Chasteness: Why I Take My Preschooler to Art Exhibits

My preschoolers in an art museum teach me a lesson about learning to enjoy without touching.

My mouth waters. I stare at the framed canvas, two yellow, green and white-edged flowers, so translucent they could have been water color instead of oil–Georgia O’Keeffe’s Yellow Cactus (1929). Something from my childhood is lurking behind this hankering. What is it? Some happy memory cued . . . it strikes me, and I blush inwardly—humored and slightly ashamed.

“What’s your first impression?” asks our grey-haired docent.  There is silence. “I want to taste it!” I blurt.  She laughs. “Yes, by being so close to the center of the flower, there is an intimacy, isn’t there?” Our little group nods.  But I don’t say the name of the specific food that burst out of my subconscious like an inflatable toy held under water.  A remembrance of being at grandma’s.  Lime jello. Shaky, see-through green. Sweet.

In my visit to this art center with my faith and art group, I’ve another purpose besides my own witness to O’Keeffe’s art. I’m channeling my impulsive, always-moving four-year-old, imagining where her mind, hands, and body would wander if I brought her. She and her five-year-old sister are aware of O’Keefe, whom they call “Jo Jo,” and I had been pondering taking them.  This trip sponsored by my group’s home church gives me the opportunity to preview it.

Mostly, I feel frustrated, frustrated that I as my four-year-old would be asked to look at this stuff and yet not to touch it—while observing O’Keeffe’s smoothed out red-brown painted bark or gazing at the curve of a rib brushed over a skull.  Despite their in-person tangibility, I am restricted by the requirement to restrain my hand from any of them.  My younger daughter’s too big for a stroller now, how I contained her a year before at her last art viewing when we visited Minneapolis Art Institute, and I gave my daughters a picture card of one work for each of the five rooms we walked into. We made it a game to find that one work.

My group and I enter another room, and I want to groan aloud. Setting on the floor, is a collection of smooth black sculptures by O’Keeffe’s assistant Juan Hamilton. How in the world, I think, will I keep her from sitting on that large flat pebble shape?  I want to sit on it.

I want. Those are the words I feel lonely inside me on the drive home. I’ve always wanted I suppose to experience art in a more visceral way, but I’m use to setting those emotions aside when I enter an exhibit.  Maybe, I think, I’m not even interested in visual art. Maybe, I’d rather participate in my foodie husband’s art, where you are expected to physically partake.   As if a symbol when I open our pantry door to dig out a snack for my kids later, I spy dirt-colored dried morels, immaculate wrapped bars of Guittard bittersweet chocolate, and a small can of anchovy paste he purchased while I was gone.

My younger daughter is a sensual creature.  Her strong will made more appealing by her affectionate nature, holding her father’s hand at the table since a toddler, climbing into our laps whether we’re reading books or not, blowing kisses at her preschool teacher as she leaves her classroom, and freely giving us smacks on the lips and even once to a little boy she might never see again.

Is it worth it, I wonder, to take her to this exhibit? In the end, I decide by not deciding. I let a friend do it for me. I text her about a free day at the art center when the exhibit is discounted.  When she gets there with her similarly aged kids, I ask her what she wants. She goes for it, and because I get teary after the associate at the counter hands me—of all things–children’s guides to the exhibit, we’re waved in for free.

Our kids scamper  through the main hall, marvel at a suspended Chihuly in one room and a giant wooden hand in another, and with providential timing, our younger ones are ready to be heaved into our arms at the entrance to the exhibit.  The two older children point out the works in their guides. I ask a question or two. The younger children, clinging to us mamas, pay attention. One of the children touches a frame, and a guard cries out “No” and then smiles and tells us she has to say that more frequently to adults than children.

Maybe art museums are an exercise in holding desire for not only my daughter snuggled on my chest but for me. It’s not Pier One or Pottery Barn where my fingers greedily touch any beaded glass or pillow when my children are not there to imitate me. There is a chasteness to viewing fine art, a word likely shocking to some contemporary artists.

Chastity does not have to be reduced to sexual activity, but rather as Ronald Rolheiser writes in The Shattered Lantern, “To be chaste means to experience all things respectfully and to drink them in only when we are ready for them. We break chastity when we experience anything irreverently or prematurely.”

All told, we may have spent ten minutes in the exhibit. I was privy to the quick observations of the two older children and even their budding symbolic senses. They laughed when I told them the Yellow Cactus made me hunger for green jello.  We ended by letting them have free reign in the tactile room—where finally the younger ones could run and touch a collection of small brass and wood statues and decorative objects. They had held their desire long enough. They were ready for them.

Heather Walker Peterson
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.

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