Serendipitous Sculpture

I cannot say for certain, but I’ve always thought that the shiny bolt in the terrazzo floor of the foyer at Severance Hall made my kids more open-minded.

I do recall for sure that it was the first thing my son reported after school on the day of his first field trip there. On our next family excursion to hear the orchestra, this junior docent pointed it out with some authority and pleasure. I think our daughter even paid it a nostalgic visit as she and her white-robed classmates emerged, newly diplomaed, from the concert hall.

The little bolt that was pressed—accidentally or on purpose—into the composite just before it was ground and polished has been referred to as “the only imperfection in the Grand Foyer.” But to my little kids, I think it was more like a tiny piece of art that, because of their proximity to the floor, they felt was intended especially for them. And in a very humble, very subtle way, the little bolt made the foyer, the hall, the orchestra itself more child-friendly. The children reciprocated by becoming more orchestra-friendly.

I was reminded of the bolt today while visiting the Scott Olson and Jerry Birchfield shows at the Transformer Station. There is already a great deal about this building and these shows in particular that makes it a pretty excellent place to share art with children. Not least among these qualities is that it is not a children’s museum any more than Severance is a children’s music center. Never underestimate the appeal to children of the interesting, age-neutral space with coincidental kid-accommodating qualities.

Its scale is the gallery’s first such quality. When I visited the Vatican Museum in the middle of an exhausting month-long trip across Europe as a 20-year-old, I had a sort of childish response to its massiveness. I found myself accelerating through the galleries until I was almost sprinting, my stomach clenching as I went into sensory overload at the sight of acres upon acres of untold wealth. Some people can handle that sort of overabundance, can even relish it, but many—especially children—cannot. With just two very accessible galleries, Transformer Station is far more likely to leave a viewer wanting more, instead of just looking forward to the gift shop.

In fact, the lack of gift shop, from a parent’s perspective, is a big plus. There’s definitely a place for retail in the museum environment, just as there’s a place for dining. Art should be part of life, after all, not something rarefied and removed. But in the case of the Transformer Station, set in a residential neighborhood with a little retail and dining nearby, the real life element is already well supplied. The afternoon is enhanced when you run across the street for a muffin and a chat with your child about art, whereas trying to get her to look at the art when she really wants to look at the gift shop toys just adds conflict.

When exhibitions are presented, as both the Olson and the Birchfield shows are, without curator’s labels near the artworks, it is also an invitation that is especially appealing to children. No one is telling them what a piece of art is called, and very little is shared about the artist’s intention. So a kid has permission to interpret completely for himself, and always be right.

The Olson show makes this especially fun. As your eye wanders across his non-representational work, you think you’ve glimpsed a bird here, a sail there, an open window sash. This space invites investigating those impressions: crossing back and forth, seeing from many angles and distances—exactly the sort of nonlinear experience my own children preferred.

But it was in the Birchfield show that I was reminded of the foyer bolt. Having circumnavigated the room, while still wondering about his method for creating texture in his work, I happened to glance up at this sculptural addition to the H-column that supports the ceiling.

“Untitled,” by Jane (2017), plaster on cotton fiber.
Just kidding, sort of.

It prompted me to make another trip around the show, looking more closely at the use of plaster in Birchfield’s art. There wasn’t really anything else exactly like this piece, which had reminded me of trompe l’oeil, recessed as it was inside the shadow box formed by the column’s flanges. But at the same time, it seemed like it belonged there, and meant something. Not seeing it listed among the works on the single-card gallery guide, I asked the museum receptionist about it.

“Oh, that’s mine,” she smiled. “I did that.”

She handles other tasks around the museum besides standing in for the receptionist, and one of them includes plaster work and painting. In the course of her work, she found herself with a plaster-soaked rag that, left to cure, made an excellent reminder of the artist’s process.

My own preschoolers would have loved discovering that rag, and finding out it wasn’t exactly part of the show. Their dad and I would have loved taking them across the street to the coffee shop for the discussion about whether the rag was art, or a joke, or both, or something else. And as we walked the few blocks back to our house, we all would have loved looking for the millions of other examples of accidental art that enrich the habitat of the arts-aware child.

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