Round corner wood-hinged cabinets (gui0, 16th century, Chinese.

Object of the Week: Round-corner wood-hinged cabinet

“Why are we drawn to a work of art?” is an interesting question, but it’s also a clumsy one that is too broad to tell us much. “Why are you drawn to a work of art?” That might get us somewhere. What about an artwork compels you, reader, to pull out your phone for a selfie, or take down a note with the artist’s name, or fix an image of it in your head, so you can tell your friends about it later? What makes it resonate with you, in thought or emotion? One person might respond to the look of a piece—qualities like exceptional craftsmanship, a vision of beauty, or a herculean effort of construction—while another cares most about the conceptual content, the artwork’s associations with history, the way it offers timely social commentary, or how it prompts imagination.

Here’s some proof that art rocks: Art, and readings of art, are as diverse as people. Individual perspective colors our experience of art, as it does the rest of life. What we’re looking for, we can find. And different folks might see a wide range of facets to the exact same piece.

SAM’s Round-corner wood-hinged cabinets welcome visitors to the first gallery of Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi. That they are a nearly identical pair, “a set of twins,” fascinated artist-curator Tabaimo, who is interested in how we read multiples. Even though our eyes see and our brains understand that there are two, we can still experience a sense of confusion because the boundary between them is slippery.

The cabinets date to the 16th century, when they were fashioned from a precious wood called huanghuali. The rich marbling of the wood grain acts as a natural ornament for the tall, quietly stunning single-panel doors. While the beauty of the wood itself takes center stage on the panels, the difficult method of construction and finely carved trim provided plenty opportunity for artisans to strut their stuff, and strut they did, notably in the softly rounded upper corners for which the cabinets are titled.

These were high-ticket items, reserved for the court and elite classes. They acted as status symbols, speaking wealth and prestige over their owners, and also fulfilled the most basic of utilitarian functions, as storage for books, scrolls and other scholar’s accoutrements. Grand wardrobe cabinets like these took the place of closets in traditional Chinese homes, and when you picture a closet in your head, and then you look at these cabinets, you understand why. They looked really good while they were hiding stuff.

Because huanghuali wood was a choice material during an important period in the making of Chinese furniture, it still carries an association with that time and culture, kind of like how marble sculpture can bring to mind Golden Age Greece for those of us familiar with the European art tradition. Tabaimo is not the first artist to pick up the historical associations of huanghuali wood and bring them into a conversation about contemporary ideas. Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has used huanghuali wood in spherical constructions like LACMA’s Untitled, Divine Proportion that are boldly un-utilitarian, contrasting the storied functional use of huanghuali.

Don’t miss Tabaimo’s playful installation at the Asian Art Museum that animates these cabinets with the artist’s unique vision, and remember to bring your perspective to the equation.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Round-corner wood-hinged cabinet (gui), 16th century, Chinese, huanghuali wood, 72 x 37 x 20 in. Seattle Art Museum, Sarah Ferris Fuller Memorial Collection and an anonymous donor, 89.20.1 and 89.20.2, Photo: Paul Macapia.
Black and white pamphlets in our collection

Something Great in Something So Small: The SAM Research Libraries’ Pamphlet File Collection

Library visitors might not expect materials like pamphlets to constitute a substantial place in the Seattle Art Museum Research Libraries’ collections. In fact, reflecting on their own use of pamphlets and the fact that they are generally small in comparison to other published materials, many might even view them as disposable items. Yet, despite their small stature, they contain a powerhouse of information!

Pamphlets are relatively small, ephemeral publications which generally focus on a specific event, artist, or piece of artwork. Many pamphlets contain biographies, lists of exhibits and artwork, as well as artist or curator statements. In addition, they often contain reproductions of artworks illustrating the design preferences and artistic styles of an era. For many artists, particularly lesser known Pacific Northwest artists, pamphlets may be the only form of written material available making them incredibly important for the overall history of art in the Pacific Northwest.

Many pamphlets of different, ages, colors, sizes, and exhibitions!

Pamphlets are generally published by the museum or gallery hosting the exhibition, and may have originally been intended as takeaway items for visitors. The Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library at SAM, in particular, houses pamphlets from institutions large and small, and has been actively building its collection with items from smaller galleries throughout the Pacific Northwest. This collection of materials enables researchers to build a more complete picture of a gallery’s history including locations, curators and directors, name changes, and more. The collection also includes pamphlets from around the world giving users a glimpse at the reach a particular artist might have at a given time. Following the progression of pamphlets through the years provides an interesting look into the changing views and portrayals of cultural issues such as race, indigenous rights, women’s rights, etc. It’s a great visual means of understanding the issues of importance to artists, museums, and the public at large.

Glossy pamphlets!

Over the past few months, we’ve created a more bona fide pamphlet collection, adding incoming pamphlets there, rather than into our general book collection (where we had been putting such things in the past). We’ve also begun the process of relocating pamphlets currently in our book collection to the pamphlet collection. Collocating all of the pamphlets provides better access to the materials overall and allows researchers to get a clearer picture of the type of information they might find. For example, if you were looking for critical theory on Picasso, you may not find the pamphlets particularly helpful given the amount of other materials pertaining to Picasso within our collection. However, if you were looking to put together a timeline of a lesser known artist, you would likely find pamphlets very useful.

We’ve made the pamphlet collection as easy to find as possible. When searching the library catalogue, just look for the term “pamphlet” either at the end of the title or in the call number to determine whether or not the record you are accessing is a pamphlet. To see a full list of the pamphlets we’ve acquired thus far, see the Pamphlet Collection title list.

–Terri Ball, Volunteer, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library

Photos: Terri Ball.
SAM VSO Greg Thompson

Get to Know SAM’s VSOs: Greg Thompson

A Seattle native, Greg found his way to the Seattle Art Museum after working as a Brick Mason and attaining his Mechanical Engineering degree. His love of art and personable nature make him a popular guard in the galleries. Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi opened on November 11 at the Asian Art Museum. Her works are mostly digital animation, with four pieces made specifically for this exhibition. Those pieces are based off SAM’s permanent collection pieces that are also displayed throughout the exhibition. Many artists take inspiration from the world around them, including Greg. In the galleries, he’s often drawing depictions of the works currently on display or making caricatures of other VSOs.

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

Thompson: The Italian Room on the fourth floor. The crazy thing about that room is that it was shipped from Italy piece by piece. I could take a nap in there.

Who is your favorite artist?
Kehinde Wiley and Gordon Parks.

What advice can you offer to guests visiting SAM?
Take your time and enjoy the experience.

Tell us more about you! When you’re not at SAM, what do you spend your time doing?
Well when I’m not at SAM, I like to do stuff in my studio like make mix tapes. I like to watch movies and spend time with friends and family. I’m also studying to be a ventriloquist—I can talk while drinking water now!

Katherine Humphreys, SAM Visitor Services Officer

Photo: Natali Wiseman.
Kitchen Range

Object of the Week: Kitchen Range

In 1959–1960 Walter Mattila organized a retrospective exhibition for the Northwest artist Earl Thomas Fields. The show had two venues: the public bank in Fields’ native Woodland, Washington; and a gallery in Mattila’s Portland, Oregon. Mattila was not a curator but a historian, one especially interested in Finnish immigration to the US. In the early 1970s, the Finnish American Historical Society of the West published volumes of Mattila’s work on the subject as the Finnish Emigrant Studies Series. He was understandably drawn in by the story of a young Finnish artist from the rural Northwest.

Earl Fields’ father Charles was the first native of Pielavesi, Finland, to settle in Woodland as a farmer. Like his father, Earl was a trailblazer. While his older brothers were pressed into logging jobs that would augment the farm’s income, Earl became the first Finn from the Woodland community to graduate high school and go on to attend the University of Washington. Earl was not only a strong thinker but a creative one. He earned his bachelor’s degree in fine art in 1925, and after traveling and sketching up and down the West Coast—sometimes joined on these trips by Kenneth Callahan, among others—Fields went on to attain an MFA, also from UW, in 1933. Still, his heart stayed with his family. Earl devoted the large part of his early work, from the 1920s up until World War II, to the Finnish people, and to farm life in the Woodland area.

Highly sensitive to the story of the Finns in the Northwest, Mattila wrote this about Earl Fields’ work in August of 1959:

There is not much left of the strange interlude of the Finnish emigrants in the Woodland country. Fortunately one of the Pielavesians was an artist and a brave one to persist being an artist in the hills. Even more than Americans today, the emigrants, Finns like others, had to keep a sharp eye on the dollar. To them a house painter was more of a performer than a portrait painter because he was sure of so much money an hour. And portraits weren’t bread.

Earl Fields painted the slashing Finns who lived in the disappearing forest on the fading frontier. His pioneers are genuine, simple, strong and resigned to their hard lot. The things they didn’t have—you feel that in his paintings.

The day will soon come when the spirit and people of this strange interlude in the Woodland hills survive largely in Earl Fields’ paintings.1

If this community’s history relied on being remembered in the painting of Earl Fields, then their history would be in danger, since Fields has been all but forgotten—unfortunately, in my view. Mattila may have been drawn to Fields’ work by the story, but its bare simplicity kept his attention. The visual element that Mattila found most gripping was Fields’ ability to depict a lack of things, a sense of going wanting. In paintings like Kitchen Range (1932) this feeling of poverty remains palpable.

Fields’ work as an artist is inextricably linked to SAM. He was part of the SAM family for nearly 40 years himself, and he also traveled in a circle of better-known artists, including Callahan, Morris Graves, and Mark Tobey, who were all heavily involved at the museum. During the Great Depression, SAM served an important social role in Seattle as an employer and patron of local artists, allowing them to continue creating. Fields was one beneficiary of that generosity. He first joined the museum as an assistant upon its opening in 1933. In 1941, he was appointed staff photographer, a role in which he earned a reputation as a meticulous and creative documenter of three-dimensional objects. He remained on staff until 1972, retiring from SAM just one year before Dr. Fuller, who had hired him.

Kitchen Range inspires thanksgiving in me because of “the things they didn’t have,” to borrow Mattila’s words. I’m thankful for bread; for the unique voices of artists and the stories they represent; for the diverse cultural histories remembered by their work; for the museums that have supported them and preserved their work so we might learn from it.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Walter Mattila, “Finnish folk arrive at turn of century,” Lewis River News, Woodland, Wash., Aug. 12, 1959.
Image: Kitchen Range, 1932, Earl Fields (American, born Pielavesi, Finland, 1898; died Seattle, 1975), oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 32 1/4 in. Seattle Art Museum, Public Works of Art Project, Washington State, 33.216.
The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

SAM Book Club: The Sculptor

Welcome back to SAM Book Club! Today we’re here to discuss Scott McCloud’s graphic novel, The Sculptor.

The premise of this book had me intrigued: sculptor David Smith (no, not that David Smith) is struggling. His work isn’t selling, he’s having a major creative roadblock, he’s burnt all of his bridges, and he’s behind on rent—an almost literal starving artist. Desperate to gain recognition for his work, he makes a deal with Death (disguised, in a detail I loved, as his deceased great-uncle) to be able to mold any material with his hands into anything he can imagine. The catch is that David will die after just 200 days, a trade-off he is immediately willing to make—until he falls in love shortly after making the deal. Cue existential crisis.

I will admit that there were some things about this book that didn’t work for me. I could’ve gone for a bit more irony and a bit less angst, and a whole lot less self-pitying from David. And as for his love-interest, Meg—to me, she was more clichéd fantasy than well-rounded character. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl who descends from the heavens like an angel (literally) to dedicate her life (and death) to helping our male hero get over himself, realize his full potential, and live a happy remainder of his life. It’s a tale as old as time, and one that frankly bores me to tears.

But the central question still hooked me: what would you sacrifice for your work? At a much smaller and, let’s say, less permanent scale, we all make those decisions all the time. We trade off time with family and loved ones for time in the studio, or in rehearsal, or with an unfinished manuscript, or with whatever that work that gets you out of bed happens to be. And we do it gladly, because the work is worth it. But when does it stop being worth it? How much is too much to give? We’ve all been there, making those hard choices.

What really interested me about David’s trade-off was not the extremity of it, but the fact that even the ultimate sacrifice was not enough for him. David doesn’t only want to have the skills and room to make his art: he wants to be recognized for it, to be celebrated and immortalized. He makes a massive group of stone sculptures practically overnight—an incredible feat—and is devastated when they are not well-received by his gallerist friend. He achieves some anonymous, Banksy-like fame for his street sculptures, but is only truly happy with them when he learns they’re selling for half a million dollars. He learns towards the end of his 200 days that a collector has been trying to contact him to buy his work, and he laments “all those wasted days.” But were those days really wasted? Only if the goal is the final sale, the external recognition of talent. But if the goal is the process and act of making art, then that time doing the work is not ill-spent.

Ultimately, the most satisfying part of The Sculptor for me was the artwork itself. McCloud literally wrote the book on comics, and is clearly a master of the medium. The graphic novels that resonate most with me are the ones that use artwork to tell stories that words just can’t touch: the indescribable horrors of genocide in Art Spiegelman’s Maus; the terror and banality of a tumultuous adolescence in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis; or the infinite history of a single corner of the earth, as in Richard McGuire’s Here. The Sculptor had many such moments for me, but the one that stands out the most was the beautiful and complex multi-page spread in which we see David’s life flash before his eyes, milliseconds before his death. The ability to both compress and stretch time onto a single page, to relay all the mundane joys and sorrows of a single life, to paint a full narrative without using a single word—that is a gift worth sacrificing for.

What did you think of The Sculptor? Tell us in the comments, and stay tuned for the announcement of next quarter’s book!

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Exhibition Design

The design and installion of the Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style exhibition was a large undertaking and involved constructing elaborate stages and catwalks. The galleries are completely transformed to create an experience unique to the art of fashion. By building out into the galleries to execute this design, our capacity is limited. If you’re purchasing tickets online or in person and notice that we are selling timed tickets, this exhibition layout is the reason why. Each section of the exhibition approaches a different era or design technique used by Yves Saint Laurent. Take a quick walk through it with us!

The Little Prince of Fashion - Installation view of Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style at Seattle Art Museum

The Little Prince of Fashion
Beginning with the Winter 1955 collection, Dior, the world’s most celebrated couturier, began to include his young assistant’s designs in the collections. A black dress draped with a white scarf caused a sensation when it appeared in the now-iconic photograph by Richard Avedon, Dovima with Elephants.

The Beatnick Couturier
In 1962, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé co-founded the haute couture house at 30 bis rue Spontini in Paris. From that moment, the collections drew their inspiration from street life and pop culture. Saint Laurent proclaimed, “You no longer need to be rich to have style.” In 1966, Saint Laurent and Bergé launched the SAINT LAURENT rive gauche label. A pioneer in luxury ready-to-wear, the brand succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, enjoying worldwide acclaim. The shy young man in the black tie had evolved into a long-haired beatnik couturier. He exemplified the synchronicity between appearance and lifestyle.

The Celebrity Couturier
During the 1970s, Saint Laurent’s status went from fashionable couturier to superstar on a par with Mick Jagger or David Bowie. This emboldened him to court scandal personally and in his work. In November 1971, to promote his men’s fragrance Pour Homme, he released a nude photograph of himself taken by Jeanloup Sieff. Saint Laurent told the press: “I wanted to shock.”

A Living Legend
From the 1980s until the maison de couture’s closing, every move by the couturier contributed to the creation of his mythic persona. The first such event was the large retrospective exhibition in 1983 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Curated by Diana Vreeland, it celebrated twenty-five years of creations. It was the first time that a living couturier was the subject of a museum show. Saint Laurent was only forty-seven years old. Another global milestone was reached in 1992, this time in Seville, where Saint Laurent’s iconic styles were shown in a fashion retrospective at Expo 92.

The Genders - Installation view of Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style at Seattle Art Museum

The Genders
The play between masculine and feminine is seen in Saint Laurent garments that borrow from menswear: the Winter 1963 motorcycle jacket, the Winter 1967 pantsuit inspired by film noir gangsters, the trench coat drawn from British World War I officers, and the jumpsuit, the uniform of aviators. The exploration of fashion that transcends gender culminated in the redesign of the safari jacket, inspired by big game hunters of France’s colonial past. In an emblematic photograph from 1969, Saint Laurent and Betty Catroux stand together, wearing nearly identical safari jackets that express their own new gender. Worn with thigh-high boots, Betty Catroux exemplifies rock and roll while Yves adopts an androgynous pose. Saint Laurent proposed that men concede part of their virility to women and that women accept men’s feminine side.

A Modular Wardrobe
The younger generation, which had adopted jeans and T-shirts as a sign of belonging to a more egalitarian society, saw haute couture as a symbol of inequality. With his ready-to-wear line, Saint Laurent offered an alternative to haute couture, creating styles that were more affordable and easier to wear. “Attitude” replaced “well-dressed.”

The Alchemy of Style - Installation view of Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style at Seattle Art Museum

The Alchemy of Style
The production of an haute couture garment was a complex process that began with a sketch. Saint Laurent’s drawings included specifics about ergonomics, “drape” and the equilibrium that must be maintained between the fabric and the body. He would then meet with his chefs d’ateliers (workshop heads) to give them his drawings to be translated onto a toile, the preliminary garment made of white cotton. The toile was then fitted on the mannequin cabine (fitting model) and presented to Saint Laurent. Once Saint Laurent had approved the toile after three or four fittings, it was time to choose the fabrics, colors and adornments, such as exclusively-made buttons. Then the toile was laid flat to create the paper pattern that would be used to cut the fabric. If the fabric was to be embroidered, the motif was either drawn in pencil or a paper cutout of the motif was applied to the toile. Sometimes the process was simplified, by draping the fabric directly onto the model’s body. Saint Laurent declared, “I can’t make any decisions without them.” The models were, he said, his “reality.” Finally, a few days before the fashion show, in the large Second Empire style salon, Saint Laurent would choose among the many accessories displayed on trays and other embellishments.

The Pop Moment
Saint Laurent’s first incorporation of fine art into fashion was the iconic Mondrian dress from 1965. Its design was based on Piet Mondrian’s signature geometric compositions from the 1920s, which marked a breakthrough in modern painting. The designer would next turn his attention to the artists of his own time who embodied the youthful spirit of Pop Art. Tom Wesselmann, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol found inspiration for their boldly colored imagery in advertising, comic books, and ordinary mass-produced objects. Experimentation, humor, and a sense of freedom also emerged in popular music and film—and through Saint Laurent, in fashion. He later said, “I participated in the transformation of my era. I did it with clothes, which is surely less important than music, architecture, painting . . . but whatever it’s worth, I did it.”

From Darkness to an Explosion of Color - Installation view of Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style at Seattle Art Museum

From Darkness to An Explosion of Color
The next galleries conduct you through a large selection of pages of échantillons de tissu—fabric samples that he used as a reference to his preferred hues, including his favorites, pink and blue. Near these pages, color-coordinated gowns from forty years of his career display key elements of the Saint Laurent style. The young Saint Laurent used a rather dark color palette. When he discovered Morocco in 1966 he was shocked by the intensity of the blue sky, the beauty of the Majorelle Garden which Pierre Bergé and he saved from destruction and bought in 1980, and the varied hues of traditional garments worn in the medina. In addition, his admiration for the paintings of Henri Matisse helped Saint Laurent to expand his palette into an explosion of intense colors that would become a strong element of his style going forward. From black, which he considered a real color, to the exploration of this colorful palette, Saint Laurent’s sensitivity to color is noticeable in every aspect of his style.

Images: Installation views of Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style at Seattle Art Museum, Photos: Natali Wiseman.
Crows, early 17th century, Japanese

Object of the Week: Crows

The six-panel Crows screen is a monument in SAM’s Asian art collection and also forms an integral part of Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi, where it serves as a reference point for a digital aviary. In what other company have the Crows flown?

Back in 1936, the exceptional screen featured in a display of Japanese Buddhist Art at the gallery Yamanaka & Co., from which SAM purchased it. In 1953 it mingled with other Japanese painted screens in an exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. Birds, Blossoms, Bees and Bugs—The Nature of Japan (1976) brought the screen to Los Angeles for a look at Japanese art inspired by the environment. Dozens of permanent collection displays at the Seattle Art Museum have flocked around the Crows. A 1994 installation marking the reopening of the Volunteer Park building as the Seattle Asian Art Museum situated the screen among Japanese netsuke, bronze waterdroppers, jewelry, and lacquers. Flights of Fancy (1998-1999) placed it among newer acquisitions of painting and sculpture, while Signs of Fortune, Symbols of Immortality (2000-2001) engaged its spiritual content. A Fuller View of China, Japan, and Korea (2013-2014) considered the Crows among the countless contributions to the museum from co-founders Dr. Richard Fuller and Margaret MacTavish Fuller.

Dr. Fuller in storage with Crows screen

Wherever the words “Asian” and “masterpiece” were used in a show title at SAM, the Crows screen was there. Masterpieces of Japanese Art from the Collection of the Seattle Art Museum (1998-1999) displayed it among some other remarkable Japanese paintings, like the Hell of Shreaking Sounds scroll from the Heian period, and Bokkei Saiyo’s Moonlit Landscape. Care for the Crows took center stage in Five Masterpieces of Asian Art: The Story of their Conservation (2007). Over 2009–2010, they took a rare flight out of Seattle for Luminous Jewels: Masterpieces of Asian Art from the Seattle Art Museum, which traveled to the Suntory Museum, Tokyo; Kobe City Museum; Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art; MOA Museum, Atami; and Fukuoka City Museum, before landing back home.

As truly great artworks do, the Crows have spoken loudly in a range of themed and cultural contexts, amid a variety of fellow works. This restless murder continues to spark new and innovative ideas from its perch at the Asian Art Museum.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections  Coordinator

Image: Crows, early 17th century, Japanese, Edo period (1603-1868), pair of six panel screens; ink and gold on paper, 61 9/16 x 139 5/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 36.21.1. Photo: Paul V. Thomas.

 

Susan & Nina Arens

For the Love of Art Member Profile: Susan and Nina Arens

SUSAN & NINA ARENS
Dual members since 2005

Susan, why do you come to SAM?

S: I come to SAM for many reasons: a respite for meditation and solitude, for inspiration in my own artwork, to share my love of art with friends and family, to meet my daughters for lunch. I love having a membership because I can drop in for twenty minutes or two hours as often as I like. 

Nina, can you tell me a little bit about what you do?

N: I went to grad school for museum studies. When I was a kid I really liked art and science. So when I went to grad school I studied art and science museums and science and art museums. Now I work in science, but I’m trying to start a pop-up science museum that will take place at community organizations, storefronts, or places like big museums.

We come in and do a curriculum that’s science-based but really multidisciplinary. This weekend is the second one, which is a paper circuit workshop. Kids will make Christmas cards and they will learn some electrical engineering—and they will draw, play with colors, and figure out what they want things to look like. It should be fun. The first one took place in White Center and was an exhibit on computer science.

Susan & Nina Arens

Do you guys experience SAM as a family? Do you come here together?

S: Yes! The whole family comes. Actually, my husband used to work around the corner so we would meet here frequently. It’s a stopover place for us, which I love. I love to have a membership so I can just say, “Hey, meet me here, let’s go see whatever is going on or go revisit something.” It’s not just an occasion. It’s part of our lives—of my life, anyway.

N: During a lot of grad school I was abroad. My sister’s been traveling and my brother’s not living here. When we all come back to Seattle we go to SAM.

S: Nina takes us. My husband has work meetings in the café. We have a lot of history here for the last ten years. We moved here about ten years ago.

N: I got her a membership as a birthday present.

S: I’d forgotten about that!

N: When we first moved here I was probably seventeen. I said, “This is for Mom.” If you want to know a place you have to find out where the museum is.

S: Yes! I travel with my husband; I’m fortunate I can sometimes go with him for free. Every city I go to, I go to the museums. I’ve seen tons of American museums lately. Yes, SAM’s right up there. Proud of our hometown. I like it best when SAM brings in really unique exhibitions, things that you aren’t going to see everywhere and you aren’t going to follow along to a bunch of different cities.

Do you attend many SAM events?

N: I like the museum events because they break things up—you can go see the art, and then you can explore in your own way how you feel about that art. When we go to Remix, I always really like those because they break up how you establish a relationship with art—you look at it and then do something.

S: You’ve always been interested in art. I mean, I was one of those moms that threw the shower curtain on the kitchen floor and gave them paint, said go.

N: I don’t remember that!

S: You don’t? You remember your birthday in the garage. We covered the walls in the garage and we painted.

N: Yes!

S: Everybody remembers that.

As the holidays approach, give the gift of art to someone so they can enjoy the pleasures of SAM Membership year round. As Nina, a SAM member for 10 years says, “If you want to know a place you have to find out where the museum is.” And the museum is right here for you. Share it with someone special! Gift memberships are available now!

Attic Stater with Athena in Corinthian Helmet and Nike

Object of the Week: Attic stater

Big and small both have their place at SAM. Touring through the Modern and Contemporary galleries, you might be struck by the visual of Ellsworth Kelly’s Blue Green Red II, conspicuous at over seven feet tall and more than eight feet wide. You’ll have to look much harder to find our Object of the Week in the Ancient Mediterranean gallery.

The Attic stater with Athena in Corinthian helmet and Nike measures slightly smaller than a US dime, at just 11/16 of an inch in diameter. That means you could fit 18,828 of these staters (at .37 square inches) inside the blue and green half-ovals (about 6,966.52 square inches) of the massive Ellsworth Kelly.

Enough about the big and Modern; today we’re looking at something little and old. If you could hold it, the Attic stater would feel very solid and heavy. It weighs 8.52 grams—which doesn’t sound like a lot, but compare it to the US quarter, at 5.67 grams, and the one Euro coin, at 7.5 grams. Significantly smaller, the Attic stater out-hefts them both, and that is because of its density as pure gold.

Attic Stater with Athena in Corinthian Helmet and Nike

This coin was struck in the 4th century BCE in the region of the world called Macedonia, then controlled by Alexander the Great. On the front, or obverse, appears the head of Athena, the Greek goddess linked to wisdom and learning. She wears a triple-crested Corinthian helmet that is ornamented with a coiled serpent. The portrait of Athena may be based on her likeness in the monumental bronze sculpture by Phidias that once dominated the Acropolis, Athena Promachos. On the back, or reverse, one would find Nike, whose presence on the coin was meant as a forecast of victory for Alexander’s troops, and Greek lettering that spells out “of Alexander.”

Coinage offers a less-traveled route to understand one of history’s most fascinating people. Alexander the Great’s policies in this area—the new coin types he created, the standards he used, and his impressive list of mints, or production centers—have shown him to be a brilliant economist. His choice to honor the Greek gods Athena and Nike on his coins reflects his well-known admiration for Greece and her culture, but it also seems to have been a political move aimed at flattering Athens, whose fleet Alexander needed for a military excursion to Persia. Alexander, whose father Philip had followed the Thracian standard in some of his coinage, hitched his wagon full to the Attic standard, which was the strongest economically and promised to maintain the flow and value of his monies in the future. This Attic stater was struck at Amphipolis, one of two principal royal Macedonian mints (the other being Pella, the main city in Macedonia). While Philip produced more coinage from Pella, Alexander moved his headquarters to Amphipolis, which had the practical advantage of proximity to the gold and silver mines, importantly increasing wealth in his rapidly expanding empire. 1

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections  Coordinator

1 Charles Seltman, Greek Coins, A History of Metallic Currency and Coinage Down to the Fall of the Hellenistic Kingdoms, London: Methuen, 1955; 204-207.
Image: Attic stater with Athena in Corinthian helmet (obv.) and Nike (rev.), 336-323 B.C., Greek, Macedonia, gold, diameter: 11/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Norman and Amelia Davis Collection, 62.181.