A Writing Lesson at the Museum

Artisans Preparing the Moroccan Courtyard at the Met

Is it true for many of you reading this  – as it is for me – that when you travel, it’s not places on the pre-planned itinerary which your remember longest, but the small discoveries presented to you by serendipity – rounding a corner or two, you see them there, unexpected and mesmerizing?

I just got home from a ten-day stay in New York City – purely tourist time, not professional development with editors – filled to the brim with inspiration. I did everything on the Master Plan: Saw the Delacorte Music Clock at the entry to the Central Park Zoo, went to the West Side greenmarket, saw two Broadway musicals (Wicked and Newsies), one serious play titled Grace – got Michael Shannon’s autograph at that one), bought dumplings at Prosperity Dumplings in Chinatown after visiting the Eldridge Street Synagogue, visited the 9/11 Memorial (those layered and sunken waterfalls which just keep going down and down, inspiring thoughts of Dante and the nine levels of Hell), walked into Grand Central Station simply because I can’t be in New York without re-visiting and re-viewing the stars on the ceiling there….

Grand Central Station

So many things on the list – the Jewish Museum (thrilling exhibit of Vuillard paintings), the City Museum of New York (candid street shots of people in NYC and London), went to the Main Library near Bryant Park (special exhibit detailing Lunch Hour NYC – this was my favorite of the pre-planned items) and the Folk Art Museum (exhibit of tinsel painting, along with a mid-day concert by jazz guitarist Bill Wurtzle and singer Sharon Fisher), saw “The Adoration of the Magi” at the Museum of Biblical Art, had some great meals (including Turkish, French, Szechuan and – oh, yes, a hot dog from a street vendor)….

Hot Dog Vendor of Yesteryear – New York

….and – of course, absolutely – visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art several times. Saw the Guggenheim again, love the building, didn’t care for the exhibit. That’s okay – not everything has to inspire us. Rode city buses the whole time, much more fun than the subway or taxis, because you meet talkative New Yorkers on a bus; they love to ask where you’re from and love to express their opinions about EVERYTHING – what they think of Seattle, the cost of living, old age, having the guts to live in NYC, poor street illumination, your shoes, you name it.  What a wide-open town it is! I love New York and New Yorkers.

But to get back to serendipitous discoveries, I have to say that I was lucky to be at the Met on a day when one of the exhibits I had on my Master Plan (the Temple of Dendur – at night)  closed for renovation, and an eager guard (even museum guards in New York City have opinions) suggested I spend my last hour in the museum that day seeing the Moroccan Courtyard up in the new Arts of Arab Lands galleries. “You’ll love it, it’s wonderful,” he told me, and he was right. I did love the courtyard itself, but I also loved the videos of the artisans at work on the courtyard. The Met flew these artisans in from Fez, Morocco, and had them work with tools and material comparable to those which would have been used in the 1300’s. Don’t fail to watch the videos (one of them pans all over the room – you can see everything) here and here.

At Work on a Carving

Oh, my. Oh, oh, oh. Oh, wonderful!! And this wing of the Museum was not even on my list. It had been closed eight years for a total re-imagining. As I stood and looked at the small fountain at the center, the elaborate patterns of the tile work, the magnificently carved arch, I made a couple of notes about processes and techniques to look up (marquetry, carved stucco, zillij/mosaic tile) and notes about what this kind of craftsmanship takes. It’s not unlike writing, in some ways. Here are my notes – read them in terms of writing and you’ll see what I mean.

1. Negative space, positive space: What gets removed just as important as what gets left. 2. Patterns – for the eye, for the mind. Surface pattern. Spirit pattern.  3. “Mosaic” – from the Latin word “musaicum” – meaning of the Muses. 4. Precision – “One tap at a time” 5. Eight years to renovate the Islamic Arts wing of the Museum – entirely re-imagined. Not chronological, but geographical.

Precision, Pattern, Patience, Structure

Of course, rationalizing the reason I loved it came after the fact. I just knew it was wonderful. Sometimes, with travel and with writing, you have to trust your plans – you stick with them, see how that works. Nothing wrong with having a plan. Other times, you have to trust luck and stray off the path.  You have to listen to someone else’s advice, stay flexible, revise the Master Plan. Sometimes you’re patient and you respect tradition. Other times, you peek around the corner, see what you see, and love what you love, even if you’re not quite sure why you love it.

The Nejjarine Fountain in Fez

5 responses to “A Writing Lesson at the Museum

  1. What a wonderful post! What exquisite photographs! I love the hot dog vendor photograph (inspires all sorts of memories of childhood) and all the photos of tiles–amazing patterns!

  2. Julie, I love this. Breath-taking. I’m in the midst of planning a trip to Spain, with hopes of a detour to Morocco, so this feeds me in so many ways. I went to the museum link before reading the rest of your blog and made the same jump to craft, but the main thought coming to me was the time it takes to create such beauty, and the time it takes to learn such a craft. It was a reminder to myself to be patient as I persevere. Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

  3. That umbrella . . . that wheel . . . the hot dog cart photo made me wonder: Are you and Julie P. still working on your food cart poetry collection? I hope so!! (What a fabulous vacation you made for yourself–and now your well is FULL!)

  4. Fascinating post, Julie. Especially your notes on process and technique with craftsmanship, whether writing, carving, or otherwise listening to the quiet ripples from the “musaicum”. I have often pondered patterns I saw years ago in Morocco and Spain.

  5. Your style is so unique in comparison to other folks I have read stuff from.
    Many thanks for posting when you’ve got the opportunity, Guess I will just book mark this blog.

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