The Collegian
Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The benefits of paying attention while walking

It disturbs me to find places on campus I have never seen before. In the past week, I've found three. My first discovery is a random bathroom in Weinstein Hall - nothing special. My second discovery occurs when my professor unlocks a mysterious door in the journalism department to reveal a recording room with sound boards and a skylight.

But what gets to me is my third discovery, which I happen upon as I stroll through the Modlin Center with my iPod blaring. I walk through here every day, and for the first time, I look up long enough to read the sign on the wall.

I learn that the information desk in the windowed room on the first floor is not just an information desk in the windowed room on the first floor. It is the Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art.

It intrigues me. But I keep walking because I have places to go and people to see.

In the span of the past weeks, I'm realizing I'm going to regret not knowing Richmond better as a city. When I venture off campus, it's always to the same stores, the same coffee shops.

When I make it deeper downtown, I feel wide-eyed and lost. I'm incompetent navigating my car through the criss-cross of streets surrounding the Jefferson Hotel, the General Assembly and the Hill Cafe.

Each trip has told me there is more to this city than I thought there was. But I'm finding there is more to this campus, too. The day I go back to the art museum in Modlin, I click off my iPod and decide it's time to pay attention. In 10 minutes, I learn how much there is to see.

At the entrance, there is a student manning the desk to make sure I leave my book bag and pink lemonade behind. She tells me students rarely come here outside of class.

Beyond, the walls give way to an airy maze of galleries. I scan the white backdrop in the hush of the wood-paneled vault and I read the walls.

One inscription details the exhibition: "Dancing in the Dark," the first retrospective exhibition devoted to the prints of Joan Snyder. According to the words on the wall: "An internationally noted painter and 2007 MacArthur Fellow, she has developed an outstanding body of work that explores aspects of nature, humanity and identity. A pioneering feminist artist, she has infused her art with physical energy and vibrant color to express deeply personal experiences."

I lack a background in art. I wish I could understand Snyder's meaning behind the mounted frames ranging from woodcuts to color etchings. But mere observation can celebrate an artist's risk in putting herself on display.

I stare at a frame called "...and acquainted with grief." The canvas bursts with splatters of paint and isolated words. The red shape of a human heart smears into "cuts," "breasts," "songs," "nails," "anxiety," "blossoms." This is the way I imagine thoughts look.

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I see another student museum assistant - and friend - sitting on a stool and am briefly distracted. She cheerfully informs me that she is here to make sure I don't rip the paintings down.

I behave and look to another wall writing: "Joan Snyder recently declared: 'I never write on a print frame or painting unless there is an urgency.'"

A minute later, I leave. And I wonder now why it has taken me four years to spend 10 minutes in that wood-paneled vault. I wonder whether we get so caught up in a sense of urgency pushing our own lives forward that we forget to stop to look around.

The students on this campus are freakishly involved: 36 percent of students are members of Greek organizations, they belong to 163 clubs, and about 215 of them volunteer regularly with the Center for Civic Engagement. We're so busy we're stuck with the term "the Richmond bubble."

The bubble is not just preventing many of us from getting off campus, though. It has turned into a weird mentality that selectively blinds us to whatever fits outside of our scheduled routes. We tend to see the same buildings day after day, walk the same stretch of sidewalk and talk to the same people because that is what fits our schedules.

What else deserves our attention? There is so much happening on this campus and outside of it, so try something new for 10 minutes. And although I won't tell you to go see the Snyder exhibit, I think you should. It may not take your breath away, but it might.

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