Blue Beads, 1994, by Penelope Harris (Woodmere Art Museum: Gift of Bill Scott, 2011)

By William Valerio

When I was asked to write a column for this special blue-ink issue of the Chestnut Hill Local honoring first responders, I immediately thought of Blue Beads (1994), a painting by Penelope Harris in Woodmere’s collection. The way I see it, works of art have a life of their own, and this one has been “busy” during this time of social distancing as part of ARTZ-Connect, an online discussion group for people with dementia and their caregivers.

Normally offered in person in the Museum’s galleries, ARTZ launched six years ago as the brainchild of art historian, curator, and educator Susan Shifrin. When our temporary closure in March forced the cancellation of on-site programming, Susan responded immediately, knowing that individuals with dementia are especially vulnerable and that people living in facilities could be especially lonely, as they would be unable to receive visitors. Since that time, ARTZ-Connect has taken to Zoom and has been running at higher than normal capacity (20 participants, instead of the usual 12) and on a biweekly (rather than monthly) basis to accommodate the increased demand, while maintaining the intimacy and comfort that has defined ARTZ since it began.

In an email conversation, Susan and I talked about how the discussion around Blue Beads usually evolves during an ARTZ-Connect session: 

Susan Shifrin: The conversation with Blue Beads is broad and deep, and it has often lasted for almost the entire hour. It ranges from micro-discussions of the exquisite detail with which everything is painted—wallpaper (or is it a rug, people ask?), dishes, cloth, and fruit—and the concrete memories of familiar and delicious breakfasts and afternoon teas. We also have philosophical conversations about our experiences of life in the world we know compared to the fictional “reality” in the painting, which is puzzling because of the artist’s manipulation of perspective and the way the table seems to be falling forward. The discussion often starts with the grapefruit, which is nearly tumbling off the table and yet is frozen in space at the same time. We encourage people to look carefully, and often somebody notices that a single blue bead is propping up the grapefruit’s dish and the adjacent peach, actually seeming to prevent them from falling. We’ve talked about the contradiction between the name of the genre, “still life,” and the fact of so much movement and activity in the painting. There’s nothing still about it! 

In every single conversation I’ve facilitated around this painting, participants are struck by the title, Blue Beads. Sometimes we don’t notice the beads until 45 minutes into the session. Then we notice that, like the beads, which are connected by a string, every object in the composition is connected by touch. We talk about the relationships between the objects, and how puzzling they can be. One time, a participant imagined a love story between the pink rose on the postcard and the blue rose on the pitcher. The one exception to the rule of touch is the pear in the upper right, and we’ve talked about that pear. Why is it alone? Is its relationship to the wallpaper stronger than its relationship to the other fruits and objects? We’ve had requests to talk about Blue Beads a second time. Sometimes I pull out a bag of blue beads and string and we make necklaces after the discussion. The hands-on activity is very satisfying.

Bill Valerio: Thank you, Susan! This special blue-ink issue of the Local honors those who have delivered our mail and boxes of food, have driven our trains and buses, and have kept us safe and healthy. Health encompasses our mental, spiritual, and creative well-being, and so this issue honors you as well, and so many educators across the region who have figured out how to engage with audiences online. You are connectors, like the string of blue beads in the painting, helping us know we are linked and together. 

William Valerio is the CEO and Director of Woodmere Art Museum

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