9/11 was a time of somber reflection for many, and I also turned inward. I had focused during those trips to the Midwest on many things: Hopper, art, travel, the towns, but mainly isolation. After the attacks, people were less isolated. They made eye contact. They had a need to heal, to bond, to feel a connection, to overcome isolation. Because of my Hopper project, I saw it as a need to recognize that we had put up invisible walls.
My theory about Hopperesque isolation was that we all held a secret inner self that no one else was privy to, and one lesson of 9/11 was how differently it affected people internally. Immediately after, some people cited the United States's isolation as one reason people from other cultures might want to attack us. But many voices at that time shouted down anyone who even suggested the United States could do anything better. Lost in the government's overzealous response were calls to use the attacks as a lesson to become a better (less isolated) global citizen. While many felt that we should be questioning ourselves, others felt we should be holding others accountable, and warmongering grew. As much as the attacks united us, the debate about how our government should respond to them divided us. Warhawks were screaming louder than Nighthawks.
* * *
Isolation such as in Hopper's paintings is associated with the U.S., but isolationism is a political philosophy associated with us. After all, we're the country that spawned the party called the "Know-Nothings." Early in our history, the Monroe Doctrine posited that we would not interfere in other country's doings. We stayed out of international affairs until the turn of the 1900s. We only got into World War I because the Germans torpedoed American ships. Despite the later nationalism spawned by World War II, people forget that over half of the American populace felt that we should stay out of that war.
Nighthawks, Hopper's most famous piece, was painted after the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
I had stumbled onto a parallel I didn’t want. Maybe the people in the café were so alone with their thoughts and yet gathered with others just to heal from that attack. And what did it say that the feeling that Nighthawks gave so resonated with viewers and seemed so reflective of the U.S.? Are we a nation defined by the feeling of being wronged? Are we isolated to try to protect ourselves from being attacked? Or maybe the context of that iconic painting implies that we are seen as a nation always ready for a war.
* * *
I had heard from that woman in Kansas City and from others their thoughts and feelings about American isolation, how it might be detrimental, and how it might be overcome. I tried to report on what Americans had told me they felt about isolation and isolationism, but discourse after 9/11 was painted as un-American. I felt marginalized, unheeded. I questioned whether and why I should continue with this project, especially because I worried that the answers I was getting would change and be skewed by this historically unique event.
I had a unique personal relationship to isolation that I had to confront, and (perhaps subconsciously) that was what I was doing with this project. In my own family, I was often overlooked. I had been an accident, an unplanned pregnancy for my Catholic parents who already had four children to feed, and I was born nine months after my father's mother died, so he always associated me with her death and ignored me. My older sisters, however, played teacher with me when they got home from school, and they taught me how to read before I showed up at kindergarten. Upon learning this, my instructor put me at the back of the room reading books while the rest of the class learned as a group from primers. This academic ability eventually led to me attending a prep school from tenth to twelfth grades, where I was isolated from the rest of the world in an idyllic countryside setting. My roommate was sent home early, and I lived alone in dorm rooms throughout prep school and opted for a single room in college as well. I graduated from college with a degree in a major that only nine other people graduated in that year. When I got out, I was a starving artist in a society that mocked them. When I "settled down" and got my day-job editing medical texts, I did not feel a part of that workaday culture. I also had a series of failed romances and trips abroad that left me feeling estranged from individual people and my society in general. I needed to come to terms once and for all with what I felt about isolation and why there was so much in my life and my culture.
I headed back to the Broadway café to reflect on my visit in Kansas City and chart the future as I headed back home after a summer full of travel. At one table sat a woman writing, and I decided to get one last interview. She wore a black dress decorated with pale roses. Her short auburn hair was swept to one side above high cheekbones, bright green eyes, and small lips. She looked like a TV actress, which she was. She also was working on a series of short stories, and she said her name was Glenn. I asked her, "Do you think people are as isolated as in Hopper's paintings?"
"Yes," she said unhesitatingly. "I have to work very hard not to feel that way. I've lived in other parts of the country: the south, Chicago, on the East Coast. Part of it is Kansas City not having things that other larger cities have, like light rail and water. So, yeah, I would say that it's a backwater. And a lot of people here aren't aware of that. I think they haven't had the opportunity to live in other places and make the comparison. I'm trying to be kind. But it's true.
"You know one thing I do like here in Kansas City? You see the cow statues around? That says to me that the people here know that they're isolated. They get defensive here about being referred to as a cow town. But the way I interpret the cows is like, 'Yeah! We're a cow town. And here are our cows. Aren't they great?' It's like taking ownership of it. And I think it's great.
"Still, I would like to move. It's a tough town to get around in. And, because people are from here and they grew up here and they keep their friends, it's hard for new people. And it's hard if you're not a mainstream person.
"Do you know Edward Hopper's paintings?" I asked.
"Enough to answer your question. And it's a good question. Our current president is going to make us more isolated. I rented from a British woman a couple years ago, and she said, 'You Americans are so naïve and so selfish.' And I said, 'I agree with you totally.' I don't perceive many Americans as enjoying their life. The news is really entertainment and shock news, all about pain and suffering. And we tolerate the idea that we're bigger and we're better. And that everything starts here."
With that, she got back to her writing. I headed out of town and back home to Chicago. Her words were still echoing in my ears a mere two weeks later on September 11, 2001-when the past and future seemed suddenly very far apart.
[New York Life Insurance Building]
Over at the renovated Union Station, under the huge clock that inspired locals to say "Meet me under the clock," a display honored the Harvey House restaurant. Waitresses show up often in Hopper's paintings, and Fred Harvey, a Kansan from England, invented the waitress. Rail passengers either brought food with them or ate at Hopperesque dives near train stations. Harvey offered railroad depot restaurants with excellent food and service.
Legend has it that, one evening, Harvey had to separate two male waiters having a knife fight, and he decided then and there to hire women. Will Rogers quipped, "Fred Harvey kept the West in food and wives." Harvey also invented an occupation that afforded Hopper free female models.
Near the train station, Crown Center was an urban development featuring shops, business offices, hotels, restaurants, and theaters—all connected by a skywalk called "The Link." The project was privately funded by Joyce Hall, who founded Hallmark Cards here in Kansas City. He resented his given name, Joyce, but, noted about using his middle name, "Clyde isn't any great shakes."
He began working at the age of eight and sold cosmetics for the forerunner of Avon. In 1909, he decided to start a post card business in Omaha, but a salesman suggested Kansas City instead. Joyce purchased a one-way ticket. Joyce named the company after the quality assurance halls of fourteenth-century English guilds. In 1944, Hall struck upon Hallmark's slogan, "When you care enough to send the very best." In his autobiography When You Care Enough, Hall wrote "If a man goes into business with only the idea of making a lot of money, chances are he won't. But if he puts service and quality first, the money will take care of itself."
Hallmark is the second-largest specialty retail chain in the country. Film fan Hopper might enjoy knowing that Hallmark is also the largest producer and distributor of miniseries and television movies. The company employs about 5,600 Kansas Cityans. Hall said, "The sad thing about getting big [is] I used to know everybody."
Hall maybe was busy getting to know other people, such as Sir Winston Churchill, whose paintings appeared on Hallmark Cards. Other cards reproduced original work by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and other museum-quality artists. Amateur artists whose works adorned cards included Fred McMurray, Jane Wyman, Groucho Marx, and Henry Fonda.
Hall also employed two of Hopper's contemporaries equally credited (like Hopper) with capturing Americana in images. Walt Disney got the idea for a certain cartoon character when he befriended a mouse that clawed through his wastebasket when he worked at Hallmark. Hall also fingered Norman Rockwell to rally Kansas City through the aftermath of 1951's biblical-sounding flood of forty days and nights. The deluge arrived on a Friday the thirteenth to boot. Rockwell painted The Kansas City Spirit to bolster spirits, and Rockwell's Christmas card designs became Hallmark best-sellers.
Rockwell's original Kansas City Spirit beamed on the wall of the Hallmark visitors' center. Also on display behind windows, like animals in a zoo, were workers producing cards at machines. It was funny to see the mass production of things that were marketed under giving a personal touch. A woman seeing me taking notes asked if I wanted some information, and gave me a packet of corporate handouts. She provided me with sanctioned words about the place, just as their cards provide sanctioned words for any occasion. Hallmark provides words to fill the awkward silences that seem to inhabit so many of Hopper's paintings and that make Americans so uncomfortable.
A Hopper painting could never be used as a Hallmark card.
[New York Life Insurance Building]Jim in Wichita told me about Kansas City, "You'll love it. It's like San Francisco without the culture. KC is where people from Wichita dream of going for more culture and big city life." Like San Francisco, Kansas City has a two-word name and plenty of hills. The isolated outcroppings on which downtown was built had a disjointing effect, creating pockets so that there was no cohesive core. On one hill stood the Hopperesque New York Life Insurance Building, an 1870s building festooned with stone, brick, and terra cotta. Kansas City's first skyscraper, it was touted as thoroughly modern and fireproof (a nearby hotel still had painted on its side a sign blaring, "Fireproof! Rates from $1.50"). A two-ton bronze eagle guarded the front door and has become an emblem of downtown. Perhaps, Hopper would prefer the nearby Midland Theater--the third-largest movie theater in the country when it opened in 1927. Otherwise, downtown feels lackluster. City Market was empty. I expected Kansas City to have a little more bustle. Most of what the town identified itself with was actually outside of downtown.
[Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art]
The woman working the front desk had chipmunk cheeks and blond hair. She wore a loose pink shirt and black slacks. Two silver-ribbed bracelets dangled from either wrist, and her necklace was a cattle skull. Her nametag said, "Marty." I asked if she was from Kansas City.
"I grew up here. I used to live in New York and work in telecommunications. I moved back here to take care of my parents. And I love it. I love working here. Last Friday, I got home and realized I'd had the best day at work I'd ever had. Ever. Anywhere."
In response to my query whether people in Kansas City were isolated, she said, "Absolutely not. Many people are being transferred into our area and are leaving their families and immediate surroundings. Because of that, our familial community is growing. How long are you in town for?" she asked, and grew disheartened when I said, "not long." She was going to suggest I see something upcoming. I realized several people here had asked me that. "Stick around," they seemed to suggest, "something might happen."
At the American Jazz Museum/Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the woman at the front desk ignored my need to buy a ticket to call out after a lanky older African American man walking ramrod straight and proud toward the exit. "You don't now who he is?" she asked me with a sneer. "That's Buck O'Neil. Played with the Kansas City Monarchs," she informed me.
Inside, I learned even more about local African American culture. After the Civil War, 40,000 African Americans moved here in less than two years. They were penned in the area around Eighteenth and Vine until the defeat of legal segregation in the 1950s. The culture that percolated there brought forth many talents, including jazz greats Charlie Parker and Count Basie.
Out in Brookside, a planned suburban shopping area from the 1920s, now within city limits, I interviewed the African American woman behind the counter of a popcorn shop on the strip. "I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, but came here at age 4 or 5 to be raised by my grandmother. I never saw myself doing commercial sales like I am, but I've been here three years. I used to be very shy. As you can see, I'm not any more. The people around here, they bring that out in you. We're moving in with Baskin-Robbins. As part of that, they want to make me part-time, but I don't want to work part-time. I might quit. A customer said, 'Well we don't want to lose you; we like having you around.' This is a way of showing how friendly people in Brookside are. It's one of the friendliest places I've been."
Remembering that blacks were corralled near Eighteenth and Vine, I asked her if the races are isolated.
"I don't think of the African American community as isolated from the white one in Kansas City. There's white people, there's black people, and they pretty much intermingle in this town."
Out in the Roanoke neighborhood, among million-dollar homes, sat the studio of Hopper's contemporary, Thomas Hart Benton. Benton was born in Missouri in 1889, son of Missouri congressman Maecenas Benton and namesake and grandnephew of Missouri's first senator. The studio's northern side sported a huge wall of windows, as did Hopper's Cape Cod studio, and, like Hopper's, it had one big stove. Signs noted other Hopper parallels: Benton read French works in the original and painted many New England scenes. Benton served in the Navy as draftsman, which (as with Hopper) led to a lifelong appreciation of realistic drawing. Benton's home, however, was hardly a two-room shack on Cape Cod. It sat atop a hill and featured stained-glass windows, ornate hutches, huge grated fireplaces, and spacious rooms.
[Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art]Next, I headed to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, which sported a huge stylized spider on its façade. The walls of the restaurant inside included hundreds of homages to important works of art, but no Hopper knock-off.
A pale woman in a large cotton dress and lots of make-up sauntered in with her daughter, who was dark tan and had tightly crimped brown hair. I asked if they thought this painting related to living in Kansas City.
"Fifteen years ago," the mother answered, "Kansas City was more a small town. I think of it being more a small town and of him as being more urban. This is one of my favorites in the museum, but this doesn't have the look of Hopper. You maybe get a hint of his other buildings in that one building with the sunlight on it, but the rest is a lot darker."
"My mother," she continued, "is from a more rural area; this painting looks more like the area she lives in, where you might find a split rail fence. Not many places look like that anymore. Gettysburg only does because it's a park."
The girl only shrugged that people at her school didn't feel isolated. "All teens want to belong."
The museum guard was stooped and tanned, with a prominent nose out of which grew piano-wire-thick gray hair.
"I am from Russia," he announced when I engaged him.
"Moscow?" I asked, and he replied, "No. Sofia, Bulgaria." I imagined that he said Russia because many Americans don't know the country Bulgaria. They did know the Soviet Union, that Bulgaria was part of, and that Americans often called "Russia."
"I have worked here five years," he said proudly. "This is a very popular work. Everybody like it [sic]. I learn about Gettysburg for my citizenship test. Sometimes, the kids, they act up. They don't respect it. In this country, I'm not allowed to touch them. There would be a lawsuit. Can't even raise my voice. But this is my country, so anyway."
As I was leaving the museum, I ran into the curator who had showed me the files. He was red-eyed and red-skinned, with an elfin nose and dark hair that seemed eternally damp. Like Hopper, he loved the Civil War, and he loved the museum's collection. He excitedly led me to highlights: Caravaggio's St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness and Rembrandt's
Portrait of a Young Man, as well as Franz Hals's two portraits of man and woman that were only recently reunited. At a Van Gogh,
he told me in a hushed tone, "The first time I saw this, I wanted to reach out and touch it, not only because of the texture, but also to feel a connection. I knew then that I had to be a curator." His passion for art was like mine for Hopper and was expressed by the quote above the museum's exit: "It is by the real that we exist. It is by the ideal that we live."
Not only might the characters in her works know those in Hopper's, her actual artworks rub shoulders with Hopper's in the Whitney's vast collection. In directing me to local arts places to visit, she said off-handedly, "Around 19th and Baltimore, there's an amazing amount of galleries. [At one you can see] my work that the Whitney bought."
Byron, who Peregrine had sent me to, had an old man's voice, though he looked relatively young. He wore a loose cottony shirt with a wildly colored pattern, and long white hair hung down from his head. He was constantly on the phone but peered over round glasses on the end of his nose to honor my request to view Peregrine's work. True to what she said, her works did look like 1940s cartoons: brightly colored and small in scale. They looked less risqué than I expected.
The rest of that gallery scene was thriving, as promised. One gallery included a billboard visible from the highway saying, "Protect me from what I want." One gallery owner protested the insipid public art display of cow sculptures on every downtown corner by creating Persons for Interesting Treatment of Art (a take-off of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Another gallery bluntly stated, "This is a cow-free zone."
It hung in the Nelson-Atkins Museum, which was founded in 1933 by the publisher of the Kansas City Star and bolstered by contributions from a shy, retired schoolteacher. The museum had the world's largest concentration of paintings by Missouri artists George Caleb Bingham and Thomas Hart Benton, including Benton's masterpiece, Persephone. The grounds also boasted the largest collection of Henry Moore sculptures outside of Moore's homeland England, and the museum's enormous front lawn is strewn with Claes Oldenburg's oversized shuttlecocks. But it is known above all for its magnificent collection of Asian art, particularly the arts of China.
In the painting I was there to see, a line of Union soldiers rides away with hung heads trailing a cannon behind them past the simple white clapboard house that had served as the Union Army's headquarters. Rather than stretch the soldiers horizontally across the painting, Hopper bunches them in the center, and they recede into the canvas like disappearing ghosts.
The painting process was a bit of a battle itself. Hopper's wife Jo (the enemy in his own civil war) reported that for several weeks, "E. worked from Early A.M. til dark-standing up. He gets so tired." She described the painting as a "long stream of tired men & beasts." Ed and Jo visited Gettysburg in 1929, and she had given him a book of Matthew Brady's Civil War photographs that he greatly enjoyed. In 1934, he painted Dawn Before Gettysburg (in a private collection). Light Battery at Gettysburg was Hopper's second and last painting of an historical event.
The painting was begun when the rumblings of World War II were starting in Europe, American politicians invoked the Civil War to whip up nationalistic war support. (More monuments decorate the field of Gettysburg than any other battlefield in the world, and it remains the greatest battle ever fought on American soil.) Hopper had some experience with propaganda art. In 1918, his "Smash the Hun" won a war poster contest.
Light Battery at Gettysburg hung on a slanted wall in an octagonal gallery and was easy to overlook. It felt almost like the museum was embarrassed by the Hopper, and I learned later that it took four ballots for the Board to approve its purchase. It is not the urban or idyllic landscape you expect from Hopper and may be viewed as a lesser work. But Painter William Bailey spoke at length about the impression this painting made on him when he was an art student in Kansas City.
It seemed terribly clumsy and boring, and yet it made an uncommonly strong impression on me. I still don't think that that is a great Hopper, but it has many of the virtues of Hopper. There was nothing about the brushwork, there was nothing about the composition, that seemed to me arresting. It was very clear, though, it was very simple, it was very homely, and it stuck with me.
[Nelson-Atkins Museum]After ascertaining that the arts future of Kansas City, Missouri was as bright as promised, I headed out to see the past: Hopper's Light Battery at Gettysburg.
Kansas City, Missouri: Light Battery at Gettysburg
I went to Kansas City in search of the past, and I found the future. I went there to study Edward Hopper's painting Light Battery at Gettysburg, but I learned that KCMO (as it calls itself) is home to many stars of the upcoming generation of artists. Even author and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu called it, "a pretty hip hangout."
The woman who worked at my neighborhood café in Chicago had moved from there and said Kansas City was a great arts town and recommended the Broadway Café. I figured she was just being hometown proud about the arts but that she knew her cafés. The Broadway was in the artsy Westport neighborhood. A sign informed me that the Civil War Battle of Westport came to be known as "the Gettysburg of the West."
I ordered coffee and mentioned my project to the young man behind the counter, who sported a military-green T-shirt and a soul patch. He shrugged and pointed over my shoulder. "You need to talk to that woman."
"That woman" was a petite, porcelain-skinned, twenty-something who sported a colorful clingy dress and propped a cowboy hat atop her short black hair. Her tiny stubby fingers clutched bags from art supply stores. When I mentioned Hopper, her bright green eyes lit up and she introduced herself as Peregrine, "like the bird." She bid adieu to a striking young blonde beside her, and we sat down to talk. Her sentences glided upward like questions, and she spoke with an airy lisp, maybe because she had a metal tongue stud.
"In Hopper's work, people are isolated because of the light. I don't think Kansas City is like that visually. It's kind of haphazardly planned. When you find a place, it's usually secluded. It makes sense Hopper wouldn't say anything. His work is almost oppressively silent. Everything is so immaculate, so kept, so beautiful and square, but fucked-up. Hopper's lines are so period; his work ages beautifully. There's such beauty in decay. We're so obsessed with renovating. I had to go through a couple contractors before I finally found one who didn't want to turn my gallery space into like an office space. I don't think my painting is like Hopper's," she noted. "But the characters in his works might know or hang out with those in my work. My work looks like 1940s kids' books? But it deals with contemporary issues. Most of my work is based on early female sexuality, when girls are like half woman and half child. Art about that is usually stuff like rape and horribleness, and that's not really the way it is. My work is for young girls, and they relate to it. My girls don't exist. You can't hurt 'em. The blond-haired girl I was with just now? She's my sister. She embodies what I was talking about. She's fifteen. She doesn't look fifteen; she doesn't act fifteen."
"I would never have guessed she was fifteen," I confessed.
"No, no. Me either."
"What's the art scene like here?" I asked.
"It's exquisite. It's like the best-kept secret. We're not supposed to talk about it, to keep people from coming here. People are really nice here, if you haven't noticed already. (Although we're one of the most violent cities in America.) We were rated like one of the top three cities for an arts community. I don't like the arts scene very much in San Francisco, where I grew up. I love New York, but the artists who move to New York don't make art. And they don't get to do the things you do when you visit New York. I guess they get isolated. You can feel isolated in New York on a busy day, or in the middle of nowhere in the prairie."
Kansas City, Missouri: Light Battery at Gettysburg
When I got done at the WAM, I got back in my car. It was afternoon in August and god-awful hot. Without thinking, I took a swig from the water bottle in the car and burned my tongue on liquid hotter than brewed tea. The heat had melted the lettering off a plastic bag I had in the car that had said "WicHIta: Hi is our middle name."
I had asked Jim where I might find an artsy café, and he recommended the Riverside Perk, a converted house that looked like a Wild West hotel. Over the tattered seats on the front porch hung a sign reading, "You must have purchase to remain on premises." Punk kids littered the stoop: silver piercings, bright blue hair, Mohawks, chains, torn jeans. When I stepped in, a flamboyant adolescent with Tarot cards strewn before him loudly giggled, "he's a dominatrix; people pay him to be bad to them." A young Asian man in his crisp shirt and tie (it was still 90 degrees and humid) patiently explained something to two thirty-something women who sat forward in their chairs to make out what he said. A bald-headed man about fifty read a book titled Turkish Grammar.
I walked through the smoke-filled room to order at the counter at back and then moved to the non-smoking room next door, lit by dim lamps. I set my backpack down and fell into a chair. At the table across the way sat two girls. One had a large white face, and wore sandals, shorts, and a dark T-shirt with a sunflower stitched into it. The other was tiny and tan, with a small mole in the hollow of her neck. She was barefoot, wearing jeans and a light purple top. I thought about approaching them for the book, but then decided they probably wouldn't know who Hopper was and wouldn't want to be interrupted, so I left them to themselves. I was done for the day and let out a sigh.
"Rough day at work?" the paler one asked jokingly, pointing at my backpack and journal.
"Actually, yes," I said. "I'm here to research your town for a book I'm writing."
They laughed and asked what kind of book would look at Wichita. When I told them, they grew excited.
"So do most people ask, 'Who is Edward Hopper?'" the paler one laughed.
I asked her name, and she replied in a husky booming voice, "Misty." The other one said with a little girl's voice something that sounded like "Mishella." She spelled it for me M-i-c-h-a-e-l-a, and I said, "Oh, Mick-I-ella."
"He got it," they squealed and looked at each other.
"We grew up in a small Hutterite town," Misty explained. She had been a school teacher, and talked to me a bit like I were a child, like Glenda the good witch. "Freeman, South Dakota, where most people are related. The nearest town is 15 miles away. No one had ever heard that name and they couldn't pronounce it, so they just called her Michelle-a."
"How did you get the name if no one knows how to say it?"
"My mom is from Bolivia. My dad left the colony in the 1960s to avoid the Viet Nam draft and traveled the world. He met my mom in Peru and brought her back as a wife."
I pulled out some postcards of Hopper's works to show them.
"That's Bootleggers," I explained. "It's in Manchester, New Hampshire.
"I like New Hampshire," she said.
"You've been to the east coast?" I asked, a little too incredulously.
"And the west coast," Misty emphasized, rolling her eyes. "And all over."
Michaela added, "We had an opportunity to travel with our church group to pretty much all states. I'm missing like three states in the U.S.: Alaska, Nevada, and North Dakota (which is ironic because I'm from South Dakota)."
Meanwhile, Misty gushed over a post card of a painting by Caravaggio. "Oh, did you see his David and Goliath?"
"In Vienna?" I asked. "You've been to Vienna?"
"Yeah," she said off-handedly. "Austria, Italy, Germany."
"Our colony actually encourages travel and study," Michaela informed me.
"Freeman must have the highest rate of bachelors," Misty gibed.
"Degrees or single men?" I asked.
"Both," they laughed. Misty noted, "Like the people in Hopper's paintings: farming is no longer a feasible means of making a living. Most of the men [in Freeman] that do it have to travel outside to find wives."
Michaela said, "I saw a collection of his [Hopper's] work a few years ago in South Carolina. With a mysterious woman in like a hundred of his pictures? A lonely look to his paintings? Isolation is a good word. Almost empty. I think that he captured scenes of isolation where people choose to be isolated. When I look at the scenes where it's not so much people in them but more so places, the places are beautiful. They're serene. Of course, the lighting affects that, big time. They're in a certain light, like later in the day. That golden hour. What I love is he paints in my favorite times of day. Wouldn't you love it there? You're out there away from the city. And you don't want anybody else around. It's a choice. You can tell that if you asked to sit down opposite her, she wouldn't accept. She is choosing to be alone there. She wants it; she needs that. I don't know what she's going through but something deep. She wouldn't want a guy to listen. She wouldn't want anyone near right now."
Misty said, "Hopper's characters I think want to be all alone, thinking. Actually, it reminds me a lot of home."
"Totally," Michaela chimed in.
"There's a lot of space," Misty continued. "And you can be intimidated by that."
"It can be eerie out there," Michaela added. "I live on a farm, and it's very eerie, the wind and everything. You have to make friends with it or else you'll go crazy."
As I drove away, I didn’t know what I would tell my friends the sisters when I got back to Chicago. Certainly I would thank them for introducing me to a man as accommodating as Jim. And Wichita had been an unexpected wonderworld for an art fan like me. Jim seemed like some wizard pulling the levers of Wichita to manipulate my experience there. I was taken to the inner cave of the president's office. But Wichita itself was strange and conflicting--a bit of a shocker. It would be like Dorothy trying to explain Oz to Auntie Em.
After him, two women walked into the gallery. One was about forty, the other just enough older and similar-looking that I surmised they were mother and daughter. The daughter was tall, lanky, and tan, with red fingernails, teased hair, and a lot of make-up. She wore tan khaki shorts, a short-sleeved white shirt with its collar up. She looked like the kind of woman you would see on a suburban club's tennis courts. Her white-haired mother had a sinking spine and wore dark blue shorts and a white t-shirt with multicolored flowers on it.
"We're from Kechi," the daughter beamed in answer to my asking if they were from Wichita. Kechi (pronounced Kee-CHEE) is a posh suburb of only about 1,000 souls three miles northeast of Wichita that calls itself the "Antique Capitol of Kansas." She spoke brassily as if I were deaf or foreign. Or maybe it was just to be loud enough to be heard over loud prairie winds across Kansas's open range.
"Kechi's a small town; everybody knows everybody," she giggled. "In a small town, there's not a stranger there."
"Not for long any way," the mother added a little menacingly.
The daughter countered, "If you see somebody you don't know, you just make friends with them."
Her mother harrumphed, "I see people more isolated that way here in Wichita."
"The larger the city," the daughter continued, "the more separate, less eye contact. I've never been to New York, but I've heard you don't look people in the eye. If you do, then they feel intimidated." She swiveled toward me. "I find your project fascinating. Most people that would be so interested in a particular artist or style would be an artist themselves, not a writer."
Something about the way she said that made me ask, "Are you an artist?"
"Oh, I was never a very good painter."
"Yes you were," barked her mother.
The daughter lowered her eyes. "I graduated in Fine Art at Wichita State, but I haven't done it for about 15 years now. I'll get back to it one of these years. Maybe when the kids are grown."
"They're pretty big already," the mother challenged.
The daughter considered this for a while. "Maybe this trip to the museum will inspire me to begin again," she mused. "This painting over here is my favorite." She pointed to a picture of a young woman and skull. It is a common theme, a vanitas or "vanity" painting showing a proud youth and a symbol of death. "I guess I like the whole thought behind it."
"I like the Charles Russell stuff," groused the mother.
"Sometimes," the younger one continued, "I like the symbolism. I can hear the paintings." She said it matter-of-factly, but neither her mother nor I knew how to respond.
"What's this one sound like?" the mother finally wondered, pointing at George Grosz's The Pit, which shows various distorted human figures receiving brightly colored tortures.1
"I couldn't hear it," the daughter recoiled. "I couldn't look at it for so long. It might be titled 'Hell on Earth.' You might not want to hang it over your living room couch," she said, and then looked at her mom. "But you might live your life differently if you did."
1Edward disliked a Grosz show he saw in 1954, saying "…[Y]ou can't be that mad all the time."
The WAM's family guide to paintings in the collection encouraged youngsters to create a similar composition as Conference at Night. "Set up your dolls or action figures in a scene sitting on boxes or doll furniture. Shine a flashlight on them from one side. Use colored pencils to draw the scene." That idea may have come from the WAM director of education, who kindly agreed to be interviewed because WAM was under construction and only one gallery of collection highlights was open (and only Conference at Night on display).
He was a thin, effete guy with a slightly square hair cut, who wore a loose-fitting outfit and a thin tie. His face bore a neutral expression, and his shoulders were low slung, lending him a clown-like sad sack look.
"We include this on a tour of paintings we do called 'People and Places' talking about works of art with, um, well, people in different places. Kids like this painting. I think because it's kind of open to interpretation as far as who these people are and what's going on, like what they're discussing. That and it has humor in it. Because of the title, the only reference they have for 'conference' is parent-teacher conference, so instantly they say, 'These are the parents. They're talking to the teacher. And the little boy, their son, has been bad at school. And the teacher's aren't happy, and the parents are not happy.'"
"It's nice when we have up the other one with figures in it [Sunlight on Brownstones]. We can do a comparison as far as the isolation. Out of the three Hoppers we have, this is probably the best and it's one of the favorite works in the collection. There's interaction in the characters; that's kind of rare in Hopper. As far as interpretation, Hopper even said, you know, 'it's all right there; you figure it out for yourselves.' And I think that people like the voice of the artist giving them permission, you know, legitimizing their looking at it, saying, 'you can figure it out. You're an intelligent person.'"
[Wichita Art Museum]
Sunlight on Brownstones shows a young couple on the stoop of their New York City brownstone apartment building staring at the sunset or dawning day. Her black hair curls around the shoulders of her flat blue dress as she leans back on both of her palms, exposing white stockings with black slippers. The man stands upright in the doorway, wearing a tie and long-sleeved white shirt below a sleeveless green sweater, staring past the cigarette he holds before his face. Their white-toned skin implies both the warmth of sunlight and the chill of death. The brownstones seem to pitch backward, as if theater-lover Hopper set them on a raked (slanted) stage.
Hopper said of the painting, "Brownstones are clotted in some sections of New York. Lots of them in the West Eighties, and the Park is right there. I went up there making sketches. The light is largely improvised. Is it as pink as I made it? I don't know." It was painted in 1956, and, as Gail Levin points out, "Even before Sunlight on Brownstones could be framed, it was purchased by the Wichita Art Museum in Kansas." The Hoppers celebrated by going to see Mister Roberts and Rebel Without a Cause.
In one WAM Bulletin, J. Daniel Selig pointed out that, "as [a helpful diagram he provided] indicates, there's no consistency in the perspective [in Sunlight on Brownstones]." He goes on to say, "While the Renaissance discovered that the sky was lighter near the horizon and deeper in color toward the zenith, here we have the curious effect of the sky being lighter at the right and deeper at the left."
Five A.M. shows a squat lighthouse on a rock outcropping in a bay. In the background, a factory stands at the base of a ridge of hills. Light blue fog enshrouds the scene.
In 1941, Hopper and Jo themselves passed through Kansas and visited Five A.M. Hopper said it, "…was suggested by some things that I had seen while traveling on the Boston-New York boats on Long Island Sound. The original impression grew into an attempted synthesis of an entrance to a harbor on the New England coast. The lighthouse is a not very actual rendition of one near Staten Island in New York harbor."
A Massachusetts resident wrote to the museum in 1994 with his own theory. "…this is a view of the Plymouth Cordage Works as seen from Saquish Head off of Duxbury Plymouth Mass. The 'light', slightly stylized, is called Bug Light. I do not know the origin of that name. This is still a desolate place, deserted in winter…. Mr. Hopper must have visited Saquish or Clark's Island nearby. And he must have liked it as much as I do. Best place in the whole country, no exaggeration. FYI."
WAM's third and final Hopper painting, Conference at Night, shows a conference going on at night between two men and a woman in an office lit only by streetlight and filled only by two long tables. It is an odd room to say the least. The characters are in a part of the room that has an eave near the window. Where the eave gives way, the room vaults upward into darkness. One pillar is round; its partner is square. The door floats; it's not set in a wall and doesn't reach a ceiling.
The three dark figures set against a light background have faces like Dick Tracy cartoons. A mysterious man in a dark coat with his back to you has his hands in his pockets. The woman (of whom Jo said, "Debra is hard, a queen in her right") is older, and her hands gather at the waist of her black dress. She has bright red lips and a hawklike nose beneath close-cut hair. The man on the right (Jo called him, "Sammy") wears a short tie and a vest, with his shirtsleeves rolled up. He leans back on one fist and gesticulates in the air with the other.
Hopper started the painting New Years Day 1949. Jo "posed for hands of the tall straight saleswoman or head of filing dept." Jo called the characters, "garment workers who were cooking up something." Sadly, the purchaser's wife agreed and succumbed to the era's witch-hunting mentality, deciding "Conference looked too much like a Communist gathering."
In a letter to Mrs. Navas, Hopper wrote, "I appreciate that the general public likes to have its art explained in words. It is going to be difficult for me to make words do much for Conference at Night. The idea of a loft of a business building with the artificial light of the street coming into the room at night had been in my mind for some years before I attempted it and had been suggested by things I had seen on Broadway in walking there at night."
I had asked Michael as a WAM Board member how they viewed the Hoppers. "Oh, as treasures. Not only the Hoppers but the collection. I've looked at it for probably thirty years. And I have really begun to understand the depth of what we have, the value of it, and the quality of it. It would be absolutely impossible for us to buy the Hoppers today that we have. Mrs. Navas was a master at collecting. I'm not aware that anybody's said, 'Boy that's a bad pick'. I'm no expert on Edward Hopper, other than I know I like his work a lot. I would say most Kansans would prefer very representational art as opposed to something very abstract (not that we are unsophisticated). It's a piece of work that anyone can look at and enjoy."
[Wichita Art Museum]Afterwards, I went to see the results of another art collecting master: Mrs. Rafael Navas, the assistant for Mrs. Roland P. Murdock, who acquired three Hopper paintings for Wichita--more than in any other town west of Washington, D.C.: Sunlight on Brownstones, Five A.M., and Conference at Night. The Wichita Art Museum (WAM) acquired each almost when still wet.
Jim drove me to Wichita State University (WSU). "This is where I met Debbie," he said. The WSU mascot is the wheatshocker or just "shocker," and it was a shocker to see such a great art collection on campus. The Ulrich museum displayed over its doorway a huge original mosaic by Joan Miro: white with bug-eyed beings in bright red, orange, and blue. The collection inside was also somewhat a "shocker." It contained works by Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Alexander Calder, and Hopper's teacher Robert Henri. Another building on campus was an artwork: Frank Lloyd Wright's Education Building.
A long aqua pool divided the main patio, and a cactus-like spire rose through the roof of the building adorned with red brick and turquoise tiles. To top off the surfeit of art, strewn about on the lawns were works by renowned sculptors such as Auguste Rodin,
Claes Oldenburg, Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, and Aristide Maillol.
I really appreciated Jim's hospitality, but I told him that I had to get to the Hoppers in the Wichita Art Museum (WAM). "The guy I work for is on the board."
"Who do you work for?"
"I'll show you," he said and veered the swaying Bronco downtown. There's not much of a skyline to Wichita. The tallest buildings are 20-25 stories, and there are only three that tall. We drove to one of those. Jim parked in the parking lot of a modern steel-and-glass high-rise. It had concrete walls, tan carpeting, and a wide lobby with glass elevator doors out front that were done by "Hopper's Glass Company." We went upstairs to see the art collection of a bank.
"Those sculptures I showed you are an example of a single person with no encumbrance whatsoever. The bank collection is essentially controlled by me (as the curator) and the chairman. In terms of efficiency, in terms of dollar values spanned over a historical period of time, these are two examples of letting a professional do his job. Let him do it. And thank God."
Art is literally a good investment. The collection was limited to artists with a connection to Kansas, but this still let Jim include some better-known names and images, such as Kansas photographer W. Eugene Smith's much-reproduced and -imitated 1946 photograph, "A Walk To Paradise Garden," in which a boy and a girl hold hands as they emerge from a hedge.
When the head of the bank heard that Jim was showing me the art and that I was writing a book about Hopper, he generously offered for me to interview him.
Michael was lanky, with sun-reddened skin, big ears, and a receding chin. He wore an open-collared blue-and-white checked shirt and spoke with a good-natured drawl. He sat on the Wichita Art Museum's board and avowed that the museum views their Hopper paintings "as treasures."
"I don't feel isolated at all," he replied to my question. "We may be isolated from Japan, Hong Kong, and Australia, but in terms of a community, I think Wichita and Kansas is a very friendly and outgoing community.
"I was fortunate enough to spend a summer in Europe when I was in college. My first chance to go in some magnificent museums and see more art than you can possibly absorb. Then, when my wife and I were 22 years old, we went down to this art fair in Wichita and ended up buying two or three pieces of work. It's like collecting anything: once you buy a couple...
"At that time, the bank had one location in Wichita. Today, we have twelve locations. And part of moving into a new building is putting something on the walls. Luckily, I made the decision early on that, instead of just going out and buying posters and hanging 'em so the walls would be filled, we tried to be a little more diligent and buy better things.
"There's no Edward Hoppers or Rembrandts or Van Goghs hanging around here, but I think the art is pretty good and varied, a very good representation of the best artists that have come through Kansas one way or another.
"One of the things Jim's done is to take a group of ten pictures or paintings and put 'em in some kind of a context. Most of us tend to look at paintings or objects kind of one at a time. Four or five times a year, we'll have luncheons in the basement. He'll speak for an hour, and anybody can come to them who wants to, and half of our employees will show up, just volunteer. And they have good questions. The employees are now peers. Anytime we bring something new in, a lot of employees are interested in, you know, 'How does that fit in with everything else?' I think that people are beginning to think, 'Well, gee, maybe we ought to buy something for the house.' They've turned themselves into partners."
He leaned close to me and said thoughtfully, "I had an English teacher in eighth grade, who certainly influenced me and she influenced my parents because I'd come home and I'd say, 'that's not the right tense'. She's influenced our son and no doubt our grandkids by now. I like to think what we're doing here will also influence a lot of people and their children and their children's children."