Life Is Beautiful and I Have Proof

All is right with the world. I have proof.

I’m at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to see the Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibition. I arrive early with Rob, my trooper of a husband. He’s agreed to be my companion through the permanent collection galleries before our afternoon ticket time.

What I witness restores my faith in humanity.

Here’s how it goes down.

Is It Art?

As a former museum educator, I know that it’s wise to avoid school tours in the galleries. If I had thought about that, I might have visited later in the day. But then I wouldn’t have been fortunate enough to have had this experience.

There is at least one group in each of the galleries. Most students have assignments and a docent.

One docent teaches native Spanish speakers how to say Marcel Duchamp.
Mahr-sel’ Du’-shahn

They giggle.

She stands in front of Duchamp’s Fountain and asks: Is it art? They are pretty certain it isn’t. It’s a urinal, for Pete’s sake.

I don’t stick around to hear more of their reasoning. I already feel like I’m an intruder.

I’m less interested in the art history lecture than in the way these kids are fully engaged with the art. They are hanging on every word she says.

My husband finds me and asks what I’m up to. “This docent is awesome,” I say.

Then I catch a glimpse of another heartwarming scene.

Big Floaty Shapes

A man with glasses is sitting on a bench – flanked by two other gentlemen. They’re worshipping at the altar that is Mark Rothko’s No. 14 from 1960.

At first they seem like buddies hanging out on their lunch break. But then I notice that the man in the middle is doing all of the talking and pointing. The other two are nodding. Their heads follow his every direction.

The man in the center, the docent, brings a Joan Mitchell into the conversation with Rothko. Compare. Contrast.

His audience eventually moves on, but he’s quickly in the spotlight again with an even larger group.

He’s a human magnet.

I’m hanging in the wings – amazed by his knowledge and desire to share what he knows. He is turning these visitors into raving fans. I’m immediately a fan of him.

My husband circles back around to find me once again absorbing the scene. “Man, this guy is really good!”

I still feel like a voyeur, but I can’t stop listening.

Dirt and Mirrors

We’re on to sculpture and the docent who had the kids at Duchamp now stands them in front of Robert Smithson’s Nonsite (Essen Soil and Mirrors). It consists of mirrors and (as the title states) soil.

Once again, high school kids, who are usually some of the biggest skeptics, are completely present and curious.

They’re having a serious conversation about dirt and mirrors! They understand there is something more to it and decide that it’s worth investigating.

They might not have a solid grasp of English, but they grasp the language of art.

This is when I lose it.

Losing It

Tears begin to well up in my eyes. I can’t contain them.

I am overcome with emotion and look for a place to sit down because I’m compelled to capture this experience before it leaves me. I scribble …

“This is where all is right in the world.”
“Engaged in humanity.”
“Best of humanity.”

I continue crying. I am so freakin’ moved. Life is beautiful.

My husband wanders in (again) and is concerned. “What’s wrong?” He wonders. I can’t talk about it. Not just yet.

It’s hard to explain what’s happening to the mathematician-physicist I married.

I am overcome not by art, though that has happened on other occasions.

In this moment, I am overcome with love. Love of all that is right with the world.

Art has the power to bring people together, discover, and discuss their common humanity.

All I can think is Damn! I’m so lucky to get this! And blessed to witness others whose lives might be shaped – for the better – in that moment.


Rob pretends he’s about to climb Richard Serra’s Sequence. (Don’t worry! He knows better than to touch it for even a moment.)

Before we left for our quick trip, my husband had an interesting conversation with his hair stylist.

After she heard he was going to see an art exhibit in San Francisco, she shook her head and said with a scowl, “Art! I just don’t get it.”

I hope one day she is fortunate enough to happen upon a docent as knowledgeable as the ones we encountered. She doesn’t have to get it. But I hope that she is open to new experiences and has a growth mindset.

Because if you happen upon the right people with the right words and a keen amount of patience, you might be taken on a journey you’ll never forget.

One final note: the Matisse/Diebenkorn show was also well worth the trip.

Your Turn

Please leave a comment to tell me the art experiences you’ve had that reaffirm that life is, indeed, beautiful.

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128 comments to Life Is Beautiful and I Have Proof

  • jan

    “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” -Pablo Picasso
    Thank you for sharing your experience.

  • Lovely story Alyson, thank you for sharing this! That you had such a strong emotional connection to the experience and were able to convey that in your writing is a gift.

  • Such a moving essay! I loved seeing your handwritten notes, scribbled in a hurry to capture your feelings. And the bench photo is just sublime. The last time I had an awe-inspiring art experience was from a bench in The National Gallery (East Wing) in Washington DC. I was taking in the magnificent work of Matisse – “Large Decoration with Masks”. It is nearly 400 feet long and 140 feet tall. The scale of it is remarkable of course, but I was moved by the sheer tenacity of the man. I was moved to tears and to sit down and take it all in. BTW, I say we need benches in every gallery of every museum – to better ponder and process.

  • I teach painting in an extension program at a local university and I have done this for years. The pay is terrible and the facilities have much to be desired. I do not get paid for all my overtime office hours, even though I must spend at least 2 hours per week planning, e-mailing, managing their Facebook group, etc.

    I ask myself, from time to time WHY am I doing this? And the only thing I can say is that there is a feeling at the end of most class sessions that something “clicked”! A connection was made! My students are better for understanding the information I was able to share! And I leave feeling happy.
    This is what it is all about.

  • Thank you so much for sharing this experience, Alyson, and your insight. You were very present in the moment or else you could have just avoided the crowds and then missed out on these gems. Quite moving.

  • I’ve had a few of those very emotional moments that so few people get – to be a careful observer and have a profound appreciation for what is before you. Thank you for sharing, Alyson. I have recently moved near the Dali Museum and am considering being a docent there. Your post has confirmed that this is indeed what I want to do – to share in my excitement of the art before me so that others can catch the excitement as well. See how you have spread your positivity?! Thank you again for sharing!

  • Wonderful post and exquisite photographs!

  • Linda Korstad

    Thank you! Thank you!! Thank you!!!
    I really needed this today. You are so generous to share so much of yourself with so many.

  • I have recently begun teaching teenagers photography – but am avoiding teaching them technique as much as possible – in order to allow their own sight to flow before fine-tuning it. This is how I came to art, and my vision is still stronger than my technique (frustratingly at times!) however the comments are consistent about my photography – that I capture human emotion and spirit. I am so so so inspired that leading teens to just a glimmer of creative expression can awaken so much in them, enable them to see beauty and connection in their world, empower them to express their unique insight, and then give the rest of us optimism and joy for the future. Thank you for sharing, Alyson, this strengthened my belief in what I am doing!

  • Very Big and kind hearted, Thank You!!

  • It is not just knowledge that informs but also passion. Passion in the Art itself, passion for people and most of all passion for life. Thanks Alyson.

  • What a great experience! It is true that art can engage even the most skeptical if they are given some guidance to questioning what a piece might be saying, to them! When I was a docent at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, OR, I once had a high school student come to tears over my explanation of the symbolism of India’s dancing Shiva. Your experience of watching the engagement of others is very uplifting. Thank you for sharing.

  • I’m glad you had a great experience! But I do have to comment on your last remark about the hair stylist. She doesn’t need to meet a docent, lol, she needs to meet an ARTIST! Docents can only talk in second hand stories, many of which may or may not be true, only the artist knows the true story to their work. And she can find artists all over the place without going to a museum with very few live artists. Just find your local art walk, gallery or art show!

    And for the artists here, make sure you can tell your own story and reach those around you.

  • Great post, Alyson. Very affirming!

  • I taught a basic bookbinding class for university support staff recently, and at the end of the second session, an administrator from the dean’s office pulled a handful of small books out of his pocket and confessed that he’d been making them almost obsessively in the two weeks since our first class – – using them, giving them away to friends, innovating on the structure. He’d never even thought about books as an art form before, and the delight and excitement in his voice and on his face was unforgettable. It still moves me to tears.

  • This made me cry too. Thank you so much for sharing this reminder to savor these moments! As a retired AP high school teacher, I love that the kids were SO engaged in this experience and that you as an educator noticed. I want to invite the man with the glasses to dinner at my house….. 🙂

  • Joan Green

    beautiful story — thank you! It makes me remember why I make art.

  • I’m an artist who wrote art reviews for a local paper for years. The hours were long and the pay was terrible, but I didn’t care – the rewards were feedback from people who told me how much it meant to them to have help finding a way to look at art, to seek out exhibits, to take the time to explore, discuss, ponder and think about what they were seeing. People were hungry to discover what the artist was thinking, surprised at the number of ways to look at and interpret what was before them, and so full of joy at how much fun it was to let loose and just react, with a little help and knowledge, to so many different kinds of art. A good docent is worth her/his weight in gold, because they give a kind of permission to respond when most people often feel intimidated, shrug, and claim they “just don’t get art.” I love to talk about my own work too, and find that when people buy a piece of art, they want to buy a story, a part of the artist, too. I’m so glad you wrote about your experience! I felt it all.

  • Thank you , it was a lovely birthday gift to see a gallery in another place , another time, always welcome Josiexx

  • Great encounter. And for you to pick up on it.

    This brought to mind my encounters at the MFA, Boston. My daughter works there and I have seen many of the major art shows with her. She used to take children birthday groups around to some of the paintings and talk about them. Then they would go back to the studio area for a party and paint. The one painting that was liked was “Watson and the Shark” by John Singleton Copley.

    Every time I go to one of these shows, I am amazed at the crowds of different people trying to view the art. There could be 2, 3 or more people deep along the walls. Not trying to, but you hear several conversations going on about the paintings. One show I saw a young boy working his way up to a painting. He looked for awhile, turned around and yelled to his mother, “it’s called oil on canvas.” 🙂

  • Wow, I almost missed this one! It was in my spam folder! Thank you for telling your story.

  • Marilynn

    Loved this wonderful post, Alyson

  • Pat

    Great story, so heartwarming! And I love the pictures of the old gent in front of the Rothko – wonderful photos!

  • Joan Larsen

    Thanks Alyson. I needed this reminder today! Also reminds me that I need to jump on the train to Chicago to hit the art museum.

  • “Art has the power to bring people together, discover, and discuss their common humanity.”

    Yes – this rings with so much truth! In today’s crazy world we need to promote ways for people to connect and recognize their common humanity.

  • Alyson…I liked your reactions to the docent’s gift to young minds. The power of art to share impressions and open up dialogue is incredible in those scenes.

    My first show that stopped me was to the Modern Art Museum Fort Worth, when I was in high school. I didn’t have the gift of a docent’s words, compassion and insight, but I was moved by the 8 works of African art on display in a small gallery. All of my classmates and teacher were visiting major galleries within the original and smaller museum than today’s museum. They looked at Western artist’s like Russell and French Impressionist. Since I saw many of these types of art in homes where my father worked as I contractor, I spent the entire time looking and thinking about the meaning and silent storytelling through images that were new to me.

    The power of art to bring us together as One Nation of Open Minded Visual Explorers proves that
    the NEA is worth protecting.

  • What a beautiful post Alyson! I was moved by your words. I remember finishing a piece of art and just crying with emotion. At first I was stunned as I was a business woman and what was I doing crying!! but then realized, I was SO LUCKY to have experiences “seeing art” I was too busy before. I can only feel what you must have felt!!

  • Thank you for sharing this beautiful story, Alyson. In these days of measuring everything in money, justifying the cost of art is difficult. How do you measure how these visitors were moved? How someone heart soars when they see a piece of public art? These experiences are life-changing and priceless, yet hard to measure in today’s most popular currency. Here’s to hoping more people experience what you did and realize the incredible value of art in our lives. Thanks again.

  • I just came back from 4 days of painting, demos and lectures at Plein Air South, During one of the lectures given by a gallery owner, the speaker would stop every 10 minutes or so and say OK. Time for a beauty break. She would then show 4 or 5 slides of beautiful paintings before continuing with her presentation. I don’t know whether it was the contrast with her rather dire statistics, or if it was just the act of dropping everything to view art for a minute or so. But the effect was magnetic as everyone just halted and filled their senses with beauty for those brief moments. Not quite the same thing you experienced Alyson, but another picture of how important it is to allow ourselves the time to engage with the things artists have gifted us with.

  • We drove from Prescott,AZ to see the Matisse/Diebenkorn show and it was amazing. I know exactly what you are talking about!I am am artist and not a writer, so I wish I could express myself better with words.You did just that.Thank you….

  • Thank you for sharing and writing this article. It just moved me and brought tears of joy to my eyes as well. I just graduated from art school with my masters in fine art – visual arts. I was always a math and science girl in high school. I taught myself how to draw and paint from “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. It transformed my life. To be able to look at life through an artist’s eye is a gift. Not everyone needs to draw or paint, but most people can create (color, arts and crafts, sew, cook, etc) something or just bond and appreciate art. Going to a museum or art reception seems to slow down life. Live in the moment and experience life! Thanks again!
    Christine Ryan

  • Love it! Thank you Alyson for sharing your moment. It’s so nice to know other people have those kinds of moments. I feel like I’m way too sensitive or weird when that kind of thing happens to me, because most people seem so stoic about arts and human connection. I get weepy at ballets and even concerts sometimes over the humble sacrifice I know the artists have endured to get to this point to display such talent and grace. Most people don’t seem to have appreciation for that part, they seem to think they just jumped out on stage and played it, or danced it, or painted it. It is wonderful to catch a glimpse of that appreciation, restores our faith of the good in humanity that is so easily lost.

  • Dear Alyson,

    I love the part where what’s happening in the gallery moves you to tears, and I understand.
    I used to take my College English students to our wonderful Art Gallery of Ontario on the free night. They would meet me there and I’d walk them around the Canadian Gallery talking about different artists because I thought it was important for Canadians to know and be involved in their own culture. Most of these students had never been to an art gallery. They had to pick one artist from the period just before and during the first world war, and write an essay on the painting they saw, and the artist’s life. Plus they had to connect that to the essay in the text on the Vimy Ridge Monument in France. (Actually the land in France was given to Canada in gratitude). These students didn’t think they’d like the gallery. Didn’t want to go. But once there were enthralled by the gallery, fell in love with the art, and wrote wonderful essays on the artists they chose, each one different. I felt so moved every time I did this exercise. A few years ago I got a boss who didn’t understand the connection between writing and art, and she prohibited me from continuing. A pity. I miss the thrill of seeing students discover the power of art, and I know longer teach for that school. I now work for wonderful bosses, but this option wouldn’t work with my current course.
    Thanks for this moving piece.

    XOXOXOXOXO Barbara

  • I found that I was the magnet at a Quilt National show some years ago. I had talked with the artists—and was one myself–but at a tour later in the month, I was describing the works to my friend and as I walked around the gallery, I had more and more people following me including the director. They were all avidly listening to my descriptions–it was a fun day for me–
    sharing knowledge with enthusiasm is one of the best things to do in this world.

  • It is the kids that are responsible for re-starting my interest in art and jump starting the neglected art engine again. I had dropped out of trying to make a living in the arts when after 20 years gone by my daughter on day after school came home and said, “Dad, you need to step up”. She was referring to one of the schools art teachers just up and quit and they needed someone with experience (ceramics) to stand in. I did and taught for nearly 2 months while they found a full time teacher. I was asked to stay but, I refused being self employed and needing to get back to my real job. Now, for the good part. The kids were awesome, fun, energetic, curious and down right into it and because of them I enrolled in the local cultural arts center where to this day 15 years latter I teach. I also, sell my work in a number of galleries. It is all because of those kids.

  • Kids thinking. People finding questions in the answers that artists discovered. Life is good. Thanks for sharing.

  • I’m so glad you had this experience and wrote about it. Yes, art is a powerful way to share our “common thread of humanity,” and I use that fact in my work. Arts education is an invaluable tool to bring people to this conversation. I urge everyone to support arts education, both in our schools and in the public. Talk about art, invite conversation, educate, so we may all experience it’s healing power together. Thank you, Alyson…Bravo!!! Life is, indeed, beautiful!

  • Sue Sehr

    I once had an experience of going to the Seattle Art Museum with an art historian from the U.K. He went through the exhibit and selected 12 works of art. He then took our small group of 6, who were his students through the museum. He stopped at the selected paintings and lectured on each painting. The man in the Rothko photographs remind me of my instructor and his enthusiasm. The museum guards followed us, seemingly at first, to be sure he did not touch the paintings. As we progressed through the exhibit it became clear they were as mesmerized as we, his students were. At one point I turned around and there were about 30 people who had joined our group.
    How I wish art history was taught this way all the time. It was unforgettable for all of us I am sure.

  • The right docent is invaluable. Because we live in Maine, we’ve made a few trips to the Olson House where Andrew Wyeth painted so many of his amazing works. The first time we went they didn’t have docents but more recently they have. They DO open your eyes to so much more and enhance the experience tremendously.

  • Every one has a gift, if you don’t find it, what is the purpose of having it.

  • Your husband should have touched the Richard Serra – his work is meant to be touched. In fact, in MOMA there is a work of his on the floor which is meant to be walked on as you explore it. It’s kind of funny watching people avoid stepping on it, even though there is a sign inviting people to walk on it!

    Re the docent experience, I accidentally had one of my own.

    I was at The Met at an exhibition of embroidery and textile through the ages. There was a magnificent large piece of Chinese double sided embroidery. While I was looking at it there were a couple of women wondering how it was done, especially as the embroidery on each side appeared to be in different colours. This is an area I know a lot about, so I told them that these embroideries are created with one embroiderer standing on each side of the work who pass the needle back and forth to each other. The reason why they thought the threads were different colours was due not to the thread, but to the different colours of the background fabric. I then gave them a quick and concise lesson on colour theory a la Joseph Albers. On the tail end of the conversation another group of people came up who, similarly fascinated, asked me if I could repeat what I had said to the other people.

    The next question: do you work here? Ah, no, I’m just a punter like you.
    How do you know so much about this stuff? I think I said: long time held interest of mine, but I could just as easily have said, “book learnin'”! 😉

  • Alex

    It’s nice to read about moments like these where the worry of a lacking relationship between artist and observer (and the docents of course) disappears. In my opinion, the interest in art and the willingness to interpret art pieces is rather a role one can take than a matter of intelli-gence. It’s not like people are too dumb to “get it”, but more a confusion when being asked what to think of an art piece. Where can one start? I think a certain mindset needs to be es-tablished, a rule of thumb when critiquing art to clear out confusion. Your husband is a good example, he sure is smart and emotions don’t require intellect, but he probably couldn’t con-nect to this scenario like you did, because linking all these factors requires a different (contex-tual/analytical) mindset.
    I can’t list how many times I was touched by music and feeling conformity between me and an artist. I like to think of Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat” as an aesthetic repre-sentation of life’s beauty within suffering. After questioning many times why Marat would smile after being stabbed in his bathtub, spilling blood and coloring the water red, I thought of his last moments as a rush before confronting death. Enjoying the remaining moments of his life once again so intensely that no amount of suffering could surpass his enjoyment. The in-tense feelings that come with that thought and the aesthetics of the painting make it an all-time favorite for me.
    Another experience I had was when listening to “Deathconsciousness” by Have A Nice Life, which fittingly featured “The Death of Marat” as its album cover. As a listener, I was taken through so many forms of beauty by calm, chilling, nerve-wrecking and noisy sounds, being surprised on how many ways of delivering emotions there were. Combined with my previous-ly crafted love for this painting and the contextual link between these two arts, I just was satis-fied and filled with love and passion beyond belief. A moment consisting of art pieces which would just fit together that good.
    I sure wasn’t “intelligent” enough to experience this beauty but rather passionate enough to find these links and meanings with ways of analyzing art that’s beyond basic observation for myself. When confronting art, everyone must find a different way of how to approach mean-ing when wanting to discover the beauty within the meaning. The beauty in the link you were able to find between the artists, the passionate and the interested probably was a little art piece by life itself which you were able to interpret by your way of approach.

  • Annehilda Wright

    I did so enjoy the story you told and can relate to how you feel about humanity as it is today. I have found more often than not it’s a matter of one’s attitude towards others. I belong to an artists’ group and we’re all very sensitive and a little crazy but the thing that gets me emotional is the love and care, encouragement and support we all have for each other and that, in particular, love is a very powerful commodity.

  • Leona Dillon

    There is something so magical with art whether creating it or viewing it. It awakens all our senses, questions our Being, there is more to life and living. It is going to another place mentally and emotionally. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

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