What Moves You? A Visit to the Philbrook Museum

Yesterday, I woke in a slump and decided to fight it with a dose of inspiration. I realized I’d never been to a museum by myself, so off to Tulsa to the Philbrook I went.

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From my years as a designer, I remembered that it’s helpful to have a goal before taking in gobs of visual eye-candy, so I started by meditating in the parking lot about what I wanted to find—what drove me to come here. As I calmed myself in the parked car, it struck me that I spend little time identifying what it is that moves my artistic spirit. I wrote in my art journal “discover what moves me”.

Have you ever noticed that being skilled at painting makes you immune somewhat to being emotionally moved by other artists’ works? If I have any emotional reaction to art, it’s because I see the genius in their craft, and wish to have their knowledge or skill, but rarely do I allow myself to react purely as an appreciator. Yesterday, I got to be an appreciator.

WHAT MOVES ME

The first painting in the museum moved me. Looking back, it might have been worth the trip entirely. It’s “The Little Shepherdess” by Bouguereau. So simple, and profound. The little girl staring at me forced me to consider her worth and unpretentious beauty. The size of the painting drawing me in to her world for a while. I was frozen.
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In the Great Hall of the Philbrook is a marble miniature of the “Three Graces”, created in 1840. I was moved. First of all, white marble figures are breathtaking. The scene in “Pride and Prejudice” where Elizabeth sees Mr. Darcy’s statue room is one of my favorite movie scenes. As I moved around the “Three Graces”, though, I was struck by more than the beauty of the substrate. The oneness and affection of the sisters tells a story of the power of human relationship. There’s also a sadness in the piece that warns of a coming doom…this may be their last embrace.
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A similar mood was evident in the Italian painting “Noli me Tangere (Touch Me Not)” by Benedetto Gennari II. The desperation of Mary wanting to touch Jesus was very moving.
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The Italian wing of the Philbrook was mostly altar pieces which are highly decorative and skilled, but unemotional in my estimation. One other religious piece captured me, not because I care for the story, but because of the emotion of the subject. “St. Francis in Ecstacy” by Bernardo Strozzi is an depiction of Spiritual revelation. Moments of epiphany, as depicted in the piece, are so few and far between that I was moved with desire for such.
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The next big collection in the museum was Western art, and  I wasn’t quite in the mood for that after soaking in the idealistic subjects of European and Italian masters. In the lobby I found a place to sit and think. On the wall by the bookstore, I noticed a magnetic board full of drawings. The museum had sketchbooks and pencils for patrons to practice their drawing skills, it turned out, so I grabbed a set and went back to the Bouguereau painting to draw the girl’s face. I posted my humble drawing on the board and reluctantly walked toward the Rotunda where there was a collection of Western art.

I felt strange having this hesitation to observe the Western art that I have somewhat replicated over the years. I pondered how the romanticism of European art is so epic and moves my soul in its deepest places. It feels like a side of me that I have forgotten. Why have I forgotten? Life can have that affect on us, can’t it—the harsh realities of the world dragging us downward till we don’t even want to imagine that this life, or the afterlife can be worth dreaming about. Perhaps we sometimes dwell on ugly and base things in order to feel like we’re fully appreciating this human experience. But, how uninspiring is the output of artists who dwell frequently on such things. Have I just described 75% of the celebrated artistic output of the 20th century?

To be fair, Western art isn’t base—just, down-to-earth. And, certainly it’s ideal to the more rugged and adventurous of us. I stepped into the rotunda, ready to appreciate, not sure of being moved.

There is a wanderlust in my spirit and I was particularly drawn to paintings of wide open spaces. “Moonrise Over Desert”, by Maynard Dixon made me wish I had a horse, a gun, and two weeks to do nothing but roam. I guess you could say I was moved by it.
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“Grand Canyon” by Thomas Moran was equally inviting although I had to stretch myself to imagine how I would rather fly over this landscape than travel it on horseback. I was a little moved. Maybe I felt obliged to appreciate it rather than actually being moved by it.
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I love the technical skill of Nicolai Fechin, who is adored by many—mostly artists. “Albedia”, a painting of an indian woman is exemplary of why artists love his work: it’s full of exuberant, abstract color, and technical variety, offset by the sober, proud face of the middle-aged woman—a celebration of culture and hard work. I like that. I can be inspired by that, but, was I moved? I still don’t know.
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In conclusion, I haven’t fully answered my original question. A few categories stand out though. John Lasater, the art appreciator, is most definitely moved by these subjects:

I. A beautiful child, who looks at me and seems to ask, “do you accept me the way I am?”
II. Humans desperate for love, affection and touch.
III. Sacrifice, whether it be in war or in Spiritual devotion.
IV. The potential for adventure, wide open spaces—something that makes me say, “I wish I could be there.”

How John Lasater, the artist, will grow from this experience is yet to be seen.

What moves you?

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2 Comments»

[…] here to read an interesting post by John Lasater about his visit to the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, […]

  Mom wrote @

John, thank you for sharing your experiences at the art museum. I was moved by your descriptions and insights into your soul.


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