What I’ve Learned from My Classes

A couple of weeks ago I turned in my last paper for the semester. While finishing the semester isn’t a new experience for me, this time it felt a little more momentous than usual.

You see, with this final submission, I finished my coursework.

Of course, I’m far from finished at William and Mary, but completing my coursework is a big first step in the program. Today then, I’d like to reflect on what I’ve learned from the classes I’ve taken here as I get ready for phase two of my work, reading for comprehensive exams.

Coming from an art history background, taking courses at William and Mary was pretty different in terms of subject matter, as I didn’t actually take any art courses. Instead, I took classes in history, literature, digital humanities, and other topics. Many of these courses were interdisciplinary in nature, combining anthropology, history, and other topics. It was definitely a change in pace with what I had taken before, but I had fun getting out of my comfort zone a bit and exploring different topics.

A lot of what I learned was specific to the course materials. Digital Humanities was a great introduction to a field I’ve long heard about but hadn’t engaged for example, and gave me the opportunity to build my own project. American Capitalisms encouraged me to think more critically about museums through the lens of consumerism. Movement, Migration, and Mobility introduced me to some theoretical frameworks, such as emplacement and nomadism, for thinking about how art moves around. Modern America bolstered my historical background of the United States while also providing an overview of major trends in its historiography. In terms of subject matter, I learned a lot that will enrich my future research on the Community Art Center Project.

The most important lessons I learned though, were less about specific course materials and more about general approaches to my academic life. So here are a few of my biggest takeaways:

  1. There is no monolithic American Studies as a discipline: When I was in art history, there was a canon of readings we were expected to get through. You went over different methodological approaches such as iconography, phenomenology, and deconstruction. With American Studies it’s more free form. You decide which disciplines work best for your work, and which traditions you wish to follow or challenge. This would have terrified me as a younger grad student. These days I appreciate the open-endedness of it, though I’m glad I have a grounding in another academic discipline like art history.
  2. You don’t have to be the expert in everything: because you aren’t. Contrary to popular images of the isolated scholar, a lot of academic work occurs in collaboration. I’ve shared reading lists and given Scalar tutorials, while my colleagues have offered reading suggestions and new research angles. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather your willingness to work with others.
  3. Be open to trying out new things: Over the course of my time here, I’ve read early 20th-century literature and applied its close-reading techniques to my own research, learned basic coding in Anaconda, and read about the development of highways. All of this was new to me, but I’ve enjoyed all of it. More importantly, being willing to try new subjects or academic angles will help with my ongoing research.
  4. Experience can be an advantage: When our website manager at the Roswell Museum left in 2015 without a replacement, I taught myself to use WordPress in order to keep it updated (the museum has since upgraded to a different platform). At the time, I considered it a drain on my time and resources, but the experience I got from tinking around with that program came in handy during my Digital Humanities class. Thanks to the hours I spent working around code and uploading pictures, I was willing to play around with Scalar and other digital platforms, eventually creating a fairly elaborate project for my own work. In short, don’t dismiss your previous experiences, no matter how unrelated they may seem to your interests.
  5. You don’t have to give 100% all the time: This is probably the most important thing I’ve learned since being back in school. At Williams, I habitually stayed up until 1 am or later working on papers because I thought I had to give everything I had all the time. If you give that much of yourself all the time, you’re setting yourself up for burnout. Not every paper is going to be brilliant, not every observation is going to be mind-shattering. The important thing is to show up and do something consistently, however small, however mundane. Cumulatively, those small efforts will build into something momentous.

So those are the main takeaways from three semesters of coursework. After being out of academia for several years, it was nice to get back in a classroom again, but I’m also happy to be finished with classes. After all, I came here to write a dissertation, so I’m eager to get one step closer toward that goal.

So here’s to lessons learned and a productive 2020 for everyone!

Good Tidings, 2019 Edition

With December comes the onslaught of consumption, debate, and cheer associated with the holidays (though let’s be honest, it starts much sooner and goes away much later, if it ever does). I’ve been up to my own holiday activities too, with the main one being my annual card. Today’s post will take a look at what I’ve been printing.

Every year I try to vary my printing process, both to challenge myself and to keep things interesting for the people who receive them. The one theme unifying all my cards, however (with perhaps the exception of the first one), is the use of local or regional scenery I’ve sketched. When I was in Roswell, I featured local plant life, animals, and famous New Mexico artwork. For my first year here in Virginia, I featured one of the buildings in Colonial Williamsburg.

For 2019’s card, I decided to highlight the giant magnolia flowers that caught my attention over the spring and summer. I’d seen magnolia blooms before, but they had always been the smaller varieties that come in pink or white. I hadn’t seen the giant ones in person before though, and their luminous, almost leathery petals and strong fragrance really intrigued me. I sketched them on multiple occasions while they were in bloom, and have been experimenting with printed versions, so it only seemed fitting that I include it on the card.

This study, itself based on a quick pencil sketch I did on a bike ride, became the basis for this year’s card.

As for the actual printing technique, this year was all about using leftover materials. Initially this approach developed from necessity: I couldn’t find the supplies I wanted at the local craft store and didn’t feel like driving to Richmond. What initially started out as a frustrating lack of access, however, became an opportunity to look at what materials I already had available in a new creative light. After all, a lot of the art I’ve made takes inspiration from older, long-forgotten sketch material or unfinished prints, so why not turn the same creative eye to the actual art supplies themselves? With that, I began rummaging through my art supply chest again, and found I already had everything I needed to make my cards.

I had some leftover relief printing blocks from a workshop I taught in Roswell a few years ago, so I used one of these. I had used these to make demo carvings for my students, but they’re not the kind of block I usually like to. They have a soft, eraser-like consistency, and tend to crumble if you try to add a lot of detail, but they’d work for a small, simple magnolia.

The tissue paper after I’d cut it up.

I was originally going to print my flowers on some marbled Rives paper I’d made back in Roswell, but I didn’t have enough sheets to make a full edition (I had gone to the craft store looking for new marbling supplies). A second look in my art chest, however, revealed a whole stack of marbled tissue paper I’d done with the intention of making chine-colle prints, but never got around to doing.

Getting ready to glue the tissue paper onto card stock.

Knowing the surface would be too delicate for a block print, I cut up the tissue paper into individual squares and glued them on to a white card stock I’d gotten for metal point drawings, using Modge Podge as the binder. Once the paper dried, I began printing. I initially printed the magnolia in white ink, but it didn’t show up well against the busy marbled background, so I switched to black.

Finally, I glued the individual prints onto some card stock I picked up last year, again using Modge Podge. Here are the finished prints:

A selection of the finished cards.

I think I did a pretty good job using what I have. I’m guilty of buying art supplies while ignoring the materials I already have available, so this card exercised my creativity in a different way. Rather than just automatically buy what I wanted, I looked at what was already in my box and finally put some long-neglected materials to use. I think we’d all benefit from that kind of introspection and purposeful reuse.

Good tidings, everyone.

TA Reflections: Utopia in the Americas

Classes ended on December 6, but I’ve been keeping busy between grading final essays and finishing my own semester projects. With finals coming to an end later this week, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on my experiences with TAing this semester.

Proposed illustration for New Harmony, Robert Owen’s utopian community. Image courtesy of https://quadralectics.wordpress.com/4-representation/4-1-form/4-1-4-cities-in-the-mind/4-1-4-2-the-future-city/
  • Course Material: While I had some experience with utopian societies through my visits to Shaker villages, I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on the subject. Honestly though, not having that expertise can be an advantage because it allows you and your students to explore a new subject together. Although I did read the course materials over the summer so that I’d be familiar with them, I’d share questions I had or things I didn’t understand with my discussion section so that we could talk through them together. Students feel more confident, I think, when they see you learning along with them.
  • Lectures: I didn’t do a lot of lecturing, but the presentation I gave on art colonies would have been at home with any of my other museum talks. What was different was the substitute lecture I gave on Nathaniel Hawthorne in September, as Professor Donaldson was out of town that week and I agreed to take over. I haven’t read Hawthorne since high school, but luckily Professor Donaldson left me plenty of notes that I expanded and rearranged with a little research.
  • Discussion time: I was responsible for guiding student discussions every Friday. Basically I saw myself as a facilitator: my job was to encourage students to talk through their ideas by asking questions and giving feedback. Being a good discussion leader requires patience, flexibility, and good listening. Some days the students will be on fire; other times they may be more reticent, especially if the readings were especially long or confusing. All that said, here are some techniques I found helpful:
    • Have the students set their own expectations: On the first day of class, I had the students decide what the rules would be for the class, which I wrote down for them on the chalkboard. This gave them a sense of ownership over the space and encouraged them to hold one another accountable.
    • Opening video/image: I usually tried to find a short video to play at the beginning of class to help emphasize a course theme. When we were reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, for instance, I found a video of a player piano doing Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag to emphasize the book’s concerns with automation.
    • Pairing and sharing: This is one of the most effective ways to get students to talk, especially if they’re being on the quiet side. At the beginning of class, after announcements, I’d pair them off into small groups of two or three. They’d discuss a specific question I’ve chosen for a few minutes. If we were talking about a book, I’d have them note specific pages or passages they could quote to support their observations. Finally, we’d come back together and have each group share what they discussed. It’s a common approach in seminar-type settings. One of my professors used it often this semester, for instance, and I implemented it frequently during the Keio program. What I like about it is that it gets everyone to say something.
  • Office hours: When office hours are optional, students generally don’t come, so I used that time for prep work. In the future though, I think I’d have them sign up for a time to see me at least at the beginning of the semester. That way I could learn more about each student’s interests, experience, and potential scheduling issues, which would help me be a better teacher for them.
  • Writing: Writing was a big part of this class, but not everyone has the same background or experience. While I wrote a lot of commentary on my students’ papers, and offered general suggestions in class, in the future I’d like to be more proactive about teaching good writing and citations. If I were to teach a class, I’d incorporate writing a research paper into the syllabus through staggered assignments or workshops. I’d emphasize proper citations by having students hand in draft bibliographies, for example, and perhaps even a draft page of their paper with different citations in place. Beyond getting the technical aspects down, I’d use citations as an opportunity to discuss the importance of giving people credit for their work. In an era plagued by fake news, moreover, I think it’s important to teach students to critically assess their sources and support their arguments with factual evidence.

So how do I feel about teaching? I enjoyed it, but I’m leaving my options open because I know how difficult it is to get a job in academia. I’m glad I did it though, and I’d definitely like to teach my own class in the future, as at the very least it will make me more marketable to academic museums. If nothing else, I enjoyed getting to read about a variety of interesting topics, and sharing that experience with some very bright, motivated undergraduates.

Brandon’s CW Adventures, One Year Later

It’s hard to believe, but Brandon’s been the Senior Preparator at Colonial Williamsburg for a year now. He’s done a lot in that time, so I thought we’d take a break from my work to highlight some of his accomplishments.

As Senior Preparator, Brandon is responsible for safely transporting objects to, within, and from Colonial Williamsburg. A lot of these pieces include furniture, but we’re not talking about IKEA tables and couches. Early American southern furniture tends to be heavy because it’s made from various kinds of hard and softwoods, and comes in tall, cumbersome shapes that we usually don’t use anymore, such as large cabinets or bookcases. Depending on the time period, these works might also feature carved ornaments and other decorations, details that can snap off easily if you’re not paying attention. While many of these do come in pieces, they’re still heavy to move around. Because of their age, moreover, they’re fragile as well as bulky. Moving historical objects, in other words, presents distinct challenges.

Brandon picked up these pieces on his very first work trip, after he’d been at CW for about a week. He’s been on the go ever since.

A big part of Brandon’s job is bringing in new pieces to the collection, whether as temporary loans or new acquisitions. Since this usually requires traveling to private homes rather than more standardized museum galleries, Brandon often has to work around the challenges of moving valuable and often cumbersome antiques through unpredictable spaces in terms of layout, furniture concentration, and temperature control. The photograph above shows some of the very first pieces Brandon transported, on a trip to Kentucky. Once he moved the works to CW, he then installed them at the Rockefeller Museum. He’s also taken trips to Atlanta, South Carolina, and even Connecticut (and drove a van through Manhattan to get there, by the way) to pick up works for the collection.

Although Brandon does travel pretty regularly, most of his time is spent at CW itself, as there’s plenty of movement here to keep him busy. He brings pieces to the conservation labs for assessment, for instance, or assists curators with the seasonal changeout of furnishings in the different houses. He’s recently been going to historical properties such as the Wythe House to move around furniture or switch out the bedding to reflect the proper season.

Another of Brandon’s big tasks was moving all the firearms out of the foyer in the Governor’s Palace. As the waiting space for visitors, this room was designed to show off the wealth and power of the British Empire, with marble floors, royal seals, and loads of weapons intended to impress the viewer. The room had dark wood walls, but ongoing research revealed that it was actually painted white originally. As a result, everything had to be taken down so that the space could be painted, including all those weapons you see on the walls. Since CW hadn’t anticipated needing to take down on the guns in one go, Brandon had to improvise a safe yet efficient way to do so. How did he solve this conundrum? He found some unused crates down in one of the storage areas and modified them with padding and other materials.

Bassett Hall is an 18th-century farmhouse that was the home of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his wife, Abby Aldrich. Here it is newly decorated for a WW2 holiday theme.

Here’s another picture of some of his installation work. This was taken at Bassett Hall, home ofJohn D. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. It was recently redecorated for the holiday season, and shows a Christmas celebration from the WWII era. Brandon helped place and decorate the tree, as well as move the furniture around the room.

Colonial Williamsburg isn’t the only place where Brandon works on installations. Whenever CW lends out pieces for exhibition, Brandon transports and installs them. The works above all form part of an exhibition currently on view at the Chrysler Museum, Thomas Jefferson, Architect. This show looks at Jefferson’s complicated legacy as an Enlightenment-era architect, inventor, writer, and owner of enslaved people. The objects Brandon transported all dated from Jefferson’s time, including candlesticks, an antislavery medallion, a chair, and other objects. The painting depicting Europa and Jupiter disguised as a white bull is an eighteenth-century copy of a work by Guido Reni, and was actually on view in Raleigh Tavern while Jefferson was in Williamsburg, so it’s possible that he saw it.

Brandon’s also been working with curators on installing a new show, British Masterworks, which features some of the most sumptuous furniture and decorative objects from the permanent collection.

These pieces are not only heavy, their intricate forms make them challenging to move and requires a lot of planning and consultation with curators and conservators. In the case of the mirror, Brandon hung it and inserted the bird sculptures on it as well.

By far Brandon’s biggest task, however, is preparing for the installation of brand-new galleries currently under construction at CW’s art museums, scheduled to open next year. As Senior Preparator, Brandon works closely with all of the museum staff to determine the layout of brand-new galleries. It’s an ongoing task that demands patience and flexibility because curators and conservators often have different priorities when it comes to moving and placing objects. Brandon’s job is to navigate these different expectations while making sure the objects remain safe. Since the new galleries are still under construction, he’s mostly been working in the extant spaces, moving works around so that construction workers can modify and update them.

Brandon’s gotten up close and personal with George Washington, as painted by Charles Willson Peale. He’s helped move this life-size portrait a couple of times since working at CW, usually to accommodate construction schedules.

Next year though, he’ll be involved with a lot of new spaces, installing them for the very first time. Over the next several months, he’ll help move and place all kinds of objects from the permanent collection into brand new spaces. It will be a busy time, but I’m confident Brandon will excel because he’s been doing such a stellar job at CW already.

If you can’t tell already, I’m very proud of Brandon and the work he’s been doing. His work at CW not only demands ongoing creative problem-solving in terms of moving objects, but also soft skills such as empathy and good communication because he works with so many different kinds of people, whether they’re curators, donors, conservators, or educators. If you’ve walked through one of CW’s homes lately, or taken a stroll through the art museums, you’ve seen his efforts first-hand, even if you haven’t known it. I know the next year will be busy for him, but he’ll do a great job and I can’t wait to see the results of all his hard work.

Ongoing Art Project: Colors of Autumn

With only a few weeks left to go in 2019, I’m coming to the final entries for my daily abstraction project. As we continue working toward the winter months, today we’ll take a look at what I’ve been painting this autumn.

Colors of September. Still pretty green (and hot and humid), but you start seeing the hints of red or yellow.

By far the one subject that has preoccupied my attention has been the foliage. Growing up in New England, I’ve long been accustomed to seeing the trees turn bright red and yellow come late September, and watching that transition is what makes autumn one of my favorite times of the year.

Williamsburg area foliage, early October to late November.

Indeed, it never really feels like fall if I don’t see those kinds of color changes, and I’ll go out of my way to experience them if I can. When I lived in Roswell, for example, I used to drive 2+ hours to Cloudcroft, the nearest place with maple trees, just so I could get some autumnal color. Knowing that I can see those changes here in Virginia just by walking through my neighborhood is yet another reason why I like living in this area.

One major difference between fall color here and in New England is the duration. It doesn’t really pick up here until well into October, but it lasts well into November. From what I remember growing up in Maine, a frost or cold wind had usually stripped off the leaves by early November, but as recently as last week I could still walk along forest paths in Williamsburg and see them glowing with yellow or red.

Colors of October. The fall foliage is definitely becoming more prominent.

It may not be quite as saturated as what you see in New England, but I really appreciate how long it lingers here. Looking back through the abstractions I’ve painted these past few months, it’s fun being able to follow along as the season unfolds, with the various greens giving way to reds and yellows.

Autumn-themed bouquets from Brandon. The chrysanthemums on the right were especially fun to paint.

While foliage has been the most frequent subject in these recently color blocks, it’s not the only topic I’ve been exploring. Brandon, ever the wonderful person he is, has periodically gotten me bouquets reflecting the season’s palettes, and these have made their way into my painting. What makes Brandon so thoughtful is that he picks out flowers based on what he thinks I’ll enjoy drawing, and these latest bouquets have been no exception.

Whether they’re inspiring jack-o-lanterns or watching strange cats outside, Gustave and Iris never cease to entertain.

The cats have also appeared with greater frequency. With the weather getting cooler, they’ve been snuggling up with us more often for warmth, so I’ve simply been seeing them more regularly. As the foliage slowly falls away and the landscape becomes more dormant, they’re always there to entertain with their antics, whether it’s chasing each other around the house, pilfering my blanket, or having a staring contest with a strange cat outside, as they do in one of the abstractions here.

In terms of technique, I’ve continued incorporating the kinds of mark-making I’ve been exploring in previous seasons, such as splatter or scraping. The most notable new addition is my exploration of duration and time.

Same tree, different days and abstractions.

These blocks, for example, all show the tree outside my study window, but on different days. What started out as mostly green with flits of yellow turned increasingly orange, and finally brown. While painting these gradually changes abstractly is new for me, the idea of revisiting the same scene at different times of day or year is not. On my previous blog, for example, I described a project where I took prints I’d made of a silo in Roswell and painted the sky to show sunsets I’d recorded at different times of year.

Same sunset, different times. I used the tree branches I could see outside my window as dividing lines between the different sections.

What is new for me is showing the shift in time within one painting. With this sunset scene, for example, I divided the colors into sections, with each part showing how the sky appeared at a specific time. So what started out as a subtle peach sunset flared out into brilliant orange, then gave way to purple. Rather than limit the block to one time, I painted it over a duration so that I could render all of its colors. I didn’t do a lot of this kind of time recording but I may continue exploring it in December.

Colors of Williamsburg, November

Autumn technically lasts for a few more weeks, but Christmas decorations have already overtaken what foliage remains, so the cultural ether has already begun to shift toward winter. In the meantime, I’ll keep finding interesting things to paint as I round off what has been a most illuminating and enriching experiment.