I hadn’t taken a single art class in school, owing to the fact that my artistic ability is limited to doodles and stick figures. I’d never helped paint a poster
I hadn’t taken a single art class in school, owing to the fact that my artistic ability is limited to doodles and stick figures. I’d never helped paint a poster for a class president or papier-mâché’d a float for homecoming, and I most certainly was not a member of the high school art club. Yet none of that stopped me from walking out of homeroom one morning and boarding the school’s activity bus for a field trip that the art club was taking to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.
At my grandmother’s house, framed landscape oil paintings by her sister, my great-aunt Dorothy, hung on the walls, and at Christmas, we displayed Norman Rockwell’s Christmas Book on the coffee table. At home, my dad had books about the photography of Ansel Adams and the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. But I’d never been in a place solely and wholly devoted to art. So when I heard that the art club had planned this trip, well, I saw an opportunity.
Did I mention that I was not a member of this club? Yet no one seemed to question my presence on the bus. I may have told the art teacher who was chaperoning that I was covering the event for the school newspaper (not true), and I had perhaps neglected to mention to my parents that I was planning to cut school to go on a field trip for which I did not have permission to go.
I’d packed a sack lunch that morning and wrapped a cold can of Coke in tinfoil. It took two hours to get to Raleigh on the bus, and we scarfed down our bagged lunches on picnic tables before a docent came out to lead our tour.
Once inside, I was awestruck. I still remember being pulled toward the painting in the lobby, a 12-foot-wide modern work called American Landscape with Revolutionary Heroes: silhouettes of five figures, the founding fathers, were set against a color field of gray and turquoise. I’d never seen anything like it, and the impression — amazement for the scale of a large work of art, admiration for the boldness of color — has stayed with me my whole life. That day, I saw works by Andrew Wyeth and Georgia O’Keeffe — on a trip out West a few years ago, I was overcome with emotion in front of Cebolla Church in New Mexico, the exact site of the O’Keeffe painting that I’d discovered back in Raleigh on that very first visit to the museum. I saw Greek and Egyptian sculptures, American landscapes, and French Impressionism, and I took it all in, transported from the views I knew in Randolph County to a broader, wider world, one that unfolded for me inside a museum on that day.
My trip wasn’t without repercussions. Evidently, my unsanctioned absence had been noted, and when the bus returned to school, I was summoned to the principal’s office. “We have to do something,” the principal told me. Rules are rules, and I had broken them. My punishment was a day of in-school suspension. “But I don’t think there’s a need for us to mention this incident to your parents,” the principal said, with a pat to my shoulder, earning my complete gratitude.
Since that day, I’m happy to say that I’ve been back to the NCMA numerous times — and not just there, but others, too. By my count, North Carolina has more than 600 museums, places devoted to art, and also to history and science, to agricultural life and military pursuits, to sports and transportation, an endless archive of knowledge and imagination.
Permission granted for all of us to come inside.
Editor in Chief