COVID-19 Update: All SAM Locations Currently Closed »

Object of the Week: Mercedes Benz Coffin

In the 1970s, carpenter and carver Kane Quaye’s grandmother passed away. It was her lifelong, unfulfilled dream to travel on an airplane. In tribute, Quaye built her a coffin shaped as plane. She was laid to rest inside its upholstered interior, paraded to her grave and buried in her homeland. Quaye has since gained international acclaim for his coffins which are also popularly known as abebuu adekai or “proverb boxes”. The coffins celebrate the achievements, status and identity of the deceased. His legacy continues today at his workshop in Ghana, currently run by Quaye’s grandson, Eric Adjetey Anang.

As Quaye’s work gained renown throughout the art world, his creations were built for two very different purposes: as coffins for burial or as art objects for display. Gallerist Bill Wright commissioned the Mercedes Benz Coffin in 1991.[1] It is a nine-foot wooden sculpture carved to resemble a white luxury car now displayed under a Plexiglas box in SAM’s galleries. Placing this coffin in a museum raises questions about how art can help people process loss.

When in the galleries, I ask students to look closely as they walk around this intriguing sculpture. What are we looking at? What is happening in this object? Students comment on the scale of the car, the non-functioning wooden wheels, the curtains covering the windows, and the crack in the surface where the lid separates from the base. Eventually someone reads the license plate and realizes this object is a coffin (and eventually one wide-eyed student asks if there is anything inside it). We share the story of the artist’s process and ask students what object they would select to symbolize their own lives. Teaching from Mercedes Benz Coffin, I often find myself talking about concepts that are difficult to navigate, just as the last several months have made many hard truths newly visible.

In my research to write this post, I found a list of custom coffins that were created in Quaye’s workshop. It reads like a poem:
Sardine for a fisherman
Lion for a hunter
Parrot for a university lecturer

Chicken with chicks nestled beneath wings for a business woman, mother and grandmother

In this workshop list, I see an echo to the names the New York Times published to memorialize 100,000 lives lost in the United States to COVID-19:
Liked his bacon and hash browns crispy. Fred Walter Gray, 75, Bentonville AK
Immigrated to the United States three years ago. Jessica Beatriz Cortez, 32, Los Angeles
Could make anything grow. George Freeman Winfield, 72, Shelburne. VT

I am also reminded of the signs seen at protests across the United States calling out the names of the many recent victims of police violence against Black people.

We are living in a season of immense loss. When we look back, what  symbols will be selected to memorialize this time and the lives within it? An N-95 mask, a Black Lives Matter protest sign, a desk used for remote learning, a loaf of homemade bread? Museums and community collectives have already begun to gather and archive such objects. It’s curious to think how this current reality will appear mirrored back to us on display behind glass. How much of this time and ourselves will we see reflected? How can we symbolize the lives lost and the spirit that continues?

Regan Pro, SAM Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Engagement

Images: Mercedes Benz coffin, 1991, Kane Quaye, wood, paint, 25 x 35 x 101 in., Gift of Dr. Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb and Mark Groudine and Cynthia Putnam in honor of Pam McClusky, 93.163 © Kane Quaye. Photo: Nathaniel Wilson. Paa Joe’s Coffin Workshop, Ghana, 2005. Photo: Alida Latham. A sign at a Black Lives Matter protest, Lake Worth, Florida, 2020.
[1] More information on Mercedes Benz Coffin: http://art.seattleartmuseum.org/objects/10007/mercedes-benz-coffin?ctx=d888c9af-d373-4fb3-a318-37fae579d652&idx=26

Keeping the Art Safe at the Asian Art Museum

While SAM’s Asian Art Museum is closed, exhibits are still on display, waiting for the day that visitors can safely return to the building. A handful of staff are onsite, ensuring the safety and well-being of the art entrusted to SAM’s care. Sincere and tremendous thanks to Security, Environmental Services, and Facilities, who are in the building daily keeping a close eye on the art.

Throughout much of the closure, the Conservation team worked primarily from home and visited the Asian Art Museum only as needed. Environmental monitoring continued with the help of onsite Security and Facilities staff, who updated conservators to any changes in temperature or humidity. This information is recorded to create a record of the gallery environment over time. Because dust and debris can damage the surface of paintings and other artworks, the Conservation team also monitored, measured and recorded dust levels. Insects were a concern as they sometimes have a taste for paint, wood, fiber and other materials. Fortunately, both dust and insects have been at a minimum throughout the closure.

Some artworks required special interventions to protect their stability and longevity. Textiles were covered with light-weight tissue paper to protect from dust. In some galleries, movable walls were used to shield objects from light. The image above shows textiles at the Asian Art Museum as Chief Conservator Nick Dorman prepared tissue paper and moveable walls to protect the display. Light sensitive works, such as works on paper and paintings, were completely covered with black cloths to minimize light exposure. This type of preventive care can help minimize the need for more costly and invasive conservation procedures.

With careful planning to ensure the minimum number of necessary staff onsite and new work habits, the Conservation team has resumed paused projects. One major project that has been underway for several years and is now almost complete is the redesign of art storage at the Asian Art Museum. The new configuration provides more room, an improved layout, and better climate control. The racks seen on the left side of the image will be used to hang paintings and the cabinets to the right will be used to store scrolls.

Looking ahead, Conservation has resumed planning for upcoming exhibitions and art rotations. Fragile, light sensitive artworks, such as hanging scrolls, are usually displayed for only three months before being replaced with another, similar artwork. The Conservation team has been checking the condition of scrolls scheduled for upcoming rotations at the Asian Art Museum to ensure that they can be safely displayed. Every inch of the scroll is carefully examined, and any condition issues (flaking paint, discolorations, fading) are recorded. After it is taken down, the scroll is reexamined to make sure its condition is the same as before exhibition.

The Asian Art Museum continues to be closed until further notice and monitoring of the works is ongoing. Meanwhile, the Seattle Art Museum has reopened and the Conservation team is hard at work preparing for City of Tomorrow: Jinny Wright and the Art That Shaped A New Seattle. Evaluating modern and contemporary paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs for safe display, performing minor conservation treatments and reframing art as needed are all important steps in readying the Wright Collection for exhibition. We can’t wait to share this new exhibition with you.

– Rachel Harris, Asian Art Conservation Center Associate

Images: Writings in Seal Script, 2011, Yao Guojin, Chinese, ink on paper, 23 1/2″ x 10,’ Gift of Frank S. Bayley III and Cheney Cowles, 2012.10.3. Photos: Nicholas Dorman. Photo: Marta Pinto-Llorca.

Object of the Week: Story Scroll

Red is often associated with strong emotion, and not only anger, despite the name of a common red dye source: madder root.

A mid-18th century painting of Ganesh on cloth, from a village in Telangana, in the eastern Deccan plateau of India, is striking in part for its red background and red-bodied Ganesh. Painted with black outlines, with areas of yellow ochre, indigo, and white, it is enlivened with black and red dots. As Lord of Beginnings, this Ganesh was the initial image in a long vertical scroll of painted scenes, unrolled one section at a time in performances for a regional weaver community. The scroll, of which this is a section, would have originally been 30 to 50 feet long and depicted their origins from the celestial weaver Sage Bhavana. This ancestor fought off a giant demon weaver, and then created colors for the community’s use from its dead body—a scene depicted in the final image of the scroll also in SAM’s collection.  

The red of this painting may be from madder root—a dye from three species of the madder plant family that grows in areas of each continent. The few remaining painters of this Telangana tradition now use a ready-made ground red stone, but say that vegetable dyes were used previously.

At the time of this painting (ca. 1843), three red insect dyes were also available in India: lac from Southeast Asia, kermes (carmine) from an Asian beetle, and cochineal imported from the Americas. The insect pigments could produce deep reds, but kermes and cochineal faded quickly. These expensive reds required an enormous quantity of insects, as well. Madder was more available and inexpensive, more lightfast, and could produce many shades of red. A warm orange-red is perhaps the most common, with pinks and purples also possible. Madder root contains so many colors—five different reds, blues, yellow, and brown—that its dye produces a complexity not possible with synthetic dyes. It did, however, require special knowledge to make the dye and adjust the process for different shades.

Of the five red dye components in madder root, alizarin is primary, and was not created synthetically until 1869—long after several synthetic blues, greens, and yellows. Madder root eventually fell out of cultivation, and since then has been used in artisanal dyeing.

The process for creating the strong lightfast red developed in India (using a few unpleasant and smelly substances) was one of the most complex dyeing processes ever. A version known to Ottoman court painters was kept secret for several centuries.

To learn more about the history of dyes, pigments, and color in Asian art, the Gardner Center Saturday University series, Color in Asian Art: Material and Meaning, begins on October 3 with a talk by Jennifer Stager on the subject of a red pigment of the ancient world, titled “Dragon’s Blood or the Blood of Dragons.”

Sarah Loudon, Director, Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas

Da Fonseca, Anais. “Replication and Innovation in the Folk Narratives of Telangana.” ScholarlyCommons, 2019.
Finlay, Victoria. Color: A Natural History of the Palette. New York: Random House, 2002.
Pavani, N. and D. Ratna Kumari. “History of Telangana Cheriyal Paintings.” International Journal of Home Science 2019: 5(2): 461-64.
Image: Section of a story scroll of sage Bhavana (Bhavana Rishi Mahatmyan Patam), ca. 1843, Indian, opaque watercolor on cloth, 58 x 34 1/4 in., Gift of Leo S. Figiel, M.D., Detroit, Michigan, 76.41

The Northwest Annual Exhibition & Seattle Art Museum

The SAM Research Libraries have just published a new digital exhibition to our Digital Collections site, providing online access to original archival materials from a significant annual art event that truly defined some of the founding principles of SAM and its founder Dr. Richard E. Fuller.

The Northwest Annual Exhibition (NWA) was a yearly exhibition of work by artists from the Pacific Northwest held first by the Seattle Fine Arts Society, then the Art Institute of Seattle, and finally the Seattle Art Museum. Its first recorded exhibition was in 1914, and it continued for over sixty years at SAM until its final show in 1977. Its intention was to exhibit high quality works in a wide variety of artistic expressions, with a focus on painting and sculpture, and to give recognition to new talent in the Pacific Northwest.

Predating the Seattle Art Museum as it is known today, the NWA spanned decades of change in the art world, particularly in the Northwest. First held in the exhibition rooms of the Washington State Arts Association, it eventually found a permanent home in the Volunteer Park museum in 1933, the same year in which Florence Harrison Nesbit (co-founder of the Northwest Watercolor Society), Peter Camfferman (one of the earliest Modernist painters in the Northwest, along with his wife Margaret Camfferman), and Morris Graves (internationally acclaimed painter) won prizes in the Nineteenth Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists. Over the decades the NWA, under the direction of Dr. Fuller, helped recognize the unique work being produced in the region, launching the careers of countless artists.

After the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, SAM took over the United Kingdom Pavilion at Seattle Center and remodelled it to become the Seattle Art Museum Pavilion, where the majority of the final exhibitions for the NWA were held. The traditional form of NWA continued until 1975, after which it evolved into Northwest Art(ists) Today, a three-part exhibition series held from 1975-1976. It eventually had its final show as Seattle Art Museum Northwest ‘77.

To create the digital exhibition Northwest Annual Exhibition and Seattle Art Museum, 70 of the original exhibition paper checklists and 85 photographic prints and negatives were digitized and restored to provide quality online access to these rare research materials. With the help of long-time SAM staff member Tore Hoven and regional expert on Northwest art, Cascadia Art Museum head curator David Martin, a fascinating account of the history of the NWA is provided to give context and perspective into the exhibition’s impact on the local art community. These digitized materials are also a unique account of the growth and development of SAM, from its earliest days as a local community of art lovers, to becoming a forward-thinking institution drawing attention from around the world.

We hope that this collection will provide some insight into the many historical events and artistic movements that SAM has been a part of since its inception, and that it may inspire your own research into 20th century Northwest art and artists.

– Brynn Strader, Intern, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library

Images: Seattle Art Museum Libraries: Digital Collections: “Forty-sixth Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists, 1960 – Jurors – Photo 2,” “Forty-second Annual Exhibit of Northwest Artists, 1956 – Gallery Installation – Photo 1,” “Northwest Artists Today, Part II, 1975-1976 – Gallery Installation – Photo 7,” “Twenty-ninth Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists,” “Thirty-first Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists,” “Thirty-fourth Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists,” “Forty-third Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists,” “Forty-seventh Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists,” “Fifty-eighth Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists.”

Object of the Week: War

Art has always played a key role in the work of protest and social reform. Artists’ reactions to our current moment, filled with social unrest and calls for social change, echo the works of revolutionary artists working during the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). Amelio Amero, like his contemporaries Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, created murals for the public art projects supported by the Revolutionary government of Mexico.

Rivera’s 1932 lithographic print depicting Emiliano Zapata, the leader of the peasant revolution who became a symbol for agrarian rights, showcases the naturalist style that the Mexican muralists used. These socialist artists were aptly committed to public art and they were committed to creating art that was accessible to the general public. As a member of the Estridentistas artist group, he followed the Italian Futurist groups and believed in non-elitist art. In addition to large public murals, these artists also created prints which could be quickly and cheaply made and disseminated widely. Although highly skilled in the case of Rivera, the lithograph—made using a stone and a crayon—didn’t require the artist to make their image in reverse, nor did it require specialized training. Additionally, the prints could easily be transported and would reach a broader audience.

In War (1944), Amero uses the same lithographic printing technique in an image that combines a critique of violence and militarized conflict with a promise that violence can end through the hands of brave citizens. As the booted, helmeted soldier prepares to thrash a citizen who has been literally brought to her knees, with a hungry child beside her, she raises her face to the sky, closes her eyes, and holds up a strong, oversized hand in an act of faith and protest. The hand reaches out from the shadows to provide hope for those struggling through the unjust times.

Born in Ixtlahuaca, Mexico in 1901, Amero came to the United States in 1925 via Cuba to work in New York, which is where he became interested in Lithography. In 1940 Amero returned to the United States to teach art in Seattle at the University of Washington and the Cornish College of the Arts. During his time teaching in Seattle, Washington, and Norman, Oklahoma, where he taught at the University of Oklahoma from 1946 until the end of his career. Amero continued to create works that depicted Mexico, and worked in the Mexican muralist style, favoring realistic, hyper-cylindrical figures depicted in tempera and lithography, over the abstract and oil paint heavy styles gaining popularity in the mid-century.

As we all confront issues of violence and oppression in our current society, Amero’s work is a reminder for us to support artists calling for change.

– Genevieve Hulley, SAM Curatorial Intern, American Art

Images: War, 1944, Emilio Amero, lithograph, 23 1/8 x 19 3/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 44.84 © Estate of Emilio Amero. Zapata, 1932, Diego Rivera, lithograph, 16 1/4 x 13 3/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 44.623 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

The International Exhibition of Northwest Printmakers

A collection of checklists and other ephemera related to The International Exhibition of Northwest Printmakers is now available as a digital collection on the SAM Libraries Digital Collections site.

The physical print collection, housed at the Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library, contains checklists, images, and other ephemera connected to these annual exhibitions that spanned 42 years, from 1929 to 1971. The recent digital transformation of the collection will bring accessibility to the public at large, allowing printmakers and other artists, historians, researchers, or simply the curious student to view its contents and read about the history of the annual exhibition, held primarily at the Seattle Art Museum throughout its tenure.

The International Exhibition of Northwest Printmakers began in 1929. However, planning for the exhibition started in 1928 by a society made up of Seattle artists hoping to highlight printmaking in the Northwest.[1]  Interestingly, information regarding the history of the annual exhibition is relatively scant. The University of Washington Special Collections houses the Northwest Printmakers Records, a small (two boxes) collection that includes correspondence, notices, flyers, and other documents of the Northwest Printmakers Society—the group of artists that started and maintained the international exhibition. Aside from the collection housed at the UW Libraries, there is very little historical documentation regarding the annual exhibition.

This new digital collection collates and provides access to the historical background of the annual exhibition alongside images, exhibition checklists, and other documents. Interestingly, some of the checklists include handwritten notes from various attendees that highlight the number of women artists present that year, prints of interest, or point out artists with local significance, among other interesting insights. All of those notes were maintained in the digital collection. The collection also includes a handful of entry forms, flyers, and notes.

More than 250 prints in the Seattle Art Museum’s collection came to the museum by way of the Northwest Printmakers Society—either as purchases, prizes from the annual exhibitions, or as gifts from the society. Learn more about those prints here.

Explore the interesting history of printmaking in the Pacific Northwest by clicking through the Seattle Art Museum Libraries’ digital collection, The International Exhibition of Northwest Printmakers, 1929-1971.

– Brynn Zalmanek, Intern, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library

Images: Checklist for the Thirtieth Annual Exhibition of the Northwest Printmakers, held at the Seattle Art Museum from February 11 – March 1, 1959. The exhibit featured a diverse array of international artists due to the Printmakers Society’s proactivity in seeking international artists that year. Checklist for the Fifteenth Annual Exhibition of the Northwest Printmakers, held at the Seattle Art Museum from April 7 – March 9, 1943 (Note: The Seattle Art Museum Annual Report 1943 lists the dates as April 7 – May 2, 1943.). Jury members (left to right) Ian M. White, Ed Merrill, and Gordon Gilkey examining prints for the 40th International Northwest Printmakers Exhibition, held in 1969. Courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum Photo Archives. Flyer advertising print submission for the Eighth Annual Northwest Printmakers Annual Exhibition held at the Checklist for the Eighth Annual Exhibition of the Northwest Printmakers, held at the Seattle Art Museum from March 11 – April 4, 1936 | Note: The 1936 Seattle Art Museum Annual Report Lists the Exhibition dates as March 11 – April 5, 1936.
[1] Notice of exhibition flyer, June 1928, Northwest Printmakers Records, 1929-1970 (Box 1, Folder 3), University of Washington Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries.

Object of the Week: Mandala: Zone of Zero

I witnessed 9/11, and was very much shocked and affected by the traumatizing and violent terrorism. This terrorism made me contemplate a lot on dogma of religion and its extreme violence against humanity, and at the same time, on peace for the world. I wish for a harmonized society: a Utopia.

– Kimsooja

In the inaugural exhibition Be/Longing: Contemporary Asian Art at the transformed Seattle Asian Art Museum, Mandala: Zone of Zero by globally acclaimed artist Kimsooja triggers memories of a recent past—9/11—but also sadly echoes what is happening in our even more divided world today. Displayed in its own dark room, the mixed media installation consists of three circular jukeboxes spinning in mesmerizing circles, each casting its own dimly-colored glow. Playing simultaneously from the jukeboxes’ speakers are Tibetan, Islamic, and Gregorian chants, all three hymns mixing and blurring until they are indistinguishable from one another.

Kimsooja was first inspired to create this work when she came across a gambling shop on New York City’s bustling Broadway. The circular jukebox, which she saw in the shop’s window, struck her as astonishingly similar to traditional Tibetan Mandalas—intricate designs meant to symbolize the universe and aid deep meditation. From its Obangsaek color scheme (the five traditional Korean colors of white, black, blue, yellow, and red), to its circular movement mimicking the cycle of life, to the speaker at the center symbolizing the completion of the self as an awakened being, for Kimsooja “all the elements of this kitsch jukebox speaker that matched with the sacred and religious Mandala system were ironical and intriguing to me, and that urged me to create a piece of art.” The subsequent combination of American pop culture and Buddhist symbolism is even expressed in the title: Mandala: Zone of Zero. However, what makes us ponder further is the meaning of “zone of zero.” Does it refer to the spiritual unification of mind and body, creating a perfect state of “zero”? Or does it simply express an emptiness—a sense of “zero”— that comes with the commercialization of religion?

The work is further enriched by the three chants, which surround the viewer in an almost dream-like fashion. Each recording was sourced at a different religious location. Most notably, the Buddhist Monks’ “Mandala” chant was recorded by Kimsooja’s brother in the same Tibetan temple that is home to the Dalai Lama.

Mandala: Zone of Zero’s call for religious tolerance was particularly topical at the time of its creation in the years following 9/11. Kimsooja herself was in New York on the day and bore witness to the tragedy, as well as to the years of violence and war that followed between the United States and the Islamic world. But the catastrophic event also made Kimsooja long for peace in the world, wishing for “a Utopia.” This duality between discord and harmony can be heard quite literally in the entrancing chants that Kimsooja sources in her piece. At times, the different hymns seem to clash against one another harshly and, in other moments, blend lullingly together, mingling and merging until they approach a sound of unity, a feeling of tranquility, a sweeping state of zero.

— Isabelle Qian, former SAM Curatorial Intern; Xiaojin Wu, Curator of Japanese and Korean Art

Image: Mandala: Zone of Zero, 2003, Kimsooja, Three-channel sound installation with three jukeboxes, 9 min., 50 sec., Gift of William and Ruth True in honor of Chiyo Ishikawa and the reopening of the Seattle Asian Art Museum, 2020.13 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Virtual Tour with Susan Kegel

SAM Docent, Susan Kegel is taking us downtown to the Seattle Art Museum to do some close looking at an abstract painting by Auguste Herbin on this virtual tour. Kegel has been a school tour docent at SAM since 2007. She loves touring with students because they have fresh and amazing insights about the art, and are not afraid to share them. 

Auguste Herbin’s painting  Fleur (Fruit) (translated to Flower and Fruit) is abstract. Rather than painting flowers and fruit exactly how they look, Herbin chose to think about the essence of them, focusing on color and shape. Mathematicians make things abstract, too. For example, the number three is an abstraction. We can’t see three! We can see three trees, three cats, or three triangles, but three-ness is a mathematical abstraction. Abstraction can sometimes  be confusing and unapproachable, but  we can explore abstraction by borrowing a simple approach from Dan Finkel and Katherine Cooke of Math for Love. Take a look at the artwork above and ask three questions: What repeats? How many? What if?

You can try this at home. What repeats?

I see lots of shapes that repeat: triangles, semi-circles, circles, and rectangles. Some stand out because Herbin used strongly contrasting colors—warm colors layered on top of cool and vice versa. Other shapes are more subtle. For example, did you see the orange rectangle in the lower left side?

Let’s look closely at the triangles. Triangles are shapes with three sides, but the lengths of the sides can vary. Some triangles appear to have two sides of the same length—these are isosceles triangles. Equilateral triangles have all three sides of the same length. Can you find any triangles with no matching sides? There are three: one is orange, one is blue, and one is yellow. These are scalene triangles. 

How many triangles are there? This is tricky because there are also implied triangles, where the artist has not quite finished the edges but your eye fills in the missing parts. Shall we count? I see 14.  

Besides shapes, what else repeats? What about the colors? Are there any colors that don’t repeat? Why do you suppose the artist chose to have only one sky blue shape?

Now, let’s imagine what if: what if the painting were hung upside down?  

When right-side up, the shapes seem to be balanced on top of each other or on top of imaginary horizontal lines. When upside down, the shapes are tumbling down towards the floor.  It feels quite different to me. What differences do you notice when imagine the painting upside-down?

We typically learn mathematics starting with physical things, such as counting apples or blocks. Only later do we learn how to manipulate the abstract numbers. Artists often progress in the same way, first learning how to draw realistically before experimenting with more abstract styles. Herbin’s early works were much more realistic.

– Susan Kegel, SAM Docent

Image: Fleur (Fruit), 1945, Auguste Herbin, oil on canvas, 38 × 28 3/4in., Gift of Gladys and Sam Rubinstein, 2014.26.14 © Estate of Auguste Herbin/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Object of the Week: Portrait Drawing of Gwendolyn Knight

In this delicate drawing Henry Bannarn depicts 21-year-old artist Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence using soft graphite markings and subtle blending and shading. The sketch, folded and preserved by the sitter throughout her life, was gifted to the museum in 2006 as part of her estate. Bannarn’s drawing remained in Knight’s collection until the end of her life, and was stored among many of her own drawings and sketches. Knight moved to Harlem at the age of 13, and attended Howard University and took classes at the Harlem Community Art Center and the Black Mountain College before settling in Seattle with her husband, painter Jacob Lawrence.

Henry Bannarn, c. 1937

Although Bannarn created drawings and paintings throughout his career and taught drawing at the Wheatley House, Minneapolis, his best-known works are his sculptures. Born in Oklahoma and trained at the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts, Bannarn moved to New York City to study sculpture at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design. Bannarn’s sculptures were praised by Howard University art history professor James Porter and included in Porter’s 1943 publication Modern Negro Art. Porter praises Bannarn’s sculptures as daringly original.

The Family, 1955, Charles Henry Alston
 

While living in New York, Bannarn rented a studio with fellow artist Charles Alston in Harlem at 306 West 14st street. By 1940 Bannarn and Alston had turned their studio into an exhibition and artists’ space which they named the 306 Group. The 306 Group became a hub of African American artistic production in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The group focused on admitting members who “reflect[ed] and represent[ed] the African American community’s standards for Black American art.”1 Prominent members of the group included Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence.

The Studio, 1977, Jacob Lawrence

Bannarn met his subject Gwendolyn Knight when he was teaching at the Harlem Community Art Center, where Knight came to study sculpture with Augusta Savage in 1934. Savage was assigned as Project Supervisor for the Federal Art Project under the Works Project Administration (WPA) and taught a broad group of influential African American artists during that time. Many members of the 306 Group worked for the WPA in the 1930s including Bannarn, Knight, and Lawrence. Having grown up in a poor family in Florida as one of fourteen children, Savage went on to study in France, exhibit at the Salon d’Autumne, and Carnegie Foundation grant to travel through Europe. Savage’s longest lasting impact was in her role as director of the Harlem Community Art Center, where she shaped the careers of a whole generation of African American artists.

Gwendolyn Knight, 1934-35, Augusta Savage

SAM is lucky to have these two portraits of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence by Bannarn and Savage as they illustrate not only the artist at the height of her youth, but also give a sampling of the broad artistic talent that came out of Harlem Community Art Center and the important role of the WPA as a support system for American artists in the 1930s. The discovery of Bannarn’s drawing illustrates the hidden depths of the rich collection at SAM.

Genevieve Hulley, SAM Curatorial Intern, American Art

Image: Portrait drawing of Gwendolyn Knight, 1934, Henry Wilmer Bannarn, pencil on paper, 16 x 10 1/2 in., Gift of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, 2006.58 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Henry Bannarn, c. 1937, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington. Federal Art Project, Photographic Division Collection. The Family, 1955, Charles Henry Alston (American, 1907-1977), Whitney Museum of American Art. The Studio, 1977, Jacob Lawrence, gouache on paper, 30 x 22 in., Partial gift of Gull Industries; John H. and Ann Hauberg; Links, Seattle; and gift by exchange from the Estate of Mark Tobey, 90.27 ©️ Jacob Lawrence. Gwendolyn Knight, 1934-35, Augusta Savage, painted plaster, 18 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 9 in., Gift of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, 2006.86.
1 Buick, Kirsten Pai. “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Sculpture of the Harlem Renaissance.” In A Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, 317–336. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015, 327.