Flag conservation

Flag conservation
Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My Visit to Thurber's Home

by Gwen Spicer

Earlier this fall I was visiting Columbus, Ohio, when I visited the Thurber Home. For those who do not know James Thurber is was a contributing humorist for the New Yorker in the 1920s and 1930s. He is famous for his short stories, such as the incomparable "The night the bed fell". "The secret life of Walter Mitty" has been a staple of anthologies for decades. His dog cartoons and illustrated poems that first appeared in the New Yorker are justly famous. Much of his work is readily available in the The Thurber Carnival, also adapted for Broadway.

Thurber homeThurber cartoon

The house is interpreted to the few years that Thurber and his family lived in the house, 1913-1917,  the years that Thurber attended Ohio State University. His family lived in many houses in Columbus, none of which survive. This house at 77 Jefferson Street opened as a museum in 1984.

Two floors can be visited. It is a self-guided tour of the two floors. The visitor is given a brochure upon arrival; each room  has a storyboard. Cartoons and quotes form My Life and Hard Times, are used throughout the house and interspersed with the self-guided tour.

The first floor is furnished as it might have been during the years that the Thurbers lived there. In the second floor, two of the bedrooms are devoted to exhibition spaces. The other rooms on the second floor are offices, but no one seems to mind the presence of visitors. The third floor has been turned into a residence for a visiting writer.
The front bedroom where the parents slept. (TH)
The wallpaper was researched and was reproduced based on recollections of Thurber's younger brother, who was still alive when the house was purchased. He recalled which layer of paper was present when they lived there. As a rental property, many layers of paper were  found, none having been removed over the years.

Due to his eye injury, Thurber was unable to complete a compulsory ROTC course, so OSU would not let him graduate. Later they did give him an honorary degree.
Magnifiers that Thurber used.
His typewriter, one of the few artifacts that was owned by Thurber
One of the intriguing aspects of the museum is that it is not just an historic house where a great and important figure lived. The house has been turned into a living embodiment of writing, humor and education. One can walk into the home and imagine an earlier time, but that also workshops and writing events are also happening on-site and in schools.
The living room in use. (Courtesy of TH)
There are no "do not touch" signs here; rather visitors and program groups are asked to interact with the space. In fact their mission is Thurber House: Where laughter, learning and literature meet. Does that not just make you want to be a part?

Learn more at www.thurberhouse.org. Their blog is http://thurberhouse.wordpress.com
Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Conserving works on paper of the Native American traditions painted by Ernest Smith

by Gwen Spicer

Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and for me, I cannot help but think of corn.  While corn may not have been what you would have thought of, let me explain why it's on my mind.  Corn is everywhere.  Corn is a symbol of the autumnal season.  "Indian corn" with it's beautiful brilliant colors are seen in decorations and corn stalks are tied together and grace lampposts everywhere.  The corn that grows at some of the farms near our studio is used to feed livestock and some cobs are harvested to be used as a fuel source.  And let us not forget corn kernnels, whether creamed or simply buttered, will undoubtedly appear on your Thanksgiving table, I know they will be on mine.

Paper conservation, Native American art repair and restoration, exhibit preparation
"Woman Preparing Corn" by Ernest Smith
Besides preparing for a big dinner with family, much of my time these days is spent working on items which will be included in an exhibit, "On the Trails of the Iroquois," which will take place in Germany next year.  Having the opportunity to treat such a wide array of Native American ethnology has been a tremendous experience.  I have also read a tremendous amount about the various collections, most notably those at the Rochester Museum and Science Center (RMSC) and the New York State Museum.  Collections of Iroquois ethnology exist due to a huge effort that went into capturing the true essence of daily life in the various tribes through actual objects, garments, illustrations and daguerroetypes by people such as Lewis Henry Morgan, and later by William Stiles.

Another important figure in the preservation of authentic Haudenosaunee (term used by the Iroquois to refer to themselves) was Arthur C. Parker, great-nephew of Caroline and Ely Parker (see blog post for 10/19/12) and director of the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences from 1924-1945.  In 1934, Arthur Parker initiated a program, The Works Progress Administration (WPA), to essentially rescue the native arts and crafts of the New York Indians before they were lost.

Ernest Smith, art conservation of paper
Washing corn after leaching by Ernest Smith
Parker sees that the world perceives American Indian art as nothing more than a souvenir industry dictated by Victorian tastes, which has caused it to be devoid of ethnological value.  He feared the extinction of traditional artistic methods and wanted to save as much as could be preserved.  However, Parker's vision was not just for preservation,  he also thought that a resurgence of true Indian art, and the instruction of these traditional styles to the next generation, would produce new art that may also offer a method of self-support to a financially struggling population.

Through the WPA, artists were provided with all the tools and materials they would need to create art.  This included access to photographs, illustrations, patterns, and tribal elders to provide oral history and folklore.  Most notably used are some of the original illustrations from Morgan.  In fact, if you look at the leggings and underskirt in the painting above, you will see that the woman pictured is "wearing" some of Caroline Parker's clothes.  Arthur Parker is clear however, that there is never any direction of what to create.  Instead, once the artists had been trained, they were encouraged to spontaneously produce their own original art.

Ernest Smith (1907-75), a Tonawanda Seneca, is one of these artists.  In the six years he spends with Arthur Parker and the WPA project, Smith produces 240 watercolor and oil paintings, each one capturing a moment of daily life or illustrating Native American mythology.  Smith's work is wonderful, and clearly some is more simplistic with the image centrally located in the painting, and the background is simply left in the color of the original board.  Other paintings (his "Sky Woman", for example) are the opposite: the paint covers every inch, the images have depth, light, shadow, and movement.  Smith's paintings are filled with symbolism and knowing what the symbols represent makes his work even that much more beautiful and complex.  It is in this way that Smith is truly able to "speak" through his paintings...if you know how to listen to his language.  Visit this link to RMSC: http://www3.rmsc.org/museum/exhibits/online/lhm/IAPpaintings.htm, here you will find beautiful photographs of their collection of Ernest Smith's paintings, plus an in-depth description of the story being told in each painting.

Ernest Smith art conservation, exhibit preparation
The Three Sisters and the Jo'ka:o turning the squash to ripen
Reverse side of the board that Ernest Smith used.

Ernest Smith, despite his incredible collection of work, remains virtually unknown.  His work survives at both RMSC and the NYS Museum as well as a small collection at the Iroquois Museum and the Smithsonian.
The WPA ended in 1942 when funding dried up and a fire destroyed the building used by the artists.  For all his efforts, Parker's vision was only partially fulfilled.  Art was produced and traditions were recorded.  But the artisans never quite experienced an appreciation for their own unique style and therefore never were successful in selling "real" native art.  The outside world had too strong of an influence and sadly the demand for Indian art reinterpreted into "souvenir style" was what sold, and so that is what artists produced if they wanted to sell their work and therefore survive.

If you would like to read more about the trade industry of the American Indian at this time and how it was effected by not only cultural influence, you must read, "Trading Identities - the Souvenir in Native American Art from the Northeast 1700-1900" by Ruth B. Phillips.  Also interesting is James Gifford's "The Predicament of Culture".  Both of these authors discuss the influence of culture on art and present the inevitable outcome when cultures clash.  It begs the question: is there really "pure" cultural art, or is art evolutionary as cultures develop?

While I ponder that question, I will be treating and cleaning the ethnology of the Haudenosaunee, thinking about Ernest Smith and how I wish he had painted on better archival quality board, and making corn bread for tomorrow's feast.  Ernest Smith's images of early Native American life is humbling and leaves me with an appreciation of how challenging life was for the subjects in his paintings.  It makes me especially thankful for family and traditions, no matter how they have changed.  

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.