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May 2015

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.