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.