The Nonna and the art gallery – a story

Art painting
This artwork was done by my cousin and I for Tall Aunty’s school play, July 2018.

When the Midget and I took the Nonna to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and showed her one of the galleries, she was amazed. She told us that she’d never before been to such a place. I laughed and didn’t understand. How could anyone get so old but never walk inside an art gallery?

The exhibition was of the artist Joan Miró, whose art is a childlike scribble, colouring between the lines with bold reds and blues. It’s fun art and demands a sense of humour. At first, the Nonna, who I believe saw the world as if through a pinhole*, had no idea what she was looking at. There were paintings that people seemed to be staring at quite intently and sculptures that people congregated around for a moment or two to exchange a gently spoken opinion, but to her that was it.

First, in true Nonna fashion, she stated that she was missing whatever skill or knowledge one should possess when looking at art. I smiled and held her arm tight in mine. Then I guided her gently though questions I go through when I look at a piece of art.

When she started suggesting opinions she was hesitant, as if expecting it to be a test in which there was a right and a wrong.

But soon the Nonna’s eyes sparkled. Verbose by nature, the Nonna quickly got the hang of sharing what she thought might be going on in the picture. She was leading the conversation about the art she was seeing. Although a lot of the time the Nonna had a tendency towards the pessimistic, in Miro’s paintings, the Nonna saw sunsets and gardens. A yellow circle here or a green shape there might represent the sun or a tree. She was interpreting the picture in her own way, drawing out her own unique meaning from the art.

And she loved it.


*The Nonna’s many years of diabetes resulted in eyesight that lacked periphery vision. What she saw, she seemed to see well. Most things, however, she didn’t see. To compensate she used her walking stick as a method of attack to clear the way of puppies and small children alike.

The Nonna died in the Spring of 2014.


  • sherijkennedyriverside
    Tuesday 12 May 2015

    Wonderful that you got to share that with her. She missed many years of engaging with art in galleries, but thanks to you, she didn’t miss them all. 🙂

    • Kate Happenence
      Thursday 14 May 2015

      Yeah, and I think I learnt from it too. It was a really nice day out, one of my favourite memories with her.

  • clarepooley33
    Wednesday 13 May 2015

    My grandfather used to enjoy tripping up small boys with his stick – and his eyesight was very good. I don’t think he liked small boys! It is sad that art, like classical music can seem frightening/difficult? to many people. The way art is talked about by some critics doesn’t help this state of affairs; they seem to want to keep art for the initiated, like a private club. I am glad your Nonna enjoyed her time with you at the exhibition.

    • Kate Happenence
      Thursday 14 May 2015

      Most of the time the Nonna was never aware of how hazardous she could be, but I think that was probably for the better. When I’m old and have a stick I’m sure I’ll be the same.

      Many things are made out to be much more complex than they really are by the use of ‘in the club’ language.