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.

Brandon’s Art Handling Adventures: 2020 So Far

Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, my schedule had become repetitive due to reading for comprehensive exams. I’ve been at home reading every day since January, and while the books I’ve been working on have been quite interesting and helpful for my future work, my day-to-day activities have been rather mundane. For the last couple of months, the most exciting thing I’ve been doing is walking around the neighborhood and seeing how many rabbits I can count (I’ve gotten up to 20, in case you were curious).

That hasn’t been true for Brandon though. As Senior Preparator at Colonial Williamsburg, he has not only continued going to work since the pandemic started (since he doesn’t interact with visitors he can social distance from them), but has also been busy installing brand-new galleries and refreshing older ones at the art museums as part of a long-awaited expansion. Today then, I’d like to highlight what he’s been up to by taking you on a tour of these new spaces.

For clarification, when I say art museums at Colonial Williamsburg, I’m referring to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. Since these two collections are housed in the same building, they’re often just called the art museums. I’ll also start referring to Colonial Williamsburg by its initials, CW, as that’s what Brandon and I typically use when we talk about it.

This new exhibition, British Masterworks, showcases some of the most exquisite objects in the museum collection. And not surprisingly perhaps, a lot of them are very heavy.

Brandon took me to the art museums a few weeks ago so that I could see these spaces for myself. I hadn’t been to a museum since February, so I definitely noticed new safety protocols in place. All visitors are expected to wear face masks, and there’s plenty of signage reminding people to practice social distancing. CW has injected a little humor into these signs by using references from the collection. So a sign might say “Remember to stay 6′ apart, or one George Washington,” for instance, or “Remember to stay 6′ apart, or six teapots.” Through these playful references to the collection, CW aims to defuse the discomfort of social distancing while reminding visitors of these new rules.

The biggest change at the museum is arguably its entrance. For those who haven’t been the art museums before, the entrance was a little peculiar because it was underground. You’d enter through the old mental hospital, but in order to reach the museum, you’d have to walk downstairs and through the gift shop. It all felt a little covert and confusing, and the exhibits on the hospital itself felt like an afterthought.

Now however, you enter the museum through this building:

You then walk down this hallway to the entrance desk. It looks a little empty right now due to social distancing protocols, but I can assure you it feels a lot less covert than the old entrance. The openness and formality of the new architecture, with its series of brick archways, definitely plays a role in that. As for the hospital, it will use its newly-opened space to expand its exhibitions and explore the history of treating mental health more deeply.

What Brandon has been busy doing is getting the galleries ready for visitors by filling them with lots of wonderful objects. Some of this work has entailed refreshing older galleries with new collections or exhibitions. The gallery on the left, for instance, used to be dedicated to musical instruments, but now focuses on Southern pottery. Brandon actually picked up some of the newer acquisitions during a courier trip to Atlanta last year, so he was already familiar with some of these pieces and their structural quirks. The gallery on the right, in turn, is part of an exhibition called British Masterworks, which highlights the most ostentatious and sumptuous works in the DeWitt Wallace collection. There’s even an original portrait of Elizabeth I, which is pretty rare for a United States collection.

There are also several brand-new galleries. These two installations, which are placed right next to each other, are meant to show off the respective holdings of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Museum while also clarifying the two collections to visitors. The Rockefeller display on the left features plenty of imaginative folk art (including a carving of a hybrid rhinoceros-hippopotamus that doubles as a record player, because why not), while the DeWitt Wallace installation highlights furniture and other decorative arts holdings. There are also portraits of Rockefeller and the DeWitt Wallaces on view to help visitors connect the objects they see to the collectors who donated them.

While there are several new installations ready for visitors to peruse, other spaces are still in progress. The carved buffet below, for instance, was made by a former enslaved man named Jonathan Moss and will be part of a new exhibition showcasing Black furniture makers and artisans in Williamsburg. The gallery on the right contains a partially installed map exhibition.

Other expansions within the museum address the behind-the-scenes aspects of exhibition design. This new installation of paintings by Edward Hicks, for example, includes text panels that were designed and printed entirely in-house. Even that wall sticker you see with the Peaceable Kingdom backdrop was printed here. This allows the exhibition team more freedom and leeway in determining exactly what they want for each show, which will make them look that much more polished in terms of detail. The text panels for the Hicks show, for instance, are custom-designed to each painting, with details from each work appearing alongside the border. As someone who has had to outsource print jobs like this, I imagine it will be very liberating to the staff at CW to design and print their texts on their own time and by their own expectations.

This new exhibition on Edward Hicks offers a more comprehensive overview of his career. In addition to the Peaceable Kingdom paintings for which he’s most famous, this space features examples of his landscapes, trade signs, and history paintings. I especially like the decal used on the entry wall, which is basically a giant sticker that CW produced in-house. The fact that CW can print its own exhibition materials will give them a lot of freedom in terms of design.

This installation work has not been easy for Brandon. As I mentioned in a previous post, being a Preparator demands creative problem solving, especially with collections as eclectic as those at CW. Even under the best of conditions, the objects he works with are often old, heavy, and fragile all at the same time, qualities that demand delicate installation work. Social distancing has made his work even more challenging because he’s had to move these pieces with either fewer coworkers to help out, or none at all. During the peak of the installation process, Brandon would come home from work exhausted, but was already thinking about what he would need to do the next day to get the next pieces in place. Despite these challenges, however, Brandon and the rest of the collections department have done a wonderful job, and the galleries look fantastic. While the pandemic has necessitated that CW cancel the opening receptions that would have celebrated these new spaces, I’m still proud of Brandon and all his hard work, and I’m delighted to have been able to see these spaces he’s helped assemble in person.

When you feel safe to visit, there’s a smiling hippo-ceros-record player waiting to say hello!

I hope everyone gets a chance to see these exhibitions when it feels comfortable for them. There’s some great stuff to check out, and there will be more exhibitions to come in the near future. And Brandon will be there to make sure they’re all put up safely.

Black Lives Matter: Some Learning Resources

I was originally going to start discussing my history reading list today, but in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the ongoing protests calling out systemic racism, I wanted to use this blog as a space for sharing resources about race and antiracism. Learning about systemic racism, and dismantling it, is critical work that we all need to do, especially if we are white people who haven’t been conditioned to see all the myriad ways in which society benefits us. The list I have going here is by no means comprehensive, but it should help get you started.

White people, we can and must do better. Be willing to learn about white privilege and how you benefit from it. Be willing to listen to black people and other people of color. Don’t make it about you; close your mouth and open your ears. Be willing to use your privilege to advocate. Help create a platform for underrepresented voices, and then step aside to let them speak. Be willing to vote against systemic racism. Be willing to challenge the infrastructures that benefit us at the expense of everyone else. Be willing to continue learning and to refine your views.

This is hard, uncomfortable, and ongoing work, but it’s critical that we do it. Black lives matter; it’s way past time our laws and social norms reflected that.

We owe it to everyone.

Bake Break: Chocolate Raspberry Cake

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been talking about archival theory and the various questions it raises in terms of how archives affirm or undermine authority, whose voices tend to get preserved or not, and the allure of the archives as a tactile connection to the past, among other issues. Before we move on to the next part of my list though, which addresses digital humanities, I thought I’d take a break from the theory and share this post about a cake.

A little backstory first. I originally wrote this in early February, and it’s rather strange reading it now. Before the pandemic, I usually only baked cakes and that sort of thing for social occasions. Not so anymore. I’ve done a lot of baking since the pandemic started, but aside from Brandon, I haven’t been sharing my baked goods with anybody. The cake I talk about in today’s post, one that was meant to be shared by a group of people, feels like it happened a very long time ago. Future historians take note: sheltering at home in the Covid-19 pandemic alters your sense of time.

Anyway, here’s the original post:

A coworker of Brandon’s recently got a new job at the Valentine Museum in Richmond. To celebrate this new chapter, Brandon asked if I could make a cake for her, as he knows I enjoy baking. After finding out that she has a penchant for chocolate raspberry cakes with cream cheese frosting, I decided to give it a go.

Here’s the recipe, which is modified from a King Arthur recipe for classic birthday cake:

  • 2 cups cake flour (I used King Arthur’s unbleached and unenriched)
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder (I used Hershey’s Special Dark, but it’s up to you)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 4 tablespoons (1/4 cups) butter, cut into parts
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees with a rack in the center. Lightly grease two 8″ or 9″ round cake pans. If the 8″ pan isn’t 2″ deep, use the 9″ pans.
  2. Combine flour, sale, baking powder, and cocoa powder in a small bowl.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs, sugar, vanilla, and almond extract until thickened and light gold in hue. The recipe called for using a hand-mixer at medium-high speed for 2 minutes, but I was able to do this by hand with a little effort.
  4. Add the dry ingredients and mix just enough to combine. Scrape the bottom and sides, and mix again briefly.
  5. Bring the milk to a simmer over medium heat in a saucepan on the stovetop, or in the microwave. Remove from heat, add butter and oil, and stir until the butter melts
  6. Slowly mix the milk/butter/oil concoction into the batter until everything is well combined. Use the low setting on your hand mixer if you’ve got one. Scrape the bowl and mix one more time, briefly.
  7. Divide the batter between the two pans.
  8. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean and the top feels set (38 to 42 minutes for 8″ pans, 26 to 30 minutes for 9″ pans)
  9. Remove from the oven, loosen the edges, and allow to cool for 15 minutes. Remove the cakes from pans onto a rack (right-side up), and let them finish cooling. Cakes should be completely cool before you frost them.

And here’s what I did for the cream cheese frosting (You can also find it here):

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened.
  • 8 ounces cream cheese (the block kind, not the spreadable stuff for bagels)
  • 4 cups’ confectioner’s sugar (powdered sugar)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Beat butter and cream cheese until blended, then add sugar and vanilla and continue to beat until creamy and smooth.

For the filling in between the cake layers, I used seedless raspberry preserves, probably between 1/4-1/2 cup though I wasn’t measuring precisely. I got mine from Publix, but any brand will suffice. To keep the raspberry filling from soaking too much into the cakes, I coated the top of the bottom layer and the bottom of the top layer with a thin coat of frosting. I then applied the raspberry filling on top of the bottom layer of cake, placed the top layer over that, and covered the whole thing with cream cheese frosting.

Now for the story behind this cake:

As I mentioned earlier, this recipe is modified from a classic birthday cake recipe from King Arthur Flour, my favorite baking company. The recipe is on their website, but you can also find it on the back of their cake flour box.

This recipe is definitely easier with a hand mixer, but you can do it by hand, like I did. I broke my hand mixer a few years ago, but I’m able to meet most of my baking needs without it. If I start baking cakes more often though, I’ll definitely get a new one.

Two-layer cakes have always been an aspiration of mine. I’ve done lots of sheet cakes and cupcakes, but there’s something about the height and elegance of a layer cake that intrigues me. I don’t bake them often enough to be really good at them, but I always appreciate the challenge.

In retrospect, I would have done three things differently. First, I would have put the frosting back in the fridge before using it, as I found that despite using block cream cheese, it was still a tad runny when I was using it. Second, I wouldn’t have spread the raspberry filling all the way to the edges. When I applied the frosting around the edges, the raspberry filling bled into it, causing an ombre effect. While I actually liked how it looked, it wasn’t what I had initially set out to do. Third, I would have applied more frosting in between the layers. I ended up with more frosting than I needed to cover the cake, so I ended up having a very thick layer on top.

Overall, though, I was pleased with how this cake tuned out. Adding the oil also kept the cake moist, which is another improvement on my previous cakes. Visually, it wouldn’t win any contests on a baking show, but this is definitely one of my better efforts. I mean, it’s upright and evenly coated with frosting more or less, so in my books, it’s a success. Most importantly, Brandon’s coworker loved it, along with everyone else in the collections department, so I’m happy I was able to help make her sendoff a memorable one.

Who knows when it’ll be safe to do this again.

B Movie Reflections: Women and Spiders

A guilty pleasure that Brandon and I both share is watching bad movies, courtesy of MST3K and Rifftrax. I’m talking movies like Manos: The Hands of Fate, or Birdemic.

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One of the more recent offerings we watched was Kiss of the Tarantula, a 1976 movie about a young woman and her special arachnid friends.

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This is Susan. Her dad runs a mortuary, and her best friends are the tarantulas that she raises. When she’s antagonized by different people, whether it’s her spiteful mother, her cruel classmates, or her pervy uncle, she sics her spider friends on them for revenge. Death comes not from the spiders biting them or anything that graphic, but from people hyperventilating and having heart attacks from fright, I guess. I wasn’t entirely sure how it worked. I mean, tarantulas move slowly and are generally timid of humans, so it’s not exactly hard to get away from them.

Critics have remarked on the movie’s similarities to other films from the time. Blonde-haired, shy Susan is reminiscent of Sissy Spacek’s Carrie, for instance (though to be fair this film was released first), and the idea of a loner befriending equally outcast animals is right out of Willard, with tarantulas instead of rats.

Kiss of the Tarantula reminded me of a different movie, however, though initially, I couldn’t remember which one. After racking my brain about it, the film finally occurred to me while I was cleaning one night: Madhouse (1974).

Image result for Madhouse Vincent Price

Starring Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, this film is both bonkers and meta. Price and Cushing play horror actors and writers who developed an iconic film character named Dr. Death. After Price’s fiance is found murdered, he is institutionalized for years, and when he is released, the murders resume, all of them inspired by Dr. Death movies. Did he do them, or is someone else to blame? It’s one weird movie, especially when the film takes a random left turn right into the Twilight Zone during the last ten minutes, but hey, it’s Price and Cushing together.

That wasn’t what made me think of it though. I was remembering the main female character, Fay, unhappy wife of Cushing’s character. Originally one of their beautiful costars, she became disfigured after a car accident (honestly I thought she looked fine, but plot point, right?), and spent most of her time in the basement playing with, you guessed it, pet spiders. Like Susan, she experienced a stronger emotional bond with spiders than she did with people.

Two outcast women who identify with spiders. Let’s take a closer look at the web that connects these two characters.

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Why are so many of us afraid of spiders? Part of it might be their alien appearance. When it comes to animals, spiders are about as different from us as they come. With their multiple legs and eyes, they’re excessive, with so many moving parts.

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Jumping spider wearing a water drop as a hat, proving that spiders can be cute.

Yet there’s more than anatomical differences going on here. After all, cephalopods like cuttlefish and octopi have multiple limbs, and with their ability to change colors or stuff their invertebrate bodies into tight spaces, they’re even more different than we are. Maybe the fact that they only have two eyes is a sufficient connection back to us, but I think it’s more than that. The major difference is that we’re taught to be afraid of them.

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Recent studies have suggested that women, in particular, are culturally conditioned to fear spiders. Whether it’s nursery rhymes such as Little Miss Muffet, or the more general association between spiders and dirty or dark places like sheds or out-of-reach corners, spaces that contain the unknown, and by extension, danger, we’re taught to fear spiders.

Having two women characters such as Fay and Susan be attracted to animals that they’ve been conditioned to fear then, demarcates their aberrance. They are quite literally drawn to the thing toward which they’re supposed to experience revulsion.

What’s rather ironic about all this is that the tarantulas we see in movies, and the ones we own as pets, are all female. You see, male tarantulas go into a frenzy during the mating season, to the point that they will kill themselves trying to escape a cage or other enclosure in search of a female. It’s not unlike what male Vulcans experience during Pon Farr, if you’re at all familiar with Star Trek.

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Female tarantulas, by contrast, don’t go into that kind of sexual frenzy, so they make for more stable pets, or in the case of movies, actors. As Brandon puts it, if anything, female tarantulas should be considered feminist icons because they can go through life just fine without a man. If they meet, great, they’ll propagate, but if not, that’s totally fine too.

Of course, Fay and Susan aren’t the first instances of women being associated with spiders. The most famous instance is probably Arachne from Greek mythology, transformed by Athena into a spider when she boasted that her weaving skills surpassed those of the goddess. She is literally cast out of human society by being transformed into an animal.

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Gustave Dore, Arachne, ca. 1867.

During the Victorian era, in particular, you have a lot of what I call sexy macabre floating around in the visual culture, with women portrayed as witches, bats, and other dangerous creatures. Personifying the duality of Eros and Thanatos, sex and death, these women are uncontrolled, potentially lethal, and dangerously sensual. In contrast to Victorian propriety, they are aberrant in their uninhibited sexuality and autonomy, a quality that, to their male Victorian viewers, is enticing and repulsive at the same time.

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Albert Joseph Penot, The Batwoman, ca. 1890, oil on canvas, 39.3″ x 23.6″. Private collection.

The association between dangerous, outcast women and vermin continued in film too. In B movies like The Wasp Woman, the association is literal, with the protagonist periodically turning into a wasp-like creature after ingesting a beauty serum made from queen jelly. The key to her enduring beauty is also what makes her monstrous.

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With Fay and Susan, however, the link is behavioral rather than literal. Sure, Fay is supposedly disfigured, and the white streaks in her curly hair are evocative of webs, but that stems from the trauma of living in isolation after a horrific accident with an abusive spouse rather than literally being a human/spider hybrid. Instead, I’d argue that both women channel spiders not only through their friendships with them, but also in their emulation of spider behavior as rendered in popular culture, particularly the black widow.

In popular culture, female black widows consume their mates after copulation. It’s an elegant enactment of the Eros/Thanatos duality, except it’s largely untrue. Sure, it’s been observed in three species in the United States, but under laboratory conditions, where escape was impossible. It hasn’t been observed in the wild. Still, the idea of the female killing and consuming her partner after copulation is a persistent one that encapsulates all the dangerous qualities of aberrant women, and we see that kind of behavior enacted in both Madhouse and Kiss of the Tarantula.

In the case of Madhouse, Fay takes out the Peter Cushing character with that most phallic of killing instruments, the butcher knife. It turns out he was the killer all along, and was trying to gaslight Vincent Price into killing himself. During the climactic fight between Cushing and Price, Fay intercedes and stabs her murderous husband to death. After years of living in isolation and neglect, she fought back and took the bastard out.

Image result for Madhouse adrienne corri

Susan also takes out a murderous, would-be mate in the form of her pervy uncle Walter (who also happens to be sheriff or something like that). Susan pushes her uncle down the stairs after he tries to rape her, paralyzing him. She then drags him down to her father’s funeral parlor in the basement. Once there, she approaches the coffin containing the body of a girl Walter had murdered (the poor gal had figured out it was Susan’s spiders who had killed her friends, and threatened to blow the whole story. Walter responded by strangling her because of his incestuous infatuation with Susan). Susan then opens the coffins, hoists out the girl’s body, cuts open the coffin lining, lowers Walter into it, replaces the girl, closes the coffin (which is hermetically sealed, by the way), and leaves her uncle to suffocate. Oh yes, and he’s suffocating under the corpse of the girl he murdered. It’s a deeply unsettling synthesis of “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Brandon and I agreed that for a Rifftrax movie, the last 20 minutes were pretty disturbing and, unlike the laughably over-the-top sequences earlier in the movie, not at all humorous. Susan means business.

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What’s so disturbing about the scene is how coolly calculated Susan is. She’s purposeful with her movements, carefully but confidently loading the body into the sling and raising it, efficiently cutting through the lining, and finally placing Walter into it. There’s nothing frantic or panicked about her work; she knows exactly what to do. And most chilling of all, she doesn’t say a word. Walter is pleading, begging the whole time, but Susan continues her work unphased. Only when she’s about to cover her pervy uncle with the fabric does she quietly say two words to him: “Goodbye, Walter.” Just as a spider skillfully encases its victim in a cocoon of webbing so that it can later feed off its liquified organs, so Susan dispenses with her pervy uncle by encasing him in a hermetically sealed cocoon of cloth, where he will rot in his own body fluids.

That’s the other commonality between Fay and Susan. The corpses of their male antagonists remain unidentified. After Fay takes out Cushing, she lets her spiders feast on his corpse, which reduce his body to bones over the next few months. Price, meanwhile, whose face was scarred in a fire, uses his skills as a makeup artist to recreate Cushing’s features on his own, thus assuming his identity (I told you this movie was bonkers, and I’m not even telling you the strangest parts). Cushing’s character is not only murdered, but effaced, with his rival appropriating his identity.

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Similarly, Walter’s death remains an unconfirmed one. Buried under the corpse of his victim, he will presumably decompose in anonymity, with only his killer knowing his outcome. For everyone else who knew him, there will only be the uncertainty that comes with disappearances. For Walter, there can be no closure, and given the significance of closure to the grieving process, it’s another sinister aberration from accepted social norms.

So there you have it, two ostracized women who found companionship in spiders, who took out their antagonists in aberrant ways that reflected their characterizations as outcasts.

Either that, or I spend way too much time thinking about B movies.

The Ongoing Saga of Seal and Polar Bear

Art was always one of my favorite classes in elementary school. Compared to the rote memorization of multiplication tables or spellings words, drawing was a pleasant, creative diversion. I also remember the art teacher being a very nice lady who encouraged everyone’s work. She had long hair and wore long, flowy dresses or shawls with a vaguely New Age vibe.

My sole unpleasant experience with elementary school art occurred around the third grade, when this New Agey teacher asked me to change a landscape I’d been working on. The subject was a dog chasing after a duck that had just been shot. In all honesty, it was probably inspired by watching my sister and her friends play Duck Hunt.

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Classic gaming right here.

The teacher didn’t like it because she thought it wasn’t nice. She believed children my age should draw happy pictures of trees or puppies, not ducks getting shot. I changed it, but was always a little chagrined about it afterward. I wasn’t an especially morbid kid; I just knew nature could be dangerous. I’d seen enough dead deer hanging off of people’s porches during hunting season, and seen enough documentaries about crocodiles hunting wildebeest, to know that nature isn’t always nice. Heck, my favorite Disney movie at the time, Fantasia, featured all kinds of hunting in its Rite of Spring segment, most famously with a T-Rex throttling a Stegosaurus (and yes, I know they lived millions of years apart, but it looks cool). I knew that hunting was as integral to nature as blooming flowers or hatching ducklings, and thought it should be rendered as such.

Image result for fantasia rite of spring
Forget Disney Princesses, give me dinosaurs!

Perhaps that chagrin was one of the reasons why, many years later as a curatorial fellow at Shelburne Museum, I was immediately drawn to this painting:

This is Seal and Polar, painted around 1877 by Massachusetts-based artist Charles Sidney Raleigh. Originally an English seaman, Raleigh had a mid-life career change when he decided to become an artist and settled in Massachusetts. Self-taught, he painted signs, murals, and other projects. Of all his paintings, however, this one stood out to me. I’d seen plenty of Victorian paintings of animals hunting, Landseer being one of the more famous examples, but these were academic paintings, highly refined in execution. Seal and Polar Bear, by contrast, almost appears gleeful in its rendering, not unlike children when they play with their dinosaurs. The bear almost seems to be grinning as it raises its paw for a fatal blow, but that snarling seal, teeth bared, is also a dangerous hunter, the red of its mouth echoing the blood oozing from its tail. With its abstracted animals and almost cartoonish rendering of Arctic violence, I found it an engaging work of folk art and made it the centerpiece of an exhibition I was working on at the time, How Extraordinary! Travel, Novelty, and Time.

That exhibition would only be the beginning of my ongoing, meandering adventure with Seal and Polar bear as an image though. While I was researching the painting for the show, I learned that Raleigh painted at least two other versions.

The first was The Law of the Wild, from 1881, at the National Gallery in DC:

Law of the Wild, 1881, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Compositionally it’s similar to the Shelburne version, though it could probably use a cleaning at some point.

The other was Seal and Polar Bear from 1886, on view at the Bourne Historical Society.

Seal and Polar Bear, 1886

This is the grimmest of the three. The polar bear isn’t grinning anymore, and the ice floes have become more jagged and detailed, underscoring the harshness of the surroundings. The ship that was in the background of the other two works is also gone, further emphasizing the isolation of these two predators.

How Extraordinary! came and went, but Seal and Polar Bear always remained in the back of my mind. Why did Raleigh paint so many versions, and where did he get the idea to paint it in the first place? I knew from his biography that he never ventured to the Arctic, so I started wondering whether there was an image that Raleigh and seen and decided to reinterpret.

The magic of living in the Internet Age is that more material on every topic is always becoming available. Over the years then, I’ve casually done some online research on Seal and Polar Bear, and each time I do, I find more material on it.

First I found these business cards around 2013:

Business card for Martin’s, a furrier.

Victorian businesses, along with individuals, often used calling cards to help circulate their name among consumers. Many of these cards included illustrations, often associated with the goods purveyed. The best-known or wealthiest companies usually often commissioned their own images, but smaller businesses could have their name and address printed on blank, generic images. Sometimes these images reflected their products, but a lot of the time they were based on pop culture.

Same business card image, different product, now for wigs.

Such was the case with these two calling cards featuring the very same seal and polar bear image. The top one is for a furrier based in Utica, New York, while the second one is a Boston company that specialized in hair products. I don’t know what hair products have to do with polar bears, but Victorians were fascinated with polar exploration, so it was floating around in the visual ether.

Perhaps Raleigh saw one of these business cards and decided to do his own painterly interpretation. Considering that they were in circulation in Boston as well as New York, if not other places, it’s entirely possible. I always suspected there was another image behind the calling cards, however, so I continued looking around.

I made my next break around 2016, when I found this wood engraving for sale on Etsy.

Now I felt like I was getting somewhere. This print was much more detailed than the Raleigh paintings or the calling cards, and had the look and feel of an academic painting. It turns out it was a page from a French magazine that specialized in hunting. Still, a couple of things still needled at me. As a wood engraving, the print was likely based on yet another drawing and sketch: who could have done that? As a magazine that circulated primarily in Europe, moreover, it seemed unlikely, though not impossible, for Raleigh to have seen it. I wondered, however, whether it might have appeared in more than one publication.

Which brings us to 2019, when I found this image on Ebay:

From Harper’s Weekly, 1871

Here we are again, with another wood engraving of Seal and Polar Bear, but this time it’s a page from an American publication, Harper’s Weekly. A little online searching revealed that it appeared in the July 1, 1871 edition. The caption underneath the prints reads “A Polar Bear Catching A Seal On the Ice,” and what’s more, it’s based on a drawing from Ludwig Beckmann. A little more searching told me that Beckmann was an animalier based in Germany, which would explain the more academic look of the drawing in comparison to the Raleigh paintings. Whether this was in turn based on observation or yet another source is yet to be determined, but that’s what keeps the journey going, right?

So here’s what I imagine: Beckmann does the sketch, which is turned into a wood engraving. From there it appears in different periodicals such as Harper’s. Somebody sees the print and adapts it into a business card. Meanwhile. Raleigh sees the business card or the print, and does his own interpretation.

And that’s the emphasis, interpretation. Raleigh didn’t copy the image, but added his own artistic license to each painting. From the abstraction of the animals to the changing treatment of the ice floes, what we have is an artist taking inspiration from the visual culture around him, and reinterpreting it through his own brush.

I don’t know what I’ll do with these findings in the long term, maybe they’ll become a conference paper or an article in the future, but if nothing else, Seal and Polar Bear remains as intriguing as ever.

And if I ever run into that art teacher again, I’ll be sure to introduce her to these paintings.

My Adventures at the Mariners’ Museum

In addition to coursework and research, William and Mary students are expected to complete an assistantship every year. Many of these take the form of teaching, but there are also opportunities to work in museums, archives, publications, and other places. Given my curatorial background, I’ve been working two days a week at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News. Today, I’ll talk about some of the projects I worked on there.

Compared to my job at Roswell, my position at the Mariners’ was low-key because I wasn’t in charge of the department and was able to spend all of my time with the collection. I worked with the map collection, which contains about 1400 objects spanning from the sixteenth into the twentieth centuries. The maps represent a small facet of a much larger object collection, but there was more than enough material to keep me busy.

During the fall, I primarily worked on inventorying the objects to make sure the locations in the computer database corresponded with what I actually found in the drawers. Once I completed that, I worked on rehousing maps in newer, more archivally appropriate folders, choosing maps to be photographed for the database, and cataloging maps found in the collection, among other things.
Example of the kind of map you might see in my exhibition next year.

I spent most of my time working on an exhibition proposal, Changing World Views: World Maps from the Mariners’ Museum. Here’s the introduction I wrote for it:

When it comes to maps, representations of the world are among the most recognizable, whether we hang them in classrooms, see them on the evening news, or look them up online. Yet world maps are not just visual renderings of continents. From allegorical illustrations to the outlines of political borders, the details we see on maps can tell us a lot about their creators’ expectations and interests. Changing World Views explores how world maps express political and social content while showcasing various examples from the Mariners’ Museum collection.

This exhibition won’t open until 2020, but since my internship just ended, I needed to present as complete a package of a show as possible. In addition to including an illustrated checklist and exhibition text, then, I provided measurements for the works, recommended mat and frame sizes, and completed a layout of the show for the proposed space, Gallery Six. Since I’ll be living in Williamsburg for the foreseeable future, I also offered to help out when it comes time to put the show together.

Overall, I enjoyed my time here, as it was a good transition space. Having spent almost a decade working museums, it was nice to still have a connection to that environment as I readjusted to being a student again. It’ll also be good to expand my exhibition experience beyond the Roswell Museum, as the vast majority of the shows I curated were staged there.

All that said, however, I’m ultimately here to expand and grow my skill set, so I’ll look forward to having the opportunity to try out a new position next year.

My Life with Misophonia

I had my first negative experience with sound when I was about eight years old. I was having a friend over for a playdate, and we were eating waffles. Over the course of what should have been a benign breakfast, I discovered that I hated the sound of people chewing loudly. It enraged me, and all I wanted to do was take that plate of waffles and hurl it at the wall. Even now as an adult, I cringe when I think back to that incident. The worst part is that I love waffles.

Why did my friend’s eating make me so angry?

It’s because I likely have a mild iteration of a disorder of misophonia. People with misophonia become unusually angry at certain sounds, to the point of feeling rage or pain whenever they hear it. Chewing and other eating-related sounds are the most common triggers, but any repetitive sound can potentially garner a hostile reaction. I can’t stand whispering, for instance, or high-heeled shoes on hard surfaces, or excessive pen-clicking. And those are just a few examples. Believe me, you don’t want to read the full list.

No one is quite sure what causes misophonia at this point. Since it’s not officially listed in the DSM-V, it’s hard to get an official diagnosis at this point (note I said ” likely”) but you’ll find plenty of websites offering descriptions or support, both to sufferers and their families.

So what’s it like to have misophonia? It’s different for everyone, but for me, it’s manageable. I’ve read stories about people who can’t leave their houses or eat in the same rooms as their families, so my issues are pretty mild by comparison. Still, it’s not always easy. Having misophonia means dreading working lunches, or grimacing when people start whispering because it feels like you’re being pricked with tiny, invisible needles. It means not going to the movies very often because, between the whispering and the popcorn chomping, there’s not much pleasure in it. It means abhorring open office plans because somebody’s probably going to eat, type, or talk. It means hiding your irritation, and the shame you feel knowing that a harmless sound has made you so angry.

That’s the peculiar thing about misophonia. You know that your responses are irrational. I remember thinking I was out of my mind when I tried explaining it to my parents as a teenager. To this day, the only people who really know are my immediate family and Brandon, because I don’t want to make other people feel uncomfortable or self-conscious about something that isn’t their fault. This is my problem.

So why am I writing about this then? I hope in part it will serve as an apology for all the folks who’ve ever wondered why I can sometimes be curt at lunch meetings or other occasions. It’s hard to be affable when you’re fighting an irrational vexation. With all the literature circulating out there about misophonia, I also wanted to add another personal perspective. I’d like to show that it’s possible to thrive in spite of it. I still go to movies, concerts, and other events. I can sit through working lunches and contribute. I may not like open offices, but I managed to successfully work in one for a year when I was interning at the Dallas Museum of Art. Everybody has their own struggles. In the grand scheme of things, my aversion to sound is very manageable.

And what if you know someone with misophonia? I can’t speak for everyone, but my advice is to take it seriously. I don’t expect you to bend over backward to accommodate me because I know that’s unreasonable. The world can’t shut itself off just because I don’t like certain sounds. But don’t laugh it off either. Misophonia may be something I have to ultimately cope with alone, but the effects are very real to me.

And if all else fails, chew quietly.

Brandon’s Adventures

This blog primarily focuses on my activities as a grad student, but I’m not the only one who’s enjoying new opportunities here in Williamsburg. My partner, Brandon, has also been up to some exciting things, so today I’d like to spotlight them.

Out at the City of Rocks in New Mexico

Brandon and I met at the Roswell Museum. Originally from Florida and Mississippi, Brandon majored in history at FSU. He moved to Roswell to be closer to his parents, although they ultimately moved back to Florida. Initially a security guard, Brandon later became the museum’s preparator.

In the museum field, preparators are the ones who actually handle the artworks, whether it’s moving them, getting them ready for exhibition, or installing them. Preparators also get the gallery spaces ready for exhibitions, from repairing walls to repainting. When it comes to installations, they not only hang the works, but have to do the calculations needed to make sure everything is spaced correctly, and adjust the lights to make the pieces all look good. In essence, the preparators require skills in crafts such as framing, carpentry, painting, theatrical lighting, as well as mathematics, all while having the ability to think quickly and adapt to different situations. The preparator position one of the more demanding jobs in the museum field, but being mostly behind the scenes, it doesn’t get the same kind of attention that curatorships do. Any curator worth her salt, however, knows that preparators are the ones who make the exhibition magic happen, because they’re the ones who get the works ready and into place.

Matting works on paper is a time-consuming task requiring lots of skill and patience.

At Roswell, Brandon would do everything from re-mat and frame works on paper, transport artworks for conservation, hang paintings, prep galleries, and more. For one exhibition, Peter Hurd on Paper, he had to mat or re-mat more than thirty watercolor sketches and paintings, a tedious job requiring skill and patience. In one of his more unusual jobs, he built a custom support structure for one of the museum’s tin chandeliers so that it could handle the drive up to Santa Fe for much-needed conservation work.

Made by tinsmith Eddie Delgado for the museum in 1937, these three tin chandeliers are fantastic pieces of WPA craftsmanship. Conserving them took about 4 years and required a lot of patience and creativity.

He also has a special knack for moving large artworks safely. For one exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program, for instance, he oversaw the transport and installation of a 5-foot, 400-lb. wooden sphere. While the rest of the curatorial department (i.e. Amberly, our Registrar, and myself) would assist with installations and other activities, Brandon was the one who oversaw these functions.

The 5-foot wooden sphere was one of the most difficult pieces to move and install in the RAiR at 50 exhibition, but thanks to Brandon’s planning and leadership it was placed safely.

In short, Brandon was a critical member of the Roswell Museum staff, but he willingly left that position behind to move with me to Virginia. While we were moving to a place with plenty of museums, finding a preparator job in any of them wasn’t guaranteed. The museum field is a fickle place to get a job, and you usually have to go where the jobs are, not the other way around. I knew I would have plenty of opportunities in Williamsburg, but with Brandon, there was no guarantee.

As it turns out, our expectations have been exceeded.

Given his background in history, Brandon really wanted to work at Colonial Williamsburg. He initially got a position in Public Safety as a means to get his foot in the door, but he knew security wasn’t what he wanted to do in the long term. In October, however, a Senior Preparator position became available, and after a round of interviews, he was offered the. As of December 10, that’s what he’s been doing.

Loading up a desk and bookshelf in Kentucky.
Riding back from Kentucky. Brandon drove there and back with another co-worker. Whenever you transport art, it’s best to travel in pairs so you can take turns driving and help each other move the work.

Working at Colonial Williamsburg is quite different from Roswell. CW is much larger than the Roswell Museum, so staff members tend to specialize in particular fields rather than do everything. In Brandon’s case, he focuses primarily on safely moving collections items to different locations rather than install them or prep them for exhibitions. He works with a variety of both collections managers and curators to figure out what needs to be moved and how, and every day his schedule varies depending on what needs to get done. So far he’s helped move rifles, furniture, and other objects. He’s even gone to Kentucky to pick up works, and helped move a historic chair to Richmond. Although it’s different from Roswell, Brandon’s been enjoying the work quite a bit. He enjoys being part of a larger team, and in terms of his career, moving from Roswell to CW is a big step up.

Look at what Brandon made!

Brandon’s also been exploring some of his other interests, most notably blacksmithing. Earlier in the fall, he took a half-day introductory workshop, where he made a firestick. He really enjoyed that, and once his schedule settles down a bit more he’ll likely continue doing it. A fan of historical European martial arts (HEMA), Brandon has also been getting back into that, meeting with local groups in both Williamsburg and Richmond. Although he’s most comfortable with the German longsword, he’s also been exploring the saber, and even a little spear work.

I’m extremely proud of Brandon. He came to Williamsburg determined to find new opportunities, and he’s seized right onto them. I can confidently say that we’re both glad we moved here, and are looking forward to being here a little while.

Deck the Halls, Williamsburg Edition

Colonial Williamsburg loves the holiday season. From its fireworks-laden Grand Illumination to ornament making at the Aldrich Rockefeller Museum, it embraces December festivity. I appreciate good holiday decorations myself, so with the semester winding down and projects wrapping up, I took a break with Brandon to go look at the them.

Of all the decorations, I was most interested in the wreaths. Each building featured a wreath or similar arrangement festooned with details referencing regional customs. Tavern buildings featured cutlery or tinware cups, for example, while other more broadly acknowledged Virginia traditions through dried tobacco leaves, oyster shells, or, pineapples, a symbol of hospitality affiliated with CW especially.

I ended up taking enough pictures to do my own variation on those posters of old doors you find in a lot of museum or historical society gift shops.

I could go into a much deeper analysis with all of these, but it’s the end of semester, so today I’ll just sit back and enjoy them. 

Good tidings, everyone.