The sessions were one thing, but the museums were another. 

The American Schools for Overseas Research offers not only academic papers on the archaeology of Israel, Mesopotamia, and other ancient sites, but also applied sessions on subjects such as connections between archaeology and the Bible, or even ancient ideas about aging. 

This year’s annual meeting was in Chicago, which more than doubled our desire to attend. Chicago is home to the Field Museum, which boasts 40 million artifacts and specimens related to natural history and anthropology. Many exhibits were fascinating, but I’m enough of a kid at heart that my favorite was “Sue,” the world’s most complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. 

(Lamassu Image. Credit: T. Cartledge)

The University of Chicago is home to the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures (formerly known as the “Oriental Institute”), which houses thousands of artifacts from the university’s digging expeditions in Egypt and the ancient Near East. The artifacts range from tiny cylinder seals to a colossal lamassu image that stood as a protective spirit outside the Assyrian king Sargon II’s throne room in his fortress city of Dur-Sharrukin. 

As much as I loved that, I was surprised by feeling more enamored with several paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago. The artworks were familiar to me, but I hadn’t realized that’s where they were located: I had not expected to see them with my own eyes. 

One of the more well-known self-portraits of Vincent Van Gogh was there, along with one of three paintings he did of his rustic bedroom in Arles. That was impressive, but what first caught my breath was stepping into a gallery to find Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884.”

(Photo: A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884. Credit: T. Cartledge)

The massive painting, at 6.6 X 9.8 feet, took years to complete and was accomplished through pointillism, which uses thousands of carefully placed dots and dashes designed to be mixed in the viewer’s eye. I confess to knowing the painting best through “Sunday in the Park with George,” a 1983 musical inspired by the painting, with music and lyrics by Steven Sondheim. The original featured Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, my longtime Broadway crush. 

Another surprise was learning that the Institute was home to Grant Ward’s American Gothic, a hit from when it was first exhibited in 1930. While many thought the painting poked fun at Midwesterners, Ward wanted to highlight rural American values and offer reassurance during the Great Depression.

(Photo: American Gothic. Credit: T. Cartledge)

All is not as it seems, however. The “farmer” in the painting is Ward’s dentist, who was persuaded to dress in farmer clothes and hold a pitchfork prop while Ward painted him after hours in his office. The “farmer’s daughter” is Ward’s sister, who was painted at his studio. The house, in a style known as Carpenter Gothic, was modeled on one he had seen previously. 

What we see and hear isn’t always what we think it is. We may love how it comes together to form an appealing image, and that’s wonderful when it’s a work of art. 

It’s not so wonderful when what we think we see or hear is an intentionally distorted “news” presentation of “alternative facts” or an AI-generated video designed to falsely portray a good person in a bad way. 

If only we could sic the old farmer with his pitchfork on the pandering folks behind such deceit – or better yet, put Sue the T-Rex on their trail. Maybe that would keep them busy enough to stay out of mischief.

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