A Still Life for Grammie, Part Two

Last week I started talking about a recent still life I wanted to paint in memory of my grandmother. Today, I’ll show you how I went about completing that work.

I started by lightly sketching the still life onto the canvas with pencil. Some artists have the confidence the go right at the canvas with no underdrawing, but I prefer having guiding lines. Drawing is the medium I work in most frequently, anyway, so whenever I paint drawing informs it on some level. Once I had the basic drawing in place, I went over the initial outlines with dark brown paint so that I could see the composition. From there, it was time to start painting in earnest.

I layered tranlucent glazes of green over a red base. This particular begonia has a red underside that shines through when placed in the right light. Using glazes enabled me to recreate that effect.

When painting, I prefer working with thin, light layers rather than thick impastos, gradually building up the surface. I love glazing in particular, a technique where you paint translucent layers of pigment on top of one another.

Jan Van Eyck, The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin, c. 1434-1435, oil on panel, 66 x 62 cm. Musee de Louvre.

Northern Renaissance artists such as Jan Van Eyck and Rogier Van der Weyden used this technique to create their richly-detailed paintings, works that almost glow with all the layers of paint shining through. I’m not Van Eyck by any stretch of the imagination (I also primarily paint in quick-drying acrylic rather than slow-drying oil paints), but I’ve loved these works ever since I first studied them in college, and they continue to inform my work.

A related technique to glazing is scumbling, where you layer lighter colors over dark ones. I used both approaches for this drapery. I layered red and blue over one another to create a deep violet. I then added white for highlights, followed by transparent blue glazes.

Using these techniques, I fleshed out the painting over a few days. As I worked, I contemplated the fickle nature of memory itself. Memories comprise a vital component of our personalities, yet as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia painfully demonstrate, they can be destroyed just like anything else. Less dramatically, memories change and evolve over time as our own developing wisdom and experiences reshape our perceptions of the past. Nostalgia, that seemingly benign but in my opinion potentially dangerous emotion, idealizes our perception of the past, making us yearn for a romanticized interpretation of yesterday that never existed. Practically every social interaction relies on the use of memory in one form or another, whether from simply recollecting someone’s name to recalling years’ of previous interactions, yet it’s a highly malleable essence.

Memory was a particularly important aspect of creating this painting, given that Grammie had slowly lost hers. As I layered glazes over one another, I imagined what it would be like to remake or recreate memories. I couldn’t recreate Grammie’s memories, of course, but making a painting that featured one of her treasured objects was a comfort to me, allowing me to recreate something for her.

I also thought about Grammie’s creativity as I worked. In addition to gardening, she was a textile artist. She made prize-winning hooked rugs and practiced embroidery. Through her church, she sewed book-bags for low-income children in her community, and always made a point in picking out colorful fabrics with vibrant patterns. She was also a skilled baker and cook, and played the piano. She expressed her creativity in a variety of ways, and for me, painting this little still life was a way of paying homage to her many creations.

Finally, I had this piece:

This was definitely a personal project, and a very therapeutic one to complete. Painting this allowed me to think about Grammie in postive ways, and to remember all the wonderful things she had done over her life. I’ll probably end up giving this to my parents, as the process is more important to me than the finished product, but I’m glad I completed this.

A Still Life for Grammie, Part One

My paternal grandmother passed away in October.

She’d been suffering from dementia for several years, so in many respects, the person I knew and loved had already been gone for some time. Still, Grammie was a seminal presence to my childhood and early adulthood, so I couldn’t help but be affected by her passing. Whether she was taking me to the farm down the street to feed the animals, making waffles for special breakfasts, or calling to talk about my classes in college, Grammie was an important, loving presence for me. While I’m relieved that she no longer has to endure her illness, I can’t help but be a little sad knowing that I’ll never talk to her again.

A year or so earlier, my aunt had mailed me this plaster bust that had belonged to Grammie. Attributed to Daniel Chester French, this bust had lived in one of Grammie’s curio cabinets for decades, and I can remember it peering from the corner of the living room during visits, surveying the space with that serene gaze of hers. After cleaning out the home, my aunt mailed the bust to me, thinking I’d be interested in it due to my art history background. Personally I’m not sure it’s a French best, the hair is a little too fussy for him and the facial features don’t fit his generic allegorical type, but that’s beside the point for me. It’s a family heirloom and I’m honored to look after it.

I started thinking about the bust again after Grammie passed. Although I’d done some informal sketches with it, I’d never done a finished painting or print with it. During the winter break, however, I decided to make a painting with it, as making art is one of the ways I process loss.

I started with some detailed sketches of an angel wing begonia my mother had given me. An avid gardener, Grammie had always maintained several houseplants in addition to outdoor flower and vegetable plots, so I wanted to reference the horticultural talents that were always on display in her home. I focused on the begonia in particular because I liked the shape of its leaves and contrast between the olive green tops of the leaves and the warm red underneath.

From there, I brought out the bust and started sketching it with the plant. Given how fragile this piece is, I didn’t want to keep it out on the coffee table for several days, given the cats’ penchant for testing gravity. After sketching the bust from a few different angles, I settled on a profile pose and did a detailed drawing.

Once I had a drawing that demarcated the composition and the modeling in particular, I put the bust away. Now it was time to start painting.

Stay tuned to see how this project turned out.

What I’m Taking This Semester, Spring Edition

The spring semester commenced in mid-January, so classes have been in session for a few weeks. Let’s take a look at what I’m studying this time around.

My first class for the week is Modern US, which meets on Monday afternoons. Although I took a lot of history classes in college, none of them concentrated on US history per se (I almost became a medievalist, but that’s another story), so I thought this would be a good opportunity to fill in some gaps. It’s a discussion-based course rather than a survey, with the readings focusing on the American West. I’ve got some familiarity with the West from having lived out there, but my understanding of it revolves around the Southwest, New Mexico, Arizona, etc. The West is enormous, however, so I appreciate getting to learn about other regions. I also like how the books make a point of connecting the West with national history in general, so I’m getting to learn more about how it influenced policies in other regions.

We read this for the first session of Modern US. This book deemhasizes political boudaries in favor of family networks as the source of power in western communities during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

On Wednesday I have Ethnic Modernism. This course looks as modernism as it developed through various ethnic groups in order to demonstrate that white men alone did not invent it. While it takes a look at art, literature, and music, it’s primarily a literary course, so I’m getting the opportunity to read a lot of seminal works I hadn’t gotten around to yet, such as Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. I haven’t taken a literature course since college, and that focused on Yuan-dynasty drama, so I’m enjoying the opportunity to critically read fiction again.

Three Lives embodies Stein’s unconventional use of language, with repetition encouraging readers to slow down and consider language as a convention.

Thursdays are dedicated to an independent study I’m taking with the professor who taught my capitalisms course last fall. Since there’s currently no course on the New Deal in the course catalog, I talked to him about putting together an independent study about it, since my dissertation will concentrate in this area. In addition to the New Deal, we’ve also been looking at museum history and world’s fairs, topics that I’ve always wanted to read more about but hadn’t gotten around to in a conventional class setting. What I really appreciate about this course is that, aside from being able to read more about the subjects that most interest me, it’s an opportunity to more clearly articulate and refine the questions that underpin my scholarly practice as a whole. The dissertation, after all, is not the pinnacle of my career, so taking the opportunity to really explore why I’m interested in certain topics will enable me to more thoughtfully craft research projects and inquiries in the future.

Bone Rooms considers the prominence of human remains in museums collection and research, and highlights the ethnical quandaries of museums as colonial institutions without neessarily offering a clear-cut solution.

The spring semester definitely has a different feel from the fall. The biggest difference is the amount of reading I’m doing. I read plenty last semester, but since Digital Humanities had a big project attached to it, I also worked a great deal on the computer. This time around, the focus in on reading multiple books a week, and more importantly, mastering how to read for comprehensive exams. After I finish my coursework next fall, I’ll have to complete several reading lists on different subjects, with the combined lists usually totaling around 200 books. Unless you’re the Sonic the Hedgehog of reading, there’s no way you can actually read them all cover to cover, so you have to learn to assess the argument from the introduction, conclusion, chapter headings, and other organizers. I was hesitant to do this last semester because I wanted to get all the content out of the books, but with so much reading to do this term, I’ve decided to practice this approach now so I’ll be ready next year.

The classes themselves also feel different because they’re smaller. Since second-year Ph.D. students generally finish their coursework in the fall, enrollment tends to be lower and classes have a more intimate feel. Modern US is my largest course with 7, compared to Digital Humanities last semester which had 15 or so. My independent study is the smallest with its one-on-one setup, but even Ethnic Modernism only has one other student. So far I’ve been really enjoying it, as the class discussions feel more like conversations. As an introvert, I’ve always been at my best socially in intimate groups anyway, so I appreciate it.

So here’s to a new semester of learning and discovery!

Scalar Book: The Roswell Museum Federal Art Center

As you know from my post about my DH semester project, I made a Scalar book about the Roswell Museum’s WPA archive. Scalar was still quite new to me at the time, so I hadn’t discovered all the cool things I could do with it yet. Today then, I’d like to take another look at that project and share some of its conceptual framework with you.

The advantage of Scalar is being able to build nonlinear narratives or repositories thanks to the use of links and paths. I wanted to apply that openness to the archive, allowing viewers to let their interests dictate their exploration of the materials. As I worked, I kept three different genres or experiences in mind to help me think about creating paths or links.

The first was the choose-your-own-adventure story. I admittedly didn’t read a lot of these as a kid, but I remember having to write one in middle school for an English assignment. It wasn’t a great story, something about a troubled teen running away and getting into shenanigans, but the experience of crafting multiple narratives within the same overarching plot stuck with me.

I also thought about immersive art or theatre experiences, more specifically The House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe. Designed by the art collective MeowWolf, this super trippy installation has become one of the most popular attractions in the City Different since it opened in 2016, Set inside an old bowling alley, viewers are presented with a Victorian house that acts as a portal to a multiverse. Your objective is to figure out what happened to the family that lived here, but the narrative is really just an excuse to explore a variety of rooms or environments. Since there’s no set path through the house or its various worlds, visitors decide where to go and how they’ll get there, whether it’s through a portal in the refrigerator, or bypassing the house altogether and walking through the backyard. Unlike choose-your-own-adventure stories, which put you on a specific narrative path depending on your choices, MeowWolf’s work is more opened-ended, presenting you with the material and letting you decide what you want to see.

The strongest influence on my Scalar work, however, was the archive itself, and my own experiences with exploring it. I did not go through these materials in a linear fashion.  Initially, I tried doing that, but I quickly found that it was not the most efficient way to begin constructing the museum’s narratives, as the first five folders consisted of only time sheets. Instead, I jumped around between folders and boxes as I tried to figure out the museum’s early histories. I would spend months working on nothing but correspondence folders, for example, then focus on a folder filled with exhibition checklists or timesheets once I had gotten the context from the letters. I might spend weeks working on documents from 1938 only, or progress from 1937 to 1942 in a single day. Or I might focus on photographs and try to figure out which room I was looking at, or which exhibition was on view based on what I had read in the correspondence and checklists.

In short, my own exploration of the archive was open-ended, especially in the beginning when I wasn’t sure what I was even looking at. I wanted to give viewers the same opportunity to bounce around the materials and make their own discoveries.

Aside from open-endedness, the other main factor dictating my Scalar content was acknowledging other voices or perspectives, particularly staff contributions. The primary voices represented in the archive are directors and administrators since they completed most of the paperwork. I wanted to make sure that the custodians, gallery attendants, or carpenters, got their credit too.

We frequently discussed the idea of invisible labor and giving contributors their due credit in my DH class, but it also informed my curatorial practice. From my experience, fewer things build resentment faster than not having your work acknowledged, so I avoided that by giving credit where it was due. An exhibition is a collaborative effort, not a solo endeavor, so I always made a point of highlighting my teammate’s contributions in staff meetings, gallery talks, and lectures.

I applied that same philosophy to the archive by making the staff contributions more prominent. I gleaned names and job duties from correspondence, time sheets, memos, drawings, and other documents. From there, I created separate pages for each of the staff members I could identify and listed their job duties and contributions. I cited documents that mentioned them, and when available, uploaded documents that they had worked on, as is the case with the drawing above, attributed to a carpenter named Leonard Hunt. I took the references that were buried in the archive and made them more prominent, giving visitors an opportunity to learn not just about what was done at the museum, but who did it.

The other voice you rarely hear from is that of the visitors themselves since there aren’t a lot of written documents from them. Whenever I could, I uploaded documents from visitors, giving them a chance to express their thoughts on the museum.

In the long run, this work is no substitute for a full digitization of the Roswell Museum’s archive. On its own, however, I think the Scalar book has its own merits as a document by not only providing a narrative for the museum’s history, but also by giving visitors a chance to explore the materials according to their interests while highlighting staff efforts. It may not house of all of the archival documents, but for what it is, I’m proud of it.