Butler and Monet

I traveled: to the Art Institute of Chicago for the first time since COVID this afternoon, taking the day off work for my birthday.

My time there confirmed how much my attention span has atrophied over the last year: I struggled to take in a painting for more than 15-20 seconds without losing interest. It’s tough to diagnose the cause, whether it’s the general COVID trauma/grief affecting all our brains or the fatigue of switching between Slack / Zoom / Outlook / etc. all day.

The first piece that held me in place longer than a few minutes was this staggering quilt from the extraordinary “Bisa Butler: Portraits” special exhibit:

The quilt (named “The Warmth of Other Sons,” slant-named for the Isabel Wilkerson book) is large enough that the portraits of a migrating family are nearly life-size. You could stare at it all day and still not spot all the colors. I have to imagine the halo effect of the hat brims was intentional; the imagery was even more explicit in her piece “Family” on the adjacent wall. My eyes kept wandering from face to face, expression to expression. Much more insight into the countless details on the artist’s Instagram feed.

Another highlight: “Southside Sunday Morning.” If it wasn’t clear, everything you’re seeing is made of fabric, an astonishing use of the medium:

This quilt is based on an iconic photo from this remarkable collection of images from Black churches in Chicago in 1941. Here’s more context on the photos.

Normally my first stop on every Art Institute trip is the Thorne Miniature rooms, but I had no appetite for small indoor spaces today (!). My trip ended at the “Monet and Chicago” special exhibit.

I’m discovering the same thing many of us are: that the experience of returning to places and situations I’ve abstained from all year, finally, has felt less like a rush of relief than I expected. I make plans for a long walk with a friend I haven’t seen for months and realize my conversation skills have suffered for all the time alone. I visit the museum for the first time in a year and struggle to pay attention long enough to lose myself in any one work. I think our full capacity for pleasure will return, but it will be less like eating a delicious feast after a half-day of fasting (where every bite thrills) and more like carefully reintroducing fluids to someone severely dehydrated, a few sips at a time.

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