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The Art of Remembrance

Posted on August 10, 2017 at 12:00 AM by Jami Milne

Earlier this month, The New York Times published an article as a part of a series devoted to summer trips in which a writer tried something for the first time. The recollection took readers to the Spook-a-Rama in Coney Island on a 1950s summer day. Fifty years later, the author would view an exhibition at the Brooklyn Art Museum that included Diane Arbus’s 1961 photograph The House of Horrors, Coney Island, N.Y. — a dark interior shot of that same amusement park ride. She described it below:

"Works of art (a painting or photo, a novel or poem or play, a symphony or song) can serve as bridges to the past, connecting us to a distant time. And for me, Arbus’s House of Horrors, Coney Island, N.Y. seems like a private bridge that no one else can cross in precisely the same way."

We asked staff and friends of University Museums to share stories of art that created that same personal bridge to their past. While we were eager to hear about works of art from the University Museums collection, we were thankful for the emotion and excitement by art from outside of our campus walls as well.

Las Meninas, 1656 by Diego Velázquez

When I was in the 9th grade, my Spanish class took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC to see an exhibition of paintings by Diego Velazquez ( Just the trip by itself was very exciting - permission slips, wee-hours drop-off at the charter bus, plus, my first actual visit to the museum from one of my absolute favorite books of my tweenage years: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. 

We had prepared for the trip by studying Velazquez, his relationship with the Spanish royal family, and some of the better known paintings. My favorite was definitely Las Meninas. So much going on in that painting, one could look at it for a long time and never run out of things to look at! That painting was not at the exhibition (but I did see it later in person, on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Spain with my parents and sisters when I was in grad school, and it was still captivating to me, and also more gigantic than I had imagined, which doubled it's impact on me seeing it in real life). 

The exhibition was great anyway, and we were given a little bit of freedom to check out the rest of the museum, which was wonderful to me (both the museum and being able to check it out with a little independence). It was a fabulous little trip, and I bought a souvenir poster from the exhibition - a print of the painting Prince Baltasar Carlos With a Dwarf. I didn't much care for the painting, but that was the poster they had, so that was what I bought. I hung it on the back of my bedroom door at home. Later, I took it to college and hung it in my dorm room, then my apartment(s) in grad school, and finally, my office here at Iowa State. By then it was like an old friend. 

There was also something about the painting that was, by that time, speaking to me in a different way than it had when it was just a souvenir of a wonderful day. In this painting, Prince Baltasar Carlos is a toddler, almost still a baby, with a little baby face and chubby little toddler hands. But he is dressed like a royal adult, with an adult-y hat sitting beside him as if he is off to an afternoon of meetings after the sitting. But he's a baby. As an assistant professor, I was having some definite feelings of imposter syndrome, and I started to like this painting through that lens. "I see you, royal adult-baby. I see your carefully selected clothes meant to portray a certain grown-up image, clothes which are in fact absurd on a baby. I see your poker face, sitting for this painting as if you are a regular grown-up guy at a committee meeting and not, for example, thinking about how much you would like to play around with that little thing in your hands and tumble on that pillow like the toddler you actually are. I see you. We're alike." 

The poster remained on my office wall for years, until my department moved into a new building. By then the poster, ragged at the edges even despite my eventual framing of it behind some thin plexi, was too shabby to move into my new and shining office. Also, I didn't need it as much to reassure me, because I no longer felt like a baby in grown-up clothes. I can go to meetings with my real face, and I wear whatever I like without thinking too much about it, and I play with my toys without worrying that it makes me look silly. But still I think this painting and I have a little thing, a little shared story, a little wink to give each other from our poker faces, despite really no connection or common ground. That's something about great art, though, right? It invites us into a shared story?

- Amy Kaleita, Associate Professor of Agricultural & Biosystems Engineering, Iowa State University


Library Boy & Girl, 1944 by Christian Petersen. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University.

It is tough to pick “a” favorite in the collection. The Petersen works are woven into my whole history at ISU, as well as being part of an artistic movement that was also important in dance. The glass collection is spectacular, of course. Tying a work to a childhood memory narrows the field: Library Boy & Girl. I was a bookworm, haunting our city’s beautiful public library and bringing armloads of books home every week. At eight, I talked my way into being allowed to check out books from the adult collection (upstairs, not downstairs where the children’s books were kept!), where I found an enormous book about Winterthur. I don’t know how many times I checked that book out and combed its pages, but it was many, many times.

Many years later, Ken and I were able to help sponsor Library Boy & Girl outside the Hub, which led to one of the best photos ever taken of the two of us. 

Dana Schumacher, retired Assistant Director, University Honors Program, Iowa State University and Art on Campus Docent for University Museums 


Two favorites of University Museums: Nancy Gebhart and daughter Lydia

The first one that comes to mind is Sisters by Hung Liu. This is one of my favorite works of art in the collection. This lithograph is technically and visually beautiful. Although the title is Sisters, I look at this print and see the relationship I have with my daughter. In fact, Hung Liu didn’t know what relationship the two figures had herself, but titled the print Sisters because she saw a special bond between the two figures. I have a picture of us that is similar in pose. Regardless of their specific relationship, their body language indicates that the bond they have is special. They are playful and supportive. Looking at it doesn’t bring a specific memory, but endless memories of motherhood over the past five years.

- Nancy Gebhart, Educator of Visual Literacy and Learning, University Museums


Under the Table, 1944 by Robert Therrien

During my elementary school days, I spent hours on the floor in our living room, under the library table and nearby chairs, creating homes for my paper dolls, along with their clothes and furniture, all drawn by me on poor quality paper with weak colored pencils, watery paints and mostly blunt crayons! This May when I saw Robert Therrien's sculpture Under the Table at the Broad Art Museum in Los Angeles, I liked it instantly. Like other visitors, I felt compelled to walk under the 10 foot tall table and large chairs. Surprisingly, at first, I sensed a feeling of emptiness. The generic style table and chairs were everyone's table and chairs and no one's table and chairs. They weren't  the curvy legs of our walnut, gateleg dining room table, nor the smooth, chrome legs of the kitchen table, nor the graceful base of the veneer oak, library table. Instead, they represented all of the tables of my life and stirred unending memories, memories which included shelter from the disrupting footsteps of adults when I was yet a child.

- Barbara Bruene, Associate Professor Emeritus, College of Design, Iowa State University and Art on Campus Docent for University Museums



I found this photograph in my favorite thrift/antique shop in Iowa City. The only information on it is written on the back, "Peter Hansen in Withee Wisconsin before married." People who know me know that I love small Midwestern towns, particularly ones that are heavily influenced by European cultures due to large amounts of immigrants during early America. That's what drew me to this image, how it showed the life of a man in rural Wisconsin during the time of the horse drawn carriage.

After buying the image, I showed it to my parents. They informed me that Withee was a small community of Danish-Americans not unlike the one my mother grew up in due to her Danish immigrant grandparents, also in Wisconsin called Racine. Then they began to remember that we had some distant relatives in Withee. I found this connection very powerful, as an image I had found in an antique shop that spoke to me through its historical connection could be of a relative of mine or at least someone who knew a relative of mine. This is even more likely as there are only 487 people in Withee today and definitely less back then. Interesting to say the least.

- Charlie Coffey, Senior in Art & Visual Studies and University Museums intern, Iowa State University


Left-Sided Angel, 1986 by Stephen De Staebler. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University

I first encountered Left-Sided Angel by Stephen De Staebler almost 20 years ago. The sculpture loomed outside of the Parks Library, its dark molded form so contradictory to the squared angles of the glass building behind it. At first, I had trouble looking up toward it. It was amorphous and uncertain and perhaps that's why it was so unsettling to me — in large part, it represented exactly how I felt those early years on campus. 

Twenty years later, it's my favorite. I climb on top of the concrete embankment that surrounds it, just to get that much closer. I feel the energy and emotion that swell over all of these years, find stillness in the uncertainty and a sense of belonging in the uniqueness that it embodies.

- Jami Milne, Communications and Development Coordinator, University Museums


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