When I saw the immensity of the darkness, I was immediately afraid.
I was on a field trip to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. I was eight years old. I wore my maroon plaid
jumper over my white polo shirt, like all of us did. We were Catholic. Blond ponytail bouncing around.
The hair was pulled up high on my head and had too many bumps, because it hurt so much when my
mom brushed my hair in the morning. Or didn’t.
I often wore a thick red bow around the hairband, because of the color coordination of course. And I’ll
be completely honest, it’s hard for me to remember how happy I was then. I had a warm bed with my
stuffed animals in the appropriate order (pink, blue, brown, yellow) on the right side of my bed, as I
hugged the left.
“Why do you always sleep so close to the edge of your bed?” My mom asked me one day.
“I don’t know,” I said. But I think it was so I could breathe. Not all sunken into my pillow with its
rough pillowcase and synthetic stuffing. Then she would turn off the light and the blackness
arrived, bringing with it the ghosts of experiences not yet had.
So when I saw it there, framed and over twice my height, my instinct was to get away from it. I
poked my best friend, Jen, and ran off laughing. But I knew the giggling trot toward the pink and
orange abstraction wasn’t sincere.
I tried to make a joke about that art’s darkness to Jen, “Why would someone make a painting that’s only
But it spoke to me the deepest truths in a way I had no ability to realize. I peeked back at it and ran off
▪ ▪ ▪
I was eighteen when I saw it again, listened again, realized the secrets it had whispered.
I stood in front of it. Maybe with some acquaintance, maybe not.
“Rothko,” the caption read. I stared into its heart and saw its blackness—all of the shades of black. How
had I not realized how many hues you could make out of a color that in its very definition is the absence
of color? And no, none were gray.
I was still trying to escape the absence. I followed the guidance of the “signs” in which I believed – a
green light, a song lyric. But those late-night drives through Southern Kansas City did nothing.
I had no means of processing it that day, but I knew that piece intimately and could never speak of it.
▪ ▪ ▪
So when I turned the corner at twenty-four years old, and I saw it there again, hanging in that same spot,
it felt like a lover with all of the desperation and reliance.
I looked at it endlessly. Like the back of my eyelids when they gave me the anesthesia. It had been more
honest than any close friend had. There with me was my own self again, at eight years old.
Actually, it had been the only one to warn me. To try to tell me. To be absolutely honest.
“This will be a reality for you,” it had said.
I now knew its every shade. I understood the entirety of the rectangular variations within the whole. In
my mind I could add more, and did. All of the shades it had forgotten.
And I think at eight years old, I must have known its omniscience… somewhere in my hollow bones and
the whites of my bright and excited eyes.