Ongoing Art Project: Colors of Spring

As you know, I’ve been painting small abstractions every day since January 1st, as part of a goal to make art all year, however small or quick. With spring now just giving way to summer, I’ll show you what I’ve been up to since the last installment.

Colors of Williamsburg, April 2019

In keeping with my ongoing experimentation with abstraction, I’ve been moving away from simple color blocks to more complex compositions exploring the styles of different artists and artistic movements. The pieces below, for instance, take inspiration from Art Nouveau, Piet Mondrian, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Sol Lewitt’s wall drawings. All art is inspired by other art, after all, so I’ve been using these studies to explore the visual vocabulary that these artists have used to synthesize my own interpretation of abstraction.

While I continue to prefer painting these studies, I have been exploring other materials when they seem fit. For a study of pollen on water, for instance, I brought out my old marbling kit and marbled the paper. I’ve also occasionally used colored pencils when my paints weren’t available, as was the case with a group of studies done in South Dakota when I flew out there for a conference. I later used my paints to enhance the color, but the texture of the pencil still peers through.

Aside from stylistic experimentation, I’ve been enjoying the changes in palette that come with the shifts in season. I’ve been especially taken with the flowers cropping up here, as Williamsburg takens its gardening very seriously. The three studies below take inspiration from tulips, for instance, while other blocks channel roses, foxglove, iris, and roadside wildflowers. With flowers changing throughout the season, there’s always new blooms to study.

If there’s one thing that has captured my visual attention even more than the flowers, however, it’s the rapidity and quantity of the greenery. Having spent the last several years in the high desert, I’d gotten accustomed to a spare landscape. Not that it isn’t colorful in its own way, but green appears sparingly out there. The most vibrant colors tend to appear in the soil or the sky. To live in a place then, where the landscape goes from dormant, to furtively budding, to lushly verdant within a couple of weeks is a big change for me. Of course, I knew it was green when I moved here in August, I just didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.

I’ve also been experimenting with more representational blocks, particularly landscapes. By exploring different types of brushwork, I’m learning to more confidently apply abstraction to naturalistic imagery. I’m finally embracing the fact that I don’t have to delineate every leaf to make a treeline legible.

For the most part, these studies depict the Williamsburg/Richmond area, but I have done a few studies of other regions I’ve traveled to for conferences and other events. Initially, I wasn’t sure whether to only paint when I was exclusively in Virginia, as this is where I’m based, but I decided to go ahead and include the places I travel to because that’s an important part of my life. The truth is, I’m never in one place for an entire year because I’m too restless to stay put for that long. I might live in a particular town for several years, but I’ll definitely be checking out other areas while I’m there, whether it’s for a conference, family visit, or just curiosity.

These four studies were done during my trip to Michigan for a conference. The two middle ones were inspired by things I saw in Ann Arbor, while the other two developed out of the drive.

Another change I’ve noticed since starting these studies is my attitude toward sketching at the end of the semester. Normally when the term ends I go into a frenzy because I haven’t done any drawing all semester. This time around though, I didn’t feel an overwhelming desire to sketch as much, because I’ve been doing it all along. I still have been going out to draw flowers and other subject matter, but since I didn’t deprive myself this semester, my approach is much more moderate. It’s not good or bad, just different.

Colors of Williamsburg (with a little Roanoke, Michigan, and South Dakota), May

I look forward to seeing what the summer brings in my daily art practice, whether it’s in my own backyard or another state altogether.

Staging the Space Between

May was a busy month for me in the conference realm. After taking a hiatus in 2018, I returned to presenting and networking with two wonderful sessions. Since I’ve already discussed the first conference, Making History Public(s), today I’ll talk about the second one, Staging the Space Between, 1914-1945, which took place at South Dakota State University between May 30-June 1.

Image result for staging the space between

This session acts as the annual conference for the Space Between Society, an academic association that focuses on the art, literature, and culture of the interwar period. Whereas Making History Public(s) was geared exclusively toward graduate students, the presenters at the Space Between were a mixture of professors at different stages of their careers, as well as graduate students. The membership is also transnational, with participants hailing from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. As a result, I was able to network with students and faculty alike, and share my ongoing research with professionals working both in and outside the United States.

The theme of the conference was staging, literally and metaphorically. My paper focused on the Community Art Center Project as local and national space, with the Roswell Museum serving as my primary case study. I essentially presented a condensed version of the paper I wrote for my independent study, which focused on the tensions between the museum’s FAP staff and its local sponsors. For me, the Roswell Museum offers an excellent opportunity to explore the practical and conceptual challenges of implementing programs like the Community Art Center Project in places that already have their own conceptions of education and culture. It’s one thing to read about the educational initiatives of Holger Cahill and other FAP administrators, but it’s an entirely different matter to see how these ideas actually manifest in art centers, and more importantly, how people respond to them. To fit the conference theme, I argued that the Roswell Museum itself acted as a stage for the performance of different educational philosophies as manifested through exhibitions, classes, and special programs.

In addition to meeting a wide range of scholars, I also gleaned helpful ideas or frameworks for considering my future research. One theme that emerged frequently was the idea of embracing the ephemerality of performance as a means of interpreting incomplete archives. The keynote speaker, Claire Warden, argued about the merits of learning from failure as encountered through recreating historical performances, and the information we can learn from embodied experience. Even if we can’t recreate a historical dance, play or performance with 100% accuracy, we can still receive insight from the experience of trying to recreate it, particularly through the ways it challenges us to read deeply into extant documentation such as photographs or letters.

As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the challenges of working with incomplete archives and approaching speculation without overshadowing the voices you were trying to represent. Beyond dealing with archives, however, the keynote and other talks encouraged me to think of the museum as performance, not only through overt performances such as the staging of the mystery play Los Pastores in 1938, but also through the mounting of exhibitions, classes, and other activities. While the performative nature of museum attendance and exhibition staging has long been noted, it’s helping me to think about my materials from a different perspective, which is always a good thing.

This was a full conference, so I didn’t do as much exploring as I normally like, but I was still able to get out and about. Since I flew into Sioux Falls, I explored this area before heading to the conference, specifically by visiting Falls Park. This area was an important source of hydroelectric power during the late 19th century, and remnants of this early industrialization are still present in the landscape, from the power plant that has since been converted to a cafe, to the ruins of a flour mill that burned down in the 1950s. As I read about the terraforming that took place to this area to accommodate power, I kept thinking about environmental histories such as Nature’s Metropolis and the interconnectedness between nature and civilization.

The university is also very nice, with a strong agricultural focus. I only saw a small part of it, but I liked what I saw, including the art museum, and the McCrory Gardens, which I walked through before driving back to Sioux Falls.

Speaking of staging, we also had the opportunity to listen some interwar music at the University’s Fine Arts Center, shown here. The colors and materials all relate to South Dakota ecology, from the forests to the badlands.

Overall, I had a very positive experience. It was encouraging to have so many established faculty express interest in my work, and it was a great opportunity to both network and be introduced to new works and ideas, all of which will benefit my future research. I feel particularly fortunate to have been able to present so early in my time at William and Mary, as I know the connections I’ve made here will benefit me for years to come.

Plus you can’t go wrong with a conference that gives you a free tote bag.

Semester Project #3: Independent Study

Last week, I told you about the paper I wrote for Ethnic Modernism, which took a deep dive at one of the exhibitions shown at the Roswell Museum. Today, I’ll talk about the essay I wrote for my Independent Study. Whereas my Ethnic Modernism project performed a close reading of the documents pertaining to one show, this project took a broader look at the Roswell Museum’s programming initiative.

This paper focused on an ongoing conflict between the Roswell Museum’s federal personnel and its local sponsors at the Chaves County Archaeological and Historical Society. Although the museum successfully completed numerous exhibitions, classes, and special programs, the FAP and the A&H Society could never quite agree on focus. While the FAP wanted to concentrate on art education and appreciation, the A&H Society was more interested in promoting local history. Eventually, the museum would part ways from both the FAP and the A&H Society, forging its own path based in both collections management and public education, but throughout the WPA period, the debate was ongoing.

I explored this conflict through the lens of the FAP’s educational focus. Influenced by the writings of Progressive-era educators and philosophers such as John Cotton Dana and John Dewey, FAP administrators advocated for more classes, demonstrations, and other participatory forms of education. They often criticized museums, arguing that their focus on collections management limited their abilities as educational facilities.

Yet as the conflict in Roswell indicates, not everyone involved in museums considered their role as a collections repository incompatible with public education. While the FAP criticized the A&H Society for a lack of interest in hosting studio classes and a preference for permanent displays rather than rotating exhibitions, the Roswell Museum’s local sponsors regularly hosted lectures, talks, and other events, indicating their interest in public education even as they disregarded federal models.

Focusing on the dialogue between museums and public education during the interwar period allowed me to contextualize my work on the Roswell Museum with some of the readings I’d done in the Independent Study. The texts that I focused on the most included Victoria Grieve’s The Federal Art Project and the Creation of Middlebrow Culture, Neil Harris’ Cultural Excursions, and Lauren Kroiz’s Cultivating Citizens: The Regional Work of Art in the New Deal Era. Basically, I argued that the role of museums in public education was complicated and that their wholesale dismissal as outdated and unable to meet the educational needs of modern audiences is overly simplistic. In the case of the Roswell Museum, the A&H Society and FAP did collaborate even as they disagreed with each one another, and both shared an interest in public education even if it manifested in different ways or topics. The A&H Society consistently held lectures on history, for instance, so even if it didn’t agree with the FAP’s approach, it didn’t disregard education altogether.

I don’t consider this a finished project per se as I do a preliminary exploration of what I intend to become a major theme in my dissertation: the reception of art center exhibition and educational programs. It’s one thing to read what the FAP had in mind with the art centers, but as Roswell demonstrates, federal programming was interpreted differently among the individual centers, with varying results. Moving forward, the tension between local and national interests is a topic I’d like to continue analyzing, with the final dissertation combining the microhistories of specific regions and places with a more national narrative on the Community Art Center Project itself.

Semester Project #2: Ethnic Modernism

Last month I talked about the historiographic essay I worked on for Modern US. Today, I’ll talk about the essay I’ve been working on for Ethnic Modernism. As I mentioned in a previous post, this has primarily been a literature course, but I’ve been using this paper as an opportunity to take a closer look at exhibition schedule of the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center, and more specifically one show called FAP-#560, Two Chinese American Artists. Here’s a condensed version of the introduction:

“In May 1941, a watercolor exhibition organized by the Federal Art Project (FAP) traveled by train from Washington, DC, to the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center in New Mexico. Referred to as FAP #560 in federal paperwork, the watercolor show was one of many traveling exhibitions associated with the Federal Community Art Center Project. For the Roswell Museum, the prospect of receiving and exhibiting a contemporary watercolor show from the FAP had become a regular part of its operations, and if nothing else, the framed paintings would be among the easier group of objects to unpack and hang.

Fay Chong, Mt. Vernon, Washington, 1940s, watercolor on paper.

What made FAP #560 unusual as a traveling exhibition, however, was not the objects constituting its checklist, but its emphasis on the ethnicity of its contributing artists. It featured the work of two watercolorists, Dong Kingman of Oakland, California, and Fay Chong of Seattle, Washington, both of whom worked for the FAP and achieved critical success as watercolorists. Even more strikingly, the exhibition description accompanying the show asserted the positive contributions of immigrants to the American art scene, stating that “The contributions of the emigrant is vast and varied and scarcely to be estimated.” In a political climate often noted for its isolationist, xenophobic policies, the FAP’s decision to both highlight work from Asian Americans and call attention to their ethnicity as such initially seems radical. A closer consideration of this emphasis, however, underscores the ambivalence underpinning the FAP’s navigation of America’s ethnic art scenes.

Dong Kingman, Sketch 11-A, 1930s-1940s, watercolor on paper. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

This paper considers the significance of Two Chinese American Artists in relation to the exhibition practices of the FAP and the perception of Asian American artists in the United States. In comparison to the FAP’s other traveling exhibitions, FAP #560’s emphasis on the Chinese heritage and immigrant affiliations of Kingman and Chong suggest a willingness to acknowledge the positive contributions of ethnic artists to the American art scene. The predominantly American subject matter of the works themselves, moreover, which all feature titles in English rather than Chinese, suggest the successful assimilation of the two artists into the American art scene, with Kingman and Chong both creating place-based work reflecting the tenets of contemporary Regionalist movements. At the same time, however, the FAP’s emphasis on Kingman and Chong’s ethnic background highlights their otherness as immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. Additionally, the FAP’s description, intentionally or not, elides the regionally distinct California and Seattle art circles in which they worked into a single Asian American art scene, with ethnicity being the defining visual characteristic. While the exhibition’s tone is ultimately celebratory, it presents Kingman and Chong as foreigners first, American regionalists second. “

Exhibition checklist for FAP-#560, Roswell Museum and Art Center Library and Archive.

This has been a fun project to work on for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, it’s been a good opportunity to begin analyzing the content of the exhibition content of the Community Art Center Project, and to start thinking critically about the kinds of works featured in thee shows. It’s also allowed me to begin confronting the kinds of challenges I’ll be dealing with as I start looking at the Community Art Center Project exhibitions. Although I have a checklist for FAP-#560, for instance, I don’t have any images of the works, I don’t know their current whereabouts, and I’m not sure that they still go by the titles listed in the museum paperwork. In other words, works exhibited through the Community Art Center Project will likely be tricky to track down. While I’ll have more time to track down pieces when I’m working on the actual dissertation, in the meantime I’ve been looking up comparable examples for Kingman and Chong in collections online, books, and other places. They may not be the exact pieces on the checklist, but they’re close.

I’ve been thinking about speculative history since attending a lecture by Krista Thompson about artist and activist Tom Lloyd earlier this spring. Toward the end of the lecture, she posed several questions, not about Lloyd’s work as we know it, but rather his unfinished or incomplete projects, and invited the audience to speculate about these pieces with her. She also asked about us to think about the kinds of documents that hadn’t been preserved over the years, and what such an archive would look like if these lost documents were to be recovered. Ultimately it was all speculative, but thinking about invisible archives encouraged us to think beyond conventional archives and consider the kinds of sources that don’t get preserved in them.

I don’t know how this essay will exactly play into my dissertation, but it’s definitely been a good exercise in thinking about framing it. I’ve also had the opportunity to learn more about the work of two artists I had never heard of before now, as well as become acquainted with some of the art scenes in California and Seattle. All in all, I’d consider it a success.