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Paper + People is a blog about the Smith College Museum of Art’s collection of over 18,000 prints, drawings, and photographs. Here you will find a diverse array of posts written by museum staff, students, scholars, and other paper enthusiasts about anything pertaining to the collection.

Any works you see featured here are available to view by appointment.

  • Thursday, March 13, 2014

    CHM 100 Visits the Cunningham Center

    Guest blogger David Dempsey is the Associate Director of Museum Services at the Smith College Museum of Art

    I have had the pleasure of co-teaching Chemistry 100 “The Chemistry of Art Objects” for the last ten years first with Lale Burk and now with Betsy Jamieson. CHM 100 is the chemistry for non-science majors offering from the chemistry department. It covers all the important introductory chemistry subject matter using art objects from the museum as illustrations for chemical principals.


    Photography by Maggie Kurkoski

    One of my favorite topics is photography. We go through the chemistry involved in basic black and white photography and tie it into solutions and their relative solubilities, precipitation reactions that deposit silver halide salts on paper or film for photography and how chemical developers convert latent images into the finished product.  Having the photography collection housed in the Cunningham Center is a great benefit to the class.


    Visit the Cunningham Center to see this daguerreotype in person!

    Attributed to Benjamin D. Maxham, American (active 1848 - 1858). Helen Thoreau , 1849. Daguerreotype. Gift of Dr. James L. Huntington . Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1950:75-2.

    Each year we visit the center and examine about twenty photographs. They vary from daguerreotypes, which really can’t be understood without actually seeing them in the flesh, to large –scale Polaroids at the other extreme of chemical complexity. The depth of the collection allows us to compare works in perfect condition and those that have suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” over the course of their histories. These are great teaching opportunities about the care in the processing of photographs and in their long-term storage and display.


    Thomas Annan, British (1829 - 1887). Close, No. 148 High Street, ca. 1872. Carbon print on paper. Purchased with the Eva W. Nair, class of 1928, Fund. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1991:9

    It is also wonderful to have beautiful examples of rather exotic photographic species such as a gorgeous Thomas Annan carbon print Close, No. 148 High Street. The carbon print, which uses carbon in photo-activated gelatin as its pigment, not silver salts, has an amazing depth and vividness. And it isn’t every chemistry student who gets to learn about Fox Talbot’s invention of the salted paper print and then gets to stand eyeball to eyeball with one of the earliest photographs in existence.


    William Henry Fox Talbot, British (1800 - 1877). The Open Door, Plate VI from The Pencil of Nature, 1843. Salt print from a calotype negative on paper. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Perry W. Nadig in honor of their daughter, Claudia Nadig, class of 1985. SC 1985:14-1

    The early pioneers in photography were almost all also experimental chemists working through trial and error to understand the nature of chemical elements in the decades before the discovery of many basic chemical components such as electrons, protons and neutrons. It seems particularly fitting that we use their artwork to explain chemical reactions to a new generation of up and coming chemists.

    David Dempsey teaching CHM 100. Photography by Maggie Kurkoski


  • Tuesday, March 4, 2014

    Student Picks: Lo! Medieval Muslim & Christian Art

    Student Picks is a SCMA program in which Smith students organize their own one-day art show using our collection of works on paper. This month’s student curator and guest blogger Khadejeh Al-Rijleh '16 discusses her show “Lo! Medieval Muslim and Christian Art” which will be on view THIS FRIDAY, March 7 from 12-4 PM in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. We hope to see you here!

    Unknown. Missal Page, ca. 1285. Simple leaf on vellum. Purchased. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1951:295

    Choosing the theme for my Students Picks show was not difficult.  I knew that I wanted my show to have the coolest objects in the collection.  The coolest objects are the oldest ones.  And many of the oldest works on paper in the Cunningham Center are, unsurprisingly, religious manuscripts.

    Iranian (Persian). Joseph Bathing in the Nile, late 16th-early 17th century. Opaque water base colors and gold on paper with gold border. Gift of Mrs. Evan M. Wilson (Leila Fosburgh, class of 1934). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1990:2-26

    My favorite thing about religious art is that it is not art for art’s sake. I decided to feature religious texts and photographs of buildings because unlike other artistic mediums such as drawings or paintings, their primary function is something other than being awe-inspiring and compelling to look at. Rather, their purpose is practical – in this case the manuscripts are sources of knowledge and the mosques and churches in the photographs are sites for religious affairs.

    Detail of Joseph Bathing in the Nile

    Thanks to Maggie and the Cunningham Center for making this show possible.  Thank you also to the unnamed artists, artisans, scribes, workers, and all who made the beautiful manuscripts and buildings in the photographs.

    Underwood & Underwood. The prayer-niche (S.E. toward Mecca), tomb-mosque of Kait Bey, Cairo, Egypt, no date. Stereograph. Bequest of Henry Latimer Seaver. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2011:26-151


  • Wednesday, February 26, 2014

    Agnes Martin: On a Clear Day

    Agnes Martin. American, born Canada, 1912-2004. Untitled from the On a Clear Day portfolio, 1973. Screenprint in gray on cream-colored Japanese rag paper. Purchased with the Josephine A. Stein, class of 1927, Fund in honor of the class of 1927. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2013:16

    “My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent, and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in art work which is also wordless and silent.”

                                                                              – Agnes Martin, The Still and Silent in Art

    The enigmatic Canadian-born American artist Agnes Martin spent her long life and career purging her mind and art of all conceptual thoughts, living and working by inspiration alone in the pursuit of beauty and purity. Her paintings, drawings, and prints are most often square-shaped with subtle stripes of white, gray, cream, or light colors arranged horizontally, vertically, or in a grid formation. Martin was part of the Abstract Expressionist generation, yet her work was adopted by the young Minimalists of the 1960s who admired her seemingly objective approach to art-making. While she exhibited alongside the likes of such artists as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt, she fundamentally disagreed with the Minimalists’ impersonal attitude toward their work. Contrary to their rigorously objective and unfeeling approach, Martin recognized that while nothing in nature (artwork included) could be perfect, her work could evoke the feeling of “transcendental perfection” and exaltation.

    In 1967, amidst a wave of recent critical and commercial success, Agnes Martin suddenly left New York City, where she had been living for ten years. She traveled throughout Canada and western America for about a year and a half before putting down her roots in New Mexico, where she built a house by hand and lived in almost complete isolation for the next six years, in which time she made no art whatsoever. At the end of this artistic hiatus in 1973, Martin produced On a Clear Day, an epic series of thirty 12” x 12” screenprints which explore different grid configurations, a common motif in her work. The following year, Martin built a studio and returned to painting.

    The SCMA recently acquired one of these remarkable prints, which are often considered to be Martin’s most successful attempt at eliminating all presence of the ego from her art. Martin’s relationship to spirituality and religion was rather complicated. In her writings on art and life, it is clear that she drew inspiration from Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity, yet she never adhered to any particular belief system exclusively. In the tradition of Zen Buddhist practices, Martin strove for a non-egoic existence and artistic practice in which she emptied her mind to reveal deep-seated inspiration: “You have to wait if you’re going to be inspired. You have to clear out your mind, to have a quiet and empty mind.”

    Martin’s artistic practice was contemplative and solitary, which is reflected beautifully in On a Clear Day. The clarity mentioned in the title can easily be interpreted as clarity in the natural world as well as in the mind of the artist. The understated neutral palette and near-perfect lines evoke the sensation of boundless space. “My [artworks] have neither object nor space nor line nor anything – no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form. You wouldn’t think of form by the ocean. You can go in if you don’t encounter anything. A world without objects, without interruption, making a work without interruption or obstacle. It is to accept the necessity of this simple, direct going into a field of vision as you could cross and empty beach to look at the ocean.”


    Taiga Ermansons - 31/03/2014

    Agnes Martin

    To Julie Warchol and Agnes Martin - beautifully stated - thank you.

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