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.
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
Guest blogger Zarah Ferrari ’18 is the first Brown Kennedy Museum Research Fellow in Art History. This fellowship, offered jointly by the Department of Art and the Smith College Museum of Art, provides a one-year fellowship to a Smith junior or senior art history major or minor. Fellows engage in sustained object-based research and contribute to public scholarship about objects in the SCMA collection. Zarah will deliver a gallery talk on her installation on Thursday, May 17 at 4pm on the lower level of the Museum.
At the beginning of my Brown-Kennedy Fellowship, I was hesitant about curating an exhibition for the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) as the culmination of my research project. Despite being an Art History major, this spring semester of my senior year was my first introduction into museum courses. At Mount Holyoke, I am taking a course called “Museumized: History, Ethics, and Work”, which addresses the complicated questions curators face when working and creating within the museum context. Throughout the semester the class worked together to create an exhibition, which we presented last week in the Carson Gallery at the Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art (MHCAM). This course was highly informative, but as I only worked in the education team for the class, I lacked the knowledge of how curators brainstormed ideas for exhibitions, worked through iterations, or settled on a final project.
[Final exhibition design]
I quickly realized that creating an exhibition within a museum is similar to an academic research project that entails asking a lot of questions that will likely not be answered. It is the pursuit of these curiosities that yields the greatest outcome, one that is likely dissimilar from the original hypothesis. I began with sketching as many potential exhibition ideas until it resulted in something that intrigued the imagination and conjured curiosities.
Initially, I wanted to create an exhibition with five or six of the pieces I had been researching throughout the semester. All of the works I had chosen were performance art or publicly engaged, so I fantasized about creating an installation that sparked viewer participation, such as installing interactive iPads or putting some works on the floor for people to lay down next to. My supervisor Aprile Gallant, the Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs and Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, welcomed my wild ideas, but assisted me in making them more realistic for the platform and time allotment given.
The ‘Talk Back’ wall in the lower level of the SCMA was ideal for the interactive focus of my exhibition, as it was the one gallery space visitors most engaged with within the museum. I pared down my elaborate ideas, coupling Dania González’s Retencion, a recent gift from New York-based artist Nina Yankowitz, with Ana Mendieta’s Imagen de Yagul, a work already in the SCMA collection. With just two works versus six, it gave the art space to ‘breathe’ and allowed for more direct comparison between the two images. The two pieces complemented each other in a beautiful way that suggested synchronistic time despite being created decades apart. González was inspired by the same “Land Art” movement Mendieta was a part of, and it caused me to wonder if Mendieta would relate to González’s work in the same way. When I asked González how she felt about the pairing, she felt overjoyed and privileged to be compared with such an artistic master like Mendieta, for whom she feels “great admiration.” (Spanish to English translation)
[My first time seeing the works together. We ended up swapping them so that Mendieta’s body leaned towards Gonzalez’s]
While I will save an in-depth analysis of the exhibition for a separate post, when I see González embracing the earth of her destroyed home in the work Retencion, I project my own feelings of home onto it. Her embrace is intimate, yet there is a tenseness visible in her body, in her brow, the quarter turn of her hips, or the way she digs her arms into the mound. To me this may communicate her knowing that this moment of deep intimacy is temporal, the last physical moment with her home before she is ripped away and left with only memories. In Ana Mendieta’s Imagen de Yagul, I also see her returning temporarily to an indigenous land she can never truly be a part of. Temporality may be glimpsed in these images through the torn flowers in Imagen de Yagul, the collapsing mound in Retencion, or even in the idea that each photograph captures a moment of a performance that is long past.
This lens of the pain and intimacies of returning home led me to the final question I wanted viewers to respond to on small slips of paper when viewing my exhibition: Where does your body feel at home? This particular question was chosen after consultation with Gina Hall, SCMA’s Associate Educator for School and Family Programs, Aprile, and many friends. It works because it is a question everyone wanted the answer to, from both themselves and others. I have always wanted my body to feel at home with itself, but it never quite has. Were there other people who felt the same way? If not, where was that place for them? The question is nostalgic, causing the viewer to simultaneously recall home and acknowledge that they are not there. I wanted people to feel at once present and displaced.
[An anonymous visitor one day after the opening of the exhibition]
To instigate further veiwer engagement, I knew I wanted to incorporate mirrors into the gallery space design. I wanted viewers to be self reflective and acknowledge their viewing as a part of the composition to the works themselves. All forms of engagement are welcome within the exhibit, and maybe some people will even take a selfie! (I know I did). It took about an hour to write the question in chalk, as being a lefty means a lot of smudges and mistakes. A few days later I mounted the mirrors, just four of the ten I had initially purchased due to the amount of responses that had accumulated throughout the week.
[SCMA preparators Nik Asikis and Anna Hamel installing the two works of art]
Writing the wall label was one of the more challenging aspects of this project. As an Art History major, I am used to writing that is exclusively seen by my professors, and am significantly less practiced in writing for a larger audience. Art historical writing is exceedingly formal and inaccessible, as was my first try at writing a label. Through the help of the SCMA staff, to whom I am immensely grateful, I was able to understand how to make my language more legible for audiences of all ages. In order to grow as a writer I have had to learn to let go, work with other opinions, and edit many drafts.
If I ever have the opportunity to embark on another project like this one in the future, the support I have received from the SCMA staff this year has made me confident that I now have the tools to do so.
[Mirror selfie among visitor responses to the exhibition]
Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Nicole Bearden is the Student Picks curator for the month of April. She is an Art History major and Ada Comstock Scholar. Her show considers post-apocalyptic landscapes and the ways they can model possibilities for transformed relationships between the earth and humankind. "Abstractions in No Man’s Land: A Future Without Us" will be on view in the Cunningham Center on Thursday, April 26th from 4:30pm-8pm alongside this semester's student grant program, Un/American: Open Mic Night at SCMA.
Benjamin Lord. American (1974 - ) CH2. Fig. 2. Antechamber with modern graffiti. The plaster false wall has been removed in sections, visible at left., VOL. II from Humaliwo Chambers, Norton Christmas Project 2010. Color photolithograph. Gift of Jessica Nicoll, class of 1983, through the generosity of Gwen and Peter Norton. SC 2010:70-3 (2).
What would a world without humans be?
The works included in this exhibition showcase a variety of possibilities. Some portray the prospect of our present as an archaeological foray. Others abstract ideas of nature, and subtract the human element altogether. Whether explicit or symbolic, these works provide the opportunity to consider a world without us, how some populations are already being erased by our ways of life, and our current relationships to the land.
Thursday, April 19, 2018
Alexandra Davis ‘18 (Environmental Science and Policy), Moira Anderson ‘19 (Chemistry), Rose Hatem ‘20 (Greek) participated in the J-Term class Collecting 101, which allowed students to directly participate in researching and purchasing a work on paper for the SCMA collection. Their group’s winning proposal resulted in the purchase of Emma Cartwright Bourne’s 1940 lithograph Head of a Man. In the following post Rose shares the proposal and reflects on her experience in the course.
Emma Cartwright Bourne. American (1906 - 1986). Head of a Man, ca. 1940. Lithograph printed in black on medium thick, slightly textured, cream-colored paper. Purchased through the efforts of students in the class "Collecting 101," January 2018. SC 2018:10-3.
I took this class because I had just joined the museums concentration, and I wanted to learn more about museum careers. Right now I am in the process of applying to summer internships at different museums, and having learned a little bit about how museums work and what different positions might entail has been super helpful for me. We had some assigned readings and short writing assignments about how collecting works, and specifically the Lang collection at the SCMA, which is a collection of prints by overlooked women printmakers. The class was a tiny overview of museums combined with a more in-depth look at the specific nature of print collecting. I really wanted my group to choose Head of a Man--I just loved the personality of the piece right away.
It is very difficult to find any biographical information about Emma Cartwright Bourne. We know that she was an African American artist, and we do know something about the context in which she worked. The 1930s and early 1940s were a bleak time for most Americans, but even more so for Black Americans. Yet, even at a time when employment was hard to come by and Black artists had little precedent, new opportunities came with Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired artists for the Federal Art Project, or FAP, as one branch of their efforts to combat unemployment.The group of artists who were part of the FAP worked on research, education, and production of art in many different media such as painting, sculpture, photography and the graphic arts. Through WPA funding, artists gained access to expensive materials, which made printmaking (generally an equipment-heavy and community-based medium) a possibility even for the underprivileged. The WPA also established community art centers, as well as a graphics workshop in Philadelphia. This meant that, while many African Americans were at a moment of deep cultural discouragement, they had access to artistic means of expression that they had not had in the past. Another Black artist and lithographer of the time, John Woodrow Wilson, said in a 1992 interview, “When I look back on it, I guess what I was trying to do was make the invisible man visible, to build into these images such power and impact that you couldn't ignore them.” Head of a Man does exactly this, rendering an anonymous African American with captivating sympathy and dignity.
The Art Students League
Although we do not know a lot about Bourne’s background, Susan Teller tells us that she is fairly certain that this piece was produced at The Arts Students League. The Arts Students League of New York was founded in 1870 by a group of students training to be artists at the National Academy of Design in New York. These students, many of whom were women, wanted to break free from the conservative ideals of the Academy, which they saw as unsympathetic to the new ideas and techniques of art. Once established, the League drew more and more female artists and students, many of whom took over leading roles in the administration of the League, maintaining the program and its curriculum. Over the years, the League has remained focused on the founding principles of the first class: emphasizing the importance of artistic creativity, maintaining the greatest respect for artists who devote their lives to art, and educating students in the process of making art in an environment in which anyone who wishes to pursue an art education can realize his or her full potential. Even to this day, the League still has no set curriculum, degree, or diplomas; instead it has created a community where artists can gain hands-on experience in the studio and explore their identities as artists.
The WPA and its Prints
The Works Project Administration was created as part of the New Deal after the Great Depression in order to create jobs for the millions of unemployed Americans struggling to provide for their families. One branch of the WPA created a group for arts-related projects called the Federal Art Project (FAP), creating funds for artists, musicians, writers and actors in various art projects across the country. This project was a part of the New Deal because much of the administration responsible for its creation believed that art should be a part of everyone’s life, not just for the elite class in order to enrich and embolden people. While the main objective was to combat unemployment, the group of artists who were part of the FAP did research and educated school children as well as produced art in many different media such as painting, sculpture, photography and the graphic arts. There were several popular graphic arts workshops in large cities such as Philadelphia and New York, where Black families would send their children to receive art instruction.
Context in the Collection and Course Offerings
The collection currently includes no works by Bourne. Head of a Man would complement the existing collection as it falls at the tail end of the time period covered in the Lang collection and showcases a thus far unrepresented artist. The Prints section of the Collecting Plan (2011-2016) recommends that the museum “seek works that explore encounters and intersections between cultures, as well as those that document...socio-political causes, socio-economic issues or those that concern institutional critique.”Head of a Man uses an individual portrait to exemplify a moment of great socio-political and socio-economic trouble, for Americans at large and more particularly for the African-American community. As well as its subject, the story behind the work’s creation also represents a particular time, place and social narrative: the Great Depression was a short period in history in which African American women had a window of opportunity in which to produce art.
Furthermore, it would be valuable to compare the techniques and subject matter of Bourne’s work with that of the handful of 20th century African American female printmakers whose work still exists today. As Smith College Professor of Africana Studies Kevin Quashie notes, “I didn't know Emma Cartwright Bourne's work before [our correspondence], though I am glad to take in this striking piece. It actually reminds me of Elizabeth Catlett's The Negro Woman series (linoleum cuts), in a way, in the starkness of the graphic lines/style...which is from that era.” The collection has one print by Elizabeth Catlett already, and there are two more within the Five Colleges’ collections.Head of a Man is a piece that highlights the meticulous and affectionate work of a forgotten African American woman who was shattering the racial and gender barriers of the historically white and, despite its progressiveness, still male-dominated Art Students League.
There are also connections to be drawn between Head of a Man and other, more contemporary works in the collection as a whole. One artist who explores similar themes is Whitfield Lovell, a living artist known for his portraits of African Americans from between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights era. SCMA has three of Lovell’s pieces: a sculpture, a lithograph, and a drawing. The drawing,Kin XXXII (Run Like the Wind), made in 2008,is particularly similar to Head of a Man. It depicts an unknown African American woman, with a somber, teary-eyed expression, juxtaposed with a crown of barbed wire. While her face is drawn in warm detail, the collar of her shirt is just faintly sketched out. Professor Kevin Quashie writes that the anonymous subjects of Lovell’s Kin series are “people who look like people...They look familiar to us even if it is rare to see black faces represented in such a studied, elegant way.”
From a teaching perspective this piece could be utilized across departments, including History, Africana Studies, and Art History, in courses which center the lived experiences of both enslaved and free African Americans and especially African American women. Relevant courses from upcoming and past semesters include Race, Feminism and Resistance Movements for Social Change which “explores the historical and theoretical perspectives of African American women from the time of slavery to the post-civil rights era… and examines how black women shaped and were shaped by the intersectionality of race, gender and sexuality in American culture;”History of Afro-American People to 1960which examines the “history of the Afro-American people in the United States... and how Africans influenced virtually every aspect of U.S. society;” and Race, Gender and United States Citizenship, 1776–1861, which analyzes “the historical realities, social movements, cultural expression and political debates that shaped U.S. citizenship, from the hope of liberty and equality to the exclusion of marginalized groups that made whiteness, maleness and native birth synonymous with Americanness.” Furthermore, the history department offers a seminar course on Problems in 19th Century United States History: A Gendered Reading of the WPA Slave Interviews,in which students write a research paper using the interviews commissioned by the WPA as a central source. We suggest that in addition to written work, the art pieces of WPA artists like Bourne could enrich this course.
Collections Database, museums.fivecolleges.edu/info.php?s=whitfield.
“Course Search.” Smith College, www.smith.edu/academics/academic-program/curriculum/course-search?term=Fall%2B2017.
Ehrmann, Thierry. “Auction Results for Emma Cartwright BOURNE in Print-Multiple.”Auctionsfor Print-Multiple by Emma Cartwright BOURNE: Sold Lots by Emma Cartwright BOURNEArtprice.com,www.artprice.com/artist/204478/emma-cartwright-bourne/lots/pasts/2/print-multiple.
Grimes, William. “The Art of Black Printmakers: Making Life Real.”The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Dec. 1992, www.nytimes.com/1992/12/21/news/the-art-of-black-printmakers-making-life-real.html.
“The History of the Art Students League of New York – The Art Students League.” The Art Students League, www.theartstudentsleague.org/history-art-students-league-new-york/.
Lovell, Whitfield, et al.Whitfield Lovell - Kin. Skira Rizzoli, 2016.
Library of Congress Database: WPA: Posters http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/wpapos/background.html