Brandon and I recently took a vacation up to New England to visit friends and family. It had been about two years since I’d last visited, so I was due for an excursion. As for Brandon, he’d never been to this region aside from a quick work trip to Connecticut, he’d never been to this region before, so it was all new to him.
We divided our time between three states: Maine, where my parents live; New Hampshire, where my sister lives with her family; and Vermont, where I spent two years as a curatorial fellow at Shelburne Museum. We spent a lot of time at the beach, and just outside in general, as the weather was pretty idyllic.
It was a lot of fun being able to take Brandon around and show him places where I used to live and work. He had done the same for me when we visited his friends and family down in Florida a couple of years ago, so I enjoyed returning the favor.
We also made sure to eat plenty of tasty food. I always look forward to eating fresh lobster when I’m back East, but it was especially fun seeing Brandon try it for the first time. I was also relieved that he enjoyed it. After talking it up for three years, it would have been deflating if he didn’t like it.
Aside from the fun of being able to revisit old haunts and spend time with family, going on vacation was also a good way to shake up my routine and reexamine my working habits with fresh eyes. I’m a big proponent of getting away from work periodically because I know from previous experience that you’ll likely burn out if you don’t. Going to New England was a good opportunity to take a break from my work, enjoy a change in surroundings and the creativity that goes with it, and reflect on how I can maximize my free time by being more efficient in the future.
This was especially revelatory when I was visiting Vermont. This was where I had learned printmaking, and while I haven’t pulled many impressions since moving to Virginia, revisiting the place where I first tried it out reignited my passion for it.
Once we finish moving into our new place later this month (more on that in a future post), I definitely want to invest in a pin press and start making impressions again. After all, my research is only one facet of my life, and going to New England reminded me of the importance of keeping my other interests alive.
Revisiting Vermont also reminded me how far I’ve come. As I mentioned in my old blog, I especially enjoyed living here, which make my initial relocation to Roswell somewhat difficult. While I knew my job in Roswell offered more professional opportunities, there was always a sense of pining for Vermont, if subconsciously. I didn’t regret relocating to New Mexico, but part of me always wondered how things would have turned out if I had managed to stay at Shelburne. During this recent visit, however, I didn’t feel that wistfulness, because I know that my professional, financial, and personal life is all the better for having left. Between being able to pay off my student loans, curating exhibitions such as Magical and Real, exploring the archive that would form that basis of my research here at William and Mary, and meeting Brandon, my life is richer for having left my comfort zone. Sharing my favorite places in Shelburne and Burlington with Brandon was a lot of fun, but I’m definitely glad I went to Roswell.
All in all, we both had a great time, and look forward to future adventures here together.
A few weeks ago, my parents emailed me a picture a cat belonging to their neighbor, Virginia, and asked me if I could draw of portrait of it for her.
Apparently, Virginia had seen a picture I’d done some years ago of a cat in my parent’s house, and all but absconded with it. My folks thought it would be a nice surprise then, to offer her a picture of one of her own cats, done by the same artist.
I’ll be honest: I don’t like drawing from photographs. They’re fine as references for details, but I’ve never liked copying from photos wholesale. I used to draw from photographs pretty regularly in high school, but subsequent art classes and studio sessions have instilled a preference for drawing from life. For me, drawing from a photograph is a translation of a translation, and something gets lost in the process. Don’t get me wrong, every artist has a different practice and I know several artists who work successfully with them, but I don’t count myself among them.
Virginia is one of the sweetest people I know, however, so I happily made an exception in this instance.
I started with a series of sketches to get to know the image better. Just as I know my best writing usually comes from extensive editing and revision, I need to sketch a subject several times before I feel comfortable with it and start approximating its actual appearance. Each time, I made adjustments as I honed my observations.
Eventually, I started getting something that looked less like a cartoon and more like a cat. This study then became the basis for the final drawing. I don’t draw cats regularly enough to consider myself a portraitist, but I still wanted to at least resemble what I saw in the picture.
With my final study in hand, I then began working on the final version. I started with a light pencil drawing on watercolor paper, and then went over the outlines in pen and ink. Once that dried, I erased the pencil. The drawing that Virginia had admired was rendered in charcoal, but since I knew the drawing would be traveling with me, I didn’t want it to get smeared or smudges in transit. Instead, I opted for a mixed media approach using pen and ink, ink wash, and paint.
Once I had the pencil outline, I used ink wash to begin adding values. Once that dried, I began adding paint, alternating between paint, ink wash, and line drawing to add details.
After about three or four hours, I had this:
This ended up being more fun than I thought it would. I had debated whether to keep it black and white or use color, but ultimately I was so taken with the cat’s pretty blue eyes that I felt obligated to render it in color. While I was concerned that working from a photograph would produce a stilted image, I think I managed to avoid that. The daily abstractions I’ve been painting have definitely made me more comfortable with painting in a looser manner, particularly in the cat’s body, which helped bring a sense of energy back to the composition. I’ll admit I still didn’t get the face quite right, but it’s close. As long as Virginia likes it, that’s all that matters.
Also Brandon says I need to start drawing our own cats more often.
After debating for months whether or not we should do it, Brandon and I decided to watch the pilot for the relaunch of Roswell. Our curiosity about how the show would interpret the place we lived in for several years finally overpowered us. I’ve never watched the original iteration of the series, so I don’t have that nostalgia working for or against me when it comes to this show.
We both went in expecting it wouldn’t be an accurate portrayal of the city. From the opening narration describing Roswell as a sleepy little town in 1947 (it was actually the second largest city in in New Mexico at the time), to a mountainous landscape that is more akin to Santa Fe than southeastern New Mexico, the Roswell we were seeing wasn’t the one we actually lived in. Not surprising, considering it was filmed in the Santa Fe/Las Vegas area.
Most of our riffing could be applied to any show supposedly set in a real location: the actors were too attractive to be average residents, the shops portrayed don’t actually exist, etc. etc. The parts it did get right, the small-town gossip, the drive-by shootings and other acts of violence, only seemed to highlight the negative aspects of the area.
To be fair, it’s encouraging to see a Latina in one of the lead roles, especially considering that more than 50% of Roswell’s population is Hispanic. The show also tackles issues of immigration and legal status, with the whitest characters being quite literally the illegal aliens. They also got the name of the county right (Chaves County), and the road you take into Roswell if you’re coming from the north, 285.
What got Brandon and me, however, was that the sense of place was off. I know they were going for an otherworldly feel, and heaven knows New Mexico has plenty of that, but most of the filming takes place in Las Vegas, a small town about 2.5 hours north of Roswell. That may not sound like much, but geographically and culturally, Las Vegas and Roswell are two very different places.
This was particularly apparent in the way Roswell approaches its UFO culture. In the show, Roswell has more or less fully embraced it (I always saw at least one person wearing the iconic diner outfit during the UFO Festival, but no one actually dresses like that in Roswell in everyday life), but the reality is more complex.
Roswell was founded in the 19th century as a ranching and agricultural community, and generations of people have lived there doing exactly that. White settlers first arrived around the 1860s, but indigenous and Hispanic communities predated them.
Particularly frustrating for science-minded folks is the fact that Roswell was home to real, hard science research before it became associated with ufology and conspiracy theories. During the 1930s, Robert H. Goddard, one of the first rocket scientists to seriously experiment with liquid fuel propulsion, relocated from Massachusetts to Roswell to continue his experiments, and spent the next 12 years building and launching rockets. His wife and partner, Esther Kisk Goddard, played a key role in documenting these experiments as well as doing pioneering work in extracting photographic stills from moving film. Their research continues to inform rocket science today, and the Roswell Museum is home to an important collection of their work.
Roswell also didn’t have a UFO tourist scene until the 1990s because the government had told residents to keep quiet about whatever had happened in 1947. I personally blame the enormous popularity of The X Files, and before you get on my case about not liking it, I used to watch it every week when it was on TV. In short, the whole Ufology thing is a relatively recent newcomer to Roswell’s cultural landscape. While Main Street certainly has a lot of UFO-themed places, there’s an ambivalence about it. At least when I was living there, it wasn’t so much a joyful embrace of kitsch as it was a sense of obligatory decoration. Walking downtown, I always got the impression the storefronts were saying: “look, we know this is what the tourists are into, but it’s not really our scene.” On the whole, residents other than a handful of artists tend to ignore the whole UFO scene altogether.
This sense of understated exasperation with the UFO scene becomes more relatable when you consider all the things that Roswell residents do get passionate about. In addition to its ranching, Roswell is home to a lively arts community. A lot of this comes from the phenomenal Artist-in-Residence program, which has been bringing artists from around the world to Roswell for over 50 years, but there are a lot of homegrown artists too. The gallery above, for example, belongs to Bone Springs Art Space, a labor of love from artist and educator Miranda Howe. A Roswell native, Howe spent four years renovating this vintage space, and is part of an artistic family that has been working creatively in Roswell for five generations. Her grandfather taught art classes at the Roswell Museum back in the 1950s, for instance, and her great-uncle was a prominent photojournalist. Her uncle, Kim Wiggins, is a prominent western artist, while her brother, Jeremy, paints with fireworks. Her mother, Elaine, started an art educational facility known as the Creative Learning Center. And that’s just one example of the creativity you’ll find in Roswell. While I don’t expect a show about aliens to address this side of the city, it is frustrating to see all that labor and effort get overshadowed.
The other thing off about the sense of place is the landscape. As I mentioned, Roswell is primarily filmed around Las Vegas, and the landscape here can range from hilly to mountainous. That’s fine, except that’s what you find primarily in northern New Mexico.
Southeastern New Mexico, where Roswell is located, is more akin to west Texas. It’s primarily flat with the occasional plateau or mesa. It does have one mountain, El Capitan, which is a landmark of the area. At first glance, the landscape might appear sparsely vegetated, uncannily clear and crisp due to the dry air, and even terrifying in its openness.
Yet there is a beauty to it, and part of my journey with living in Roswell was learning to see and accept it on its own terms. There are geological features like Bottomless Lakes, for example, which features a variety of water-filled sinkholes enveloped by red rocks. Even within the town itself, there’s a bright palette embedded in the soil or stretching across an evening sky if you’re willing to look for it. Indeed, one of the reasons I started painting abstract color blocks in the first place was to capture Roswell’s colors and counter anyone who argued that it was nothing but brown.
Artist Peter Hurd (1904-1984) understood Roswell’s distinct character. A Roswell native, he studied with illustrator NC Wyeth in the 1920s before returning to his home state to study and paint its beauty with an artist’s understanding. In paintings like The Gate and Beyond, he captures the stillness that characterizes this place while demonstrating its surprisingly colorful palette as rendered through pink soils and a turquoise sky. No wonder Roswellians love his work; through his paintings, he told residents that their town was worthy of aesthetic contemplation.
And the thing is, there are hilly regions around Roswell. San Patricio, where Hurd lived and worked as an adult, is located about 50 miles west of Roswell. Its landscape undulates as much as anything you’ll see in Las Vegas, and in the warm glow of the evening light, it’s just as spectacular. Yet it’s different from what you find up north, and anyone who has spent time in southeastern New Mexico would recognize that immediately if they watched the show. Having been fortunate enough to visit San Patricio on several occasions, it’s just a little frustrating to see it get elided with the Las Vegas landscape. Not that there’s anything wrong with Las Vegas, I’ve been there too and it is beautiful, but it’s not synonymous with southeastern New Mexico.
But I’m starting to sound curmudgeonly. After all, what people want in a show like Roswell, New Mexico is aliens, and that’s definitely the focus. And there’s nothing wrong with liking the show. If it makes you happy, by all means, watch it.
Just don’t assume that what you see on TV is the real Roswell. If you want to see that, go there and experience it for yourself. Also, don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t look like Santa Fe or Taos or any of the more famous communities in the northern part of the state. Instead, approach it on its own terms, and you may be pleasantly surprised by what you see.
Most academics I know want their work to be relevant to today’s issue’s and concerns. After all, showing how your research sheds light on specific social or economic issues can make it easier to get your work published, to receive grants, and even just have an answer to the ever-aggravating but vital question, “who cares?” In short, showing how your work matters can help vindicate all the time and energy spent on researching what can at times be pretty obscure topics.
I’ve been thinking about relevance quite a bit in my own work recently. To be fair, I think the idea of arts accessibility is an important topic, so exploring that more deeply by considering how the WPA approached it is a worthwhile pursuit that we could stand to learn more from. But I’ve also been thinking about another topic pertaining to art centers, in light of some of the feedback I’ve been getting from the research I’ve shared so far.
Whenever I present, I usually focus on three facets of the Roswell Museum’s programming: exhibitions, classes, and special events. Of the three, one event gets the most attention, and that’s the staging of Los Pastores on December 27, 1938.
Los Pastores is a mystery play that was performed in Roswell beginning in at least the mid-19th century. Mystery plays are dramatizations of the Bible that first developed in medieval Europe, and likely followed Spanish colonists to the Americas. Mystery plays tend to take a lot of creativity with the stories they tell, with devils, angels, and other characters adding elements of comedy or drama to the narrative. While some have been written down, they were primarily an oral tradition, with each region developing its own interpretation.
Los Pastores is a comedic retelling of the Nativity from the viewpoint of the shepherds. Basically, they hear about the birth of Christ, devils try to intercept their journey, and shenanigans ensue. Eventually all ends well, with the shepherds arriving at the site and paying their respects to the Holy Family. In Roswell, Los Pastores was an oral tradition performed in Chihuahita, Roswell’s historic Hispanic district. Roland Dickey, director of the museum at the time, learned about the play during a visit to Chihuahita, and invited the all-male cast to give a special performance. They did, and it was very well-received, with about one hundred people attending. For comparison, 80-100 attendees at an exhibition opening today is considered good, so this was a high number, especially given that Roswell’s population was about 12,500 compared to today’s 48,000, give or take.
This performance was important for a couple of reasons. One, it was the first time that the play was performed outside of Chihuahita, giving the rest of Roswell an opportunity to witness a unique cultural performance from one of its communities. Second, the play was performed in Spanish, and the audience enjoyed it.
Let me repeat that. The play was performed in Spanish, and the audience enjoyed it. When was the last time you heard about Americans responding well to hearing Spanish?
One of the attendees at the “Presenting the Collective” conference I went to last month suggested that I explore this point more deeply in my future research. As has been noted in recent studies, Americans are particularly hostile to hearing languages other than English, especially Spanish. We’ve all seen videos where somebody shouts out “Speak English!” or “Go Back to Your Own Country!” or something to that effect whenever somebody speaks a language other than English.
What’s frustrating about this hostility is that the United States has always been a polyglot region. Texas was home to several German communities for instance, and of course, New York was always home to multiple ethnicities and languages. Some of the most seminal modern literature of the twentieth century plays with different languages and idioms, from Call It Sleep to All I Asking For Is My Body, and a lot of our colloquialisms stem from Yiddish and other languages, whether it’s kibbutz to demarcate gossip, or Italian’s pronto in lieu of ASAP. Some early Americans even advocated making Hebrew the official language of the United States rather than English, as part of an effort to make a linguistic as well as political break from Great Britain.
The western states, where Spanish is most often associated with foreignness, is particularly complicated, as Katherine Beton-Cohen explores in her book, Borderline Americans. Prior to the mid-19th century, territories such as New Mexico and Arizona were territories of first New Spain, then Mexico. The families who lived there had often been there for generations, much longer than the Anglo settlers who moved there in the wake of the Homestead Act. Yet despite their longevity, they are often associated with foreignness, with the Spanish language being associated with un-Americanness.
This is what makes Los Pastores so important as performance. Like many southwestern communities, Roswell was polyethnic, with the Hispanic population primarily keeping to itself in Chihuahita. For the most part, the museum followed these social and racial boundaries by offering classes in different parts of town, with Hispanic students going to classes in Chihuahita, and white students going to other locations in Roswell. Yet for this one special performance, the Hispanic community shared Los Pastores, a part of their cultural heritage, with their Anglo neighbors. Not only that, they presented it in Spanish, just as they would for their own community. And the audience enjoyed it. Newspapers at the time all commented on the positive reception, and Roland Dickey remembered it as one of the most successful events ever staged at the museum.
I don’t know how this will play into my future research, but in an era marked by hostility toward the different I agree with the student who spoke to me. It’s important to show historic examples of tolerance, because it disspels misconceptions about America being monolithic or monolingual. Not only that, it offers an example of the fruitful exchanges that can happen when we’re tolerant, and how much richer life can be when we embrace and explore differences.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. “
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.
Last week I talked about a wonderful conference I attended in Michigan. Today I’ll tell you more about my adventures in Michigan itself.
I spent most of my time in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. With its funky restaurants and eclectic shops, it reminded me of a larger version of Burlington, Vermont, a city I frequented during my days at Shelburne Museum. It’s more than twice the size of Burlington with a population of 100,000 though, so there was a lot to see and do.
The campus itself, at least what I saw of it, is also quite lovely, with lots of old building in a variety of architectural styles. You’ve got plenty of neoclassical facades, of course, as at the art museum, but you’ve also got more eclectic Victorian styles such as Richardsonian Romanesque, as is the case with the Archaeology Department at Newberry Hall. Lake Forest College, my alma mater, has an anthropology department housed in a building similar to this one.
And did I mention there are multiple used bookstores?
As fun as Ann Arbor was to explore, however, the real highlight of my trip outside of the conference itself was my excursion to Detroit to see its Institute of Arts. I hadn’t initially planned on going, but when one of my fellow presenters reminded me it was less than an hour away, I knew I couldn’t pass up that opportunity.
Golly, am I glad I went; what a collection!
One of the salient points of the collection is its fresco cycle from Diego Rivera. Painted between 1932-1933 and commissioned for the museum by Edsel Ford, the cycle depicts modern manufacturing in Detroit, specifically the famed assembly line at the Ford factories. Rivera was fascinated with modern industry and it really shows in this piece, with the artist carefully weaving complex yet legible compositions from steel, rubber, and other modern materials. Rivera being Rivera, there’s also class commentary and critiques of capitalism going on here, as he reflects on both the positive and negative products of modern manufacturing, from pharmaceuticals to poison gas, to workers who become increasingly indistinguishable from the machinery they work.
Given the size of the museum, it has over 65,000 objects, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see everything, but of what I did see, I was impressed. I was really excited to encounter this Charles Sheeler, for instance. While probably best known today for his Precisionist renderings of industrial cityscapes, he also painted several interiors of his historical farmhouse in Bucks County. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and others praised his paintings for embodying a modern interpretation of vernacular America. After only encountering these paintings in photographic form, it was really exciting to see one in person. What struck me, aside from the variety of abstract patterns going on in the rugs and the repetition of shapes in furniture and cast shadows, is the sense of warmth from the painting. He does an excellent job of using reflected light and imperfect brushstrokes as rendered in the some of the rugs to both convey the texture of woven fibers and a sense of invitation. This may be a Precisionist-inspired composition, but it is by no means cold or unfeeling.
The contemporary collections are also outstanding, particularly the contemporary African American material, shown in the bottom image. The same fellow presenter who recommended I check out the museum had suggested this gallery to me, and again, I’m glad I went. The pieces in this gallery all conveyed a variety of complex emotions and experiences, from the grief of losing a loved one to resilience in the face of systemic racism and oppression. Anyone interested in American art, especially contemporary materials, should definitely check out this space.
There’s also plenty of material for more visitors with more historical tastes, as is the case with this Gothic family chapel, brought over from France in the years immediately following WWI. Brandon especially enjoyed this picture when I showed it to him, so if we ever go to Detroit together we’ll definitely be spending some time here.
What’s funny is that I could have worked here at one point. In 2017, when I was still at Roswell and beginning to research graduate programs, one of the curators reached out to me to apply for the Prints and Drawings Curator position, then open at the time. She had seen my CV on the Association of Print Scholars website and contacted me. After thinking it over I went ahead and applied, had a phone interview, and got invited out for an on-site session. I turned it down, however, because the Hurd/Wyeth retrospective I was working on at the time was less than a year from opening and I didn’t want to abandon the project.
In retrospect, I’m glad I went through with the graduate school applications. I’ve no doubt that working at the DIA would be immensely rewarding, but I probably would have also shelved my research on art centers indefinitely and not gone back for my PhD. The great thing about museums, however, is that no position is ever occupied forever, so who knows, maybe our paths will cross again. And if not, it’s definitely a fantastic place to visit and I heartily recommend it.
All in all, this was a great trip, and I got a lot out of it both professionally and personally.
I have a habit of ending my academic year somewhat frantically. At the end of my first year at Williams, I turned in all my papers a week early so that I could start a summer fellowship at the Old York Historical Society. The following year, barely a week after graduating, I moved from New England to Wyoming to commence an internship at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. This year, I drove 12 hours to Michigan the day after I turned in my last paper to present at a conference.
But what a conference! As harried as I may have felt preparing for it, I’m really glad I went.
The conference in question was “Making History Public(s): Presenting the Collective,” sponsored by the University of Michigan’s History Department. The topic of the conference, as the title suggests, was public history. Many of the papers addressed the practical side of teaching public history, with examples including a paper describing the collaborative process of reinterpreting of a historic farm space on a limited budget, or a paper describing a potential class syllabus on police brutality. Others dealt with more historical instances of public-building, as was the case in a paper describing the infrastructure needed to transport live giraffes to the United States during the 19th century, or a presentation exploring the racial and gender implications of teeth whitening during the 18th century.
My paper fell into the latter camp, as I was talking about the Roswell Museum’s public building during the WPA era. Essentially I explored federal art centers as venues for both art education and community-building through a case study of the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico, as it’s the art center I still know best at this point. I argued that from its inception, the Roswell Museum navigated ongoing tensions between the expectations of its local sponsors and federal staff regarding public outreach and engagement, as federal personnel and local supporters often had different expectations for the museum. Despite these disagreements, the museum consistently attempted to address multiple audiences by inviting visitors to contribute objects to exhibitions, offering classes at different locations in town, and acting as a performance space. After providing an overview of these activities, I then shared a few pages from my Scalar book as a means of showing how digital scholarship can begin to render the publics affiliated with these institutions more readily visible.
This was a great conference for me for several reasons. From a topical standpoint, this was the first time I participated in a conference in a discipline other than art history or museum studies, so it was a good way to test whether my work really is interdisciplinary enough to engage other academic fields. It had also been about two years since I last presented in this type of academic setting, so it was a good opportunity to refamiliarize myself with that process.
Most importantly, I got some good feedback about my work, received helpful suggestions or recommendations for moving forward, and made some great new contacts. As I mentioned in a previous post, I participated in a lot of conferences when I was working, but the papers usually related to an exhibition I was working on at the time. As soon as the show opened, my research on it usually ceased so that I could move on to the next thing. I’m going to be living with my art center work for a long time though, so conferences will be a good way to present ongoing work and new ideas as I keep digging into the subject. If nothing else, the reception I got at this conference was a good reminder that the work I’m doing is interesting and worthwhile to people other than myself.
The conference was good for more than academics, however. Stay tuned next week to learn about my adventures in Michigan itself.