Monday, May 9, 2016

The birthday trip

“This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” — Henry David Thoreau

WHEN I moved from Montana back home to Iowa to be with Grandpa years and years ago, I missed my Washington, Idaho and Montana friends. As my birthday neared a few months later, I could tell I was going to feel lonesome. As an antidote, I mailed my away-pals an invitation to a telephone birthday party. 

They were invited to attend by calling during certain hours on my birthday, and just for fun I asked them to answer three specific questions about themselves. One of them was, "If you were an animal, what animal would you want to be?" I don't recall the other two, but it made for a great party. 
I did the same thing the following year, except that I rented a hotel room where I could have a couple of newly-made local friends stop by and my loyal (and indulgent) away-friends could call. 

It may have been renting that hotel room that planted the seed in my head that evolved into a permanent birthday tradition: being somewhere else on my birthday. 

I started by taking small jaunts — to Omaha or Kansas City, but they got longer. Then I met and married Paul, whose birthday is also in May, and that cemented the idea of an annual birthday trip as a means of celebrating both our birthdays, and we've been many places for our birthdays since: FloridaColorado, TennesseeMontana, Arkansas
Wyoming, ChicagoIrelandEngland . . . on and on.

This year the plan was to combine the birthday trip with celebrating Paul’s graduation from the University of Iowa by traveling to Germany, a fitting reward I thought for acing fourth-semester German, the last hurdle to earning his degree. Paul, however, felt like he’d probably be wanting, and thinking he ought, to converse in German while we were there which he speculated might end up feeling more like an assignment than a vacation. 

We chose Cornwall in the UK instead, found a perfect seaside cottage and paid for a week's stay. Then there was all Paul’s heart drama, and we both felt that until his heart issues are entirely sorted, traveling overseas wouldn't be wise. We substituted a driving trip — to Kansas City just because I like it, continuing to Memphis because I've never been there and wanted to experience it. 

We've been to Kansas City many times. Despite the fact that Kansas City has the worst spaghetti mess of highways in the central US, or so it seems to us, and pretty much every major thoroughfare is under perpetual construction, Kansas City always feels psychologically accessible. I like the multiculturalism if offers without having a big-city ethos. Spread out yes, but more like a series small towns and neighborhoods.

It also happens to be where Paul and I took our first trip together after we met — to the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival. We both remember that outing with great affection and nostalgia. 

You learn a great deal about someone when you travel with them. I discovered on that first trip how incredibly capable Paul is at navigating to and around places while remaining unruffled and genial. I've mentioned before that I swear the guy has a GPS in his head. Seriously, he's an amazing path-finder! But he's also an intellectually curious, good-natured, boon companion who can zig and zag as situations warrant without getting uptight or irritable. And so began our love of taking road trips together.

We set off for Kansas City, the first leg of our trip, the morning of my birthday to see two art exhibitions, shop at my favorite cheap-purse store and hear some great jazz. Well, it was supposed to be the morning, but we had so much prep to do, that it ended up being the afternoon. Luckily for us, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art which was our first destination is open until 9:00 on Friday evenings. 

The Nelson has been been showing an exhibition called Reflections of Class in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. Before it was in Kansas City, it was at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston for three months. It's been at the Nelson since February and closes at the end of this month. I wanted to see it before it left, plus there’s an abstract expressionist color field exhibition there called Make Room for Color Field that I also wanted to see.

When we arrived, one of the women at the admission desk asked us where we were from. We said, "Des Moines." She asked us what brought us to KC. We said, “This museum.”

“Today’s my birthday,” I explained. Paul added, “I asked her what she wanted to do on her birthday, and she said she wanted to come here.” 

She handed us tickets, Paul handed over his credit card, and she said, “This is on the house.” 

Rather than featuring one artist or one genre, say for example, landscapes — the goal of this exhibition of 17th century Dutch Golden Age paintings is to illuminate life in the age of Rembrandt and Vermeer.

The one Vermeer, A Lady Writing painted about 1665, was my favorite. Johannes Vermeer, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington
Fine linen was prized, a barometer of wealth and kept under lock and key in the 17th century New Republic. Pieter de Hooch, Interior with Women Beside a Linen Closet, 1663, oil on canvas. On loan from the City of Amsterdam.

This painting by Bartholomeus van der Helst, Portrait of Abraham del Court and his wife Maria de Keerssegieter, is really large: about 4’10” X 5’8”. Viewed in person, the dress is simply magnificent. 1654, oil on canvas. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

The curators at the Nelson-Atkins made a 16th Century Dutch tableau for visitors to be part of.

From the color field exhibition, a painting by Helen Frankenthaler.

Elberta, 1975. Acrylic on canvas, 79” x 97”. Private Collection. 

There was one other piece of art I loved by a contemporary artist I've never heard of: El Anatsui. He was born in 1944 in Ghana and lives and works in Nigeria. The piece is called Dusasa l, and it was conjured in 2007 from found aluminum and copper wire. Here's what the Nelson's legend next to the art work said about it:

"Dusasa l was created from recycled liquor bottle tops that have been flattened and stitched together using copper wire. Working with metal shapes, El Anatsui allows the materials and colors to suggest the composition. 

The artist’s use of liquor bottle tops acknowledges both the historical role of liquor as a commodity traded by colonial powers for slaves and its ritual use as a libation when it is poured as a form of prayer.

The colors and forms of Dusasa l are related to kente cloth, and African textile made by the Asante and Ewe people of Ghana."

Dusasa l
A detail

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