Taylor Behind the Screens: Sister and Taylor Visit The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
As if I didn’t already garner a few curious stares when out in public, usually provoked by my outfit of choice, try shepherding a nun through a world-renowned art museum on a cold Wednesday morning.
A good tenth of the city was still without power due to the latest snowmageddon and I was in that lucky percentage of people. I got ready by the light of a votive, as if at any minute I was going to break out in a chorus of 'Papa Can You Hear Me’ rather than simply brush my teeth. I wore St. John, of course, in an attempt to be “on brand” when I met the notoriously strict Sister. I’ll be honest with you, I was a little nervous. I know she’s not a real nun but I’m the first to shrivel in the face of an authority figure. My father can still yell, “Hey!” and I’ll hit the floor like I’m about to get pepper sprayed on an episode of COPS.
We rolled up to her hotel and she waited for us on the snowy curb, a location she later told me a gentleman offered her a very specific sum of money to help him get into the hotel in an attempt to catch his cheating wife. I still haven’t figured out if this fella approached her while she was in full habit, or not. If she was, what a brave soul to bribe a nun on a curb to gain access to a hotel. But, alas, that’s Westport for you.
Despite my nerves, Mary Beth Burns and I hit it off like gangbusters. It turns out she owns and maintains a hobby farm in Michigan. Even though it may not look like it, I grew up on a farm in southern Missouri. So we bonded over stories of horses, cattle and sheep. I regaled her with stories of my pony Joker and how on special occasions my dad would hitch him up to an old fashioned buggy and we would trot around the neighborhood. Between this and my lack of electricity at the time, she must have thought I was truly Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I wanted to spend some time with Mary Beth before I interviewed her so I took her on a tour of my favorite Catholic pieces at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. I attended the Kansas City Art Institute in the Museum’s back yard and spent four years studying Italian Renaissance and Papal art. While I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no scholar, I can conduct a Reader’s Digest tour through most of the Museum.
Mary Beth’s favorite pieces were depictions of the Madonna and Child, although she noted “These babies look a little weird.” Pulling from my over-the-counter art history scholarship, I explained to her that more often than not Renaissance babies all seem to look like old men. The reason being, artists worked from reference and never thought to utilize an actual baby. Instead, they often used themselves or their comprehensive knowledge of the adult form from their previous work. Therefore, the baby Jesus was often depicted with a potbelly, a receding hairline, forehead wrinkles and muscles you would never find on an infant. As we approached a specific painting, I waved my hand across a cluster of baby angels and said, “See, all this one needs is a drumstick waving in his right hand and he could be my cousin Jamie.” “Isn’t it a little sacrilegious?” Sister questioned. I responded, “It depends on which Buffalo Wild Wings you pray at.”
Once we shook our eyes free of the babies in need of Bosley, we made our way to the sculptures. All of which come from the facade or interior of worship spaces around the world. Sister made the first move, she immediately made a connection with a white marble statue of a woman. “Look, that’s Saint Barbara!” she squealed. Luckily I didn’t get hit with a ruler when I asked, “As in Streisand?” but I’m sure there was a mild finger wag to my response. Mary Beth detailed the story of Saint Barbara to me and I was completely fascinated. The story of a woman nearly beheaded if not for a strike of lightening. “So dramatic!” I proclaimed as I noted my upbringing as a C and E Methodist (that’s Christmas and Easter for those that don’t know). So the stories of saints are relatively new to me, excluding the ones I learned from an art history standpoint. We progressed around a corner to a rather sultry statue of Saint John, not to be confused with the St. John I was wearing. Sister immediately mimicked his slinky pose, which made me emit a sprinkle of spit in the direction of the sculpture. By the grace of God, no alarms sounded.
Our last Saint to cover was Saint George. Now personally, Saint George is my favorite because his story is like that of a fairytale. I won’t wreck my credibility by detailing the tale but let’s just say it involves a slain dragon, which equals fairytale in my mind. For some reason, Saint George is always depicted in very dramatic and sassy poses. This cracked Sister up. She let me mimic these poses while a group of slightly traumatized school children looked on. In one painting, a very feminine and demure Saint George is featured alongside a martyr. As we approached I said, “And here you have a painting of Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce in The Wife.” I sure hope she wins that Oscar.
We finished our tour through the Nelson’s religious artifacts having learned something about each other and from each other. More than anything we laughed together and nothing forms a friendship faster than laughter. What a joy it was to get to know Mary Beth and learn from her. So many great lessons from Starlight’s favorite teacher. Most importantly, never judge a nun by her cover.
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