I may have had the best job in the world. No joke. For 25 years I sold fine wine to small, chef-owned restaurants and steakhouses.
“I want your job,” was the most frequent comment I heard from friends. I finally had my fill of superb dinners, big red wines, and putting a tie on every day and decided to take early retirement. Miraculously, everything I loved doing in college returned to me: shooting pictures of happy people, playing with ceramic clay, and riding bikes – but something big was missing.
I always loved teaching and working with young bright minds. By serving on the board at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, a world of young people with potential who usually are not exposed to an art museum was revealed to me. When a friend mentioned that the San Antonio Museum of Art was recruiting volunteer docents, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for.
I’ve just finished my first year of a two-year program. Though I dabble in art myself, I never formally studied art history. Docent training feels like I’m getting a degree. Following Nan Allen, our incredible instructor, around the museum on tours is mind-boggling and humbling at the same time. Her style makes the whole museum come alive and her frequent referral to Netflix, Youtube, and PBS streaming helps shore up our saturated brains and link certain objects with contemporary culture.
After our weekly class, my classmates and I look at each other, laugh, and say, “Time to go to Half Price Books.” Inevitably, we come up with more questions than answers and curiosity takes over. I usually can’t wait to get home and google all my questions, including how to make a mummy. My class and I were curious enough to mummify a Cornish game hen. Using baking soda and kosher salt, the basic components of natron (which the Egyptians used), we wrapped her in multiple layers of linen and finished her with plaster and another layer of linen. It worked. She dropped almost half her weight and never put off any bad odor.
It’s a story I can tell to children on a tour. Our real homework is creating our own tours. We have studied objects in every part of the museum. Starting with Egypt, Greece, and Rome, we’ve focused on the many sculptures and ceramic earthenware in the collection, moving around the world to the American gallery, Latin American folk art, pre-Columbian, contemporary, and Spanish-colonial galleries. Just when I started to feel confident about my progress we jumped into Japan and China.
At the moment I’m fascinated with all of Mesoamerica and the Olmec civilization in particular (1200 B.C. to 400 B.C.), the forerunner to the Maya and Aztecs. You see these sculptures of Olmec babies when you enter the pre-Columbian galleries and think, “Where did they come from?” It’s astounding. About 3,000 years ago, the Olmecs had an advanced society and enjoyed ball games and dining on chocolate. Studies continue even today, as new technology allows us to locate undiscovered sites. The largest volume pyramid was recently found in Guatemala in the lost Mayan city of El Mirador. Now I’m inspired to take a road trip.
The bonus for all this activity is the over 20,000 students that come through the doors every year. The education staff visits the schools beforehand to prep the kids on what they will see the next day. “Does anyone remember what we are studying today?” I ask to get things rolling. “Yes, we are here to see portraits, landscapes, and still life paintings.” To see the lightbulbs flashing in these young minds is very gratifying.
I personally recommend taking in the San Antonio Museum of Art’s collection in small bites. That gives the brain time to absorb and do some additional study on the side.
It’s not unusual for a bunch of us to hang out and visit the museum in smaller groups after class. We frequently go back to study objects covered that day more closely. We’re in it together and it’s been a blast. Besides gaining a wealth of knowledge, I can see I’m making lifetime friendships.
For those interested, the San Antonio Museum of Art is hosting a Docent Preview Session on Aug. 8 from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. and on Aug. 15 from 4-6 p.m.