A very special day at the National Gallery of Art

William M. Waters

January 03, 1991|By William M. Waters

THE DRIVE to work had been more relaxing than usual. Instead of teaching four classes of high school English, I would be busing to Washington to see the Frederick E. Church exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. What's more, I would be accompanying a dear friend and colleague, Joe Abromaitis -- affectionately known on campus as Mr. A.

Joe retired as a commercial artist some years back and now substituted often in the Art Department at Notre Dame Prep. A jaunty, wiry man in his 70s, Joe was as well-loved by the students as he was by his own children. For me, it was an instant boost of spirits to see him striding through the hallway with a broad smile and hand outstretched. From the first time I took that firm, artistic grip until this moment, I knew as I know now that Joe was more than an acquaintance. And I owed it to myself to pay attention.

As Joe climbed on the bus in front of me, greeted our driver and took a front seat, I reminded myself of a responsibility to keep a special eye on him. It would be a long day, and he had suffered some setbacks in health since his wife's death the year before.

The girls climbed aboard, meeting Joe's blue eyes as they passed. There was no doubt each felt she was especially fortunate to be on the bus with Mr. A. The distance between Towson and Washington seemed to compress into a moment of conversation. The brilliant January sky, the anticipation of Church's palette, the energy of the 50 young voices behind us.

Had I any concern about stamina this day, it was for my own. Joe guided our group up the museum steps and into the grand foyer of the gallery as if we were in a race. What I didn't realize was that in Joe's mind we were; there were centuries of art ahead of us, and we had but a day to be in its presence. Instinct and admiration told me to follow, to look and to listen.

We made our way through art-filled rooms. I know that Joe and I spoke, but I recall few details. It seemed as if we could just look at the same things at the same time and know -- simply know. I think this was the first time I completely understood the importance of the traditional hush of a museum gallery. It was more than a respect for the peaceful viewing rights of others; it was that words were incidental distractions in the presence of such art.

We walked into the special exhibit hall filled with Church's stunning landscapes. As I marveled at a painting of the Andes Mountains rising out of a carefully detailed Argentine valley, I noticed a guard whose attention was directed toward a man leaning across the cordoned no-man's land. It was Joe contorting his aging frame to get a closer look at a few square inches of this vast canvas. He motioned for me to join him.

I glanced back at the guard as if to say, "Everything's OK -- he's with me," when Joe said, "Look. Look right here on the face of this rock."

On the rock, small but clear, was the artist's signature. This obscure credit for such a monumental painting seemed odd but not immediately significant. But Joe stayed in that position, looking at that lettered name for what seemed a long time -- long enough for the guard to redirect his attention, long enough so that it was etched on my memory.

The day at the museum ended as smoothly as it had begun. On the way home, the students were quiet -- some slept -- while Joe and I sat watching the winter sky darken. Back at school, the bus unloaded into the night air, and within minutes the parking lot was empty.

Joe Abromaitis died less than a year later. It would be months before I would allow these thoughts about our day at the museum to return. Now, if you ask me about Joe I will tell you this story, I will share this single canvas and I will ask you to take a very close look at the subtle grace of his mark.

William M. Waters writes from Norrisville.

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