Memory: Mystery Car Rides

A recent selfie with one of my sons, now grown up, at the Tel Aviv Museum

Contributed by Benito Esquenazi / In the twenty years that I was not painting I maintained a connection to my creative process by drawing and seeing art. One does not choose to be an artist. One is. I paused my painting practice in 1995. By then I had three kids. By 1998 I would have five. When the kids were old enough I would take them out together. We would go out on Sundays – usually to the mountains (for hikes) or the mall (movies and shopping). 

I had a strategy when we went to the mall or a crowded place to make sure I would not lose any of them. I would hold my youngest child’s hand. I would then assign my oldest to hold the second youngest’s hand. I would ask my second oldest to hold the middle child’s hand. I would then keep track of the two heads of the oldest (and tallest) children, simplifying my kid tracking process – instead of attempting to track five kids simultaneously, independently and with difficulty.

On certain Sundays we would go to a museum. It would usually be the Metropolitan Museum of Art because of the diversity of items displayed. I made a rule to not spend too much time or linger too long in any one place when I was with them. We had a special route that we would walk when we entered the museum that was sure to please my kids as we wound our way to the modern or the impressionist galleries where I wanted to be. We usually walked in through the medieval armory display. What kid would not love that? We would stop anywhere when one of the kids would notice something of interest. We would look and talk and move on. Sometimes we looked at the guns or the armor. No doubt seeing this heightened their appreciation of certain books and movies they were devouring at that time. 

To ensure they would not get bored, I would gather them up before entering the modern or impressionist galleries. I’d hold my youngest’s hand, and my two older children would hold my other two kids’ hands and say, “Look around and let me know which is your favorite painting.” We walked into each gallery, staying as long as their attention spans could take. Each of them selected their favorite painting in the gallery. We all stood in front of each painting, and I asked each child to express why it was his or her favorite. I of course got a turn to share which was my favorite painting as well with them and why. When we decided it was time to go, I asked if they wanted to stop by and see the Egyptian permanent collection and the Temple of Dendur exhibit. The answer was always yes. 

With one of my daughters at the Whitney

Going to the museum became a ritual for us. One Sunday when I said we are going to a museum, they protested the idea. I pivoted and said, how about we take a “Mystery Car Ride”? They were fascinated by this idea and excited to go somewhere surprising, amazing, and mysterious. As we journeyed to our mystery location they kept on asking where we were going. Eventually I had to tell them, before we got there, that we were going to a museum. By then we’d gone too far to turn back and we all enjoyed the day.

On future Sundays when I told them we were going on a Mystery Car Ride, they all knew we were going to the museum. No one protested and they played along. They all piled into the light blue Chevy Impala. We drove down the Palisades Parkway, over the GW, down the Henry Hudson Parkway, and across Central Park on 86th Street to look for parking within walking distance of the Met. 

Now that my kids are older, they feel comfortable going to a museum with their friends, or even seeing art with their dad. We think back and smile on those days of the Mystery Car Rides, knowing that we nourished a culture of seeing art together. Mystery Car Rides have become part of family folklore, shared with people we meet.

I think about some of those years that I was a single parent on Sundays with my kids at the Met. Me holding my youngest child’s hand. My other children looking around the gallery and trying to decipher which was their favorite artwork and why. I remember getting up close to those paintings and experiencing the mastery of the work and the artist, deconstructing how they did what they did and why. I remember what it meant to be a dad and an artist and a man who walks in this world, and I remembered that art plays a role in it.

Sometimes when I’m painting in my studio, I think about future parents who will take their children to a museum on a warm, lazy Sunday afternoon. I think about how they may get close to a painting holding the hand of their youngest child. If they look at one of my paintings, I hope they will sense, in quiet solidarity, that I was once there too with my children.

The Moment: New Paintings by Benito Esquenazi,” Room Across From MoMA, 20 W53rd Street, New York, NY. Appointment only, please call (914)953-7459. Through October 31, 2020.

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