Today is Ginger’s birthday.
We drove into Boston around two because, thanks to a friend in the church, we had tickets to the Edward Hopper exhibition that just opened at the Museum of Fine Arts. Ginger and I have different viewing practices when we go to a museum. She moves through the room intuitively and I a bit more deliberately, reading all the notes and captions in the same way I stop to read historical markers on the highway when I’m by myself. When we finish looking, we spend some time in the café comparing what we saw and felt and, I think, expanding the impact and understanding of the art work for us both.
The exhibit fell in two major groups for me: buildings and people. He also had a few landscapes, but even then he seemed more interested in how the buildings fit in the picture. There were a lot of houses. One that particularly caught my eye was “Rooms for Tourists,” which showed the house at night. The various sources of light intrigued me.
The other one that grabbed me was “Sunday Morning,” a row of shops laying fallow on the Sabbath. It was as if all the buildings had stories to tell and had not had a chance until Hopper painted them in solitude, without the crush of humanity, so their stories could sneak out and show themselves in the silence.
His paintings of people weren’t as narrative. This one, called “Automat,” shows a woman by herself with a cup of coffee. Only the title reveals where she is. There are few details to contextualize the moment; she is simply there, in solitary.
“Nighthawks” is arguably his most well known painting, and it is equally enigmatic: one man remains faceless; the street outside is dark; and there’s no way to know how anyone got in or out of the diner.
From there we made a stop in a wonderful little coffee shop called Uptown Espresso to wait for friends – actually, better identified as our intentional family here in New England — to join us. The folks working there were friendly and good at making coffee. From there we crossed the street to follow the recommendation of another church friend about an exhibit of sculpture by artists from Zimbabwe who call themselves Friends Forever and have joined together to figure out how to get their works to parts of the world where people can afford to buy art so they can make a living. These stones were full of stories. In fact, the man introducing the exhibit spoke of how the artists begin with a big slab of stone and “wait for it to speak to them.”
We quickly became attached to the work of one sculptor in particular, Colleen Madamombe, one of the few female artists and the creator of these wonderful stone women who told their stories through their posture. (Of course, at this point it would be great to show a picture of the piece we bought, but my camera is without batteries. Here a couple of others, though.)
From there we drove to Redbones Barbeque in Somerville where we were joined by one more family member and we continued our practice of laughing, talking, and eating together regardless of who is having the birthday. To some observer, painter or not, outside looking in, I suppose we could have been captured in a moment not unlike Hopper’s people, hanging in space without context. But the picture I see around the table with some of those I love celebrating the person I love most is too multidimensional to fit on a canvas or even a blog entry. To come to the table together reminds us there is no distance between the meals we have shared, regardless of how much time has passed. Our memories stack up like stones for an altar, one on top of the other, enabling us to live those moments in concert rather than a string of situations held together by the gossamer threads of time.
Since today really was a spring day, we took the top off of Ginger’s Jeep Wrangler. As we drove through Somerville, a car pulled up next to us and a man with a very recognizable African accent said to me, as I sat in the back seat, “I think this car is perhaps too small for you” and he smiled. The sound of his voice unlocked memories of my childhood in Africa that had been petrified like some of Hopper’s people. The melody I hear when an African speaks English sets my heart to dancing and sets the stories free.
So does celebrating Ginger’s birthday. Milestone days are stones that talk. They remind us where we have been, call us to ask where we are going, and implore us to continue to chip away at life until we can see ourselves as works of art. Though, I’ll admit, I can easily picture myself in Hopper’s diner, encapsulated in the melancholy and shadow of life as he sees it, the work of art that moves me most shared a cheese plate, a cup of coffee, and some hushpuppies with me, smiled and giggled when she opened her presents, and will lay down beside me in just a little while as she has done for almost as many nights as I can remember. I can hear the stones talking, telling me that out of these formidable rocks of remembrance as well as the sand pebbles of everyday living we are sculpting a portrait of love.