20080918

4 How It Started



When I was eighteen, my parents and I visited my uncle Ed and his family who lived in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio. I had befriended a budding painter in high school, so I asked if on this visit we could take in the art museum, which we had never done. There, I caught sight down a long row of galleries of a beautiful old-time theater, where people were taking their seats. I would be starting that fall majoring in Theatre at Northwestern University, and it looked like some performance was about to begin, so I went to check it out. As I walked closer, I realized that it wasn't an auditorium after all, but a painting hung perfectly to trick my eye into thinking that it was real.

The painting was Hopper's Two on the Aisle, and the mini-drama that the characters played out, with a man glancing sidelong at a single woman while his wife looked down at her chair, made me sense that Hopper noticed the same things about life that had drawn me to the arts and theater in particular: that everybody led a secret, internal life invisible to those around them. People feel unknowable and therefore alienated. As an actor, I was charged with embodying the inner lives of characters. As a painter, Hopper was charged with portraying scenes in a way that captured hidden meaning. Seeing Two on the Aisle vaulted Hopper atop my list of favorite painters, and finding it in Toledo made me realize that revelatory art works would pop up in unexpected, out-of-the-way places.

Later, in college, a friend gave me a calendar of Hopper paintings, and I noticed that many hung in just such overlooked places: San Marino, California; Montgomery, Alabama; Manchester, New Hampshire; and Lincoln, Nebraska--among others.

If Hopper could home in on what was most important about a scene (as I felt he had in Two on the Aisle), maybe the clich├ęd interpretation that his scenes and characters epitomize a uniquely American form of isolation held a key to our culture--our communal inner life.

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