Not having grown up in Texas, when I first joined the Carter team I did not realize the significance of Julian Onderdonk’s painting A Cloudy Day, Bluebonnets near San Antonio, Texas. A reproduction of it was hanging in my office when I arrived, and I was not impressed. It was only after the Gallery Teachers and I decided to use it on a tour that I began to appreciate the painting’s aesthetic qualities as well as its importance to the state of Texas.
Julian Onderdonk (1882–1922)
A Cloudy Day, Bluebonnets near San Antonio, Texas, 1918
Oil on canvas
Ruth Carter Stevenson Acquisitions Endowment, In honor of Lady Bird Johnson
Students from Texas are so familiar with these little blue flowers that most of the time they don’t even need to look at the label to figure out what we are looking at. In fact, when we situate students in front of this painting they can hardly wait to start talking! I apprise students of my non-Texas-native status and they are thrilled to tell me why this flower is so important to the state (for those of you who don’t know bluebonnets are the official state flower of Texas. A springtime Texas tradition is to take photographs of kids and pets nestled among the bluebonnets.). They also warn me not to pick bluebonnets in the wild (a commonly held belief is that it is illegal to pick wild bluebonnets in the state of Texas). Once we establish what we are looking at (field of bluebonnets), where we are (just outside of San Antonio, Texas), what season it is (bluebonnets bloom in the spring), we begin our multi-sensory approach to experiencing this work of art.
As the students and I begin our imaginary trek on the path that cuts through this field of bluebonnets, I ask them to stop and take look around to tell me what they see. The value in stopping and just looking is apparent when students begin to describe their bluebonnet surroundings. They notice (of course) the bluebonnets, but then they take in the tall, gangly trees on the left with the green tufts of leaves and contrast them with the delicate, wispy trees on the right that are just starting to blossom with the slimmest white buds. They explore the scene a little more and discover the hills in the background as their eyes begin to look upward to the sky. Students often remark that in a painting so full of blue that it’s hard to tell where the bluebonnets end and the sky begins.
We move on to our next sense as we are standing on the path. I ask the students to close their eyes, inhale deeply, and tell me what they think they would smell. Fresh air, rain, dirt, and the country are all frequent answers. My favorite has to be “it would smell like when you pull towels out of the dryer and stick your face in them.” Yes, this field of bluebonnets would smell exactly like a face-full of clean towels.
This seemingly silent scene seems to spring to life when I ask students to listen for sounds. We frequently hear birds chirping and tweeting high up in the trees. As soon as one student mentions that we might hear a bee, one by one each student begins to buzz until we have a gallery that would make a beekeeper smile. Every once in a while we encounter a snake on our walk. Slowly the students start hissing and suddenly one snake becomes a nest of snakes as we talk about all of them slithering through the bluebonnets. Students like to point out that we probably wouldn’t see the snakes in the tall bluebonnets, but we would hear them.
We stop again on the path and this time I ask the students to pretend to take off their shoes. As we take a few barefoot steps I want them to describe what they feel underneath their feet. This is their chance to practice using texture words: hard, rough, gritty, bumpy, course, dusty, rocky, and dry. Next I ask them to imagine that it had rained earlier in the day and to take a few steps. Now the fun texture words enter into our conversation: squishy, soggy, muddy, sticky, gooey, jelly-like, and slippery.
As we near the end of our walk through the bluebonnets I can always tell that they students are wondering what I am going to have them taste. Rather than having them eat a bluebonnet, I tell them that we are going to have a picnic and they get to pick what they would like to pack in their picnic baskets. After a little encouragement, students are very excited to talk about their food choices. Sometimes their lunches are inspired by the bluebonnets and include grape jelly sandwiches, purple Gatorade, blue raspberry Jolly Ranchers candy, blueberry pie, red grapes, berry Fruit Roll Ups, and grape soda. Other times students are truly thinking with their stomachs and say they would pack chocolate cake, hamburgers, nachos (with jalapenos), sandwiches, fruit, cookies, Happy Meals, and their mom’s meatballs. One of my favorite taste-related responses was from a student who requested to have a pizza delivered to our field of bluebonnets. I don’t think pizza would taste quite as good anywhere else.
As you look at and think about A Cloudy Day, Bluebonnets near San Antonio, Texas, I invite you to use the same multi-sensory approach as we use with students. Where do your eyes take you in this work of art? What does the country-side smell like to you? If you listen closely, what do you hear? Run your fingers along the delicate tops of the flowers; how does it feel? Finally, what meal would you eat in this glorious field of bluebonnets?