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A Carnegie exhibit asks visitors to contribute interpretations of artworks 

The stories might be droll, obnoxious or nonsensical

click to enlarge Richard E. Miller’s 1915 painting “Reflection” is part of The Stories You Tell.

Richard E. Miller’s 1915 painting “Reflection” is part of The Stories You Tell.

The Stories You Tell, a relatively small exhibit in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Forum Gallery, would be easy to glance through or even walk past. The museum has so much to offer that it would be understandable if you wanted to speed through a small room featuring a dozen works where hand-written notes from casual patrons supplanted the traditional tags bearing historical context.

If this setting overwhelms or irritates you; if you feel blind without the medium, date and artist; or if you roll your eyes at the simplicity of the exercise — well, your reaction is valid. But it’s also possible that you’ve merely lost your sense of fun. 

Next to each work is a magnetic dry-erase board, where guests post their version of the artwork’s story. These interpretations come in a few formats: six-word stories, collaborative stories by multiple authors, and emoji magnets. The stories might be droll, obnoxious or nonsensical. Some are evocative, desperate or political.

As I circled the space, I was unsurprised by the more negative responses on the walls, but curious why the museum had kept them up. Nothing highly offensive remained (as the docent assured me, citing increased vigilance after this show opened during election season last November). But subtle malcontentedness lingered. In Rana El Nemr’s photograph “Metro #10,” an Egyptian woman sits cross-legged on a subway; are comments about her weight necessary? For Richard Boseman’s “Digging Out,” an adult man is bent over with his shovel, digging his car out of the snow. This painting had the most comments, but why were so many about hating inclement weather? 

However, there were just as many, if not more, poignant and insightful stories. My personal favorite was a response to Sue Abramson’s photograph “Grant Street,” authored by 19-year-old Sophie in Fox Chapel: “They never stopped dreaming in color.” 

Eventually, the truth hit me: Sure, bored negativity is a mindset unlimited by age or experience, but it definitely betrays a lack of creativity. Stories does not discredit anyone’s perception of pain or discomfort. However, by inviting all viewpoints, and letting us compare them, it demonstrates that creativity is the key to transformation.


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