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On Pearls

Ai Weiwei’s Bowl of Pearls

When we were in Washington DC last month visiting family, on our way back from Mount Vernon one day we all went to the Hirshhorn Museum (a Smithsonian joint) to see Ai Weiwei’s recent exhibit and installations. It was one of the highlights of the trip for me, and I’m not generally a huge modern art fan. But Ai works in so many different media and has such a different style than most contemporary artists whose work I’ve seen that I stayed interested and focused on everything I saw.

I snapped a few shots of some of the pieces I really liked while we were in the Hirshhorn. I know taking photos of people’s art is kind of weird – I mean, it’s not like I can add anything to the discussion, or whatever, but I like being able to interact with art in that way. I like the textures and the patterns; I like seeing how people move around art museums; and I like being able to remember the pieces that really do something for me later. Here’s my favorite of his Zodiac installation.

Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac installation

After we left the museum, and in the days following, I kept thinking about what I’d seen and experienced. Looking over my photos from our trip, the one at the top of this post popped out at me again and again. I know that the artist’s intent when making a piece can have a small or a large impact on how an audience views it, and I think the intent with this giant bowl of pearls was to show that when something rare and precious is surrounded by like things, its worth diminishes; each pearl becomes much like another. But that’s not how I see the piece.

A pearl is a beautiful object made by a water-dwelling creature to protect itself from harm. Nacre is something that bivalves use to coat irritating objects that might get inside a shell: bits of sand, shell, parasites. Layer after layer is added until the object is no longer uncomfortable, no longer damaging. And the resulting pearl shines with a radiant luster. I keep thinking about that giant bowl of pearls (all man-made, I’m sure, and pearls are not very expensive in China; I know because I’ve bought pearls there). Each one was formed around an intentionally-placed irritating object inside of an oyster who only wanted to filter plankton or whatever it is oysters do in peace. Each one is beautiful, something good to come out of something bad. Something uncomfortable wrapped over and over until it is no longer irritating.

Once, when I was in college, I was with my boyfriend and a group of his friends and their significant others. We were all camping at the beach, and one of the single people there was hyperactive, could not stop moving or talking or laughing. He seemed to work himself up into a tizzy, and my first inclination was to sigh and inwardly groan about spending the rest of the camping trip putting up with his behavior. But suddenly I realized there was something I could do that would help, and though I didn’t especially like him at the time (and knew I had no interest in him in any way other than possibly, potentially, as a friend) I decided to give him a hug. I went over to him and put my arms around him and just stayed that way for several minutes. I physically felt him relax in my arms, like my hug was stabilizing him and bringing him back to earth, able to center himself again. He took a deep breath, and when I let him go and looked at his face he looked like a different person. Thank you, he said. Of all those people, many of whom I lived with at one point or another, he is the one person I still consider a good, close friend. You never know, with people or with situations. They can be irritating and annoying, and if you wrap them in layers of something, they turn out to be beautiful.

Let down your hair

Ready for the show!

Dear internet, last month I spent about a brazillian hours painting one canvas tower, four permanent flats, and four 8 feet by 4 feet double-sided rotating flats for a director friend’s production of Rapunzel. The show was written and performed by adults for children. Dan did most of the design, and a good chunk of that was done remotely and then emailed to me, which I printed out on our crappy out-of-warranty-too-expensive-to-fix printer, and did a whole bunch of math to blow up and be three separate scenes.

Pre-background blackening

Not too shabby, yeah?

The tower was pretty much all my own design (!) and was painted on a large piece of painter’s dropcloth canvas. Let me tell you, that stuff SOAKS up the paint. I played around a little bit trying to figure out a good way to show the perspective of the height, and I think I did pretty well, all things considered. During the show, Rapunzel’s hair was let down from the balcony behind the tower and both the Prince and the Witch used it to swing behind and allow the kids to imagine them climbing it and into the arch window.

Used for both Rapunzel's parents' house and Rapunzel's tower (sans curtain)

Look at that gorgeous stove!

The permanent flats, of which I have no “before” photos, feature three stone walls and one window archway. Dan freehand painted the stove.

The rotating flats were HUGE and HEAVY. Good lord, so heavy. I’m pretty strong, but the weight and size of those things were so ridiculous that I could hardly shove them around by myself, and trying to lift/move them alone was impossible. Plus, a fair amount of the work had to be done while they were laying flat, and I had bruises all over my feet and ankles from accidentally kicking or trying to move them with my feet.

I did this all in one day.

Is it silly to be proud of something so minor?

I think the fountain looks awesome.

One side was the witch’s garden, of which I am particularly proud because I figured out how to do the gate and the placement of everything and the shading all by myself.

Other half of witch's garden

Mmm, gourds

If he only had a brain

The garden, in action

The other side was the interior of Rapunzel’s tower room, with two bookshelves that took about a million years to paint and detail, and a fancy princess bed (that, again, Dan freehand painted. Like you…do?).

Rapunzel's fancy bed, on two flats

Height/age detail marked on the side of the bookcase (a plot point)

These books took SO LONG to paint and detail. Seriously. Hours and hours.

The director’s sister spent HOURS doing the gold lettering detail on the books, and I spent HOURS just figuring out the correct angles at which to draw the bookcases to make sure they’d look right from the audience, according to my crappy printout of Dan’s drawings. But they looked great on the stage!

Wish I could have seen it from the audience

No flash photography = blurry photography

The show opened on Friday morning to a crowd of nearly 300 children, and as a thanks for our work, my friend gave us two tickets so we could go see the show on Saturday. While I was tickled to see all those many many hours of work in action (we were in the program!), the best part was watching the kids get into the show and seeing the adult actors interact with them.

Kids getting their wiggles out before the show began

I love the idea of a theater production that’s specifically designed to be accessible to people of all ages, and I love that Actor’s Theater For Children has been doing it for nearly 40 years!
The only downside is that all those hours of work, not only designing/painting the sets but script development, costumes, rehearsals, and everything else that goes into a production like this will all be done after next weekend. The company will paint over these flats for their next show. At least I’ll know they lent atmosphere to a great production, and someday if someone asks me if I’ve ever painted/designed sets for a play, I can say WHY YES I HAVE.

A (free) night at the museums

In honor of Denver Arts Week, eleven museums in Denver were open for free on Saturday night. I thought that going to a museum for free sounded like a good time, so I asked Dan and Scarlett if they’d be interested in going. They thought it sounded like a good time, too, so on Saturday afternoon we picked up Scarlett and walked down to the 16th Street Mall, took the shuttle, and ambled over to the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, a place I’d never been.

One of the nice things about the MCA is that they have no permanent collection – so every time they change up their spaces, it’s with new art and new artists. I really enjoyed seeing the different kinds of art on display, some of which were aural in addition to visual, and I think my favorite things were the amazing paper/ink sculptures by Arlene Schechet.


From there, we took the mall shuttle back up and went to the new building at the Denver Art Museum – new, I say, but it’s a couple of years old now, and I’d yet to see the inside of it. So we poked around in an area near the Western Art collection that allowed you to do a lot of hands-on things, and then we went up to the Contemporary Art exhibit. I liked a lot of what I saw, especially the way some of the pieces I had seen before fit into the new (unusual, to say the least) space.

“The studio is a different kind of space for adults accompanying children coworkers friends in-laws blind dates who want to make their own souveniers Watch interactive interviews Touch without fear Open unknown drawers Find strangely shaped rooms Discover artists secrets”

My favorite piece at the Denver Art Museum was a painting by a guy in New York who asks local urban kids to pose for him in the style of classical paintings, chosen by them, but he paints them in their street clothes complete with cell phones and bling. I didn’t get the artist’s name or take a photo of the painting, but I did get a couple of photos of my favorite exhibit, which is called Fox Games.


Denver has things going on all the time, and we usually don’t take advantage of them, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get in to places I’ve never been for free. Nighttime museum-going is something I enjoy, as well, though I can’t really explain why. When we went to New York City last January, we went to the MOMA in the evening, and I think it was a totally different experience than it would have been had we gone during the daytime.