A Moment with a Beautiful Stranger
And Richard Long’s Autumn Circle
Have you had moments with beautiful strangers that remain with you?
My moment happened in 1995. The new Mario Botta-designed SFMOMA building had just opened. My friend Rob and I were set to explore it with our photography class.
We were young and impetuous, which made us, ever so slightly, very obnoxious museum visitors.
We explored all the floors making our way finally to the fifth floor where Richard Long’s Autumn Circle was installed. I won’t confirm or deny, but there might have been some silly rumblings about a bunch of rocks on the floor.
My friend, the more extroverted one, asked the closest museum docent what they thought the work meant.
What happened next was a moment with a beautiful stranger that jolted me out of my everyday existence. Its essence and importance stay with me still.
The docent was a tall older gentleman with an accent wearing a white buttoned-down shirt and black pants.
My friend asked him, “What does this piece mean to you?”
He responded, “I look at it, and I see life.” I saw numbers tattooed on his forearm as he gestured toward the piece. I quickly connected the dots; his accent and these numbers; he was, I assumed, a concentration camp survivor.
Time seemed to slow down as he continued his answer, “I see life. The rock is calcite, and that is what living beings eventually become. I see this as a circle of life.”
This person's simple beauty and words “I see life” still deeply affect me as I remember and write about this moment. He saw life. Someone who I could imagine survived horrific circumstances saw the beauty and perspective of life in this artwork.
We thanked him for his answer and quietly moved to the piece circumnavigating it. Neither one of us spoke for a while. The unexpected moment significantly affected both of us. Eventually, we met up with the rest of our photo class, and life went on.
This moment has been with me for years. It has given me insight, hope, and perspective when needed. Life and beauty are often there to be seen, appreciated, and valued.
I’ve often wondered who this person was. I never saw him again. Yet, the way he saw this artwork and how he shared it with us will forever remain with me.