Crazy Man, Art and Happiness Jars

Kat, an old roommate of mine who is an adult with A.D.D. once explained what every day was like for her. She hears and notices everything –each sound amplified and recorded in her mind, demanding equal attention. Her life is rich with detail, but such richness has a downside.
“It can be overwhelming,” she said.

In my New Year’s quest to be more present and aware of my surroundings, I had a semi-Kat day this past Sunday.

After church, still dressed in our finest, we decided to head to the Gemeente Museum. There is an exhibition called “Mondriaan en de Stijl,” in which two of my favorite Mondriaan’s were on display: The Red Tree and an the Windmill in Sunlight.

Evening, the Red Tree, by Piet Mondriaan 1908-1910

I stood before these paintings transfixed. I stepped closer to take in the brush strokes. Stepped away to see the whole. Their unnaturally bright hues cracked open the color palette of expectation, and created a jolt in me, as if someone has snuck up and scared me. But instead of fear, the shock that coursed through my body was one of anarchistic excitement. He dared to paint a windmill blood orange and red, a tree crimson with cobalt underlining.

Windmill in Sunlight by Piet Mondriaan, 1908

I lingered before the paintings, waiting for the shock of excitement to dull within me. My son and husband had moved on to the Museon, an interactive children’s museum attached to the Gemeente Museum by an interior corridor, and I longed to find them, bring them before these paintings and see if they had the same experience. But the museum was closing in half an hour.

A third painting also pulled me in. Its familiar to me, as if a friend had a poster of it on a wall at some point in my past. In person, it dazzled me in its snapshot of raucous joy; ladies and gentlemen dressed to the nines, dancing beneath the swirling lights–lights so brilliant and abstract that they could be candelabras of the Aurora Borealis interpreted in whites and golds.

Bal Tabarin by Jan Sluijters, 1907

I realize art is a personal thing and affects us all differently. I mentioned the Sluijters painting to my husband, who had seen it many times, and his shrug-of-the-shoulders indifference grated against my enthusiasm.

The clock struck five. We bundled up in our coats and hats and headed for the tram, waiting with all of the other museum goers who had stayed until closing time. While we waited, we watched an elderly couple step into a silver BMW roadster. The woman drove away carefully.

When the tram arrived, we boarded with the other museum goers, filling up the tram.

“Just be honest with me, damn it! Can I really fly to Indonesia for € 480? Come on, don’t lie to me! I’m sick of all the lying from the telemarketers! You look like you’re from there. A good lie will do too.” His voice boomed from the last car in the tram. People turned toward him, pulled by the loud intrusion of his voice. I glanced too, catching his clear, wild eyes, his dark hair, before looking away. A man in his thirties speaking Dutch with the accent of a foreigner who has somehow come to stay here too long. I didn’t see the person next to him, his current prisoner, as he kept yelling.

“And all those refugees! Giving them food, a place to stay, allowing their homosexuality! What a bunch of bullshit our government! How can we allow it!”

People stopped turning toward him. Even the children on the tram instinctively knew not to make eye contact. We made eye contact with each other instead; strangers glancing toward each other, as if to say, “It’s rather sad, really. Just ignore him. I apologize for the inconvenience.”

He finally got off the tram, and the whole car decompressed, as if we let out a collective breath. The driver came out of his cabin and walked all the way to the back in search of the offending man, but he had already departed. What would an abstract painting of this man and his crazed negativity look like?

In the evening, I suggested an activity for my family: a happiness jar. Each evening, we write down something that made us happy that day and put it in the jar. They both looked at me over the leftovers on our dinner plates in true Dutch fashion: slightly annoyed, yet lackadaisically tolerant.

“I need an unhappy jar, too.” My husband said.

“Yeah. Then I would write I’m unhappy because there’s a happy jar,”my son added, a devilish grin on his face. They laughed together at their own cleverness.  I set  jars before them, cut up an old envelope for pieces of paper, gave them pens. Everyone wrote something and placed it in the jar. I’m not sure if it made them happy or not, but we’ll carry on.




Rothko at the Gemeente Museum

Can an artist portray emotions of happiness, fear or ecstasy through the sole use of rectangular shapes of color?  Can they do so without explanation or words? That is the question that came to the forefront Saturday afternoon during a visit to the Gemeentemuseum to view the Rothko exhibit

I have to admit, his large swaths of color, with their soft edges and meditative yet simple rectangular shapes do elicit feelings in me. But not, perhaps, what he intended. We have seen Rothko exhibits before in San Francisco, and I’ve seen a sampling of his work in New York as well. But never before have I spent so much time contemplating them, and letting the colors and feelings wash over me.

imageMy tendency, as a social female and a writer, is to write about the art I see and to discuss them in terms of color and shape. But as I read about the artist, I soon realized he had an aversion to people trying to convey his art through words. Words, according to Rothko, desecrate the art. And they are not about color either; they are about the emotions; about a personal relationship between the painting and the viewer and the emotions that are evoked. They are intentionally hung low on the wall, so the viewer can “step into” the painting, and really experience the art.

As if to drive his point home, all of his works are untitled, as in the name of the paintings are Untitled, followed by the year they were created. Thus, without a title, we lean toward a description through color. “The one with the purple on top and black on bottom edged in orange.” More words, not feelings. But colors are known to be associated with feelings and terminology.

Red: anger, passion, danger, love.
Blue: calm, serene, sad.
Gold: regal, wealthy, happy, holy.
You get the idea. Colors are also a language of emotions. Yet who is to say if these color associations are universal?


Coronation of the Virgin, by Enguerrand Quarton, 1454
Coronation of the Virgin, Enguerrand Quarton, 1454

Take this untitled cobalt blue and gold Rothko painting above. What do you experience when you see it? For me, I see a spiritual work of art.

The gold rectangle in the upper third pulls to my mind the halos encircling the heads of angels and biblical figures from the fifteenth century a la Corination of the Virgin style (right). The deep cobalt blue reminds me of opulent gowns and the richness of a night sky.

But my associations have a lot to do with my Catholic upbringing and my western orientation with color and art. How would a Muslim woman or man experience this Rothko painting? Or a Hindu? Or someone with a western upbringing who has never entered a church in their lives?

Or how about the happiness and warmth I felt BEFORE I listened to the commentary about this painting. It was one of Rothko’s smaller canvases that he painted during a period of depression, right before he swallowed pills and slit his wrists, ending his troubled life. So much for the happiness that had enveloped me.

What was Rothko striving for in his paintings? As observers, we like to discuss the art. Take this man for example; he stood before the painting, gesturing with his hands, explaining a concept to his son–a concept that was not laid out in the untitle of the painting or in the curator’s interpretation of the art, as these were rather non-existent. image

So for an artist who didn’t want to be categorized, refused to participate in many group shows, and was very controlling of how his art was presented, what was he actually trying to convey?

This explanation struck home: image





In case that’s too hard to read, let me pull out a few excerpts:

“I am not interested in colour.” He regarded color as merely a means of expressing something far greater: something sacred, almost divine, that would only be desecrated by the introduction of language.

When I read this, I imagine a man who was extremely controlling and difficult, but also a man that strived to connect in a beautiful way–through the core; trying to touch the essence of what makes us human.

I liken this to the conundrum that is meditation; we can talk all we want about how to do it, but it is in the practice of meditation and the silence of the mind that we get to the essence of spirit. I imagine Rothko would like us to experience his paintings in the same way: Stop talking, be in the moment, step inside my painting and experience the emotions waiting there to engulf you. Sorry Rothko, I’m using words again to imagine your artistic desires and to say just how much I appreciate the feelings you evoke in me through your art.

It’s been 40 years since such an extensive Rothko exhibit came to the Netherlands, so don’t miss your chance! Rothko’s work is on display at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague through March 1, 2015. 



How to Make your Own Passport to Access foreign reserves of Treasure

The Netherlands is like a giant candy store for museum lovers; they are everywhere and about everything ranging from classical to contemporary art in multiple mediums, history, religion, architecture, anatomy and science.

As a museum lover myself, I have been wondering how to instill this love of art and culture into our son. How does one go about interesting a seven year old in Kandinsky or Giacometti? Jan Steen or Rembrandt? Thus far, I only have a partial answer; through repeated exposure so it is like part of his or her cultural landscape. Thus our museum passport project.

A few weeks ago, I took my son to Museon, a popular museum for kids in The Hague with hands-on exhibits about science, animals, minerals, geography and much more. We stopped by the gift store before we entered the museum and I let him pick out a tiny notebook. When we checked in with our museum card, I asked the cashier if she had anything to stamp my son’s museum passport. She located a stamp with the museum address and stamped his passport with the air of an official, and just like that, we gained access to a new world!

We explored a photo exhibit of endangered animals across the world, we tried our hand with an interactive exhibit on how to tell the difference between counterfeit items and the originals; we played a game with a robotic arm that moved from player to player, dropping discs into slots based on the buttons you pushed. At the end of our visit, we wrote up our favorite exhibits.

On another day, we headed to Naturalis in Leiden, receiving the second stamp in our homemade passport. This time I brought an iPad to do a bit of photo documentation and my son helped choose the items that he deemed worthy of sharing. I think his favorite item was an exhibit that combined million year old dinosaur eggs with with contemporary technology. Here is the video one would never have thought possible:

They say seven is the age of reason. I say it’s the age of manipulation negotiation. My son negotiated with me on day one of our museum adventures that after 10 museum visits, he is eligible for a present. It certainly does help with motivation.

An elitist, outrageously expensive project? Not necessarily. The Netherlands has an amazing concept called the Museum Card. You can purchase a Museum Card (MuseumKaart) for 45 euro a year, gaining access to about 400 museums throughout the Netherlands. Considering access to most museums ranges from 10 to 20 euros per visit, you make your money back very quickly. Occasionally, a museum on the list will be having a special exhibit, requiring an additional fee of 2 or 3 euros, but this is a small pittance considering the world to which you are gaining access.

I know that 45 euro is a lot of money, especially if you only go to the museum once in a while. One amazing thing about the socialistic nature of this country, is that they also think about cultural access for those of lesser financial means. Thus, if you fall into this category and happen to live in The Hague, you and your family members do not need to be shut out of cultural opportunities. Consider looking into the Ooievaarspas, a program offered through the city of The Hague that provides lower-income residents with free or discounted access to many cultural and educational programs in and around The Hague.

Other ways to keep this project smooth sailing and within budget is to pack plenty of healthy snacks and beverages and avoid the gift store and museum cafe for anything more than a coffee.

Want to join the museum crusade? Make your own Museum Passport and start visiting museums in your area.

(If you are a member of homeland security, the NCA, AIVD or FBI visiting my blog due to that dubious blog title, I apologize for the scare. This is about the homemade Museum Passport project my son and I started this January and why you might want to join in on this mission. When I say you, I don’t necessarily mean you law enforcement types, though I am not opposed to the idea).

Old Books versus Mother Nature

Usually I love nature. Just last week I was saying to my husband how much I want to live in a natural environment, away from the screeching sounds of the tram rails, the bricks and concrete and the compressed feeling I experience when I’m among the crowds in the shopping district.

But when a biting cold wind ushered in the first of June beneath a pewter gray sky, I wasn’t feeling the love. It’s like this nation is being punished by mother earth for some crime against nature. What? Too many bicycles? All of that public transportation upsetting you? Or perhaps its the recycling they do here–multiple drop off bins for paper and glass in every neighborhood. That’s got to be irksome.

But there’s only so long one can stay inside on the first of June. So, refusing to bow to the cold, I put on a lightweight fleece and announced to my family I was going for a walk. They looked at me skeptically. I set out alone.

I didn’t know where I was headed, but my feet didn’t lead me down my usual route to the forest a block away, but into the city. The city, where the crowds are; where things are happening in warm, brightly or dimly lit interior spaces away from the dreadful cold of nature.

I walked in the direction of the train station in search of adventure. But on the way, a well designed poster caught my eye, and I found myself turning into the smooth glass entry of the Letterkunding Museum. I walked up a flight of stairs. At the top you have a choice of experiences. You can turn right to enter the Kinderboekenmuseum, a fabulous museum where children’s books (all written in Dutch) come alive through a series of interactive exhibits. Or, you can go left through the thick glass doors, which open automatically for you, into an exhibition room that is either a part of the Nationaal Archief or the Letterkundingmuseum. But in either case, it is a surprisingly exotic experience (at least to someone who once worked in a bookstore in the rare book section, and whose mother was a librarian).

The room was dark, save for blue lighting that gave the space a retro-futuristic glow reminiscent of the starship enterprise control room. The entire left wall acts as a projection screen, the contradictory images of old and new merging into one another. This exhibition space is filled with small glass cases on columns, each holding a rare book or book-related antiquity, some close to 600 years old. I gazed at the gold, ruby and sapphire blue illustration in an historical bible from the 1600s surrounded by Latin text. Would those monastic scribes have brought their quills to the page with even more precision had they known the copies they were making would still be on display half a millenium later? Talk about pressure.

And then there was the book Max Havelaar, by Multatuli, the pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker. Up until that moment, I’ll admit, I only knew that Max Havelaar was a brand of Fair Trade products for sale in Europe. I didn’t know a cultural history was tied to the name, originating from a work of fiction that criticized the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC) treatment of the natives in Indonesia.

It was here in this darkened room, gazing at the treasured books resting on velvet cushions beneath protective glass that I had a realization; nature isn’t the only object of my desire; culture, in all of its lushness, absurdity, timidity or boldness also has me entirely smitten.

The walk home through the crisp air synergized my two loves, the cold snapping me into mental and physical alertness, the ancient books filling me with a lust for knowledge. Perhaps such dark and miserable weather, combined with mental acuity is what drove all of those brooding European philosophers to greatness over the centuries.

Over dinner, I talked to my family about the books I had seen. My husband, a brooding philosophical type, related to my excitement. My son related to his pasta. And then the sun broke through the fortress of clouds, blasting its happy beams through our window onto the dining room table. Thank God for the sun.

5 Museums in 6 Days Poopoo Head!

Whenever European friends came to visit us in the U.S., our provincial town of Santa Barbara seemed like a little hiccup on their tour de force itinerary: Hiking Half Dome in Yosemite, photographing the bubbling mudspots and geysers of Yellowstone, craning their necks skyward under General Sherman in Sequoia National Park, The Getty Museum, San Francisco’s De Young Museum, Hollywood and so forth.

I got the impression they had seen more of America’s natural wonders and cultural offerings in four to six weeks than I had in 14 to 16 years.  Was I really such a cultural buffoon? Why wasn’t I out there taking in our national treasures with such resolve? Getting philosophical with a Picasso? Seeing Old Faithful blow?

Well, for starters, six weeks. Europeans usually get four to six weeks of vacation. In a row. Second, if something is in your own backyard, so to speak, you tend to think it will always be there and thus indefinitely postpone your visit.

This train of thought is amusingly common place. I have traveled a fair bit, and when I visit friends in other areas or venture abroad, I’m suddenly all about taking in the sites. Why? Because I’ll probably never get back  to Barcelona or Portland, Luxembourg or Seattle, Mexico City or Havana. And, it’s not just a European thing; when we are outside our home digs, we open our eyes and guidebooks. And the further away we are from home, the more we want to see and experience.

So when my art loving brother and his family arrived last week in Den Haag, 5,577 miles from their hometown, I knew we were in for a whirlwind. I thought it would be slowed down a bit, considering we have a 4-year-old and they a 5-year-old. Boys, no less, that require lots of outdoor playtime, screaming and giggling and endless arguments over who’s turn it is, who’s faster, smarter, etc.

In fact, it did start out calmly enough with a walk through our local forest on a rainy day, jumping over puddles and screaming the ducks away. But they’re smart travelers, and they stayed up as late as they possibly could to adjust to the local time. The next morning they arose before 6am. As soon as their hosts were finally out of bed and the breakfast dishes cleared, we hopped on a tram to the city center to visit Mauritshuis.

Located at the edge of Binnenhof and Het Plein, Mauritshuis is  home to Rembrandts, Breughels and Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. In an effort to let my brother and sister-in-law take in this world-famous collection that I could visit again any time–because it was in my own back yard–I took charge of the boys. First, I entertained them with a spontaneous game of I-spy-with-my-little-eye with the paintings. I spy a winged baby, I spy an old woman holding a candle, I spy a lion. But after the 20 minute mark, my charges crossed the entertainment threshold and entered ennui. Arms started flopping and swinging around paintings worth 198 years of salary. Museum whisper voices turned into full conversational decibals of I’m boreds.

Thus we headed to Binnenhof, a large brick lined square surrounded by the buildings of the Dutch parliament and the Knight’s hall–a castle like building from the middle ages.  After the promised ice cream cones, the boys chased pigeons for half an hour while tourists gathered in this famous square ignored their high-pitched squeals of excitement.

The Netherlands is packed with incredible museums in just about every medium to large city. And since my American family doesn’t have a four to six-week vacation, their tour de force itinerary is compressed into 12 days.

Therefore the next day, we biked to the coastal town of Scheveningen to celebrate a dear friend’s birthday (happy birthday Janneman!) and then continued on a bike tour of Meijendel, lead by my authentic Dutch husband. An hour stopover at a playground next to a country restaurant gave the boys a chance to play space rangers and dig in the sand and the adults time to rest their legs while contemplating the white and gray clouds floating overhead.

Due to the Christian generosity of friends from church, we were loaned an automobile. This provided us with the means to visit the Boijmans van Beuningen, a Rotterdam museum covering everything from religious paintings from the 1400s to Magritte, a 1960s space pod to interactive sculpture. We also traipsed over the largest moving bridge in the world to eat at Hotel New York.

Friday, we drove all the way to Arnhem to the world-famous Kroller Muller Museum.  By now, we were a fine tuned machine of families visiting famous museums with young children, and massaged a potentially explosive situation into a fantastic day that will go down in the history books. Kroller Muller is surrounded by a forest. You can pay the 8 euro to drive through the forest and park in the parking lot, or you can pick up a bicycle and pedal through nature and to the museum for free. We pulled Ezra’s small orange bike from the trunk and the boys took turns riding the 3 kilometers to the museum, while the adults each hopped on a white bike to go the distance.

We spent four hours at the museum without incident. No flailing arms. No bumble pants dumbheads screamed through the corridors. Half was spent indoors seeing everything from contemporary art including cloaks made out of iridescent beetles, a very realistic wax figure man with an erection lying in a pile of tombstones, an impressive collection of Van Goghs and other splendid art from across the millenia.

The other half was spent wandering through the incredible sculpture park. To be honest, I had very low expectations for the sculpture experience. I’ve seen pictures of sculpture parks and figured it would be kind of boring. Oh, there’s another big hunk of metal. Oh, there’s another statue. Oh look, a white blob. But as I started walking along the gravel path, away from my husband and son who had just fallen into a nap on a sunny bench, I was pleasantly surprised.

The park headed out in multiple directions. I could see hints of sculpture around every bend and entered different grassy knolls with another collection of sculpture. I stopped and contemplated this art form with new eyes. I was inspired by sheets of rust colored metal shaped into organic curves that reminded me of tree trunks and the red clay earth of plateaus.

With the introduction of each new piece, the mood and feel changed. A marble amphitheatre covered in a creme tarp appeared  in a small clearing and I could picture being there, watching a performance unfold, even if it was just a play of light and shadow.  Buddha statues were among the ferns following a downward descent of rail road tie steps in the forest.

The boys also visited the sculpture park, and when they weren’t fighting or screaming, they engaged with the sculpture as primal beings, exploring its crevices and shapes, running around the edges, glancing skyward.

But that’s not all. We then cycled all the way back to the exit, and then decided to stay on and cycle to Sint Hubertus, the hunting lodge for the owners of this expansive land trust in the 1920s. Berlage, a famous Dutch architect, designed everything from the building to each piece of furniture and cup. Our boys biked all the way. Excited. Exhausted. Excited again.

Saturday we toured the Grote Kerk in Haarlem before visiting family who lived nearby. Sunday we slept in and had a leisurely breakfast waiting for the rain, which had fallen all night, to stop. It didn’t.

So we did what everyone else in Den Haag decided to do in the early afternoon; we went to the museum. And not just one, but two. The Gemeente Museum and Museon–a science museum very appropriate for the kids. We closed the place down and then dropped by Arie Jan’s brother’s house for late afternoon tea and cookies. We packed it all in.

Five museums in six days and their visit is only half way through. My mind is a wealth of culture, art, sculpture, great architecture, cafes, picturesque city centers. But the richest part of my newfound wealth is the presence of my family. Having them in our home. Seeing the two little cousins playing together. Talking, for as long as I want with Todd and Annie before being interrupted by the boys. Waking up and knowing that I am on vacation, and my family is making this home away from home complete by tying our two worlds together.