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Challenging Assumptions at the Norton Simon Museum

  • September 20, 2019
Peter Tran and friends at the Norton Simon Museum

First Fridays are free admission to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. I was excited to go because I was going with several friends. I had gone a couple of weeks before to check out the museum and listen to their audio tour. (It’s only $3 and very cool; you enter the number of the painting you are interested in, and can select an adult or children’s commentary on it. The children’s commentaries are especially good!) So I was going to be the designated tour guide for the evening.

We’re kind of an unusual group. All of us have nonverbal autism which means our dyspraxia, or difficulty with motor control, is so severe we can’t talk clearly, so we type instead to communicate. That comes along with hand flapping, humming, and sometimes a bit of involuntary jumping, as well as sensory issues, such as not being able to tolerate wearing tour headphones and follow quietly in a crowd. Hence my being the tour guide, so my friends and I could move at our own pace and “talk” at our own speed.

My friends met up at the front lobby, each along with a family member to support typing by holding up a keyboard or an alphabet card. We moved through the museum chronologically, starting with the gold-resplendent medieval altarpiece by Guariento di Arpo, depicting the whole biography of Christ pictorially. 

That’s where we had our first casualty. Jerome loves the Bible and got excited recognizing the scenes from different periods of Jesus’ life. “This is so beautiful!” he typed, literally jumping for joy. A man in a uniform suit approached us. “Excuse me, but the young man seems excited. Perhaps this is not the right venue for him?” Jerome’s mother stepped forward. “Excuse me, but this is who he is,” she said. “He loves art; he can’t help it if he jumps.” The museum guard gave her a dubious look. While my mom suggested we just move along or try the sculpture garden, Jerome typed, “I don’t feel welcome here. I want to go home.” Jerome’s mom said, “I’m going to honor what he said. Good bye all!” Despite our protests, she and Jerome walked out of the museum.

Ironically, the next painting was Jacopo Bassano’s “Flight into Egypt,” all tumultuous moving feet at the base of the painting with a calm, composed Madonna carrying the baby Jesus on a donkey in the center. “Poor Jerome; hope he and his mom are ok,” I thought, wishing them calm in the midst of their stormy feelings. We then moved to a serene Renaissance Madonna and Child by Raphael, then to the engaging “Portrait of a Boy” by Rembrandt, and finally to a dramatic Baroque Rubens, swirling with motion as David swings Goliath’s own sword to cut off the giant’s head. We looked at each painting and quietly typed our reflections to each other.

That’s when we nearly had our next casualty. Noah sat down and looked at the floor, which he only does when he wishes he could turn invisible. “What’s wrong?” I typed. “Plotters!” he typed in reply. I looked around. It was true. Security guards were eyeing our group carefully and followed close on our heels. But Naomi typed, “Come on, Noah, stay strong! We’re in this world to teach people tolerance!” Noah got up, and we moved on.

After the Van Gogh’s, Cezanne, and Monet, we were counting the number of bridges in Renoir’s “Pont des Arts” when another security guard came up to our group. “Not too close!” he admonished us. “Oh, thank you for the reminder!” my mom said disarmingly. “Oh, but of course!” he stammered, smiling and bowing,  “Have a wonderful rest of your evening!” 

We were typing about “The Little Dancer” by Degas when yet another security guard approached us. “Oh no, not again!,” I thought. But this time, it was a diminutive lady with  shy smile. “I had a mild case of autism when I was little,” she said. “I used to flap and hum all the time too.” We were amazed- an encouraging angel in disguise!

Our last stop was the modern art gallery. We admired Brancusi’s abstract depiction of “Bird in Space” and imagined floating into Sam Francis’ wall-sized “Basel Mural.” “Into what kind of a world do you imagine you’d like to enter?” Mom asked us. “A world of acceptance and understanding,” I thought. Looking at my friends, heads bowed, quietly typing their dreams and reflections, I added, “and the privilege to help build it together.” Life isn’t perfect. People aren’t perfect. But there are good people and goodness in people everywhere. Walking through the Norton Simon that evening we came across our share of misperceptions, but kindness and courtesy too. I hope we were able to change some people’s assumptions. Those of us who exhibit unexpected behaviors may actually be safe-to-be-around ordinary art lovers too. I’m glad we stuck it out and finished our tour. Overall, I felt it was quite inspiring.

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