When beauty is being the beholder

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Art can touch our emotions in a lot of different ways.

It can make us laugh, feel sad, excited, give us a sense of awe and more. The Figge is one of the greatest assets in the Quad Cities for this. It’s constantly trying to expose people to the arts through its outreach programs.

The museum now offers one managers say stands alone in the world.

“We’re in a very special exhibition at the Figge today called Animals in the Museum,” says Figge Art Museum Docent Mary Lou Kotecki.

“Very nice,” says museum patron Douglas Kalagian.

Douglas Kalagian is spending a day at the museum.

“This is called ‘The Tentacle,'” Kotecki explains as she points to a sculpture. “This is Isabel Bloom.”

“I wouldn’t have associated her with that,” said Kalagian.   

Mary Lou Kotecki is his tour guide, or docent.

“He is self-taught. Never had an art lesson so he’s what we call a self-taught genius,” Kotecki describes the artist responsible for a painting.

“So he was like 92 when he painted this?” asked Kalagian.

“Yeah he would have been older,” Kotecki answered. “Right before the end of his life.”

On the surface this looks like any other guided tour you can get at the Figge.

“I’ve always been an admirer of art,” Kalagian said.

Scratch beneath the surface and you see something else.

“I have colon cancer,” Kalagian said.

Douglas remembers that trip to the emergency room four months ago when he had some abdominal pain and the doctor did some tests.

“He comes back and goes, ‘Dude, you got cancer man,'” Kalagian said. “‘You probably had it for a while.’ When he said that then the reality set in.”

That initial reality was surgery. Now, it’s six hours of chemotherapy in the hospital followed by another 30 hours of it at home.

“I got dealt this hand,” Kalagian said. “I’m playing it now.”

One way he’s playing it is by seeing the works at the Figge. A museum he’s never stepped foot into after living in Davenport for more than a decade.

Now possible as if someone rubbed a magic lamp.

“We call her Genie,” said Pamela Crouch, executive director of Living Proof Exhibit.

Genie is a robot. 

Pamela Crouch is one of the brains behind the robot docent project. Her organization Living Proof Exhibit teamed up with the Figge and Genesis Health System to make it happen.

“When someone is tethered to an IV, they can virtually escape to the Figge Art Museum,” Crouch said. “Technology has changed the way that we can treat things and the way that we can reach people. It’s, sometimes you have to pinch yourself because it’s pretty amazing.”

“We believe this is the only one of its kind,” said Figge Art Museum Education Director Melissa Mohr.

“Let’s head this way,” Kotecki said as she continues the tour.

Genie makes the rounds with a museum employee at the controls from a computer in Douglas’ hospital room a few miles away. It’s smooth sailing, but there are technical limitations to consider when protecting the collection.

“The robot has the capability of moving backwards and there’s no backup cam on it,” Mohr said. “And, that’s something that we — our docents — are heavily trained in the arts, but also in robot interference.”

No accidents for genie so far. It’s also no accident that this is important to Pamela Crouch.

“I was one of those people who was tethered to a chair,” Crouch said.    

Pamela is a breast cancer survivor treated a decade ago. She finds herself a patient again now after a different form of the disease appeared last year.

“That’s why we push, Crouch said. “That’s why we look for new creative ways to help people.”

People like Douglas Kalagian who have good days and bad days.

“I felt really good today,” Kalagian said.

“I could see in his face that he was becoming engaged in the art and it was taking him places where he probably hadn’t thought he would go today,” Kotecki said.

“It was wonderful. Enlightening and entertaining and educational,” Kalagian said.

Art in its many forms is something to behold.

Douglas Kalagian laughs at one of the more animated paintings in the exhibit.

Perhaps in this case, with the help of a Genie, the beauty is simply being the beholder.

The virtual Figge tour is a one-year pilot project that expires in June. A roughly $7,900 grant from the Iowa Arts Council paid for that, but the service will not end. There are other financing opportunities to maintain it.    

Genesis pays for the $5,000 annual lease on the robot. The virtual tour will soon be expanded to Unity Point. And, premiere cancer care centers like Sloan Kettering also expressed interest in being part of it.

Click here to see the services provided by Living Proof Exhibit.

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