Culture – it's not just for yogurt

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Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, Detroit Institute of Arts

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My effort to add a dash of culture to our weekly schedule begins with a family trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts. Armed with a map of the galleries, I lead the pack through the crowded building. It was family Sunday at the museum: culture, with extra toppings.

Sometimes in my zeal to share my passions with my family, I lose sight of common sense. This proved to be one of those days. Consider the following events:

Girl from the East thinks the modern art sculptures are play structures and attempts to climb them. Other objects, while not posing as climbing equipment, tempt sticky little hands to touch them when signs nearby advise against acting on such impulses. 

In the main courtyard, a folk singer strums his guitar before a foot-stompin’, hand-clappin’ crowd. Something about folk singers seems to send husband and older daughter fleeing in the direction of the Dutch masters.  I take folk singers on a case-by-case basis. In this case, the guy was young and attractive. Based on this, I take a seat.

I’m not seated for long. Between the singing and guitar playing, I detect a high-pitched note. Back-up singers? An exotic far-Eastern instrument? No. It’s Girl from the East, who has erupted in tears for an inexplicable reason. 

More cultural, artsy stuff is avoided as no one wants to enter the craft room, an area otherwise known as the open glue bottle and scissors territory,  and unsteady hands wielding paint brushes zone.

We  avoid the Native American art gallery because it is “too spooky.” Ditto for most of the African art. This is due to the tribal masks and totem poles. Mostly, it’s because there aren’t any pictures of Dora or Diego on the walls. See, there’s Diego and there’s Diego. 

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Detroit Industry, Diego Rivera

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Go, Diego, Go!

Girl from the West is caught texting her way through the Renaissance period.  

There are a few things that capture everyone’s attention: the food court (which features reproductions of European architecture and, well, food), those aha! moments when a famous masterpiece is discovered on a wall,  and the freight elevator. We ride it twice. It’s that good.

The first rounds of  ”Can we go?” “What’s for dinner?” and “How much more is there?” signal the end of my attempt to infuse culture into the family. At least I tried.

Suddenly, I recall the many Sunday outings of my childhood in which we landed at bird sanctuaries, ambled through Amish country, strolled through various museums and historic sites.  I remember my dad brimming with enthusiasm, exalting the virtues of this or that feature. I remember sighs and eye rolling and wishes for a trip to Dairy Queen or a Disney movie. 

Sorry, dad.

Day of art and beauty

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Exterior sculpture behind DIA

After almost two months of non-stop snow and extreme cold, we had a respite. The temperatures warmed to an unbelievable 50 degrees on Sunday, which melted most of the snow.
When Mother Nature peels back her heavy blanket, she reveals many forgotten things:  the dull hues of a sleeping earth, Halloween candy wrappers, and the hope of spring.
These spring teases lure most of us outdoors like cats to catnip. We cannot resist the urge to feel sunshine on our faces and solid earth under our feet. After all, it could be 10 degrees and snowing tomorrow.

I left the house early and headed into the city center to visit some favorite places. I left my coat and gloves in the car. I walked an extra block because the sky broadcast a blinding blue, birds sang in their treetop roosts (a sound I haven’t heard in months) and my spirits hovered somewhere between birds and sky.

Following some quiet time I met a friend at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a place I have not visited in a few years. Its interior space has been reinvented to better display some new things as well as many of the old treasures.
As I strolled the galleries, looking at artifacts, an Egyptian mummy, works of the masters, modern art and photography, I had flashbacks to younger versions of me visiting this place. Each visit brings with it a new perspective and experience. As a child, the place seemed huge and overwhelming (and maybe a little boring) to me. As a college student, I enjoyed contemplating the works of art for hours, having pseudo-intellectual discussions with my classmates.
I’ve had dates there, family visits and meetups with friends. There’s always something new to discover, like finding a Georgia O’Keeffe painting I didn’t know was there:

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Stables, 1932

 

 
And mirrors on strings cascading from a vaulted ceiling:

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Pieces of China

Two years ago we were in Beijing and other parts of China, touring, soaking up culture and feeling like big, fat, pasty Westerners. We also were there to complete our family and make some kind of lasting connection. While we were taking away one of its daughters, we also left behind a part of ourselves.

So it has been with great interest that we approached the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing. We root for the United States. We root for China. We can’t help it.

In spite of all the charges of fireworks fakery and lip-syncing deception that have come out since the spectacular opening ceremony last week in Beijing, we’ve decided to hold onto the first breathtaking memory of watching it together.

We admired its grand scale, feats of athletic prowess and incredibly creative interpretations of Chinese history through dance and art. So many times we stared at the TV and asked: “How did they do that?” Most of all, we loved watching our Girl from the East point with glee at the TV and shout “China! China!”

Ultimately, she is too young to watch the games or gain anything through the special features. Her impression of China is firmly rooted in the bouquets of pyrotechnics coloring the night sky and the elaborately costumed characters.

Our visit to China took us to many tourist attractions, but it also led us down streets not highlighted in any official network feature — which seem to want to put a high polish on everything to keep international relations warm and fuzzy.

We walked away with many pieces of China. Some beautiful, some confusing, others haunting. You can’t walk through Tiananmen Square without thinking of the student protesters. You can’t walk among a sea of nearly homogenous people and not understand what it’s like to be a minority. You also can’t really know a place unless you’ve been there. Seeing the Great Wall on TV is no match for scaling its dizzying steps.

We realize there are many pieces to the China puzzle. We don’t know if all of our impressions are accurate, or if we’ve passed them through our American filter too many times. Will the Olympic exposure help us and others better understand China? If nothing else, it has sparked many conversations and debates.

We feel commited to learning the language, to studying the history and culture. We befriend Chinese people. Anything to hang onto that cultural thread, no matter how thin.
Yet China remains far away and largely a mystery to us.

Here is a picture sent to me by a shopkeeper I met in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province. Once a year I receive Chinese New Year greetings from “Tiffanie.” With a population of 4 million people, Nanchang is considered a small town by China standards. This image was taken during the Chinese New Year; it more closely depicts the China we saw. This picture is nearly the polar opposite of the BBC image at the top of this post. Both are pieces of China.