“Paint me betraying no emotion”

George Wesley Bellows, “Waldo Pierce”
Fancy art museums are juicy targets for caricature and satire in every form. Nowhere more so than in San Francisco, a natural ground zero of any Tom Wolfe-style takedown. That’s too bad, because many of the same museums are wonderful places that get many things right.

San Francisco’s lovely de Young Museum did something right with a simple idea: Let’s ask kids to describe what they see in the art.

The above painting by George Wesley Bellows is titled: “Waldo Pierce.”
About it, Ben Erickson of Ohlone Elementary School is moved to write:
Paint me sitting
on a wooden bench
holding a cane
Paint me with a dull brown 
overcoat and a turquoise
Paint me with a yellow hand
resting on a wine red hat
Paint me betraying
No emotion

The painting below the fold, Robert Henri’s “Lady in Black with Spanish scarf,” might inspire a similar poem.  But Sara Romeyn of Sharp Park Elementary School chose to take things in a different direction…

What are you thinking
What do you know
Do you know only the beauty in my face
the grace in my walk
Do you paint me for who I am
or what I am
I want to ask you but how
do you ask a question like that
I want you to paint my soul
Not my face full of sorrow or remorse
I wish I could ask you
What are you thinking
What do you know
Young people have serious things to say. They face serious questions as they make their way in the world. Art speaks to that–in its anger and its playfulness, in its beauty and its sensuality, in a million other things. Sometimes its human inscrutability provides the most powerful message. We adults are just too jaded to really notice.
Robert Henri, “Lady in Black with Spanish scarf”



Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

2 thoughts on ““Paint me betraying no emotion””

    1. So amazing, in fact, that I may get myself over to SF (from Sacramento) to check out this exhibition. In Halifax some years ago, I came upon this very thing: the art museum I visited had posted on the walls next to various paintings responses to those paintings written by middle-schoolers. I have been trying ever since to get art museums I visit to consider doing the same thing, simply because those responses tend to be amazing. I mean, amazing.

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