Exhibition Work, January Update

In November I talked about a new exhibition I’m working on with the Barry Art Museum that looks at robots and automata. Today I’ll review what I’ve been up to since that initial post.

Right now I’m getting to know the museum’s automaton collection better. Leopold Lambert (manufacturer), Gentleman Gambler Magician, ca. 1885, automaton. Gift of Carolyn K. and Richard F. Barry III, 2017.214.

I made my first on-site visit to the Barry Art Museum (socially distanced and fully-masked) in early December. I went there to see the gallery I’d be working with, assess the exhibition furniture, and overall get a better sense of the museum as a collection and space. Since the Barry is a new institution, its furniture is in great shape and there are a lot of pedestals, movable walls, and other pieces available, which is really helpful since there will be a lot of three-dimensional objects in the show. The galleries are also well-lit, with Soraa bulbs (the brand the Roswell Museum used when it renovated its gallery lighting a couple of years ago) illuminating the spaces brightly and evenly but without overwhelming glare. Seeing the space in person also revealed some of the quirks of the gallery, as no exhibition space is perfect and there’s usually at least one peculiarity to work around. In the case of the Barry, one end of the gallery receives more natural light than the other, which is important to keep in mind with light-sensitive objects. All of this will be very good to know when it’s time to start laying out the show several months from now.

After that visit I began reading about some of the theoretical and philosophical concepts associated with robots and automata. One idea that pops up frequently with robots or any simulation of humanity is the Uncanny Valley, or that sense of unease we get when we see something that looks human but isn’t quite pulling it off, either due to the way it moves, the lack of animation in the eyes, or something else (for examples, see critiques of the movies The Polar Express or Cats). Masahiro Mori initially defined the concept in a 1970 article, but an English translation only became available in the early 2000s, so it’s become a lot more popular in recent years.

The Polar Express movie has often been cited as an example of the Uncanny Valley, but its effect is subjective, and every viewer will have a different reaction. See https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2012/01/20/145504032/story-telling-and-the-uncanny-valley

One of the reasons why I’ve been exploring these concepts is to find ways to connect the historical automata to not only the contemporary works that will be in the show, but also to the lives of visitors. Automata are objects we don’t often encounter regularly unless we either collect or build them, and the clothes they wear or the activities they do aren’t always immediately analogous to how we act today. I mean, how many of us would regard ourselves as fans of the Commedia dell’Arte, for instance, or enjoy the antics of clowns? If you love either or both, all the power to you, but I’d argue they’re not exactly mainstream the way the Marvel franchise is, for example. Yet even if these machines look strange to a lot of us now, or seem obsolete and old-fashioned, they remain relevant because they tap into a longer history regarding the tension between humanity and the mechanical other. Exploring how automata have encouraged people to think about changing technology, questions of humanity, and the weirdness of encountering machines that simulate us is something that we can connect to the 21st century, especially given ongoing concerns over robots as companions, caretakers, and workers.

This automaton of a middle-class woman playing the piano embodies changes happening in the nineteenth century regarding technology, social class, and leisure time. Gustave Vichy, Seated Lady at her Piano, ca. 1878, automaton. Barry Art Museum, Gift of Carolyn K. and Richard F. Barry III, 2017.201.

More recently I’ve been alternating my reading material between historical automata and the work of contemporary artists interested in robotics. As historical objects, automata fascinate me because of how they embody change via class relations. Prior to the nineteenth century, automata were custom, hand-built creations. Often made in sumptuous materials such as precious metals, these objects were playthings of the extremely wealthy. By the nineteenth century, however, industrialization had enabled the mass production of clock parts and other materials needed for automata. As such, they could be produced in greater numbers, and started to be marketed to middle-class consumers looking for elegant, artful objects to decorate their drawing rooms. The activities these automata participated in, whether dressing up as stock theater characters or playing music, also reflect middle-class pastimes such as going to the theater or partaking in music. Automata embody a lot of other nineteenth-century realities too, such as colonialism, racialism, and expected gender roles, and I know I’ll need to address these issues.

In terms of contemporary artists, I’m keeping my options open-ended. In addition to looking up artists myself, I’ve also been seeing what kinds of robot-related shows other museums have been mounting for the past few years, both to get inspiration for my own show, and to see what I’d like to avoid. My greatest concern right now is to make sure that I don’t end up working exclusively with white artists. Robots, and more broadly the so-called hard sciences, tend to be associated with whiteness, both through popular media and the gatekeeping practices of the academy and other institutions. As long as I default to white artists, I will reinforce that expectation. Since one of the objectives of this exhibition is to attract new audiences to the museum, I want to make sure that white visitors aren’t the only ones who feel represented.

Stephanie Dinkins, Conversations with Bina48, 2014-present, digital video installation. Image courtesy of: https://www.stephaniedinkins.com/conversations-with-bina48.html

Fortunately, there are many BIPOC artists out there creating fascinating work. Stephanie Dinkins, for example, creates work that resists the whiteness associated with robots by rooting her technologies in Black narratives and experiences. In her ongoing piece Conversations with Bina48, Dinkins converses with an anthropomorphic robot about the race, gender, social equality, and how they intersect with other issues. In another work, Not the Only One, she endeavors to create a new kind of AI that draws on the multigenerational memories and experiences of a Black family, allowing the device to learn and narrate from people and sources that often don’t get represented in so-called traditional modes of AI and computer-driven work.

I’ve also been looking at examples of robotics intersecting with Indigenous art. Transformation Mask by Heiltsuk artist Shawn Hunt explores transformation through a mask that synthesizes robotics, virtual reality, and Indigenous knowledge. The work takes inspiration from the transformation masks used among different Indigenous groups and cultures along the Northwest Coast, though it doesn’t copy or replicate any specific dance or ritual. Usually made from painted wood, these masks are equipped with strings that, when pulled, reveal a second face, an action that becomes a performance of transformation, such as from animal to human or from the physical world to the spiritual one. In Hunt’s Transformation Mask, 3D printing and other contemporary technologies are used in lieu of wood and paint, and instead of revealing a second mask, the wearers themselves become the mask, with the raven’s head opening to reveal their own face. Additionally, when the wearer puts on the mask, virtual reality lenses begin producing images that only they can see, enabling them to embark on their own visual journey. Through these intersections of Indigenous practices and technology, the wearer undergoes multiple transformations.

I still have a lot to learn and I’ve got a lot more work to do regarding representation. At this point, I’m not committed to any specific artists for show. Instead, I’m working on expanding my understanding of the variety of art, artists, and messages out there, and so far, it’s been an exciting experience. Aside from being a nice change of pace from my dissertation work, this project is allowing me to stay involved in the museum field while also learning about some fascinating new art.

Dissertation Work, January Update

As promised in last week’s post, here’s my first update on my dissertation work for 2021. Since we’re covering what I’ve been up to since finishing comps, today’s post will be a bit longer.

Since starting this prospectus process I’ve been journaling my thoughts for future reference.

At this point, I’ve been doing more thinking than finished writing. While I do have a growing repository of free-write sessions and mock prospectus samples in my dissertation folder, the main thing I’ve been working on is figuring out what my core research interests actually are beyond whatever I find interesting within the context of a specific seminar or exhibition.

As I’ve mentioned since starting this blog, what I want to write about are federal community art centers, but what I’ve been trying to figure out since finishing comps is the context in which to write about them. After all, what’s the point in having a great research topic if you don’t have any engaging questions for it? So for the past few months, I’ve been thinking about what my framework actually is, and ultimately, what my core research interests are beyond any specific topic like the CACP.

I know I want to write about federal community art centers, but what questions do I want to ask about them? And in which overarching framework do I want to situate them?

This means that I’ve been reading about various subjects and discussing potential theoretical frameworks with the dissertation writing group I joined last fall. Given the connection between museums and art centers, I’ve been reading a lot of museum theory in terms of power relations and the way museums maintain the status quo through their collecting, exhibition, and labor practices. This has included classics such as Tony Bennett’s The Birth of the Museum, which draws heavily on Foucault, as well as more recent publications such as Joan Baldwin’s and Anne W. Ackerson’s Women in the Museum, which considers how museums both empower and constrict women through their professional cultures. As I mentioned in my previous post on SECAC, I’ve also been interested in cataloging and archival practices and how they shape the art canon, particularly through a lack of documentation or visibility.

From an archival standpoint, I also finally went through and organized some research I did on the Mildred Holzhauer Baker papers at the Archives of American Art, which I visited in the fall of 2019. Baker was the director of the FAP’s Exhibition Section and assembled all of the traveling exhibitions for the CACP (which, considering that the total was over 500 shows, is impressive at the very least), so she played a major role in the program’s educational trajectory. Since the CACP was a Depression-era project, I’ve also been perusing works that explore the material and visual culture of that time. Jani Scandura’s Down in the Dumps has been a particularly engaging read, given its somewhat personal approach to the archive, and its geographic variety in terms of case studies offers a model for my own work, as the CACP was not restricted to one specific state or region.

The other subject I’ve been reading into is art amateurism. Not necessarily folk art or outsider art, per se, but art made by nonprofessionals or people who didn’t get their training from the academy. So I’ve been reading about forums such as Etsy where people share or sell their work, celebrity art teachers such as Bob Ross and other icons of art populism, the paint-by-number fad of the 1950s, and even the emergence of chain art supply stores or mail-order suppliers like Michaels or Blick. What I’ve been focusing on is not so much what people actually make, but how they access the education and supplies needed to create this stuff.

Not to sound cynical, but any book that has a chapter on someone as beloved as Bob Ross is likely to attract more readers and get my ideas out to a greater number of people.

What I’ve been learning from all this is that as a scholar, I’m interested in questions of art access, particularly for nonprofessional art practitioners. What engages me aren’t so much the careers and works of professional artists, the people associated with the art world as defined by curators, gallerists, and collectors, but rather than millions of people who make art without ever being recognized in a formal capacity. I’m not even talking about so-called outsider artists or folk artists, people who have been identified by specialists as being worthy of the canon due to what they consider their untainted creativity. I’m talking about the millions of people who, like me, make art but not professionally. Maybe they’ve taken a few classes; maybe they learned to draw from a book or watching tutorials. Maybe they even manage to make a living outside of the gallery circuit, whether through selling on Etsy or by the roadside. Or maybe they make pieces for their family and no one else.

This brings me back to the CACP. Initially, I became interested in this program because of its national travel infrastructures and the mobility underpinning its operations. As a curator who often transported exhibition materials myself, either in my own car or in a rented Uhaul, the idea of a national traveling exhibition program that brought art materials to different places by train really intrigued me. This still interests me, but it also ties back into the question of access, because what made this program unusual (to me at least) was that it catered to nonprofessionals. Unlike the workshops, murals, and other projects associated with the FAP, which hired professional artists, community art centers were designed with amateurs in mind. Sure, the staff who taught at them might be professionally-trained artists, but the students they imagined taking their classes, both adults and children, were not. Indeed, FAP administrators continually stressed that community art centers were not intended as professional schools, but as places where people could learn to appreciate the arts through looking and doing. And I think that’s worth exploring more deeply.

Student with artwork made in a class offered through the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center. The FAP anticipated that the majority of students who took art center classes would not become professional artists. Instead, the intent was to create art appreciators, people who understood art as an important part of daily life.

Why? First off, by focusing exclusively on artists who have been deemed worthy of the canon, we’re ignoring a lot of creative output. Maybe it’s not the most original or innovative material out there, or maybe it is, but so long as we only focus on the artists who show their works in museums or galleries, we’re always going to have a limited understanding of what people make when they envision themselves as artists. Second, taking a closer look at how people working outside of public schools or academies access art resources could help us better understand the state of art accessibility in the United States. We tend to lean on the narrative of art access being dismal in this country, but what if we’re using the wrongs metrics to gauge it? I’m not saying that formal art enrichment programs aren’t necessary or important, but they might be more effective if we study how different communities or individuals learn to make art without the benefit of a school or similar organization. This, in turn, leads to my third point: how museums can better engage their audiences. As ongoing critiques have pointed out, museums often uphold rather than challenge inequality and other social norms through the art they collect, the artists they show, and the classes they offer. What would happen if museums shifted their emphasis away from defining canonical art and instead focused on art-making as a creative practice performed by all members of a society, community, or culture? What would that look like?

These are all huge questions that go way beyond what any dissertation can cover, but thinking about these big-picture inquiries has helped me get a better understanding of what interests me as a scholar beyond the specificity of the CACP itself. The next step is to narrow this down to something manageable.

Admittedly, this has been a new experience for me. When you take classes in the semester format, you usually have to figure out your paper or project topics fairly early on so that you finish on time. Especially for someone like me who spends a lot of time revising my writing, this means going with the first or second idea. Similarly, when I was curating full-time, the logistical demands of the exhibition schedule meant that I had to pull together concepts fairly quickly so that there would be enough time to print labels, check artworks for conservation needs, prep galleries for installation, and so on. Even my undergraduate thesis had to be written within a year, so I only had a couple of months to nail down what I was going to write about. All of this is to say that my projects have generally emphasized results over ideas, so I’ve tended to spend little time in the conceptual phase.

In some ways, it’s been liberating. Over the last few months, I’ve had to start reframing my understanding of progress and to recognize that not every accomplishment can be measured by the number of words written or edited. Some days I write a lot; other days I go for long walks and talk out different ideas or scenarios with myself. Some days I research; other times I completely switch gears and work on my art. I’ll admit, I often feel like I don’t have much to show for all this thinking. Yet by giving myself the space to think through different ideas or scenarios, I’m ultimately coming up with a more innovative dissertation while discovering new topics and questions that will fuel my research for years to come.

At the same time, it’s been overwhelming. Over the past few months, I’ve probably imagined at least half a dozen potential iterations of the dissertation. Some versions concentrate solely on the New Deal era. Some versions are more focused on exhibition practices. Others look away from museums altogether and explore the commercial side of art accessibility through the expansion of chain supply stores. With so many different ways to approach the question of art access, it’s admittedly been a bit overwhelming to realize just how many ways I can go about answering it.

Remember, if you can’t put it in the dissertation, save it for your next book project.

But the key is to remember that I don’t have to pursue all of these directions. On the contrary, I can’t, because the resulting tome would be far too long for anyone to want to read, let alone write. Not all of these potential directions interest me equally, so the next task is to figure out my focus. After all, the best dissertation is the finished one, the one that gets me my degree, and in that respect, the one that works for my needs is the one that I’ll actually want to write.

Besides, all these other ideas mean future book projects, right?

2021: A Preview of my Reorganized Blog

With 2020 finally behind us, I’ve been thinking about how to be more efficient with my work. While I’ve always been pretty good about finishing the things that I start, I also want to get better at what I do, including thinking about different project ideas. Taking inspiration from my dissertation journal, for instance, I’ve started journaling about other projects I’d like to pursue, including steps I need to take to bring them to fruition. I have a habit of thinking about projects without necessarily doing anything about them, so writing down and prioritizing ideas is one way to begin following through with them.

Writing my dissertation thoughts in a journal has helped me think about how journaling as a practice can help me actualize other projects.

I’ve also been thinking about how to make better use of this blog. While I’ve always been consistent about writing and sharing posts, shortly after finishing comps I started thinking that my posts could relate more directly to my work. For much of last year, my posts focused on reading lists and my thoughts about them, which proved really helpful when it came time to review. Given how useful this experience was for me, I decided I should continue to have the blog work for me, but this time as a means of thinking through dissertation ideas, sharing exhibition research, and other projects. I’ve done a similar overhaul with my Instagram account, but the blog is the best place to discuss ongoing ideas and research in-depth. If I’m going to spend time writing posts, after all, I figure I may as well incorporate it more directly into my scholarly and creative practice.

Today then, I’d like to share my new organization for this blog and give you a preview of the posts you’ll see in the future.

Essentially, the main change is that instead of viewing each post as a stand-alone piece, I’ve reorganized the blog around a monthly cycle of posts, with each post addressing a specific topic.

Week 1: Dissertation work. From now on, the first week of the month will focus on what I’ve been doing for my dissertation. I’ll talk about research, theoretical frameworks I’m considering, the actual writing I’ve been doing, and anything else dedicated to this project. Even if I haven’t done much of anything, I’ll talk about it and why I’ve been struggling with it.

Week 2: Exhibition Research. The second week of the month will highlight the work I’m doing with the Barry Art Museum. I might talk about specific objects or artists, overarching conceptual ideas, practical questions, and whatever else might seem relevant.

Week 3: Art. I want to be more consistent about my artmaking practice, so to hold myself accountable, I’ll spend week three of each month talking about what I’m doing, whether it’s sketching, creating more finished pieces, or even thinking about projects.

Week 4 (and sometimes 5): Miscellaneous. This final week of the month will highlight more eclectic posts that don’t relate to my work directly, whether it’s my musings on B-horror films or toilet paper.

Obviously this format can be adjusted as necessary, such as accommodating posts on conferences or other activities. If I end up teaching a class in the future, I’ll probably readjust further by switching out the miscellaneous week for posts on pedagogy. For now though, this is how it will generally look moving forward.

Essentially, I intend this monthly format to serve as a means of holding myself accountable and to follow through with projects while also documenting my ongoing work for future reference. It’s also a means of making myself more comfortable with talking about works in progress. I admittedly don’t like discussing unfinished projects because they’re well, incomplete, but it’s a crucial part of academic life, as well as working in general, and I need to get better at doing it. I’ve started doing this with my dissertation group, but the blog, with its public platform, offers another means of both sharing and documenting my ongoing work. In short, this new format will hopefully help me become better at what I do, whether it’s research, art-making, or just thinking about ideas.

We’ll launch this new format next week, when I start talking about my prospectus work. In the meantime, I hope your new year is off to a healthy and productive start.

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.

Confronting My Fear of Theory

Sometime during my first year of my Master’s program I decided I was “not a theory person.” I don’t remember exactly when or why this happened. Maybe it was because my classmates seemed so much more assured of the readings than I did. Perhaps it was the way I struggled to write about theory. Or maybe it was when I started wondering why most of the theorists we were reading could get away with penning page-long sentences and I couldn’t.

Regardless, by the end of my first year, I decided that theory was not my forte, and that I was a no-nonsense, practicum-based scholar. That perception would shape my work for years to come, from my decision to work in museums, especially smaller institutions that demanded a hands-on role in exhibition installations and other activities, right down to my research interests when I decided to return to graduate school. After all, in my personal statement, I emphasized that my interest in art and infrastructure developed from my museum work, specifically my experiences with exhibition transport. In the parlance of digital humanities, I was a hacker rather than a yacker.

But here’s the thing: you need theoretical frameworks for the dissertation because scholarship isn’t neutral. Every piece out there, whether it’s a scientific experiment or a history of cardboard, has a point of view, and as a scholar it’s your responsibility to make your perspectives evident to your reader. Theory enables you to do that because it provides the framework or lens through which you’ll be expressing your particular interests, whether your focus is on race, gender, class, ecocriticism, all of the above, or something else.

That doesn’t mean embracing theory is easy though, and it’s one of the things I’ve been working through with this prospectus. Indeed, it’s only recently that I’ve finally started to understand the usefulness of theory. As a Master’s student, I thought theory was primarily for showing off, a way of using big words and concepts. In actuality, when employed well, theory becomes helps articulate different observations or phenomena, whether it’s the use of critical race theory when addressing urban poverty, or gender studies when exploring workplace inequality and the division of labor. At its best, theory helps to clarify rather than obscure our observations or ideas.

This may sound obvious, but I really didn’t begin to understand the usefulness of theory until I came to William & Mary, and even now I’m still working to push myself to use it more. One thing that has helped has been the quality of new scholarship. Scholars and activists, particularly women and BIPOC writers like Roopika Risam or Marisa J. Fuentes, use complex theoretical frameworks in their writing, but emphasize clarity as a form of activism. For them, intentionally long, virtuosic sentences or paragraphs serve as a form of academic gatekeeping, meant to intimidate and detract rather than enlighten or inspire, so they make a point in writing with clear, accessible language so that a wide variety of readers can access their ideas. Seeing scholarship that is both theoretically engaging and accessible helps me better envision myself as a writer working with these complex ideas.

Talking with others about theory also helps. One of the most beneficial things I’ve done for myself is to join a dissertation writing group, where we talk about what we’re working on and suggest different approaches or texts to each other. I’ll admit, it’s always been challenging to me to share my work in an unfinished state or barely-even-started state, but that is exactly what I do with this group every week, and it’s already benefitting my research. Because my colleagues work on different projects and have different interests, they bring perspectives to my work outside of my own, and help me think about my work in new ways. Hopefully, I do the same for them.

Reminding myself that I’ve already worked with theory is also important. During my written exams I engaged a wide range of writers and perspectives, from Derrida to Foucault, and managed to write something coherent. Even at Williams, I discussed Lacan, Merleau-Ponty, and other theorists, even if I didn’t think I was doing it very well at the time. Probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done academically is present W.J.T. Mitchell’s What Do Pictures Want? while he sat in on our class right across from me (in all fairness I didn’t think he was going to show up when I volunteered to discuss his work that week), and I survived that, so I can probably stand incorporating theory into my own work.

This doesn’t mean that my fear of theory will dispel overnight. Rather, it will likely be an ongoing process, with my colleagues and advisors encouraging me to push myself further. But academia is as much about the process as it is the finished product, so I’ll continue thinking and engaging theory as I move forward.

Motion and Emotion: A New Opportunity with the Barry Art Museum

There’s an old saying when it comes to the job market that it’s not what you know that matters, but who you know. I imagine that’s as applicable to curating as it is to any other field, and it was certainly a factor in my new, part-time new curating position at the Barry Art Museum.

The Barry Art Museum, located in Norfolk at Old Dominion University.

Located at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, the Barry Art Museum was founded by collectors and philanthropists Richard and Carolyn Barry. It’s a brand-new museum that only opened in 2018, so its 24,000-square-foot facility is fresh and state-of-the-art. Its permanent collection specializes in contemporary glass and historical dolls and automata, so it’s an eclectic mixture of objects. As with many other museums, the Barry hosts changing exhibitions in addition to its permanent collection,

For one of its upcoming shows, the museum would like to pair its automata collection with contemporary art addressing robotics as a means to help visitors connect with these historical and, to 21st-century eyes, sometimes perplexing objects.

“Flower Seller with ‘Surprises'”, designed by Leopold Lambert and manufactured by Jumeau and Cie., 1880-1900, object number 2017.207. This French automaton of a flower seller is one of many examples in the Barry Art Museum collection. When activated her flower bouquets lift to reveal little props hiding underneath them.

The museum initially approached Kory Rogers, my good friend and former supervisor at Shelburne Museum, to curate the show on a contractual basis. Kory and the Barry’s interim director, Charlotte Potter Kasic, had previously worked together on a glass exhibition at Shelburne, so they already had a good professional relationship. As a bonus, Shelburne also has an impressive doll and automata collection. Kory, however, recommended that the Barry Art Museum contact me instead, as I’d not only co-curated an exhibition with him on robots and other sci-fi tropes while I was a curatorial fellow at Shelburne, but also live only an hour away from the Barry in Williamsburg. He also thought that working with the Barry would help me to expand my museum network in the Chesapeake region, which will be beneficial when I finish my degree and start looking for jobs.

Installation shot from Time Machines: Robots, Rockets, and Steampunk, on view on Shelburne Museum in 2012, Kory and I co-curated this exhibition. I put together the space travel section, he worked on the Steampunk gallery, and we collaborated on robots.

After talking about the opportunity with Kory, I had a preliminary meeting with the Barry staff, and shared my curatorial portfolio to give them a sense of the work I’ve done. While waiting for my oral exams to be scheduled, I wrote a draft exhibition proposal based on the preliminary ideas and checklists the Barry shared with me to demonstrate my ability to synthesize different concepts and interests into an overarching narrative. They liked what I produced, so after getting permission from the Dean of Graduate Studies at the College, I agreed to work for them as an exhibition curator. Since my first priority remains my dissertation and other commitments to the College, this will be a part-time position.

Throughout the negotiation process, I made it clear that my dissertation is my number one priority.

The exhibition I’ve been asked to organize, tentatively titled “Motion and Emotion,” looks at the relationships between humans and robotics through the lens of affect. Scheduled to open in early 2022, it will include a mixture of historical and contemporary objects, and will be interdisciplinary in nature, addressing art, history, medicine, engineering, and other interests. The show was initially conceived as a way of engaging the museum’s automata collection by highlighting the connections these historical objects share with twenty-first century objects and interests, but we’re also interested in exploring robotics more generally as embodied in contemporary art and other practices. Essentially, the Barry sees this exhibition as an opportunity to engage a variety of audiences, so we’re going to keep the concept open as we work on the show.

This is definitely a new experience for me. Unlike my job in Roswell, this is a contract position, so my employment ends once the show is finished. Additionally, I see the show as an opportunity to refine my curatorial practice through an emphasis on collaboration. Given the multidisciplinary nature of the subject, the Barry staff and I agreed that we should work directly with different academic departments on campus, and plan on forming an advisory board with various faculty. I’m working closely with staff on logistical tasks such as scheduling so that we establish a working rhythm that suits the unique needs of the Barry. I also emphasized at one of our preliminary meetings that I see this exhibition as a collaborative project, and that ideas from all staff, from content to layout, are welcome.

While the majority of the shows I curated in Roswell were solo efforts in terms of content and layout, I also experimented with collaborative installations. For this exhibition on the Museum’s most prominent donors, I invited different staff members to curate a subsection based on their interests. They picked the objects, wrote the text, and determined the layout, with all of us working together to install the material. The resulting show was more dynamic and engaging in my opinion because my colleagues brought different perspectives and ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to me.

Beyond having a chance to get back into curating, what excites me about this exhibition beyond its subject matter is the chance to curate differently. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my previous museum work, but when you’re working full-time at an institution, you tend to fall into a pattern. Since I’m only responsible for one show, I see this as a chance to try out new techniques and approaches, as well as explore new subject matter.

I’ll give periodic updates here as the exhibition progresses, but in the meantime, I’m excited for the chance to step back into the museum world while getting to work some wonderful museum professionals, artists, academics, and other people.