Art Therapy



If ever there was a winter to miss, this was the one. Arriving home the second week of March means I get to experience a little of the fun, anyway. 


Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Do I miss anything at all about a northern Minnesota winter? 


Open questions, both. 


However, this trip home featured a lucky stop which made the arrival back in cold country much easier. That stop was at the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper, WY. 


Casper is a small city, founded on rail, oil and cows in the 1890s, and surviving, even thriving, on those same foundations today. 


It is not a town where you would expect to find a solid art museum. Yet, there sits the nationally-regarded Nicolaysen Museum in an renovated brick power plant in the old downtown of cowboy Casper. 


No museum worth its salt these days sticks to pictures on the wall. No sir, to earn your stripes, you must bring in incomprehensible “installation art” with objects hanging by strings and video screens with repeated scenes and stereo systems playing a repeated soundtrack over and over. 


The Nicolaysen did not disappoint. At least three installations filled the enormous space near the entrance. One work featured dozens of antibiotic IV plastic lemons hanging in rows from the ceiling. I believe the installation was inspired by a staph infection, and I am not kidding. 


At the exhibit’s opening several weeks ago, a dance troupe performed a fifteen-minute interpretive dance on staph infections beneath the antibiotic lemons and amidst a couple of dozen of those huge wooden spools used for electric cable. 


The dance played on a video, which allowed me to turn away after three seconds, eliminating the fourteen minutes and fifty-seven seconds of embarrassment I would have endured had I attended the actual opening. 


But, hey. It was cool. That’s what installation art is. Cool. You look at it, say, “that’s pretty cool!” and move on with your life. 


A second installation was inspired by the Yellowstone caldera, the massive unstable subterranean hot spot which makes the park so geologically unstable. In fact, when caldera blows sometime in the next 50,000 years, it will be the largest volcano in the world. 


Using crumpled velvet strung on a cable, like a wrinkled rope line, which worked its way like a snake around the entire space, and mounds black mesh, like that women used as veils in funerals at one time, the artist sought to make us think about the Yellowstone caldera in new ways. 


Again, it was really cool. 


And we moved on. 


Around the corner, we hit gold, an exhibit of old-fashioned paintings hanging on a wall, paintings executed by a young woman from Missouri, Sarah Williams. 


Ms. Williams has chosen as her subjects scenes from Midwestern small towns, and not the typical pretty scenes. 


No, Williams paints things some might think are ugly, or sad, or tacky, or grim. And she makes them beautiful. 


Have you ever driven late on a subzero winter night and stopped at a Cenex on the edge of a small town to run your card through the reader and fill up on gas with nobody around? 


A lonely scene, those tanks, the concrete slab, the tracks in the snow, the buzzing lights, the complete lack of any human presence. 


It is such scenes Williams paints. Night scenes. Loading docks lit by orange lights. Empty car wash bays, unused in winter. 


Williams also paints mid-century small-town homes with a lone porch light and the TV glowing through the window to the side of the entry. Sad? Lonely? To some. To me, they meant home. 


A cracked, pothole ridden parking lot with ice and puddles, lit only by one of those portable signs with plastic movable letters and a big arrow on top pointing towards the store where the “Clo s out sal e ends Mar 31 Everythng mus t go.” 


Scenes you might think of as the most depressing of a small town in winter were turned, by Williams’ brush, into comforting reminders of home. 


A warehouse at night, the frosty truck tracks up to the ramp lit only by a lone blue yard light. Beautiful. 


The earlier installations were cool. As mockable as such art can be, I defend artists who venture into the avant garde. 


But Sarah Williams’ paintings hit me in the soul like great art should. 


By pulling out scenes from winter at home, where I was headed with some trepidation, and making them beautiful, she changed forever the way I view a lonely row of ammonia tanks under a yard light on the edge of town in subzero weather. 


Bleak? Yes. 


But beautiful, too.