Dear Art, What’s Taking You So Long?

A Look Inside Slow Art Day

By Kelly Madera

“When people look slowly at a piece of art they make discoveries. The most important discovery they make is that they can see and experience art without an expert. And that’s an exciting discovery. It unlocks passion, creativity, and helps to create more art lovers.” - SlowArtDay.com

Since its inaugural year in 2010, Slow Art Day happens annually on April 6. This event has taken place on all seven continents, (including Antarctica!) and as of 2019 has conducted more than 1,200 events at over 700 different venues. One could say that Slow Art Day has ironically, caught on quick. Just last week, The Tate Modern recently published a statistic that their museum goers spend on average eight-seconds gazing at a work of art. As attention spans have shrunk, and access to art has widened, the result is a dwindling number of individuals giving art the time and understanding it deserves. So, what does it all mean? 

It’s 93 degrees, nearing 100% humidity on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It’s early April, no clouds in the sky in the sky. Ideal weather for slowing down at a historical museum? I think yes. I had the fortunate opportunity of spending my first Slow Art Day at The Hawaii State Art Museum in Honolulu. Hawaii is known for possessing an ambiance of tranquility that on it’s own brings to focus mindfulness, meditation, yoga, respect for nature, etc. I was intrigued to experience what a categorical “slow down” would be like in such a setting. What would the art selections be? What moods would they evoke?

The Hawaii State Art Museum

The Hawaii State Art Museum

Second floor terrace overlooking Honolulu’s iconic Hotel St.

Second floor terrace overlooking Honolulu’s iconic Hotel St.

I arrived a whole three minutes before the Slow Art Day tour was set to begin at 1 p.m. Talk about keeping the wrong tempo. The historic Spanish-Mission style building was the original site of The Royal Hawaiian (Hawaii’s oldest and perhaps best known hotel) in 1872. It has had many functions over the last several decades, more recently being The No. 1 Capitol District building due to its adjacent location from the Hawaiian Senate and House of Representatives. As I enter on the first floor, flushed from the 20-minute walk, I am greeted by an older woman with a beaming smile remarking on my height, “very tall, I like.” After exchanging rushed pleasantries, Ruth directed me to the second floor. 

As I ascended the outdoor stairs to the second floor I pause to take in everything around me. That’s the point of this right? The high vaulted style ceilings reminiscent of a gothic revival church garnish the tile flooring and iron chandeliers that look out onto the storied Hotel St. I enter and immediately notice two women in black T-Shirts with block yellow lettering, “Hawaii State Art Museum” signifying them as docents. Naturally, I approach, “Is this the Slow Art Day tour?” Almost instantaneously, a small swarm of fifteen diverse individuals ready to embark on a slower art journey appear. Immediately we were asked questioned by our new friends in block lettering tees, “Who has been to this museum before?” an awkward silence ensues as their direct eye contact cajoles a lackluster response. Tittering in a semi-circle, our group is then split down the middle.

Emily McIlroy, an award winning artist boasting solo exhibits in Las Vegas, Hawaii, Kentucky, and current art professor at the University of Hawaii, guides us through a glistening white gallery space titled, “State of Art, New Work.” Prompted to introduce ourselves and explain how we ended up at Slow Art Day, Emily guides the discussion. Michelle Schwengel-Regala (a local artist) remarked on gravitating toward the word slow in the event title due to a pressing desire she had be more present.

Manaiakalani II  (2017)

Manaiakalani II (2017)

Once introductions had taken place, Emily directed our attention to an outer spacey, nebulous piece by Hana Yoshihata, Manaiakalani II (2017) seawater, acrylic pigments, sumi ink, charcoal, pastel. Preventing us from reading the description, Emily gently instructed our group of six to stare silently at Manaiakalani II  from different angles for several minutes. This meditative experience is one that I, as an avid art goer, have never experienced. Emily taught us that there are three things that happen when observing art, 

“What you see at first. What you see when you look a little more. What you end up seeing.” 

Air Gods  (2017)

Air Gods (2017)

The group begins to share their uniquely perceptive thoughts on the abstract piece. “I see space.” “I see human organs.” “I see oil slicks.” Encouraged to go deeper by pretending we were inside of the art. “I am astral projecting,” “I’m in an open space with dust.” “I’m trapped in a playdough like substance.” I found this request challenging based on my subconscious need to “get things right away.” If extra effort is required to understand something, it makes me feel unintelligent. How easy it is to forget that art is entirely subjective by nature. Instead of appreciating what we see, we make it all about us and our capabilities. I certainly did. Our accomplished tour guide confirms many of our interpretations and adds that the artist is one of her former students. The connection between the art and those appreciating it, deepens.

The next piece presented was of a wooden sculpture by Lori Uyehara Air Gods (2017) mixed media wood, acrylic. A similar process of probing questions, and hesitated sharing ensued. Some saw the birth of flight, others migration. The longer I looked and allowed my mind to relax, I saw a totem pole. I saw an intrinsic connection to nature. Which posed well for Emily’s next question, 

If you were an archaeologist finding this piece thousands of year from now, what would you think about this artist?

The questions itself is simple, but requires the ability to be fully present. I found myself pursuing a deeper connection to this chiseled shape that would’ve been passed without a second thought had I been alone. The instant gratification of fast paced Western culture lives in stark contrast, opposition even, to the creation and appreciation of art. Art forces us to slow down, if we let it. If you don’t appreciate something, it’s hard to understand it. If you don’t understand something, it’s hard to appreciate it. One needs the other. It is the foundation of respect. Museums are more than great Instagram content. But isn’t that the way most of us look at art? Through our own skewed lenses? Our “Instagram” lenses perhaps? We don’t see art as it is, we see art as we are. Similar to how we look at the world. We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. Mirrored surfaces. Perhaps this explains why people are not always comfortable sharing their perceptions. Perceptions are reflections of ourselves. 

Introducing Ruddy Spuddy  (1995)

Introducing Ruddy Spuddy (1995)

As we moved toward the final piece of the tour I was taken aback at the overall enormity of the painting by Sally French Introducing Ruddy Spuddy (1995) oil, beeswax, on wood painting. If I hadn’t been a part of the Slow Art Tour I would have entirely missed a poignant message inscribed within the painting, “too much wahà.” Wahà was translated for me by a native Hawaiian woman in my group. Defining wahà as the Hawaiian term for “mouth.” If someone has too much wahà they are the equivalent of all talk and no action. This served as a key for understanding the artist’s point of view. One that would have been entirely absent if not for the meditative quality of the Slow Art Tour. The more time and attention given to Introducing Ruddy Spuddy, more elements revealed themselves as interwoven threads of meaning. Introducing Ruddy Spuddy wasn’t the chaotic mess I initially interpreted, it rendered a powerful message of family, death, loss, rebirth, and connection. By allowing for more time, I garnered not only a deeper connection to art, to myself. 

Art is essential to cultivating a deeper connection with the world around us. Art can be any random encounter we have throughout a the day. It can be a creative cup of matcha at a hipster café, or merely noticing tree leaves on an otherwise overcrowded street. Busy people with hectic lives often don’t take the time to slow down and fully connect with the beauty around them. What’s better? Seeing twenty pieces of art that you don’t connect with? Or two that you fully absorb and allow to take you on a journey? This is why Slow Art Day exists in the first place. Slow Art Day is a compelling reminder to acknowledge art, while first recognizing slowing down is an excruciating challenge for even the most willing of us. 

Did you miss Slow Art Day this year? Don’t wait until April 6, 2020 to experience it. The next time you visit a museum, gallery, or see art on the street take a moment. Drink it in. What do you see? Challenge yourself to look deeper. Slow Art Day may happen intentionally once a year, but we can practice having a deeper appreciation for the beauty in our lives whenever we choose to.

“Nature doesn’t hurt, yet everything is accomplished.” - Lao Tzu.