"A Caravan of Culture" by Dalia Wolfson
Monday, January 16 2012
The other day, I walked into one of my favorite bookstores and noticed a strange colorful, collection of volumes: The Art of the Novella series by Melville House Classics. And though I’m now working my way through my fourth novella, my first was “Parnassus on Wheels”, by Christopher Morley. The novella tells the tale of a Professor and his horse-drawn bookmobile Parnassus, as they putt-putt their way through the American countryside, spreading literacy and preaching the beauty of the written word. Early on, he picks up an old-fashioned governess who joins him on his quest.
But to bring it back to the matter at hand: the travels in Parnassus were a bit like my stint as a youth docent at No Longer Empty. At first, as the book’s heroine says, “my feelings were as mixed as a crushed nut sundae.” (91) Admittedly, I’d reviewed exhibitions before, so I had some experience with extracting the Big Ideas and commenting on this material or that aspect of the composition. I’d also taken art classes, waving around a paintbrush dramatically and spattering cadmium red on innocent bystanders. But I’d never discussed art in public (much less public art), and I initially felt chunky and childish when I stood in front of a canvas and rehearsed a tour in my head.
In Parnassus, the Professor, “a wizened little rogue”, draws great words out from the middle-aged, apron-clad matron who sits side-by-side with him on the carriage. His approach is simple: talk it out, and find a book for each person. At No Longer Empty, I learned to appreciate art through conversation: talking to the curators and interns, I stepped into a dialogue about understanding art: speaking to the artists, I heard their creative whispers: and as I spent hours in About Face during gallery sittings, I found my own voice. In About Face, I also found “my” piece – the work of art that literally spoke to me – namely, Maria Jose Arjona’s performance, which involved a whispered story into every visitor’s ear. As Maria Jose said, in her work she became a “living archive”, a flesh and blood book of sorts.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of No Longer Empty is the personality of the organization. Like a travelling library, NLE is full of curiosities and original works, and at least one singular piece that relates directly and viscerally to the visitor. And NLE is also a gypsy gallery, constantly on the road, filling communities with art and knowledge. Morley calls Parnassus a “caravan of culture”, and I’d be a fool if I didn’t say that No Longer Empty is just that, and so much more.
By Dalia Wolfson, NLE Youth Docent 2011