This week Philip Zimmerman examined an 18th century tilt top table, revealing the hidden differences between the top and the base of the piece.
Our exhibition, Painting with Light: The Art of Bunch Washington, seeks to create a unique experience for visitors. Visiting Scholar Elizabeth de Souza, one of the curators of the exhibition and the daughter of Bunch Washington, has said that she hopes to “create a space where conversations can happen that go past the usual dialogue that takes place in academia or a museum.” As a result, this blog entry describes the interview with Prof. de Souza in first person to illustrate the possible reflections and discourse that such an exhibition can invoke.
I entered the exhibit and let my eyes adjust to the contrasting light. Bunch Washington’s collages circled the room, beams of light illuminating their colors from behind. Delicate tables and curvy chairs filled the soft darkness. My feet brushed against the thick carpet as I made my way towards Elizabeth de Souza. She perched in a chair, one hand resting on a marble-topped table covered with cloth flowers.
“I have never seen a museum exhibit like this. How did you decide to create such a space?” I asked.
She smiled, nodding. “Usually a feeling of reverence lies among great works of art. Pieces are displayed in an empty room, in one row. Here, you are almost living with art. It is an environment with everyday, mundane, yet precious and beautiful items–you’re one of them. My father always did the unexpected. He used to own a restaurant, Bunch’s Southern Restaurant, which looked like this. Charles Mingus, a famous jazz player, kept a piano there. People could come to discuss the times.”
A wooden case with a glass door stood beside her. Bunch’s portrait lay inside, surrounded by flowers and faded letters.
“My father passed away in 2008. This is the first time his works have been displayed since then.”
“Do you remember the first time you saw one of your father’s collages?”
“I remember one, that as he was making it, a fly flew in and got stuck. He never took it out. We called that piece “Cookie Monster.” I don’t know why.”
Looking down at her hands, Prof. de Souza smiled and said, “I’ve looked at his collages every day of my life. I grew up with them and they’re a part of me. I can’t really imagine myself without them.”
I squinted at a swirling pink and blue collage. Two metal faces stared back at me, and a patterned cloth wriggled out of the resin. If I reached out, I could have touched the barest edge of the fabric.
“How did Bunch create them?”
“He would start with a mold and pour polyester resin in from a pitcher. It stank. Then he’d drop bits of objects in it. Jewelry, a leaf. He’d mix in dye and add another layer of resin and items. There was no formula for this process. He had to experiment for forty years before he perfected the process. Sometimes the collages would be too brittle or warp.”
Turning, I compared two collages. In one, an orange fern leaf stood fiercely erect beside a small head. In the other, a beaded necklace coiled over dried flowers. “Which is your favorite piece?”
She laughed. “Whichever one I’m contemplating. I used to think that my pieces, or the ones that lived with me, were the best of my father’s work. But then I hung some of my brother’s collages in my house. I would never have picked them, but they grew on me, and now I think, ‘why didn’t I take these?’”
I regarded an aged newspaper clip, pressed behind glass on the wall. In the photo, Bunch stands with his hands in his pockets, staring pensively to the side. His eyes refuse to meet ours.
“Do you think your father was trying to teach us something through his art?”
Elizabeth de Souza considered this for a moment before answering, “Bunch was a poet and writer. He was pleased with a work that held a variety of perspectives and interpretations. Always, he sought to show beauty. Items not always perceived as beautiful could be seen as such especially when illuminated with light.”
Glancing at the blinding lamps tucked into nooks throughout the exhibit, I questioned, “Why light?”
“My father was touched by the Baha’i faith, which teaches that this is the “Century of light.” Human capacity is flourishing. Humanity is in touch with each other across the globe. We are not of separate bands, but all one human family. To illustrate, I think of the red rose as the most beautiful flower, but in a garden, a variety of flowers add to the allure of the rose. In the same way, diversity enhances beauty.”
“Why do you think he chose to express these principles through the medium of collage?
She replied, “He wanted to use what we see in everyday life. A friend of his, Michael Valentine, told me that one day he was walking with Bunch and saw him pick up a leaf. Later, Michael saw the same leaf in Bunch’s studio, but thought nothing of it. Twenty years later, Michael walks into a museum and sees the leaf in a collage. He could have passed the leaf and never looked at it twice, but in a collage it becomes beautiful, or we can appreciate a beauty we didn’t recognize before.”
Rubbing the smooth wood of my armchair, I looked from a shiny pipe resting among ashes, to a bowl of pennies, to the luminous collages. “If I take one thing away from this exhibit, what should I remember?”
“It’s unavoidable that people will say this is the art of a black man who came from a certain socioeconomic background. Those are two of the things that influenced his life and choices, but I want people to look past that and see the universality of art. That there are new possibilities, signs of the human spirit, things waiting to be brought into the open.
She gestured emphatically, saying, “People who do new things always are faced with “no!” but if you push past them and follow your vision, there are amazing things to be discovered. I want you to leave thinking we’re just at the beginning of discovering the possibilities of this world and our lives.”
Thanking Prof. de Souza, I exited the exhibit. Descending the stairs into our other galleries, I felt a difference. Perhaps, this art does seem distant, untouchable. The Bunch Washington exhibit lays out his life and longings as openly as the patterned carpet which adorns the floor. I felt drawn by his invitation to reflection, and I hope that other visitors will pause to experience what his collages can offer.
Caylah Coffeen ’17, Digital Media Assistant
This week we interviewed another of our new staff members, Lindsay Marino, and she shared some thoughts about herself and how she helps to make The Phillips Museum of Art a valuable resource.
Could you tell us about your responsibilities here at The Phillips Museum of Art?
I’m the Collections Manager, so I am the steward of the collection. I make sure our pieces are properly cared for, and I file the necessary paperwork. Currently, I am making an inventory of the vault and finishing processing pieces that have been in our collection for a long time.
What are you hoping to bring to the museum?
I hope to bring the Phillips up to the standards that the staff desires. I want to improve the information that is available about our works and increase access to the entire campus community. There are some pieces that have been with us for so long that we don’t know about their history. We are doing research and updating our database to make the museum a better resource for students and faculty.
Why are you passionate about museums?
I have always loved history. At first I wanted to be an archaeologist. I just love what one can learn from material culture. Eventually, I realized that a museum was one of the best ways to preserve history. And there’s no dirt.
Are you an artist?
No, but I really appreciate art.
Do you have a favorite style or time period?
I don’t have a favorite type of art. I’m mostly interested in the history behind the art. I love exploring the past of an object, regardless of the genre or time.
Have any of our pieces struck you?
I haven’t had much chance to explore our vaults yet, but I can’t wait to see what we have.
What have you liked so far about working for The Phillips Museum of Art?
The staff is so friendly and accomplished. It has been great working with them, and I am excited to continue to do so.
Caylah Coffeen ’17, Digital Media Assistant
Our staff at the museum works hard to provide a great resource through the Phillips Museum of Art. This week we interviewed one of our new staff members, Babs Smith, and she shared what she does to help run the museum.
When did you start working at the Phillips Museum of Art?
“Just this August. I had worked at the Business Office for 20 years before that.”
What do you do here in the Museum?
“I am the office coordinator so I mostly handle financial aspects. I help the Director with budget, I place orders for Exhibition receptions, organize mail, and approve student worker hours.”
Why do you hope to bring to the Phillips Museum?
“I’m here to help. Everyone is very friendly. I want to be of service to the staff however I can. There are also a couple of long-term organizational projects I have in mind.”
What do you like most about your job?
“It is not a stress-filled environment and it is very flexible. I’m only working 10-15 hours a week. It was just the right fit for me.”
What have you found challenging?
“I’m filling a different role so there are different duties to become accustomed to. I’m just learning new formats, but people have been helping me out along the way.”
Why did you want to work at a Museum? Are you passionate about art?
“In the past, I haven’t been into art. It’s one reason I did want to work here. It is a good opportunity to learn something different and broaden my horizons.”
What do you like most about the Phillips Museum of Art?
“I like the various types of exhibitions. I can meet many different types of people and it’s fun to see and learn about new things.”
What is your favorite exhibition?
“I love the Before Rosie the Riveter: Women and Work in WWI Exhibition.”
We would love to meet more of our neighbors and fellow art lovers. Stop by to see our inspiring exhibits or just to chat.
Caylah Coffeen ’17, Digital Media Assistant
The Phillips Museum of Art recently opened the exhibition Before Rosie the Riveter: Women and Work in WWI, which illustrates the involvement of propaganda in inspiring the vital participation of women in the First World War. As with every exhibit, many people worked behind the scenes in order to bring a variety of works together. We have curators Professor Misty Bastian, Julie Copperman ’14, Brandon Cunningham ’15, and Raechel Richardson ’15 to thank. But how does an exhibit come to life? We asked two of the student curators, Brandon Cunningham and Raechel Richardson about their experience.
What is your year and major?
Brandon Cunningham: I am a senior, Class of 2015, and am double majoring in Classical Archaeology and Ancient History and Anthropology, with a minor in Latin.
Raechel Richardson: I am a senior and am majoring in Anthropology.
What do you hope to do after graduation?
Brandon: I hope to find an internship or job relating to museum studies. After which I hope to find a graduate program in Museum Studies, and go on to curate in a museum.
Raechel: I hope to go into education.
What was involved in the process of curating Before Rosie the Riverter: Women and Work in WWI?
Raechel: Last summer. Hackman Scholar Julie Kopperman ’14 worked with Professor Bastian, Anthropology, to research women’s roles in the war. This summer we worked to organize their research into three separate exhibits around the same theme.
Brandon: Our work focused on the smaller pieces, selecting which ones would contribute most to our exhibit, and on the layout and presentation of all these ephemera in the museum. We also spent an entire day in the State Historical Archives in Harrisburg digging through a vast amount of records to find photographs of women from Pennsylvania who participated in the war efforts.
What did you enjoy most about this job?
Brandon: I most enjoyed seeing this project from beginning to end. When we began our work, our space was entirely blank. Now, it is filled with beautiful posters and smaller ephemera that share a wonderful story of the work that women did in WWI. It is such a good feeling, knowing that we, in part, made that happen.
What did you find most challenging about this job?
Raechel: Because our exhibit is threefold, and because it involved so many different people helping to put it together, coordinating our time and resources was a challenge.
Why are you passionate about the women of World War I?
Brandon: I think this topic goes largely unnoticed. You learn about the trenches and the biological weapons, but you never see the women who worked to keep these countries running in the absence of the men who went to fight. That is why I am so passionate and proud of this exhibit, because it brings to light the actions of these unsung heroes on the home front.
Raechel: I want to learn about and show other people who these women were. They were vital to the war effort and often are forgotten in favor of Rosie and her WWII work. Without these women on the home front and abroad in WWI paving the way, Rosie the Riveter might not have existed.
What most intrigued you?
Raechel: The different ways people used the image of a woman. They were used to invoke protective feelings in men, appeal to women as a workforce, and occasionally sexualized as a kind of reward for victory.
Brandon: The War Gardens, which were brought about to supply Europe with foodstuffs. I learned that by the end of 1917, nearly 3 million private plots of land were dedicated to this effort, and nearly 5.3 million by the end of 1918. At the end of the war, it is estimated that these plots produced nearly 1.2 billion dollars worth of food!
What are you seeking to communicate through this exhibit?
Brandon: Women played key roles in WWI through volunteer organizations like the Red Cross and YWCA, and by working in civil jobs and even on the front lines in the armed services. Not many people understand exactly what these women did, and how much they helped the war effort, and we are trying to display that.
Raechel: I want people to leave the exhibit with a new respect and admiration for these women. They really were revolutionary and their efforts allowed for a greater discussion of women’s suffrage postwar.
Caylah Coffeen ’17, Digital Media Assistant
As this year’s Andrew W. Mellon Post-Baccalaureate Fellow, I worked with Brittany Baksa, Programs and Outreach Manager, primarily with all sorts of curriculum guided education at The Phillips Museum of Art. During this past semester, Brittany and I started our first student docent training program where we hired students interested in a museum-related career and gave them experience providing tours to museum-goers and interacting with visitors in a meaningful way.
We primarily used Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), developed by Philip Yenawine, with our visitors so they could engage with the art by answering thought-provoking questions to relate it within a larger socio-cultural context. As part of VTS, we “present[ed] the viewer with works that encourage narrative reading, and relate to familiar contexts and activities” (Thoughts on Visual Literacy, Yenawine, 1997). In his article, Yenawine proceeds to tell the educator to “ask [the visitors] to look and think about what they see, then to look again, and to share and compare their perceptions and responses with others. This type of viewer can quickly learn to observe more and ground their stories in evidence rather than simply in their memories or imaginations” (Yenawine, 1997). One such tour where we incorporated VTS was provided for Franklin & Marshall alumni of the exhibition, Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art, by myself and Emma DeCourcy ’16. Rather than only providing facts about the artist and her vast body of work, we invited the alumni to engage with the art and to relate the art within the social and cultural context as well as within the scope of the artist’s life, so they could be included in the learning process.
In addition to giving tours, I also communicated with professors in different academic departments about relating the exhibitions and our collections to their curriculum and was pleased that we welcomed visitors from Earth and Environment, Art and Art History, American Studies, English, History, and several others.
Working as the Education Assistant was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about an aspect of the museum field that focuses on the museum visitor while fostering teaching and learning in the museum for students of all ages. I see my future self working with people and helping museum visitors engage with different types of artwork. The biggest fascination that I have with the field of museum education is that you never know what you are going to expect: from a tour, an event, or a group of people wandering about the galleries. Everyone learns in different ways and different people find an object or painting that entices them to look and think deeper. Next year, I will be attending Syracuse University to earn my Masters in Museum Studies, where I hope to continue my passion for museum education and carve my own career path to becoming a Museum Educator.
This week’s post was written by Marissa Sobel ’13, Education Assistant