Strengthening community and meaning through art

Strengthening community and meaning through art

The arts have the ability to touch something essential in us. When my oldest was five, I went to the local library and checked several printed books from different masters: Chagall, Matisse, Rubens, Warhol, Picasso, and Pollack. As we flipped through the pages together, he was drawn to certain works and not inspired by others.

I asked two questions: 1) How do you feel about the painting? and 2) What about the work that made you feel this way? With two simple questions, I could keep our kid entertained for hours.

We have a special relationship with the arts: painting, sculpture, literature, film and music. These gifts of the muse have been a fundamental part of the human experience and serve many functions in our lives. Our ancestors made ceramic figurines, bird bones and ivory flutes more than 35,000 years ago, long before the first grain barrels.


People tremble with fiery passion when they talk about Rothko’s colourfield paintings. Walt Whitman was called a prophet. Andrei Tarkovsky’s films are “prayers through cinema”. These religious metaphors are not just hyperbole. In September 1982, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane was canonized as a patron saint.

Source: The Creation by Michelangelo, in the public domain at Wikimedia

Despite this possibility of transcendence, art sometimes evades us. We may come across a painting that we like or a song that makes us want to dance, but we cannot discern how relevant they are to the raw and everyday imperatives we face every day.

I’ve often meandered through the works of a museum or looked at a modernist classic with no idea of ​​what it has to do with real life.

After our playful questions about catalogs of paintings, I took our son to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. The Joslyn has a huge collection of, among others, Paolo Veronese, El Greco, Renoir, Rembrandt, Degas, Pissarro and Grant Wood. It also has numerous important Western American and Native American treasures.

Five-year-old boys are not known for their concentrated focus, much less able to meander intently through museum spaces. But these two simple questions kept our child busy all day.

We didn’t just look at pictures on the wall, but actively engaged in the works and learned to identify and connect with our feelings. By paying attention to the subtleties of lines and hues and the placement of things, we saw how simple strokes could color a very emotional life. By doing this together – asking questions, discussing and exploring – the experience also became common.

    Untitled family portrait by Nico Amortegui, used with permission of the artist.

Source: Unnamed family portrait by Nico Amortegui, used with permission of the artist.

There are still countless classical works that I do not “understand”: what makes this “art”? Why did the curator choose this piece out of all the options? How can anyone pay that much for it? A deeper study of painting, music or poetry would open up the work further.

But curiosity, attentive vulnerability and two simple questions made these pieces accessible, taught me something about myself and made the works personally meaningful.

Importantly, they created a doorway to a shared experience – connecting me with people across time and space and bridging the time between parent and child.


Leave a Comment