Not without Light

Sara Smollett

August 6, 1996

It was a cold yet sunny spring day, just the sort of day when I used to go to the Museum of Renaissance Art with my friends. I was twenty-two, and an art major now working towards my masters. So, although the weather was nice, I didn't mind spending it indoors. My mother, on the other hand, was less than thrilled. I had offended her somehow by choosing to look at old pictures instead of meeting her friends in the park for a nice picnic lunch. As I was only visiting for a week, I wanted to make the most of the city, and she wanted to make the most of my company.

My mother never understood art, or perhaps she didn't understand about art. For her it was a barrier between me and her aspirations for my future. Under these circumstances, I was well aware that the afternoon would have been much more enjoyably spent alone or with my friends, but I hoped that maybe she would find some art she liked so she could appreciate how much it moved me.

As each moment wore on, she grew more anxious, irritable, and cranky, and I in turn grew more exasperated with her inability to look at these great works of art. After lunch, she seemed a little calmer, and so we sat down on a bench in a room full of Raphael's.

I was mesmerized by the swirl of colors, fascinated by how my eye was being drawn from the bright center of the painting to the top and back down again. For the first time that day I was truly relaxed, and suddenly neither of us existed, only the people in the painting. The people of Athens came to life before my eyes, moving, and talking to each other quietly so I couldn't quite make out what they were saying. I could only catch bits and pieces of their conversation that was meant only for their ears.

Their voices grew louder, and I was sure they were talking to me. "It's cold, let's leave ," and then I could no longer see the painting. Standing in front of me was my mother. "This is boring." I didn't say anything in return, and slowly got up and left the room, still in a trance.

We stopped at one last exhibit, a room with wooden panels designed to look exactly like a room in the 1600's would have. The room was rather dark, and after my eyes adjusted, I peered anxiously around the room, taking everything in, so as not to miss anything. I was well aware of my mother's repeated complaining about the dark, so I was having trouble adjusting to the atmosphere that had been so carefully recreated. "This art is ridiculous; I can't even see anything."

Finally we came to the back of the room where there was a little alcove with a window. I was looking at a painting beside the window when my mother excitedly tugged on my sleeve. "Look, look." She had found something that interested her, something about this room had caught her eye, and for the first time that day, I didn't mind being interrupted. She pointed toward the window. "Look at that light. See, doesn't it look like real sunlight?" Then without waiting for an answer she bent down, pulling me with her. "Now look up. It's a light bulb. How brilliant! It seems so real."

This was what had gotten her excited. After a day of seeing some of the most precious and priceless paintings ever created, it was a little light that had gotten her attention, I thought, suddenly pitying her. She was not capable of appreciating art, of seeing it and enjoying it the way I could. I realized then how incredibly empty her life was, and knew that she could never fill up this deep void. As I was thinking this, she proceeded to point the light out to everyone in the room. A very attractive and annoyed young woman came up to me advising, "I think you and your mother had better leave now." I apologized to her profusely and tried to escort my mother to the door.

"You were right," I said, "we have been here long enough. It's time for us to leave."

"But the light," she cried, looking back. "It is what is worth seeing. The light is not sunlight, but it is real."

Outside of the museum I explained, with much calmness, "Mother, you can't get so worked up about a light bulb. There are other people trying to look at art," I paused, "and they don't want to be interrupted."

"They can't be interrupted, because none of them could find the art. I tried to show you. I tried to show them. They were only looking at walls and canvas. There is nothing in that."

At this I exploded, outraged that my mother, of all people, considered art to be nothing more than worthless garbage. After I calmed down, she refused to talk to me, and so we returned to her apartment in silence. I packed my bags, said a gruff good-bye, and walked out her door.

I was halfway down the hall when I heard her voice faintly, "You are ashamed to be with me. Art is more important to you than your mother." Her voice was neither angry or sad; it seemed expressionless. Without any feeling of my own, I left the apartment building and began walking. I took the bus back home. It was a long night.


The next time I went into that room was almost fifteen years later. An old girlfriend and some other friends of mine from college had come to visit, and so I had taken the day off from the law office. I took them to the MRA, where I knew they would enjoy a new exhibit on Titian. I began thinking about my mother, who had died many years earlier.

Over one of the paintings was a quote from Massacio: "Nothing is seen without light." I began to look at the paintings in a whole new way, seeing their original forms and their shadows.

Inside the room with the wooden panels, I pointed out the light to my friends. "Look at the light," I said, stared straight into it, until I felt blinded. They laughed, and made some joke about my becoming a lawyer instead of an artist like them.

Perhaps my mother understood more than I gave her credit for.