Spring Break –> Chicago I

Spring Break –> Chicago I
10 March 2018

After waking up far too early for my liking, I hopped in my freshman/sophomore year roommate, Sara’s, car on our way to Milwaukee. We were two of five students headed to Chicago for our spring break to take the class ‘Museum as Classroom’ with the world’s greatest priest, Fr. James Neilson (though he prefers Seamus). Fr. N is my advisor, so gotten to know him really well over the past few years. Having taken all of his other Art History courses, I knew this would be an incredible way to spend my final undergrad spring break. I was right.

After a pit stop in Oshkosh, where I almost stole Sara’s boyfriend’s family dog, we finally arrived at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Despite living in Wisconsin for almost three years now, I still hadn’t made it to the MAM (which is honestly ridiculous considering who we’re talking about).

The newest wing of the MAM, referencing a ship sailing on Lake Michigan, was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The two wings featured above open to their own piece of music right at 10 a.m., which we were able to see from beginning to end before heading into the museum.

We began with following Fr. N into the first floor galleries as he was determined to discuss a few pieces with us before our tour with Lloyd, one of the docents and a fairly old man. We saw some of the highlights of the collection, as well as some of his personal favorites. First was Janitor by Duane Hanson, the incredibly life-like sculpture made of painted silicon– Fr. N mentioned that the original accessories on the sculpture were all taken by museum-goers, and so only the clothes and sculpture itself were what the artist initially dressed him in. Untitled (Veterans Day Sale) by Félix González-Torres was a must-see, and while I love his work in general, the fact that it is interactive and he invites you to take it is amazing. Undoubtedly, we stole back to the gallery before leaving so we could each grab a poster, and mine is currently hanging up next to my bed.

Below is Cornelia Parker’s Edge of England, which is an installation of stones fallen from the White Cliffs of Dover. We all learned a lot about this piece throughout the visit; from Fr. N’s insights in building art from found objects, to geology-obsessed Sara describing the components of the chalk stones, to docent Lloyd explaining the significance of the White Cliffs – and the spot she took these stones from specifically – as an unfortunately popular site for suicide.

The MAM’s collection of early European art was surprisingly large, and I had no idea there was a Zurbarán on display. Fr. N loves to talk about St. Francis – “everybody loves him!” – so we spent some time in front of St. Francis of Assisi in His Tomb discussing Zurbarán’s use of dramatic contrast, attributes, and the fact that “hoodies have only always been in fashion”.

We saw the oldest piece in the MAM collection, one of the Al Faiyum funerary portraits circa 100-150 CE. Lloyd told us she’s his girlfriend, and she looks pretty good for being 2000 years old. In the same room was the ancient “Mummy Coffin of Pedusiri”, seen below. Lloyd took us through the early European art again – in all honesty, he stopped at just about every piece Fr. N stopped to discuss an hour earlier – and had some witty remarks between his knowledgeable comments on each artwork. He gave an impassioned speech about why we should know Sofonisba Anguissola, a groundbreaking female artist during the Renaissance who not only learned to paint beautifully, but was apprenticed at a time when that was virtually unheard of for women to do. Not only was she a favored painter of the Spanish king, Philip II, but she also received some mentoring from Michelangelo himself. She also lived to be 93. What a rad lady.

I always enjoy some good French Rococo – those beautiful pastels and risqué innuendos! – and the museum’s collection of this style was impressive, albeit small. Above-right is a detail from Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Shepherdess. 

As we neared the end of our tour with Lloyd, we stopped at Kehinde Wiley’s St. Dionysus. I’ve never seen a Wiley in person before, but between the scale, the color, the technique… I was in awe. I didn’t even know the MAM had one of his works, so it took me by surprise, which I think just made it even better.

After taking History of Modern Design last semester, in which we learned a lot about De Stijl and mid-century modern design, I was excited to see the wall of chairs I knew was on display at the MAM. I particularly like Gerrit Rietveld’s Red and Blue Chair, as well as the many Eames designs, so those were fun to see in-person after spending a semester learning about them.

After bidding Lloyd goodbye, we told Fr. N to drive safely, and we headed to the Intermodal station to take the train down to Chicago. After two of our party finally made it onto the train with less than a minute from departure, we settled in for the easy 1.5 hr ride to Union Station. I didn’t realize just how much I missed traveling by train until a while into our journey – it’s so convenient, fairly relaxing, and made me miss Ireland just a little more than usual.

We arrived in Chicago in the early afternoon and took an Uber (who for some reason only gave us four stars, which was rude) to our destination of the Norbertine Holy Spirit House of Studies. This beautiful old mansion in Hyde Park is owned by the same order that owns our college, and so they welcomed us for the week with open arms. Us women had to stay in the coach house out back, as only men were permitted to stay in the same building as the priests, but we didn’t mind – they stocked our fridge with food, our beds were made, and they even had toiletries out for us.

After settling in, Fr. N took us on a loooong walk through Hyde Park, pointing out the homes of Muhammad Ali, Louis Farrakhan, the Obamas (!), and some designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. One thing I didn’t realize when he said we were only walking about seven blocks: a single block in Hyde Park is like four regular city blocks. We walked a few miles that night.

We went to a Thai restaurant for dinner, where I tried delicious Thai iced tea, only managed to eat a small portion of my massive dinner, and momentarily felt like I was going to die (it was just a bad stomach cramp). We stopped at 57th Street Books because all six of us are bibliophiles – and who doesn’t love a small-business, cute, seemingly never-ending bookshop? – and spent about an hour browsing before walking back to the Norbertine house for the night. It was a great start to what was going to be an even better week.

Tara Donovan’s Bluffs reminded me of the skyscrapers we first saw after stepping onto the street in Chicago. (P.S. her piece is made entirely of buttons!)

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