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The Church of Culture:  A Back Door Experience

by Starlight Dances

I fell into the job at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) much as I fall into most things in life (after 10 years of buying wine for Antoine's, then the Hyatt Regency Waikaloa it was a welcome change).  I had come to see the Lin Emery exhibit when a gift shop employee heard me wonder aloud, "What would it be like to acquaint yourself on a more intimate level with great ever-changing beauty?"  She said that I would be perfect for a job at the museum, then requested that I go downstairs.  Downstairs!!!  A journey into the bowels of the institution -- how exciting!  How could I refuse?  I spoke briefly with Jackie Sullivan, who thought that I would be well-suited for multiple positions.  She hired me immediately to run the front desk; I filled out the application later.  I was given an electronic door ID card and very little direction.

NOMA sits on a flat parcel of ground at the end of an oak-lined drive.  But it seems to rest at the top of a large hill because of the huge Greek Revival Ionic columns and massive marble stairway leading through to a big bronze doorway.  It seems to be a Greek temple rising from the center of a magnificent southern park.  The museum seems to be a sacred place, a place of ancestors, a quiet refuge where thoughts unfurl as the eye connects with countless labors of love.

I enter this place hurriedly through the back doorway, an entrance which looks like a secret cave.  Quickly taking the 13 steps, then clocking in, weaving through a series of locked doors, brief good mornings and downstairs to pick up a cash drawer.  There...I have made it to the great hall in less than 10 minutes, a whole 50 minutes before the opening!  Another 5 minutes is spent putting the desk in order and preparing for the day.  Now the time has begun, a sense of excitement and happiness washes over me; I have 45 minutes with which to explore.

My rituals have changed within the last year but the excitement has never waned.  At 9:15 a.m. everyone in the museum is engrossed in the business of beginning their day.  The museum is virtually empty as I rush up the interior stairs, I pass the Rodin, round the door and up the second set of back steps.  The blood is usually pounding in my ears, sounding like drums...the drums are the heartbeat.  Before I even enter the gallery, the sound of The People reaches my heart, visions of my ancestors blur and when I look up I see a large glass window, a window into the past.  I stand and gaze for a few moments at the Gaan Masks.  They were made in 1940 and appear to be made of nylon (or some other synthetic fabric).  How odd, synthetic fabric.  The masks are powerful in spite of the fabric.  I am sure it must be a spirit dance and vow to look it up when I get home.  I wonder if Greyhawk knows anyone from the Apache clan.  I think of my stomp group and calculate the days until our next dance.  The drumbeat has become very loud now, so I remember myself and look eagerly for some remnant of my tribe.  No, no reminders of the Choctaw Peoples.  Sometimes I think that is good -- NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) hard at work - but I know that cultural documentation of a group of dwindling people is imperative.  It has been a struggle for me to work at a museum; with regard to my heritage, I feel that I am sitting on a fence.  Entirely too many Native People were taken advantage of; no atonement has been forthcoming.  This fair land continues to suffer whatever injuries mankind insists on inflicting upon their home.  

Enough mooning about...35 minutes left and I scoot to the back gallery to visit a friend.  Polynesia, reads the card, but that is not his name; he is "KuKa ili Macu" and he hails from Hawaii, the big island.  A friend of mine, Aka, is the guardian of the heiau (temple) named "Hikiau" in Kealakekua (which is sometimes called "Captain Cook"), from whence this Aumakua came.  This Hawaiian god is very well traveled.  He probably was stolen when Captain Cook leveled the temple (a crime for which he was flayed).  I miss Aka and I sent her a photograph of Ku and me, but it seems really strange to see him in a small glass case so far away from the islands. If I were living in Hawaii in the beginning of the 19th century I probably wouldn't have survived all of the kapus (things that were forbidden).  The wood is smooth and well polished; all of the Aumakua I've seen at the heiau in Hawaii were weather-worn (they stand outside the temples).  Seeing Ku conjures feelings of tranquility and a soft breeze caressing my skin.  Perhaps he was an interior temple figure (in which case I never would have seen him -- women weren't allowed inside the heiau).  If Ku needed a second home he received an excellent adoptive temple.

The museum is a satisfying spiritual journey, down a path I have yet to find tiring.  The smell is even different -- I think there is eucalyptus in the room cleaner.  I walk through the Pre-Columbian gallery into the hallway.  It is warm on the third floor this morning, and the drums play on.

Almost a half an hour remains as I scamper down the stairwell.  I am headed towards the contemporary wing to see if there are any new pieces of art that have been hung while I was busy with school and creating my own art.  Yes, a Dureau, I can't recall ever having seen it before...then I remember...he has a new exhibition up in the warehouse district.   The museum is a very political temple -- I always marvel at how multi-faceted NOMA is, juggling current trends with traditional flair.  Fat Tuesday was reminiscent of a Mardi Gras past -- a nice piece of storytelling, giving you a sweet remembrance of Mardi Gras on St. Ann.  

The color whirls as I spin around the gallery humming a carnival tune, and my eyes finally come to rest on a Sam Francis piece.  It gives the illusion of simplicity while being very complex.  The first time I had ever seen his work was at the Tulane Gallery opening.  It was a lithograph entitled Deep Earth -- a revelation.  If you were near it, it just looked like a bunch of splotches, but if you looked at it from a distance, and then walked toward it, it was raw earth -- perfect, harmonious, wonderful dirt that engulfed you the nearer you dared to venture.  Once again I found myself mesmerized by one of Sam Francis' perceptive creations.  In looking at his work you quite forget the word "Why."  There is only awe, then an afterthought of "How."  There I stood in front of White Line marveling at the color, the strength, having forgotten the Mardi Gras tune, the drums and the time.  The museum is scheduled to open in 10 minutes -- I must get downstairs.

Having greeted the volunteer (without whom the museum would be a madhouse), I still have 5 minutes to spend on my beloved Cambiaso -- the word sounds so good rolling off of your tongue.  

It is beautiful.  His painting, "Vanity of Earthly Love," is extraordinary; the figures are so poetically rendered, the colors playing and tapering.  Figures becoming all at one time real and yet surreal.  The reason for my adoration?  I am not sure that it is the proximity to the desk -- it is in the Kress Gallery.  Perhaps it is the allegory; I love stories.  It seems very unearthly, like a daydream captured for the world to see.  This must have been a very bold painting in 1570.  I don't generally find all 16th century artwork breath-taking -- too much Christianity for my liking.  But this...the pigments are so lovely, the brushwork so skilled.  Why did he paint this allegory?  Did he see himself aging within the portrait of a woman worried about time, the destroyer of youth?  Oh, oh, oh...time for work.  I rush out to my desk, my reverence slowly dissipating, the security guards filling the great hall.  The stilled voices rise in a chorus of pleasantries and greetings.  The silence that I so craved has been broken.  The illusion that fortunate circumstances had given had been removed noisily.  It's 10:00 said someone, a hushed silence falls over the museum...we must create that illusion for the patrons.  The phone rings; the quiet prompting begins.

There is no such creature as "a typical day" at the museum.  The doors swing open, and depending on what is exhibiting the people in, sometimes in large packs, other times trickling slowly.  On any given day there may be four exhibitions, two art classes and a guest speaker.  I endeavor to anticipate any request, question, or need of the patrons.  My eyes sometimes wander to the sculpture outside, as The Wave swings about in a series of semi-circles it makes you long for the feel of wind blowing your hair.  While accepting admission fees I give directions, advice to students, recruit new members, answer phones, check parcels, entertain guests, help research and call cabs.  Hence the need for volunteers.  My multi-job is not unusual for the museum -- most employees have multiple duties.  This is not because of the fabulous wages.  You work at the museum for the love of art, not the love of money.  The employees are a closely knit group of individuals, somewhat resembling a family.  If there is a problem they will do everything in their power to help you through any trying period.  When I broke my foot they sent flowers and a card (and I am only at NOMA Friday, Saturday and Sunday -- Monday through Thursday is spent at Tulane).  Because of my seven day per week constant activities I have endeavored to be released from duty (I quit) each time a final has rolled around; they did not accept this solution the last three semesters and told me to sleep after finals.

Coffee break time rolls around.  The preparitors, office workers, and curators sit together on huge stone benches in front of the museum.  The conversation is lively and everyone smiles.  Usually the discussion will veer to current art projects and problem solving.  I am of the opinion that all museum employees have a creative streak.  Everyone returns to their respective jobs laughing; the morale is good.  I guess 15 minutes in City Park with interesting people would return some sense of tranquility to even the testiest employee.  Back at the desk a few loads of school children come to tour the current large exhibition.  One colorful person after another passes through those bronze doors in search of that elusive stilled quality.  The poetry is that each finds it within different pieces of art.  Times passes quickly...before you are aware of it, lunch time has crept upon you.

Luncheon on the grass in City Park with Dean Randall is an interesting event.  He is the nephew of Walter Anderson and lives in the park.  He is an elderly, eccentric artist who is a fascinating storyteller.  He doesn't care for people too much, so I am pleased that he took a shine to me.  We talk about life, art and current projects over peanut butter sandwiches.  Then I draw, he usually walks around raving about depth or foreground.  Lately he has complemented my line quality -- my persistence is beginning to reap rewards.  I am starting to see things differently now.  I see the negative as well as the positive space.  I see things in connection with other things.  I suppose this translates into hand-eye coordination.  Dean and I are going to rent a spot in the French Quarter for the summer to ensure that I continue working on a daily basis.  I am doing a series of fetish dolls and mixed media paintings.  I really love mixed media -- it offers a variety of challenges.  The battle for supremacy when object painting is involved is difficult.  The integration of many components in an effort to achieve one cohesive communication is at the core of what I like best about 3-D art.  Rauschenburg and Jasper Johns are now the major inspirational artists in my life.  Jeffrey Cooke, a friend who works with me at NOMA, does lovely mixed media pieces.  

Well, lunch is now over and back to the museum.  Upon return from lunch I enter the museum through the front door, an entirely different experience.  I wonder at the patrons the rest of the afternoon.  Among the splendor that is NOMA, do they find the stilled voices in their hearts?

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This site last updated:  21 Aug 2003 12:05 PM -0500