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COVID-19 UPDATE: ALL SAM LOCATIONS CURRENTLY CLOSED. LEARN MORE »

Object of the Week: Seattle Cloud Cover

For over a month, Seattle’s public spaces, like those in cities around the world, have experienced a marked transformation. Bustling downtowns are eerily empty, with freeways, bike lanes, and sidewalks much quieter. Our parks, however, have remained (when open) as vital as ever to the collective life of the city and the publics they serve.

For landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1902), who with his brother designed Volunteer Park, home to the Asian Art Museum, parks should be socially valuable—“gregarious” (inclusive) rather than “neighbourly” (exclusive) spaces that bring people together, no matter where they live or who they are.[1] This may seem like a given today, but in the 19th century it was a radical notion. Another beloved public park with a SAM connection is, of course, the Olympic Sculpture Park. In keeping with Olmsted’s vision for inclusive, truly public spaces, the park’s nine acres have multiple entrances, an abundance of native plants, zigzagging pathways, over 20 artworks, and is free and open to the public. Like Volunteer Park, it is a place meant for physical, mental, and spiritual relaxation.

Throughout this pandemic, I have found myself reflecting on the role that such public spaces hold and the value they bring, especially when the very nature of “a public” has been recast. I keep returning to one artwork in particular at the Olympic Sculpture Park: Seattle Cloud Cover by Teresita Fernández. 

A glass bridge above a working railroad, Seattle Cloud Cover features images of a changing sky whose cloud formations are high-keyed and highly saturated. Appearing at consistent intervals throughout the image are small apertures, or holes, through which visitors can catch glimpses of downtown Seattle and their environs. Demonstrating Fernández’s interest in light and vision—specifically the relationship between seeing and not seeing—this visual layering of the built and natural environment encourages us to more deeply consider our surroundings, and our place within them. For Fernández, a landscape is not only that which is seen, but inhabited. 

Celebrated for such installations that interrogate notions of landscape and place, Fernández has demonstrated, in her words, a “20-year interest in landscape, perception, and the viewer as someone who is constantly moving, walking, and shifting in real time.”[2] For Fernández, the activation of her work with a viewer—a public—is essential. Seattle Cloud Cover mediates our surroundings, allowing us to both move through the work and see beyond it, all the while drenched in its colorful shadows. The passageway augments our relationship to the world around us, and hopefully prompts us to reflect on the value of public spaces—mutable and fluid as they currently are—and our place within them.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

We are humbled by the generosity of our donors during this unique time. Your financial support powers SAM Blog and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again. Thanks to a generous group of SAM trustees, all membership and gifts to SAM Fund will be matched up to $500,000 through June 30!

Images: Seattle Cloud Cover, design approved 2004; fabrication completed 2006, Teresita Fernández, laminated glass with photographic design interlayer, approx. 9 ft. 6 in. x 200 ft. x 6 ft. 3 in., Olympic Sculpture Park Art Acquisition Fund, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2006.140, © Teresita Fernández.
1 Richard Sennett, Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 45.
2 Teresita Fernández, “Artist’s Statement,” in Fata Morgana (New York: Madison Square Art, 2015), 16.

Object of the Week: Caterpillar Suit I

I wrote Walter Oltmann this morning to let him know I missed seeing his suit. Whenever I walk through the galleries, it always lures me in with its gleaming corona of gold bristles. Who dares to wear a suit that merges their identity with a caterpillar? We know Spider-Man and Batman embody the superhuman strength of hybrid gene pools, but the fuzzy caterpillar is not in that realm. The courage of the artist to envision this unheard of combination inspires new thinking––about how we relate to bugs, to defensive barriers, and to “other” identities. Of course, today, the word corona sticks out. 

Walter writes back from Johannesburg, a city filled with lots of wire barriers. He, on the other hand, is a very calm and careful man who doesn’t bristle at all. He let me know that South Africans are now on total house confinement, no walks allowed. Everyone is concerned about the potential spread to communities that are ill equipped to handle this pandemic. At the moment, he’s busy working and has a new exhibition coming up. So many artists savor isolation, the chance to let their minds move freely, and focus on what to create. One upside of this time is the reminder that being quiet and alone is not to be feared. 

But back to why this caterpillar stands out. It has a most unusual point of inspiration, conveyed in the opening line of a book, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect-like creature.” Franz Kafka wrote this to begin The Metamorphosis, published in 1915, a novella that tells the story of Gregor, a travelling salesman who is trapped by the tensions of not fitting into any social world. He works tirelessly for an oppressive firm, his family exploits his income, and he’s filled with tormented anxieties. So he wakes up and can’t move, and has been turned into an outcast insect. Right now, we are also waking up and unable to move in our usual routine.  The new normal is lock down.  We don’t have an insect body to contend with, but we do have the constant surrounding of the unknown keeping us on edge. 

Illustration of Gregor Samsa, 2013

Meanwhile, Walter continues to weave wire, a medium he chose deliberately. He recalled seeing it used to create barriers for Johannesburg gold mine dumps and road embankments, and thought about how it was inexpensive, but underestimated, as he first wove carpets out of it. He also cites the way women of the KwaZulu-Natal region have woven with wire, and particularly colorful telephone wire that continues to be made into baskets. For this caterpillar, Walter chose gold anodized wire to elevate the insect to new heights. Gold has luminous and enduring allure, both as monetary wealth, and as a choice for the making of holy relics with images of saints and gods. Can a caterpillar be a new version of a very different kind of saint?

Close-up image of salt marsh moth caterpillar. Photo: Alexey Sergeev. http://www.asergeev.com/pictures/archives/compress/2012/1064/01.htm

The 2015 PBS documentary Of Ants and Men highlights the life and work of famed American biologist E.O. Wilson, and highlights the often-overlooked value of insects in our ecosystem.

As Walter once said, “Spending an inordinate amount of time on making something that is usually considered insignificant, like an insect, does make us look differently at them. Observing misunderstood insects closely and interpreting them on a magnified scale throws up their particular adaptations and plays with our perspective that is fixed on their mechanical features and alien behavior and the threat they pose to us.” So here is a caterpillar that is inviting us to wear its suit, as we’re in the midst of an unprecedented metamorphosis, and ideas that encourage new awareness of the species on the planet, beyond human control, who are bound to be part of our transformation. 

Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Image: Caterpillar Suit I, 2007, Walter Oltmann, anodized aluminum and brass wire, 46 7/16 x 23 1/4 x 16 9/16 in., Gift of Josef Vascovitz and Lisa Goodman in honor of Kimerly Rorschach, 2019.25.1, © Walter Oltmann.

SAM Book Club: Parable of the Sower

50 years ago, who would’ve imagined that Earth Day’s 50th anniversary might occur on a day like today? As we all stay home and our days are full of uncertainties, there are also comforts; news articles about Venice’s canals flowing clear, video call birthday celebrations, and much more—amidst it all, we desire to honor Earth Day more than ever.

One way SAM is celebrating this Earth Day is to launch a new edition of our book club, and we encourage you to participate! Calling all bibliophiles, humans, pets, plants, and everyone—join us as we read Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Set in an apocalyptic dystopia of 2026, Lauren Olamina and her family reside in one of the last, safe enclaves of society in Los Angeles. As Lauren’s father struggles to salvage the remains of a society crumbling under global warming, wealth disparity, and crime, Lauren seeks to establish a new community founded on a revolutionary religion that may bring reparation. 

We selected this book because it connects powerfully with John Akomfrah: Future History at SAM, which features video essays on migrant diasporas across the globe, Afrofuturism, and visions of the natural world. Good news, the exhibition will be extended until September 7 so you can come consider it in person after reading the book!

While we read, SAM staff will be reflecting and posing questions for you to join along in your own reading. Check back here every two weeks on May 6, May 20, June 3, and June 16 to hear from us and share your thoughts in the comments. We’ll conclude this virtual book club, with a Zoom meet up for all of our book club participants and beyond! 

If you are looking for a copy of the book, here’s a list of independent bookstores with direct links to the book.

  1. Ada’s Technical Books & Cafe (Usually ships in 1-5 days)
  2. Queen Anne Book Company 
  3. Phinney Books 
  4. Secret Garden Books (Usually ships in 1-5 days)
  5. Elliot Bay Book Company (Usually ships in 1-5 days)
  6. Edmonds Bookshop (Usually ships in 1-5 days)
  7. Powell’s Books (Ships in 1-3 days)

Please join us back here in two weeks on May 6 for our first discussion of the book. We are so excited for you to join us with your comments and questions while you stay home with SAM!

Have a Happy Earth Day!

– Lauren Farris, SAM Campaign Assistant & Equity Team Member

We are humbled by the generosity of our donors during this unique time. Your financial support powers SAM Blog and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again. Thanks to a generous group of SAM trustees, all membership and gifts to SAM Fund will be matched up to $500,000 through June 30!

Photo: Elisabeth Smith

Things To Do For Earth Day & Every Day

In the spirit of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day tomorrow––and our current stay-at-home situation––we’ve compiled a few resources and recommendations from members of SAM’s Green Team for April 22 as well as a fun art activity for all ages!

Earth Day is the first holy day which transcends all national borders, yet preserves all geographical integrities, spans mountains and oceans and time belts, and yet brings people all over the world into one resonating accord, is devoted to the preservation of the harmony in nature and yet draws upon the triumphs of technology, the measurement of time, and instantaneous communication through space.

– Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist, 1978


Check out Earth Day Northwest 2020 

#Next5 actions features tips to effectively reduce your home energy bill and work toward zero-waste! A few ideas below, since we’re all at home more these days.

100% Clean Energy

  1. Turn off lights, use turn-off power strips and unplug all appliances that you are not using. 
  2. Set the thermostat to 68°F or lower when you’re at home and awake, and lower 7°F to 10°F when you’re asleep or away.
  3. Turn down your water heater to 120°F or the “low” setting. 
  4. Run your washing machine and dishwasher only when full.
  5. Using a ceiling fan to circulate air can lower both your cooling and heating costs (counterclockwise recirculates warm air).

Zero-Waste

  1. Recycle right: Empty. Clean. Dry. 
  2. Reduce, reuse and up-cycle: donate or give new life to old clothes and home goods instead of throwing them out.
  3. Target food waste – reduce, donate, and compost. 
  4. Reduce or eliminate single-use plastic.
  5. Avoid last-minute purchases and reduce excess by making a shopping list- and sticking to it.

Articles 

Books/Poetry

Podcasts

Movies

  • Ice on Fire, 2019  (Hulu and HBO)
  • Chasing Coral, 2017  (Netflix)
  • Before the Flood, 2016  (Disney and Amazon Prime)
  • How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, 2016  (iTunes)
Takpekpe (Conference), 2006, El Anatsui

In SAM’s galleries, you will find artist El Anatsui’s sculpture, Takpekpe (Conference) draped on the wall. From a distance, the artwork appears to be a gold, purple, and red tapestry, or wall hanging. But up close, you will notice interesting materials the artist has chosen for his artwork – metal tops from recycled bottles and cans. El Anatsui, who lives and works in Nigeria, creates his sculptures from metal, wood, and reused materials from bottles and packaging. The artist works collaboratively with a team to create sections of theses materials, arrange the sections in different positions on the floor, and then take pictures of the arrangements to document the process. Through a practice of experimentation and play, El Anatsui creates sculptures of different patterns and colors that represent abstraction in African Art.

In honor of Earth Day, we want to consider ways to minimize our waste and reuse items in our home recycling bins. What types of packaging or plastic do we often have in our homes? Where might these items go when they leave our homes? How can we creatively reuse items like packaging, bottle caps, and plastics?

Art Activity

El Anatsui gathers packaging, bottle tops, and other items to create artwork. Through a process of play and experimentation, the artist creates patterns and documents these with photographs. These images help guide El Anatsui to create new sculptures.

Play, experiment, and create your own recycled material artwork!

  • Gather recycled materials in your home over a week. Ask yourself if an item could become an interesting art material before you place it in the garbage or recycling bin. Rinse off the material and set aside until you are ready to begin creating.

Some items you could collect include: cardboard boxes, paper tubes, bottle caps, aluminum can tabs, foil yogurt lids, egg cartons, twist ties, and cereal boxes.

  • Once you have some recycling gathered, imagine how these items can be transformed. Can they be cut, twisted, folded or combined to create a new material?

For example, you could cut paper tubes into rings, cut shapes out of cardboard boxes, or trim egg cartons into smaller objects.

  • Lay your materials out on a surface and move them around to see what patterns you can create. Take pictures along the way to document your experiments! Try arranging the materials into groups by size, color, shape, texture, transparency. Or into patterns!
  • Once you find a pattern you like, glue or tape your materials to a piece of cardboard to finish your artwork. Share your abstract recycled artwork on social media using #StayHomewithSAM.

– Maggie O’Rourke, Program Associate for Arts and Environment

Images: Installation view of Takpekpe (Conference) by El Anatsui, photo: Natalie Wiseman. Art making images: Maggie O’Rourke.

Object of the Week: Landscape

On Earth Day, we tend to take stock of the impact humans have had on our planet: how our polluting, mining, deforestation, and other acts have affected this round wonder that we call home. Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, however, the Earth is seeing a brief respite from this negative human activity—we’ve all seen the reports of air pollution temporarily plummeting. As many of us are limiting our contact with others, staying at home, or even sheltering in place, the Earth’s beauty—blooming flowers, the sounds of animals, lapping waves, or the sound of wind through the trees—has become a source of comfort. I’d like to focus on those gifts the Earth provides for this Earth Day post.

For my family, this time of human isolation has brought an enhanced appreciation of nature and all of the beauty that can be found right in our own yard and neighborhood. We’ve been taking two walks a day (practicing social distancing, of course) and spending whatever time we can in our backyard. We’ve noticed many more flowering trees and plants, and the new gardens that people are eagerly starting. Friends who live in apartments have mentioned pulling chairs up close to a window so that they can be closer to nature while they work from home—even if they lack a view, the sounds of birds help.

Margaret Gove Camfferman’s Landscape elicits this sense of the appreciation of nature for me. This work, sometimes called Orchard on Sound, was painted for the Public Works Art Project of Washington in 1933.[1] The view is from Camfferman’s property on Whidbey Island looking across to Camano Island. It demonstrates a deep awareness of her surroundings. How much I appreciate these flowering fruit trees, the shrubs and other trees, the view of the Sound and the cliffs across the water. Camfferman moved to Langley in 1915, soon after she married the Dutch painter Peter Camfferman, whom she had met in New York. They built their home, called Brachenwood, there and established the Camfferman Art Colony on the property, which included cabins for visiting artists and instructors.[2]

Camfferman, who often painted flowers and landscapes, studied with artist Robert Henri in New York (we even have a painting of her by him in SAM’s collection) and André L’Hôte in Paris. Landscape, which was painted shortly after returning from France, illustrates her development toward modernism. One scholar notes that her work “relied on the theme of nature for her point of departure and attempted to create an analogy between music and painting.”[3] (We recently shared an art activity inspired by Georgia O’Keefe’s work, Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1 which helps us better understand that connection between music and art. Check it out!)

Obviously, nature was important to Camfferman, and, perhaps, it’s more important now to many of us—especially during the current COVID-19 crisis. Has your perception and appreciation of nature changed during this time?

– Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

[1] Rebecca Bruckner and Cindy Beagle, Pioneering Women Artists: Seattle, 1880s to 1940s (Seattle: Kinsey Gallery, Seattle University, 1993), p. [9].
[2] David Martin, An Enduring Legacy: Women Painters of Washington, 1930-2005 (Bellingham, WA: Whatcom Museum of History & Art, 2005), p. 57.
[3] Bruckner and Beagle, Ibid.
Image: Landscape, ca. 1933, Margaret Gove Camfferman, oil on board, 25 x 29 3/8 in., Public Works of Art Project, Washington State, 33.213 © Margaret Gove Camfferman

Community Questions: How Are You Staying Connected?

While SAM locations are closed, we are still working hard to center diverse voices in all that SAM does. The SAM Equity Team is sharing some of the ways that this is manifesting in the museum, in Seattle, and in our lives by asking team members to reflect on how equity and community building continue to be the center of our work, despite our inability to physically gather at this time. The first question was: How are you continuing to build and stay connected to community during this time?

Here’s how Rayna Mathis, SAM’s Assistant Educator for Teen Programs and equity team member, responded:

My quarantine has been a pretty silent one because I live alone, which means I bounce around my apartment all day with only my thoughts to keep me company. I knew too many days of this would go south real fast. I needed to focus on something to help me build and stay connected to my community in a way that felt authentic and meaningful for me. This led me to building a Little Free Library (LFL). I did my research, went to Home Depot, built the structure, went to Home Depot again, realized I bought the wrong thing at Home Depot, cried, painted, and somehow finished in a week’s time (I call those fine moments the spark notes of the project).

During that week, friends and strangers alike reached out to offer support. It’s been nearly a month since I’ve been working from home and, to date, I’ve received carpentry lessons, supportive texts and messages to keep me going, transportation to put the library in place, snacks from friends who made sure I wasn’t forgetting to eat, monetary donations to support the cost of building materials, Clorox wipes, and wrapping paper to sanitize donations and keep them preserved, and over 300 book donations!

With permission from local business owner, Luis Rodriguez, the library was placed outside of The Station, an activist coffee shop in South Seattle. Though the library is filled with content appropriate for all ages, the purpose for this location was to ensure an accessible way for South Seattle students who are not in school due to the stay home order and/or with limited internet access, to be able to continue to find ways to learn or be entertained at this time. And with generous donations from all over Seattle, The Station has also transformed part of its store into a open pantry for anyone in the community to get groceries for themselves and their families.

When you ask me what community means to me, it’s this. From every corner of Seattle, this work is being done without hesitation and people are showing up before even being asked. There’s less to worry about and more to be grateful for when I know I am a part of a community that holds each other up, and will weather every storm together.

Building a LFL is a project I’ve been interested in for a long time. LFL’s have been there for me in tough or unusual times. Once when I was out of the country and homesick, I stumbled on a LFL in a large mall and the first book I picked up had a dedication from a bookstore in Washington. What were the odds of finding a book from home so far from home? The day a mentor of mine passed away, I passed an LFL in a walk to Green Lake and found a poem by Maya Angelou about death and loss. When I’ve gotten lost in the hectic world, time and time again I was found behind library doors, beneath book covers, inside every page. There is comfort and familiarity in feeling connected across shared love of a book. I hope my LFL brings a feeling of connection to anyone who finds the book they didn’t know they needed in it.

Muse/News: Sculpture park safety, new horizons, and world-building with Jacolby Satterwhite

SAM News

During the temporary closure of SAM locations, we hope you can safely continue to enjoy the Olympic Sculpture Park, carefully following physical distancing guidelines by staying six feet away from other park visitors. SAM will continue to align with any City guidance on parks usage.

Here’s Zach Mortice for Landscape Architecture Magazine on how sculpture parks are “offering one of the few bits of unfettered culture still available.”

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced that it is awarding $22.2 million in grants to 224 humanities projects across the United States, including SAM Libraries’ project to digitize 3,000 audiovisual recordings.

Stay Home with SAM continues to take your imagination outside. Last week, we investigated “The Case of the Weeping Buddha,” got macro with the photography of Imogen Cunningham, and offered a virtual curator talk of the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition with Theresa Papanikolas. Join us!

KOMO’s Seattle Refined and Seattle’s Child both share resources for online experiences and homebound art activities; Stay Home with SAM is featured.

Local News

Seattle Met’s Stefan Milne on the fight to fund Seattle arts, focusing particularly on nightlife and performance venues who are particularly reliant on people in seats.

Rich Smith of the Stranger reports on the forthcoming launch of Northwest Arts Streaming Hub (NASH), a “Netflix for local performances” created by a coalition of Seattle art world heavies.

Crosscut’s Brangien Davis takes in ever-retreating horizons as Seattle’s art world responds to a situation with unknown ends; finally, former Seattleite Yann Novak’s video piece Stillness: Oceanic offers a more substantial anchor.

“The congregational aspect of the arts scene has been boxed up for later. Stillness abounds. But, just as in Novak’s video, the atmospheric conditions are causing changes. Artists are shifting slightly every day, in ways we might not perceive until we see the composite picture.”

Inter/National News

“Running a Gallery in My Apartment Showed Me a Different Side of the Art World.” Scott Indrisek for Artsy on how his now-closed Brooklyn apartment gallery might have lessons for the art world’s disruption.

For the Wall Street Journal, Cammy Brothers, an associate professor at Northeastern University, shared her experiences navigating online resources to keep kids learning via art history.

As part of “Art on Video, a collaboration with Art21, Artnet jumps into world-building with Jacolby Satterwhite, who once found escape with video games like Final Fantasy.

“For Satterwhite, world-building is a form of self-care. Speaking to Art21 back in February, his words ring true today: ‘Art became a form of escapism for me to reroute my personal traumas. And now I think I’m trying to pursue something more present.'”

And Finally

Sports broadcasters adjust to being stuck inside.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: Benjamin Benschneider

Object of the Week: Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels

Photographer Imogen Cunningham was not naturally inclined to stay home. Throughout her long and prolific career she travelled and exhibited widely, was celebrated for her portraits ranging from the rich-and-famous to the anonymous citizens of San Francisco, and even became a minor celebrity late in her life, appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and easily identified walking her hometown’s streets with her iconic black cape and peace sign pin.

For a brief period in between all of this activity, Cunningham was more-or-less bound to her home. In 1917, she moved with her 18-month-old son from Seattle to San Francisco to join her husband; less than one month later, she gave birth to twins. As the mother of three young children, her life was suddenly largely circumscribed by the boundaries of the family’s Oakland home. But Cunningham did not allow these circumstances to impede her work—her ambition and drive would, simply, not allow for it. Instead, she turned inward to subjects within her home—or more accurately, created subjects within her home—by cultivating a garden in her backyard.

In a 1959 interview, Cunningham recalled: “The reason I really turned to plants was because I couldn’t get out of my own backyard when my children were small.”[1] And later, with her characteristic sharp wit: “I photographed the plants in my garden and steered my children around at the same time.”[2] True enough about the circumstances, but these direct statements belie the care and attention with which Cunningham shot her celebrated botanical works, such as Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels (1925).

Tightly framing her composition, Cunningham makes the subject of this work not the plant as a whole, but rather the innermost folds and stamen of the blooming magnolia flower. The luscious gradients of white in the petals, the play of shadows on the stamen, and the sharpness with which these details are captured serves to abstract the blossom, allowing us as viewers to see this familiar subject in a new way. This technique was at the heart of a new form of modernist photography, and Cunningham’s experimentations in her own garden were at the forefront of this aesthetic shift. It would not be until 1932 when a group of artists—including Cunningham, along with Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and others—would formalize this style of photography under a collective they dubbed Group f/64, named for the smallest aperture setting that captures the kind of sharpness we see in Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels.

Years later in 1957, after her children had grown and she’d long-since left the garden to experiment with other techniques and subjects, Cunningham returned to her earlier themes by capturing another artist and mother, at home and at work, in her portrait of Ruth Asawa with four of her children. The scene must have been familiar to Cunningham, and it was no mistake that she framed Asawa’s biomorphic, hanging sculpture at the center of the composition: at the heart of it all, she seems to suggest, is the work that drives us.

When SAM reopens its doors, you will be able to find Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture in the exhibition Exceptionally Ordinary: Mingei 1920-2020. And November 2021 will bring together nearly 200 of Cunningham’s photographs, along with sculpture by Asawa, in the exhibition Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective. Until then, as we all stay home, may their work inspire you to continue the work that drives you, whatever that may be.

Carrie Dedon, SAM Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art

If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today! Your financial support powers Stay Home with SAM and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again.

[1] Imogen Cunningham and Edna Tartaul Daniel, Imogen Cunningham: Portraits, Ideas, and Design (Berkeley: University of California Regional Cultural History Project, 1961), 26.
[2] Imogen Cunningham, in Brooks Johnson, ed., Photography Speaks: 150 Photographer On Their Art (New York: Aperture, 2005), 120.
Images: Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels, 1925, Imogen Cunningham, gelatin silver print, 11 1/4 x 8 1/4 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.67 © (1925), 2009 Imogen Cunningham Trust. Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture, 1957, Imogen Cunningham, Gelatin silver print, 10 3/8 x 10 3/8 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.43
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The Case of the Weeping Buddha

The recent renovation and expansion of the Seattle Asian Art Museum allowed SAM to evaluate and conserve artworks we have previously been unable to display. One such work is the seated Buddha Shakyamuni which is on view for the first time in over a decade. Cast in the late 8th to early 9th century in Kashmir, Buddha Shakyamuni is seated in the dharmachakra mudra, a gesture that signifies the sharing of spiritual teachings. The sculpture is one of only a few examples known in Western collections. It is featured in the inaugural exhibition Boundless: Stories of Asian Art—a thematic, rather than geographic or chronological exploration of art from the Asian continent—celebrating the historic renovation of the museum’s 1933 Art Deco building located in Seattle’s Olmsted-designed Volunteer Park.

In 2009, during a condition assessment for a multi-venue international traveling exhibition, it was discovered that large white drips of zinc hydroxychloride corrosion product were seeping down the sculpture’s back. Independent conservation scientist John Twilley had identified the corrosion product in 1988 and the object was then treated for chlorides, however corrosion had reactivated in the intervening years.

Due to the severity of the problem and the importance of the sculpture, Twilley was engaged in 2009 to perform a technical study that included, among other techniques, x-radiography and metallographic study, including electron microscopy. Twilley determined that the metal contains 34-39% zinc, which is an extraordinarily high percentage of zinc to copper even for Kashmiri production. Twilley states that “a critical technological value of 28% zinc… is believed to be the highest value normally achievable by cementation methods” (Twilley 2003: 144), in which vaporized zinc is directly absorbed by copper metal to form the alloy. This finding has great technological implications: it identified the Shakyamuni as a rare, surviving example of brass produced from the earliest actual smelting of zinc, achieved by Kashmiris approximately 1,000 years before Western Europe.

Reverse view before removal of white corrosive product. Photo: Elizabeth Brown

However, the sculpture’s stability is inherently compromised as a result: the presence of two phases (or different crystal microstructures of copper and zinc) in the alloy creates the potential for galvanic corrosion in the presence of chloride contamination and moisture. Above 5% relative humidity, moisture penetrates the alloy’s higher zinc component causing dissolved corrosion products to migrate through the sculpture’s porous casting network.

Detail during treatment: corrosion product removed from lower third of drip. Photo: Elizabeth Brown

Conservation treatment options are limited. Chemical treatments can control chloride corrosion in copper alloys, and were tested for this sculpture and previously performed locally, but the high zinc level of Buddha Shakyamuni renders the figure particularly susceptible. Immersion of the sculpture is impractical due to the surface ornamentation and extant casting core. Therefore, controlling the environment in which the sculpture is stored and displayed remains the preferred preservation approach. 

The SmallCorp case being tested prior to installation of the sculpture. Photo: Geneva Griswold

For the last decade, the sculpture has been successfully stabilized by storage at <5% relative humidity; a micro environment was fashioned from a glass bell jar packed with oxygen scavenger and silica gel, sealed to a plywood board (covered with aluminized polyethylene and nylon barrier film) on which the sculpture is mounted.

Construction of a low-oxygen, low-humidity case was required to enable display and to ensure its survival in long-term storage, as even a controlled museum environment provides ample moisture for the corrosion process to occur. A glass vitrine, rather than acrylic, was necessary to minimize the rate of air exchange. The sealed display enclosure is composed of inert materials including the 5-sided 8.8mm UltraVue laminated glass vitrine, powder-coated aluminum deck, and ample conditioning chamber located below. The case is intended to passively maintain a relative humidity below 5%, however two ports in the sub-deck are designed for dry nitrogen flushing if necessary. A glass and gasket access door in the sub-deck enables live-view of the temperature and humidity loggers inside the display area, and enables periodic replacement of the silica gel, oxygen scavenger, and temperature/relative humidity sensors.

The Seattle Asian Art Museum is thrilled for the opportunity to display the Buddha Shakyamuni, and to share both its innovative creation story and present-day preservation plan with the public. If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today!

This project would not have been possible without the leadership of Nicholas Dorman, Head of Conservation at the Seattle Art Museum; Mike Dunphy, Sales and Marketing Manager at SmallCorp; John Twilley, Independent Conservation Scientist; and Yadin Larochette, Museum and Conservation Liaison- Americas, Tru Vue, Inc. 

– Geneva Griswold, SAM’s Associate Objects Conservator & Elizabeth Brown, SAM’s Senior Objects Conservator

Images: Buddha Shakyamuni, Kashmir, late 8th to early 9th century, copper alloy with silver and copper, Floyd A. Naramore Memorial Purchase Fund, 74.70, photo: Susan A. Cole

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