An Art Illiterate Goes to the Museum

Ask anyone what they know about Springfield, MO and they’ll dredge up nearby Branson and its country music shows or Bass Pro and its sprawling flagship store full of rods, reels and majestically stuffed trophy kills. Or maybe they’ll mention our cashew chicken, a Springfield-style twist on the traditional recipe which ensures visitors to our town get their daily dose of both calories and cholesterol. But did you know our Springfield Art Museum has a Jackson Pollock? We’re cooler than you think.

Next week I’m heading back to NYC, the destination that inspired my first post to this blog, oh so many years ago.  They’re calling for snow while my sister and I are there, which I’m choosing to believe will be beautiful and not simply cold and wet, but that gives us a perfect excuse to hole up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and stay warm while we absorb culture. So much culture. Can you overdose on art in a two million square foot museum? Yes, I suspect, the answer has got to be yes. So in preparation, and out of embarrassment that I was about to travel to a museum 1,000 miles away while ignoring the one in my own hometown, I made time to visit the Springfield Art Museum. It’s much, much smaller than two million square feet and it’s free, so why not?

Our Springfield Art Museum naturally focuses on local artists, but has also curated a permanent exhibit of portraits, sculptures, ceramics and other mediums by more widely known artists. Full confession, I know nothing about art and how one painter influenced another or why changes in society are reflected in the progression of art movements. But I do know something about story, and I’m drawn to the pieces that use subject, color, and movement to tell a story. And I like what I like, which is probably true for all of us, but may be easier for the art illiterate because nobody has ever tried to make us feel “less than” for not worshipping artists deemed worthy by the elite. 

But back to our Pollock, which is a mid-1930s landscape painted while the future abstract expressionist was working with the muralist Thomas Hart Benton, a period which led to Pollock’s assertion that his association with Benton “was important as something against which to react very strongly, later on; in this, it was better to have worked with him than with a less resistant personality who would have provided a much less strong opposition.” Daddy issues, much? 

Untitled landscape by Jackson Pollock
Untitled but just look at the wind bending the trees in Jackson Pollock’s world.

While I liked the Pollock piece, a few other artists held my eye longer. Like this “Missouri Farmers” portrait by Siegfried Reinhardt, in a style he self-described as “un-new, un-experi-mental and un-angry.” 

Reinhardt adds lots of bronzer to his farmer tans

I beg to differ with Reinhardt though, because his use of light, shadows and even the placement of his subjects seems distinctly more “new” than George Caleb Bingham’s ca. 1869 “Portrait of Fanny Smith Crenshaw.” Why do I love Bingham’s work on this piece? Probably because of its nearly photographic realism and the light brought to his subject’s face. His Fanny feels alive. And I wish she were, so I could have her over for wine and paella and ask the early Springfield suffragette about the day she walked into the pre-WWI polls with a few fellow widows and politely asked to vote on a tax levy issue. Talk about a portrait with a story to tell. 

And then there’s Robert E. Smith. Was his technique sophisticated? No. Was his work approved by the artistic elite? No. Was he even good? You be the judge.

Yes, I know you could paint just as well as Smith. But do you? Robert E. Smith made it happen.

But Robert E. Smith was ours, part of Springfield’s story, and, way back in my college days, part of my story as well. Robert lived with his mother in a quarter of a big, old house just a short walk north of the campus. The house had been divided into four barely inhabitable apartments, and I lived with my boyfriend (later my husband) and Queenie, our German shepherd dog, in one of the upstairs apartments. We’d see Robert coming or going every now and then and thought him a weird little man. (At least I remember him as being a little man; was he or is that a trick of my memory?) His brief bio next to his self-portrait describes him as “Famous for his eccentric personality and incredible baritone voice.” That fits, as I picture the Robert E. Smith I knew as jerky in his movements, loud and a little bit scary. He was, we assumed, not quite fully baked in his head. And then he became a locally famous artist, which just goes to show you that Instagram didn’t invent the concept of leveraging colorful eccentricity for fame. 

So now I’ve primed my taste for art, and next week I’ll be off to the big show at the Met, with all those brilliant works by certified geniuses—and hopefully a few oddballs like Smith, because it’s a cold, cold heart that can’t appreciate childlike innocence. I’m still not sure if I’ll risk overdose by wandering from wing to wing or just find a perfectly told story and sit back and soak it in. Probably some of both. But whatever happens, at least the museum and my heart will be warm. 

Peace & love.





2 responses to “An Art Illiterate Goes to the Museum”

  1. Eric Avatar

    Always enjoy your clever and well written posts. Enjoy The Met!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 2000detours Avatar

      Thank you so much, Eric!


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