Frame of Mind

Frame of Mind

Visiting an art museum usually means strolling past hundreds of works. Lingering before the ones that capture your interest, you might read an object label, then step back to observe for a few minutes what the curator has emphasized.

This summer, the Yale University Art Gallery is inviting visitors to try something different: spending a full hour with a single work of art.

Mindfulness is the aim, and on July 24, at the third of five separate sessions, about 25 curious art lovers turned up to join facilitator Anne Dutton in a fourth-floor gallery for a series of meditative exercises. The focus was a well-known Japanese wood block print by Katsushika Hokusai with a title that translates as something like Beneath the Waves off Kanagawa, one in a series called “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.” In English, it’s best known as The Great Wave.

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Voices echoed in the high-ceilinged, wood-floored gallery, where an arc of chairs was set facing one imposing white wall, blank except for the small framed print. Sitting 20 feet back from it, what was most obvious was the great wave itself, an imposing swoop of dark ocean, its white foam like talons reaching back toward the surface, spray spattering like snow. Mount Fuji itself is dwarfed in the distance, smaller even than another foam-capped wave whose shape echoes the mountain’s wintry form.

Speaking in a calm and measured voice, Dutton first explained the mindfulness exercises she’d walk the group through, a “practice of bringing your attention to what’s right here but doing it in a very… purposeful way.” She asked whether anyone had ever been to Mount Fuji—one participant had—and then whether anyone had a favorite mountain. Some did. That was our last direct contact with the print for awhile.

We sat so that our bodies were “alert and at the same time at ease.” Dutton suggested we keep our eyes half open, “seeing but not looking.” We sat in silence for several minutes, as the sunlight waxed and waned and the room stilled around us. Then Dutton guided us, our eyes closed, through a visualization of a specific mountain each of us knew. When we finished, I found myself startled back into the room. Dutton asked for impressions of the meditation from the group: What had been interesting? Frustrating? Meaningful?

Finally, we were ready to take a closer look at Hokusai’s print. I was surprised, when my turn came, to find among the curves of its waves three narrow yellow boats carrying tightly packed groups of men, their bare heads and ocean-colored bodies more like geometric shapes than distinct human figures. Were they rowing, or just leaning over the edge? Were they mastering the waves, or were they in trouble? After everyone had a chance to look, Dutton invited participants to share their impressions.

Some saw a bleak scene, the suggestion of skulls, death on the water. Others saw bravery, the spirit of labor, survival. Still others noted the focus of the print and its geometric patterns. “What’s really interesting to me is that I can’t figure out where the viewer is,” said Dutton, who grew up near Mount Fuji. The mountain dominates the landscape from the end of the Miura peninsula south of Yokohama, where her family had a weekend house. In Hokusai’s print, conversely, the mountain is incongruously small, a view possible only from far out at sea.

The hourlong practice came to a close with a story from Dutton about the Buddha and the demon Mara’s futile attempts to distract him from his meditation as he sat beneath a tree. At the moment of his enlightenment, Dutton told the group, he answered Mara’s challenge by placing his hand to the earth, which bore him witness just as the morning star rose in the sky.

Dutton is director of mindfulness education at the Yale Stress Center, an institute which conducts research into stress and offers an intensive class in mindfulness. After decades of experience in meditation practices, she became a yoga instructor as well. “Close looking” or “close viewing” is gaining adherents at art museums nationwide, she says—“The idea that instead of just going through and saying, ‘Okay, I saw that collection,’ you would stand in front of a work and really engage with it. What’s coming up for me? What emotions, what thoughts, what associations?”

Dutton’s colleague Danielle Casioppo, a yoga instructor who works in Yale’s Wellness Department, will lead the July 31 session with a movement practice. The two will team up for the final session examining a photographic depiction of a modern piece by the artist James Turrell, who “has worked directly with light and space to create artworks that engage viewers with the limits and wonder of human perception,” as his website puts it.

Spending a museum visit on a single work of art might not make sense when time is precious. But with Yale’s free, world-class museum just down the street, it’s a luxury New Haveners can afford.

Practice with Art: Cultivating Mindfulness in the Galleries
Yale University Art Gallery – 1111 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Next events: 7/31 (details) and 8/7 (details) at 2pm
(203) 432-0601 |
Free; no reservation required

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 2, of Beneath the Waves off Kanagawa, provided courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.

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