Thursday, January 30, 2014

Where's the Story? or How I Appreciate Art--Ellen Jensen Abbott

I have a very low visual IQ. My husband does most of the decorating in our house—choosing paint colors, hanging pictures, arranging curtains. On the day we moved in to this house, the mover kept coming to me: “Where do you want this table, desk, armoire, dresser, ma’am?” I sent him to my husband. I just don’t see things well. I can’t even pack the car.

This month’s prompt, to write about art or media that influences you, is a tough one for me because my approach to any visual medium is always through story. I spent a semester in London while I was in college and my step-sister came to visit me. She was decidedly not into museums but when we took a weekend trip to Paris, I insisted we go to the Louvre because, well, that’s what you did in Paris, right? My sister was, if possible, less into art than I was, but as the tour guide, I felt like I had to make something of her experience in the Louvre. Luckily, the first gallery I led her into had many paintings featuring scenes from various myths and legends that I knew. Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus was not there, but it was this kind of painting we saw and I found that I could connect and help my sister connect because of the stories in the painting.  “Ah, this is Achilles pouting in his tent!” or “Look, there’s Iphigenia going to meet Agamemnon”—and then I would launch into the myth and suddenly the painting meant something to us. Unable to appreciate the craft, skill, brush strokes, we could at least appreciate the inspiration behind these paintings. It was a good thing we didn’t wander into a gallery with Malevich’s White on White or Mondrian’s Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red!  

My lack of art appreciation may come from my childhood. I grew up in rural New Hampshire in the 70’s. We got one television channel (CBS), had no internet (of course),went to Filene’s Basement on trips to Boston rather than the MFA. There were a total of 8 kids in my first grade class.  My world was small—except when it came to reading. I think my love for story, and my love for fantasy, must come in part from the bed-time stories my dad used to read to me. He brought two books for me back from a trip to Ireland: The Turf Cutter’s Donkey by Patricia Lynch and Fairy Tales of Ireland by Sinéad de Valera and the richness and detail of these stories seemed to come from a different world! First there were the names:  Connla, Criona, Gormlei, Macha, Donal, Seamus. My classmates were Steven, Jack, Kim, and Joy. The places, too, had names that seemed made-up: Slievebawn, Lough Neagh, Connacht. The magical parts of these stories were totally different from the fairy-tales I knew from the few Disney movies that came to our local theater: teapots that talked (this was pre­-Beauty), lakes that led to other worlds, an emerald ring that turned black when its wearer was about to eat something poisoned. I was hooked. I still am. 


  1. What a wonderful post, Ellen! You've inspired me to read Irish fairy tales to my 5-year-old daughter.

  2. My daughters, who both create art, will spend hours in museums. But like you, I connect best with story. I like to read biographies about artists and connect life events with the paintings. Great post!

  3. Fascinating! Do you "see" books as you read (or write) them?

  4. That's an interesting question, Holly. I wanted to be an actor when I was kid so I actually think I "act" books as I write them and read them. Acting out stories from my imagination is what acting was to me and what writing is to me now.

  5. I would love to read some Irish fairy tales! I like art museums a lot, but I like the paintings that tell a story the most. Even with sculptures, etc., I have to read those little tags that explain the art and how it came about. Must be the writer in us. :-)