A Sad Painting, A Towheaded Kid, and Me

I had reason to be sad the other day. But I was at the art museum. So I put on a happy face to lead a group I usually don’t lead—a preschool class. I enjoy touring with adults and high school groups. Even middle school kids often give me big, tantalizing concepts they find in a piece of art. But these were preschoolers, so I geared myself for a bouncy time. After all, maybe their energy would dispel my gloom.

In the galleries, we visited some happy sculptures:  Ries’s glass sunflower, one of Butterfield’s famous life-size horses, and Chihuly’s glorious floor to ceiling blown-glass End of Day. We talked about how the artists used color and shape to make us want to keep looking and to make us want to touch, even though we shouldn’t. These seemed like good preschool topics, and I felt my mood lighten with their enthusiasm.

Then we dropped to the floor to spend some time in front of Burkhart’s oil painting, Man is Man.

Man is Man

“He’s sad,” said a girl. And the others nodded their heads.

“How can you tell he’s sad?” I asked.

So they told me. He needed his hand to hold his head up. He had wrinkles on his forehead, and he was slouching. And old. They could tell by the way his veins popped out from his hands and arms. No wonder he was sad. Lots of bad things had happened while he was getting old.

“Look at his eyes,” said a towheaded boy. “And his eyes filled, too.

We sat in silence for a minute.

“Not only old people are sad,” I said.

And they nodded again.

“Even kids get sad,” said the towhead. And then he whispered, “Especially me.”

I don’t know what made him sad that day. But I know he and I shared a moment in front of the oil paint.

Back in 1946, Burkhart titled his painting Man is Man. Today he might have titled it Person is Person.

When we left the painting, the towhead walked beside me.

I remembered what the writer Willa Cather said: There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.

When I left the museum that day, I was still sad. But at least I knew I had company—the man in Burkhart’s painting and the towheaded kid.

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