Sharing in Wonder

By Kathleen Strycula

Rubber tires, index cards, embroidery thread, LED lights, cut and shaped wood, insects—they are all around us, objects that fill our experiences of the daily world and whose presence we have come to expect and perhaps take for granted. However, in the face of 5,000 insects arranged in decorative patterns on the walls, a million index cards stacked one upon each other in towering peaks, or 60 miles of colored thread strung up like kaleidoscopic rays of light, it is hard to feel anything less than amazement. There are museum plaques with the words “photography encouraged” and pillows set out on the floor to view a breathtaking, colorful, netted installation draped from the ceiling. There are aesthetic and interactive artworks that can be smelled, touched, and taken in visually. In the face of all this, it is hard not to become swept up in a deep sense of wonder.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery opened the Wonder Exhibition last November. The nine featured artists in the exhibition created beautiful, site-specific artworks that are spread throughout the two-story gallery. All deal with themes of wonder, but they also challenge normal perceptions of the world through the use of everyday objects or materials, incorporate aspects of architecture within their artworks, and present art that awakens awareness of the environment and our responsibilities towards the world around us.

When the DC Area Phi Beta Kappa Association scheduled a visit to see the Wonder Exhibition, an excited group of around forty members gathered for a tour. The Renwick Gallery is free, located in downtown DC, and metro accessible. Some of those attending had visited the Renwick previously. However, the Phi Betes came to experience the Wonder Exhibition together, as a community, for an educational, cultural, and social experience. Daniel Rosenberg, an active member of the DC PBK Association and interim secretary on the Association Board, reflected on the communal aspect and the benefits afforded through the local PBK Association.

“The DC PBK Association events provide me with an opportunity to meet other  Phi Betes in the DC Area. Because the DC area is home to numerous Phi Betes who have such a diverse set of professional and personal interests, I always meet incredible people. The spirit of lifelong learning is captured in the content of each event – whether it’s a book club, a tour of a museum, or a spring fling with a featured speaker who has an interesting area of expertise, intellectual inquiry and the liberal arts and sciences are always central.”

Coming from different home states and universities, with different backgrounds and ages, interests and occupations, the members who toured the Renwick Art Gallery naturally viewed the installations from different perspectives. Both Pat Cascio, the DC Area PBK Association treasurer, and Deirdre LaPin, an advisory member of the Association Board, walked through the installation Shindig by Patrick Dougherty. This installation is made up of thin sapling branches that are intertwined to create structures resembling human-sized weaver bird nests. However, the different accounts of these two Phi Betes of this same installation reflect their different experiences and characters. 

Pat Cascio named the Shindig a favorite, saying, “As the title implies, his willow pods are not static shelters, but appeared more to me like dancers caught in mid-whirl. I felt I was joining their dance as I moved through the gallery. The sense of being surrounded by the art was exhilarating.” Deirdre LaPin recounted that “Patrick Dougherty’s Shindig of woven, flowing hut-like structures appealed to me because they were reminiscent of the many African villages I have lived in or visited over my years as an anthropological researcher. The organic connection between the six separate structures spoke to the deep connectedness of those villages, in which everyone is intimately involved in the lives of their neighbors and relations.”

Regardless of such different experiences, the exhibition is aptly named, because there is still, underlying it all, the shared experience of wonder. But what is wonder? Toni Alaimo, the docent leading our group, said that “wonder makes you think differently.” Daniel Rosenberg defined wonder as “something that inspires a sense of inspiration,” and Pat Cascio described it as something that “implies an openness to perception that permits new concepts to form.”

When looking upon the beautiful rainbow threads of Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus A1 that spanned from the floor to the ceiling in a dazzling beam, I heard a young couple behind me conversing. The wife asked, “but what is it?” and the husband replied, “it’s art; does it have to be anything?” Both the approach of the husband and that of the wife are necessary for the experience of wonder. We need this suspending of skepticism to receive in awe the simple beauty of what has been made or done, as well as the complementary healthy questioning that makes us lifelong learners and helps us to look forever at the world with a creative mind. 

Past President and DC PBK Young Professionals Coordinator Paul Lubliner eloquently expressed this concept in his thoughts on the Wonder Exhibition at the Renwick Gallery:

“All of the exhibits displayed, when broken down into their most basic components, seem like mundane everyday objects or specimens, whether man-made or natural. Whether it is a piece of string, a piece of rubber, or a bug – we tend to take these things for granted. It takes vision and curiosity to take the ordinary and give it meaning and make it inspiring. The creators of these exhibits did this with such aesthetic talent that it provokes a sense of wonder. Their work captures our attention and functions as a gateway to contemplate either consciously or unconsciously what makes us human and what is important to us. The Wonder Exhibition is paradoxical then – it both elevates and grounds us and makes us grateful for what we are given in life. It is in small essence a catalyst for learning to help us achieve our great potential.”

Kathleen Strycula is a senior at the Catholic University of America majoring in psychology and minoring in studio art. The Catholic University is home to the Beta of the District of Columbia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.