The Wanderer Visits The Denver Art Museum
By John Andreula
Edited by Kodid Laraque-Two Elk
For almost twenty years in Colorado I have avoided the Denver Art Museum. It has never been high enough on my list of potential activities to have warranted a trip there.
The Museum of Nature & Science, Wings Over the Rockies, the Botanic Gardens, the Butterfly Pavilion, and many other choices always just seemed to call out to me over my baseless and unwarranted idea of what the Denver Art Museum held in store for me.
Frankly, I’ve even chosen just walking around downtown in search of avant-garde street art and quirky boutiques over a visit to the Art Museum.
That’s on me, not them.
My lack of interest in the Denver Art Museum has been due to my own closed-minded sense of what’s cool based on my preconceptions.
I’ve managed to avoid this year’s Dior exhibit and last year’s exhibition of Star Wars costumes, despite my wife expressing desire to see both.
As a matter of fact, the closest I’ve come to visiting the Art Museum was hanging out by the sculptures outside.
My vision for what I would encounter at the museum was one of dusty paintings of sunflowers and portraits of lame old people, but was I wrong.
Last week a family friend and her son kindly invited me and mine to accompany them to the Art Museum. I really had nothing of consequence on the calendar for the day, and I knew it would please my better-half, so I said why not?
Sunday came. My clan and I loaded into the family sedan and headed toward downtown.
Once parked I donned my backpack and a moderately-sized shoulder lunch bag filled with enough provisions to feed a small village. I didn’t know what to expect in regards to the experience I was embarking on, so I wanted to be prepared.
Luckily for me, my nephew had agreed to accompany us. He volunteered to carry the food bag, so I only had to lug around one unnecessarily huge burden.
The friends who had invited us were waiting just outside the main entrance. We said our hellos and did the necessary introductions before entering the odd, rhombus-shaped building.
Our friends possess a family membership. That means they get a couple passes for guests. They generously let my wife and I use those. My nephew and daughter are both under 18, so their admission was free as well.
At the entrance hall we were informed that the special exhibit featuring Claude Monet paintings was sold out for the day. Monet is one of, if not my favorite, classic artists. It was disappointing not to be able to see some of his original works while we were there, but there was the whole rest of the museum to explore aside from that exhibition.
Our group headed into the museum while I lingered for a moment near the gift shop. I showed my nephew some of the small Monet prints they had for sale on display. I explained how Monet used many small pushes of his brushes to create the images. They all seem so vivid and detailed from just a few steps away.
He listened patiently to my old-man blathering before we moved on and caught up with our group.
Just around the corner from the entryway was an interactive art studio. I did not expect to find a room like this at the Art Museum. Our host friends wanted to show us one of the stations inside.
We were led over to an arrangement of low tables. On top of the tables were plastic restaurant trays. There were smaller baking trays, and squeegees on top of those. Near the trays were cans of shaving cream and bottles of food coloring.
It was some sort of printing station. I had never seen anything like it before. The kids (which I include myself as one) each donned an apron and pulled up a seat at the one empty table.
One of our host friends had experience doing the shaving cream prints before. She explained what we were to do. Then she and the kids filled their baking trays with shaving cream and squirted strategic patterns into it from the bottles of dye.
At the seat I selected lay a brown blob of used cream and random streaks of color. Someone had kindly left without cleaning up after themselves. I considered for a moment what to do and decided I would attempt to produce some organic art using the leavings.
I added some of my own random streaks of color. My more experienced friend looked on at my mess with an expression that was difficult to read. Either I was about to create something genius or she may have been thinking I was an idiot. In any case I was having fun. She held her tongue and decided to let me sink or float.
Attached to the end of each table was a small bin filled with little sheets of white paper that fit perfectly within the baking trays. I grabbed a canvas from the bin and placed it into the unnaturally colorful goop.
I pressed gently for a bit before lifting out. Finally I placed it down in the larger tray and squeegeed away the shaving cream.
When the last of the mess was pushed off the paper I was left with. . .a beautiful, artsy brown mess. It certainly didn’t look fantastic, but it was my creation and it was art.
And this was only the beginning of our visit. . .
My friend and the other kids at the table produced much cleaner and clearly colored prints from their own arrays. Afterwards we each rotated and made additional prints from each others’ concoctions.
I was beginning to feel some serious artistic energy in the Denver Art Museum, and we hadn’t even left the first room.
After we were through with the shaving cream prints it was time to clean up.
We took our trays over to the large sinks conveniently located nearby. I wanted to lean further into my flowing creative juices, but it was time to do a little work first.
Luckily, I’m a level three dishwasher.
Cleaning and drying a couple trays and some squeegees is quick work. As I was drying off my trays and squeegees a family approached. Their two young children waited patiently as I finished. I attempted to give what turned out to be terrible advice to the two siblings. I called the shaving cream whipped cream.
My daughter may only be a noob dishwasher, but she’s a master in correcting my foibles.
She promptly overheard my faux pas. With her best eye-roll and condescending voice, she informed the kids that they would be using shaving cream, not whipped cream, and most importantly, not to eat it.
At this time most of our troop was done with the interactive studio. My daughter was not.
She had already found an empty seat at an easel just beyond the shaving cream print station. She had begun penciling the mountain scene displayed on the wall in front of her. I wandered over to check out the action.
In front of a row of eight wooden easels were several small still-life models on a table. There was also a framed abstract picture of color swirls.
Next to each easel were some paintbrushes, a palette of watercolors, and a jar of water for rinsing the brushes.
My nephew and I crept in front of the guests and easels next to the mountain portrait on the wall. I challenged my daughter to do a portrait of the two of us in our coolest—and certainly most embarrassing to her—poses.
She refused our challenge. We walked off and checked out some Monet prints that were displayed nearby.
Alongside the Monets were some modern prints by a different artist. One of these was of a black man sitting on his front steps. He was holding a smart phone and wearing a hooded sweatshirt with the image of the Notorious B.I.G. on the front.
This was a sign that the Denver Art Museum was my kind of place.
I showed my nephew and our friends’ son the Jordan Casteel painting. I pointed out Biggie on the man’s shirt. I explained how he is regarded as one of the best rappers of all time and how cool I thought it was that I had found him inside the museum.
The adults in our group were deciding how and who should proceed into the rest of the museum while my daughter remained in her creative trance. Most of our group decided to venture deeper into the museum. Our friend with the prior shaving cream printing knowledge and I decided we would remain behind while my daughter worked her creative flow.
For a few minutes the two of us discussed the Monet prints and the current featured exhibit she had seen before we arrived. Then we settled into seats at a table with watercolors and brushes, and a strategic view of my daughter at work.
The setup at this table was similar to the one my daughter had, but the canvases were small like those of our previously created prints.
My friend got right to work. She used a technique I had only heard about from daughter before. She used a white crayon to draw a circle on her blank page and then covered the entirety with a variety of colors and strokes to produce and awesome and unique spiral.
I painted what started as a bird and then became a butterfly fairy. I remained gentle with my brush strokes for a bit, but eventually my hulk strength revealed itself. I rallied and finished the piece, and we both laid our works out to dry.
It was time to check in on my girl and see how she was faring in her work.
My daughter’s sketch was beautiful, but at this point she had only painted the sun and the moon and their respective beams. She was far from done, so I found an empty easel and started painting some more on the large canvas.
It was interesting to discover how complex and difficult certain movements of the paintbrush were. I rarely, if ever, use the muscles required for painting. I painted clockwise curves with ease, but found going the opposite direction near impossible.
I filled two thirds of my canvas as our group returned to check on us. Some of them were feeling the call of lunch in their bellies.
My daughter was in the home stretch. The mountains and grass and sky were colored. It was the most beautiful landscape piece I had seen her produce to date. She looked at her painting and decided it needed one last touch.
She dipped her brush into the orange paint at her side and proceeded to fling drops of it all over her canvas. Lava and fire rained down onto the entire scene.
As my daughter wrapped up her masterpiece I invited my nephew to sit at my canvas and finish my painting. He pleasantly obliged in collaborating.
As we were exiting the studio we caught a glimpse of the studio demo artist, Elisa Gomez, doing a live painting on a large canvas. She struck her work with erratic brush strokes.
Watching her create made me wonder if what she was doing was planned or just chaos. This question hung with me as we processed much of the artwork throughout the museum the rest of day.
It was time for our lunch intermission. My family ate the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I had assembled earlier that morning. Those and a vanilla milk were the only things we consumed from my ridiculously encumbering lunch-bag.
As an aside, there were several times throughout our visit to the Denver Art Museum that I had to set down my backpack and our lunch-bag. Each of those times I had done so and left them unattended for a few minutes or more.
Of course I harbored minor concern that someone would filch my wallet, my sunglasses, our food, or my priceless spiral-bound writing notebook. However, each time I returned to find our bags and coats unmolested.
Thank you, other Denver Art Museum guests, for being honest and allowing me and my nephew a few moments rest from the accoutrements I felt were necessary to carry around.
We finished up and our hosts decided they were tired and ready for a real meal. They insisted we stay and enjoy some more of the museum.
They told us about a mirror exhibit on the top floor that they had seen while we made our art. We headed back into the enormous rhombus and traveled up to the fourth level to check it out.
We took the elevator up. The interior of the lift was a work of art in its own right. It featured bright white walls with black lines that formed faces all around us. The elevator walls was a piece by artist Shantell Martin.
We exited the elevator car at the upper level of the museum, and entered into a room with more of Martin’s art including an interactive wall. I stood back as my daughter and several other museum guests spun blocks that had lines, letters, or small models on each of their sides.
Ironically, all the guests that were engaging the blocks were trying to see what bigger picture or message the piece was supposed to communicate. But they were all hindering each others’ progress.
We went forth to the mirror installation. There was a short line queued up outside with a museum employee giving instructions at the room’s entrance. The wall next to the line was made entirely of mirrored squares. I couldn’t help but think, What a pain in someone’s ass it must be to clean all these mirrors.
Bins of blue cloth shoe-covers were near the end of the line. My wife and nephew had already been through the exhibit earlier. They informed the rest of us that we were required to don the strange booties.
Uncertain of what was coming next, and wearing sterile footwear, we waited patiently for our turn to enter the mirror room.
Just as I was thinking about what a dick the artist was for designing a room that would require such constant vigilance and maintenance, the hip museum staff-person rolled her eyes and informed the line not to lean on the mirrors. It was possibly that she had drawn the short straw of glass cleaning duty.
Our turn arrived quickly. The employee asked if we had been through the installation before. I said I had not and she bid me to go first.
She also let me know that I could take as many pictures as I want, but I absolutely could not and should not touch the walls. I nodded my understanding and entered the strange work of art.
Inside was a hallway surrounded on all sides with mirrors. It reminded me of when I was young and I had looked into two medicine cabinet mirrors into the eternal void of multiple reflections.
If I had thought the interactive art studio was cool, this was a entirely different level.
I walked back to where my wife had halted and was snapping some photos. We goofed off snapping a few selfies. I did not touch the walls! Finally, we exited so the next visitors could enjoy this unique experience as well.
Upon exiting the mirror room our daughter insisted that we do it again. I lined back up with her and partook in the room once more.
We had just enough time and energy to see a bit more of the museum.
We caught glimpses of several pieces of art that can only be described as dark. They were difficult to explain to a child.
We saw some Eskimo snow goggles that looked like they could have been worn by DC Comics villains.
We saw so much eclectic art.
Finally my daughter found her way into a room that was screening a film just about to begin. I read the placard and it stated that the piece was only six minutes long. My wife told me she had checked it out earlier and it wasn’t worth it, but I agreed to stay and watch with my little one anyway.
The film showed a group of pyros lighting some flammable fluid in rows, creating square patterns of fire in a field. The actors started late in the afternoon and continuing repeating setting fires until after dark.
The film ended, and there wasn’t a payoff as my wife had warned. This didn’t sit well in my daughter’s inquisitive mind.
She learned a hard lesson at the Art Museum. Not every piece of media is entertaining. Her disappointment was only short lived, as we had seen and done so much already.
We din’t make it into the castle building. And we had barely spent any time on the second and third floor of the rhombus, but I was exhausted from the artistic energy of the place and all of my thoughts. My wife was tired as well.
It was time to tap out. No one in our group dissented with mine and my wife’s sentiments.
We grabbed our prints and paintings from the drying racks and hanging lines in the studio and proceeded back to our car. Luckily, we still had plenty of food to munch on during the ride home.
It is true that anyone can find tons of free experiences in downtown Denver.
An amazing Birdcap street-art piece resides on a wall just few blocks from the museum. A ride or jog up the Cherry Creek bike-path or through nearby RiNo will produce many similar sights as well.
But I have to admit my visit to the Denver Art Museum was above my expectations.
It was incredible!
And there is still so much more I haven’t seen. My wife and I are currently planning a return to see the Claude Monet exhibit before it ends in February.
I am beyond grateful for the opportunity my friends presented to me this past weekend. I am also appreciative of being able to share the experience with my wife, nephew, and daughter.
The staff was truly special as well. They did such a fantastic job accommodating the crowds and all their ensuing chaos. They were professional and maintained patience and sanity.
Wandering around the Denver Art Museum was special. I’m elated to be able to share it with all of you.
But don’t take my word for it. Go down to the Denver Art Museum and wander around yourself.
Stay geeky, friends. . . and always be wandering.
John Andreula is a writer and wanderer living in Colorado.
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