Issue 268 - Art, Awe, and Wonder
May 2022
A recent visit to the McNay Art Museum's exhibit, "Georgia O'Keeffe and American Modernism" (just before the exhibit closed) prompted these reflections on awe, wonder, and the everyday reverence of simply paying attention.
Mary Oliver and Georgia O'Keeffe
“Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”
-  Mary Oliver, “Sometimes”

It is a good and wondrous thing to go see great art shortly after reading Mary Oliver’s poetry. Last week, we visited an exhibit of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings at the fhe McNay Art Museum. Whether O’Keeffe was viewing bare hills in the distance, or a clam shell at very close range, she paid careful attention to the created world, and told about it – portrayed it – in such a way that the viewer is led to share her astonishment.

Seeing O’Keeffe’s paintings fills me with wonder. It also makes me ashamed of how seldom I truly pay attention to the swirling bark of a tree, the intricate folds of a leaf, or to the smile and laughter of a little child. If I were to truly pay attention, I would discover a world of wonders, right before my eyes. If I paid attention, I would be more reverent. And grateful. To again quote Mary Oliver, I pray for that day

“… in which I have goodness and discernment,
and never hurry through the world,
but walk slowly, and bow often.”

--by Bill

(Both poems by Mary Oliver are from her collection, Devotions)
Close Looking
“At the McNay Art Museum, the exhibition 'Georgia O’Keeffe and American Modernism' rewards close looking.” That was the opening statement of a Sightlines magazine article, advising viewers to look closely to what Georgia O’Keeffe has to say in her art.

As close as I remember, in my high school Art Appreciation classes we were tutored to pay attention to lines, perspective, technique, and the like. During the passing years I became even more appreciative of art and developed a curiosity about the dynamic and life force of the artist. Often flummoxed, only after reading the 976-page biography of Vincent Van Gogh and visiting Van Gogh sites in Arles, France, did I “get it”—the value of close looking.

The image that stays with me from our visit to the McNay is not O’Keeffe’s art but one painting by an 'Other American Modernist' in the collection, Ben Shahn (1898-1969). The narration plaque on the left explained that Shahn paints a grief-stricken guitarist hiding his face in his elbow as the funeral train of Franklin D. Roosevelt passes through Trenton, New Jersey. I was almost paralyzed by the man’s anguishing eyes. I pondered his remorseful pain and I wondered – what contemporary American politician would cause such an expression of grief at the passing of the official’s hearse?

Then I moved to a moment of close looking. In the background are utility poles; on one hangs a traffic light. Both green and red lights seem to explode. What did Shahn intend to say in the art: ‘stop’ and consider, or ‘go’ and move on, or ….? The viewer is free to interpret the message of the medium.

It has been said that awe and wonder are essential to soul awakening. There are images all around us begging our attention. Consider God’s natural art: the blue blossom of the iris, the intricacy of a spider web, or simply the rising moon; in addition to Georgia O’Keefe’s painting of a leaf. Bidden or unbidden, all art, and indeed, all of nature call us to close looking.
On Sale in Easter Season!
In spoken word and music, follow Mary Magdalene to the empty tomb on Easter morning.

40-minute Audio CD
on sale here

"The Dawning" CD Cover
Two brief videos about the life and art of Georgia O'Keeffe

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Copyright (c) 2022 Soul Windows Ministries
Bill Howden and Jan Davis
Soul Windows Ministries