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925 Silver Collection

Sleeping with Art, Waking with Nature By Margaret Hawkins


Georgia O’Keeffe, “Sky above Clouds IV,” 1965, oil on canvas, 8 x 24’. Courtesy of © The Art Institute of Chicago.

When I was in high school I liked to take the train downtown and walk across the city, then spend the day wandering through the Art Institute of Chicago. Sometimes I took friends, but I often went alone, and on those occasions I indulged in a persistent fantasy about hiding in the bathroom at closing time and waiting there until the guards left. I had no plan beyond that, and no desire to touch the art. I just needed more private time with the objects and believed that if I could be truly alone with them, then something good would happen to me. I pictured spending the night there, sleeping on a padded bench in front of medieval panel paintings, maybe, or those enormous Georgia O’Keeffe clouds or the marble Lachaise nude, then waking up under a skylight at dawn. It seemed romantic to me, transformational. Nourishing. I imagined the stuff I got from art, whatever that was, seeping into me while I slept.

It’s good I didn’t attempt to execute this plan. If I’d been caught, as I surely would have been, I never could have explained why I did it in a way that didn’t sound crazy or sinister. I couldn’t have articulated what I see clearly now — that being by oneself with art makes you feel less alone. 

Roger Brown House, New Buffalo, Michigan. Courtesy of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Recently I spent nearly two weeks in residency at the Roger Brown house, with its adjacent guest house and studio, in New Buffalo, Michigan. Being there reminded me of my high school fantasy.      

Roger Brown was a Chicago artist known for his association with the Chicago Imagist painters. He moved here from Alabama in the 1960s to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) stayed, and became quite successful. When he died, in 1997 at the age of 56, he left SAIC his summer house in New Buffalo to be used for artist retreats by faculty and staff. 

Roger Brown (left) and George Veronda with their dog, Babe, in New Buffalo, Michigan, c. 1982. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago.

Brown’s partner, architect George Veronda, who died in 1984, designed the place. It’s meant to blend into the landscape, directly quoting from the Mies van der Rohe house in Plano, Illinois. When they built it in the late seventies, the house was surrounded by nature, nestled between the dunes of Lake Michigan and the picturesque Galien River. Now, it’s surrounded by mansions. A casino looms nearby. But the views — inside and out — mostly remain.

The house is filled with art. Some is Brown’s own and some is work by his friends, but many of the items there come from the thousands of objects he collected from around the world and around the city. Kitsch mixes with fine art mixes with folk art mixes with tribal objects from Africa. Turn around from the stove and you might bump into a velvet Elvis. Open your eyes in the morning to a wall of Caribbean barber shop signs and haircut menus, then reach for your glasses, but be careful not to knock over a wooden dog. Stare back at the neon-colored eyes of two Ed Paschke paintings as you proceed down the hall to the kitchen. Glance up from the microwave to confront a metallic face affixed to an old-fashioned mesh strainer that has been made into a mask. 

Roger Brown, “The Entry of Christ into Chicago in 1976,” 1976, oil on canvas, 72 x 120”.
Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: William H. Bengston.

This February I lived at the Roger Brown house for twelve days. Every night I slept surrounded by art and every day I walked on the dunes or the beach or along the river. I sat at the window under a painting of fish and tried to work and instead watched the birds. On day four my husband joined me. Art and nature began to blend. I got to see how the sky over the dune grass breaks into the same striated patterns of clouds that exactly match the way Brown painted them in the canvas that hangs over the kitchen table. On day ten friends arrived. We watched snow fall on the river.

Living with our own art, in our own homes, is great, but we get used to it. Living with someone else’s collection is a privilege that, at least for a while, I find reenergizing. Doubly so when the whole experience chimes with nature.   

I’ve stayed at the Roger Brown house before. But seeing how the land and the art and the people talk to each other affected me more this time. Maybe it was due to the interruption of the pandemic. Things look a little different now, more fragile and more precious. I was listening more closely to the conversations between human creativity and whatever force or entity created the rest.  

Overview of the living room and dining room, Roger Brown Study Collection.
Courtesy of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: William H. Bengston, 2003.

The site Brown and Veronda chose remains beautiful, despite the incursions. The river acts as a busy highway for geese and swans. Lake Michigan is starker, more awesome. It’s angry, cold, loud, deadly. A sinker of ships, a killer of brave men and women, a regurgitator of strange things. I have found oddities on its beaches, in New Buffalo and elsewhere. A lamprey eel, once, with its hideous sphincter-like ring of sharp teeth, a frozen badger skeleton, a baby’s toy, this time a jar of peeled garlic cloves. The things the lake spits out make me not want to swim (not that I would). At this time of year the lake would kill you in minutes.

Inside, I think about outside, and vice versa. Maybe I remember nature a little more because it’s always changing. Things happen out there. The swans occasionally take flight. They seem like they’d be graceful but they’re not. Every day the water changes color.

Snowshoeing along Lake Michigan, photograph. Courtesy of Pure Michigan.

Art changes too over time, but the change all happens in the viewer’s mind. The same objects continue to keep us company but they take on different meanings, like the relationships we have with our dead.

I like living with art. And I like living in nature and the world. Even more, I love the way they go together, how they ignite this argument in me about which is more important. I’m arguing for both. And now, remembering my high school pilgrimages to the Art Institute, I see that it wasn’t only the art that I loved. It was art in the context of the world that held it. I loved the train ride, too, and the walk through the city to get there.

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