Object of the Week: Children Drinking Milk

This small porcelain sculpture, which measures less than seven inches tall, is one of a thousand remarkable objects found in SAM’s Wyckoff Porcelain Room. It’s a reminder that every object here has a story. Through this work, Children Drinking Milk, we learn the story of European porcelain collecting in Seattle among a group of women with a strong desire for learning, who had the wherewithal to work with knowledgeable dealers, grow spectacular collections, and then share their objects with SAM and all of its visitors.

Children Drinking Milk, made at the Sèvres Manufactory between 1766 and 1773, is an example of unglazed biscuit porcelain.[1] This technique allowed for the modeler, Etienne-Maurice Falconet (French, 1716-1791), to create detailed designs which wouldn’t be diminished by glazing. For Children Drinking Milk, the unglazed technique allowed Falconet to create details such as the older boy, enjoying the bowl of milk, looking cunningly out of the corner of his eye at a younger boy, who is anxiously waiting for his turn. [2] Falconet, a court sculptor and chief modeler in the Sèvres Manufactory, is one of the most well regarded modelers of biscuit porcelain. He was adept at translating the drawings and designs of artists, like François Boucher (French, 1703-1770), into detailed three-dimensional objects like this one. [3] Children Drinking Milk was considered one of the “Falconet children” representing characters familiar on the streets of eighteenth-century Paris.[4]

So how did Children Drinking Milk get here?

Eighteenth-century European porcelain collecting in Seattle really developed out of the interest of one woman, Blanche M. Harnan (American, ca.1888-1968). Harnan’s interest originated as a result of a study group in which she was involved that focused on world geography and culture. Through her daughter’s interest in teapots, she discovered that the study of ceramics provided a rewarding history of styles and taste in eighteenth-century Europe. Harnan acquired an extensive research library and began collecting European porcelain for study purposes. Her enthusiasm attracted other Seattle women and, under her leadership, the Seattle Ceramic Society was founded in the 1940s.[5]

In the 1950s and 1960s, the group established a relationship with New York porcelain dealer, William H. Lautz Antique Porcelains, one of the premier European porcelain dealers in the US. Because Lautz and the Seattle Ceramic Society were 3,000 miles apart, an interesting way of doing business arose between the two. Lautz would photograph items from his showroom and send them along, with corresponding descriptions and price lists, in binders to the Society. The members would make their selections and notify Lautz. Lautz would carefully pack the items in a crate and send them to Seattle. The crate would be unpacked, and then returned, empty, with a check in the bottom for payment. Lautz would refer to this as his “Seattle scheme.”[6] We know from documentation that Children Drinking Milk came from Lautz. The Bullitt Library holds several of Lautz’s binders sent to the Seattle Ceramic Society and the work appears several times. In a letter sent from Lautz—after the piece was donated to SAM—he reveals his own insights on the piece:

“The French name of the figure, or group rather, that I have called the soup or milk drinkers is ‘Les Gourmands’ or ‘Enfant Buveurs de Lait.’ We might even call them the greedy ones…”[7]

Blanche Harnan continued developing her own collection and leading the Seattle Ceramic Society, which would grow to three units and garner more than sixty members. She would also develop an important affiliation with the Seattle Art Museum. Harnan was appointed Honorary Curator of Porcelain in 1954, “in recognition of her knowledge in a specialized field and in appreciation of her service to the Museum.”[8] At the time, the museum was beginning to build its European porcelain collection and welcomed exhibitions of the Society’s collections, like the 1956 exhibition, 18th Century English Porcelain: A Special Exhibition. The exhibition was arranged and the catalogue written by Harnan and another important Seattle Ceramic Society member, Martha Isaacson (American, 1901-2000).

Since the days of those exhibitions, many of the Seattle Ceramic Society members have generously given objects in their collections to SAM. Many of those are currently on view in the Wyckoff Porcelain Room. Importantly, several significant pieces in SAM’s European porcelain collection were donated to SAM by the Seattle Ceramic Society in honor of Blanche M. Harnan—note “Blanche M. Harnan Ceramic Collection, Gift of the Seattle Ceramic Society” on an object’s credit line.

I wonder what we can learn from those other 999 objects?

– Traci Timmons, Librarian

Images: Children Drinking Milk, 1766-1773, Sevres Porcelain Manufactory, Model by Etienne-Maurice Falconet (French, 1716-1791). Soft paste porcelain, 6 5/8 x 5 3/8 x 3 7/8 in. (16.8 x 13.7 x 9.9 cm), Blanche M. Harnan Ceramic Collection, Gift of the Seattle Ceramic Society, Unit 2, 56.179. Photograph sent in binder to the Seattle Ceramic Society showing Children Drinking Milk in William H. Lautz Antique Porcelains, New York, 1950s.
[1] Seattle Art Museum. Annual Report of the Seattle Art Museum: Forty-Ninth Year, 1954. Seattle Art Museum Libraries: Digital Collections, accessed September 21, 2017, http://samlibraries.omeka.net/items/show/29.
[2] Emerson, Julie, Jennifer Chen, and Mimi Gardner Gates. Porcelain Stories, From China to Europe. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2000, pg. 216
[3] Savill, Rosalind. “François Boucher and the Porcelains of Vincennes and Sèvres.” Apollo 115, no, 241, pp. 162-170.
[4] “Eighteenth-Century Porcelain in Seattle.” Antiques 85 (January 1964), p. 82.
[5] Emerson, Julie. The Collectors: Early European Ceramics and Silver. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1982, pp. 6-7.
[6] Nelson, Christina H. and Letitia Roberts. A History of Eighteenth-Century German Porcelain: The Warda Stevens Stout Collection. Memphis: Dixon Gallery and Gardens; Easthampton, MA; New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2013, p. 20. Also see Kuhn, Sebastian. “Collecting Culture: The Taste for Eighteenth-Century German Porcelain,” in Cassidy-Geiger, Maureen et al. The Arnhold Collection of Meissen Porcelain, 1710-50. New York, NY: Frick Collection in association with D. Giles London, 2008, p. 107-108.
[7] Letter to SAM Registrar’s Office from William Lautz dated July 9th, 1965.
[8] This is the name given to porcelain and other pottery after having undergone the first firing, and before being glazed, painted, or otherwise embellished. For more, see: Gordon Campbell. “Biscuit.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed September 20, 2017, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T2070959.
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Women’s Book Arts in the Bullitt Library

The Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library at the Seattle Art Museum has been quietly developing a book arts collection for the last two years. Materials in this collection include artists’ books, zines, one-of-a-kind books, and other rarities. With a scope focused on works created by artists in SAM’s collection, works related to an exhibition at SAM, or works that reference art or artists generally, the Book Arts Collection has grown to nearly 90 titles.

Currently, we are featuring work by women book artists and zine creators from this collection in the Bullitt Library and you can visit this installation through October 6. The works include a serial zine focused on women, a tunnel book, an accordion book with floating panels, a mini carousel book, and limited edition exhibition catalogue in a box.

Issues of "Hey Lady" by Regina Schilling

Hey Lady

The Hey Lady zine series (2015– ) is produced by Northwest artist, Regina Schilling. She selects a female subject for each issue and invites women artists worldwide to contribute portraits. It began with Yoko Ono and sixteen friends, and quickly expanded to include the work of hundreds of artists internationally, a focus on crucial women in various fields, and exhibits around the country.

“Women are truly invisible in this world. The purpose of Hey Lady, and of all my work, is to lift the cloak of invisibility and say we are here, we have always been here, and we’re here for each other. I want women to experience a creative outlet that is nurtured, validated and celebrated, for Hey Lady to be a place where people can be a part of something good, and to celebrate women who have done such an incredible job at being humans.”
— Regina Schilling

Venice: Piazza San Marco

A view of the Piazza San Marco in Venice is one of Boston book and paper artist, Laura Davidson‘s, “favorite views” that she incorporates in an ongoing series of tunnel books. Other books in the series include Florence and Paris, as well as her hometown baseball stadium, Fenway Park, and a view of Boston’s “Big Dig.” Unlike the summertime tourist-laden Venetian square, Davidson’s Venice: Piazza San Marco (2010) view of the Basilica di San Marco and the Campanile is tranquil and allows us to look upon a peaceful setting through Venetian Gothic windows.

As evidenced in the recent exhibition, Seeing Nature, views of Venice have inspired a number of artists, like Claude Monet, Edward Manet, Thomas Moran, Joseph Mallord William Turner, and others. Davidson’s work reminds us of two paintings in SAM’s collection which feature views of Venice: The Doge’s Palace and the Grand Canal, Venice (ca. 1710) by Luca Carlevariis and The Riva degli Schavoni, Looking West (ca. 1735) by the Studio of Canaletto. Davidson’s book is yet another inspiring take on a beautiful city.

Possession is Nine-Tenths: Historical Detritus of Syria (Volume I)

Internationally-known book artist, Elsi Vassdal Ellis, has been teaching digital pre-press, offset and letterpress printing, graphic design history, materials and finishing, and book arts for 40 years at Western Washington University. Her work, published under the imprint EVE Press, explores a number of subjects: politics, ethics, family, domesticity, identity, and more. Possession is Nine-Tenths: Historical Detritus of Syria (Volume I) (2015) is an accordion book with floating panels from the 30-volume set, Desert Dreams: Explorations & Excavations of HK. Speaking from the viewpoint of fictional archaeologist, “HK,” Possession is Nine-Tenths addresses the ethical issues of collecting ancient artifacts:

“Who owns what is a major point of discussion between countries liberated of their historical wealth and the public and private collectors, as well as museums, that house (and protect) them. Without such plundering, many artifacts may have been lost or destroyed, as evidenced by the actions of ISIS at Nimrud and years ago, the Taliban at Bamiyan. [The items found in the work are] part of HK’s private collection: restrung ancient beads, a tile from the emperor’s feasting hall representing Justice found in Shahbah, a pottery shard without provenance, a small clay tablet without provenance.”
— Elsi Vassdal Ellis

Centered

Centered (2008) is a mini carousel book created by book artist, Maria G. Pisano under her imprint Memory Press. The work incorporates three pop-ups, and is hand cut to reveal colorful, intricate designs inside. For this work, Pisano—who is Italian—focused on the pottery traditions of Deruta, a town in the province of Perugia in the Umbria region of central Italy. Deruta is known for ceramics—≠especially its maiolica pottery industry.

Pisano’s work is reminiscent of the maiolica in SAM’s collection, much of which can be found in the Italian Room. Enhanced color decoration is a hallmark of maiolica pottery: blues, greens, yellows, oranges, white, black, and brown, as well as tones of luster colors such as ruby red, pink, yellow, and reddish brown were developed as early as the 15th century. Colors similar to these are readily apparent in Pisano’s intricate work.

Imagine Peace: Featuring John & Yoko’s Year of Peace 

Conceptual artist, Yoko Ono, designed this limited edition exhibition catalogue in a box, Imagine Peace: Featuring John & Yoko’s Year of Peace (2007), for an exhibition organized by the Emily Davis Gallery/Mary Schiller Myers School of Art at the University of Akron. Varying greatly from the standard bound exhibition catalogue, this version includes a rubber stamp, button, small flashlight, instruction card, and various postcards stating “War Is Over,” “i ii iii I Love You,” and “Spread Peace” all in a white box with black lettering: “Imagine Peace.” The exhibition focused on the thematic ideals of peace and love, and followed the work of Yoko Ono and John Lennon chronologically as solo artists, as a couple in the 1960s, and also included Ono’s recent solo works.

In 2009, SAM’s exhibition, Target Practice: Painting Under Attack, 1949–78, included two works by Ono: Painting to Be Stepped On (1960/2009) and Painting to Hammer a Nail (1961/2009). She remains an audience favorite.

To get a closer look at these works, or other works in our Book Arts Collection, make an appointment to visit the Bullitt Library. Appointments typically take place Monday–Friday 10 am–4 pm.

— Traci Timmons, Librarian

Photos: Natali Wiseman.
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Muse/News: Art from SAM, Seattle, and Beyond

September 18, 2017

SAM News

Thump! For me, fall officially starts when I hear the New York Times fall arts preview being delivered. Featured in the visual arts listings was SAM’s exhibition opening in February, Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas—alongside a BIG image in the print edition (long live print).

Last Friday, SAM announced that Jono Vaughan is the winner of the 2017 Betty Bowen Award; The Stranger and Seattle Gay Scene shared the news. Deborah Lawrence and Ko Kirk Yamahira also won Special Recognition Awards. Join us for a free award ceremony honoring all the winners on Thursday, November 9 at the Seattle Art Museum. Vaughan’s installation premieres at SAM on April 21, 2018.

SAM Gallery’s latest show at TASTE, Immaculate Disaster Series by Troy Gua, was highlighted in City Arts.

Local News

UW’s School of Art + Art History + Design and the Jacob Lawrence Gallery announced this week that artist C. Davida Ingram is the recipient of the 2018 Jacob Lawrence Legacy Residency. Go, Davida!

This fall, the Office of Arts & Culture brings you the Seattle Center Sculpture Walk, featuring eight temporary installations—including one from our recent Emerging Arts Leader Intern, Kalina Chung. Go, Kalina!

Here’s critic Mary Ann Gwinn on Barbara Johns’ new book on artist Takuichi Fujii, who painted throughout his incarceration in Minidoka; his work will also be in an upcoming exhibition at the Washington State History Museum.

Inter/National News

Hyperallergic on We the People, now on view at the M in Minneapolis, featuring “pieces that grapple not only with American identity but with an all-out call for revolution.” Jono Vaughan is one of the exhibition’s artists (hey, we know her!).

Could be that first bit of fall chill in the air, but I enjoyed this Artnet article—inspired by a show on view at Bowdoin College Museum of Art—on the art historical roots of memento mori.

Ezra Jack Keats’s bestselling children’s book The Snowy Day has charmed generations—and now its hero, Peter, will be featured on U.S. Postal Service Forever stamps.

And Finally

Crayola debuted “Bluetiful,” its new hue inspired by chemist Mas Subramanian’s accidental pigment discovery. Bliss out on the magic of crayon-creation with this Sesame Street throwback.

—Rachel Eggers, SAM’s Public Relations Manager

Photo: Courtest of Jono Vaughan.
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Object of the Week: Sea Change

“It’s an important painting on several levels. It’s really important within the Seattle Art Museum collection because it’s the only Pollock painting on display in Washington state. It’s a painting that marks the transition from his earlier style of painting to his classic drip technique.” – Nicholas Dorman, SAM Chief Conservator

We’re revisiting this video of our Chief Conservator working on Jackson Pollock’s Sea Change in 2014. In Nicholas Dorman’s words, the rocks and textures of the painting mean “it’s a brutal swab shredder” to remove a varnish that was applied to the painting in the 1970s. This particular varnish would have changed color over time and influenced the experience of the painting. See what Sea Change looks like now, on view in Big Picture: Art after 1945.

Artwork: Sea Change, 1947, Jackson Pollock, American, Artist and commercial oil paint, with gravel, on canvas, 57 7/8 x 44 1/8 in. (147 x 112.1 cm), Gift of Signora Peggy Guggenheim, 58.55, © 2007 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation
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Two dancers perform in front of Calder's Eagle during Sculptured Dance at Olympic Sculpture Park

All Walks of Life: Public Programs at the Olympic Sculpture Park

The radiant clouds that stretch across the bridge of Teresita Fernández’s Seattle Cloud Cover look different every time you encounter them. On a rainy day, the site-specific work at the Olympic Sculpture Park offers a shelter of saturated colors that pop against the surrounding gray sky. When you witness a freight train moving beneath it, the train’s cargo becomes part of the art, washed over in its rainbow assortment of hues. As you stand beside it to watch the sunset over the Puget Sound, your body appears in silhouette to onlookers across the Park. As Fernández describes, Seattle Cloud Cover “…blur[s] the lines between your presence as participant and observer.”

Woman gives a tour in front of Fernandez's Seattle Cloud Cover during Remix at Olympic Sculpture Park

The blurred line that Fernández refers to between participation and observation is integral to the art at the Olympic Sculpture Park, as well as to SAM’s Education Department as they design programs to engage visitors from all walks of life. “It’s amazing to have the Sculpture Park as a free resource located in the heart of Seattle and to think of how we as educators can maximize that opportunity for the community by creating programs that challenge visitors to rethink the relationship between art and environment,” says Regan Pro, SAM’s Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Programs.

Easels set up for art marking during Summer at SAM at Olympic Sculpture Park

Pro continues, “I love thinking about all of the different ways we have had visitors interact and engage with Alexander Calder’s The Eagle over the last ten years and how people have come to think about all of the permanent sculptures in new ways.” Every year, all second graders from Highline School District explore the land and art around The Eagle during the free tours and art workshops offered as part of SAM’s School Programs. Dogs and their owners walk along the path at its base during Dog Night. Revelers dance into the night beneath its wingspan during Remix, which moves to the Sculpture Park for its summer iteration. Dancers from the Pacific Northwest ballet perform new work beneath its steel limbs as part of Summer at SAM for Sculptured Dance, a night of site-specific performances. These are only a few of the many programs that offer a chance for the public to participate and think about The Eagle and other works in the park in new ways.

Child participates in light mural during SAM Lights at Olympic Sculpture Park

In recent years, SAM has expanded the programming in ways that stretch ideas about what art museum experiences can be. This fall, the museum will partner with Tiny Trees to offer an outdoor preschool at the Sculpture Park that focuses on art and the environment. In the winter, SAM Lights illuminates the landscape with temporary light installations and hundreds of luminarias. And, the PACCAR Pavilion temporarily becomes an artist residency space, where performers create new projects in response to the artworks and landscape.

Essential to all of the educators’ work is the participation of departments from across the museum and beyond, including community organizations like Pacific Northwest Ballet and Forterra. “This is work that incorporates ideas of so many people,” emphasizes Pro. “It’s this shared vision that’s made the programs at the park successful.” Similarly, it’s the coalescence of elements—the art, the design, the environmental achievements, the landscape, the programming and the community—that together create the Olympic Sculpture Park as we know and celebrate it now, on its tenth anniversary.

— Erin Langner, Freelance Arts Writer and Former SAM Adult Public Programs Manager

This post is the final installment in a series of stories exploring the history of the Olympic Sculpture Park in celebration of its 10th anniversary.

Images: Photo: Robert Wade. Photo: Jen Au. Photo: Robert Wade. Photo: Sasha Im.
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Sammy the Camel in "Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors"

Muse/News: Arts News from SAM, Seattle, and Beyond

September 11, 2017

As of today, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors is closed! What a wild ride the last few months have been during this blockbuster exhibition. Now we’re looking ahead to Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect and so is the press. Take a gander at this past week’s press clippings, hand selected by SAM’s PR Manager.

*Clutches Yayoi Kusama exhibition catalogue and cries while Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” plays*

SAM News

Seattle Times photographer Alan Berner visited during the final days of Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors and filed this dot-filled send-off. Don’t miss the cameo from our mascot, Sammy the Camel. (Why a camel? Here’s the scoop.)

SAM lands on the celebrity news beat: When Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and singer Ciara had a date night at SAM after we’d closed, the news hit Page Six, W Magazine, Artnet, Ebony, Yahoo, Daily Mail, Entertainment Tonight, Jet, and HuffPo.

Love this Seattle Times RAVE for SAM staff: A visitor lauds our “daily, herculean efforts” during the Kusama run. We couldn’t have done it without our awesome visitors!

Seattle Magazine’s September print edition features our Andrew Wyeth retrospective among their picks for “Fall’s Most Buzzworthy Arts and Culture Events.”

“’The goal was to show that this unrelenting realist evolved and changed, sometimes quite dramatically, over time,’ Junker says. ‘If you think you know Wyeth’s art from the examples we see reproduced and hanging in the well-known museums, I feel certain you will come away from this exhibition totally surprised.’”

Local News

The Seattle Times reports on The Grocery, a new “cutting-edge” arts center in a former—you guessed it—grocery store in Beacon Hill.

Also in the neighborhood: Artist Ari Glass unveiled a new installation at Beacon Hill’s Art Deco building Pacific Tower, featuring his signature gold leaf and mica elements.

This should be an amazing show: The Stranger’s A&P features the sculpture of Humaira Abid, coming soon to a solo show at Bellevue Arts Museum.

Inter/National News

The journey continues for the home of Rosa Parks, recently shipped to Berlin and restored by an American artist. The house now has a ticket back home to the US—with an uncertain future ahead.

Poet John Ashbery died on Sunday at the age of 90; did you know he was also a collage artist, who made his solo debut as a professional at the age of 81?

Pierre Bergé, longtime business partner of Yves Saint Laurent, died Friday at the age of 86. We were honored to share his legacy during Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style.

 And Finally

The art of eating: Artsy with seven recipes from artists, including—wait for it—avocado toast (by Salvador Dalí, of course).

– Rachel Eggers, SAM’s Manager of Public Relations

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Virgin and Child with Donor

Object of the Week: Virgin and Child with Donor

Seattle has been under a smoky haze for days now because of forest fires north, east, and south of us. Ash covered my kitchen table yesterday morning. The sun no longer sparkles—it looks like an opaque orange egg yolk, and its light struggles to get through the smog. If we were in the midwest I would think a tornado was imminent. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, Harvey and Irma have battered their way through neighborhoods wielding the weapons of wind and water.

When I was thinking about an object to write about for this unsettling week, I considered atmospheric abstractions; a Dutch painting about an explosion in a gunpowder factory; a hazy landscape. But then I had another thought. These massive climate events make me feel small and helpless. What have people in the past done in the face of such intimidating natural force? They turned to higher powers.

In ancient civilizations people made offerings to the gods. Later, supplications could be made to royalty, once believed to be divinely endowed. But in 14th-century Christian Europe, most prayers were directed heavenward—to God, his son Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or a pantheon of saints, each associated with specific conditions or complaints. Saint Christopher was supposed to protect you if you were traveling; Saint Roch was invoked against the plague; Saint Martin of Tours was the patron of the poor. For protection from bad weather, people turned to the little known Saint Medard.

We don’t have an image of Saint Medard, but we do have an image of a man kneeling in earnest prayer as he gazes up at the Madonna and Child.

The figure is easy to miss because he is so much smaller than the Virgin and Child who are the main subject of the painting, originally the central panel of an altarpiece that he paid to have painted. This man was not asking for deliverance from a momentary crisis such as a flood or fire. He was thinking longer term and bigger picture—specifically, eternal life beyond this brief earthly existence. For him, the Virgin Mary represented solace through her various roles: protective mother, Queen of Heaven, and embodiment of the living Church.

I love this painting, which is currently undergoing conservation and will be back on view in the European galleries by the end of this year. In the past I have always focused on the serene splendor of the Virgin, who remains a loving mother while embodying queenly demeanor. But, feeling small these days in the face of catastrophic world events, I feel a new identification with that tiny donor, praying away for all eternity.

– Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture

Image: Virgin and Child with Donor, late 1340s, Bernardo Daddi, Italian, Florence, active ca. 1280-1348, egg tempera with gold on wood, 43 x 18 1/2 in., Samuel H. Kress Collection, 61.151, photo: Eduardo Calderon.
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SAM Staff Reads: Kusama’s Sleepless Midnight

Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors is quickly coming to a close (September 10!) but we have one more reflection on the prolific artist’s poetry from SAM staff. Read closely and let the words of Yayoi Kusama linger long after the exhibition leaves our galleries. The three poems we’ve shared here on SAM Blog were all published in Violet Obsession, a collection released in 1998 by Wandering Mind Books. Kusama’s poetry makes explicit much of the subtle and dark underpinnings of her playful visual art. In her writing, we can delve into the sentiments that propel the creation of her soft sculptures, her paintings, her yearning towards an experience of the infinite within a finite world—and these sentiments are perhaps unexpected when held in contrast to the Pop aesthetic that is strongly associated with Kusama.

Rayna Mathis is a writer, swing dancer, and history nerd. She chose to dig into Kusama’s poem, “Sleepless Midnight,” offering her thoughts on the divergence between what we project and how we are perceived as compared to what we feel and how we behave.

SLEEPLESS MIDNIGHT

that I suffer such sorrow and gloom
more wounds than I know what to do with
inflicted by others upon my heart             on sleepless nights like this
I forget I’m covered with cherry petals this spring
I sit dazed by the pain in my heart as time passes me by
the world of men, like the realm of foxes and badgers, bewitched
I go out among people                   and am constantly amazed
they wound one another
behold the wounds and rejoice
ah!         what sort of        world is this?

leaving my body here for now
I stop suddenly                 and gaze at
a nameless wildflower
petals drinking deeply of sunlight
trampled by people, covered with wounds
just keeping silent
my bitter tears know no end

(1987)

– Yayoi Kusama

When I read Yayoi Kusama’s poems, I can’t help but place myself into them. As I turned each page of Violet Obsessions, I became increasingly sad. However, sad is not a wrong feeling to feel. I appreciate things that force me (whether I am aware of it or not) to feel feelings I often deny myself. Anger, sadness, love, jealousy—the feelings society tells me that I am not allowed to feel—the feelings society does not acknowledge because I should have every reason to be happy, always. I become used to the conformity of the business voice, the polite laugh, the casual conversing of hellos and the weather. I become accustomed to crossing my legs while a man spreads his and speeding up when the catcalls latch on to my back.

But, Kusama isn’t here to adjust for anyone. And that is one of the largest reasons I have so much respect and admiration for her. She is so unapologetically herself and better yet, so unapologetically human. To embrace pain, to acknowledge fear, to speak and create despite other people’s comfort—it is chain breaking.

Many of the works in Violet Obsessions are uncomfortable. They are dark, and sad, and gross. Kusama challenges me to understand why I think any of those things.

When I think of the wounds I have inflicted onto others and what has been inflicted onto me, it is always the thoughts that are unspoken. The silence we feel compelled to keep. I wonder who it is that is “just keeping silent”? The petals beneath our feet—the ones we love but hurt through our selfishness? or the people covered in wounds, who have gotten used to their pain?

– Rayna Mathis, School & Educator Programs Coordinator

Source: Kusama, Yayoi. Violet Obsession. Translated by Hisako Ifshin and Ralph F. McCarthy with Leza Lowitz. Edited by Alexandra Munro. Berkeley, CA: Wandering Mind Books, 1998.
Illustration: Natali Wiseman
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VSO Kay Dien Fox

Get to Know SAM’s VSOs: Kay Dien Fox

Kay Dien Fox was born in China and moved to Seattle with her adoptive parents when she was nine months old. The nickname her parents gave her, Kay Dien, not only fits her personality but also represent her culture and ancestral heritage. It originated from a combination of her legal name Katherine (Kay) and her Chinese name Dien Dien. Since graduating in March of this year, she took a road trip along the West Coast and travelled to Spain. After returning, she realized she should probably get a job and, fortunately, a friend sent her a link to SAM’s career page. She applied to become a Visitor Services Officer (VSO) and could not be happier that she did.

SAM: What are your thoughts on Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors?

Kay Dien: It’s an incredible exhibition and it doesn’t surprise me that it sells out every day. My favorite piece is The Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity. The lights inside the infinity room are on a cycle so the visitor doesn’t know what part of the cycle they will get to experience. The room evokes various responses from the visitor, many exclaim how awesome the room is and some use the room to have a meditative experience.

What is your favorite piece of art currently on display at SAM?

John Grade’s Middle Fork. I didn’t initially read the description of this piece, but I got enough questions about it that I figured I should know more (other than that it looks like a big tree trunk). After reading the description of Middle Fork, it instantly became my favorite piece on display. Grade combined two wonderful aspects of life: art and nature, to make this prominent piece that hovers over the forum.

Who is your favorite artist? 

My favorite artist at the moment is the band The Antlers because of their album Hospice. It’s a beautiful album and not quite as depressing as the title would make it seem.

What advice can you offer to guests visiting SAM? 

Take your time—unless we give you the 15 minute warning, then please make your way towards the door.

Tell us more about you! When you’re not at SAM, what do you spend your time doing?

When I’m not at SAM I like to spend time outside and hanging out with people I care about. I also enjoy film photography and traveling. I’m still figuring out what I want to do in the future, but I am planning a 100 day road trip next year.

– Emily Jones, SAM Visitor Services Officer

Photo: Natali Wiseman.
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