Friday, May 28, 2010

It's Just a Wall

You know those places you never get tired of visiting? The ones that offer an experience that never grows old: that inspiring vista, that perfect cup of coffee, that uninterrupted horizon, or that pasta dish you can’t replicate?

For me, Storm King Art Center is one of those places. It’s been more than 25 years since my first visit—I was married, Jake was a baby, and our friends Bill and Sheryl invited us along for a picnic. And it’s been less than a week since my most recent visit. In between I’ve made countless trips to the Hudson Valley to stroll its acres of hills, woods and fields, and dragged pretty much everyone I know to see the 100 or so sculptures that dot its landscape. It remains a place that is consistently inspiring in its scope and calming in its quiet grandeur.

Jim and I made a fairly spontaneous trip there last Sunday. Because we’ve been there so often, we noticed immediately that there were some new sculptures scattered through the fields. But not until we’d climbed up to the main office and Jim began chatting with one of the docents did we discover that the park is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a new exhibition.

It’s important that I come clean here. Jim loves to talk with total strangers, and he does this often—sometimes at great length. The fact that he’s an inquisitive guy is something I love about him. But the chatting often gets on my nerves, especially when I’m in the mood to experience something rather than talk to someone about how best to have the experience. There are times when I’d just rather do my own thing—and when the urge strikes, I walk away and allow Jim to do his.

I did just that on Sunday—and in the process learned that I need to rethink my impatience. First of all, the docent’s explanation gave me a “new perspective” on what we were seeing that day. Secondly, she taught us a trick for keeping at bay the ridiculously annoying May Flies that swarmed the place. And finally, she told us about a new work by an artist I love, one I would have missed seeing otherwise.

The new sculpture is by Andy Goldsworthy, an environmental artist who my old friend Karen de Mauro turned me on to back in 1998, when he and a group of “wallers” from his native UK erected what has become known as the Storm King Wall. It gracefully meanders in a serpentine way around trees and rocks, enters a pond and emerges at the other side. (If you’re looking, you can see the tail end of it from the NY Thruway as you travel north between exits 16 and 17.) According to the docent, Goldsworthy just finished a new wall in a part of the park that is literally off the beaten path, invisible from any of the designated walkways. Aptly calling it “5 Men, 17 Days, 15 Boulders, 1 Wall,” he’s refurbished a dilapidated wall (using stones found on the property) that now winds around boulders along a grove of trees and sort of tumbles into ruin at either end.

There is something about these walls that I find evocative. Goldsworthy has this way of using found materials, placing them in a natural setting, and magnifying their beauty in ways that force me to pay attention. His works are of nature yet not natural, and I find this mesmerizing. So imagine how jarring it was when, while murmuring my admiration to Jim, I heard a fellow visitor say, “I don’t get it. It’s just a wall.”

To his credit, Jim instantly had the proper perspective and whispered something along the lines of “everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.” To my credit, I didn’t throttle the young woman. Later, journaling it out, I found it impossible to accept. There are just so many kinds of walls, literally and figuratively. Ones that keep things out, keep things in. Keep things safe. There are sturdy castle walls that surround, crumbling stone walls that divide. There’s the Great Wall. The old Berlin Wall. The Wailing Wall.

I thought about how I wall off people when I’ve had enough. And wall in my heart after decades of disappointment. In my change group we’re talking about how our thoughts limit our forward movement—yet another kind of wall. Maybe my belief that there is no such thing as “just a wall” is—well—just a wall. If so, I’d like to think of it as a lovely Goldsworthy wall—designed to work with the landscape of my life, not against it.

1 comment:

  1. Donna,
    I promise never to mutter "I don't get it" around you and Jim anymore, although that is how I felt at Storm King. Help me see beyond the wall. Signed, H. the Pessimist