When I was six, I watched my mother climb a podium. She wanted to see how one of her pieces of art would look mounted, so she climbed onto the podium herself. That particular work was to be the centrepiece of an exhibition, and when she ascended in its place, she seemed to take up the entire room. She loomed large to my impressionable mind.
“How do I look up here?” She looked down at us, majestically half-akimbo. She didn’t have an assistant at the time, but she had people who helped her set up the exhibitions. On this day, an art history master’s intern was assisting her.
“Great,” he said, circling the podium and craning his neck slightly to look up at her.
“Just great?” She threw her bronze hands into the air. “I want this to be showstopping! This is where I want people to linger in awe of this fantastic, edgy piece of creation. This is where I want them to realize that art can be more than they ever imagined. It’s about opening up a whole new world. I want drama right here.”
“I think it will achieve that.” The intern continued to look up, perhaps unsure of what she wanted him to say.
“You think.” She sighed. Even at the age of six, I knew that tone; I would hear it all my life. It was the one she reserved for the opinions of others whom she did not necessarily trust and for whom she had little regard. She turned slowly on the podium, as if she were on her own axis.
“I am just trying to find the right way that it should be facing. I want this space manipulated to the fullest extent.”
I sat on a chair and watched her turning and imagined a willow tree like the ones I saw all over the city. I believed she looked just like one: tall, dark, slender, and flexible.
“I am taller than Woman Liberated, but this should do, I think.”
She stood still, looking at the piece with a hand on her chin, perhaps considering the height or some other dimension that the rest of us were not privy to. The piece itself was a Sandra Spence. It was a woman made out of a kind of copper material; a book was fashioned into one of her coppery hands. My mother turned suddenly and looked at me.
“What do you think, John?”
My swinging legs were caught off guard and in midair by the question because I had no idea why she was asking me. Sometimes when we were at the gallery together, she lost herself in her art objects and the various acts of choosing, positioning, and showing, so much so that I thought I was one of her less favoured pieces, one she often overlooked. Now her undivided gaze was upon me, and it felt magical.
“You are that woman.” I pointed to the copper. And my mother was exactly that to me—someone to look up to, someone to gaze and strain my neck at, someone who was showstopping.
She laughed, throwing her head back, her throat bare and arched, with the strange, special lights hitting it so that it looked like an elongated stem holding the beautiful fruit that was her head.
“That’s my boy.” When she said this, my legs started swinging again with added vigour from the approval she had given me.
“Hear that?” she asked the intern, who shook his head. “We have attained perfection—if there is such a thing.” I felt warmth coursing through my blood.
She descended, leaving the podium bare of her presence. In her stead, Woman Liberated ascended, and I quickly changed my mind about what I had said. The Sandra Spence piece could not match the presence of my mother on that pedestal. It wasn’t the fault of Ms. Spence, or a question of her artistic skills, because nothing could have had the impressiveness of my mother’s bearing—on that stand or anywhere else.
But that was when I was six and went to the gallery regularly with my mother. It was also a time when I looked up to podiums with naiveté.