A special visitor to the art museum
Marge Stein was the real receptionist and this was her day off.
Stepping into Marge's place at the front desk was like stepping into my very own ocean liner and steering the museum through this rainy Monday in 1956. The thick, half-round, hand-rubbed oak desk, built high off the polished marble floor is where the public echoes from Tuesday through Sunday.
Marge looked like a museum receptionist should look: thick, straight burnt umber hair, long enough to sculpt snake shapes around the back of her head. Makeup, as if applied by Johannes Vermeer, her figure mirroring the bronze Venus by Aristide Maillol standing in the foyer. She gave tailored suits, knit shifts and belted tunics a reason for being fine art. I was no visual match, not well-designed, yet an art student, working to keep herself afloat.
The under counter fluorescent lit me and the whole front desk. The museum people arriving for work waved, winked and nodded. One, not noticing I wasn't Marge, asked "Did you play bridge at Carol's on Wednesday?" I imagined I was Marge and said "No" in two tones.
Checking the desk's cubbyholes to see the stamps, envelopes, rubber bands and miscellaneous items were in order, I read Marge's note from yesterday, swoopily scripted in cobalt blue ink. "Dora, Susan Levin will deliver Igor to the front entrance at 11 a.m. Be sure Max is there!"
Dora Oaks was secretary for the museum director, Max Sullivan. She told me when to mimeograph announcements, polish the samovars, dust the collection racks, or the best job, attending the front desk. Dora wasn't there yet so I left the note on her ink blotter with the morning mail and ran back to answer the flashing phone, letting the caller know that Edward Steichen's photographic portraits of New York and Hollywood's famous types were on view through November.
Back at the desk, the museum was still and dark, except for reflections of the wet gray day on the polished floor and the lit up reception desk. The light/heavy, stopping/starting rain tones on the sculpture court skylights beat a bluesy soundtrack for this morning.
I was free to swivel in my maroon, worsted wool desk chair, studying Chaim Soutine's baker in a white hat and coat leaning on thick red cadmium above the South Gallery doors; to the shelf of Ming Dynasty bowls in the glass case near the umbrella stand. 180 degrees from the bowls was the huge black and white abstract "Painting #7" by Franz Kline, teacher-in-residence that year.
At exactly 11 a.m. two dark bodies blew into the foyer, talking loud like sailors in a squall. My spine uncurled from the back of the chair. One tall man, one short popping, shaking, spraying umbrella, horn piping out of their tailored overcoats.
The short man said "This Portland weather, it is like a storm at sea," trilling all his r's. The tall man said "Yes, I've lived here five years and I've grown to expect a certain amount of stormy weather. I'll take you to the upstairs gallery and show you how it influences some of our Northwest painters. But first, Igor, follow me. Dora has a hot drink waiting for us in my office."
As they passed the frontdesk Igor winked at me. I wondered if Dora knew that plans had changed. It was Max, not Susan, who delivered Igor Stravinsky to the Portland Art Museum that day to view his portrait in the South Gallery, Edward Steichen exhibit.
Norma Heyser Peterson is a member of the Jottings group at the Lake Osewgo Adult Community Center.
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