5, we placed a notebook in the gallery where Morris Louis’s Seal is on view. Simple instructions invited passersby to use the painting as inspiration and add a line or two to an unfolding drama. Today we publish the results–complete with angst, loneliness, water, sky, a ride on the Titanic, and a penguin’s perspective–here and on Arena Stage’s Stage Banter blog.

Midnight. Brisk. Quiet. Something is unknown. Enter CHASE, BELLE, and SHADOW.

BELLE: There’s something behind the curtains. What is it?

SHADOW: It moves like a racehorse. Did you see it?

CHASE: I don’t think we should watch it. It doesn’t belong here.

BELLE: I’m not sure what’s behind there, but someone should look.

SHADOW: Darkness is madness and hides the fear. The pain.

CHASE: I’m not afraid to cry. Or to try. Don’t be afraid. It’s only a dream.

BELLE: If it’s a dream then do not wake me. I’m floating, silently, wearing lace and singing a tune. A sad lament . . .

SHADOW: Wake up! A storm is near. Darkness looms. There’s no light in shadow. Deep sleep and dreaming . . .

CHASE: In my dream, curtains part—and then, a soft, smooth piece of sealskin, covering me, keeping me dry from any storm.

BELLE: You were lying so quietly next to me, and then I heard you shout. You were frightened by something or someone in your dream, it seems.

SHADOW: Death comes in many guises. I will enter softly when the time is right. Meanwhile rise up and face the stormy day ahead. Who knows what you will find. Take the boat around the bay and see me there.

BELLE: I have no interest in visiting your home—I barely can tolerate you here in a neutral setting.

CHASE: Belle! Why so harsh? Shadow’s just being polite. Besides, a boat ride across the bay is quite lovely, though at this time of day not as inviting.

SHADOW: Chase, you needn’t defend me. I’ve done nothing to offend Belle so. A trip to my home could help us all understand what we saw earlier this evening.

BELLE: We saw nothing! That was just the light of the stars playing against the leaves in that stand of trees. Everything is as it should be.

CHASE: I don’t get it. What do you mean?

BELLE: I mean isn’t it romantic the way the colors remind me of nature? They’re wet—dripping with meaning.

SHADOW: And yet it’s as if they are speaking in tongues, a different language to each observer.

CHASE: How is it that you see mere shadows, while I recognize only tangible objects?

BELLE: Ugh, I hate it when you talk in the abstract.

SHADOW: My name is Shadow. I don’t think that’s very abstract.

BELLE: (pause) I hate you two. I’m leaving.

SHADOW: Suits me just fine!

BELLE: Don’t be so glib! Our very future is at stake! You never take anything seriously. It’s like you’re swimming through life.

CHASE: Maybe that’s all he’s capable of. A rootless existence, ebbing and flowing. No substance. (To Shadow) You should be ashamed.

SHADOW: I suppose I should be like you instead? Dull as dirt, happily toiling away at the grindstone, never realizing you’re grinding yourself up in the process. There is so much you don’t know.

CHASE: What could you possibly teach me? You think you’re profound when really, you don’t even know who you are. It must hurt, being cut adrift.

BELLE: Don’t you understand the beauty of the midnight quiet. When what is known becomes unknown.

CHASE: You’re not profound. Finding beauty in the quiet doesn’t make you profound.

SHADOW: Don’t ruin the calm of this night.

CHASE: I’ll do as I please. Move as I please. Slow as I please.

BELLE: You are so selfish. And if you don’t hurry, I will be more than upset.

CHASE: Be quiet. You are getting on my nerves.

SHADOW: That‘s all right Chase. Belle doesn’t know what she is doing.

BELLE: Shut up, you two. You are ruining the moment.

SHADOW: And you are interrupting the darkness I have cast in measures around me.

BELLE: Lighten up Shadow! Why do you have to bring everyone down with all your melodramatic nonsense.

CHASE: But Belle, he is merely expressing himself!

BELLE: Yeah, well the last time he expressed himself, we ended up at the bottom of a lake!

CHASE: Ah yes, that fateful April 15th when the Titanic went down. But Belle, you survived!

BELLE: Yes, well, I should say—he ended up at the bottom of the “lake.” Last time he’ll express himself like that!

CHASE: What was it like after the sinking?

BELLE: The worst part didn’t come until I was near the shore. There were ice and penguins everywhere. Oh, those dreadful penguins!

SHADOW: Oh . . . That’s the dark side of you. I like it. The three shadows in that paintings were bare foot.

CHASE: Cold, cold, cold. I’m so cold. Blue cold. Ice cold. Blue ice. What does a penguin want?

BELLE: Penguins are black. Not blue. They are happy. Joyful. Not blue. Black white is gray.

SHADOW: Veils. Darkness. I am asleep. I awake in a dream of blue. Water, sky. Sky dreams . . .

BELLE: Ocean overwhelming nightmare by the sea. Continues turning, body yearning. Tell me more. (facing Chase, who’s watching Shadow) . . . Why the silence?

CHASE: The joy . . . turns to darkness with the tide, in time . . .

SHADOW: (in the distance, back turned, swaying and singing)” Mei nahar zormim—habeht—eylu hem yámei chayechah . . . ”

BELLE: The song is so lovely even if I don’t understand the words.

SHADOW: The ice is melting. The copper is oxidizing. I cry.

CHASE: Who are you? Why does the oxidizing copper make you so emotional?

SHADOW: Chase, I am in your mind. Look more closely at the copper . . . It holds SECRETS.

CHASE: I’m stretching to the sky like an anorexic ballerina caught on a medieval rack. Why do you torture me?

SHADOW: With a beautiful woman looming overhead. What’s the point of the surreal?

BELLE: I’m fed up with your abstract, arbitrary quandaries.

CHASE and SHADOW: We’re fed up with you.

BELLE: From the right sea and left forest, all I feel is alone.

CHASE: You are solitary, Belle. Lonesome as the darkness. You are alone.

BELLE: I feel a fear and my soul seeping from it. My feelings fall off the page.

CHASE: You are gone.

BELLE: Giant fingers and hooves.

SHADOW: (quiet) Trampling, crushing my soul. I rise above and clap my hands and shout. Things have fallen apart, and the trees harbor the refugees.

CHASE: The refugees . . . they kept quiet by the dark and the night of black velvet.

Seal, Unsealed

Morris Louis, Seal, 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 101-1/8 x 140-3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Gift of Marcella Brenner Revocable Trust, 2011 ©1993 Marcella Louis Brenner

Last Thursday, I stood in front of Seal for the Spotlight Tour on Morris Louis, confronted with the colossal stretch of raw canvas covered in black, blue, and green paint, staring at the work in its overwhelming enormity and pondering the paradox presented by its name. I had joined the tour as Paul Ruther, Manager of Teacher Programs, was telling the story of how the painting, one of a series done for a New York gallery in 1959, was dubbed Seal by Clement Greenberg despite Louis’s aversion to naming his work.

Why Seal? Paul asked the group. I couldn’t help but think that “seal,” in its many meanings, represented exactly what Louis was trying to avoid with his nameless paintings, as his work was an attempt at art freed from illusion and association, art unmediated by narrative. I thought of a “seal” as an emblem, a symbol, a stamp; an adhesive, some binding substance. Does a name have the power to seal-off our response to a painting, to direct or limit our thoughts and emotions, to force us to find symbolism only where the name suggests it exists? Would this painting be better off unSealed?

However, “seal” proved to be as slippery a word as the animal it signifies, and its multitudinous meanings generated a series of thoughtful comments. The washes of black and gray swim amongst blues and greens: a partly-submerged seal. The paint, as Paul pointed out, is adhered to the raw canvas, “sealed” to it, forming not paint-on-canvas but a single object. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that the artist never intended to name his painting, for the associations we make are just one way we connect to his work.

I also couldn’t help but wonder about Louis’s mysterious methods, though apparently this type of speculation is often discouraged. What I did learn about this particular piece, though, is that the canvas was so large he never worked with it stretched, but curled, furled, twisted, and draped. I can only picture Louis, locked away in his room, canvas sprawled everywhere, maybe meditative, maybe frenzied, puffing through a pack of cigarettes and painting and painting, the finished piece a mystery even to its creator.

I think it may be the mystery itself that speaks so astutely to the creative process, and to the act of responding to or interpreting art. Artistic expression creates its own language; it speaks to the private, the hidden, the indescribable, and illogical, yet it somehow makes sense, as the motivation behind and responses to these works often transcend verbal description and enter the realm of the inexplicably universal, moving us in ways we cannot name. Despite the name of this painting and the associations it invites, we inevitably connect to it in ways we can’t quite articulate, our reactions a mystery even to us.

Amanda Hickok, Marketing Intern