All posts in “Object of the Week”

Object of the Week: Fountain

Situated beside the sublime glass and steel edifice of the Seattle Public Library Central branch stands Fountain of Wisdom (1958–60), designed by George Tsutakawa. This piece was the artists’ first public fountain commission after a prolific career as a painter, sculptor, and teacher in the Pacific Northwest. Within the Seattle Art Museum’s collection is Fountain (1971), a bronze metal sculpture that helps tell the story of Tsutakawa’s unique Japanese-American experience.

Tsutakawa was born in Seattle in 1910 and spent his early years in Capitol Hill, not far from Volunteer Park. At the age of seven, like many American-born kibei, he was sent to Japan for an education in Japanese art and culture. When he returned to Seattle a decade later, he studied sculpture at the University of Washington and spent his summers working in the Alaska canaries. Drafted into the US Army during World War II, Tsutakawa returned to UW as a graduate student on the GI Bill. Soon after, he began his teaching career in the School of Art.

During the mid-1950s, artist Johsel Namkung introduced Tsutakawa to a book called Beyond the High Himalayas. Included were descriptions of ritually stacked stone structures accumulated by travelers at mountain passes as private and public spiritual offerings.[1] The influence of these obos proved to be profoundly impactful on Tsutakawa, forming the basis of much of the rest of his life’s work. After creating a series of abstract wooden sculptures, Tsutakawa translated obos into metal sculptures and public fountains.

Fountain stands over five feet tall and is composed of a single vertical axis that holds a stack of abstract forms: a footed base, a pronged shallow bowl, intersecting parabolic-shapes, and a hallowed ovoid. It is easy to imagine this sculpture as a fountain, water flowing over and through the bronze forms; the symmetry adding to its geometry.

From 1960 until his death in 1997, Tsutakawa designed and fabricated over 70 fountains. His work can be found all along the West Coast, as well as in Washington, DC, Florida, Canada, and across Japan. Fortunately for Seattleites, a crowd-sourced map has been created to help us locate this important artists’ public works.

– Steffi Morrison, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art

[1] Kingsbury, Martha. George Tsutakawa. Seattle: Bellevue Art Museum and University of Washington Press, 1990.
Image: Fountain, 1971, George Tsutakawa, welded sheet bronze, 65 x 37 x 45 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Langdon S. Simons, Jr., 86.276 © George Tsutakawa Estate
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Object of the Week: Twins

The work, Twins, created by photographer and video artist, Sue De Beer (American, born 1973), depicts two entwined twin teenage girls. De Beer’s work examines the internal conflicts of high school-aged girls—a period of both happiness and great terror. De Beer describes Twins as a “depiction of an impossible situation, a companion who is not an other; a state of pure completion, the strength and horror of desire without fear.”[1] What makes this work even more interesting is that De Beer portrays her subjects through her own likeness. Rather than a pair of identical twins, this image is a digitally-manipulated photograph of the artist herself. Using her own body to explore the identity of others is a technique the artist utilizes, to great effect, in other work, like Two Girls and her seminal video work, Making Out With Myself.

In her correspondence with Seattle gallerist Linda Farris (American, 1945-2005), De Beer explains:

“Much of my work takes place at high school age, a time of heightened experience, and often a time of ‘first’ experience: sexual experience, drug experience, intellectual experience. High school is the first time since birth that your height has stabilized, when your mind had learned enough to begin to analyze information, rather than just accumulate it. You have all of the physical equipment you will carry with you for the rest of your life, but it is all so new and unfamiliar, your agony and pleasure is heightened by the newness of being ‘complete,’ fully formed, and yet blank, without experience.” [2]

Twins, along with two other De Beer works, more visceral and violent—Two Girls and Untitled, from Heidi 2—came to SAM as part of the ContemporaryArtProject gift. CAP was the brainchild of Farris, who assembled a group of private collectors that were willing to share their private spaces with challenging images and objects. Farris selected daring new works that touched her very personally and passionately. In 2002, this group graciously gifted this work to SAM. The thirty-three artworks in the CAP collection include painting, photography, and video unified by a strong feminist perspective with an overarching theme: identity as a complex convergence of the cultural, social, and sexual selves.[3]

Learn more about the 33 works from the ContemporaryArtProject.

– Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

Image: Twins, 1998, Sue de Beer, color digital C-print, 35 13/16 x 49 3/8 in., Gift of the ContemporaryArtProject, Seattle, 2002.15 ©Laura Parnes
[1] Paul M. Smith, “Identity Paradox – Austin Museum of Digital Art,” Amoda.org, 2002, http://www.amoda.org/events/exhibit-02/.
[2] Email correspondence between Sue De Beer and Linda Farris, July 3, 1999.
[3] Seattle Art Museum and Tara Reddy Young, SAM Collects ContemporaryArtProject (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2002), 8, 9, 40.
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Object of the Week: Crow

In 2016, the Seattle Asian Art Museum invited acclaimed Japanese artist Tabaimo to study the museum’s collection and curate an exhibition. The resulting presentation, Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi, was based on the concept of utsushi, which literally means “copying or paying homage to a master’s work.” Tabaimo selected several historical objects from SAM’s Asian art collection to present alongside her own work, some of which she produced specifically for the show. The last gallery of the exhibition featured the museum’s beloved pair of 17th-century Crows screens and Tabaimo’s response, a video installation that imagines new possibilities for the screens’ depicted action.

The subject of the Crows screens is a murder[1] of black-feathered birds set against squares of gold leaf. Descending en masse from the top left-hand corner of each screen, the crows wind their way down to a rocky crag along the bottom edge. In photographs of the screens, the birds appear as silhouettes, though an in-person viewing reveals the unique texture of each creature’s feathers, eyes, beak, and claws. The dynamism of the scene is created through the movements of the individual crows. In some places, they fly towards each other, suggesting an impending clash; in the upper right-hand corner, two birds take part in a midair tussle; and even those grounded crows spread their wings, look about, and caw. 

In Tabaimo’s video utsushi of Crows, the birds are flattened into black silhouettes floating against a background of gold squares. Here, the squares take part in the action too. One by one, they sink into the pictorial space revealing rectangular hollows into which the feathered-beasts fly. An exhibition text explains:

In Japanese culture, it is a custom to tidy things up at the end of an event. Crows are often associated with untidiness because they look for food among garbage and create litter. Tabaimo does not intend for us to leave the gallery with a clear understanding of the exhibition, but rather, she would like to invite lively discussions by ending it in an ambiguous way, just as the crow brings untidy debris.[2]

– Murphy Crain, Asian Art and Gardner Center Coordinator

[1] Not a killing! A group of crows is called a murder.
[2] Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi exhibition brochure
Images: Crow, 2016, Tabaimo, single-channel video installation, 4 min. 10 sec., Asian Art Acquisition Fund, 2017.5 ©Artist or Artist’s Estate. Crows, early 17th century, Japanese, pair of six panel screens; ink and gold on paper, 61 9/16 x 139 5/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 36.21.1.
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Object of the Week: White Light Painting (Inner Band Series)

A photograph of Mary Corse’s White Light Painting (Inner Band Series) provides an idea at best of the composition of the painting—a large but shallow rectangular support, the canvas neatly stretched over the bars. Three vertical bands, varying slightly in tone with an almost silvery color seen in photographs, stretch from the top to the bottom of the canvas, framed by narrower matte white bands on the right and left margins. The delineations between the center three stripes in the image are blurry, but discernible.

White Light Painting (Inner Band Series) as it exists in a photograph is an entirely different painting from the actual painting in life. In the presence of the painting, its light, shadow, and color is elusive, and the thresholds of the three central bands—made of smooth layers of inherently colorless silica glass microspheres—recede and advance. As the viewer moves around the painting, the three central bands change value subtly in opposite directions. The outer bands of microbeads appear dimmer near the bottom of the painting and become more incandescent near the top, while the center band becomes more incandescent closer to the bottom of the painting, to a shimmering, undulating effect, up and down, as each band flashes in and out of visibility. The outermost stripes of matte acrylic white paint on the margins assume different hues according to the refraction of the light—briefly glowing pinkish green, then back to white, then nearly a dim gray in contrast to the flare emanating from the center as the silica glass microspheres bend light to create a prismatic field.

This is Corse’s goal: to instill dimension in her paintings not with illusion or figurative ground, but by using light as it comes into existence in the perception of the viewer, in real time, as the painting refracts it. It would be careless to assume that her paintings are simply about their shimmering finish.

Corse resists the easy association with California Light and Space artists. Though she lives in Topanga Canyon and shares some interests with those artists in her particular attention to light and space, the phenomenological  experience of artworks and, perhaps distantly, her use of an industrial material for its surface qualities, Corse’s use of light is informed by its metaphysics, not by her particular locale.

It does happen that Corse began using silica glass microspheres in her paintings following an encounter with the material just outside Los Angeles. On a sunset drive in Malibu in 1968, she noticed the luminosity of the street signs and street markings. Corse had been searching for ways to incorporate light in her paintings, and turned to the microbeads, which are used in retroreflective paint for pavement marking. In her Inner Band series, the iridescent effect can be compared to the meticulous, seamless finishes of West Coast Minimalist paint applications, and yet it isn’t so mechanically applied that the surface appears manufactured.

Most notable to me are the ways this painting refers to and departs from the self-reflexive qualities of modern painting in the 1960s, in their attention to flatness and abstract use of form and color. The arrangement of the bands of microspheres in White Light Painting (Inner Band Series) at once describes and affirms the flatness of the surface in the evenness of the layers, and also breaks the plane apart into fugitive planes of light. Additionally, the contour of the bands, while elusive, are straight and rectangular, stretching vertically from the top to the bottom of the canvas. Even as the bands appear to flare and fade, they repeat the length and the form of the painting itself.

Corse’s color is not inherent to any pigment in the painting, but exists in flux in the eye of the viewer. Whereas other paintings use tints or shades for color, Corse’s microspheres use pure light, and the random, polychromatic color that comes from its refraction.

Experiencing White Light Painting (Inner Band Series) is deeper than the experience of looking or simply beholding it—you are apprehended by the painting as you spend time with it, paying attention to it and witnessing its permutations. It exists in glances of light, in full silvery columns, in the soft apparent glow at its margins, and the fluttery animation of its surface as you walk past. It is spectacular for its sparkle, but even more so for its ability to resist expectations of a definitive state of being.

Hannah Hirano, SAM Coordinator for Museum Services and Conservation

References

Clark, Robin, ed. Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 2011.

Griffin, Jonathan. “’I paint for my sanity’ – an interview with Mary Corse.” Apollo International Art Magazine, August 4, 2018. https://www.apollo-magazine.com/i-paint-for-my-sanity-an-interview-with-mary-corse/

Miranda, Carolina A. “The ‘whoa’ moment and Mary Corse: The painter who toys with light is finally getting her due.” Los Angeles Times, November 2, 2017. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-mary-corse-kayne-griffin-corcoran-20171102-story.html

Nichols, Matthew. “Mary Corse Is More Than a California Artist.” Art in America, February 8, 2012. https://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/mary-corse-lehmann-maupin/

Image: White Light Painting (Inner Band Series), 1997, Mary Corse, acrylic, silica, glass microspheres, 60 × 84 in., Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2014.25.12, © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

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Object of the Week: Imogen Cunningham and Grandchildren at Fun House

I still feel that my interest in photography has something to do with the aesthetic, and that there should be a little beauty in everything.

– Imogen Cunningham

Imogen Cunningham was a seminal female American photographer, active in the Pacific Northwest (where she was born and raised) and the San Francisco Bay Area. This image of the artist and her grandchildren, taken in the reflection of a fun house mirror, is representative of Cunningham’s larger practice that spanned decades: experimental, technical, and the stuff of everyday life.

Cunningham is perhaps best known for her abstracted botanical photography, though she also produced images of the human nude, industrial landscapes, and street scenes. Here, her subject matter is much more personal and takes on an emotional valence.

It is often perpetuated that Cunningham was forced to choose between her career and motherhood, ultimately choosing the latter when she closed her portrait studio. However, this narrative is not quite accurate—Cunningham managed her responsibilities as both a mother and an artist, developing a photographic practice that blended art and life seamlessly. Neither roles were without sacrifice, of course, but Cunningham did her best to juggle her identities as a mother and artist—identities that, to this day, are either presented as mutually exclusive or not discussed nearly as much as they should be.

Moyra Davey’s Mother Reader is a major achievement in this regard. Published over fifteen years ago, the volume brings together testimonials, diaries, and essays by women artists, writers, and creative thinkers whose lives were forever altered—both positively and negatively—by pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. It is an amazing resource that focuses on the intersection of motherhood and creative life, honestly exploring the varied experiences of being a mother. In Margaret Mead’s essay “On Being a Grandmother,” Mead, a cultural anthropologist and contemporary of Cunningham, writes:

However, I felt none of the much trumpeted freedom from responsibility that grandparents are supposed to feel. Actually, it seems to me that the obligation to be a resource but not an interference is just as preoccupying as the attention one gives to one’s own children. I think we do not allow sufficiently for the obligation we lay on grandparents to keep themselves out of the picture—not to interfere, not to spoil, not to insist, not to intrude—and, if they are old and frail, to go and live apart in an old people’s home (by whatever name it may be called) and to say that they are happy when, once in a great while, their children bring their grandchildren to visit them.

When taken into consideration with this photograph, one can’t help but wonder what Cunningham’s experience was like as a grandmother. Was she able to spend real time with her daughter’s children? Did she feel a similar tension between acting as a resource and an interference? How did being an artist and grandmother differ from being an artist and mother? This early selfie suggests that she and her grandchildren had some adventures and joyful times, but it is just one glimpse into their relationship after all. Even still, we’re fortunate Cunningham chose to share it with us—there’s certainly a little beauty in it.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: Imogen Cunningham and Grandchildren at Fun House, San Francisco, 1955, Imogen Cunningham, gelatin silver print, 8 3/4 x  7 1/8 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.38 (1955), 2009 ©Imogen Cunningham Trust

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Object of the Week: Mola

Ancient Andean cultures used complex recording devices known as quipu, fashioned from tally cords, which allowed for the communication and recording of information essential to daily life. The quipu were essential tools for many Andean communities: they were a medium that enabled reading, writing, and, importantly, remembering. Such Indigenous practices nearly disappeared due to colonial suppression. Not unlike the quipu, the Cuna mola—or blouse—produced in the San Blas Islands represents the resilience of a community in the face of colonization.

The Cuna Indians are an Indigenous people who live along the Atlantic coast of Panama and Colombia. In the 16th century they were driven by the Spanish from their original home in Colombia, and moved west toward the coast. Mola, as we know them today, evolved from elaborate body painting. In the mid-18th century, when European settlers introduced cloth to the region, women began to wear simple blouses, painting them with natural dyes in the same manner they had previously decorated their bodies.

To make these elaborate blouses, an artist—importantly a woman—begins with multiple pieces of different colored cloth, and bastes one on top of the other. After cutting multiple designs, the maker then hems the edges with fine stitches. From there additional elements are added, such as embroidery, positive appliqué, or incisions that reveal the layers of cloth below. This reverse appliqué technique is an intricate and time-intensive process that has been mastered and handed down from generation to generation.

The history of the mola is inextricable from the history of colonialism in Latin America. It evolved in spite of European contact and continues to be shaped by contact with non-Native people today. For example, traditional Cuna designs—on both the body, originally, and the blouses—include abstracted linear patterns, stylized flora and fauna, and figures from Cuna mythology. When interactions with outsiders increased due to the construction of the Panama Canal, motifs such as trademarks, slogans, and American products appeared. Further, in the first decades of the 20th century, the Panamanian government tried to ban many Cuna customs, including their language and traditional dress. A resistance was mounted, and in 1925 the Dule Revolution resulted in the autonomy of the Cuna people, granting them the right to govern their own territory and culture autonomously. The mola can thus be seen as a vibrant textile tradition that represents the strength and resilience of the Cuna people.

Elisabeth Smith, Collection & Provenance Associate


Images: Mola, 1950s-60s, Cuna, Panamanian, cotton cloth and cotton thread, 21 × 25 in., Gift of an anonymous donor, 2018.26.10 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Mola, 1950s-60s, Cuna, Panamanian, cotton cloth and cotton thread, 22 1/2 × 25 in., Gift of an anonymous donor, 2018.26.6 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

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Image of a circular spiral of words

Object of the Week: Northwest Field Recording – WA (12”/B side)

Victoria Haven’s Northwest Field Recordings explore how abstracted language can evoke a personal experience. In Northwest Field Recording – WA (12”/B side), the names of important Pacific Northwest trailheads and natural formations are called out: Desolation Peak, Cutthroat Pass, Mount Forgotten, Confusion Falls, Forbidden Peak, Obstruction Point—to name a few. And while these locales could certainly be anywhere (and join a long list of despairing-sounding sites around the world), they are importantly here.

Rendering these locations in a form that recalls the 12 inch format of an LP, Haven creates an equivalence between the names and the circular grooves on a record. Given the work’s relationship to the natural landscape of the Northwest, it is also meant to reference the cross-section of a tree, revealing its life-span and time on earth. Taking into account the Pacific Northwest’s storied landscapes, both cultural and natural, the work deftly addresses two aspects of our region that loom large as defining qualities and points of pride.

With each peak, pass, gap, and lookout folding in on itself, the drawing lures the eye inward, forcing a cyclical reading that—like a spinning record—is hard to break. The more one reads these poetic names, the more evocative and abstracted they become. As described by arts writer Stephanie Snyder, “the proliferation of language [in Haven’s work] oscillates into a gorgeous and captivating tangle of ideas and emotional associations.” Though this work is not on view in the upcoming exhibition Sound Affect, another work by Haven is, Portable Monument – There’s no place…, and similarly explores the history of Seattle’s music scene and the region’s shifting social and cultural landscape.

Elisabeth Smith, Collection & Provenance Associate

Images: Northwest Field Recording – WA (12″/B side), 2010, Victoria Haven, ink on paper, 18.5 x 18 in., Gift of Rebecca and Alexander Stewart and an anonymous donor, 2011.9.2, © Victoria Haven. Portable Monument – There’s no place…, 2009-2012, Victoria Haven, acrylic paint, sheetrock, studs, 92 × 75 × 6 in., Gift of The New Foundation Seattle, 2013.1, © Artist or Artist’s Estate.
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Object of the Week: 205 kmph-950 hPa

Monday is Earth Day—a day designated for the demonstration of support for our planet and its protection. Personally, it feels harder and harder to celebrate this day with a clear conscience, knowing how we are fully responsible for bringing ourselves to the brink of irrevocable environmental damage. The pressure placed on us as individuals to solve the issue of climate change (as if it is just one issue) through lifestyle choices distracts from the need for major policy changes and collaborative global initiatives on the highest level.

In the words of David Wallace-Wells, from his new book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming:

The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.

Environmental activism is urgent and necessary, and art can act as the medium through which politics emerge. Take Vibha Galhotra’s work—205 kmph-950 hpa and 60 kmph-998 hPA from 2015—which directly addresses globalization and climate change. The patterns in each are derived from satellite images of hurricanes and typhoons (which have only increased in size, power, and occurrence) and are identified by the strength of the storm. 205 kmph-950 hpa references 1994’s Hurricane Gilma while 60 kmph-998 hPA refers to Typhoon Vongfong, the most intense tropical storm to take place in 2014, causing significant damage to Japan. Vongfong’s intense winds and rain created sediment plumes that were visible from space. I repeat: visible from space.

Based in New Delhi, Galhotra’s larger practice is dedicated to examining the environmental and social impact of globalization and urban growth—both in New Delhi and beyond. For this reason she employs local women in her studio, many of whom lack jobs and are unable to find work outside the home. She often uses culturally specific objects such as ghungroos, small metal bells traditionally worn by Indian dancers, to make explicit the close connection between mass production of goods, urban growth, and environmental impact. In the words of the artist, “Global warming is a real threat and so is terrorism. On the one hand, we are replacing natural landscapes with man-made things and then in a bid to snatch these, we spread terror.”

Elisabeth Smith, Collection & Provenance Associate

Images: 205 kmph-950 hPa, 2015, Vibha Galhotra, nickel-coated ghungroos, fabric, polyurethane coat, 48 × 48 in., Asian Art Acquisition Fund, 2016.19.1 © Vibha Galhotra.  Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. 60 kmph-998 hPa, 2015, Vibha Galhotra, nickel-coated ghungroos, fabric, polyurethane coat, 48 × 48 in., Asian Art Acquisition Fund, 2016.19.2 © Vibha Galhotra. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
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Object of the Week: Mizusashi (water jar) with bamboo

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a traditional Japanese tea ceremony at a Zen Center in the Bay Area. It was one of those days when spring felt imminent—no longer a distant dream.

The tea house at Green Gulch was a sacred site in many ways. Set off from the rest of the property, the building and its surrounding garden were a tranquil respite, maintained impeccably; entering the tea house required intentionality and following certain rites, such as the washing of hands and kneeling to take off shoes before entering.

Once inside the tea house, I and the other nine guests were asked to take in the immediate environment, to observe the details and beauty of that which surrounded us. The thatched roof, tatami mat floor, textured walls (made from clay and straw), and aroma of the interior—cedar, used to heat the water—were some of the first things I noticed and appreciated. As the tea was made, served, and consumed, the ceremony was replete with actions and gestures grounded in gratitude.

As the ceremony progressed, the importance of tools became clear. Generally, different utensils are used for different occasions and seasons. For example, at this tea ceremony in early spring, the kettle hung from the ceiling while in other seasons it would be lower, below the floor. Other utensils included a water jar, water scoop, tea scoop, and whisk—each carefully selected for their express purpose.

One of the most important components of the Japanese tea ceremony, water jars hold fresh water for the making of matcha green tea. This water jar, or mizusashi, in SAM’s collection, with a black lacquer lid is beautifully decorated with stalks of blue bamboo—a subtle but striking illustration. The piece is by Eiraku Myōzen, one of only a few female ceramicists who were able to have a successful career in early 20th-century Japan. After Myōzen’s husband—also an artist—passed away, she took his place leading the Eiraku workshop in Kyoto, one of the leading manufacturers of ceramics in the region.

While this new acquisition will not be used in the tea ceremonies at SAM, tea ceremony demonstrations—or chado, “the way of tea”—take place on third Thursdays at 5:30 pm and third Sundays at 2:30 pm. I have a feeling it will change the way you look at and think about everyday—and not-so-everyday—utensils.

Elisabeth Smith, Collection & Provenance Associate

Images: Mizusashi (water jar) with bamboo, early 20th century, Eiraku Myozen, porcelain with blue glaze, 7 7/8 × 7 1/2 × 6 in., Gift of Mary and Cheney Cowles, 2018.2. Photos: Elisabeth Smith.

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