Opening day at the J. Paul Getty Museum

It was 1999 and I’d been in L.A. for two months. I had been accepted into OTIS art school for a summer semester most of which I spent feeling like an outsider. Not only had I moved from one of the more conservative states (Utah), I was raised Mormon which gave me no social connection to those who had been raised “normally”. The kids at OTIS would talk about having their first drink at twelve or going to raves and although I had the appearance, black hair and piercings, I felt like my throat Chakra was blocked and gagged. All I could do was take in my surroundings in a blur of over stimulation. I walked through L.A. like a social zombie eating up any experience I could. This was the year I started smoking. It was exhilerating and having something in my mouth at all times kept me from having to release my secret to the world that I could not relate to it.

During that summer I caught word from one of my instructors that the Getty museum was having it’s grand opening. Having been a docent at the BYU MOA a year prior I had a love of museums and was more than stoked to think I could be there for the epic opening day of a museum I’d passed years before with my family while it was under construction. My dad explained that the construction had been going on for fifteen years, it must be magnificent! The day of the opening approached and I couldn’t find one art student actually interested in going. Most of them, in hindsight, were more interested in drugs and being part of an art scene than actually doing art or gathering inspiration. So I decided I would map out my quest and head out at 9 am on the Metro. The day felt magical. The smell of jasmine was in the air and already the temperature was moderate and brisk. The first bus took me through Gardenia where I stopped into a KMart and was the only white person. I’ll never forget the sound of shopping carts going silent as heads turned and I walked through with a sense of alienation I’d never experienced in homogenized Salt Lake City. Even this felt magical, like time stopped and I could now relate to people in a conversation about feeling like a minority. “Oh yeah, I remember this one time in Gardenia..” I grabbed some snacks and walked out to the bus stop with a newfound paranoia as I noticed all the occupants of cars and sidewalks were also bright black! The bus arrived and I joined the blank faces of those immune to the magic of a new day who were headed to their thankless jobs in the city. The bus took us through downtown proper and we passed streets with paper swirling around and drunks begging the driver for a ride. The buildings towered above us and I careened my head to look up at them. As we left the city and went into Westwood the windows were like their own museum pictures: Drag queens and gay guys in short shorts. Groups of Asian tourists and expensively dressed women littered the sidewalks. I took handfuls of corn nuts and ate them like I was in a theater and the outside world was the action packed movie. Then, at last, we reached Getty hill. I could see the museum approaching and it was no let down. The bus dropped us at a shuttle which carried us to the top of the hill. I eagerly bought my ticket for one and proceeded to the line of people entering. The woman in front of me was Australian and I listened to her explain to the couple in front of her how she was in the United States all by herself. Suddenly, I felt like I had a comrad. This woman was a step ahead of me, in a whole new country by herself, maybe that would be me one day. We entered through the gate with a parade of paper machete heads on stilts. A band was playing and the sun opened up on the platform. It felt like heaven! Everything was white and beige stone and the architecture was made in such a way that light would shine through every room and corner. I walked reverently through the courtyard looking at the surrounding structures and wondering where to begin. The first mini-museum I entered had David Hockey “Pearblossum Highway” against the wall. I stared at the picture for a good few minutes deciding that “I really like this guy”. It wasn’t the picture alone, it was the axiomatics, the context, the association of arousal. It was everything culminating in that moment. The next picture I saw was a photograph of a bullet striking a wall. It was brilliant! It was like my entrance into L.A. if there had been a time lapse. A hard steel bullet smacking a wall and dispersing brass shrapnel into the air. From room to room I carried my sketchbook and took notes, drew pictures, drew people. After exploring the paintings and the tapestries, the room of the Getty pre-build models and sculptures I went out to the gardens which had also been landscaped to perfection. I felt ridiculously wealthy as I walked towards the side of the hill where I could see all of Westwood reveled to me among a garden of galvanized steel sculptures and rare eco-friendly horticulture. It was zero scaped, which was a new way to plant without the need for water in a city that had been experiencing a drought for as long as I could remember. I took a deep breath in as the sun shown down on nineteen year old me and my little sketch pad. The day was perfect. Hours later I rode the bus home as the sun set and rest my head on the glass, falling asleep next to an old black lady named Rose who wasn’t having that great of a day. I didn’t say more than ten words, but this experience lodged in my mind so that one day when I did have a voice I would be able to talk about it.

Photo by Sam Poullain on Unsplash

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