At MONA, no wrong answers

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

For several years, I‘ve led school tours at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art (MONA). We use a technique called “Visual Thinking Strategy.” The point with VTS is to encourage everyone to think for themselves. We say “there are no wrong answers,” and treat every opinion with respect.

To promote VTS, we led them to the current second-floor exhibit, “Hidden Narratives”—artworks with several possible interpretations. Almost everyone’s favorite is a miniature bedroom by Heather Ramsey, “Broken Promise.” A rumpled bed, an empty birdcage, burned matches and paper snowflakes are only a few of the clues to this visual puzzle. Is there a right answer to what’s happened here? 

Most of the sixth graders agree that Catherine Eaton Skinner’s encaustic painting, “Distance Between Things,“ depicts a beach scene, with people digging, sunbathing, standing around. What’s more, all the students identify the ominous figure leaning into the scene as a dinosaur. But Skinner’s website suggests the picture is based on an old black-and-white photo. A really old photo?

“Hidden Narratives” offers many other intriguing works: William Cumming’s “Return to Odysseus,” a lush canvas, crowded with people and animals; Thomas Wood’s enigmatic etching, “Parrots,” in which four grumpy parrots on a wire notice a flying fish sailing over.

In the glass gallery, “Submerge” features astonishingly lifelike marine animal sculptures by Raven Skyriver. He was raised on a Lopez Island farm by back-to-nature parents and imbibed a deep love for creatures of the sea. Trained in glass art at the Pilchuck school, he also uses his skill to advocate for wildlife preservation.

Now to the headline exhibit: “Choices” shows off the artistic career of Mel Katz, who played a leading role in bringing modern art to Portland. He was one of the founders of the Portland Center for the Visual Arts and taught for many years at Portland State University. 

As an art student in New York City, Katz soaked up the gospel of Abstract Expressionism, but he suspected that it “had run its course” and wanted to be part of the next “New Wave.” He blew out age-old rectangular boundaries of wall-hung art. Then he applied abstract shapes and bright colors to sculptural columns in wood, concrete, steel and, ultimately, plastic laminate and polyester over foam core.

Katz’s inventive outdoor sculptures liven up schoolyards and public spaces in Oregon and Washington. To see them assembled in a museum, says his son Jesse, is like walking into a funhouse. The bright colors and crazy angles put a smile on your face.

During a recent VTS tour, one smart sixth grader said to me, “What are all these? I could do them myself.”

Remember, I thought, there are no wrong answers.

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