Picture this: a dozen or more Museum visitors and a few docents spending 30 minutes in front of one, very, large work, 96 by 44”, discussing its aspects and possible meanings. The artwork, They Are Not Afraid of the Dark because They Are the Color of It by artist Sidney Cain is dark, with figures disappearing into a black background, and subdued hints of color in a faded patchwork quilt covering another figure lying on a bed. The observer can’t tell if the image on the bed is alive or not.
On an ordinary tour, a dark artwork like this can be a challenge to discuss; however, just before gathering in front of it, members of the Museum’s Turning Pages Book Club met for an hour over lunch in the Museum Café and discussed Toni Morrison’s seminal Beloved, a literary work that may have been part of Cain’s inspiration for the painting.
The novel, set in the South in the years after the Civil War, features a freed black family, including a grandmother who loved a quilt. Interwoven throughout its narrative are multiple ghost-like characters. Participants of the Turning Pages Book Club, after having read the book, appreciated their new understanding of Cain’s artwork.
Yet, the opposite was also true: the artwork enriched visitors’ understanding of the book. Several of the participants had viewed the artwork before the Turning Pages Book Club meeting and came prepared with ideas for ways to connect visual references with those in Morrison’s narrative. As a result of such fruitful explorations, the discussion moved beyond the book and artwork, touching on American history, forming connections between past and present events.
As docents, isn’t this what we want our visitors to do? To stand back and think about an artwork as a whole, look closely, discover meaning, and find relevance to our histories and our worlds?
This positive outcome was a welcome surprise to the docent leaders because the first participant arrived stating the words no docent wants to hear: “I hated the book!” Most of the other guests agreed that Morrison’s 1988 classic had been a difficult book to read.
However, after this first book group meeting ended, one of the docent leaders commented, “I thoroughly enjoyed the book discussion, despite the focus on the horrors of slavery. I was blown away by the insightful comments from the group when viewing the art. They stood back, taking in the large canvas. They moved in, closely examining the details. Without being told, the participants discerned the theme of the exhibition. The book enriched their experience of the art, and vice versa.”
From left: Linda Miller, Book Club leaders Susan Henneberg and Katie Quinn, and Betsy Burgess.
Two docents led the Turning Pages Book Club, with one docent facilitating the lunchtime book discussion and another the discussion of the artwork. Book Club leaders have found that finding the right pairing between a book and an artwork or exhibition is challenging. Their goal is to find a book that complements an artwork or theme of a current exhibition, leading to fresh insights for everyone who participates—including the docents themselves!
The discussion comparing Cain’s artwork and Morrison’s Beloved was the first in-person, in-Museum meeting of the Turning Pages Book Club, (after many unsuccessful attempts during Covid to host a virtual book group via Zoom). The meeting more than met the Museum’s goals, according to Claire Muñoz, Charles N. Mathewson Senior Director of Education: to create a space to build community and engagement, to encourage a deeper investigation of artworks, and to create new opportunities for docents to engage with the community. Additionally, discussions inspired by the Turning Pages Book Club may encourage visitors to become more involved with the Museum, with some deciding to become Museum members or even docents.
Lastly, the second Turning Pages Book Club, which sold out a couple weeks before the scheduled date, proved equally thought provoking. The group discussed Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Native American who has a Ph.D. in botany. The book explores mankind’s responsibilities to care for the world, and invites readers to allow the world to be their teacher. This book was paired with Water by Design, an exhibition that explores water’s role in the global economy, and mankind’s responsibility to protect this precious natural resource. The choice and discussion aligned perfectly with the Museum’s collection focus on art and the environment.
Given the initial successes of the Turning Pages Book Club, the year ahead promises a stimulating, engaging new program!
Nevada Museum of Art Turning Pages Book Club