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

  • Beautifully expressed! Love “Art has the power to bring people together, discover, and discuss their common humanity.” Thank you.

  • The first art I encountered was the Heidelberg School. One of the early art movements of Australia. Think men with beards in the bush doing manly things. To the sound track of my younger brother whining all the way through.

    A close friend introduced me to the Impressionists in early secondary school. That was closer. She was painting in oils regularly through school. She’s intending to get back to it.

    Now there are two of us out of a group of four and we’re involving the other two in art appreciation.

  • Thanks for sharing those tears of love…no mistake – you were in San Francisco where the summer of love happene, and I think, continuous to happen in different ways. San Francisco has a great pulse on Art – and I will be there to see that show on Sunday.
    Alyson, Thanks for being who you are and sharing that.

  • Beautiful post. It brought back fond memories of my mother who was an art teacher. I was always so impressed and intrigued by her ability to engage her students and help them see and interact with the physical world in new and inspiring ways.

  • You’d be fun to look at art with; we’d cry a lot.

  • Connecting to art is an emotional experience – every time. Thanks for sharing that moving story, Alyson.

  • Linda Olsen

    When I was in high school we visited the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was with the group of students moving down a wall, looking at the paintings, when I reached the corner and there, staring me in the face, was El Greco’s View of Toledo. I was stunned and then started crying because I had always admired this painting but never thought I would see it face to face. I felt, in the moment, that I had made a connection with the artist over the centuries. Wow. What a feeling.

    • Oooo. I know what that’s like, Linda. Coming up on a piece of art that you hadn’t expected to run into and the tears start flowing. I did that with Marsden Hartley’s Indian Fantasy at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

  • That’s a great story and a powerful experience. Thanks for sharing. I think in these politically charged times the connection of and with art is more important than ever.

  • Alison, you are a gift to the artist community. Thank you for sharing!!

  • I’ve also cried both from art and music. Sometimes the poignancy of the moment– for you, seeing people engaged in that way; for me seeing an image like a landscape of just after a rainstorm that captures that moment richly — is just so sweet. I have to say, though, that those moments are the most intense after feeling bruised in some way, and I’m guessing that life in the U.S. lately may have done that to many of us. Regardless, there is so much to be grateful for in experiences like yours!

  • Thanks Alyson for posting. It is so refreshing to read AFFIRMATION! I so enjoyed seeing the Matisse/ Diebenkorn– saw it twice. We artists have to work harder these days to dwell in Beauty.- but it is always here– Is our bowl 1/2 full or 1/2 empty? We get to choose.


    Mira M. White

  • Art not only heals it is the soul connection for all. Thank you for your share.

  • I couldn’t agree with you more Alyson.
    Even now, even though I’ve looked at art all my life I still wonder at other peoples obvious delight in sharing their favourite works even with strangers.
    I was in the National Gallery in London looking at the Wilton Diptych, something I’ve seen many times, and an elderly gentleman came up and talked to me about it with such pride and knowledge. It was lovely moment that added to my day.
    p.s. Thanks for all your lovely posts!

  • This is the response every artist dreams of. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Jay

    I love your story, Alyson. Beautiful, indeed. Thank you for sharing.

    I also love the photo of the three men on the bench – that in itself is art.

    I am crying reading this and feeling the joy, hope, and love that makes everything right.
    Thank you for sharing your observations and LOVE.

  • What a wonderful way to express my inner feelings – beautifully written. Thank you!

  • thank you, Alyson. The most rewarding experience for me as an artist is when my art moves someone. It’s even more rewarding when someone who isn’t in to art is moved.
    I wish I had the ability to engage people when they say “I don’t get it”. I have tried. I usually just say “you don’t need to – just look at it and experience it”. Sometimes that expands to questions and sometimes they leave with a bit more understanding. Interesting are the comments – “I don’t get it, but I like it.” Kids and young adults usually love my work and they are easy to engage and talk about it. Adults usually love it or hate it and if they hate it they don’t really want to be approached – they run! 🙂

  • Joan Schlichting

    I was there on Monday, the Matisse/Diebenkorn show was wonderful! I also saw many student groups, one docent was doing a “buy or sell” with her kids. I don’t know if she was doing much teaching, but the kids were engaged and having fun. (They definitely voted to “buy” the urinal.)

  • What a wonderful essay. Thank you for this reminder of loveliness in the world and how useful and beautiful art experiences can be.

  • What Jay said! Your article makes me realize that I need to get to The City more (from Mendocino) and enjoy the great art at the De Young, the Legion, and the refurbished MOMA. I, too, have cried from seeing great art. Being that moved, having that experience, is all part of the force that keeps me creating. Thanks for sharing, Alyson!

  • Thanks so much for sharing this with us, Alyson. I think one of the challenges of being a visual artist is you rarely get to see the reaction of the audience apart from at an opening. I think it is one reason artists can get discouraged when you can’t gauge whether or not there is any reaction to what you are putting out into the world. So great to hear about people connecting with the art and be reminded of its power to affect people.

  • Wow Alyson art and people who feel the connection of art is such a soul expanding moment. Add to the fact that you describe it so well with your words that I too feel that all the way to my toes.
    My own experience of such was as a 16 yr old at the Guggenheim. Walking up to the second floor and just stopping in my tracks facing Monet’s Waterlilies for the first time in person. It was so peaceful, soothing yet expressive with movement. I do believe that was the moment I decided to make art my profession. Powerful.

  • I love this story. You are absolutely right. Art can be a springboard to recognizing our shared humanity.

    I came across a quote this morning that I think is strangely related:

    “There are three things we cry for in life: things that are lost, things that are found, and things that are magnificent.” – Douglas Copeland

  • Thank you for sharing Alyson! Two thoughts:

    It’s a fascinating disconnect in the hairstylist’s conversation with your husband. She doesn’t “get art” but yet, she is an artist. She creates art. People appreciate, admire her genius work making the world a more beautiful place. Sometimes people make the definition of art too narrow and think it must hang in a gallery. It is all around if we just take a moment to look up and see.

    Your article makes it clear why my sister and mother (non artists) have put gallery hopping, with me, on their list of San Francisco things to do, during the cruise stopover this fall. They want the shared experience of seeing what I see.

  • Wonderful post, Alyson! Thanks.

  • Thank you for a powerful testament to art. Your experience comes through in the best way here. And I appreciated the fact that the article finished without being ‘truncated’ to go to your site. I did anyway, because I wanted to see the photos!

  • so beautiful! thanx so much for sharing your heart-felt experience. beauty is all around us when we choose to see!

  • Wonderful essay to begin a day out in the world… 🌞

  • Ann

    Thank you for sharing your experience. You expressed it so well. I was moved once by a docent at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and another at the Metropolitan. These wonderful people are often volunteers who share their love and knowledge freely. you expressed it all so well. It made me share your tears and joy.

  • Marie Claude Gousse Allen

    Thanks for your story. It brought tears to my eyes as well. The intensity and depth of feeling found in art ( for me, a lot in music) can only be ultimately defined, as you so well recounted, by the word love.

  • Really beautifully told. Thanks for a great article.

  • I’ve experienced similar emotions listening and learning as I walk through an exhibit. Really great story!

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for the timely and sincere writing. I am off to see the show TODAY! If you’re still in the bay area I highly recommend driving down to the Cantor Arts Center and the Anderson Collection (next door) at Stanford. The Anderson Collection is always great to see and today and tomorrow Hope Gangloff is continuing the creation of a painting live in the atrium of the Cantor. It’s fascinating to see how she works and her work in progress next to the live subject. She was focusing on the typewriter and her friend’s/subject’s hands when I saw her yesterday.

  • Margit

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful visit and story. As artist I like to be confronted with the reaction of people, which is normally during the openings. No matter if the comments are positiv or negative, it adds to my ideas and perspective.

  • So good to read this beautiful post this morning to set the tone for my day. Thank you for reminding us that there is hope – there is always hope and beauty and love in this cynical world. And it is often through the arts that we experience it. What a wonderful experience! So lovely.

  • Thanks, loved hearing about your experience, wish I had been there too.

  • Beautiful and inspiring article Alyson, thank you for 1) noticing 2) responding 3) noticing your response 4) sharing it with the world. This simple process, practiced every day keeps us all feeling alive! I had a similar experience once when I was in an ordinary Barnes and Noble store… a simple awareness started to grow in me…all these book contained the creative energy of thousands of people…the writers, the editors, the layout people, the illustrators, the marketers EVER book had a huge cadre of people all pouring their effort into making this ONE book…and here, walking down the isles of a an average bookstore was all that energy, imagination, effort and dreaming….it became overwhelming to me. It is still difficult to describe when one comes upon a meeting up with the colossal immensity of the human spirit. Tears are often the best and sometimes only response. Thank you for sharing this inspiring story.

  • I admire how you share such an intimate experience. Thank you for it. And I can so relate to it.
    I enjoyed the exhibition a couple weeks ago and was moved by how Diebenkorn was so smitten by the colors of Matisse. I am grateful how, the art was displayed side by side to make it clear how Matisse connected with Diebenkorn a century later. Beautiful

  • Martha Shepp

    The colossal immensity of the human spirit. Something to not forget!

  • Margaret Berry

    Thank you for this eloquent and moving essay. I am sharing it with my fellow docents at the Sheldon Museum of Art here in Lincoln, Nebraska. We are lucky to have a partnership with our public schools and students have repeated experiences with us. To think that it matters this much is heartwarming!

  • Rebecca Olsen Webb

    When I visit the Cincinnati Art Museum and see the Harriet Whitney Frishmuth sculptures, I have a tendency to tear up. So much beauty, I can’t hold it all. I literally say “hi!” to them. I told my husband that after I die, I’d like some of my ashes snuck into the courtyard around these gorgeous works.

  • Thank you for sharing, Alyson! The timing of your post is amazing. I recently had an unfortunate experience with an art doubter that could have derailed my efforts. But, I realized that the comments from this person were rooted in ignorance and close-mindedness. I might have reacted differently if not for my experience with your program. I LOVE your story and whole-heartedly appreciate what you’ do for artists! Thank you so very much!

  • Thank you for sharing your insights Alyson. I went to see it with a young friend just the other day and had a similar experience. I was marveling at how art brings us together and makes us think and feel different. At the end my friend was commenting how glad she was to have gone with an artist, as with all the comments I made she was able to appreciate the paintings in a much deeper way.

  • Barbara W.

    What a delightful post – intelligent, warm, authentic, convincing. Thank you.

  • Thank you for such an inspiring post, Alyson.

  • Terrific writing about a terrific experience! My husband and I visit art museums wherever we travel. It’s hard to explain to some people, but luckily there are many who get it. Every time we walk into an art museum, the world rights itself. Thank you for capturing that feeling so well and for sharing it with us! You made my day!

  • Christine Lathrop

    Rushing home from shopping and Eye appointment this morning I was dreaming of having time to enjoy music and art as I would like to. Your message gave me a few minutes of that experience. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m fortunate to have many young visitors attend open studios events and am always moved emotionally by their interest and excitement. There is hope for the world, to be sure.

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