Philly trip altered my brain molecules

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By Jenny Hartley

Four planes in four days, including two 50-seaters, the streets of Philadelphia and a heart-stopping art exhibit – I survived it all.

Thanks to a Lancaster County Council of the Arts grant, and the generosity of Fran Gardner and Christina Chastain, I had the opportunity to travel to Philadelphia for what we three believe was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

At least two years ago, I saw a movie called "Frida," starring Salma Hayek as the late Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), known for her raw self-portraits and considered one of the most influential Mexican artists of the mid-20th century. The movie "Frida" was based on Hayden Herrera's biography of Kahlo.

It took quite a while for me to wade through Herrera's extensive biography of the artist, but after reading it, I was hooked on anything Frida. I pored over the symbolism in her paintings in books and learned everything I could about her.

I was fascinated by her life, which included a crippling bus crash that almost killed her and the ups and downs of her marriage to muralist Diego Rivera. I even began to paint in oils, although I hesitate to call myself an artist.

Christina and Fran applied for a LCCA grant to make the trip to Philadelphia to see an exhibit featuring Kahlo's works. The exhibit has three United States appearances and includes more than 40 of Kahlo's paintings, a few of which have never been exhibited in the United States.

Christina and Fran, local artists I admire, were kind enough to ask me to go with them, and my dear husband was nice enough to let me, too.

My trips usually involve a familiar place – Myrtle Beach, or Ohio or Michigan to see family, so I jumped at the chance to visit an international city in the Northeast, where I've never been.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is known to most of you, thanks to actor Sylvester Stallone. He ran up its steps and looked out onto the downtown area of the city of brotherly love in the first "Rocky" movie. Climbing those steps is like climbing a mountain, but well worth it to reach the treasures inside.

Frida's exhibit was breath-taking. No reproductions in books could prepare me to see the delicate brush strokes Frida fashioned into raw works that revealed her heart and her pain to the world.

She painted her broken pelvis, her crippled legs, her miscarried children and dug deep into the symbolism of the heart to convey the betrayal she felt after her husband's repeated infidelities.

One striking work, "A Few Small Nips," was one of only two paintings Frida completed during the year after her husband's affair with her sister was discovered.

Frida based the painting on a newspaper story about a man who repeatedly stabbed his wife after adultery, quipping, "It was only a few small nips." The painting's subject was figuratively too big to fit within a small frame, and Frida painted blood and gouged the wooden frame to convey her emotions.

In "The Broken Column," Frida paints herself split down the middle, showing a broken column for her spine, which was shattered after the bus accident. She is crying, but she gazes directly at the viewer, as if bravely facing her pain and declaring her defiance and perseverance in spite of the pain.

My new brain

The gallery of European art in the late 1800s held a different mood, with the impressionists' paintings, which are full of light.

I was in awe at Van Gogh's "Sunflowers," Degas' jockeys and ballerinas and Renoir's nudes. I couldn't believe I was in the same room with these masters' works of art.

In the Asian gallery, I couldn't stop staring at the ceiling of a 1600s Chinese nobleman's palace. I was fascinated by the craftsmanship of the tiny Chinese snuff bottles and felt at peace at the authentic Japanese teahouse, circa 1917.

We attended a panel discussion that afternoon, hearing from four female artists who have been influenced by Frida's art. One said after viewing the exhibit, she felt as though some of the molecules in her brain had been changed. We all agreed.

My cohorts and I all were moved by the Frida exhibit and the rest of the museum's wonders.

Although Fran and Christina may disagree, I believe I most benefited from the trip. They've gone to major art centers of the world, like France and Spain, to view centuries-old masterpieces, while I haven't even traveled around our own country yet.

So, I can't say enough thank yous to them, or to the LCCA, for a trip of a lifetime and a molecularly altered brain filled with fabulous paintings.


Find this column on our Web site, www.thelancasternews.com, and tell me and our readers about a trip of a lifetime that you took in the reader comments section at the end of the column.

Contact senior reporter Jenny Hartley at jhartley@thelancasternews.com or (803) 283-1151