Wandering with a Docent

I have some pretty dang cool friends.

Take Roshna, for example.

Born in Mumbai (although I heard her call it Bombay recently,) she grew up in one of those international families I keep discovering in the Washington D.C. burbs.

Roshna and Mahatma
Roshna and Mahatma

She is a speaker of five languages. Her twin sons are musical geniuses. (Genii?) Her manner is aristocratic yet her sensibilities proletariat.

And that?s just the surface.

Roshna is an art historian.

What do you do with a Masters degree like that?
If you are tremendously clever, charming and passionate about your subject, you share your knowledge, your delight, with your friends.

You become a Wandering Docent.

And we love you.

When our bicycle trip got rained out yesterday I remembered the Phillips Collection is still hosting a Van Gogh exhibit.

Our tall lanky houseguest named Ivar, (the son of a dear friend in Montana) whose dorm at Johns Hopkins closed two days before his flight home, was up for it too.

So I called Roshna.


She would have to shower first, but could be ready in an hour.

She advised comfortable shoes; we would find free parking but it would not be close by.

I did not question this.

Roshna knows.

She could tell the moment she entered my aging Prius that I had taken my dog for a walk in the rain yesterday ? and that I had tried to mask the odor by jamming into an air vent a fir bough left by an eight-foot Christmas tree as it was dragged out the back.

?Hmmm,? she said politely, ?smells like ? damp pooch.?

She deftly guided me on freeways I?d never traveled, through spaghetti-like networks only D.C. could possibly know, commenting that when she first came here several decades ago, she thought all of America was like this.

Crossing the Memorial Bridge she asked, knowing I?d studied in France, ?Look familiar??

L?enfant designed the bridge, which Roshna thought the most beautiful in the area, in the style of those crossing the Seine, I was informed.

A past employee of World Bank, she pointed out her former workplace on our way north from the National Mall.

She also named just about every other interesting building enroute.

As she had predicted we were able to find free parking in the street a few blocks away near Dupont Circle.

?Leave your umbrella in the car,? she advised mysteriously, even though rain was predicted for the entire day.

I obeyed.

When we spotted a wet flag wrapped around its pole in front of an embassy on Massachusetts Ave., we agreed we had to cross the street to find out the country. Indonesia.

Later, as we approached our destination, Roshna recalled, as though she had been a member of Washington society herself in the 1920s, how Duncan Phillips had spent about $120,000 on a painting by a guy named Renoir. Everyone thought he was crazy.

The Renoir
The Renoir

The Luncheon of the Boating Party would become the anchor of the Phillips Collection upon which its namesake focused his love after the loss of his brother and father in quick succession.

Soon we were in line, looking for our student IDs in the lobby.

The Van Gogh were on the third floor so I mistakenly assumed Roshna would want to take the elevator.

?I prefer the stairs,? she said politely, adding that she wouldn?t miss the sculptures along the way for anything.
?Oh, Matisse,? I said, spotting a modern mobile as I climbed the curvy stairs.

Not Matisse
Not Matisse

Wrong again.

No, no, these are Alexander Calder, Roshna corrected me, adding that she was not a big Matisse fan.

Upon entering the Van Gogh exhibit, titled Repetitions, I immediately recognized the enormity of what had occurred. Van Gogh had produced numerous iterations of the Postman, for example, but the originals were scattered around the globe. The administrative accomplishment, the insurance, the shipping, I could only stare at the contributions from Musee D?Orsay, others from museums in the Netherlands, Rome, New York, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, and private collections worldwide … and wonder.

There they were, the slightly different backgrounds, the shift of eyes, the focus of a visage slightly turned. It was all there to compare, the dates of origin, the current ownership, the nuances of color and their emotional effect.

Five years? work assembled these 30-odd works selected from 23 sources. Eighteen instances of repetition in all.

How better to illustrate? In a small room with a single bench we viewed on two screens, brief videos that use dissolves to fully convey the precision of Van Gogh?s repetitions. I watched as five Postmen morphed from one to the other.

The Postman, Portrait of Joseph Moulin.
The Postman, Portrait of Joseph Roulin.
The Postman, portrait of Joseph Roulin.
The Postman, portrait of Joseph Roulin.

I helped Roshna dial in the phone number for the audio tour but we both soon gave it up.

Roshna then took me through the rest of the Phillips collection, pointing in a Cezanne how the artist liked to mess with our minds by posing, in this case, a peach on a tilted plate, where it would surely roll down.

We absorbed the sensuality of Degas? Women Combing Their Hair and the humor I perhaps alone perceived in Bonnard?s several adroitly arranged paintings.

As we wandered through the rooms she mentioned several times the music room downstairs, the piano, the Thursday night concerts.

She insisted Ivars (she refused to say his name correctly in the singular but Ivars seemed slightly amused so I adopted the plural too,)and I ?sit down and stare at the blocks of color in the Rothko room until we felt images emerge, images that weren?t really there.

Alas, I am not the talented visionary that is Roshna.

But Ivars did okay.

A long visit with the Collection?s anchor work, the Renoir, and it was time for the gift shop.

I resisted the Van Gogh doll emerging from an urn that had a removable velcro ear. Ivars was tempted by the heat sensitive coffee mug of Van Gogh that, its label claimed, when filled with hot liquid, you guessed it, the ear disappears.

As we pushed through the heavy doors into the lobby, my eyes sought the exterior. Was it raining?

It annoys me, Roshna complained in a light whisper, pointing to an umbrella rack, they make you leave your umbrella here. Anybody could just take it.

I looked around the lobby at the LL Bean crowd.

I don?t think anyone would take my college-tour-sourced umbrella with the broken handle. I looked at the others in the rack and understood. These were not compact umbrellas. There were real wood handles, large panels of tasteful fabric.


As we headed south toward our car along the tight brick sidewalks, we took a slight detour to pose with a Mahatma Gandhi statue, larger than life in more ways than one.

?I remember him being a bit more emaciated,? I said, recalling a hunger strike.

?Yes,? Roshna agreed.

I wondered if the artist?s rendition was the Gandhi we wanted to see, a little healthier looking.

Roshna had me thinking about things differently.

As we drove home I asked Roshna how her business was faring.

Three years ago, we had met and spent hours chatting together as our sons rehearsed in the Blues Alley Youth Orchestra. I had witnessed the birth of her Wandering Docent idea, had given enthusiastic approval to her website and enjoyed listening over the months as her concept grew and thrived.

The assisted living centers love it, she said. She was achieving positive cash flow. Now she wants to figure how to extend Wandering Docent to the Met.
?I have never been to the Met,? I said.

Roshna was aghast.

Sometime when my sister is travelling, we must go to New York for a few days and I?ll take you to the Met.

She meant, of course, when her sister is visiting the White House with the brother-in-law who designs dresses for Michelle, her flat would be available.

?Sure,? I said, ?maybe a long weekend.?



By Maile

Maile Field is a writer living in Northern California. Born in Hawaii and raised in Montana, she earned her master of fine arts in nonfiction at George Mason University in Virginia. She encourages constructive criticism.