Research, Undergraduate Student

Hanover, MA: A Little Portion of Saint Francis

Solena Cavalli-Singer is an undergraduate Art History major and recently presented her senior paper,  ‘Intent vs. Function: Portiuncula Replications and their Departure from Assisi.’  She was awarded the Art History Department Undergraduate Research Grant to help make this project possible.

I had no idea what to expect as I headed to Hanover, Massachusetts. All I knew was that I was there to see a chapel, one that had been carefully constructed to match its original counterpart in Assisi, Italy. The chapel, called the Portiuncula (Latin for “portion of land,”) was inspired by the Portiuncula restored by Saint Francis in 1209, which currently resides inside the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Saint Francis’ chapel has also become the inspiration for several other replications throughout the United States. I was fortunate enough to receive a grant so that I would be able to visit the replica in Hanover and use my research to aid in my Senior Paper.

The Portiuncula in Hanover resides on the Cardinal Cushing Centers campus, a school for individuals with intellectual disabilities. It is a prominent fixture on the campus, and in the town, because it is also the site of Cardinal Cushing’s resting place. The building is small, yet impressive, and one cannot help but be in awe when looking at it. In fact, the day I visited the sun was shining so brilliantly, illuminating the fresco above the entrance, that it was as if Saint Francis himself was overjoyed that I had come to see this piece of him.

After viewing the chapel, I was given free rein of the archives, located in an ­old dorm room that was in desperate need of organization. Newspaper clippings, photo albums, and old brochures filled up more than half of the room, but there was no true order to anything. Of several things I was sure: first, although I have never been in an archive before, I was certain that most people are not able to mill about and view what they please as I was able to do. Second, given the disorder of the room, I had no clue where to begin, and third, the most important thing was that I needed to leave with a floor plan of the Portiuncula. I spent well over an hour digging through various filing cabinets. The things I came across! Financial plans, newspapers detailing crimes associated with the Center, even a drawer full of relics with their original certificates – I felt as if I were reading someone’s diary, digging into their dark and complicated past.

Letter from architect, Frank Tarzia, during construction

Letter from architect, Frank Tarzia, during construction

I gathered all the information I could, but still had no luck with the floor plan. This was particularly concerning because I did not know how else I would obtain the dimensions of the chapel. After giving up and deciding that I would have to just contact various sources associated with the building to get the measurements, I began to pack up and head out. Then something happened that could only be considered a miracle. Three steps from the exit, I felt the urge to turn around. As I turned, I noticed a paper bag full of rolled up pieces of paper in the back corner of the room. I don’t know if it was pure coincidence, or perhaps Cardinal Cushing and Saint Francis really want me to write this paper, because those rolls of paper ended up being the original blue prints of the chapel – a gold mine! I almost cried tears of joy. Thirty minutes later, with all of the necessary information in my possession, I left Hanover with a smile on my face and excitement to piece together all of my research.

Original blueprint of the Portiuncula

Original blueprint of the Portiuncula

 

Archive, Graduate Student

Establishing the Voorsanger Architects Digital Archive

The preservation of artistic and architectural legacies through the creation of physical and digital archives is of great significance to the future of art history. The Department of Art History is pleased to have reached an agreement to sustain the field of architectural history with the creation of an archive of the work of Voorsanger Architects PC of New York City. (www.voorsangerarchitects.com). Under the leadership of visual resources curator Christine Dent and faculty member and architectural historian Dr. Victoria Young, graduate students will be involved in the creation process of the archive from the ground up. Our first graduate student assistant for the project, Hanna August-Stoehr, documents her role in the earliest phases of the Voorsanger Architects Digital Archive.

VADA CDM banner laye#46B311

I began my work on the Voorsanger Architects Digital Archive as a newly minted graduate student in the University of St. Thomas Art History program. During my interview with Christine Dent, Visual Resources Curator, I received an introduction to the project and my duties. I would organize and digitize the collection, finally entering the materials into the Art History database, Qi, and ContentDM. The ultimate goal was to allow interested art and architectural historians easy access to architectural planning materials, diagrams, drawings, and renderings. As I looked through books, familiarized myself with projects, and took about a whole notebook’s worth of notes on my first day on the job, I learned that Bartholomew Voorsanger’s architectural designs capitalized not just on the client’s design requirements, but on their close connection to natural materials and forms. The more I learned, the more enthusiastic I became about the part I was going to play in these preservation efforts.

Contrary to my initial impressions, I would not immediately become a slave to the scanner. Before any digitization of the massive collection could happen, an accurate inventory of the archival materials was required. Architectural Historian, Dr. Victoria Young, had received an alarming number of boxes from Voorsanger’s New York office. I began my work by organizing the materials from an ongoing Voorsanger Architects project, the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. As my parents had just returned from a trip to New Orleans that had included a visit to that same museum (they thought it fantastic), I was very interested in learning about the background of the architectural design choices.

National World War II Museum, New Orleans, LA (2010)

National World War II Museum, New Orleans, LA (2010)

 

I began by organizing everything by date, assessing the contents of each three-ring binder and folder, and then I described it all in a very detailed notebook, which I would later spend a good several hours transferring to Microsoft Word. My dedication to the project became fully certified after I spent an afternoon reading a full report on the varying qualities of a specific type of cement chosen for the foundation of the National WWII Museum. After weeks of organizing collections, I finally started digitizing.

Asia Society and Museum, New York

Asia Society and Museum, New York

 

It started with some really dirty slides of the Asia Society, located in New York City. I cleaned the slides up, popped them into the scanner, and dug back into my memory to remember how to scan! After this long process, Christy (who is very patient!) talked me through the delicate process of entering these scans into the digital archive. I learned Library of Congress name and title headings, what tags to capitalize, what to leave in lowercase, and which lists needed to be separated by semi-colons, and which by commas.

 

Finally, after learning all this, I was asked to assist in a graduate student digital archiving workshop. Fortunately, I was in charge of teaching students how to scan and do minor image touch-ups, and not showing them how to enter data into the archive. I had a great time meeting my St. Thomas colleagues and showing them a few Photoshop tricks.

Several weeks later, Bartholomew Voorsanger came to visit. In one exhaustive afternoon, we walked him through our databases, showed him our sorting systems, and prioritized which projects would be uploaded in the next few weeks. After a long conference call with his New York office, we went out to lunch. Though only a few steps in the long process of archival digitization had been completed, each played a vital role in the development of the next. As I look back on my small part, I am grateful for the opportunities that working on the Voorsanger Architects Digital Archive provided me. This April I am headed to New York City…and my itinerary is already full of visits to Voorsanger Architects designed buildings.

 

Faculty

From Bali to Budapest: Travel and Lecture as International Study Leader

Barbara Horlbeck is an Adjunct Instructor for the Department of Art History. She is an arts and culture professional and, in her work as Study Leader for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Smithsonian, she travels internationally and provides a wide range of lecture programs on the arts. She obtained her masters degree in art history from the University of St. Thomas in 2003.

Several years after I obtained my masters degree in art history, I was given an opportunity to teach an Asian art history course as adjunct at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University. The experience opened the door to a decade of teaching a wide selection of courses, both face-to-face and online, at a number of Minnesota colleges and universities. But little did I know that the time I spent researching topics and developing courses would be the foundation for a passionate and varied career as an arts and culture professional! Today, my work includes not only teaching but also developing and giving Seminars and lectures on the arts, providing tours at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, helping business executives understand the cultural legacy in the regions where they seek relationships, and, in an unexpected but deeply satisfying turn, working as International Study Leader for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Smithsonian.

Barbara Horlbeck was Study Leader on an educational travel program on the Mediterranean coast of Spain this past year with a group from the National Trust, Archeological Association of American (AIA), and Harvard University. The program included time at the Alhambra, the location of research on the calligraphic inscriptions that were a part of Barb’s masters’ qualifying paper at UST.

Barbara Horlbeck was Study Leader on an educational travel program on the Mediterranean coast of Spain this past year with a group from the National Trust, Archeological Association of American (AIA), and Harvard University. The program included time at the Alhambra, the location of research on the calligraphic inscriptions that were a part of Barb’s masters’ qualifying paper at UST.

This opportunity arose in an interesting way. Several years ago, at the Charleston Library Society in historic Charleston, South Carolina, I gave a two-day Arts and Influences Seminar, “Arts of China.” One attendee was from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. During a break, he approached me and said, “We have a tour going to China next year with guest lecturer Julie Nixon Eisenhower. She will speak on the role her father played as president in the opening up of China. We would love to have you speak on the region’s legacy in the arts. Might you be interested?” Well, everyone knows the definition of a second and my response was short of that – immediate and affirmative! So, the following year, I traveled with Julie and David Eisenhower (and many other equally fascinating people) through Beijing and Xi’an to tour their historic wonders, to Wuhan’s Mao Zedong’s Villa and the Hebei Provincial Museum with its world-famous collection of antiquities, to the top of breathtaking Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), a World Heritage site and source of 1,300 years of inspiration to poets and painters, and, of course, to Shanghai, home of one of my favorites spots, the Shanghai Art Museum, and the city’s innovative architecture and neck-bending skyscrapers. And during our travels, I gave lectures on China’s prolific art and architectural masterpieces.

Barb with David Eisenhower and Julie Nixon Eisenhower in China in 2013 during the National Trust’s program “Ancient Kingdoms of China.”

Barb with David Eisenhower and Julie Nixon Eisenhower in China in 2013 during the National Trust’s program “Ancient Kingdoms of China.”

 

The UNESCO site Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) is filled with pine, bamboo and rock, all three the source of more than a thousand years of painting. The sweeping bamboo forest in the lower portion of the mountains, was the location the magical martial arts scenes from the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

The UNESCO site Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) is filled with pine, bamboo and rock, all three the source of more than a thousand years of painting. The sweeping bamboo forest in the lower portion of the mountains, was the location the magical martial arts scenes from the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

 

Chinese couples all over the world choose auspicious sites for their important wedding photographs. Here a couple, with the bride wearing the traditional, distinctive red dress, pose in front of Beijing’s historic Temple of Heaven.

Chinese couples all over the world choose auspicious sites for their important wedding photographs. Here a couple, with the bride wearing the traditional, distinctive red dress, pose in front of Beijing’s historic Temple of Heaven.

That first experience in China began an opportunity to travel several times a year to many points around the world as Study Leader with the National Trust and Smithsonian Journeys. These educational travel programs include numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites, tours though ancient ruins and contemporary markets, and explorations in a wide variety of museums, large and small. The nature of the travel itself has been equally varied. Our mode of transportation has included river cruise ship (six days on China’s Yangtze River), luxury train (the Eastern Oriental Express from Bangkok through Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore), a small ocean-going ship (from Normandy to the Isle of Iona in the Hebrides via Dublin and Wales) and, more recently, on the historic four-masted barque, Sea Cloud, along Spain’s Mediterranean coast (from Barcelona and Tarragona to Valencia and Granada).

Preparing for these programs is a huge amount of work but it is a process I adore. It may be hard to believe but, when it happened, I hated to see my graduate courses draw to a close! I adore digging and researching and discussing. I did then and I do now. So, the programs on which I lecture afford me the opportunity to research and dig deeply. The result is a wide range of lectures that are reflective of my travels: “Robert Adam: Scotland’s Master Architect and Designer,” “Masterpieces of Chinese Art: A Closer Look,” “Nature and Geometry: Architect Antoni Gaudi’s Eccentric Brilliance,” “Art and Light: Recording Battle and Beauty from Hastings to Trouville,” The Alhambra: Poetry from the Walls,” “The Malay Peninsula to Balinese Design: Arts and Influences,” “Masterpieces of Andalusia,” and “From Ayr to Iona: Faith, Stone and Design.” Future programs include travel by ship from Barcelona to Lisbon and to the North Sea with stops at Neolithic sites in the Orkney Islands and early Norse settlements in the Shetlands as well as by land in Eastern Europe to explore the rich architectural history of Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest. So my research continues!

The Alhambra’s Mirador, or viewing tower, was originally built with a majestic view of the landscape. A wall built by Charles V currently blocks that view but the detailed calligraphy, muqarnas, and arabesque created in stucco help make this site one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in the world.

The Alhambra’s Mirador, or viewing tower, was originally built with a majestic view of the landscape. A wall built by Charles V currently blocks that view but the detailed calligraphy, muqarnas, and arabesque created in stucco help make this site one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in the world.

 

Tirta Empul Temple, in the hills of Bali, was founded in the 10th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. This sacred site with its cool, clear, spring-fed waters provides an important location in ritual and prayer for Hindus even today.

Tirta Empul Temple, in the hills of Bali, was founded in the 10th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. This sacred site with its cool, clear, spring-fed waters provides an important location in ritual and prayer for Hindus even today.

 

The island of Iona, in Scotland’s northern Inner Hebrides, is the location where the monk Columba established a monastery in the year 563. This monastic center evolved to become an important site in Celtic Christianity. Its scriptorium produced many important documents, including the famous Book of Kells. Several Irish crosses, including St. Martin’s Cross seen here, were added to the site in the 9th century.

The island of Iona, in Scotland’s northern Inner Hebrides, is the location where the monk Columba established a monastery in the year 563. This monastic center evolved to become an important site in Celtic Christianity. Its scriptorium produced many important documents, including the famous Book of Kells. Several Irish crosses, including St. Martin’s Cross seen here, were added to the site in the 9th century.

The nature of my work as Study Leader includes what I consider to be an added bonus. The people themselves who travel with these programs are ones who are fascinating and who view life with a deep curiosity and a passion for learning. They are curious about the world, they seek to educate themselves, and, importantly, they want to understand more deeply the connections between what they are experiencing and their lives at home. I love getting to know these travelers whether visiting over dinner, riding in a zodiac, walking through the Gothic Quarter of cities, or keeping our footing during challenging ocean seas. I try to guide them in developing their understanding of the rich artistic legacy of our world while, at the same time, I work to put the arts and architecture we are seeing in their context.

At the end of the day, I realize that whether I teach an undergraduate who is exposed to the wonders of art history for the first time, give a tour at the art museum to a child or a specialist, develop a Seminar or lecture for adults on topics from Rembrandt to the Alhambra, help an executive in deepening cultural knowledge, or guide a traveler in his or her journey to understand our artistic and cultural legacy, at the center is a passion for placing the arts in their fascinating historical context. It is a very satisfying career.

 

Graduate Student, Presentations, Research, Students

Art and Contemplation Graduate Student Research Symposium

By Sam Wisneski, graduate student

After months of planning and preparation, the sixth annual University of St. Thomas graduate student research symposium went off without a hitch. Wearing the hat of both presenter and symposium co-chair, I had some jitters and excitement about both my paper and the symposium overall, and how it would reflect on the Department of Art History. I’ve always been impressed with the collegiality and the warm, welcoming atmosphere of our department, and I truly think we showcase those qualities best in settings like the annual symposium – and this year was no different.

The symposium kicked off with a keynote lecture about Pieter Bruegel’s Resurrection from Dr. Walter Melion of the Emory University Department of Art History. In the words of Dr. Craig Eliason, the lecture was a “thrill ride.” Who said art history can’t be an adrenaline rush? If you missed the keynote or you enjoyed it as much as Craig, you can (re-)watch it here.

The evening continued with a reception where graduate student presenters, professors and UST graduate students got a chance to mingle and enjoy a spread of some of the very best offerings – I quite enjoy those little caprese kabobs, though they are a little awkward to eat and the dessert bars, oh my!

Saturday started bright and early, with the presenters arriving at 7:45 a.m. and the first paper presented at 8:30 a.m. to a full house. The rest of the day went very smoothly. From the morning sessions, to the gallery talk in the American Museum of Asmat Art gallery, to the afternoon sessions, I think we showed off the very best of the Department of Art History at St. Thomas. The student presenters were incredibly professional and gave some wonderful presentations. As symposium co-chair, this wasn’t all that surprising based on the many excellent abstracts we received following the Call for Papers – but a strong abstract doesn’t guarantee a great presentation. This time around, it was the case that both the abstracts and the presentations were quite strong. Not only that, the range and breadth of topics was impressive too. This year’s paper titles can be found here.

2015 Symposium Presenters with Dr. Walter Melion

2015 Symposium Presenters with Dr. Walter Melion

Following each presentation, our audience, packed into Room 341, offered some insightful questions to our presenters. As usual, it was a warm atmosphere for collegial banter – both literally and figuratively; the room was smaller than past symposium locations so it was a little toasty at times. My fellow graduate student presenters handled their questions graciously and with enthusiasm.

The absolute highlight and nightmare scenario for me though, was the feedback offered by our keynote lecturer. Dr. Melion carefully read the presenters’ papers and crafted several incisive questions for each of us – some even down to the granular level of semantics. He then called upon us to respond to each question. Easier said than done. We all furiously scribbled and captured mere portions of each of his questions.

Sam presenting her paper

Sam presenting her paper, ‘Soul Food as Sacrament: Social Practice Artist Meditations on Nourishment’

I felt a bit like I was on an episode of the Food Network series Chopped. I had served up my paper to the judges, and now I was ready to be grilled. Publicly defending your work is a delicate task – especially when scholarship can be so personal. You’ve spent lots of time with your topic, and even the slightest criticism can sting. You have to achieve a balance somewhere between defensiveness and concession – standing up for your paper but acknowledging that your scholarship is never really done.

Though difficult, opportunities to present and defend your work are formative. As scholars, we aren’t producing work in a vacuum, so outside insights are critical and I very much valued the thoughtful responses Dr. Melion provided for each of us. I think my fellow graduate student presenters, overall, felt the same way. In hearing feedback from presenters, I think we achieved both a welcoming and critical environment to consider this year’s symposium theme, Art and Contemplation.

I’d like to offer a special thanks to everyone who made this year’s symposium a success – while it didn’t quite take a village, it certainly took lots of support from our department as a whole: graduate student volunteers, the faculty co-chairs, Dr. Heather Shirey and Dr. Craig Eliason, and my co-chair Dakota Passariello, as well as the generous support of those in attendance. Thank you!

 

Graduate Student, Research, Research Travel, Students

Uncovering Joshua Johnson’s Baltimore

Alex Kermes is an art history graduate student completing his qualifying paper on the 19th century painter, Joshua Johnson. He was awarded the Art History Department Graduate Research Grant to help make this project possible. Alex will be presenting his qualifying paper research at the Art History Graduate Forum on December 18.

Joshua Johnson, the topic of study for my Qualifying Paper, is an enigmatic figure since so much of his life is unknown. Few details have trickled down from decades of scholarship on Johnson, who is considered the first African American portraitist in the U.S. I experienced this enigma firsthand while conducting research on him, and felt the department’s travel grant would help me uncover a great deal more.

Johnson lived and worked in Baltimore, actively painting portraits of middle and upper class clientele from the late-1790s to mid-1820s. Although he owed much to the influence of painters around him, he devised a style all his own. His paintings are characterized by thin layering of oil paint, minimal shading on his subjects (often children), and frequent use of props.

The third largest city in the U.S. during this period, Baltimore had an active African American population, both slave and free. Citizens interacted with a diverse population, and my research has focused on how Johnson responded to such diversity – in spite of the limited sources. The travel grant helped me understand Johnson as a person, living and working as an artisan in a time defined by slave and free status.

The reality of slavery sunk in while I dug deep into the sources in the Maryland Historical Society’s (MHS) library archives. While there, I read a manifest from the 1780s containing all sorts of transactions in Baltimore, including the legal documentation that set Johnson free from slavery. On one hand, it was an important record to look at closely as it assigned the conditions for which Johnson would become free, while on the other hand, these same pages contained transactions for horses, livestock, and ships in the harbor. This provided a disheartening reminder about a significant segment of America’s history.

Still, the MHS provided me with a wealth of details that helped me piece together a personal history of Johnson’s life. I looked at newspaper advertisements of other artisans and city directories that listed Johnson’s various residences throughout his life in the 1800s.

As an art historian, it was important that I see his work in person and up close, and there are far more of his paintings in Baltimore than the St. Paul-Minneapolis area. The Maryland Historical Society is home to a few, though they have a strict photography policy, and other can be found at the Baltimore Museum of Art. I spent time at both to examine Johnson’s works, and simply because both are quite fabulous museums.

While drafting the prospectus for my qualifying paper, one of the major comments I received stressed the importance of bringing his works forward in my discussion. My focus had drifted too far into Johnson’s context that his actual paintings took on a seemingly secondary role. Studying his works in person changed that remarkably. The subtle ways he handled his paint differ throughout the periods of his career, making it possible to identify a Johnson work from 1804 versus one from 1814. This spoke a great deal to me about the work he received during this period and how he was able to hone his craft.

Joshua Johnson, James McCormick Family, 1804-5, 50 x 69 in., Maryland Historical Society, oil on canvas (left); Joshua Johnson, Rebecca Myring Everette and her children, 1818, 55 x 58 in., Maryland Historical Society, oil on canvas (right)

Of course, Baltimore is culturally and historically significant, which meant on my free evenings (the MHS is open only until 5:00), I saw the U.S.S. Constellation parked in the harbor, poked my head in the Walters Art Museum which was located next to the MHS, and wandered the Baltimore Museum of Art’s galleries.

I certainly could have completed my Qualifying Paper without this research travel grant. Yet, studying Joshua Johnson’s Baltimore in person has given me tremendous insight into his life and what his career in painting was all about. Walking along High Street, close to the harbor, I could almost sense where Johnson might have lived and worked in the first decade of the 19th century. I truly built a personal connection to Johnson and his work by studying him on my Baltimore trip, and it increased my quality of research. My Qualifying Paper has already greatly benefited from every additional page of notes I took while in the archives and viewing his paintings and digging through the Maryland Historical Society’s archives – progress that I could not have made without the travel grant. Visiting Baltimore has made him much less the enigma he was when I began my research.

Asmat, Faculty, Graduate Student, Presentations, Research, Research Travel, Students

Of Note

‘Of Note’ is a new series showcasing what members of the Department of Art History have been up to and will be published at the start of every semester. If you have something that you would like included in the next post, please send it to Marria Thompson.


Dr. Andy Barnes

This summer I undertook a driving tour of the lowland Maya region of Mexico. While crossing through the states of Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Campeche, Tabasco, and Chiapas, my trip included stops at Tulum, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Merida, Campeche (city), Palenque, and Calakmul. Pictured here is the textile inspired façade of one of the structures in Uxmal’s grand Nunnery Complex (ca. AD 900) and Structure II, Calakmul (begun before AD 100 and enlarged considerably over the following seven centuries). Calakmul, in Campeche State, is one of the largest Maya sites, which flourished between AD 600-900.  Structure II, standing over 15 stories tall, is one of the largest pyramids in the Maya region (it is somewhat larger than the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan).


Dr. Craig Eliason

This summer I attended the Granshan Type Design Conference in Reading, England. The theme of the conference was “global design in practice,” and the program included a terrific presentation by Korean calligrapher Kang Byung-in. Then, that evening, the conference moved to the University’s typography department, where sheets of paper were set up for a giant-scale, joint calligraphy demonstration by Kang and English calligrapher Timothy Donaldson. The packed room watched as the two men went at it with all manner of pens and brushes, showing off both craft mastery and a little clownish rivalry. The demonstration ended with both artists dipping their hands directly in the ink, making handprints on the paper, and then shaking hands.

Calligraphy demonstration

Calligraphy demonstration


Dr. Eric Kjellgren

In August, I traveled to Australia at the invitation of the National Gallery of Australia and the Oceanic Art Society to give a presentation at the Art of the Sepik River Forum held in conjunction with a newly opened exhibition of art from the Sepik River in northeast New Guinea at the gallery in Australia’s capitol city of Canberra.  My paper Hidden “Hands”: Searching for the Artist in the Arts of the Sepik River explored the idea that works by individual artists can be identified within the arts of the Sepik River, something that has not previously been done for this art-rich region of New Guinea.

 Eric Kjellgren with Pacific Art Curator Crispin Howarth (left in navy blue blazer) and members of the Oceanic Art Society examining works at the National Gallery of Australia

Eric Kjellgren with Pacific Art Curator Crispin Howarth (left in navy blue blazer) and members of the Oceanic Art Society examining works at the National Gallery of Australia


Dr. Heather Shirey

This summer I presented a paper at the Transatlantic Dialogues conference in Liverpool. Liverpool’s Lord Mayor hosted a reception for attendees as a special event during the conference. This reception took place at Liverpool’s beautiful, 18th century Town Hall. By complete accident, I arrived at the reception a half an hour early, along with a friend I had made at the conference. After overcoming some initial suspicions due to our early arrival, the building director invited us to take advantage of the special opportunity to visit the building, which is only open to the public once a month.  Learning that we were art historians, he suggested that we wander through the ground floor rooms to see the city’s art collection. On our unguided wanderings, we first stumbled into the Council Chamber, where the Lord Mayor himself happened to be visiting with a few of his constituents. He very kindly invited us to try out the seat reserved for the mayor in the council room. I think a room like this would be just spectacular for our seminars!

Heather seated in the Liverpool Town Hall Council Room

Heather seated in the Liverpool Town Hall Council Room

Next we stumbled across a portrait of John Archer, said to be (although this is debated) Britain’s first mayor of African Descent. Born in Liverpool, Archer traveled to the United States and Canada before being elected Mayor of Battersea in 1913. The painting, by Paul Clarkson, incorporates references to African American intellectual and cultural movements: Archer rests his arm on a copy of The Crisis, the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people, and a poster advertising the Fisk Jubilee Singers hangs behind his head. I am interested in the ways that Archer himself evoked symbols of the battle for civil rights in the United States in his own political career. I also want to learn more about the position of Archer in Liverpool’s contemporary interpretation of the city’s racial dynamics. The city of Liverpool and its many citizens amassed tremendous wealth during the eighteenth century due to the city’s important position as a port during the height of the transatlantic slave trade. Just down the road from the Town Hall is the International Slavery Museum, which grapples with this aspect of Liverpool’s history. It is worth noting that this painting was installed in the Town Hall only within the last decade. What does this current interest in John Archer tell us about Liverpool’s evolving understanding of its past?

Portrait of John Archer

Portrait of John Archer

 


Margaret George, graduate student

Summer, travel, and art are intertwined in my vocabulary. As I prepared for this fall’s Contemporary Architecture class, I was excited to spend some time this summer in Buffalo, New York . The city has some wonderful architecture in its downtown including a pretty spectacular building by Louis Sullivan, the Prudential Guaranty Building, designed in 1894-85 (left image). The stone and detail on the building were just beautiful – almost exquisite. An architectural contrast was a Rem Koolhaas’ 21st century building (CCTV Headquarters) in Beijing that I also saw this summer (right image).  “Big Boxer Shorts” as the locals call it – you can figure out why.


Amanda Lesnikowski, graduate student

I never truly appreciated the saying “kill two birds with one stone” until I found myself in a masters program and a full-time job at the same time. This summer, while working under the direction of Dr. Heather Shirey, I completed an independent study that focused on the development of an African American Art Teacher Resource guide for elementary school teachers. I began by selecting five artworks from the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s permanent collection. I researched the artists and their artworks, then aligned state academic standards with a set of open-ended questions to create a resource guide that can be used by teachers across the state. It was an amazing feeling to watch my two ‘jobs’ become one.

Clementine Hunter, The Wash, 1950s, Oil on board, 18 x 24 in. (45.7 x 61.0 cm)

Clementine Hunter, The Wash, 1950s, Oil on board, 18 x 24 in. (45.7 x 61.0 cm)


 

Dakota Passariello, graduate student

This June I began an internship at the Thrivent Financial Collection of Religious Art. In the past few months I have been working with the collection and its curator, Joanna Lindell. Thus far, I have been exposed to and have learned a tremendous amount about the multifaceted world of curatorial work. Some of my tasks and experiences so far have included assisting the curator with planning an exhibition layout, writing and fabricating object labels and exhibition panels, and attending meetings related to upcoming events and plans for the gallery. Thrivent has a truly special collection that is globally recognized; yet I think the collection is largely overlooked by our own community. If you haven’t been, I highly recommend coming to check out the gallery! It’s free!

 

Graduate Student, Publications

#Superscript15 and the Thrills of Conference Live-Blogging

Sam Wisneski is an art history graduate student, entering her second year in the program. She was recently selected to participate in the first-ever Hyperallergic/Walker Art Center blog mentorship program at the Superscript Conference held May 29-30, 2015.

This might just be the most meta thing you will ever read: a blog post about blogging/writing about a conference about writing.

As an undergraduate student at St. Thomas, I studied Communication and Journalism and Art History, and more than once, I Googled “how to become an art critic,” but never seriously considered it a career option. It seemed like a natural, but unlikely marriage of my majors, given the state of the profession. I did not start thinking about criticism as a career path again until I learned about Superscript, a first-of-its-kind conference about arts journalism and criticism in a digital age at the Walker Art Center – and it wasn’t until I was selected for the inaugural Hyperallergic/Walker Art Center blog mentorship program that I really, seriously started considering what it would mean to become a critic or arts writer.

The Blog Mentorship Program

The purpose the Superscript Conference was to bring together minds from all over the world of arts writing – Buzzfeed Books, The New Inquiry, Frieze, Terraform, Design Observer, Hyperallergic, just to name a few of the varied publications. The blog mentorship program was formed to provide live responses to the conference for publication on Walker and Mn Artists media channels, and to pair wannabe writers with seasoned, world-class arts editors, including Jillian Steinhauer, senior editor of Hyperallergic, Nicole Caruth, former editorial manager at Art21 and founding editor of Art21 Magazine, and Isla Leaver-Yap, the Walker Art Center Benston Film Scholar.

The bloggers hard at work in the pop-up newsroom.

The bloggers hard at work in the pop-up newsroom.

The Enterprising Trio of Mentees

I was in great company for Superscript weekend. My fellow bloggers included the delightful, stylish and brash Merray Gerges, a graduate of the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design (NSCAD) and founder of CRIT, a quarterly newspaper, based in Halifax, and the equally stylish, quick-witted, Haiku-master, Ryohei Ozaki, a Princeton grad who hails from New York and former editor of The Princeton Buffer. (You can read all of the bloggers’ content on the sidebar of the Superscript Reader.)

Our first evening together was a whirlwind – foreshadowing what was to come the following days. We devised a tentative approach to who would cover what over dinner and drinks, and then set off to the Walker for its Thursday night program, Everyone’s a Critic, where we rubbed elbows with writers and other arts professionals.

The Conference

The first day of the conference, Merray covered the opening panel while Ryohei and I hunkered down in the Walker library, devising our first posts. I covered the second panel, “Sustainability, Growth and Ethics,” which was illuminating, disheartening and inspiring all at once. I left with no illusions about writer pay. I learned that advocating for yourself, especially as a woman, is paramount for survival as a writer, and that pay, is indeed “universally paltry,” a vow of poverty, even. Still, the discussion left something to be desired, particularly in relation to emerging writers, which I wrote about for Mn Artists.

The Sustainability, Growth and Ethics Panel Q&A

The Sustainability, Growth and Ethics Panel Q&A

My next assignment was to interview keynote speaker and London-based artist James Bridle, who was elusive the first day of the conference. Moments after I went to bed Friday, I received an email, firming up the plans to interview James. The first hour of my Saturday morning was a frantic cram to better familiarize myself with his work, as I did not want to look like an uncultured or entitled knob when interviewing him.

I hastily crafted an email, trying to reach James, realizing I’d probably have to track him down in person, as he was likely writing a keynote or actually attending the Superscript panels – something I didn’t actually get to do as much of as I’d like, since I was hacking away at blog posts in our makeshift “pop-up” newsroom.

So, after the first panel on Saturday, I set out to find James, with the help of Merray, who had seen him milling about. I (nervously) ambushed him for a quick interview, for which he graciously obliged, as it meant stealing him away from a conversation with someone he must have known well based on their farewell kiss-on-the-cheek (but maybe British people do that to everyone…?)

We chatted about the New Aesthetic, his newest project, Citizen-Ex, and what he would be talking about at Superscript…and it actually was totally great and super chill. I’ve interviewed people in the past, sure, but, you know, there are pretenses about artists (and British people) and I also find his work really compelling, especially as someone with newly-discovered interests in new media, code, and what we might call “artist activism” which James would probably just call “art.” In short, I was equal parts excited and equal parts freaked out to interview him, and it went swimmingly. I might actually summarize my entire Superscript experience this way…waves of childlike, giddy excitement, punctuated by the anxiety and dread of looming deadlines.

The Aftermath

That was my last blogging assignment for the #Superscript15 weekend. Then, it was on to my post for Hyperallergic, where I provided suggestions for Superscript 2.0. And then Superscript IRL was over – though it lives in on in the form of blog posts, hashtags, and archived video footage, which its creators, Paul Schmelzer and Susannah Schouweiler (both splendid, visionary people) hope to build from in the future.

Superscript was thrilling, overwhelming, inspiring and exhausting – and I imagine it is a lot like what the life of an art writer might feel like. The blog mentorship program rattled me out of the slower, deliberate pace of academic writing, and into a whole new mode of challenging but rewarding reflection. While I revel in a slower pace of writing, I am also hoping to wear the hat of critic-on-the-side moving forward.

Exhibitions, Graduate Student, Research Travel

Long Now Exhibition: A Trip to San Francisco Part II

Alex Kermes is an art history graduate student and works as a graduate exhibitions assistant.  He is currently developing an exhibit site in coordination with Dr. AnnMarie Thomas of the Engineering department that combines technology, art, design, and culture. This space is scheduled to open fall 2015.

Pixar

Firmly in possession of the Rosetta Disk, centerpiece to our exhibition on the Long Now’s projects, we set out early on our second day in San Francisco to Pixar. As you can see, we were guided along by some friendly faces!

Cars at Pixar

Cars at Pixar

Dr. Thomas with Allen from Pixar

Dr. Thomas with Allen from Pixar

At Pixar we met Allen, a visual effects specialist. Their offices were deep in the creation of their next film, Inside Out. While we got to learn a lot of what goes in to developing their movies, most of it was off-limits to our prying eyes (and, naturally, to photographs as well). Nevertheless, the place was fantastically interesting as well as iconic.

While visiting Pixar seems tangential to the development of an engineering exhibit, it provided us a glimpse into how design and culture can come together. A significant amount of research into fields like history, psychology, and art go into the creative process of every Pixar film. I was particularly interested in the amount of background research that informed the basis of their upcoming movie (which deals with child psychology).

Pixar restroom sign

Pixar restroom sign

The striking thing to me about Pixar was the high coordination of visuals that go into branding the place. Seldom do I take pictures of restroom signs (like I said, I was limited on what I could photograph), but the silhouette of Pixar’s beloved Woody character tells visitors something about this building. Everything was Pixar-oriented, providing a constant reminder of the world of Pixar and all their characters in it.

Exploratorium

Our last stop on this trip was pure inspiration. The Exploratorium is San Francisco’s hands-on museum dedicated to all things scientific. Our tour guide was Dr. Thomas’s friend Lenore, who showed us many of the interesting parts of the museum, highlighting the exhibits that deal with mechanics and optics (and art).

 

We also took a “tour” of the Tactile Dome: a walkway/maze/path in complete darkness, which can be navigated only by touch. Of course it is a little difficult to take pictures in total darkness, so I left the iPad locked away while we bumped into each other for 15 minutes, making our perplexed way through the Dome.

It is worth noting the star-power present in our group. We noticed Dr. Thomas’s project Squishy Circuits on display at the Exploratorium!

Dr. Thomas’s Squishy Circuits

Dr. Thomas’s Squishy Circuits

We then headed to the airport for our return – it was a short trip, but well worth it for the amount of inspiration we received for our upcoming exhibit. The tech industry might not resonate with the “history” part of “art history,” but art historians constantly study the overlap between culture and creativity, which turned out to be my greatest takeaway. We will do everything we can in our exhibition space to highlight the exchange and overlap of art and technology, with the end goal that we too can inspire visitors the way we were while in San Francisco.

Please watch for our exhibit space to open on the third floor in the new Facilities and Design Center this fall! We are looking forward to sharing what art and culture can do for science and technology to our St. Thomas audience.

 

Exhibitions, Graduate Student, Research Travel

Long Now Exhibition: A Trip to San Francisco Part I

Alex Kermes is an art history graduate student and works as a graduate exhibitions assistant.  He is currently developing an exhibit site in coordination with Dr. AnnMarie Thomas of the Engineering department that combines technology, art, design, and culture. This space is scheduled to open fall 2015.

Collaborative projects between Art History and Engineering are few and far between. It was no surprise then that as a graduate art history student traveling to San Francisco’s tech industry with Dr. AnnMarie Thomas from the School of Engineering, I understandably encountered a number of raised eyebrows. The art historical value of lasers and 3D printing may not be overtly obvious at first, but the departments of Art History and Engineering have big plans to bring these concepts together. It has been my pleasure to collaborate with Dr. Thomas over the past couple months on the development of an exhibit space in the new Facilities and Design Center, located on the University of St. Thomas St. Paul campus. This space has been designed with the intention of showcasing objects that straddle the fine lines between art and technology.

Our inaugural exhibit will focus on the projects from the Long Now Foundation, which was also what brought us to San Francisco. The Long Now Foundation, headquartered in California, has for many years been developing projects focused on long-term thinking and responsibility (also the theme of the exhibit) – in particular, their 10,000 Year Clock and Rosetta Disk. The 10,000 Year Clock is a monumental object designed to keep accurate time for the next 10,000+ years. On the other end of the scale, the Rosetta Disk is a nickel disk less than 3” across. The disk contains translations of over 1,500 world languages which have been micro-etched with laser and can only be read with a microscope. Through generous donor support, the University of St. Thomas has acquired a copy of the Rosetta Disk, which will be exhibited along with pieces from the 10,000 Year Clock. The exhibit is slated to open during the 2015 fall semester.

Autodesk

Our first visit was to Autodesk, a design company specializing in 3D CAD software which they convert into amazing 3D printed sculptures. Our guides Dawn and Christy were supremely helpful along the way. It was a bit tricky to wrap my head around how they transformed computer designs into 3D objects, but I definitely noticed the breadth of cultural influences at work in the minds of the folks working there. A number of object designs were based on airplanes, action figures, and sea monsters. The sheer capabilities of the place were flat-out cool. They are able to print using multiple materials, multiple colors, or multiple sizes.

Autodesk objects on view

Autodesk – objects as art

One thing I noticed was that the objects were treated like works of art, as witnessed through the way that they were labeled and exhibited throughout their offices. For me, this was important because it shows the interest the company takes in the cultural-technological crossover that design is capable of. Moreover, it affirmed my belief that there are ways to bridge the supposed gap between art and technology, and inspired Dr. Thomas’s and my aspirations for our own exhibit space.

Other Mill/Other Machine

Other Machine - interior

Other Machine – interior

Our second stop was an old pipe organ factory. It has recently been converted into the manufacturer of Othermill, a product of the company Other Machine. They even used old wooden organ pipes as shelves.

Othermill at Other Machine

Othermill at Other Machine

This Othermill is a milling machine the size of a microwave that uses CNC (computerized numerical control) to “create 2D and 3D objects out of durable materials, such as wood, metal, plastic, using digital designs.” People utilize the Othermill to create things from relief stamps to circuit boards – how, I don’t know, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating to me. Dr. Thomas’s friend Simone tried in vain to help me understand. Regardless, she was a wonderfully enthusiastic tour guide during our visit.

The Interval

The Interval

The Interval

Ultimately, the reason we embarked on this trip was to meet personally with the minds of the Long Now Foundation and bring home the exhibit’s new copy of the Rosetta Disk. The brainpower of the Foundation was represented by Dr. Laura Welcher and Dr. Alexander Rose.

At The Interval, the foundation’s event space (and bar), they showcased a number of projects they’ve worked on. One of the coolest was a tall metal contraption known as The Orrery. An orrery is a model of the solar system that predicts the positions of planets – and the one at the Interval is huge and immensely cool to look at.

Alex with The Orrery

Alex with The Orrery

We met up with Alexander and Laura for a lengthy discussion on the numerous ideas they had about their work and how it could be exhibited. Their input was incredibly insightful. Over the course of two hours at the Interval, we talked about scope of the Foundation’s projects and ways in which we could apply it to our exhibit space. It is one thing to display objects and hang labels next to them, but it is another thing entirely to find sophisticated ways to provide viewers of our exhibit opportunities to participate and learn about the ideas being presented. Dr. Welcher’s and Dr. Rose’s suggestions gave us so much to consider while planning our first exhibition of the Long Now Foundation’s projects that we are eager to unveil to the public. Much, much more will follow as our project progresses!

On the left in this picture is Dr. Welcher passing a prototype of their current project in front of Dr. Rose (details of this project are closely guarded for now).

On the left in this picture is Dr. Welcher passing a prototype of their current project in front of Dr. Rose (details of this project are closely guarded for now).

We then collected our Rosetta Disk and concluded our day with dinner. That was the first day of our trip. We still had Saturday in San Francisco, which included some extremely fruitful and inspirational trips as well, but those will be covered in a second part to my blog post.

 

 

Graduate Student, Research, Research Travel, Students

A Month in Virginia: Examining Nineteenth-Century Mammy Dolls

Nicole Sheridan is an art history graduate student completing her second year. She was awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities We the People Fellowship in African American History, for study at the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

In January 2016, I had the privilege of conducting research in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia with the support of a National Endowment for the Humanities “We the People Fellowship in African American History and Culture.”

Residency cottage

Residency cottage

Living room of the colonial style residency cottage

Living room of the colonial style residency cottage

I began this project in my spring 2014 graduate seminar on the African Diaspora, taught by Dr. Heather Shirey. One of our assignments involved creating a research grant proposal, and we were encouraged to seek out actual funding sources from external institution. Dr. Shirey provided students with examples of grant proposals, including both those that had been accepted and declined. These examples helped me recognize differences in writing style, language, and clarity of expression in relation to the projects’ feasibility. I realized I needed to write a proposal that was forward and bold. I decided to investigate a topic that combined two interesting subjects: the historical mammy, and nineteenth-century doll representations.

Once I had identified an appropriate funding source, I perused the webpages of the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library and Archives, as well as the Dewitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. I realized that connecting my project to the holdings of the institution’s on-site resources would be essential in arguing my claim to travel to this particular location. During my search, I was intrigued by an online collection featuring toys, in particular a mammy doll with a head composed of a walnut. This struck me as a peculiar material for a doll held in a museum, so I decided to investigate.

Mammy Nut Doll, c.1840-1899 Hickory nut, leather, wire, textiles, horse hair, paint Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum

Mammy Nut Doll, c.1840-1899
Hickory nut, leather, wire, textiles, horse hair, paint
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum

The term mammy refers to a racist stereotype of the household slave responsible for childcare, cooking, and cleaning. Her image is recognizable as an obese female with jet-black skin, large lips and eyes, a head turban, an apron, and colorful calico clothing. This nineteenth-century archetype manifested in the image of Aunt Jemima at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago through the actress Nancy Green. Early on, I had a hunch that the use of such a humble material was linked to creators of low economic status, and that a black doll was more likely made by an adult or child of color. Thus, I was puzzled by a notion of African Americans participating in creating the mammy stereotype. Centering my project on this doll, which exhibits characteristics of the mammy figure and use of material culture, I devised a research topic that explored a number of issues, including the history of the mammy figure, nineteenth-century dress of indoor slave staff, mammy doll characteristics and constructions (with and without nut heads), and children’s culture of the nineteenth century including child slavery, play, and doll types. Through this contextual research, I also sought to understand the involvement of African American women and children in creating mammy dolls. Visiting local archives was helpful in providing empirical materials including extant mammy dolls, and photographs of dolls and nineteenth century mammies.

 

Mammy with baby, July 1868 Courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center

Mammy with baby, July 1868
Courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center

At times difficult to swallow because it is so painful, the history of the mammy figure, including black culture apart from and including whites, was fascinating as the stories of past lives seemed to leap from the pages. My research illuminated the horrors of slavery as well as evidence of intense courage and perseverance. As a developing art historian, reading slave narratives affected me both personally and professionally.

The month long fellowship program also gave me the opportunity to deliver in a public forum. For this presentation, I provided the background for my topic, outlined the goals of and resources for my project, and shared my research questions. There was a great turnout of guests who shared my curiosity in the topic and added to a lively discussion.

The most difficult aspect of the fellowship was being away from home for a long period. Thankfully, the staff at Colonial Williamsburg were welcoming and helpful. Early on, Ted Maris-Wolf, the head of research initiatives for the Rockefeller Library, assisted me in locating relevant local resources. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct research alongside Linda Bergmuten, the Head Curator of textiles and costumes. Linda provided me with extant high-class dress materials as well as working women’s dress, aiding with the analysis of garment dating, and edifying the accuracies and divergences from actual mammy dress. This information proved beneficial in providing me with further clues to distinguish clothing differences between women slaves working outdoors and that of indoor slaves, in which the mammy was included.

19th c. working women’s shirt, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

19th c. working women’s shirt, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Jan Gilliam, the Associate Curator of the toy collection, granted me access to examine the mammy doll as well as other relevant black dolls held in the collection. Viewing the mammy nut doll in person provided me with information the photograph could not illuminate. For example, the doll was smaller than I had imagined, perhaps slightly larger than dollhouse dolls. In hopes of revealing clues to the doll’s construction, Linda and Jan performed a fabric analysis of the interior of the doll’s body. After struggling with the tiniest of tweezers to acquire interior material through the back leg, Linda was not able to extract an example. Though initially disappointing, it did in fact reveal that the interior is quite likely wound around a skeleton made most likely of wire. In addition and as a surprise to both the curators and myself, there was a note tucked inside the doll’s blouse, providing yet another clue towards understanding this particular doll.

 

Curators performing the fabric analysis, which led to finding a note tucked inside.

Curators performing the fabric analysis, which led to finding a note tucked inside.

 

I also had the privilege of meeting the other research fellow, Kristin, whom had recently received her PhD in History from Washington University. Dr. Condatta-Lee was conducting research for the first chapter of her book, exploring foreign imports brought with early Irish settlers to New Orleans. It was great getting to know her and supporting each other in our research quests.

Exploring the town of Colonial Williamsburg with fellow Kristin (on right)

Exploring the town of Colonial Williamsburg with fellow Kristin (on right)

 

A major ambition of the project was to define my research in terms of how exactly I was to utilize the little extant evidence of this area of folk material culture. This was begun through seeking out extant dolls that fit the criteria of a mammy figure, which proved more difficult than I had imagined. Not all dolls of black women could be included in my taxonomy of extant mammy dolls unless they displayed qualities distinctive to the image of an indoor worker. This type of doll exists in very small museums and private collections. Likely, the topic of mammy dolls has not received attention namely because of such difficulty in accessing extant dolls. For this reason, I will be extending this research into an independent study to add onto my taxonomy of dolls and in hopes of sharing my findings. Willingness to travel and openness to new professional experiences build a well-rounded graduate education and enrich your current skills. Grand aspirations come within reach when paired with extra effort and determination.