Happy 2015, everyone! In honor of Marty McFly’s no doubt imminent arrival, I thought I would ring in the new year by taking advantage of a slightly more futuristic blogging technique. Consequently, this month’s post (well, technically last month’s post, as I very much intended to post this near the end of December–but I just so happened to be traveling during the first few days of the new year!) is a little different (and a lot dorkier) than my usual fare. Play the video below (& do watch it in HD, it’ll look so much better!) to find out why!
The year is 2009. “David After Dentist” is taking over the internet, people make “Imma let you finish” jokes without a hint of irony, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, the undisputed best movie ever, wins the hearts of stop-motion-loving hipsters everywhere.
Back then (in the year before we make contact), sixteen-year-old Keely could not have imagined that her future self would be writing monthly blog posts as a Cornell alumna. Around Thanksgiving ’09, I’d just finished a lovingly crafted application to Yale, in which I proudly professed my desire to have tea with Arthur C. Clarke, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Yuri Gagarin, and Diana Wynne Jones. In space.
The single takeaway from my college application process: nobody should ever assign “with which famous person, living or dead, would you like to share a meal?” questions to me.
Still, curiously enough, I’d visited Cornell over the summer, and had actually found my experience there to be more enjoyable than the equivalent tour and interview at Yale. (Infamously, our student tour guide at Yale gushed about a visiting guest lecturer known as “Indiana Jones of insects”—and then referred to him as an “etymologist.”). I’d even started working on my Cornell essay—a piece about “what makes [me] a lifelong learner” that opened with the insipid anecdote of how reading the unabridged Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea at age seven that led to both my utter terror of our sun’s inevitable death and a burgeoning interest in astronomy).
But this post isn’t about the insufferably quirky responses I drafted for my Common App. I only invoke the image of myself in November 2009—complete with my bizarre Beatles haircut, neon braces, and tendency to wear my pi-shaped earrings as much as possible—because the last time I spent Thanksgiving with my family was indeed five years ago.
Cornell offers an excellently long winter break, but the trade-off is that Thanksgiving is painfully short. Classes end Wednesday afternoon and start back up as usual the following Monday, making it challenging for West Coasters (and, of course, impossible for islanders like myself) to even consider braving jet lag and long flights just for two days back at home.
Though considering that this was what my current campus looked like this Thanksgiving, Hawai’i is sounding pretty alluring…
Now, I’m not saying that my “new” college is any better: although students get the whole week off, staff members (hey, that’s me!) still officially finish work at noon on Thanksgiving Eve. It just happened that my family was able to visit me at Thanksgiving for the first time this year—and although I’ve never been one to hold deep emotional value in my annual pie-eating-fest, having them around made me realize how much I’d missed spending that holiday with them in college.
So this post goes out to all the international students, the basically-international-in-
(Alternatively, I could send you all pi earrings. As long as you don’t run into 2009-Keely at a dinner party while she’s wearing the same ones, it should be cool.)
To the freshmen participating in the section I led for my museum’s orientation program this year (who rather alarmed me by looking so very young), I argued that everyone is a curator in the digital age. Acts of curation are the very backbone, for example, of social media–our decisions to “collect” images, ideas, or articles on tumblr, Facebook, and so forth make us all curators in our own right.
Behold the fruits of modern-day curatorial practice! (No offence intended, of course, to Cool Dachshund Stuff, which is probably among the top five sites I visit most frequently…)
And yet even with all these “curatorial” activities accessible to everyone, experiencing the actual process of real-world, traditional curating is perhaps one of the most exciting–though unexpected!–activities I’ve completed during my (now multi-month) tenure as a museum professional.
Second only to visiting Storm King Art Center over fall break. (Did I mention that I went to Storm King? BECAUSE I DID.)
Now, I’m an educator at heart (or an educator FOR LIFE, as I would get custom-printed on a hoodie if an education department’s budget could afford such luxuries!), and I never set my sights on a career on the curatorial side of the museum world. In my experience, however, such a preference is a bit bizarre to the general public. The “non-museum” acquaintances who have criticized my educational aspirations in the past view curatorial jobs as glamorous, exciting, exotic–certainly more thrilling than trying to get wriggling kindergarteners to look closely at the cuneiform inscription on Assyrian reliefs or gathering hundreds of specimen jars for a cabinets of curiosities-themed craft activity.
Though I will admit that the finished specimen jars did end up looking pretty legit at the community open house day I organized last weekend.
Still, even though I know nothing brings me quite as much satisfaction as educating people and sharing my love of the arts with them, I’ve been surprisingly delighted by my recent foray into curating!
A month or so ago, a colleague and I were recruited to re-install several major cases in our museum’s “global cultures” (read: all the “non-Western” stuff that I can’t live without) gallery. Together, we came up with a theme, hunted down works of art on the database, visited the actual objects in storage and adjusted our selection accordingly (nothing like a trip to the basement to show you that the Chinese cup you so carefully selected is actually a lamp), and are now working to write labels and wall text for what has since turned into a mini-exhibition. Among our objects is a stunning gold vessel from the north coast of Peru with which I’ve absolutely fallen in love: and I can’t imagine how exciting it will be to finally see it glowing under the display lights for all to see instead of hiding away in the Decorative Arts storage room.
Surprisingly, of course, I didn’t write this entire curatorial-themed blog post with the intention of bragging about our Chimu vessel (although it’s certainly worth the boasting!). As usual, I’m also struck by the broader (and more maudlin) connections that can be drawn between museum practices and the post-collegiate experience.
Alternative topic for this post: comparing the oddness and seeming incomprehensibility of the postgrad lifestyle to the variety of modern and contemporary abstract sculptures on display at Storm King (a topic abandoned because it is literally impossible to compare the wonders of Storm King to anything else (disclaimer: Storm King did not reimburse me for making this post; I JUST REALLY LOVE IT, OKAY?)).
Here’s a small secret: during fall break, I stopped in Ithaca very briefly. I was barely in the area for a handful of hours, just passing through on my way to pick up my sister from her university.
The weirdest part, though? Because I was visiting someone in Lansing–and, again, wasn’t even going to be around for a full day–I didn’t go back to campus.
I walked around Cayuga Heights a bit, I saw the lake from above, and we drove down Route 13 past my old beloved Wegmans on our way down to our next destination, but I didn’t have enough time to gaze up at the clock tower, visit the Johnson, walk around Beebe Lake or even just march through Goldwin Smith with the unnecessary swagger of an art history major who actually got a museum job after college.
I really couldn’t spare the time, but in retrospect, I’m rather glad that I didn’t return to my alma mater like a semi-prodigal daughter quite yet. College life, like so many other things, is also extensively curated: after a few mad weeks of signing up for every single club and enrolling in three courses too many as a freshman, you slowly begin to study, select, and specialize. Like a curator deciding to leave this Athenian amphora or that Moche portrait pot in storage because it’s cracked or poorly restored or doesn’t fit with the rest of the collection, you examine all of your options and make educated, calculated refinements–and by the end of your senior year, you’ve got quite a comfortably familiar and well-moderated “exhibition” on your hands.
One of the hardest parts of graduating, then, is learning to let go of all those things I had so carefully arranged and cultivated over the years. My Cornell routine, from my a cappella group to the delightfully engaging structure of 4000-level art history seminars (seriously, I should’ve gotten special Frequent Enroller privileges for those) to the work I did at the Johnson, was so essential to my life that it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that it’s no longer my entire world. Coming back to Cornell and returning to my old haunts would have been nice, but it’s just a little too soon: spending some more time away from the Hill will make my eventual return (and inevitable recognition of how much I’ve achieved thanks to my time there) all the more rewarding.
Or, alternatively, I could scrap this whole college/professional life dichotomy and make the two worlds one. I’d love nothing more than to share the Johnson’s collection with my students–so if you’ve got a extra grants sitting around just waiting to be invested in travel expenses (including ALL MEALS CATERED BY ALADDIN’S) for me and a group of college docents, please feel free to get in touch…
Important clarification: this title references the seminal Moody Blues 1967 album, and is NOT a mistyped X-Men title. The more you know!
There’s a pair of pendant paintings–both landscapes by Thomas Cole–at my museum that are always singled out as the gems of our collection. They’re beautifully installed in our central gallery, directly facing the entrance from the lobby: as soon as you cross over from mini-cafe to museum, you’re instantly greeted by two monumental paintings in glowing gold Rococo-revival frames.
Completed shortly after the success of Cole’s series The Course of Empire, these two paintings also follow the series’ same basic mission: in other words, being about as subtle about their ultimate moral as The Chronicles of Narnia. The first, The Past, presents a romanticized vision of the medieval world–a grand tournament, complete with a jousting match taking place in front of an audience of hundreds. Its partner, The Present, shows The Past’s same medieval castle centuries later, after the walls have begun to crumble and the forces of nature have claimed this once-thriving structure.
This is the moment, of course, when you might think I’d draw some obvious connection between my past and present–but, let’s be real, as much as I’d love to stand in front of ruins as they’re perfectly illuminated by the dying sunlight just as the shepherd does in Cole’s The Present, my present isn’t nearly so calm or contemplative. No indeed: as I’ve discovered, working at a college once school’s begun is basically a gigantic medieval party all the time.
Metaphorically speaking, of course. (Although I could’ve really used a suit of armour a few weeks ago when the nearby massive university’s Important Sports Game swarmed the town with more overexcited, red-shirted people than an episode of Star Trek…)
Being a college staff member is, in a few ways, a lot like being a student–it doesn’t take long for you to fall into the routine of academia. I expected September to last forever, but it ended so quickly that (as my slightly belated blog post suggests!) I barely even realized October had begun until just now. (Apologies go out to the poor students in the ambassador program I run at our museum who had to endure me saying things like “And we’ll meet to work on the video project on September 12…” today!)
Although I sometimes miss the flexibility of my college schedule, I’ve come to cherish the little enjoyable moments of my new routine: regularly stopping by a free yoga class offered by the college; brainstorming new curriculum ideas with my interns; checking out my billionth book from our library system; and, of course, taking long leaf-peeping walks around our gorgeous campus during my lunch break…
As I tend to reiterate every blog post, I continue to marvel at how amazing my job is–I get to interact with college students, K-12 kids, and community members; plan events; and work in a place filled with phenomenal artistic treasures (with a collection of over 19,000 objects, most of which can be pulled from storage at a moment’s notice, there’s something for everyone!).
The biggest challenge I’ve encountered so far as a postgrad, then, is the issue of finding “extracurriculars” through which to meet like-minded, friend-type individuals. (My fondness for the phrase “friend-type individuals” surely is a great way for me to obtain more of them, no?) There’s no Club Fair after college: people aren’t constantly quarter-carding you and begging you to join the quirky organization of their choice.
I’ve got yoga and fitness classes to turn to already, and I’ve made efforts to go to various community events–a poetry festival held a few weeks ago was particularly exciting!–but I still find myself with a hole in my social experience.
And let’s be real, it’s an enormous music-shaped hole.
In addition to being the first time I’ve been out of school for sixteen years, this is also the first time I’ve gone without a singing group in my life for over a decade. From my six years of “hippie choir” to a surprisingly legit high school choral career (Hey, did you know I did all-state honor choir and a NATS competition? I’D FORGOTTEN UNTIL TODAY!) to a brief stint in Cornell’s Chorus followed by three incredibly fun years of geekapella, I’m not used to a reality that doesn’t involve cathartic rehearsals a few times per week.
Is there a solution? I’m not quite sure. I don’t think community choir is my thing–especially if it’s too “serious–and a cappella groups on campus are probably not interested in an old staff member like me.
Maybe I’ll make like the indie-swoonworthy star of my new favorite movie of all time God Help the Girl and join a band: if I could sing with a group again and look as hipster-chic as Emily Browning, I would ask for nothing more.
Plus, these minor woes can be immediately chased away when I remind myself how lucky I am to work on such a beautiful campus. I’ve recently discovered that the college owns a large tract of hiking trails, which are basically the answer to all my forest-fairy dreams. If I can’t run circles around Beebe Lake in the midst of autumn anymore, this will have to suffice for now.
Also, last week we literally had a magical flying horse appear on campus with no explanation. Just saying.
When last we spoke, o mysterious readers, I was but a few weeks into a new job in a town where there’s not a gorge to be found, Ithaca College Radio (THE STATION FOR INNOVATION) is replaced by strange Springfield-based pop stations, and Wegmans is most decidedly not a thing.
In the month since, however, I’ve managed to give my first public gallery talk (complete with obligatory references to linguistics, cartography, and THE NATURAL HISTORY OF CATS), coordinate my first “family fun day” community outreach event (which taught me that the expert’s knowledge of panpipes that I gained for one of my final Cornell art history seminars did have a real-world application), and co-organize a new orientation program designed to introduce thirty-five first-years to the glories of the university art world.
I also enjoyed an inaugural hiking trek in the Mount Holyoke Range, gathered the proper materials to start teaching myself Nahuatl (though my textbooks, borrowed from my on-campus library’s massive holdings, look almost as old as the Pyramid of the Sun itself), and enjoyed the opportunity to spend rare moments of free time writing (and reliving the vintage delights of the original Star Trek series from its very beginning).
Still, what remains most thrilling throughout all of this is that so much of my job continues to be based on the constant acquisition of knowledge. As my graduation neared last spring, I started to worry that I had made a huge mistake by deciding to wait a few years before applying to an MFA or PHD program: I have such a passion for learning that it seemed foolish to pass on further opportunities for education! Yet my new position frequently requires me to educate myself on a variety of subjects–and from studying Joseph Cornell’s oeuvre to memorizing the several different stages of Moche pottery styles, I’ve certainly broadened my horizons significantly thus far.
Nothing better captures the high points of my job, of course, than this past Friday’s field trip to two phenomenal museums as part of the afore-mentioned freshman orientation program. Though I was slightly nervous about the pressure of managing the logistics of such a trip, I kept reminding myself that I was, in the end, getting paid to visit museums–what more could an art nerd ask for? In any case, the outing went very smoothly, and I was able to enjoy both the collections and the delight of witnessing the many excited and thoughtful reactions our students had to the various artworks they encountered.
First up was the Clark Art institute, where the recent completion of a variety of renovations resulted in what may in fact be the most architecturally gorgeous museum space I have ever encountered. (All apologies to the Johnson & I.M. Pei; I hope you will someday forgive my betrayal!)
I could’ve happily stayed in rapt contemplation next to the reflecting pool for the entire duration of our visit, but there was art to see and freshmen to guide through it! My two main priorities for my visit were a Turner seascape (which was tragically temporarily off view!) and the incredible Pollock known as Lavender Mist, on loan to the Clark from the National Gallery.
You may remember that at this time last year, I had just started ARTH 3605: US Art from FDR to Reagan, a class in which abstract expressionism played a major role–but the difference between viewing a Pollock or a Johns on a Powerpoint slide in a Goldwin Smith classroom and actually experiencing it in person is indescribable.
The next stop on our itinerary was Mass MOCA, an appropriately massive contemporary art museum housed in a series of ex-factory buildings in the charming town of North Adams. Mass MOCA introduced me to an entirely different museum experience–one in which works of art were not confined to the walls, but rather actively invaded the viewer’s space, scrutinizing the people just as much as the visitors studied them.
In the stunning Sol LeWitt (a.k.a. my new favorite artist of all time) retrospective, art covers massive floor-to-ceiling walls with universes of color and carefully designed shapes…
…while Teresita Fernandez’s exhibition As Above So Below featured pieces literally hanging from a massive warehouse ceiling like a strange aerial continent.
(As a kid, I always wondered why sci-fi was so obsessed with humanoid aliens: incidentally, if I were to describe what I think extraterrestrials might look like, I might cite the Fernandez piece pictured below as an example!)
Still more exciting were the exhibitions in which a single work of art consisted of an entire room. During my final semester at Cornell, I became very familiar with the work of Mark Dion, an American artist whose Trichechus manatus latirostris dominated the Johnson’s lecture lobby in the New Wing all spring. Every time I shared that skeletal manatee with a group of elementary or middle school students, I marvelled at Dion’s imagination and admired his interest in kunstkammer, or cabinets of curiosities–especially since I had unknowingly visited his own installation of a period-accurate cabinet of curiosities at the Musee Oceanographique de Monaco during my semester abroad!
With that in mind, it’s no wonder that I spent what felt like hours in Dion’s The Octagon Room at Mass MOCA, an installation which basically encapsulates all my wildest dreams for my future home. In this full-size, contemporary kunstkammer, books on a variety of subjects lie precariously on slanted shelves, drawers overflow with shells and specimens and sketches of dinosaurs, and viewers are invited to open every door and touch every object as they explore the space.
Although the moral of this post appears to be something along the lines of “Wow, Keely is really obsessed with museums and bad at concision,” there’s something more significant I want to share that’s been on my mind constantly during most of August.
While I have always loved visiting museums and enjoying art, the thought of majoring in art history hadn’t even occurred to me as I began my college search. Ultimately, it was my time at Cornell–specifically, my experiences as a docent and intern the Johnson–that set me on the path towards a career that is deeply satisfying and fulfilling for me in a way that I feared I would never experience in my professional life. As the semester begins and I start meeting my interns and the students participating in the docent program I’ll be coordinating this year, I can only hope to give back to the next generation of artsy college students by inspiring them in the same way that the Johnson’s education staff inspired me.
(And in the meantime, I am also considering giving back to the Johnson in other ways–the “Giving at Cornell” site suggests that the Johnson needs funds to secure better light bulbs, but I’m personally hoping for an endowment drive to give that poor museum an elevator that lacks the volatility of a supernova…)
As I begin my second official post as an post-grad blogger, I feel the need to make a very important confession. For the past three years, I’ve no doubt that all of my readers have been under the impression that I am, in fact, a normal, human college student–and I’d like to make it very clear to you that I’m actually a Tiktaalik, a Devonian era sort-of-fish-dude who rather embodies the evolutionary transition from marine to terrestrial life.
Or, at least, that’s how my first two weeks at my new job have made me feel!
You don’t intern at a museum for three years without getting extremely well acquainted with the quotidian goings-on of the average education office. During my time at the Johnson, I watched as my supervisors and co-workers planned outreach projects, coordinated massive public programs, and dealt with literal scores of visiting middle schoolers in a single day. Because of my internship, I was, of course, inevitably involved in all these events: but always as an eager assistant only.
Still, I didn’t expect starting my new career–as an educator at another university museum, in case you missed my most recent post–to involve so many moments of clarity and joyous astonishment. In the four years in which I played a role at the Johnson, I helped (in my own small way!) the staff members to implement programming and outreach that always had a positive impact on the community members it affected. When I received my first major event-planning assignment last week, I was surprised to find myself almost getting legitimate chills of excitement: I’m intern no more, and it’s amazing! Transforming from a student to a real educator who might just be able to effect some small but notable change in the museum world or local community is a feeling like nothing else in the world–with the exception, maybe, of sliding up on land for the first time and stretching out your soggy almost-tetrapod-leg fins.
Well, that really got away from me, didn’t it?
In the interest of preventing any more mawkish evolution metaphors, I’ll close with a few stray observations about the early stages of transitioning from big-college-student to small-college-staff-member:
- My greatest secret fear about starting work at a small liberal arts school was that I’d never see the inside of a “music library” again–yet I was delighted to discover that my new college does, in fact, boast a comprehensive collection of scores and recordings in addition to its more traditional library. (And if this music library can beat Cornell’s pitiful lack of panpipe scholarship, I may have to question my previously unshakeable loyalty to the Cox….)
- Unsurprisingly, everyone with whom I have the awkward small-talk duty of sharing my life’s story always reacts to my mention of Cornell with some stereotypical wailing about the weather: Ithaca’s legacy stretches far and wide, it seems.
- It takes approximately three or four minutes to walk from practically anywhere on campus into town–and although I appreciate the relative proximity of local restaurants, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t missing CTB and falafel from Aladdin’s like nobody’s business.
- Having a museum education job is like working as a university academic and a kindergarten teacher at the same time (and I wouldn’t have it any other way!)
- HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS WITHOUT THE CLOCK TOWER JUBILANTLY SOUNDING EVERY FIFTEEN MINUTES?
- Library Update #2: Apparently, staff members like me can check out books for a year at a time. This, to me, is a privilege equivalent to earning a six-figure salary. I have already assembled a massive collection of fabulist novels, typography books, and catalogues of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art and can’t believe that I can keep reading them
, adoring them, and rearranging them on my shelf while speaking to them in a Gollum voiceuntil 2015.
Finally, no matter how many ridiculous blazers and strings of pearls I wear (or boring, un-youthful character traits I embody), I am inevitably mistaken for a college sophomore or junior.
I guess evolution really does take time.
(Yes, I’m terrible, but I promise next month’s post will be Tiktaalik-free! (Unlike TV’s Orphan Black, I do not intend on referencing Darwin with every update from here on out.) But in the spirit of delightful inhabitants of the Devonian, here’s a little song to play you off.)
“So what are you going to do for a living?”
A quick read through Sarr Above the Busy Humming’s archives will prove that this question–the words of well-meaning acquaintances and small-talking strangers–has been tormenting me since my freshman year. As graduation grew closer and closer and I remained unsure of my future, I was forced to develop a kind of generic elevator speech to appease the masses.
“Well, my ideal career would involve museum education,” I’d tell the dentist, the hairdresser at MasterCuts, or the strangely talkative weirdo sitting next to me on my flight back to the Islands, “but I’m also exploring the broader field of arts education and outreach until I find the perfect match.” As post-grad career blurbs go, it served its purpose well, and saved me from tired jokes about teachers’ woeful salaries and the way in which art history majors are doomed to work only at fast food restaurants.
About a month ago, however, everything changed. After years of hearing about the dismal job prospects in the art world and the impossibility of supporting one’s self on an educator’s salary, I was finally able to look the bellhop, the airport taxi driver, or the distant relative in the eye, smile, and boast that I’d accepted the job of my dreams.
For the next few years, I will be working as an educator at the on-campus museum of a small liberal arts college–in other words, the non-Ithaca equivalent of my beloved Johnson Museum. Just like I did during my Johnson internship, in fact, I’ll get to give tours, help coordinate class visits, and brainstorm new ways to reach out to the nearby community: and I’ll be able to do it all full time!
Of course, perhaps you’re reading this and thinking to yourself something along the lines of “Nice humble-brag, Keely, but why bother posting it? DIDN’T YOU GRADUATE? Hasn’t Sarr Above the Busy Humming faded quietly into the west already?”
Well, friend, I’m afraid this blog has a little more staying power than that.
(In other words: from the ashes a fire shall totally be woken.)
I’ve been invited to continue blogging as I transition from college student to college employee, allowing alumni, prospective students, and those Facebook “friends” who never speak to me (but still click on all the blog links I post?!?) to follow along on this particular Cornellian’s journey into the workforce. I’ll probably post monthly recaps of such adventures as adapting to life on a comparatively tiny campus (you mean there’s only one library?), navigating the hazards of driving in the snow for the first time (not everywhere’s as walkable as Ithaca!), and discovering how well Cornell’s curriculum prepared me for a museum career.
(Also, I get my own office, which I miiiight mention proudly from time to time.)
I realized recently that I neglected to post about graduation–in all honesty, the experience is such an indescribable whirlwind of crowds and noise and family happiness that I probably couldn’t really capture it in a few hundred words.
I will say this: in that moment when you enter Schoellkopf with your bizarre cap and borrowed, sweaty bat-robes, surrounded by a handful of friends and veritable thousands of people you’ve never met, it’s tempting to feel utterly inconsequential. Looking out at the genuine masses of people in the bleachers might make a graduate feel like the tiny “You are here!” dot on one of those maps of the universe that every curious kid had on his or her bedroom wall in the 90s.
Yet even if universe maps often lead me into states of existential angst, it’s ultimately amazing to get a sense of the scale of the world (or galaxy, or college community) around you (a sentiment that my ol’ buddies Fleet Foxes express even more eloquently in the first verse of one of my favorite songs of all time).
That drivel above is really supposed to suggest that while this blog is about my story, there’s a veritable cosmos of Cornellians out there who are embarking on their own different postgrad quests at the same time–and there’s something kind of fantastic about that. So to any ’14ers out there who might happen upon this blog, you’re in my thoughts: and please chime in if you wish!
To everyone else: stop by again in July to hear about my first day of not school!
Every time I visit New York City, I become convinced that I’d much rather (simply) walk into Mordor than make my way around NYC by myself. Combining the crowds and aggressive street hawkers of Waikiki with nightmarish traffic, a subway system that inevitably reminds me of the Morlocks from The Time Machine, and an inescapable industrial sprawl dominating the landscape, New York has a lot to terrify an introverted country girl who grew up in the middle of the Hawaiian rainforest.
Unlike the tourist traps in Waikiki (or Mordor, for that matter), though, New York City’s incredible museums will probably keep luring me back for years to come. Various Cornell departments often sponsor whirlwind trips to one particular NYC museum or attraction for the overwhelming cost of about ten bucks: I visited the MoMA through such a scheme as a freshman, and yesterday, I took part in a similar trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Though I signed up as an independent participant, the trip was really intended for students in specific classics/art history classes. Consequently, I was left on my own in the labyrinthine museum–which was, actually, the best situation imaginable. Like Mr. Incredible, I “work alone,” but while the suburban superhero probably would’ve spent all this time admiring the muscles on those classical statues, I had a lot of thesis research to get done.
The last time I visited the Met, I was really into Asian art, so I don’t think I even stopped by its pre-Columbian Latin American galleries. On yesterday’s trip, then, my first priority was a visit to the “Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas,” a surprisingly popular museological category wherein the artistic traditions of three continents, countless islands, and thousands of years are often flung together behind glass cases in dimly-lit galleries.
At least, that’s what pop culture studies scholar Keely Sarr, Honors Candidate in the History of Art would say. Normal art fan Keely was too busy marvelling over the fact that Maya stelae and Peruvian goldwork were right in front of her to get too hung up on issues of coloniality.
From a curatorial perspective, the most visually stunning gallery in this whole section is the Jan Mitchell Treasury. The name’s not just an attempt at pretension: entering this space is like walking into the hoard of some exceptionally meticulous dragon.
The weird thing about these one-day trips, of course, is that they strangely involve spending about eight hours at the institution in question. I may be one of the most museum-crazy people out there, but even I encounter the dreaded “museum fatigue” after hours of staring at objects and trying to figure out why I keep going in circles through the European decorative arts gallery: seriously, it seems like all roads lead to rococo down there on the first floor.
(Also, does anyone even really like the opulence of seventeenth-century furniture and tapestries? If you do, let me know so I can try my best to ensure that we are never roommates.)
Since my research ended up taking all of about an hour and a half (most of which, let’s be honest, was spent trying and failing to take a decent selfie with the Met’s version of the Kunz Axe), I had ample time to explore galleries unrelated to my thesis as well. After spending so much time lost amid Savonnerie carpets, I decided to change things up in the Islamic wing. Eat your heart out, Doris Duke!
All of this, however, was merely an attempt to delay my inevitable emotional encounter with 19th-century landscape paintings. As readers of this blog likely already know, the “Western canon” of art has never been of much interest to me. I delight in studying everything from Southeast Asian shadow puppetry to Peruvian featherwork, but you’ll never find me excited about an ancient Greek amphora or a Tiepolo.
The only thing in the Eurocentric art tradition that brings me a kind of transcendental joy, however, is Hudson River School and British Romantic landscape painting. The average museum-goer could probably see every object in the Met at least thrice by the time I tired of staring at a single well-crafted landscape. Such transportative works make me want to fall to my knees and weep like I were a pilgrim viewing a Byzantine relic instead of an overdramatic college student staring at some mountains or whatever.
(As an example, here’s a Catskills scene by William Guy Wall that’s probably my favorite piece at the Honolulu Museum of Art (second only to the indescribable “Young Boy With Whip“).)
Alas, how Fortune frowns upon landscape fans! As of yesterday, the entire American wing is apparently closed for reasons unknown. Each potential entrance to the wing featured a sign commanding visitors to try the other two entrances, leading me to draw the conclusion that the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (spoiler alert: or Hydra?!?!) must have been conducting an investigation of Civil War portraiture.
When I attempted to mend my broken heart by tracking down some British Romanticism, I stumbled through ceaseless rooms of neck ruffs and tackily-painted crucifixion scenes for what felt like hours before finally calming down with the bright colors of the modern and contemporary galleries.
I hopped back on the charted Cornell bus literally twelve hours after I had first boarded it in Ithaca, and anticipated arriving back on campus around ten. Unfortunately, a motion sickness incident on board delayed us by approximately two hours, resulting in an unprecedented late-night drop-off. Any apprehension I had about walking back home after midnight was assuaged by the sheer power of my lingering disappointment: anyone who dared interfere with my journey would soon find that I was a being of pure rage, driven only by the dissatisfaction of missing a chance to view such masterpieces as Frederic Edwin Church’s The Heart of the Andes.
In the end, I made it home without incident, and found peace by remembering that I managed to nab one of my favorite books, Stealing the Mystic Lamb, in the Met’s gift shop for ten bucks.
And it’s a good thing I did, too–had I not found the book, I may have given in to my desire to purchase some extravagant reproduction of the Hudson River School painting of my choice. But it’s probably wiser to save up such money for the real thing, no?
Someday, readers. Someday.
With a mere twenty-eight days left between me and graduation, I’ve started to imagine life outside of a university context in earnest. There’s a lot I’ll miss about the oft-taxing yet occasionally rewarding world of secondary academia: how will I, for example, live without Olin’s extensive “New Reads” section, the comprehensive collection of scores in the Music Library, or the almost sickening power granted to users of Borrow Direct?
(Seriously, if there’s one ultimate message you should take away from my three years’ worth of blog posts, it’s that Cornell’s libraries are phenomenal and undoubtedly the best part of studying on the Hill.)
Strangest of all is the idea of an environment in which a cappella music is not the primary form of entertainment/social hierarchy. Back in 2011, a few friends and I founded our beloved <3 because we wanted to perform a type of eclectic niche music which, surprisingly enough, was not reflected in the repertoire of Cornell’s pre-existing 14+ a cappella ensembles. Most importantly, though, we sought to depart from the stereotypical cutthroat collegiate a cappella world humorously portrayed in last year’s musical blockbuster Pitch Perfect.
While the fictional Barton Bellas hoped to devise technically perfect routines with which to smash their competition, <3 is essentially a bunch of friends who use our love of music, geek culture, and theatricality to make people laugh. As tunefully as possible, of course.
Three years after <3–then merely four members strong–first performed, the group has grown to a twelve-woman ensemble featuring students from a variety of graduating classes (we even have a grad student!) and majors. Based on the fantastic number of new members we’ve gained over the years, I’m confident that <3 will continue to have a presence on campus after its founders graduate: but even with the promise of a bright future, I’m still sad that my last <3 concert ever has now come and gone.
Look, I’ve done theatre, speech, and an assortment of more traditional choirs, but nothing beats the pressure of preparing for an a cappella concert. Since I’m also serving as <3′s musical director this semester, our spring concert made me more aware of the challenges of preparing an ensemble for performance than ever before: in addition to learning notes/rhythm/dynamics/other useful musical things, there’s choreography to master, vowel sounds to improve, and props to coordinate!
And, weirdly enough, it’s all over in a flash. After rehearsing late into the night (well, by my early-bird standards, at least) for weeks, my last <3 concert felt like it barely lasted five minutes. As soon as we processed onto the Risley stage (singing “Vuelie” from Frozen, in case you were wondering), I was instantly completely engaged in the performance, experiencing a kind of euphoria that I hadn’t felt in months. I love singing more than basically anything (with the possible exception of Lord of the Rings and frozen yogurt), but sometimes the difficulties of drilling in rehearsal makes it easy to forget how much of a fundamentally joyful act vocal performance is.
It’s unlikely that I’ll start my postgrad life in a town or city with a strong a cappella culture, but regardless of where I end up, I know I’ll be singing somehow–even if I have to start a group of my own. Hey, it’s not like I haven’t pulled it off before!
I’ve heard a lot of unusual things in the sixth-floor conference room at the Johnson Museum.
During my very first year as an intern, I was recruited to help with a “deep listening” workshop with composer Pauline Oliveros (and, strangely enough, totally forgot about the experience until we studied Oliveros in my experimental music class and I wondered why her name sounded so familiar). Surrounded by Ithaca community members, some museum staff, and probably the entire Cornell Music faculty, I revelled in the “silence,” becoming incredibly aware of the weird melodies created by the Johnson’s notoriously volatile elevator.
I would later recreate a similar “silence” every time I found myself alone in the conference room (usually whilst performing the glamorous task of stocking the sinister metallic super-fridge with countless liters of soda for an upcoming event). Being by yourself up there is both eerie and meditative: the wide windows show off miles of blue lake, the wind wails out Meredith Monk-like vocalizations, and any lone intern/guard/staff member who dares enter will undoubtedly feel lost in a space outside of time, where all the activity of the lower 7+ floors is no longer relevant.
Where better, then, to stage a performance of John Cage’s Song Books?
I can safely say that this performance of some of Cage’s short vocal solos and moments of “theater” was unlike anything I had ever experienced before–and not because it reached a level of weirdness that I’m unused to seeing or hearing at a concert. In fact, what was most remarkable about New York ensemble ne(x)tworks was the contagious playfulness with which they approached their performance.
Although part of such lightheartedness was probably due to presence of a typewriter, playing cards and dominoes, glass, garage-sale price stickers, and performers who frequently fell asleep on the floor (when the score dictates, or so I’m told), the greatest energy came from the childlike creativity present in the manner that the ensemble interacted with the unique environment of the sixth floor. ne(x)tworks members dashed back and forth in the tight, enclosed space, sometimes disappearing into the sixth floor’s hidden side rooms: including the very kitchen into which I so frequently stumble with a cart full of Wegmans iced tea!
While I was rather enamoured of him at first, I would ultimately say that Cage and his music are not the coolest things I’ve encountered in my experimental music class this semester (that honor goes to Gavin Bryars’ “Sinking of the Titanic,” everything by Eliane Radigue, and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (which was only name-dropped in class once but still changed my life forever)). Still, experiencing an actual performance of the types of music we’ve been studying gave me a new understanding of its incredible complexity. Listening to last night’s concert without the visual/experiential component might have been interesting enough, but I would have missed so much of the piece’s theatricality and the spatial interactions between the performers.
Plus, there’s also nothing more delightful than watching the listeners at an experimental music performance. From the laid-back laughers who smile appreciatively at every clever motif to the Serious Listeners, who rest their heads on their fists and wrinkle their foreheads as though the entire experience was as mentally challenging as a Sunday crossword puzzle, there’s always something interesting to see amongst one’s fellow audience members.
(And which variety of listener am I? Well, if you ever happen to see me at some future experimental music event, be sure to let me know!)