As a freelance theatre electrician in D.C. my days are overwhelmed with noise — from the screech of carpenters’ saws to the clang of pipes being hoisted into the air to my boss shouting instructions from across the stage. Today, I’ve been rushing to keep pace with my other teammates: fetching lights, dragging heavy cables and prying open stubborn clamps with my too-small C-Wrench. The full-throttle sensory overload is too much for my brain to handle and even after leaving work I find little relief. It’s 6 p.m., and I have a pounding headache. Stepping into the bustling street, I shield my eyes from the cacophony of neon signs and oversized billboards and plug my ears against a taxi’s blaring horn. As I bump past a tourist and her screaming child, I try to ignore the three homeless men who beg me for spare change and brush past a businessman cursing into his cell phone. I need shelter, a refuge, an escape. I need the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and today I have the rare chance to go.
Like a fragrant pine tree in an evergreen forest, the American Art Museum is a beautiful, noble museum in a crowded multitude of beautiful, noble museums. I didn’t think to go inside until late last year when my parents came up from our sleepy hometown in South Carolina. From the moment I first walked in, I was smitten. I love American culture for its unabashed, top-of-its-lungs joie d’vivre and sometimes reckless bravery. Even its darker side — unrelenting consumerism and impossibly oblivious narcissism — fascinates me. Until discovering the American Art Museum, I pored over comics and commercials to find the psychology of what makes us collectively tick. These days I don’t turn to mass media quite as much. Instead, I look to the museum’s artists as they hold up a kaleidoscope of mirrors to a world I’m too immersed in to see.
Once inside, the gentle murmur of shuffling feet and docents’ voices fold around me. Here, I’m finally able to take my time to focus on one object, to savor the singular complexities of each piece’s texture and expression. In the silence of the empty halls I sometimes drift from sculpture to painting to installation, attuning myself to the work’s silent song before mutely moving on. Often, I simply sit. That’s what I’m doing now — plunked down in front of my favorite piece, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly by folk-artist James Hampton. I’m stupefied with glee.
The Throne is constructed of 180 found objects. It’s crafted and shaped from old light bulbs, empty toilet paper rolls, discarded furniture, cardboard, mirror fragments and more — all covered in silver and gold foil to create a massive throne room prepared for Jesus Christ in his second coming. Though only a small portion of the original objects are on display, it’s still the largest work in the museum’s folk art wing. I stop a passing docent to enquire about the history of the piece. Although I know its story by heart, I love hearing how this obscure work of beauty grew from humble roots. Hampton, the son of a minister, worked as a janitor for the General Services Administration in the D.C. area. For 14 years he secretly rented a garage where he amassed and assembled his vision, an intense religious faith sustaining him in his labor. No one discovered his masterpiece until he died in 1964 and his landlord broke the lock on the garage. The Smithsonian acquired the piece six years later, through a group of anonymous donors. What I love most about the story is that Hampton wasn’t classically trained and he didn’t have access to the highest quality materials. He only had his vision to go by, a vision so powerful it couldn’t be ignored. That vision drove him to create a work of sublime beauty, evoking God’s majesty in a way no stained glass or fresco could. The Throne reminds me that in this rough, unrefined city real pockets of peace and splendor can still thrive.
I thank the docent and go on my way. It’s 6:45 and the museum closes at 7. There isn’t much time before the guards throw everyone out for the night and I still want to visit the Lunder Conservation Center. Tucked away in a hallway on the top floor, the LCC is housed in a group of glass-walled offices where visitors can watch as artists and conservationists repair damaged sculptures, paintings and other works for display. I usually feel sort of guilty when I come up here. I hate when random strangers stare at me when I work, but here it feels like watching highly intelligent goldfish construct pebble castles inside their bowls. In a city where so much is broken — people, laws, the Metro system, buildings — seeing these objects of beauty and wonder being restored with such tender care incites a sweet peace that outweighs the guilt. No one is working right now, so I content myself with watching an educational video on the various instruments the conservationists use.
“Ma’am? The museum is closed,” a security guard says, startling me out of my reverie. I give him a rueful smile and let him lead me to the doors downstairs.
When I exit into the gathering dusk, I pause to feel the summer’s breeze waft over my skin as D.C.’s noisy clang settles into a sleepy hush. Suddenly, living in this bedlam feels more manageable. It’ll be at least another month before I have enough time off from work to come back, but for now I have enough strength to once again dive into D.C.’s frenetic fray.