Art and Soul: Small Gifts from the Universe and Edward Hopper

If I’m being honest, these past few weeks have, uh, not been a great time. I’ve been feeling pretty spacey and a little lonely as the pandemic drags on, despite the fact that I am very lucky to have many loving and supportive people in my life checking in on me. (Sometimes you just feel alone even when you really aren’t.) The inevitability of a long, gray winter is looming in the near future and the stress of midterms is putting a little extra strain on my capacity to be a human.

But one of the main reasons this rut feels different than others is that all the things that I fell in love with about Boston are just out of reach because it’s a lot more difficult to get off of campus safely right now. I have always found solace in the heart of the city, and getting on the T without a destination in mind is my favorite way to clear my head. Now, I look around and feel distanced from the neighborhood surrounding me even as I walk through it. That’s why this week, Edward Hopper’s work felt particularly relevant to my life.

Edward Hopper is best known for Nighthawks, a late-night diner scene that has become synonymous with the American Realism movement. What interests me about Hopper, though, is how his work earned its notoriety beyond the art world. It’s fairly recognizable and has been an influential piece of art in broader pop culture.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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What I’ve found is that people love Hopper because he depicted urban loneliness and isolation in a painfully honest way. 

City life is so often viewed through rose-colored glasses that somehow only make the dazzling lights seem brighter. I think it’s not uncommon for people moving to a city to expect that the energy, the steady hum of life and love and loss happening all around them, will make them feel less alone. I know I did. But what TV shows and movies don’t tell you is that if you’re not careful about how you build your life there, being surrounded by so many people can just make you feel all that much more alone.

So that is where I was at going into this past week. A little lost, a little tired, and a little bit wishing that I could drop all my responsibilities and disappear for a week or two. (Don’t worry, I didn’t.) The version of city life that Hopper depicted felt more real to me than it ever had before.

In Nighthawks, three patrons sit at a bar in an all-night diner on a street corner. The glass window wraps all around the diner’s exterior, but the entrance is out of frame, effectively trapping these city dwellers at this moment in time. They look lost in their own thoughts, even as two of them are sitting together, and the personal barriers between them feel as tangible as the glass barrier that separates our point of view from where they sit. 

There’s a timeless quality about this scene, one that makes it easy to find truth in even if it’s a rather distant experience from your own. I’ve never sat alone in a diner in the middle of the night, but I have cozied up in a crowded coffee shop or library or restaurant on my own and felt a bit of that same weight that Hopper captures so well.

But to lament the sneaking solitude of city life without also acknowledging the way my soul ignites when I feel truly connected to the community and life here would be doing Boston a great disservice.

aerial view of Boston high-rise buildings and Fenway Park todd kent/Unsplash

And that’s where I think Hopper comes up short. My criticism of his work is that it falls prey to having the same kind of selective memory that people who romanticize city life do. This makes sense, as one painting, or even an art collection, can only represent so many nuances of the human condition at once. However, life is not one thing, and neither is the specific lifestyle that Hopper centers his workaround.

After all, I am well acquainted with both the highs and the lows of living in such a populated area. For every pang in my chest that I felt over the past week or so (which to be fair, I think would be happening no matter where I chose to go to college), there was a moment that reminded me of exactly why I dreamed of living here for so long. 

These small little gifts from the universe remind me that my roots are growing in this city. I am finding a home for myself here, and I am comforted by every small reminder of that fact. 

In a ridiculously serendipitous series of events last week, for example, I had a midterm for a class that freed up my afternoon because we were given a window of time to take it in. Since I didn’t have to be in class at the regular time, I was overjoyed that I was able to go when my friend asked me to help him pick up some items for our student organization that the former president was still holding on to. 

On this particular day, I definitely was not in my moment, to quote this TikTok sound. I had been feeling really stuck, and this was the perfect excuse to get out of my apartment, even for a brief moment, and feel like a person again. 

We met downtown, I bought some cider donuts for later, and we grabbed everything we needed before heading back to BU. It was the simplest of errands, but the timing could not have been better for me. In my experience, loneliness comes with a feeling of distance — that afternoon was just the sliver of comfort I needed to bring me back down to Earth. 

What sealed the deal, however, was the donuts. No, not how delicious they were, although they were, but rather the act of kindness that came along with them. The people at the stand rang them up with a smile and a brief exchange of “How are you today?” pleasantries. I was well aware that I looked exhausted, and I’m pretty sure my, “Uhhh… fine?” answer was not encouraging either. 

I put the donuts in my tote bag and didn’t think about them until I got home and opened them to find at least 12 mini donuts, which was much more than the six that I had asked (and paid) for.

These little extra treats from two strangers at a donut stand warmed my heart and brought a smile to my face. While the disconnection of city life that Hopper paints is a very real thing, so is the kindness of people we don’t know. We all share a few square miles of space on the coast of Massachusetts, and that is enough to bring people together even in the smallest of ways. 

You feel it in the sports championship parades and the political protests, the hottest summer days and the depths of snowy winters that we all go through together. Even on the days when the Nighthawks-esque isolation manages to get me down, these small gifts of community and human connection always shine through.

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