Having art and eating it, too

I hadn't been on a field trip since my days as a graduate student until I joined my friend Wendy, a professor of fine arts, on one she arranged last week for her graduate students to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The featured attraction was a temporary exhibit of engravings, etchings, and woodcuts exquisitely wrought by celebrated printmakers of the northern Renaissance - Albrecht Dürer, Lucas van Leyden, Martin Schongauer, Lucas Cranach, and Hans Baldung, among others.

Field trips have always appealed to me; as a geology student I could never resist signing up. They provided a literal breath of fresh air as we left classes behind and hiked to outcrops with our rock hammers and compasses. They got me out of shifts at my part-time job, too, almost always with an understanding nod from my employer - who had a soft spot for higher learning, even if it did involve camping and picnics. He was right: On field trips we learned things we couldn't quite fathom from two-dimensional text descriptions of fossils, bedding planes, and faults. Yet, to me, field trips still represented stolen time, an escape. Some things haven't changed in the last 30 years.

"I can't believe I'm off the hook!" Wendy's relief at missing the day's faculty meeting was palpable, and we set off for Indy in excellent spirits, in a caravan of four cars. The group included three faculty members, about 15 students, and me, off from farm chores for a day. Yup, field trips still felt like freedom.

We lost track of one another at the exhibit, and lost ourselves in the landscapes, the powerful human dramas of religious scenes, and the detailed ornamental patterns on display in four large rooms. The museum provided magnifying glasses, so intricately wrought were most of the images. That they had been carved, etched, or engraved on wood or metal and transferred to paper 500 years ago only deepened our fascination.

When I did cross paths with Wendy, she provided historical and technical insights that further energized the prints. Two hours passed before we knew it. Though many of the students had arrived at the museum asnooze in their passenger seats (ah, yes, I remembered, as a student one has to grab sleep wherever one can), all eyes were wide open in the exhibit. That some of the world's earliest prints could've been so technically competent and artistically powerful had to impress the heck out of them. It certainly did me. I only wished I could have seen these masters at work.

We all walked to a deli for lunch before driving back, and as it happened it included not only a sandwich bar, but also a bakery and cake-decorating business. The decorators worked behind plate-glass windows in full view of customers like us, eating our sandwiches. In the foreground was a women carving a fresh creation into an intricate scallop-shell pattern, then icing it and etching the top with decorated ribbing. If it wasn't master printmaking, it was a work of art in process.

All those staring eyes! She was working under pressure now. She couldn't have known we were professional and up-and-coming printmakers, but perhaps she felt the intensity of our scrutiny anyway. She swept clean her first decorative swirls on the icing with a broad spatula.

I could all but hear the attendant woodcutters and engravers sigh: "Oh, if it were only so easy to wash away mistakes." Yet like the professional she was, she began again with a deft feel for the natural pattern she was replicating. The cake was becoming an edible seashell before our eyes.

I learned something on this field trip. Art is where you create it. On stone, metal, wood, canvas - or on something as ephemeral as a confection. It's the process that counts. And if the results last longer than the next party, or the next few centuries, all the better for future artists.

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