Creative Journey

Brian Peterson, senior curator at the James A. Michener Art Museum and an accomplished photographer, will give a talk on “The Creative Journey: A Conversation About Art and Life” at Penn State April 28. A bit of a hike, so here’s the interview I did with him a few months ago on his book Smile at the Heart of Things (Pictured, at left: “Beach House Kitchen (detail) by Randall Exon, about whose work Mr. Peterson writes: “a meditation on the complex, paradoxical nature of the beautiful and the sublime”):

Before reading Brian Peterson’s Smile at the Heart of Things: Essays and Life Stories (Tell Me Press/ James A. Michener Art Museum, $28.95), I look out the window and see the snow hugging the limbs of the trees, and I am comforted by the beauty of the scene, of the light that gives the world an ethereal glow. After reading the book, I look at the window and see the snow hugging the limbs of the trees, and am comforted by the scene.

But having been “enlightened” by Mr. Peterson, there is an added dimension to the scene, a feeling in how this beauty resonates. As Mr. Peterson writes: “…beauty says, listen to me, follow me, and I will turn you inside out. Whatever journey needs to be made, whatever obstacles are in the way, whatever walls need to be broken down – nothing else matters once beauty enters your life. Grab on and hold on and never let go.”

Those who have experienced the exhibits he’s curated at the Michener Museum in Doylestown, Pa., know and love senior curator Brian Peterson’s work. But few know that in addition to pulling together 30 to 40 exhibits a year, he is a musician, photographer and writer. And if you wonder if he sleeps, the answer is, not very much.

During the middle of the day, he escapes to his car for some much-needed rest and respite so that after dinner with his wife, painter Helen Mirkil, he can work on his photographs and write until 5 a.m.

Except that this day Mr. Peterson has sacrificed his precious hour alone to give an interview about his book – and he makes it clear he doesn’t have time for reporters who need a basic art education.

A large part of a curator’s job is writing: grant proposals, letters to donors, memos about borrowing works and terms of shipping, and of course catalogs and exhibition text. Mr. Peterson has written about Pennsylvania Impression and regional artists, but in The Smile at the Heart of Things, he proves himself a writerly writer. In addition to essays on artists, there are personal essays on everything from family trials by surgery to learning to say goodbye to his parents’ home and even adopting a puppy, despite an aversion to dog poo, to help fulfill his parental need.

Our own lives are enriched, our insights and understanding strengthened, by reading about his frustrations as a young composer, and finally finding inspiration and meaning in a burst of light in the forest. Mr. Peterson tells us about the people he knows who lost their lives – and he has known many – and who knew they were losing their lives, and experienced profundity in their final moments.

This is especially poignant as Mr. Peterson himself confronts Parkinson’s disease. He was diagnosed about three years ago, and although he may still have many good years ahead of him, thanks to medicine, he is beginning to walk with a limp. And, oh yeah – it affects his sleep.

True, we’re all going to die someday – and no one ever knows exactly when. Mr. Peterson’s father lived to be 92. At 56, Mr. Peterson was anticipating many more years ahead. Now, there’s a sense of urgency to all that he does. He was able to complete The Smile at the Heart of Things, thanks to an extraordinary gift from an anonymous donor.

This heavy-weight tome, both literally and figuratively, is filled with pictures. There are paintings and photographs that have inspired the writings, including some of his own work. The artwork mirrors the text, and Mr. Peterson uses prose like a paintbrush, evoking visual imagery through choice of words.

In describing a painting by Randall Exon: “The picture has the haphazard look of a real place. A run-of-the-mill house with green, weather-beaten siding sits on a sandy beach. A rickety old fence – barely able to support its own weight – extends from the corner of the house to the edge of the image.”

Yet not only does he paint the picture in language, the writer/curator helps us to see beyond the physical surface: “Randall Exon is in love with things… These objects are painted with precision and details, making their plainness all the more tangible… nondescript buildings are bathed in a warm afternoon light that gives their weather-beaten boards an otherworldly glow.”

Mr. Peterson is very interested in that otherworldly glow. He invokes Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists as well as Edmund Burke: “Exon’s work is, more than anything, a meditation on the complex, paradoxical nature of the beautiful and sublime.”

He ends the essay: “The light in (Exon’s) paintings does more than just define forms – it’s a quiet light that comes from someplace other than the sun.”

It was this same kind of light that caused Mr. Peterson to have a breakthrough early in his career. Having dropped out of Penn, where he was studying composition, and taken a job selling cameras at a Philadelphia department store, he knew he was lost and went seeking himself in the woods. In a park near Germantown, “It began. I felt the light enter my body – but this time it was different. My eyes were closed, and my head began to tilt upward as great waves of energy flowed into me… I stood there for what seemed like an eternity, drinking in the beauty. The beauty of the light.”

Not uncoincidentally, he began to pursue photography, an art form that uses light in a vital way. Earning a master’s degree of fine arts from the University of Delaware, he taught there for several years and at Swarthmore. Working as a freelance curator, he also had time to work on his own photography and getting it into collections of major museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Curating 150 Years of Photography, a regional exhibition at 75 institutions including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he met Bruce Katsiff, who went on to become director of the Michener, and persuaded Mr. Peterson to join him there.

“People have an idealized notion of what a curator does,” Mr. Peterson says from a sprawling state-of-the-art conference room at the museum, with a wall of windows overlooking the grounds. “That the whole job is to give opinions, and that it’s a rarified intellectual pursuit. There’s a layer of that, but the behind-the-scenes administration is a huge responsibility. At any given time there are 25 to 30 projects cooking, each with administrative problems such as contracts to be signed, shipping from 40 sources, facility reports, insurance, loan fees. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have to be raised to pay for publications, there are grants to write, committees, accreditations. It looks so simple hanging on the wall but it’s a huge amount of work.”

He is not a fan of juried shows. “They are labor intensive and flawed. You have jurors in a room for hours looking at slides, and it’s hard to discern the wheat from the chaff.” A better way, he says, is the invitational format. “You build up an active file and find artists worth believing in and building. It’s more substantial and better quality, and better for the artist, too, because it’s not just one piece on the wall.”

Does being an artist, and being married to one, give him more insight into the creative life? Yes and no – he has tremendous respect for artists who have the persistence and patience required. But “being an artist makes me impatient with artists who are narcissistic and demanding attention. People joke, Can’t we just show dead artists, they’re so much easier to deal with.”

He must write a lot of rejection letters, but having a stack of his own rejection letters at home makes him more sympathetic. “I’m told I write a pretty nice rejection letter,” he says.

And while he feels lucky to have his job, he also wanted to write in a different kind of way. “There was stuff I wanted to say that the scholarly style didn’t allow. When you read a treatise on an artist, it starts with when he was born, ends with when he dies, and it’s dry. It doesn’t adequately reflect the life of a human being. Artists lead colorful lives and take tremendous risk with little reward. I try to do thorough research and present facts and insights but also develop a writing style that reflects the liveliness of these people.” He rewrote many of the essays for this book to be more readable and conversational.

“I felt called,” he says of the writing of this book. “If this is the last thing I do, what do I want to say? I’m inherently cautious and reserved and don’t wear my inner life on my sleeve, but this book is naked and I’m not sure I would have done that if I hadn’t gotten the diagnosis.”

Mr. Peterson speaks as freely and from the heart as he writes. He says he’s still shocked that he wrote about his own opening the door to a layer, his spiritual awakening during the “dark night of the soul.”

“I’m a very rational person, but there’s no rational way to explain what happened. It was a gift that sustained me my whole life,” he says. “People enjoy that I’m willing to be raw and honest about myself… In our heart of hearts, everyone feels like a misfit, or a freak. And to read about someone else feeling that way is an invitation to a kind of relaxation.”

The Smile at the Heart of Things: Essays and Life Stories by Brian H. Peterson is available through Tell Me Press (www.tellmepress.com) and at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, Pa.; www.michenerartmuseum.org

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