A Maine (and New Hampshire and Vermont) Adventure

Brandon and I recently took a vacation up to New England to visit friends and family. It had been about two years since I’d last visited, so I was due for an excursion. As for Brandon, he’d never been to this region aside from a quick work trip to Connecticut, he’d never been to this region before, so it was all new to him.

At my aunt’s camp in Windham, Maine. All you need is a golden retriever or a yellow lab and you’ve got a perfect setting for an LL Bean photo shoot.

We divided our time between three states: Maine, where my parents live; New Hampshire, where my sister lives with her family; and Vermont, where I spent two years as a curatorial fellow at Shelburne Museum. We spent a lot of time at the beach, and just outside in general, as the weather was pretty idyllic.

It was a lot of fun being able to take Brandon around and show him places where I used to live and work. He had done the same for me when we visited his friends and family down in Florida a couple of years ago, so I enjoyed returning the favor.

No trip to Maine is complete without lobster, in this instance at my aunt’s house in York.

We also made sure to eat plenty of tasty food. I always look forward to eating fresh lobster when I’m back East, but it was especially fun seeing Brandon try it for the first time. I was also relieved that he enjoyed it. After talking it up for three years, it would have been deflating if he didn’t like it.

In a culture that prides itself on constant busy-ness, going to the beach to explore tide pools, snorkel, throw rocks in the water, or just stare out at the water is an understated protest.

Aside from the fun of being able to revisit old haunts and spend time with family, going on vacation was also a good way to shake up my routine and reexamine my working habits with fresh eyes. I’m a big proponent of getting away from work periodically because I know from previous experience that you’ll likely burn out if you don’t. Going to New England was a good opportunity to take a break from my work, enjoy a change in surroundings and the creativity that goes with it, and reflect on how I can maximize my free time by being more efficient in the future.

From tide pools to barns, exploring New England also brought fresh subjects to my daily abstractions.

This was especially revelatory when I was visiting Vermont. This was where I had learned printmaking, and while I haven’t pulled many impressions since moving to Virginia, revisiting the place where I first tried it out reignited my passion for it.

Iris Trio, 2018. This is one of the last major prints I made, and that was over a year ago. It’s time to start pulling again.

Once we finish moving into our new place later this month (more on that in a future post), I definitely want to invest in a pin press and start making impressions again. After all, my research is only one facet of my life, and going to New England reminded me of the importance of keeping my other interests alive.

This is still one of my favorite places, but I don’t need to live here to have a satisfying life.

Revisiting Vermont also reminded me how far I’ve come. As I mentioned in my old blog, I especially enjoyed living here, which make my initial relocation to Roswell somewhat difficult. While I knew my job in Roswell offered more professional opportunities, there was always a sense of pining for Vermont, if subconsciously. I didn’t regret relocating to New Mexico, but part of me always wondered how things would have turned out if I had managed to stay at Shelburne. During this recent visit, however, I didn’t feel that wistfulness, because I know that my professional, financial, and personal life is all the better for having left. Between being able to pay off my student loans, curating exhibitions such as Magical and Real, exploring the archive that would form that basis of my research here at William and Mary, and meeting Brandon, my life is richer for having left my comfort zone. Sharing my favorite places in Shelburne and Burlington with Brandon was a lot of fun, but I’m definitely glad I went to Roswell.

No trip to New England is complete without a picture with a giant lobster sculpture.

All in all, we both had a great time, and look forward to future adventures here together.

Staging the Space Between

May was a busy month for me in the conference realm. After taking a hiatus in 2018, I returned to presenting and networking with two wonderful sessions. Since I’ve already discussed the first conference, Making History Public(s), today I’ll talk about the second one, Staging the Space Between, 1914-1945, which took place at South Dakota State University between May 30-June 1.

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This session acts as the annual conference for the Space Between Society, an academic association that focuses on the art, literature, and culture of the interwar period. Whereas Making History Public(s) was geared exclusively toward graduate students, the presenters at the Space Between were a mixture of professors at different stages of their careers, as well as graduate students. The membership is also transnational, with participants hailing from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. As a result, I was able to network with students and faculty alike, and share my ongoing research with professionals working both in and outside the United States.

The theme of the conference was staging, literally and metaphorically. My paper focused on the Community Art Center Project as local and national space, with the Roswell Museum serving as my primary case study. I essentially presented a condensed version of the paper I wrote for my independent study, which focused on the tensions between the museum’s FAP staff and its local sponsors. For me, the Roswell Museum offers an excellent opportunity to explore the practical and conceptual challenges of implementing programs like the Community Art Center Project in places that already have their own conceptions of education and culture. It’s one thing to read about the educational initiatives of Holger Cahill and other FAP administrators, but it’s an entirely different matter to see how these ideas actually manifest in art centers, and more importantly, how people respond to them. To fit the conference theme, I argued that the Roswell Museum itself acted as a stage for the performance of different educational philosophies as manifested through exhibitions, classes, and special programs.

In addition to meeting a wide range of scholars, I also gleaned helpful ideas or frameworks for considering my future research. One theme that emerged frequently was the idea of embracing the ephemerality of performance as a means of interpreting incomplete archives. The keynote speaker, Claire Warden, argued about the merits of learning from failure as encountered through recreating historical performances, and the information we can learn from embodied experience. Even if we can’t recreate a historical dance, play or performance with 100% accuracy, we can still receive insight from the experience of trying to recreate it, particularly through the ways it challenges us to read deeply into extant documentation such as photographs or letters.

As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the challenges of working with incomplete archives and approaching speculation without overshadowing the voices you were trying to represent. Beyond dealing with archives, however, the keynote and other talks encouraged me to think of the museum as performance, not only through overt performances such as the staging of the mystery play Los Pastores in 1938, but also through the mounting of exhibitions, classes, and other activities. While the performative nature of museum attendance and exhibition staging has long been noted, it’s helping me to think about my materials from a different perspective, which is always a good thing.

This was a full conference, so I didn’t do as much exploring as I normally like, but I was still able to get out and about. Since I flew into Sioux Falls, I explored this area before heading to the conference, specifically by visiting Falls Park. This area was an important source of hydroelectric power during the late 19th century, and remnants of this early industrialization are still present in the landscape, from the power plant that has since been converted to a cafe, to the ruins of a flour mill that burned down in the 1950s. As I read about the terraforming that took place to this area to accommodate power, I kept thinking about environmental histories such as Nature’s Metropolis and the interconnectedness between nature and civilization.

The university is also very nice, with a strong agricultural focus. I only saw a small part of it, but I liked what I saw, including the art museum, and the McCrory Gardens, which I walked through before driving back to Sioux Falls.

Speaking of staging, we also had the opportunity to listen some interwar music at the University’s Fine Arts Center, shown here. The colors and materials all relate to South Dakota ecology, from the forests to the badlands.

Overall, I had a very positive experience. It was encouraging to have so many established faculty express interest in my work, and it was a great opportunity to both network and be introduced to new works and ideas, all of which will benefit my future research. I feel particularly fortunate to have been able to present so early in my time at William and Mary, as I know the connections I’ve made here will benefit me for years to come.

Plus you can’t go wrong with a conference that gives you a free tote bag.

Excursions: Michigan

Last week I talked about a wonderful conference I attended in Michigan. Today I’ll tell you more about my adventures in Michigan itself.

I spent most of my time in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. With its funky restaurants and eclectic shops, it reminded me of a larger version of Burlington, Vermont, a city I frequented during my days at Shelburne Museum. It’s more than twice the size of Burlington with a population of 100,000 though, so there was a lot to see and do.

The campus itself, at least what I saw of it, is also quite lovely, with lots of old building in a variety of architectural styles. You’ve got plenty of neoclassical facades, of course, as at the art museum, but you’ve also got more eclectic Victorian styles such as Richardsonian Romanesque, as is the case with the Archaeology Department at Newberry Hall. Lake Forest College, my alma mater, has an anthropology department housed in a building similar to this one.

And did I mention there are multiple used bookstores?

As fun as Ann Arbor was to explore, however, the real highlight of my trip outside of the conference itself was my excursion to Detroit to see its Institute of Arts. I hadn’t initially planned on going, but when one of my fellow presenters reminded me it was less than an hour away, I knew I couldn’t pass up that opportunity.

Golly, am I glad I went; what a collection!

One of the salient points of the collection is its fresco cycle from Diego Rivera. Painted between 1932-1933 and commissioned for the museum by Edsel Ford, the cycle depicts modern manufacturing in Detroit, specifically the famed assembly line at the Ford factories. Rivera was fascinated with modern industry and it really shows in this piece, with the artist carefully weaving complex yet legible compositions from steel, rubber, and other modern materials. Rivera being Rivera, there’s also class commentary and critiques of capitalism going on here, as he reflects on both the positive and negative products of modern manufacturing, from pharmaceuticals to poison gas, to workers who become increasingly indistinguishable from the machinery they work.

Given the size of the museum, it has over 65,000 objects, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see everything, but of what I did see, I was impressed. I was really excited to encounter this Charles Sheeler, for instance. While probably best known today for his Precisionist renderings of industrial cityscapes, he also painted several interiors of his historical farmhouse in Bucks County. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and others praised his paintings for embodying a modern interpretation of vernacular America. After only encountering these paintings in photographic form, it was really exciting to see one in person. What struck me, aside from the variety of abstract patterns going on in the rugs and the repetition of shapes in furniture and cast shadows, is the sense of warmth from the painting. He does an excellent job of using reflected light and imperfect brushstrokes as rendered in the some of the rugs to both convey the texture of woven fibers and a sense of invitation. This may be a Precisionist-inspired composition, but it is by no means cold or unfeeling.

The contemporary collections are also outstanding, particularly the contemporary African American material, shown in the bottom image. The same fellow presenter who recommended I check out the museum had suggested this gallery to me, and again, I’m glad I went. The pieces in this gallery all conveyed a variety of complex emotions and experiences, from the grief of losing a loved one to resilience in the face of systemic racism and oppression. Anyone interested in American art, especially contemporary materials, should definitely check out this space.

There’s also plenty of material for more visitors with more historical tastes, as is the case with this Gothic family chapel, brought over from France in the years immediately following WWI. Brandon especially enjoyed this picture when I showed it to him, so if we ever go to Detroit together we’ll definitely be spending some time here.

What’s funny is that I could have worked here at one point. In 2017, when I was still at Roswell and beginning to research graduate programs, one of the curators reached out to me to apply for the Prints and Drawings Curator position, then open at the time. She had seen my CV on the Association of Print Scholars website and contacted me. After thinking it over I went ahead and applied, had a phone interview, and got invited out for an on-site session. I turned it down, however, because the Hurd/Wyeth retrospective I was working on at the time was less than a year from opening and I didn’t want to abandon the project.

In retrospect, I’m glad I went through with the graduate school applications. I’ve no doubt that working at the DIA would be immensely rewarding, but I probably would have also shelved my research on art centers indefinitely and not gone back for my PhD. The great thing about museums, however, is that no position is ever occupied forever, so who knows, maybe our paths will cross again. And if not, it’s definitely a fantastic place to visit and I heartily recommend it.

All in all, this was a great trip, and I got a lot out of it both professionally and personally.

Conference in Ann Arbor

I have a habit of ending my academic year somewhat frantically. At the end of my first year at Williams, I turned in all my papers a week early so that I could start a summer fellowship at the Old York Historical Society. The following year, barely a week after graduating, I moved from New England to Wyoming to commence an internship at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. This year, I drove 12 hours to Michigan the day after I turned in my last paper to present at a conference.

But what a conference! As harried as I may have felt preparing for it, I’m really glad I went.

The conference in question was “Making History Public(s): Presenting the Collective,” sponsored by the University of Michigan’s History Department. The topic of the conference, as the title suggests, was public history. Many of the papers addressed the practical side of teaching public history, with examples including a paper describing the collaborative process of reinterpreting of a historic farm space on a limited budget, or a paper describing a potential class syllabus on police brutality. Others dealt with more historical instances of public-building, as was the case in a paper describing the infrastructure needed to transport live giraffes to the United States during the 19th century, or a presentation exploring the racial and gender implications of teeth whitening during the 18th century.

Looking into the main galley. The exhibition on view includes plates from the Index of American Design, on loan from the FAP, with antiques from local residents, giving the community a role and presence in exhibition content.

My paper fell into the latter camp, as I was talking about the Roswell Museum’s public building during the WPA era. Essentially I explored federal art centers as venues for both art education and community-building through a case study of the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico, as it’s the art center I still know best at this point. I argued that from its inception, the Roswell Museum navigated ongoing tensions between the expectations of its local sponsors and federal staff regarding public outreach and engagement, as federal personnel and local supporters often had different expectations for the museum. Despite these disagreements, the museum consistently attempted to address multiple audiences by inviting visitors to contribute objects to exhibitions, offering classes at different locations in town, and acting as a performance space. After providing an overview of these activities, I then shared a few pages from my Scalar book as a means of showing how digital scholarship can begin to render the publics affiliated with these institutions more readily visible.

One building, many publics.

This was a great conference for me for several reasons. From a topical standpoint, this was the first time I participated in a conference in a discipline other than art history or museum studies, so it was a good way to test whether my work really is interdisciplinary enough to engage other academic fields. It had also been about two years since I last presented in this type of academic setting, so it was a good opportunity to refamiliarize myself with that process.

The museum’s role as a meeting and performance space offered some of the most interesting efforts in public-building.

Most importantly, I got some good feedback about my work, received helpful suggestions or recommendations for moving forward, and made some great new contacts. As I mentioned in a previous post, I participated in a lot of conferences when I was working, but the papers usually related to an exhibition I was working on at the time. As soon as the show opened, my research on it usually ceased so that I could move on to the next thing. I’m going to be living with my art center work for a long time though, so conferences will be a good way to present ongoing work and new ideas as I keep digging into the subject. If nothing else, the reception I got at this conference was a good reminder that the work I’m doing is interesting and worthwhile to people other than myself.

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Among the most significant performances to take place at the Roswell Museum during the WPA era was the staging of a Mystery Play, Los Pastores, by Roswell residents, all in Spanish. Here’s a picture from the cast, late 1938.

The conference was good for more than academics, however. Stay tuned next week to learn about my adventures in Michigan itself.