I’m told that some janitors at the State University of New York at Buffalo like to spend their lunch hours in a certain corner of a big room. They are drawn by something that hangs on the wall.
I know many people who would not say that “art” is high on their list of things to experience. Take me, for instance. When I’ve got free time and someone asks, “What do you want to do?” I’d say, “Let’s check out that new restaurant,” or “Work with my son on baseball,” or “Let’s go to the game (or watch it on TV).” But this past Friday afternoon, amidst SUNY-Buffalo’s collection of rare poetry, art, and books, art bumped into my emotions.
It did not happen as I held a coin minted by the Greeks in the 4th Century B.C., bearing the image of Alexander the Great (one of many ancient coins in the collection). Nor was it as I paged through original publications of Shakespeare (1623) or of John Donne’s sermons (1640). Yes, you may touch the pages during your visit – Dr. Michael Basinski explains that the touch of human hands is good for some of these pages. And, while I greatly appreciated the world-class collections centered on writers James Joyce and Robert Frost, those weren’t my biggest highlights.A wall in the janitors’ favorite corner of the room held a huge ‘triptych’ – a painting or other visual display with one main panel flanked by two related panels – by a 20th-Century Buffalo man named Westley Olmstead. I was originally drawn by its bright, contrasting colors and the collision of many images and words that seemed like good and evil yelling at each other.
Titled “Temptations of St. Andrew,” it grabbed me by the brain. First, it reminded me of the more carefully-drawn gang graffiti I see as I ride the Red Line train through the heart of Washington, D.C. Studying it more closely, it forced the kinds of questions that I believe, when we wrestle with them, make us more human. As I digested the words and images, I was challenged to remember who I am and how I should think.
Olmstead saw a 20’th-century brawl between God and Satan and captured it in that triptych. Maybe you think ideas of “God” and “Satan” are just fairy tales. Even so, I believe that a closer look at “Temptations of St. Andrew” could spark a person to put some thought into re-establishing their own identity in light of the last several decades of world history. I wonder if that’s what the best art of every generation has done for people.
I did not find it pretty. I did find it strangely and deeply hopeful. I wonder if that’s why UB’s janitors like it.
Dr. Basinski and I talked about how helping people to discover their soul and their spirit is just as legitimate a purpose for higher education as turning out brilliant scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs (as this school, incidentally, does).
It is “the people’s collection.” Dr. Basinski explained that the collection’s founder, Thomas Lockwood, began something a hundred years ago that he gave not only to the school, but to Buffalo and its citizens. It is open to the public. The collection continues to grow. It is just another treasure that you can only find in my home town.