Years ago, I had the joy of hearing Senga Nengudi talk about her art in a gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver surrounded by the work.
Nengudi makes intimate installations and sculptures from discarded materials such as torn pantyhose.
Her use of this material started when she was living in a small space in New York and decided on a medium that would fit into her purse. (Further proof that making art is about solving problems, but that’s another topic.)
During a panel discussion, Nengudi warmed everyone in the room with her gentle, generous spirit and big smile.
Here It Comes
When we (about 100 of us in the audience) were getting ready to leave, the artist said she wanted to give us a gift to remember her by.
In line with her work, which transforms unwanted items into art, she considered a gift that we could transform into something new.
She confessed that she didn’t have enough pantyhose for the audience, which we were okay with because that’s when she pulled out a large plastic bag and handed out . . .
Dubble Bubble bubble gum!
Yep, the very same bubble gum that we bought for 1 cent when we were little and had only a penny or two to spare. (Some of us remember those days.) There was a collective grown-up giggle from the room.
Bubble gum is immediately transformed when it’s chewed. Then you can blow bubbles with it, pop the bubbles, stretch it, stick it in your kid brother’s hair, … You know.
The more adventurous can turn a wad of gum into a bubble-gum sculpture.
Ah, The Memories
I was excited to get my piece of bubble gum and waited patiently in line for Ms. Nengudi to place it in my hand. Two seconds later I popped it in my mouth.
I couldn’t recall the last time I had a piece of bubble gum, and it tasted exactly as I remember.
It was pure joy—filled with memories of childhood when a simple piece of gum would yield a massive amount of delight.
The Element of Surprise
Let’s admit that, of course, your art will delight some people immediately upon introducing yourself. But how can you take an extra step to see that they’re also delighted by you as a person?
Your audience might be students rather than viewers and they will delight in your teaching. But how will you enchant them?
In order to delight someone, there must be an element of surprise. It won’t work if you set up your plan with, “And now I’m going to delight you.” Right?
Your gesture must be unexpected and heartfelt. It’s a gift that seeks nothing in return but the light in recipients’ eyes.
Handing out bubble gum doesn’t make sense for everyone, so what is it for you?
I didn’t keep the piece of bubble gum from that evening after chewing it (that would be weird), but I don’t need it to remember Senga Nengudi.
I’ll never forget her, her art, and the way she charmed us. I’ll think of her whenever I put on pantyhose and, should the day come again, when I load my cheeks with a wad of pink bubble gum.
Somebody somewhere is waiting for your art to delight them.
This article was first published November 30, 2017 and has been updated with comments intact.