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Art Filtered Through My Eyes

It sounds like the setup of an off-color joke (of which I am a fan). “A legally blind guy goes to an art museum and . . .”

A couple of months ago, Alice Walton spent part of her Wal Mart fortune to open Crystal Bridges, a world-class art museum in Bentonville, just a few miles up the road from where I live. She’s been collecting works by American artists for quite some time and went on a bit of a shopping spree in recent years when she decided Northwest Arkansas deserved an affordable (in this case FREE) place for common folk to be exposed to culture. This irritated some of the snobs in big cities who said, “We can’t lose our fine art to Arkensaw.”

Others were bothered by the Wal Mart connection. Don’t worry. This isn’t a political, class warfare rant. Though I must say, I love the irony of the Wal Mart fortune buying the portrait of George Washington that appears on the dollar bill. I’ll never look at my money quite the same way after yesterday. The fact that it’s in one of the poorest states in the nation makes it that much sweeter.

From the time I was old enough to hold a crayon in my hand it was obvious I had a gift and interest in art. I wasn’t a jock or particularly good-looking, but I could draw better than the other kids. Adults told me to treasure that gift. Later, like most adults, I had to pay bills, which left no time for creativity. But I majored in Advertising in college, so I was able to take art classes for that.

In the months before and in the year after my kidneys failed, I once again had the time for art. To my surprise, the skill came back like it had only been a few weeks instead of several years. Even with reduced eyesight, I could still do it. In 2001 I was living in Little Rock and took some classes at the Arkansas Arts Center. My ability actually improved.

Now my vision is worse than it was then, but I still like to look at great art, valuable or not, so I was happy for the opportunity to see it without having to leave hillbilly country to do it. With all this fine art in our midst, people are going to have to recalculate the relationship between hillbillies and art.

I took my cane and was glad I did. There were some sculptures in pedestals, small items in glass cases, and some big, fragile pieces of modern art assembled on platforms about a foot off the ground. It would have been embarrassing, and possibly expensive, to have stumbled onto one of them. Maybe I could have passed it off as performance art, but I didn’t want to take the chance. I’m sure I must have confused some of the other visitors who thought I was totally blind. Anyone who watched long enough would have seen me squint and bend or lean closer for a better look. I wore a pair of small binoculars around my neck, which I sometimes used to see smaller details.

One nice thing about Crystal Bridges is that people can walk right up to the art as long as they’re eighteen inches from it. Most of the time, that was close enough for me. Paintings with only dark colors were problematic. Those with bold contrasts between light and dark were my favorites.

As for the lighting, it was pretty good throughout most of the museum. I’m a big fan of natural light in most situations, but on this sunny day, it was too much glare in rooms that relied heavily on it. No one else seemed to have a problem, though. Maybe the next time I go (and there will be a next time) it will be an overcast day and it will make a difference.

The museum’s architecture is part of the experience, but I was out of luck there. The architect’s scale model was in one area, so I got an idea of how interesting it looks from the outside. It was in one of the areas where glare bothered me most. From what I’ve been told and heard on the news, it blends in with the Ozark terrain and makes use of the natural beauty of its surroundings. It’s fine art, Ozark Mountain style. That’s how we expect—make that demand–things to be done in this neck of the woods. You can make improvements on what’s here, but you’d better honor what’s already here.

With the help of someone reading the small cards to the right of each piece, and the overhead menu at the restaurant, my day at Crystal Bridges was complete. Sure, my eyes got tired and I realized how out of shape my legs are after walking for over four hours, but I was still able to enjoy it. As long as I have enough vision to distinguish between light and dark, I’ll do everything I can to look at what artists have created.

That means you don’t have any excuse not to.

A legally blind guy went to an art museum and . . . he was very grateful for the experience.