Letter of Recommendation: Send me SFMOMA

I’m 33 today. In honor of my birthday, and all of the lousy first drafts hanging out on my computer’s hard drive, I’m sharing today a piece I wrote a couple of years ago.

For the past 18 months, I’ve lived in a mid-sized, pleasant Midwestern city. It has a robust art scene and gorgeous, maze-like art museums that are, shockingly, free. I’ve spent many solo afternoons wandering through rooms drenched red or blue or cream, gazing upon canvases and feeling pleasure and discomfort and wonder.

Visual art has never been something vital in my life; it’s more like a language that I studied half-heartedly in high school but pretend to maintain so I can get through a conversation. It’s rare that I feel justified in understanding what the artist is trying to say, what I ought to be thinking and seeing as I look at the layers of paint or graphite. But an art gallery is a place where I can feel less alone in a new city, or at least more at home in my solitude. No one in a museum is expecting anything of me. I can simply stand and look at something that reflects my mood or broadens my mind with decades or centuries of perspective.

Lately, I’m not even leaving my apartment to find some beauty in the world. The Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco recently launched Send Me SFMOMA, a texting service that allows it to share its thousands of archived pieces with the smartphones of the world.

I text a message to 572-51 and it responds within seconds with a photo of original artwork and a caption with the title, artist, and year it was created. I type “Send me quiet” and receive Clarence H. White’s “Evening Interior,” ca. 1899. In the sepia photograph, a woman sits on a chair, facing toward the windows and away from the camera. Spindly plants line the windowsill. The windows are draped in filmy curtains. The woman’s hair is pulled up and she wears a long dress, creating a sweeping, graceful curve from her left shoulder to the end of the dress’s train bunched on the right-hand side of the chair.

I save the photo as my phone’s wallpaper and open my messaging app again. “Send me calm.” Vija Celmins, “Untitled (Ocean)’, 1977. Choppy small waves stretch out across the entire grayscale photograph. I exhale. I save the image to my photo library.

At time when I feel burdened or caught up in my emotions, I find myself texting SFMOMA, a friend who gives and gives and who is always ready to help to soothe my fears. If I request something that the service can’t find, I receive a friendly response: “We could not find any matches. Maybe try ‘Send me San Francisco’ or ‘Send me [wave emoji]’ or ‘Send me something purple’.”

A quick review of my texts to SFMOMA could tell anyone what I’ve been seeing and feeling in the past several months. On a trip home to visit my parents on their farm in western Oregon, I wanted the message stream to reflect the lushness around me: “Send me sky. Send me flowers. Send me [fire emoji]. Send me landscape.” 

Coming home from a late weeknight date: “Send me romance. Send me excitement. Send me red.” The images come flooding in, sometimes awakening me to the singularity of my thoughts. “Send me desire,” I type, thinking of a man’s jawline, the musk of his neck, and SFMOMA responds with Wayne Thiebaud’s ‘Display Cakes’, 1963. The clean painting features three round, perfect cakes on tall cake stands, throwing shadows onto the muted white background. Now I want dessert, too.

This service doesn’t cost me anything, except time, and yet it feels like a higher-minded pursuit than scrolling through over-filtered landscape photos on Instagram. This is art that has been forged in a fire of time and public opinion and market preference, art that has endured, art that now drops into my hand at my bidding and feels approachable. It speaks to me.

I wake up on a Sunday morning from a bad dream. In the dream, I was having an episode of dissociation, bringing back a flood of emotions that I’ve had put to bed by day for some time now. My dream world was dark and narrow and in it, I was panicking and unable to soothe myself. Getting out of bed, I feel a heaviness in my chest. I struggle to shake off the fear that the anxiety I felt in my dream is coming for me again in my waking hours. I reach for my phone. “Send me comfort.” In comes an untitled piece by Martin Kippenberger, 1990. It’s a simple line drawing, done on a sheet of paper from a hotel notepad. The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Frank Lloyd Wright, I think, right? Wright wanted to bring the outside in with his architecture. I urge myself to think about the earth, trees and plants, the ground beneath my feet. I look back at the image on my phone. I’ve visited Tokyo with my sister and I felt at ease and alive there. I link these small comforts, putting some distance between myself and my feelings. It’s OK. I’m not alone, I think, looking at the drawing of a woman holding a distressed man on a couch.

I type again. “Send me grounding.” SFMOMA can’t find a match. “Send me reassurance.” Nothing there, either.

“Send me ease.” I’m looking at Sid Grossman’s ‘Untitled [Portrait of painter]’, 1940s. In the photograph, a painter sits on a stool, holding a paintbrush to a canvas. His profile is thrown into silhouette by the window he sits next to, sunlight flooding into the room. I feel the corners of my mouth lift, almost imperceptibly. My jaw relaxes. The subject of the photo is a little blurry, but the lines are clear. His head and his painting hand are tilted toward the canvas with focus and intent. Like this artist, when I sit down to my canvas, the cursor blinking on a blank page, I know I am where I am supposed to be.


Experience the joy of letting others help you

  Madrid, 2008
Madrid, 2008

It is a cool night and you are standing in something that might be called a line outside the can and bottle return station at your local Fred Meyer, picking up your feet and realizing they’re sticking to the pavement with its dried film of beer scum and soda residue. You’re beginning to wonder if it was a smart idea to spend your Saturday night doing this, or if you’re even going to be able to return your three and a quarter bags of seltzer cans tonight. 

You often have impulsive ideas but sometimes they are too impulsive and you have to follow through anyway so you don’t feel like a fool but would anyone really notice if you just put the bags back into your trunk and went grocery shopping and then home instead? The only other people feeding cans into the machines are the people who are always here feeding cans into the machines, men who probably don’t have a home to go to, men who are pushing shopping carts filled not just with cans and bottles but with everything they own, men wearing their only clothes.

It is okay for you to be here, you tell yourself, wishing you weren’t, wishing you had the courage to maybe just give away your bagged cans and bottles. Two men approach the shelter and one of them tosses something into the trash and then hands the nearest, most obviously homeless man a $10 or $20 bill and says, hey man, I told myself I was going to be nice tonight, take care. The man takes the bill, but seems unable to know what to do next, looking at the bill and then at the man and then at the return machine. He growls something unintelligible and then returns to his task.

You feel a little nervous, not sure if you’re safe but also aware that you’re not that generous, either, and you know deep down that we are all connected but sometimes it’s easier to click “Donate” on a website than it is to hand a paper bill to another human and you know all of the questions when it comes to reducing homelessness and poverty but you haven’t taken the time to think about the answers. 

It’s your turn at the machine now, the kind where you have to feed each can or bottle individually, and the machine only wants to accept every fifth or sixth can, but someone approaches you, saying, let me help, you have to wipe the bar code sometimes. 

You’re not sure if you ought to let him help you but he has kind eyes and you’re really committed now and can feel frustration mounting and so you smile helplessly and he pulls a paper towel out of his back pocket, shows you how to clean the can, runs his finger around the inside of your plastic water bottles to remove the dents, points to the camera inside the machine and explains how it’s best if you put cans in tab first. He knows the system, he tells you, he knows that certain bottles were produced in California and so can only be returned in California but if you tell an employee, they’ll write you a slip for reimbursement.

He asks you to watch his bike and bag of cans while he runs in to the customer service counter to ask an employee to fix the machine’s printer, or if you’d rather he can watch your bags while you go inside. You let him go in while you send protective thoughts out over his belongings, reflecting in wonder at the quiet connection you’re making under the cloudy night sky.

He comes back and not long after, an employee named Cookie comes out to shake the bins of crushed cans, reset the printer, count bottles for another customer. Your friend puts your can into the repaired machine and it’s accepted, and at the same time he offers you the other machine that works now, the one that will eat up cans by the armful, and so you take the second one, and he begins to use the machine next to you. He offers you a nickel for the can that he tested, but you smile and brush it off. 

You’re accumulating a small collection of unaccepted bottles and cans in the bottom of your cart and you’re wondering how to give them to your new friend, if you should give him your slips or cash instead of pocketing it, but there has to be a right way to do this and you just don’t know what it is. You’ve returned all you can now, so you ask your friend if he’d like the extras, but he just smiles, not meeting your eyes, and shows you where to put the glass bottles that can’t be recycled for a deposit. He gently gathers your damaged cans and plastic bags into the trash and then stands with you for a few moments longer, only occasionally making eye contact, telling you how he came to be here, about his past as a contractor and the times he helped family members move to the Northwest.

You ask for his name, and he says, it’s a Spanish name, Arturo, but I’m also called Arthur. Good night, Arturo, you say, thanks for your help. It was really nice to meet you.