Reflecting on 2020

In my first post of 2020, I talked about all the things I hoped to accomplish, both in my academic work and in my life outside of scholarly efforts. As I wrote that list, I told myself to be reasonable in terms of ambitions, that whatever I wrote needed to be things I could accomplish without completely overwhelming myself in terms of time or energy. I can’t help but laugh a little when I read that list now. Knowing what a disaster 2020 ultimately became globally, goals like traveling more or getting better acquainted with neighboring cities like Richmond seem laughably naive now. But in all fairness, I had no idea when I wrote it that we’d spend the year navigating a pandemic.

And yet to simply write off 2020 as a wasted year is to disregard all the very real labor countless people did, whether they were working on the frontlines in hospitals, protesting racial inequality, parenting, going to school, making art, creating music, or any of the other jobs and activities that sustain and enrich our society. The pandemic made life more difficult for a lot of people, but it didn’t stop the world completely. Today then, as we get ready to bid 2020 adieu, I’d like to reflect on how my past year has been in terms of the good, the bad, and the infuriating.

Publishing an article on the war drawings of Howard Cook was one of my accomplishments this year.

In terms of my academic work, I actually did manage to accomplish a lot of the tasks I had set out to do, even if it didn’t feel like I was doing much a lot of the time. I passed my comprehensive exams, arguably the most significant milestone in my program to date. My prospectus is still a work in progress, but I am working on it consistently. In terms of publications, I not only identified several potential journals for future articles but managed to publish my first peer-reviewed article, which counts for something. In terms of conferencing, I presented new papers at two virtual events, SECAC2020 and “Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures.” About the only thing I didn’t do was start my digital project on art centers in earnest, but I least presented a lightning talk on it, so that’s better than nothing. I’ve also started new projects or opportunities that I hadn’t anticipated. The most notable of these is the exhibition I’ll be curating on robots with the Barry Art Museum, an experience that will enable me to connect with curators, artists, and other professionals in the Chesapeake area and beyond. Even if I felt like I spent most of my time at home envying my cats’ napping prowess, I have been working.

Brandon has also been keeping busy. As I mentioned in my previous post on his work, if anything, he was busier than usual in the spring because he had to install a lot of new gallery spaces alone to maintain social distancing. His work dropped off in the summer, as it usually does, but he’s had more assignments recently due to seasonal changes and year-end donations.

Overall, we feel grateful for our respective situations, especially from a financial perspective. While my summer teaching gig with Keio got cancelled, picking up the Barry exhibition will more than compensate for the lost income while providing new opportunities to network. Brandon has also seen his wages remain the same, thanks to Colonial Williamsburg taking a top-down approach to pay cuts and having its top earners bear the brunt of reduced salaries. We’re both extremely thankful for that decision, as a universal 10% or 20% cut to all salaries would have made it more difficult for us to meet our expenses. As far as this year goes, we managed to maintain a holding pattern: we didn’t necessarily gain more income, but we didn’t lose it either.

We’re also grateful for our health. So far, neither of us has contracted the virus, and our respective families have also stayed healthy. Overall, we know that we’ve had an easier time living through the pandemic than a lot of people, and that largely stems from our privilege as white people with reasonable economic means and ready access to the various sources we need to live.

All that said, I’m not going to pretend that this year has been easy emotionally. My anxiety remains manageable but has increased since the onset of the pandemic. My sense of time has become distorted, and in terms of travel I rarely move beyond the square mile or two around my house. I’ve become more anxious around crowds in particular, which I find disconcerting. When I think back to the time I spent in Chicago as an undergraduate, or abroad in London, it saddens me to know that the crowds that once brought me a sense of excitement now bring apprehension, and I don’t know when I’ll feel comfortable around large groups of people again. I’ve also become worse at staying in touch with friends, as I tend to withdraw when I feel down. There are times when just writing an email or a text to set up a time to talk feels exhausting, as I know I don’t have much to say. This makes me all the more grateful for having Brandon and the cats in my life. Especially with Brandon, it makes all the difference knowing that he’ll be there to talk to, to hold, or to simply share space.

Drawing facemasks such as this one has helped me think through some of my pandemic-related anxieties.

And it’s not like I haven’t found ways to cope with the anxiety. Admittedly I didn’t make a lot of art this year due to a bout of tendonitis, but once that healed I did complete a digital project on facemasks that allowed me to work through some of my pandemic-related feelings. I’ve also managed to maintain a consistent exercise regimen, and have been playing more flute more consistently, all goals that I had set out to do.

Perhaps my proudest accomplishment, academic or otherwise, is my decision to take up knitting. I’ve wanted to learn how to do this for years, but had hesitated for one reason or another. I had even listed it as one of my goals in my initial 2020 post, but removed it before publishing because I didn’t know if I’d have time for it. Before the pandemic lockdowns started in earnest though, I finally ordered a basic learning kit from a company called KnitPicks, as I figured I would be spending a lot of time at home in the near future. During the pandemic I’ve learned to make scarves, hats, cowls, and even stockings with stranded colorwork, virtually taking care of my entire Christmas list in terms of gifts. I’m so glad I got over my hesitation to take up this craft, and look forward to making wearable things for myself and others for years to come.

All that said, I am more than ready to see this year go, and to resume life at some point that isn’t defined primarily through pandemic parameters. Here’s to saying goodbye to 2020, and to ringing in a hopefully less trying 2021.

Deck the Halls, Home Edition

As with the rest of this year, the holiday season has been different from what Brandon and I anticipated. Since we went to Florida last year to be with his family, we had planned on going to Maine this December so that Brandon could experience a New England Christmas with my relatives. The pandemic changed those plans though, so we’re staying at home in Williamsburg. It wasn’t what we originally intended to do, but we agreed it wasn’t worth putting anyone’s health at risk.

Home for the holidays, pandemic edition. Checking out the decorations at Colonial Williamsburg this year means wearing masks and seeing signs reminding you to maintain a 6′ distance from others.

That said, this isn’t the first time we’ve stayed home for the holidays, and there’s been no shortage of ways to celebrate them around here. Today then, we’ll take a break from the usual scholarly content and take a look at what we’ve been doing to observe the season.

The doors of Colonial Williamsburg, Christmas 2020

One of my favorite things to do here every December is to look at the wreaths in Colonial Williamsburg. We’ve been doing this every year since we moved here, and this time around I really enjoyed having the chance to get out and look at something different. I particularly appreciate how the decorators create wreaths that reflect the histories or functions of the buildings they adorn, whether they are taverns, houses, or some other structure.

Here are a few that I especially liked:

I’ve also been keeping busy at home. I usually don’t decorate that much for Christmas because I’m either traveling or have work deadlines, but this year I decided to indulge my penchant for crafting, as this has been a weird year, and making things has always been an important source of relaxation for me.

After checking out the wreaths at CW, I made my own

I started with our front door. After seeing all the lovely wreaths at Colonial Williamsburg, I decided to make my own. Rather than create an overtly Christmas-themed one though, I opted for a winter-themed design that I could keep up until spring. To do this, I took several magnolia leaves that I had dried some months earlier, painted them silver and gold, and wrapped them all together with wire into a circle. We’ll keep it up for a few months, and then I’ll put the leaves in storage and craft a new seasonal decoration.

I’ve also been doing small things to enliven the house, like making pomanders out of cloves and oranges to introduce a seasonal scent to the living room, or suspending our Christmas cards from a string over Brandon’s bookcase so that we can look at them. They’re simple things, but they add some seasonal festivity to the space. Given how distorted my sense of time has gotten during the pandemic, with days, weeks, and months blurring into each other, observing seasonal or holiday changes has been especially important for me this year.

Arguably the most involved thing I’ve done is to make a pair of stockings for Brandon and myself. I took up knitting back in March at the start of the pandemic, learning the basics through Youtube tutorials and affordable learning kits from Knit Picks. I’ve really come to enjoy it as a hobby, so I thought it would be nice to knit up some decorations for the house. These stockings are my first foray into stranded knitting, and I’ll admit I’m pretty pleased that I was able to complete these patterns.

This year I put the tree on top of my yarn container for a little more height. It hasn’t kept that cats away from it though.

And there’s the tree. We have a three-foot artificial tree that we bring out every year. Sometimes we think it would be nice to have something taller, but honestly, I really like being able to put all the decorations away in under thirty minutes once January rolls around. For the last few years I’ve been making a sketch of one or two of the ornaments, usually a little pen and ink with acrylic. This year I drew an ornament that belonged to my grandmother, paired with some holly that I found during a walk. I usually don’t do anything with these sketches in terms of finished artworks, but it’s a nice way of observing the holiday spirit through drawing.

Overall, I’ve actually been enjoying this season. As much as we would have liked to have gone North this year, it’s also nice to not worry about long drives or to endure the drain of extended travel. Things are stressful enough as it is right now, so in a sense, I’m relieved we didn’t add to it by trying to make the trip. We’ll go up during a future, non-pandemic holiday, but in the meantime, we’ve been appreciating all the things we can see and make around here.

Good tidings and best wishes to all of you for a safe, happy holiday season.

SECAC 2020

I’ve rarely left the immediate vicinity of my home since March, but I’ve been staying involved with different academic communities thanks to online conferences. Back in September, I presented my first virtual conference paper. Last week, I presented my second virtual paper, and participated in my first conference with the regional art organization SECAC.

Formerly known as the Southeast College Art Conference, SECAC is an annual event where artists, art historians, curators, and other art professionals based in the American Southeast come together to share their work. I’ve been hoping to present at SECAC since at least 2019 to take advantage of the networking opportunities, so I was excited that my abstract was accepted. The conference was originally going to happen in Richmond, but due to Covid was transformed into a virtual experience. Conference papers were prerecorded and presented over Zoom at scheduled sessions, much like an in-person conference.

My presentation looked at FAP prints that were exhibited in federal community art centers. More specifically, I looked at how prints exhibited in federal community art centers promoted modern American printmaking to different audiences. In addition to considering their historical significance, I also dipped into archival theory by considering how these objects offer insight into collections management practices. To do this, I examined a group of print exhibitions assembled by the FAP specifically for community art centers, specifically the Roswell Museum since I have access to those checklists. I then used these prints to begin a critical examination of museum cataloging and collections management, practices that receive less public attention than exhibitions or special programs but remain seminal to our understanding of museums as institutions.

There were a lot of engaging sessions at SECAC. There were three sessions on American art history, included the session that featured my video. Another session looked at the writing of art history itself, particularly the logistical and ethical complexities of archival research, which naturally spoke to my own interests. Yet another panel looked at mapping as an artistic practice, which I appreciated given the local character of my own drawing habits. In short, there are a lot of art professionals doing engaging work in this region, and I enjoyed having the opportunity to learn more about it.

I also have to give credit to SECAC for facilitating this online experience. I can only imagine how challenging it must have been to take what was supposed to be an in-person conference and convert it into a virtual one. Not to mention this was going on while people continued other obligations such as teaching, writing, taking classes, and so on. This all entailed a lot of labor and it needs to be recognized.

Overall though, as much as I appreciated having the opportunity to attend this conference, in terms of format I preferred the experience I had earlier this year at “Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures,” for three main reasons:

  1. Personal preference for asynchronous format: I tend to participate more at asynchronous conferences because I can take the time to think over my comments, both when I’m asking questions and when I’m responding to inquiries. At SECAC, between glitches in Zoom and a finite time for questioning, I didn’t feel like I had enough time to mull over thoughtful questions. SECAC did try to compensate for this limited commenting time with live social events, essentially recreating in-person experiences like coffee breaks and other spaces that encourage spontaneous conversation, but it was contingent on the quality of one’s internet access.
  2. Glitches: While the conference organizers worked hard to make SECAC 2020 a smooth experience, there were glitches. A lot of presentations had to be given live, for example, because the moderators couldn’t get the videos to work. Sometimes the sound didn’t come through, the visuals wouldn’t sync properly, or a moderator’s Zoom connection would get cut off.
  3. Converted versus born digital: Ultimately, SECAC was an in-person conference retrofitted as a digital event. Museum Exhibition Design, by contrast, was born-digital and operated as such, from the paper format to the pacing to the resources page. If SECAC was an in-person conference that adapted to digital conditions, Museum Exhibition Design was crafted from its inception as a digital experience. As such, it was better able to take advantage of the possibilites of online interaction.

The lesson here is that when it comes to conference planning, organizers should be deliberate about the format from the onset, whether in-person, digital, or hybrid. Not everything can be anticipated of course, and there will be times when versatility is crucial, as SECAC demonstrated. Yet each format has its advantages and disadvantages, and they do not necessarily translate easily into one another. Given the effectiveness of digital conferences in terms of enabling accessibility by decreasing travel costs, I can see them becoming a more regular figure of conference culture in general. What I hope doesn’t happen is that virtual opportunities are tagged onto in-person experiences as afterthoughts. They take a lot of labor, but virtual conferences offer a lot of potential when it comes to academic sharing.

In the meantime, I have to commend all the organizers for facilitating this online experience. I know it wasn’t easy, but I’m sure all the participants are as grateful as I am for going through the effort to make this conference possible. And here’s to hopefully being able to participate at the next SECAC event in-person.

Holiday Cards 2020

December means it’s time for holiday cards. Admittedly, I had thought about skipping this year because writing personal notes to thirty or so people can be a bit of a slog. Given how trying 2020 has been, however, I thought the people in my life could benefit from a little mailbox cheer, so I went ahead and sent them out.

One of this year’s cards. I printed these ginkgo leaves on some old marbled paper I’d made several years ago.

That said, this year’s card is a little different from previous iterations. In the past I’ve printed either intaglio or relief impressions to make my cards, but this time around I used cyantotyping, a photographic technique invented in the nineteenth century.

I actually printed these cards several months ago over the summer, when the days were long and replete with sunshine (well, for the northern hemisphere). You can make cyanotypes at any time of year, but the summer months require shorter exposure times, so it’s a good time to print them. The leaves I used for these impressions were collected and dried the previous fall. I’d been saving them for some kind of project, but hadn’t figured out exactly what. Since they were already around they made for easy subjects.

As with last year’s card, I used these cyanotypes as an opportunity to use up some older materials. Some of the impressions were made on marbled paper I’d made years ago when I was still in Roswell. Others were made on printmaking papers I hadn’t especially liked but still wanted to put to good use.

Some cyanotypes were made on small, individual papers, but many were made on sheets, with each sheet containing several impressions. Once the paper dried, I folded and tore the sheets to separate the leaves. Once I had all my impressions, I glued the individual impressions onto card stock. I then put them in storage until December.

I didn’t necessarily envision these cyanotypes as Christmas cards when I first made them. Initially, I was thinking of keeping them on had for thank-you notes or other special occasions, or even listing them on Etsy. In terms of holiday cards, I had thought about making a print featuring a rabbit because over the summer I had gotten into the habit of counting them during evening walks. Ultimately though, I didn’t have the energy or inclination to make a new print, so I used the cyanotype cards since they were already finished and ready to go.

Overall I really liked how these turned out. I know they don’t look Christmas-y or even seasonal for that matter, but my cards have always been more about capturing a sense of place than a specific holiday. I want to give the people in my life a glimpse into where I live and what I experience, especially if they don’t get the opportunity to visit themselves. Given that I collected these leaves on my walks, and printed them using Virginia sunshine, I think these cards do a good job evoking where I live. I’ve still got a few impressions leftover, so I might even go ahead and revive my Etsy shop for them.

Good tidings, everyone.

Art Break: Cat Paintings

Today I thought I would highlight a fun little painting project I did earlier this year. Best of all, it stars our two kitty cats, Gustave and Iris.

For years, Brandon has been wanting me to paint our cats. Not that I haven’t wanted to do this, but the cats can be challenging to draw. They do not care about your needs or interests as an artist. They do not hold poses for you, and if you are not careful they will either sit on your supplies or try to eat them. This can be good for learning how to draw quickly, as they move when they feel like it, but can be challenging when it comes to trying to document anything in terms of detail. So, beyond some quick sketches, I really haven’t done much with the cats when it comes to making art.

When the pandemic started though, I decided that it was time to paint our kitties because Brandon and I were both feeling stressed and in need of positive images in the home. Since we both derive great enjoyment from the cats, I decided that cat-themed art was the best antidote to our collective anxiety.

I chose to paint the works in acrylic because I wanted to finish these quickly. As much as I enjoyed oils in my last project, I’m more familiar with acrylic and knew there would be less of a learning curve. I already had two canvases in the same size that I had found by the recycling bin near our apartment, so beyond covering the images that were already there, I was ready to go in terms of painting. 

While my regular art style is naturalistic, for this project I decided to create abstracted versions of the cats based on their respective personalities. For the backgrounds, I took inspiration from my painted abstractions from last year’s art challenge because I wanted to include bright, happy colors. So I went through my individual color blocks and picked out a couple that I thought were especially colorful and whimsical in nature.

For Gustave, I decided to forego my usual modeling, both to emphasize his luxurious black coat and evoke a sense of drama reminiscent of German Expressionism. I exaggerated his tail and ruff in particular, to emphasize this dramatic quality. Anyone who has met Gustave in person will know that he is not particularly subtle when it comes to seeking attention, so this sstyle felt appropriate.

For Iris, I decided to emphasize her cuteness. Brandon and I have both noticed that she will roll over and act adorable when she wants attention, so I decided to paint her while lying on her back. I also made a point of portraying her with what we call “the face,” when she looks at you with her eyes mostly closed and what appears to be a contented smile.

I finished these two paintings in about a week. Once I had the backgrounds in place, it didn’t take all that long to complete the cats. After trying out a few places around the house, we decided to hang them in the front room. We don’t know when we’ll be able to have visitors again, but when they do come over, they’ll see right off who really runs the house.