Intersection of the art world and my world

Having the Art Institute of Chicago nearby was a definite bonus of growing up in Hinsdale.

Thanks to a steady cadence of visits that included Oak School class trips and the obligatory tour for out-of-town visitors, the Art Institute provided me with a world-class early education in the visual arts.

"Nighthawks," "A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte" and all the Monets entranced me, every time. It has been such a joy to encounter "Water Lilies" not just in my "home town" but at the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris and in a stunning room at the Chichu Art Museum in Japan, reinforcing the universal appeal of great art.

"American Gothic" bored me, despite all the attempts to convince me otherwise. But one benefit was that I paid more attention to the other artists in Gallery 263, which offers a diverse representation of American art.

"The Rock," "Figure with Meat" and any of the Ivan Albrights never failed to scare me half to death. Isn't that wonderful for a child to have such a power reaction to a piece of art? Today I love to look at these works and think about what exactly it was that frightened the younger me.

Yet my appreciation of art was passive for the first part of my life. I had other creative interests, centering on literature and music. When my children and I moved to Hong Kong, however, I made a conscious effort to engage with the art world. Art, particularly by emerging and non-Western artists, became something we sought out on trips and brought into our home, bringing us much joy.

Yes, my children laughed at some of the pieces we acquired - especially the oil by Japanese artist Ban Chinatsu of a girl with birds in her hair (and underpants!). But we had stimulating conversations about what those birds meant to us, and why her hair was big and blue. When we moved, these artworks became a constant that made each new apartment or house familiar and comforting, even in a foreign country.

Joining my parents in Hinsdale, the act of hanging these pieces in our shared space helped integrate my adult life with the experience of living in my childhood home. Surprisingly to me, it was that Ban Chinatsu painting that my parents chose to put in their rather traditional living room, breathing new life and new joy into the space where we all gathered for Christmas mornings, piano recitals and drinks before dinner. When my daughter joined us this spring, adding a third generation to our household, we grabbed her hand to show her the place of honor of our family friend.

But you don't have to own art to derive true joy and inspiration from it. During the doldrums of January, my parents and I had a virtual tour of an exhibition of young artists exploring the theme of "Cultural Ecologies of Asia." We were simply blown away by the canvases of a young female Mongolian artist, Uuriintuya Dagvasambuu, whose juxtapositions of ecological trauma and traditional culture were beautifully rendered with rich textures and intricate compositions. It was such a joy for all of us to experience this blast of inspiration and stimulation during our pandemic isolation, giving us a tangible reminder of the vibrant world we would someday rejoin.

Now that the time has come where we can venture forth, one of the first places I'll be headed to is the Art Institute to reconnect with my old friends. Then I'll get back out there to make some new ones.

- Beth Smits of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers can email her at [email protected].