About Merilee Mostov

Merilee Mostov is the Chief Engagement Officer for CMA

Chocolate for Your Thoughts

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This summer I am spearheading several gallery experiments in order to gather input from people like you for future and ongoing projects.

First up: The Label Experiment, which took place last Wednesday. The goal of this experiment was to gather feedback about the works of art currently on display in the glass case bordering the Wonder Room.

The Innovation Lab down the hall from the glass case was a perfect location for this experiment. I covered the Lab walls with photocopies of the objects in the glass case. Then I invited people to come inside, write their questions and wonderings about the featured objects on Post-it notes, and stick them on the photocopies. As a thank you, I offered candy bars to all participants.

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Phase #1 of this experiment was a success. People of all ages – visitors, interns, and CMA staff – took time to compose thoughtful questions and wonderings about the works of art. I am encouraged and slightly overwhelmed by the amount of responses. Now it is my job to consider all of this information as I create labels and activities to engage visitors in meaningful ways with these works. It will be an interesting task and I am thrilled to have visitor feedback to guide me.

If you visit CMA this summer, chances are you may stumble across another gallery experiment. I hope you will make time to join in because your opinions matter. Your feedback will make an impact on our decisions.

And, besides, I still have a large stash of candy bars to share.

Experiments in White

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Elaine and her daughter Lydia were engrossed in looking when I met them. The object of their sustained concentration wasn’t a work of art; it was a new sign in the Center for Creativity called Whiteout.

“We can’t find the spatula; we’ve found everything but that!” Elaine looked to me for guidance.

As far as signs go, this one is atypical. It’s a 4′x 4′ plexi-glass box filled with shredded white paper. Imbedded, or camouflaged, in the paper are 19 assorted all-white objects such as a spatula, takeout box, ping pong ball, and headband. A list of the objects is posted on the wall nearby and visitors are invited to find them.

I’ve witnessed many visitors (and CMA staff) who are relentless in their search for all 19 objects. The sign is a not a work of art, but it is a curiosity. People gather together to point out objects found and hunt for the most elusive objects, the pipe cleaner and Q-tip.

whiteoutsign2This particular sign has been on display for just a few weeks. In that time, I’ve chatted with several people engaged in the hunt for white objects and I am somewhat surprised by our conversations. Several visitors think this sign is, in fact, a work of art. Others admit that they didn’t realize that it is actually a sign. (The lower portion of the box has large dimensional green words that spell out Center for Creativity.)

As a result of these conversations, I have been rethinking the purpose of this sign and its sister signs. The Whiteout sign is part of an on-going series of sign experiments for the Center for Creativity.

When we opened the Center in 2011, we knew that run-of-the-mill signage would not serve our experimental, playful, and even quirky philosophy. Instead we made several large plexiglass box-like signs that can be filled with different materials. We change out the “filler material” whenever we have the time and inclination, or about every 9 months. The one defining feature of the filler is the color; it’s always white. So far we’ve used packing peanuts (clingy), string mops (heavy), plumbing pipe pieces (very heavy), artificial birds (creepy), paper, and flowers.

The Center for Creativity signs filled with birds and string mops.

The Center for Creativity signs filled with birds and a string mops.

I am frequently asked why we only use white objects in these signs. The answer relates to design and creativity. First, I like white. And white is an effective visual background to the green Center for Creativity letters on the outside of the box. But more importantly, I established this color limitation as a personal creative challenge. What else can I find that is all white, not too expensive, small enough to fit in the boxes, and (new rule) not so heavy that the box will fall off the wall?

In fact, these signs embody many characteristics of creativity. They exemplify a willingness to experiment and take risks. They require divergent and imaginative thinking. They upend what is normal and expected.  And like many creative experiments, they may not be successful for their original purpose; I am willing to admit that they may have be failures as markers for our Center for Creativity spaces.

Yet, something interesting is happening when visitors engage with these quirky experiments in signage. And, heck, the world is full of so many other white objects. So for now, we will continue with our experiments in white.

If you have suggestions for filler, let us know.

Lessons from a Boxer

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“This is a great place to learn about yourself.  You can get in tune with a lot of learning and things you didn’t know about yourself and your family here, like patience.”

Armond shared this wisdom with me as he wrangled a hunk of twist-ties in the Center for Creativity.  He was visiting CMA with his family, daughter Ar’mya and wife Leslie.  Armond admitted that he wasn’t initially thrilled to spend a day at an art museum.

“I never thought I would enjoy coming here.  This wouldn’t be my first choice – to come to an art museum – but I said O.K. let’s try it.  It’s something new.”

I am inspired and encouraged by Armond’s testimony.  It’s honest and heartfelt, personal yet universal.  A competitive boxer, whose passions lean towards athletic activities, Armond didn’t previously consider how he could benefit from a visit to an art museum.  His comments shine a light on a common misconception about museums; some people may think that a museum visit is primarily about the stuff we have on display – the treasured objects.

Truth is:  Museum visits are primarily about people.  Families and friends share precious time together at museums – talking, wondering, questioning, remembering.  At CMA we understand that.  We work hard to create many opportunities where people can learn about and from each other.  Art and creativity are frequently the catalyst for these conversations.   While Armond and his family made twist-tie sculptures and assembled a puzzle, they were getting to know new things about each other. And, as this father wisely noted, they were getting to know new things about themselves.

Five years ago, CMA established a new tradition.  One day each spring we roll out a special welcome to all Columbus City School students and their families.  On this day, we encourage families from our community to check us out; to have fun playing together, to spend time chatting and laughing and learning about each other.  This year CMA’s Columbus City Schools Day for Families took place on May 4.  Many enthusiastic families turned out – including the family of one very astute boxer.

Encounters with Nudity

Wonder Room Diana sculpture

Navigating nudity in art during a visit alone or with family and friends can be challenging for many of us. Indeed, I have been uncomfortable making sense of some works that contain nudity on view at CMA.  For me, every work is unique; some works with nudity trigger feelings of discomfort and even anger, some are rather innocuous.

My position on nudity in art can be boiled down to a few basic statements.

  1. Many works of art depict nudity.
  2. CMA owns and displays works with nudity in the Center for Creativity, in special exhibitions, and in all other galleries.
  3. Visitors should expect to encounter art with nudity during a CMA visit.
  4. Some works with nudity are unsettling to some viewers.
  5. Discomfort is not always a bad thing.

In this blog I do not intend to address statement #1.  Let’s please accept this fact and move on.

I can speak to statements #2 and #3. I admit that CMA has not been explicit about our policy on nudity in art.  Recently, a visitor did express dismay to find works with nudity in the Center for Creativity.  Her comments did not explain why she did not expect works with nudity in the Center for Creativity.  Perhaps because many families with children congregate in the Center, she believes it is not appropriate to display art with nudity there.  Or perhaps she objects for religious reasons.  I cannot know for sure.

Therefore, I want to take this opportunity to be very clear about our policy on nudity in art.

Attention all CMA visitors:  You may encounter works of art with nudity in any gallery in our museum!

I am not suggesting that we intentionally plan for works with nudity in every gallery.  In reality, here is what usually happens:  a curator selects a work because it is innovative or representative of a particular movement, style, or theme.  And sometimes this work includes nudity.  For example, Diana is a sculpture that is currently on view in the glass case adjacent to the Wonder Room.  I selected this elegant sculpture because of the subject matter; Diana, Roman Goddess of the hunt, is typically associated with the forest and animals.  The Wonder Room showcases many works with a woodland theme.  I admit that I did not consider Diana’s small, unclothed breasts when I selected this sculpture. But as a result of this visitor comment, Diana’s breasts have been on my mind. So, last week I wandered through the galleries in the Center for Creativity to chat with other visitors and gain more insight.

As luck would have it, I met a lovely family looking at Diana and the other sculptures on view in this case.   I directed my most important question to mother Amy and 9-year old Gavin, “So, tell me how you feel about the nudity in this sculpture. (I pointed to Diana) I am asking you because a visitor expressed concern that we placed this sculpture here.”  Amy laughed.  She shared this story.  On the drive to the Museum, Gavin asked, “Will there be naked people?” She explained to him that there would probably be some naked people in the art.  Amy also added, without provocation, that she welcomed and supported her son’s “curiosity.”  She wants her children to be curious about the world.  She pointed out that Gavin was comfortable looking, talking about, and even taking photos of the Diana sculpture.

Here is what I noticed: Amy and her family expected to encounter nudity during their museum visit.

Cezanne Bather

I said goodbye to Amy and her family and met another family. Jim and his two children were drawing in the Big Idea Gallery near Cezanne’s Seated Bather.  The “bather” in this painting is a naked woman nestled in a woodland setting. Chatting with Jim, I learned that he, like Amy, expected to encounter nudity during this visit with his family.

I applaud Amy and Jim for preparing their families for one of the almost universal truths of an art museum visit:  Many works of art contain nudity and art museums display these works.  Amy and Jim were comfortable with this fact. But what about visitors who aren’t comfortable with seeing art depicting nudity during a visit?

Certainly, I encourage every visitor to gravitate towards works that have personal relevance or interest.  I want every visitor to have a positive and meaningful experience.  But I also hope to encourage every visitor to approach our Museum as a safe place to explore ideas and topics that may be challenging and uncomfortable.  Why?  Because great works of art are chock full of imagery and ideas and stories that shine a light on difficult issues, such as nudity and sexuality.

This reminds me of the advice offered to me regularly by my massage therapist, “Pain is our best teacher.”  I know what she means. Most days, I plod through my daily routines without paying much attention to my weakened joints.  I’m lazy about the way I get out of the car or sit in the chair.  But when I’m in pain; I must pay attention.  The discomfort forces me to confront some issues I would rather avoid or ignore about myself.  My pain shines a light on my habits, my approach to living, and well, my vulnerabilities.

Great works of art can be like my pain.  They can alert us to some serious issues that we would prefer to ignore. In the course of our daily lives, we may not have to think seriously about poverty or violence or our sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly naked bodies. Most days we can avoid these issues that cause us discomfort.  But a visit to an art museum can be akin to ripping off a Band-aid. Prematurely.  We can quickly feel exposed and vulnerable.  At CMA, many great works of art on view do address difficult topics. These works challenge us to pay attention, to be aware, to take notice of the things we may or may not want to think or talk about.  But like my experience with back pain, if we take the time to be mindful about what triggers our discomfort with issues like nudity in art, we can learn a thing or two about ourselves, our friends and family, and our communities.

Dear CMA Visitors

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Dear CMA visitors,

I want to properly recognize your valuable contributions to our museum. Because of you, inspired visitor, CMA not only showcases the creative output of established artists, but also reflects the imagination, ingenuity, and attitudes of our community.

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Thank you, CMA visitors, for sharing your ideas and talents during your visit.  And thank you for trusting us with your creations:

  • your elaborate twist-tie sculptures
  • your ingenious bird nests
  • your drawings
  • your experiments with paper and tape
  • your ideas
  • your musings
  • your thoughtful comments squeezed onto one 3”post-it note
  • your point of view

Your ideas matter.  They matter to me and they matter to other visitors.

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Do you ever wonder why CMA galleries look a little different than most other art museum galleries?  It’s because of you.  At CMA, we design exhibitions so that you and other interested visitors can experiment, make, and do.  And we incorporate places where you can share your opinions, investigations, and creations alongside those of great artists and art scholars.  Perhaps you noticed that many visitors (and CMA staff) spend time perusing the comments and creations posted by you and others.  Your thoughtful contributions shape our exhibitions.

Thanks to you, intrepid visitor, CMA is a hub for community-generated, crowd-sourced creativity and critical thinking every day.

 

See, Think, Wonder

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This month I spent time lingering near a favorite sculpture currently on view at CMA.  Back of Kelly by Evan Penny is a contemporary work that captivates visitor attention.  In fact, it kind of freaks people out which is why they congregate near it, contorting their faces and scrutinizing it from different angles.

“That’s weird!”

“It looks like a hologram.”

“Is that real hair?”

These are some remarks I heard this month as people cautiously leaned in to get a better look at this quasi-realistic sculpture.  I engaged several visitors in conversation about the work using a laidback version of a strategy called See, Think, Wonder.  I learned about this method from my colleagues who work with teachers and schools.

See, Think, Wonder,   developed by Harvard educators, is “a routine for exploring works of art and other interesting things.”  Although the technique was developed to use with K-12 students, it is useful for curious learners of all ages.  What I like about this approach is that it empowers people to exercise critical thinking skills to make sense of an object. It is always useful and interesting to discover the background information about a work, but some of the potential meaning of a work lies within our grasp.  The Harvard approach encourages people to trust their own eyes, their personal knowledge and life experience, and their curiosity when pondering an “interesting thing.”

Seeing is the first step.  That means taking time to pay attention to what is visible to the eye.  This step sounds obvious, perhaps, but in our fast-paced, overstimulated environments, it is very easy to miss something obvious.  This step reminds us that we have to make time to look before we can expect to understand. In the case of Back of Kelly, I didn’t need to prompt visitors to stop and observe; this quirky sculpture beacons from across the room.  Visitors gathered close, their faces betraying their bewilderment.  Many visitors squished their faces up against the wall trying to see the back side of the sculpture.

Evan Penny

“Look at the wrinkles on his ear.  I think I see a hole for an earring that has grown in.”

“See that eyelash!”

“I see evidence of his age – the moles, gray hairs, age spots.”

“It looks real, but the size is off; it’s larger than real life, unless he is a really big man.”

Thinking is the next step. Thinking means making sense of what we see based on reason, analysis, and inferences.  When I asked visitors, “What do you think about it?” they offered contrasting, but equally thoughtful responses.

“He looks like he’s ready to do something. He’s naked — maybe he’s off to the shower.  But if we tapped him on the shoulder, I think he would turn around and be surprised to see us.”

“His shoulders are slumped in a way that makes me think he is sad and not smiling.”

The youngest visitor I spoke to was Jacob. His insight shed a different light on the conversation. “I don’t think he is sad.  I think he is smiling because if you look at his left cheek you see it is sticking out the way it would look if he was smiling.”  Jacob’s mother, Tami, chimed in, “Or, he could be eating something. Maybe he’s sitting in his boxers eating breakfast.”

Wondering is often the most thrilling part of these conversations.  Great works of art frequently present more questions than answers. Back of Kelly definitely generates many questions.

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“I wonder what his face looks like.”

“I wonder if he knows we are here or if he is confused about where he is.”

“I wonder why the artist made him like this….with just his back to us so that we can’t know what his expression is.” 

Seeing, thinking, and wondering with others about a work of art always leads to provocative conversation.  And the best part is, everyone has a voice.  Everyone can join in.

Try it next time you visit CMA!  And who knows, maybe I will be lingering nearby to join in your conversation.

Thank you to the many thoughtful and imaginative visitors who took time to see, think, and wonder with me about Back of Kelly.  Thank you Julian, Chynna, Dianne, Kaven, Tami, Jacob, and especially biology student Olivia who left me more curious about silicone and the human body.

Getting to the “Point”

Pointing in the Big Idea Color Gallery

Since I’ve been photographing visitors at CMA, I have noticed a great deal of pointing going on.  Our visitors point at paintings and sculptures.  They point from across the room; they point up close. And I notice that some people don’t look too favorably at this activity – which is unfortunate.

Pointing is a good thing in an art museum.  It is visible evidence of other, often indiscernible, activities such as looking and thinking, sharing and communicating.

Pointing in CMA's Matthew Brandt photography exhibition.

Pointing in CMA’s Matthew Brandt photography exhibition.

Since the early 1970s, psychologists, anthropologists, and linguists around the world have been studying the pointing gesture of humans and other primates. Their research is detailed and complex.  But here is what I take away from it.

Pointing is not such a simple gesture.  In fact, it is a complex and nuanced form of human communication.  Other primates may point, but they don’t have the capacity to point with the same motivation and intention that humans do. Pointing is one feature of our advanced language and communication.

Starting as early as one year of age, pointing is the way one human being tells another, “Hey, see that object over there? That is the thing I am talking about. That is something I have a thought, idea, or opinion about.  And I want to share my thought, idea, or opinion with you.  So please look at it with me.”

In her paper Pragmatics of Imperative and Declarative Pointing, Ingar Brinck notes that pointing is important because “it provides a starting-point for cooperation centered on the shared object.” This is an important finding for art museums.  Why?  Because we are in theobject conversation business.  We collect and care for art objects so that human beings, not chimps or dogs or aliens, can look, think, and talk about them.  At CMA, we endorse this purpose with a memorable tagline:  Art Speaks, Join the Conversation.

A family works on a puzzle in the Big Idea Gallery: COLOR.

A family works on a puzzle in the Big Idea Gallery: COLOR.

And so I take heart when I walk through our galleries and witness pointing in action; I take notes, I snap photos.  I know that conversation is underway or just about to begin.

Pointing is a good thing.

 

Artists Invoke Wonder at CMA

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Eight Columbus artists contributed their talents, skills, and imagination to help us inspire awe and promote a spirit of play in the new Wonder Room.

We are proud and delighted that these artists took a risk along with us, that they shared our passion for the peculiar and the uncanny; that they embraced our vision for this quirky gallery that merges surprise and mystery, play and great art.

It feels really good to be part of this community of artists who are working on this special project. To be valued by the Museum as an artist, is great!” - Susie Underwood, Columbus artist, pictured above                                                     

Early in the planning my colleague and collaborator Jeff Sims and I made a decision to partner with local artists for this project. Why? Because we value the way artists think, imagine possibilities, and take risks.  And we value the depth of creative talent right here in Columbus. We believed that with local artists we could orchestrate just the right mix of eccentricity, wonder, and play.

These talented artists did not disappoint. Their diverse creations are critical to the unique Wonder Room experience. When you visit the space, you will discover:

  • a life-size, mixed-media Tree of Wonder by Zepher Potrafka
  • five meticulous, miniature installations created by Susie Underwood,Caitlin Lynch, and Sharon Dorsey
  • many phantasmagoric costumes designed and handmade by Heidi Kambitsch of Openheartcreatures
  • a captivating graffiti wall painted by Giovanni Santiago
  • an inventive Storytelling Adventure Game designed and hand-painted by Brian R. Williams
  • the most wondrous Spalted Maple Looking Glass and Marked By installations by Dorothy Gill Barnes
Artist by Brian R. Williams

Storytelling Adventure Game by Artist Brian R. Williams

Some of these creations are designed to be touched, manipulated, and played with.  Others – more fragile works of art – are placed strategically in places where visitors will discover them, unexpectedly. Their magic is experienced by peeking and looking and marveling.

Miniature Installation by Artist Dorothy Gill Barnes

Artist Dorothy Gill Barnes

Since the Wonder Room re-opened in December, I have been observing, conversing, and playing with many visitors in the space. I witnessed two adult woman engrossed for more than an hour with the Storytelling Adventure Game.  I gather countless visitor drawings of the Tree of Wonder.  And most recently, I watched as a very young boy bounced from one miniature installation to another with glee –pointing, remarking, and then very purposefully, photographing them.

Wonder Room installation at Columbus Museum of Art

Young boy photographs installation by Susie Underwood

If you haven’t had a chance to visit the newly designed Wonder Room, I encourage you to make time to check it out. Discover for yourself the awe-inspiring creativity hatched right here in Columbus.

The New Wonder Room: Icing on the Cake

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“Hi, what are you doing?” I whispered as I crouched, on hands and knees, under the treehouse.

“We’re imagining there’s a troll living up there in the treehouse,” Marina shared.  “We’re the elves.”

“Elves are nice,” added Pilar.

I smiled and joined in the creative play with Lorena and her two daughters Marina and Pilar.  Together we wondered about the ambiguous glass sculpture.  Is it a girl or boy?  Is it human or elfin?  We pretended to be mermaids climbing rocks; we stacked up piles of bamboo stones. And then, Lorena and the girls crawled away to spy on the “mean troll” living in the tree house.

The Wonder Room is back in business.

After five hectic weeks of demolition and transformation, the Wonder Room is open again. Chock-full of birds and bats, trees and mysterious creatures, this experimental gallery now flaunts a woodland theme with all new hands-on activities and an eclectic selection of art.  Curious visitors of all ages braved cold and ice to come out and play with us last month during the Wonder Room preview weeks.

Lorena and her two daughters played for hours.

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Daniel, Susan, and Shirley also came to check it out.  When I met this trio, they were huddled around the tree stumps, contemplating their progress.  Their goal:  to build an arched branch — one that would span both tree stumps — using the large cardboard pieces.  Susan played the role of a human support beam while Daniel experimented with different pieces to make the structure sturdy.  Shirley offered advice from the sidelines.

As always, I relished chatting and collaborating with these and other CMA families.  As always, I observed and documented some of their conversations and actions.  As always, I looked for evidence of collaboration and creativity in action.

Situated in the very heart of the Center for Creativity, the Wonder Room is intentionally designed to foster and provoke creativity.  But creativity, we know, is like a gargantuan, multi-tiered cake; we don’t expect to take in the entire confection at one sitting.  Instead we pick away at the layers at different times in different ways.  The Wonder Room takes a big bite out of the tiers of curiosity, imagination, experimentation, and storytelling. 

To set the stage for these creative experiences, we made countless intentional design decisions to promote creative play – play inspired by unexpected discovery and exploration, play that allows for experimentation and mess-making, and play that is prompted by sharing stories, make-believe, and imaginings.

What I first noticed about Lorena and Daniel’s families is their intuitive and urgent drive to play – to invent, to explore, to experiment, to pretend.  From across the room I first watched as Lorena and her family crawled into the dark crevices under the treehouse, discovered the sleeping sculpture, and took off on their adventure.  From afar I watched Daniel, his mother and girlfriend, make bird nests, draw trees, and then, set out to build the marvelous arched tree.

For good reason, there are very few signs in the gallery currently.  I’ve learned that people don’t seem to notice signs in museums, so I spent the first few weeks watching and listening to determine what kind of signs visitors of all ages would need to encourage their creative play — to give them permission to play.

I admit that even I am surprised at how much imagining, experimenting, and storytelling has erupted spontaneously here already.  And for me, that is the icing on the cake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People’s Choice Awards

People's Choice

I’ve been thinking lately about the music industry People’s Choice Awards.  In all honesty, I can’t say that I follow them. I can’t reliably name any recipient of recent awards, although I could probably guess a few names based on media banter.  But the possibility of a people’s choice award in an art museum intrigues me.  And even knowing that the very concepts of high art and people’s choice are somewhat incongruous, I set out this week to bring them together. A perfect opportunity presented for an impromptu people’s choice experiment at CMA.  And I took advantage.

The focus of my people’s choice experiment was the objects in the large glass wall adjacent to the Wonder Room. The Wonder Room is currently closed for a makeover and will re-open with much fanfare on December 14.  To align with the mysterious forest theme of this gallery, the objects in the glass wall will change, too.

Prior to the Thanksgiving weekend, we placed a selection of some of these objects on the floor of the glass case. Our designer included a sign indicating that this is an installation in process.

What a perfect chance to discover what our visitors like, what catches their eye, what piques their curiosity! I thought.

On Saturday, I approached several enthusiastic visitors for my experiment.  The delightful family pictured here was visiting from Columbus, Indiana.  “It’s just a three-hour drive so it makes a good day trip,” said father Sandeep.  Perfect, I beamed.  Any family who is willing to drive 3 hours to visit our museum deserves to be counted in my experiment.

Sandeep’s family favored a Lalique scarab vase, a Paul Manship bronze of Diana, and a sinuous Lino glass sculpture. Check.  Those 3 works will make the final cut. Mother Sangeeta and daughter Meghali were especially curious about the story behind the bronze sculpture.  Sangeeta wondered if I plan to share information and stories about the works.  Sandeep suggested creating an app with more information.  Duly noted.  The “people” want some context and stories about the objects.

What I discovered in my brief, impromptu experiment is not entirely surprising.  The jaw-dropping Lino sculpture is a definite people’s choice winner.  But so is the quirky bird sculpture that, as one visitor described it, looks like a cat who stumbled upon a guard dog.  I learned that visitors like the beauty and the beast; they’re captivated by what is stunning and they’re fascinated by the quirky and the peculiar.

We’ll be putting the final touches on the glass wall this week and next.  And, thanks to several obliging visitors, it will reflect some of the people’s choice.