Helen Mirkil, Love Letter/Gene Rochberg (after Woman with a Pink by Rembrandt, 1662), 2009, oil on canvas, H. 56 x W. 48 inches, James A. Michener Art Museum, Gift of the Artist.

Do you ever find art difficult to understand? Do you ever walk up to an artwork and ask yourself, “what do I make of this?” and find yourself feeling frustrated? We have come up with 10 tips to help make it easier for you. Whether you are a teacher, a parent looking at art with your child, or just a casual museum visitor, you can use these tips to make your museum visit more enjoyable. Follow along!

Tip #1: A work of art can be a story (poem, play, song) starter

Take a look at Love Letter/Gene Rochberg by Helen Mirkil. This work is currently on display in the Byers Gallery. What do you see? Take a visual inventory of what is going on in the work and write down a list of all the details you can find. Describe the woman in the painting  – what color is her hair? What is she wearing? What else do you find?

Mirkil often creates portraits that echo artworks that she has seen. This painting was inspired by Woman With a Pink by Rembrandt van Rijn. Do you see any similarities?

In this painting, you see an older woman sitting on a couch, seemingly deep in thought. The woman is Gene Rochberg who was a friend of the artist.  Look at her lap, what do you see? She is grasping a pen in her left hand and holding a piece of paper in her right. The painting captures a very quiet moment – a brief pause as she is in the middle of writing. Who is she? What is she thinking? What has she written on this paper?

Mirkil was also friends with with Gene’s husband, George. When George died, Helen found out that Gene had been writing him a letter every night before she went to bed. Knowing this information, do you look at the painting in a different way? Do you like it more? Less?

Now, take some time to respond to this work. Use your imagination! Grab a pencil and paper and start writing. Download the following activity sheets to help you in the process:

Do you ever write letters? If you could pretend you were Gene Rochberg, the subject of this painting, what would you write in your letter?

Share your works in the comments below. Even if you don’t write anything on paper, sometimes just looking at the work and asking yourself these questions might help you enjoy the work a bit more.  Enjoy!