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A sister’s immersion in San Francisco art and a brother’s life 
08/19/2008

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My brother taking a picture of the Contemporary Jewish Museum

My three days in the Bay Area deviated slightly from the Hemispheres magazine recommended itinerary. No dim sum in Chinatown, no inline skating through the Golden Gate Park. I headed west last month for one reason: to connect with my big brother.

The last time I tried to enter his world, I encountered wizards, orcs and half-elves. Turns out, Dungeons and Dragons was not my thing and I quickly retreated to a more familiar landscape which included cherry Blow Pops, gossip and The Love Boat. That was in 1981.

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Me with my brother, wishing he was into The Love Boat

These days, he is a freelance photographer who still orbits his own planet. And I am still the little sister with hopelessly mundane interests—and an interest in whatever planet my brother happens to be on.

He has the entire Bay area arts and culture calendar committed to memory. I know next to nothing about art. I don’t like museums. And I especially don’t like art museums.

But this trip, my brother is my tour guide so I follow him.

From the photo exhibition in the basement of City Hall to the Diego Rivera mural at the Art Institute to the observation tower at the de Young Museum, I try to keep up. We crisscross the city by bus, BART, MUNI, and cable car to the Yerba Buena Cultural Center, the Legion of Honor, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and little galleries in alleys with no names.

Day 1
I glance (barely) at framed things hanging on walls and take a mental inventory of our differences. I have a 9 to 5 job, a hair stylist named Jerli, manners (sorta), a working stove, a credit card, the ability to maneuver around light posts and other inanimate objects, a spouse, two kids and a god-blessed picket fence. My brother has none of the above.

When he slows down to eat pad Thai, I ask about his love life, his job search, his access to laundry facilities and his long-term plans. I get short answers and a few glares.

Day 2
We take a 45-minute bus ride to a palace of fine arts by the ocean. I can barely contain my lack of excitement at the prospect of seeing Women Impressionists, or in my mind, blurry old paintings of French women sitting by the pond wearing big skirts. And true, the art does not move me, but the curator’s words on the wall tell a story, four stories, in fact of four women painters -- Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eve Gonzales, and Marie Bracquemond -- who were marginalized due to strict social rules and gender discrimination. On a trip when social norms are anything but normal, I take note.

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Flocking to Frida at the SFMOMA

We head to the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, it draws lines that rival those at the opening night of Sex in the City. My brother’s SFMOMA membership serves as a fast pass up the back elevator and I am soon sucked into room after room of intense color, intense pain and raw self-expression. It is Frida’s story of polio, politics, stormy love, ethnic influences, infertility, infidelity, physical anguish and emotional despair. Frida was part-Jewish, my brother comments. I watch him take pictures of people taking pictures of Frida’s pictures. The security guard says nothing.

Over fish tacos, I ask my brother if he is happy. Yes, he responds. I ask him what he would do if money were no object. Take pictures, he responds. And there you have it, I can fly home.

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Bay area art as viewed through my brother's lens

Day 3
The new Contemporary Jewish Museum opened last June in a converted power station with a dramatic addition that stops everyone in their tracks. I do not know how many people pay the $10 admission to actually walk through the doors, but a hell of a lot of people pause to take a picture of the massive, blue steel cubes balancing on their tips. Architect Daniel Libeskind’s bold, angular design was inspired by the Hebrew letters chet-yud (i.e., chai, l’chaim, to life).

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My brother with his trademark curls and overflowing bag

If you’re looking for dusty old Torah scrolls, oodles of silver Judaica, or a Holocaust memorial of some sort, don’t bother stopping at the CJM. Connecting art, people, and ideas is the marketing tag. The museum has no permanent collection. Temporary exhibits are presented in its three galleries, one of which is too cockeyed to even hang art on its walls. This space currently houses an auditory exhibit.

My brother and I agree that our favorite of the three exhibits is “From the New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig.” I read him one of the Steig quotes out loud: I often ask myself, “What would be an ideal life?” I think an ideal life would be just drawing. Maybe my brother, the photographer who takes pictures but has no working stove, let alone a picket fence, is living his ideal life.

On a bus through the Presidio, I ever-so-astutely observe, “Behind the art, there is an artist. And behind the artist, there is a story. Kinda like writing.” He seems to agree.

If we were art, the curator might write: Two out of sync siblings bond, to the best of their ability. And off we go to the next exhibit, so this culturally-deprived jackass can learn another thing or two about art and maybe, if she’s lucky, a little about her brother.

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