Renée May, Honored Museum Docent

“Life gives art meaning, just as art gives meaning to life.”

On September 11, 2001, Renée May, a docent at the Walters Art Museum, was killed performing her duties as a flight attendant on American Airlines flight #77, which, under the command of terrorist hijackers, crashed into the Pentagon.

A docent since 1997, Renée received extensive training on the collections of the Walters so that she could tour Walters’ visitors through the galleries. Renée was especially fond of touring children and looked forward to October 2001 when the Walters’ galleries would be officially re-opened.

Renée spent numerous occasions talking with Docent Manager John Shields about her life, her love of art, her ability to travel the world with the airlines, and how to bring the two aspects of her life together. She was considering the path of her life. After taking an art history course at Johns Hopkins University with Walters’ Director Gary Vikan as the instructor, she never hesitated to provide him with feedback on art or education issues within the museum. As a docent she volunteered her time and altered her flying schedule in order to be a part of the Walters. She wanted to make a difference.

In the autobiography that all docents write, Renée said:

Life gives art meaning just as art gives meaning to life. The path of my life has been deeply influenced and directed by art. It was at a very early age that I first became aware of my artistic soul – when I was collecting colorful Fall leaves for a school project and happened to notice that each leaf was different in color, texture and structure. I saw them not as leaves but as something created by nature’s life-giving forces that was an aesthetic wonder, and I was in awe. From this first encounter with nature’s art, I have been increasingly drawn to and cognizant of the many diverse forms and nuances of art.

I began my early formative years in rural upstate New York. There I spent, a great deal of time amongst nature’s beauty. Similar to what I learned from the Fall leaves I needed for a class project, I became fascinated with the ornamental variances found in rocks, and I began to collect them. Later, as a teenager growing up near the beaches of Southern California, my thirst for discover continued. I learned that art was present on sandy beaches and in the warm Pacific waters. Sandcastles were abundant, each one in their individual shapes, sizes and colors, and I began yet another hobby. The activities taking place along the boardwalks as well as on the beaches themselves also embodied all that is art. The human physique displayed so prominently in a variety of ways was further evidence that art existed in life, particularly when one noticed how the numerous surfers, through strength, natural agility, and symmetry experiences directed my need to learn more about the interconnection of life’s many art forms and how this influences all life on a daily basis. Indeed, how they are intertwined with one another and with life in general continues to stimulate me to this day.

As I developed, I also became aware of art in literature and became a voracious reader. I consume books with a passion that would rival the passion of Auguste Rodin conveyed through sculpting. Hence, I was lead to English literature as my undergraduate focus in college. Through literature, I discovered that the world was filled with many sensual and physical wonders, which I was compelled to experience firsthand. This overwhelming desire helped me choose my initial career path as a flight attendant.

I am now in my thirteenth year as a flight attendant, throughout which I have been on a great and wondrous adventure. My profession affords me an opportunity that many people only dream about. That is, the ability to visit and to also physically, emotionally, and intellectually explore a variety of cultures. One of the most exotic and stimulating experiences that I have had was when I lived for a summer in Seoul, Korea during the early 1990’s. Not only was I fascinated with the people, their culture, customs and everyday life, I was also affected by the importance that nature has in all aspects of historic and contemporary Asia. I have also spent lengthy periods of time in Europe, South America, Canada, and the Caribbean. From these and other cultural experiences, I have a more defined understanding and appreciation for how these cultures have been influenced.

All of this culminated in my great love of and respect for the many wonders found in the museums around the world, and my desire to share my knowledge and experiences with others. Becoming a docent seemed to be the perfect vehicle by which I could help others achieve a better understanding of how life is influenced by art and art is influenced by life. Art in life is never ending and it is not something that stays the same; it continues to live and grow, as does an individual.

Upon hearing of her death, the Walters Art Museum and its docents decided to establish an annual Renée May Lecture in her honor. Held yearly, the lecture features a prominent speaker who addresses docents and other participants on issues relating to art, education, learning, or child development. It is a fitting memorial to a woman who truly made art a part of her life. In her own words:

“Life gives art meaning, just as art gives meaning to life.”