There has been an ongoing exhibit at the Knoxville Museum of Art called Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee. Each time I have visited the museum I have stopped in to look at the exhibit and to take time to revel in the presence of one painting in particular, Trees and Sky by Joanna Higgs Ross.
The first time I saw the painting, I was just stunned. I stood there and looked at it as G wandered around a corner to look at other paintings and wondered what happened to me. Each time I go back I do look at other things, but I always return here. This photo, downloaded from the internet, does not do it justice. The piece was inspired by a drive through the Smokey Mountains and I feel the paintings perfectly captures the way the mind collates and superimposes a collage-like panoply of bits of mountain and trees with fleeting impressions of sky and weather forming them into a memory that is visually and emotionally rich, capturing the essence of the thing in a way that is not constrained by static form the way a photograph freezes an image but instead overlays what we think we see with how our mind tries to interpret and capture the physical moment into the complex amalgam of sensory inputs we call experience.
On Wednesday I went to a talk at the museum, part of a series called Dine and Discover, where the artist giving the presentation happened to be Joanna Higgs Ross, the artist who painted this very painting. I didn't realize that when I went, I knew there was a talk, I knew the artist was female, the only female member of the Knoxville Seven, but I did not connect her to this painting that continues to draw me in, even as I went upstairs and looked at the painting before the talk.
As Ms. Higgs Ross showed us photo after photo and talked about her art I was awed and transported. I've seen retrospective's of artist's work before, and I have been overwhelmed and awed, but this was different. These paintings seemed personal to me, which is, I suppose the desired response, and I so wish I had photos to share.
When, for example, the artist talked about Mondrian's trees, and their increasing abstraction, and how students thought they always looked like trees I knew exactly what she was talking about. I have studied those trees. But when she said those same students did not think her trees looked like trees, as she showed a picture of a painting titled Red Oak, I was stunned. It looked exactly like a red oak to me, or like the essence of Red Oak, capturing the colors and textures with a subtle interweaving of the shape of a red oak. Perhaps my impression was more than just visual; the visual captured a sense of the thing that became almost palpable.
Another painting, a view of trees through a window was subtle in its colors and had circular shapes superimposed over the subtle verticle shapes of the trees. It reminded me of the wind blowing through the trees, and the motions of air and trees, a thouusand instances of wind and trees all captures in one moment and held forever in memory. I could feel my own memories of trees resurrected in my mind's eye, hear the rustle of the branches in the wind, see the movement, smell the air, the wood, the leaves and the earth. Phenomenal.
I felt like my breath had been pulled out of my body and I was just entranced. I wanted to see the actual paintings, to be able to sit there and absorb them and yes make them a part of myself. I have long felt I don't understand art, and I probably don't, but I enjoy looking at it. I have long loved looking at paintings, have often been stunned and changed by them. And yet I have rarely had such a profound reaction to an artist's retrospective. I have always felt that art should be in public spaces where it can be shared and enjoyed, but I admit that these paintings spoke so strongly to me that I wanted to se them all up close. I wanted to spend time getting to know them. I wanted greedly grab onto them and bring one home.
At the end of the talk Ms Higgs Ross said she would be around to talk during the afternoon. I wanted to stay and talk with her about how profoundly beautiful and moving I found her paintings. But I did not. I ran out. I was late. G had a new caregiver that day and I had promised to be home earlier. His memory is bad, but he often remembers when I am out and gets all caught up in his anger, gets caught up in a spiral of agittation. As much as I wanted to revel in art, I needed to get home. It was good I got home when I did. G had finally dozed off and I was there when he woke. Seeing me, he was content and calmer for the rest of the afternoon even though I had to go out again. I hoped I could go back to the museum following my afternoon appointment and talk with the artist, I hoped that she would still be there, but everything ran late and it was very late when I was finally free and it seemed unreasonable to think she would still be hanging around 5 hours later. Besides once again I was late and expected at home.
I never got back to the museum. But I will be there again. I will see the painting again. I thought I wanted to learn more about art but never found the time. Perhaps the time is here.