Peaks and Valleys

curator’s mountain-sized mistake helps artist re-evaluate her own work

Vicki Milewski, illustrated by Vicki Milewski

In 2008, I was thrilled to have my work exhibited in the former Terra Museum of American Art on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. I was still learning how to be an artist, and how to be professional. I arrived early with my three paintings, brother in tow to help install them. The curator was a young man who talked fast, walked fast and had grand ideas about the exhibit. He wanted every painting present before he would hang even one. So we waited – for hours. After eight hours of waiting and only half the paintings present, the curator said we could leave. I was disappointed. I wanted to help hang my paintings, but I was also quite tired.

The following morning was bright and clear as we walked down Michigan Avenue among the tourists and shoppers. My brother and I arrived at the Terra Museum just as another young artist was stalking out. She told us the curator wanted to hang her painting, a realistic landscape, upside-down. She wouldn’t allow it, so she left, frustrated. I looked at my brother and we shrugged; the wires on my paintings were already in place. Once in the gallery space, I saw two of my paintings on the freshly-painted wall. And the third … upside-down! I was aghast. I walked over to take the painting off the wall as the curator came over, smiling warmly.

I was about to tell him that this painting, “Blinking Third Eye,” was upside-down when he started gesturing and talking rapidly about the painting’s “wonderful blue mountains” in the background. He was called away for a moment and I stood there dumbstruck. My brother said softly, “I kind of see what he sees.” I nodded, looking at my painting with fresh eyes. Before, I had thought of the “blue mountains” as simply part of the larger red flower.

The curator brought over a prominent curator from the Art Institute of Chicago, introduced us, and spoke kindly of my work, pointing out the blue mountains. The AIC curator was intrigued and asked to visit my studio. Time and space faded for a moment as I took in that classic moment every young artist hopes for: being affirmed by knowledgeable eyes. Before I left, resigned to leave “Blinking Third Eye” hanging upside-down, the curator switched on a light which illuminated the newly designated blue mountains. I had a flashback.

Many days of this self-survey revived my neglected artistic development. I had fallen asleep in my artistic life; I had been sleepwalking. The rediscovery was cathartic, an awakening of sorts.

I remembered drawing blue mountains, not just as a child, but all through my life, so many times that it had fallen out of my conscious memory. Back at home I sifted through files like an archeologist. I slowly surrounded myself with slides and photos, sketchbooks and loose drawings, all depicting blue mountains. I read through my journals and found mentions of blue mountains I’d seen in New Mexico, Colorado, South Dakota, Montana. I uncovered scientific research I had undertaken to learn why certain mountains take on a blue hue from a distance. This phenomena, known as Rayleigh scattering, occurs when atmospheric dust, water, nitrogen, and oxygen molecules suspended in the air scatter light off their surfaces. A high-frequency light like blue is much more likely to interact with these particles than longer frequency wavelengths in the red end of the spectrum. Since blue has a shorter wavelength than other colors, it dominates the scattering effect, making the sky and distant mountains appear blue: the farther the mountain, the brighter the blue.

Many days of this self-survey revived my neglected artistic development. I had fallen asleep in my artistic life; I had been sleepwalking. The rediscovery was cathartic, an awakening of sorts. I called the curator from the show at the Terra Museum and told him this story. He came to my studio and pored over the artifacts of my artistic life. He thanked me for baring my history for him. I thanked him for hanging “Blinking Third Eye” upside-down, and we both laughed. The painting is now called “Blue Mountains.”

Over the years, I have learned to respect the knowledgeable eyes of curators, gallery owners, and art lovers and, through them, learned more about my own paintings. I have also learned how to respect and care for my artistic history. It is in being truthful that artists can bring their art into a professional dialogue. Blue mountains are more than just something I drew. “Blue mountains” exist for everyone willing to see truthfully.

Milewski is an artist, writer, and composer who lives in Thorp. “Blue Mountains” is part of a series of paintings representing the chakras of Hindu tradition. In this case, the painting represents “anja,” the sixth chakra, sometimes referred to as the “third eye.” To learn more about Milewski’s work, visit facebook.com/vickimilewski360.