Art Museums and the Woods

Art Museums and the Woods

Comparisons and Appreciating Sentiments

Driving down Red Arrow Highway yesterday, I had the realization that my near weekly trips to walk the wooded side of Lake Michigan’s sand dunes hold a unique value and set of experiences to me that is very similar to what I have found in art museums. Art and nature have long held a close relationship to one another, but the relationship I was pondering was a personal one. It is recognizing the place one goes to relieve stress; to ground one’s self, to open one’s mind, to literally wonder and to create personal relationships with relatively inanimate objects. If we are lucky, we all find these places in our lives. For me, these places have been in art museums and the woods.

I have often said the reason I entered the art world was because the museums I had access to in my younger years, unlike other forms of culture, were free of charge. I was fortunate to live in proximity to the Walker Art Center. The museum offered free admissions on Thursdays and my high school made regular field trips. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, also within reach, had no general admission charge ever. These institutions became frequent haunts as a teen and young adult living in Minnesota, unlike other ticketed performances and events. Today I reside in Michigan. Similar to my economic history with art museums, the state parks here are nearly free to enjoy at a nominal fee of $10 annually for a recreation pass. For me, this means it is never an issue of my bank account balance when considering going to a state park.  

Making repeat visits to the same museum creates a sense of familiarity with the building and the collections it houses. The same is true of walking in the woods. You discover paths and become acquainted with the general sites you will see when you traverse them. The woods, like large museums, often offer several options, both known and unknown, to explore after one establishes a few regular pathways. You can often find a way-finding signpost and brochure, just like an art museum. And you can generally explore with nominal to no social interaction.

When walking through museum spaces, my eyes wonder and rest at a meandering, self-directed pace. Colors, shapes, objects and general details both roll by and catch my attention at different times for different reasons. The same is true of walking through the woods. I never tire of experiencing how light catches on leaves, branches and the depths of the forest differently depending on the time of day and year. Identifying variations as well as minor evolutions over time in art is akin to recognizing patterns and cycles in nature.

I have not studied forests academically. When I visit, I seldom know what type of tree I am viewing or how it feeds into the ecosystem of its surroundings. I often think this knowledge would be interesting and ponder volunteering or signing up for walks with a naturalist, but other than the good fortune of taking a few walks with friends more knowledgeable than I, I do not follow up on this. I believe this is because it doesn’t hinder my experience not to know these things. I still enjoy the walks and time in nature immensely.

Despite the fact that I have studied art academically and that I professionally work in the museum profession, this does not hinder me from enjoying art museums either. On the one hand, I may notice details others would not, such as how the lighting is arranged, the media the labels are printed on, if the walls are moveable or not and if the interpretive content is unique and well integrated. I may make connections between art I know to art I do not know, but I also frequently encounter art that I know virtually nothing about. I may not know the artist or have the first clue how she created the work before me. I may not know the historical significance of the artwork or grasp the culture from which it came. However, I find that this fosters, rather than hinders, my appreciation. It allows me to encounter the art first and explore it more in-depth at my leisure. I may read up on it, or I may not.

I enjoy art museums and the woods best when I am alone. Occasionally I will bring a friend or friends with, but if they want to talk the entire time, or want my opinion throughout, I simply find this distracting and irritating. I like to carry a small journal and writing utensil to both. I like to spend 45 minutes to two hours in each. I find that within a short period of time, both experiences lead my thoughts away from daily details and anxieties and into a larger, broader, more expansive and revelatory state of mind. On a really good day, with plenty of time and just the right conditions, I will find a museum bench or a park bench and spend some time upon each, gazing at an artwork or the sky respectively and then writing a few of the thoughts I have enjoyed that day in the aforementioned journal.

I appreciate both of the experience of the art museum and the woods immensely and if I am away from one or both for terribly long, I find myself feeling irritable and anxious to return. It is not unlike homesickness except that it occurs even more frequently. Both of these spaces are terribly important to my well-being. I could live without walking in the woods or visiting an art museum, but my quality of life would be diminished. And the value of entering these spaces has far outweighed any misgivings I may have previously harbored.

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