The Quest for Legendary Art on Independence Day

It is a humbling experience to see the work of master artists, just footsteps away from each brushstroke on canvas. No amount of planning, research, or anticipation can replace the sense of wonder when I stand face to face with the same image the artist once analyzed for hours as it evolved from nothingness. The feeling is almost overwhelming; like I could get lost in the lines, so I move onto another in my exhausted attempts to see as much artwork as possible before I’ve reached my limit of visual consumption.

“Safety Patrol,” Bisa Butler, 2018

Our Chicago day trip on the 4th of July felt like the classic adventures of Ashley and Derek in the early days of our relationship. We used to take the train into the city many times when Derek started his first job out of college and lived in Woodridge, Illinois. As we did our last checks in the apartment and hopped into the car early in this morning, it felt like we were off to discover something new all over again. Now that we live less than an hour away from the city, we’ve been making a habit of exploring the area more.

Our art appreciation quest included two main destinations for Independence Day: The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit. Limited visitors are allowed in the museum and Van Gogh exhibit so we pre-ordered our tickets online to visit both in a day. We drove into the city and parked underneath Michigan Avenue at the Grant Park S. Garage and walked the two and half miles from the Art Institute to the Van Gogh exhibit at Lighthouse ArtSpace. I printed street maps so we wouldn’t have to use our phones for directions along our scenic route from Millennium Park to Old Town, just next to the Chicago History Museum on the south end of Lincoln Park.

As we entered the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit, we were directed up a staircase decorated in the impressionist style of his paintings. We stepped through wooden double doors into an open space with people sitting throughout the room as the light show continued from the previous group. We found a place to sit up against mirrored pillars and look around as classical music swelled and patterns covered our bodies when the light hit the floor. It seemed as if we were placed inside the paintings looking out as detailed close ups of individual features were being painted in light and developing on the walls surrounding us. The paintings were in continual motion melting from one to another so as to have us darting our gaze all around as images morphed into representational figures from abstract strokes of color in the previous paintings.

The audience applauded when the light show came to a conclusion and we moved through the space to find a new position for the next run of the loop as the lights came on again. The light paintings looked different from a new perspective and we absorbed the images sitting in our corner of the room followed by a third run from an aerial view on the second level. Our favorite part of the show was when the sun rose from the ground, drifted behind the trees, and floated around the room, lowering into Starry Night as swirls of light burst in sporadic locations. This was a unique gallery experience but I left wishing that there had been more rooms to enter or a different show to follow instead of looping on repeat. Nevertheless, we were pleased with our experience and posed with a free souvenir of Van Gogh enjoying his pipe!

Along the walk of our return trip, we found a hidden gem tucked out of sight under the street level of an otherwise quite fancy neighborhood. The 3rd Coast Cafe was the locals’ restaurant where we devoured eggs and hash with veggies and sourdough bread for the same prices that we would expect in Northwest Indiana. Not wanting to enter the museum with an empty stomach, this was the perfect refueling for our trek in the heat brushing shoulders with the holiday crowds on the sidewalks.

Finally, the moment had arrived when we climbed the steps guarded by twin lions and re- entered an air conditioned climate from the thick humidity of Chicago in July. First pit stop, water and restrooms, followed by plans to conquer the museum from the basement to the roof! We continued this initiative according to plan as we crossed off the Photography and miniatures galleries, but started to feel the weight of 20,000 steps that had been accumulated throughout the day when we were zipping through modern and contemporary classics with glazed eyes and ripening headaches. We had been in the sun too long to tackle the museum in its entirety so we regrouped for a new game plan to see the highlights that we most wanted to delight in for an extended moment in time.

Our most anticipated exhibitions currently on display were Bisa Butler’s portrait quilts and the National Portrait Gallery’s presidential paintings of the Obamas. Since the official portraits were first revealed at the Smithsonian, they have begun their national tour with the first stop at the Art Institute of Chicago, where Barack and Michelle Obama had their first date. To avoid a long line outside the free exhibit, the Art Institute had a QR code check-in queue with a text message when we could visit. The gallery began with a timeline of the Obamas’ history in the city with milestones on a map of Chicago followed by profiles on the artists Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley who were chosen by the former president and first lady to paint their official portraits.

It was almost surreal to be in the same room as the Obama portraits. There was a hush in the room as people gathered a distance away from the paintings to observe and take photos. After a few minutes, people started getting closer to take selfies and close-ups. Derek and I found a place to stand off to the side and take them in for a few moments. It was somewhat eerie to be in the presence of the portraits that were painstakingly rendered by the artists and then viewed by the Obamas themselves. I loved experiencing the vibrant colors and patterns of Kehinde Wiley’s photo-realistic painting of Barack Obama contrasted with the abstracted, monochromatic simplicity of Michelle Obama’s portrait by Amy Sherald.

With our adventure nearly complete, we had but one more artist’s work to view at the museum before we gave in to our aching feet and called it a day. Bisa Butler is a trained painter who uses textiles to layer colorful fabrics depicting historical photographs of black families. Beginning with her own family photos, she sought to look deeper into the past to images dating back to 1870 featuring black people whose names were not recorded. Her quilts portray the spirit of each person with strength, elegance, and numerous colors celebrating their lives stitched together in time. Some of the portraits display stoic expressions but others are playful with a modern twist. Our favorite quilt was titled Safety Patrol, portraying seven children prepared for the future as caretakers of the world.

“Southside Sunday Morning,” Bisa Butler, 2018

It had been another great day of adventures for our memory banks on this historic day for our country. Art tells the story of mankind and the history of America through her pictures, paintings, and monumental sculptures. It was inspiring to see work with fresh personality and different perspectives as we hiked the city to experience great ART!

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