Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Step Away From The Painting - Fast!

My son is graduating from high school in just over a month. 


He doesn't particularly like to be featured in my blog (actually, I don't think he even likes to be mentioned at all), so I've decided to start telling stories about him, because I'm his mom, and it's my job to humiliate him whenever possible. 

He didn't place, but he
cleaned up nice.

Today's tale takes us to National History Day, a competition for middle schoolers through high schoolers where they research a historical topic, based on an annual theme, and present their research to judges. (It's a wonderful competition, and if your child's school isn't participating in it, tell their history teacher to look here.) My son won first place at both regional and state competition with a historical paper he wrote entitled, "Mending A Broken Heart: The Innovation Of The Heart-Lung Machine And The Advance Of Modern Cardiovascular Surgery." He was almost 15, my daughter was 11.

The 1st place win at state qualified him to go on to the national level of competition.  The bad news was our school district did not help pay for any of this, but we sucked it up and turned it into a (rather expensive) family vacation. We drove to College Park, Maryland, where the competition was held, taking a detour through Virginia Beach (there's a story there for another day). We learned how to use the Metro and hit the museums and other historic sites in Washington, DC. We discovered Five Guys hamburgers by asking a White House security guard for the best place to get a good burger. And one day, our sightseeing took us to the National Portrait Gallery.

This dandy of a museum is a little off the beaten path of others in the Smithsonian family, but completely worth the trip, as it also houses the American Art Museum. We spent a delightful afternoon wandering through the gallery with minimal bickering, pinching, and hissed threats. We had made it up to the third floor of the building when my husband and daughter walked into a room to view a painting. (There was a family dispute here as to whom the artist was. My son and I believe it was Jackson Pollock. My husband says it was David Hockney. My daughter says, "I was 11.")

My son and I were ambling along and followed them into the room a few minutes after they entered. The painting was spectacular. It was a 3-D abstract, housed in its own room with black walls, floor, and ceiling, including a black bench, where my husband and daughter were sitting while admiring the painting. There was another man looking at the painting as well, standing against the back wall. The painting was lit with a black light

The painting itself was set back in a recessed area, and it hung down the wall and curved a few feet onto the floor.  There were several feet of black flooring between the front edge of the painting and the room, and there was a line on the floor where the recessed area met the rest of the room.

(I realize this is a complicated, convoluted explanation, but it's important to fully set the scene.)

My son, walking just ahead of me, walked past his dad and sister on the bench and stood in front of the painting, gazing at it. I followed and stood near the doorway. 

My son stood there a minute, studying it, then, reaching his arm out and waving it in the air several feet in front of the painting (but NOWHERE NEAR TOUCHING IT), said to me, "Is there glass separating this from the rest of the room?" 

Glass? No. Laser beam? Yes.


My husband turned towards my son and said, "RUN!"

My son high-tailed it out of the room with me close on his heels.

We didn't stop until we reached the Nam June Paik exhibit entitled "Electronic Superhighway," which we studied intently (and oh-so-innocently) for a full fifteen minutes, until my husband and daughter finally found us.

Security WAS dispatched, my husband told us. A security guard came in the room a few minutes after we split and looked around the room. My daughter sat there and looked straight ahead. My husband looked up at the guard and shrugged his shoulders. 

The man in the back of the room said nothing.

The guard talked into the radio on his shoulder, announcing that the room was clear, and he left.

My son and I were a little twitchy the rest of the time we were at the museum, and I had a hard time enjoying the rest of the exhibits for fear of being arrested and thrown into some kind of museum jail. I'd like to go back there some day and go through it again.

Once the statute of limitations has run, that is.


After a ridiculous amount of Googling research, I finally found the painting. My husband wins this round, because it was, indeed, a David Hockney piece. (I really only saw it for about fifteen seconds before I had to flee.) 

This is what the Smithsonian had to say about it on their website:

Snails Space is both a summary of Hockney's career and a poignant example of his belief that art should "overcome the sterility of despair." It grew out of his practice of arranging separate canvases around the studio, painting the floor, and inviting his visitors to step into the world of his paintings.

This is a big, fat lie, because they clearly do NOT want anyone to "step into the world of his paintings," let alone wave an arm in front of one of them.

For your viewing pleasure. Just STAND BACK:


  1. We did not make it to that museum when we were in DC. After reading this, I'm glad. We had 7 kids in tow. That painting would have been touched and I'd be "speaking" to you from jail.

    1. That wasn't the only place someone in my family nearly got thrown in museum jail. I will have to tell the other stories one of these days.

      7 kids? 6 wasn't enough that you had to BORROW one?!

    2. Now that I think about it, there were 8 kids. I was thinking I was pregnant with #5, but it was #6. We went on vacation with another family who has 3 kids.
      Although, I do borrow my nieces and nephews as often as possible, so really, 6 isn't enough! :)

  2. I'm a little late to this party, but I just wanted to let you know SARAH TOTALLY SET OFF THE ALARM, also! Which was doubly bad because she was so pissed about having to be there in the first place. And we,too, took refuge by standing in front of the cool TV art piece. Because an episode of "I Love Lucy" will make anyone feel better (even Sarah). Katie (my favorite daughter - just in case she asks) however, loved the museum and was the first one to find the Thomas Hart Benton mural. Because she's awesome, of course. :-)

    1. That's just one of several museums and monuments that we can no longer visit in DC. Everyone in the family BUT ME made a scene somewhere. Future blog posts, I'm sure.