Exhibition Spotlight McMullen Musings

The Perfect Storm: Climate Catastrophes in “Hieroglyphs of Landscape”

Student Ambassador Chris Rizzo (MCAS, 2022) talks about his personal experience with the awful power of nature as a Wisconsin native.

I grew up in suburban Wisconsin, where winter takes up the whole year. Each October we don our heavy winter coats and mittens that transform us into big puffy marshmallows, the default clothing for most of my family and friends until late April, sometimes May. Winter on the water, however, is an entirely different beast. For those of you who have grown up near the Great Lakes, you know the conditions I speak of. Lake Superior, or the “Lake of Storms,” the northernmost and deepest Great Lake, restrained by Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula, can become especially dangerous. Hurricane-force winds create waves almost five stories tall, roughly the height of Stokes Hall. In the winter, water temperatures fall as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit. The majority of the lake freezes over yearly. Storms can rise without warning and have carried at least 350 vessels into the deep since human beings first settled its shores. 

One of the greatest storms to menace Lake Superior was the Mataafa Storm of November 28, 1905. Twenty-nine cargo and fishing craft sank, brought under by massive waves and top winds recorded at 68 miles per hour, smashed against the rocks, or ran aground on shorelines. The SS Mataafa was one of these vessels, broken in two by the sheer force of these massive waves as it attempted to make a run to safety in Duluth Harbor. Nine men died of exposure in the night after the ship broke apart. One body had to be cut out of a solid block of ice when rescue crews could finally arrive the next day. 

The drama of the Mataafa Storm, thought by some to be the worst storm ever seen on Lake Superior, evoked a kind of collective shock in the region that reverberated around the United States, much like natural disasters we face today, such as the California wildfires of recent years or any of the massive hurricanes that have slammed the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. People could not conceive of a storm that could sink twenty-nine ships, end thirty-five lives, and inflict damages of over 3.5 million dollars (102 million in today’s currency) all in one night. Natural disasters not only show us the raw, unadulterated power of Mother Nature, but also our own weakness and fragility.

Natural disasters not only show us the raw, unadulterated power of Mother Nature, but also our own weakness and fragility.

Since ancient times shipwrecks have fascinated and horrified us. We need look no further than the tale of the Titanic to know that this is true. Imagined calamities in literature can hold just as much power as the real. From the tales of Homer’s Odyssey to a modern novel like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, the shipwreck is a classic disaster. This event represents a derailment of the hero’s journey and a decisive start of something new. These authors recognize that not only does a shipwreck offer a clean slate upon which a new story can be told, but it also speaks an important message of who we are and where we come from, as well as our own naivety. In the case of the SS Mataafa and all the other ships that sunk in Lake Superior on that stormy November night, the outcome was seen as unexpected and unavoidable, but in reality, it was anything but. 

Storms are the perfect challenge our boldness; when the sea asserts itself and batters our fragile boats with massive swells and howling winds, we are no match for Nature’s uncaring destruction.

The very act of sailing is one that issues a challenge to nature. Water is meant to be a barrier to humanity, but sailing allows us to traverse the sea, carrying people and cargo from place to place. Shipbuilding is such a precise art because a balance must be struck; a vessel cannot be so heavy that it sinks like a stone, but it also cannot be so light that it is overturned by a ripple on a pond. Storms are the perfect challenge our boldness; when the sea asserts itself and batters our fragile boats with massive swells and howling winds, we are no match for Nature’s uncaring destruction.

Shipwrecks and the messages they convey also weighed heavily on the minds of Romantic painters. William Trost Richards, whose seascapes are currently on display at the McMullen Museum, dwelled on these themes. Several of his works show remnants of ships washed ashore as a central element in a lonely beach scene or a twilight view of the coast. Russian Romantic Ivan Aivazovsky also shows a preoccupation with sinking ships and ships in trouble. This naval motif really does reflect the mood of the nineteenth century. Unlike centuries past, Romantic thinkers, authors, and artists were comfortable dwelling in a space of uncertainty and meditating on themes of mortality and fragility.

So often in modern life we take our apparent mastery over the seas and skies for granted. Over 90 percent of the world’s trade in cargo and raw materials moves in vessels over the sea, and travel by planes is one of the greatest luxuries of modern life. But we often forget just how fragile these networks of transport and trade are. As the Mataafa Storm on Lake Superior and the works of nineteenth-century Romantics like William Trost Richards prove, nothing can be taken for granted. When we lower the sails and batten down the hatches, we are acting in defiance of greater powers. We hold contempt for any authority that seeks to control us, and rebel against a fundamental part of our own humanity, that our fragile lives can all be extinguished by the waves of a single storm. 

William Trost Richards, “Beach Scene with Wreck,” Brooklyn Museum, accessed November 19, 2019.

McMullen Musings

Alvin Epstein, Beckett, and the Absurdity of The Fulbright Triptych

McMullen Student Ambassador Dana Connolly, LSEHD ’22, reflects on The Fulbright Triptych and actor Alvin Epstein’s legacy in art and theatre.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to meet Alvin Epstein at the Actor’s Shakespeare Project Spring Gala. During his storied life on stage, Mr. Epstein established himself as the authoritative actor-interpreter of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist drama. Epstein made his Broadway debut as Lucky in Beckett’s opus, Waiting for Godot. Soon after, he played the leading role of Estragon, launching his career into the absurd world of Beckett.  

After a stint of Broadway successes, Epstein became a founding member of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, establishing himself in the Boston theatre scene. In Boston, Epstein supported local and nonprofit theatre ventures, and was a lover and cultivator of Boston’s Artistic Heritage. 

Alvin, at age 92, spoke in hushed tones but indelible wit. Sitting upon a monumental career in the art world, he seemed mostly unbothered.  I felt as though he had embraced the absurdity of the life that he imitated on stage for so many years. Epstein’s contribution to The Suspension of Time: Reflections on Simon Dinnerstein and Fulbright Triptych, echoes this sentiment. 

The title, “Where Are We? When Are We?” is pulled straight from Beckett’s oeuvre (although in truth, it’s a Back To The Future Quote). Epstein bemoans the lack of guard rails that Dinnerstein gives to the viewer: no “dynamic diagonals to lead [the] eye,” the paintings “immense” size feels suffocating to the casual interpreter. Every intricate detail is so carefully organized, only a fool would attempt to decode a painting layered in this much symbolism and personal history! Like Beckett’s long, confusing, inane plays, The Triptych overwhelms the viewer with content, giving them no point of entry. 

So Epstein has a piece of advice: “read it,” not as a book but an anthology of family history. Wade into the uncertainty, sample the absurdity, “linger,” where you wish. Waiting for Godot taught audiences the paramount importance of choice. The Triptych is so dense with meaning that the viewer must pick and choose what to focus on. Each texture, inscription, portrait, and sketch ensures that no person experience the Triptych the same way twice. To describe the Triptych, as Epstein tried to, is to describe how one viewer experienced it in one fleeting moment. 

That’s okay. Epstein found comfort in the indefinite. If you’re still looking for concrete answers, consider Wittgenstein’s message, inscribed in the bottom left of the center panel of the triptych: 

“Every form of life could be other than it is.”

  1. Simon Dinnerstein (1943—), The Fulbright Triptych, c. 1971-74, oil on wood panels, 79.5 x 168 in. Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University, Gift of the Friends of the Palmer Museum of Art.
  2. Mili, Gjon. First American Production of “Endgame,” in 1958The New York Times. December 11, 2018.
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My Favorite Museum: The Museum of Fine Arts

By Amir Boulos

The Museum of Fine Arts is in Boston, Massachusetts. It was established in 1876 in  one of the oldest American cities. However, bigger cities like New York and Los Angeles have taken larger portions of the American population, dazzling viewers with skyscrapers and lots of lights. Boston has stayed humble, with its quaint buildings dicing narrow streets. And…..

We got the MFA. That’s right. The MFA.

Best Impressionist section in the world.

No, actually, the MFA has the best Impressionist section in the United States.

The Impressionists were the original Avant-Gardes. I have always looked up to the rebels in history and, here, in the quaint, controlled city of Boston, we have the best showcase of the most famous art rebels. Is Boston controlled or rebellious? I’m not sure. The Museum of Fine Arts is no flashy show. We have the occasional exciting exhibition like Takashi Murakami last year, but it is more usually like the Winnie the Pooh exhibition we have currently. Our Impressionist stars put the team on their back and as soon as you drift through their section, you have already been tackled by a 300 pound linebacker – one of differing light.

As you walk down the first hallway in the section, you see the contrast between Renoir’s vividness on the left and Sisley’s more subtle work on the right. Pissarro and Cezanne come next down the hall in a more harmonious manner with their Post-Impressionist styles. Paul Signac wraps it up with some more modern Neo-Impressionism for the touchdown. Through the narrow walls, you have somehow walked down a sunrise and experienced the satisfaction of a beautiful natural scene. It is like the Chestnut Hill Reservoir during a sunny fall day, like the breath of relief from the constant buzz of the city. The earthy feeling of warmth and light in such a scene is a breath of fresh air in the beige-grey architectural context of the MFA.

The relatable subjects hit that nerve of nostalgia or serene bliss. Students need that on those gloomy, cold days with finals up ahead and social drama on their backs. I could bore you with the details of each piece, but that sensation is why I frequent the MFA.

You also have the adjoining rooms with Monet’s Lilies, Monet’s Haystacks, Van Gogh’s House, and Degas’ Dancers. So many of the most impressive pieces by some of the Impressionist movement’s greatest artists have had such an impact.

These kinds of pieces make a student like me want to keep achieving, to give that extra push, to have the chance to have even a tenth of the influence as these legends. So, I go to the Museum of Fine Arts for that happy familiar feeling and the sheer impact of those Impressionist rooms.

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My Favorite Museum: The Beatles Story

By Annabel Steele

One of the best parts about my experience studying abroad was my two-and-a-half week long Easter break. I left Ireland for a fortnight and spent time in Scotland, England, Italy and France, enjoying every single second of it (and making good use of every single second, too—I hardly slept at all). And while I was excited to see famous sights like Loch Lomond, Edinburgh Castle, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, the Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, I was even more excited to see something else.


It may seem odd, but the most excited I was during that entire fortnight was the morning I boarded a train in Preston, Lancashire, England, fresh off of spending a day and a half visiting a friend there. The train pulled out of the station and chugged resolutely towards Liverpool, where another friend awaited along with everything a Beatles fan could ever want to see.


The Beatles are my very favorite band, and they have been for my entire life. I have devoured books and biographies, endlessly re-watched their movies, papered my room with their posters and, of course, played their music on a loop. I cannot identify one single favorite Beatles song, because that answer changes depending on the day. (I can, however, identify a single favorite Beatle: Paul McCartney. Musically, he and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys are it for me.)


So when I arrived in Liverpool, my friend and I hopped on a Magical Mystery Tour bus and saw the sights around the city, stopped off for a pint in the (new) Cavern Club and had a photo shoot with the Beatles statues on Albert Dock. Two days later, we returned to the dock ready to visit The Beatles Story, a museum devoted to all things Fab Four.


The Beatles Story is an incredible experience. Guests receive a headset and walk through the museum with an audio tour featuring commentary from Julia Baird, John Lennon’s half-sister. The museum is laid out with rooms resembling the real places the Beatles visited or played; for example, there are replicas of the Cavern Club and the Casbah, allowing visitors to see what those places looked like when the Beatles played them. The tour follows the band’s trajectory chronologically. A special treat is the room devoted to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a cacophony of color and sound so reminiscent of 1967 and that seminal album.


Spread throughout the rooms are actual artifacts from the Beatles’ careers. There are instruments, programs, photographs and even a suit that belonged to Brian Epstein. Music is constantly piped through speakers, giving the entire experience a cheery and familiar feeling.


The end of the tour focuses on the four Beatles’ post-band solo careers. While I am a Paul girl through and through, I found the most compelling part of this end of the tour to be a replica of the white room from John Lennon’s Tittenhurst estate. It was hopeful and idealistic, with the song Imagine playing through the speakers, and yet also sobering and melancholy, as visitors reflect on John, what he accomplished and what he might have done if not for his untimely murder.


I walked out of the museum feeling happy, content and so, so lucky to have had the opportunity to visit Liverpool and soak in all of the Beatles sights. While I did go on to have plenty more incredible experiences over my Easter break, every time a Beatles song comes on my shuffle, I think back to the days I spent in Liverpool and give a satisfied smile. I’d go back there any time at all.

McMullen Musings

Rainy Tuesdays at the Museum

By Carolina Gazal

It just so happens that every Tuesday, it rains terribly during my shift at the McMullen Museum. The second the clock strikes 1:30 pm, it begins to rain right as I head to the Museum. The bright red leaves become soggy piles of mush, puddles of mud flood my walk, and I ask myself why does it have to rain every Tuesday?


I walk from Gasson Hall to the Museum, hair drenched and shoes soaked, peeved at Mother Nature for deciding to downpour during my shift. Then I sit at the front desk, watching the rain hit the glass windows of the atrium, wondering when the rain will end, and question why this happens every week.


Despite it all, I’ve come to realize that the McMullen Museum is the perfect place to be when it’s raining. Although rain is associated with gloom and darkness, I’ve come to love watching the rain fall from the comfort of the glass atrium. I’ve been so accustomed to the darkness of dorm rooms, especially when it rains, and the glass windows of the McMullen Museum are a bright escape from the poorly lit dorm room and dark hallways of Gasson Hall.


It’s actually quite uplifting to watch the rain fall in the atrium, especially when a beautiful rainbow shines over the Brighton campus. The most beautiful rainbow I’ve ever seen grew over the terrace and circled around the museum. Everyone rushed to the terrace to photograph the double rainbow, and suddenly everything I dreaded before took on a new light. The soggy leaves became crisp and dotted with rain droplets and the puddles were reflections of nature around me – nature I usually neglect amidst heaps of homework and assignments.


The next time it rains, I highly recommend walking over to the McMullen Museum and watching the rain from the atrium. Grab an umbrella, don your rain boots, set up a rainy day playlist – or even download the McMullen’s podcasts – and make the journey to the museum. I’ve never been one to enjoy the rain, but the museum space provides a cozy nook to admire the Brighton campus and the beautiful nature I usually take advantage of.

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Harvard Art Exchange

By Kate Oksen


On Friday, November 9, student guides and staff members from the Harvard Art Museums came to the McMullen Museum to complete the second component of our exchange program. Harvard students were greeted in the atrium by Professor Nancy Netzer before heading to our first floor conference room.


Sophia Cocozza, co-chair of the Education Committee, had the opportunity to delve a little deeper into the specific roles and responsibilities of a McMullen student ambassador. The co-chairs of each of our six committees presented an overview of their main projects and goals for the semester while using visual aids to showcase components of our website, 3D-Vista tours of past exhibitions, an inside look at our database, and more.


The Harvard students were split into two groups and brought on tours of the second and third floor galleries of the museum. The tours were facilitated by members of our Education Committee, who each conducted extra research on components of Strategies of Engagement to inform Harvard’s student guides about Carrie Mae Weems herself and pieces from her vast array of work. Interacting with other student workers, conversing about the exhibition and discussing the differences and similarities of our experiences working in art museums coupled with the actual trips to these unique spaces has been such a positive endeavor for all involved. We are so happy to have had this exchange and so grateful to have had the Harvard student guides participate!

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What Issues Concern BC Students?

By Reeno Hashimoto


On Friday, September 7th, Boston College students congregated at the McMullen Museum of Art to kick off the opening of Carrie Mae Weems’s Strategies of Engagement. Ambassadors asked fellow students to weigh in on some of the most polarizing issues of 2018. As students ascended to the third floor, they discovered a poster-laiden window. Each poster presented a series of current issues such as criminal justice reform, climate change, and income inequality with a blank space underneath. Boston College students, always up for a challenge, took only three dot stickers, placing them under issues of particular importance to them.

The twenty-four options from which students could choose their “Top Three” were criminal justice reform (44), climate change (85), free speech (18), national security (5), strengthening unions (4), pro-life legislation (4), gender equality (82), Second Amendment rights (3), promotion of democracy worldwide (6), LGBTQ rights (34), voting rights (7), racism (95), $15 minimum wage (9), freedom of religion (18), campaign finance reform (7), rising student loan debt (13), income inequality (40), national debt (11), cybersecurity (8), affirmative action (7), immigration reform (37), universal health care (42), reproductive rights (31), and gun control (69).

Racism, climate change, gender equality, and gun control were the issues most significant to Boston College students.

The McMullen Museum student ambassadors urge you to consider the following: what matters to you most and why?

McMullen Musings

McMullen Musings: T’Scharner and Emiliana Torrini

The Terrace is excited to feature a new weekly segment that presents our Pic of the Week in connection with a work of art outside the museum—be it, film, photography, music, etc. These McMullen Musings, as they will be called, are meant to serve as contemplative, creative writings that allow our readers to bring pop culture into the museum’s glass paneled walls.

Théodore T’Scharner (1826-1906), Landscape with Pond, n.d., oil on canvas, 17.7 x 29.6 in., Hearn Family Trust.

This week’s Pic of the Week is Théodore T’Scharner’s Landscape with Pond featured in the Nature’s Mirror: Reality and Symbol in Belgian Landscape exhibition. The work, oil on canvas, illustrates an open plain surrounding a pond reflecting the sky’s bittersweet visage. The sun subtly peeks through the dismal clouds, illuminating the surrounding area and shining down on the body of water below.

The painting emotes peace and tranquility while touching upon the somber air of loneliness. The foliage isn’t very lush, but earthy and tough; not an image of paradise, but of solitude. All of the aforementioned immediately bring Emiliana Torrini’s soft “Serenade” to mind.

Torrini’s voice, just above a whisper, sings hypnotically while a guitar’s strummings envelope the airiness left. As she sings, “New world forming / Picturesque in its stance … For the dark finds ways of being / Engraved in the light,” one can imagine the acoustic lullaby setting the soundtrack for the melancholic picture.

The focus of the painting seems to be that the sun is shining in spite of the weather; it is a gallant effort for the light to break through the hardened walls of darkness. The lyrics seem to allude to the painting once more as Torrini sings, “I can hear my name be reborn / On the cloud within the sky beneath the dawn.”

Art has long since been fascinated by nature and these two examples provide a landscape narrative like none other. It is one thing to merely offer a representation of what you see, but another completely to urge the observer, or the listener in Torrini’s case, to feel something. This is the intersection of all art: the truth, the feeling, and yourself.

Be sure to check out this Pic of the Week here at the McMullen and look out for next week’s segment of McMullen Musings!