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Get to Know SAM’s VSOs: Mark Howells

Everyone knows museums have security guards, but not everyone gets to know the people behind the uniform. We spend our days with the works of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, and Claude Monet, learning the nuances of each piece.

Johan Idema wonderfully describes museum guards in his book How To Visit An Art Museum as follows:

In order to put up with picture takers, soda smugglers and amateur art critics, guards require both the alertness of a police officer and the empathy of a kindergarten teacher. Consider museum guards the ground troops of the art world, who deserve your utmost respect. Some of them actually have amazing knowledge of art – former guards include painters such as Jackson Pollock and Sol LeWitt.

Many guards would speak with great passion, if only we asked them. Therein lies your opportunity. Have your questions ready and make your move when the gallery is quiet. Whatever the conversation, you will likely find that guards are able to offer what is often lacking in museums: human interaction and a proper conversation about art.

With Idema’s words in mind, we invite you to get to know us, SAM’s Visitor Services Officers (VSOs), with a monthly spotlight.

MARK HOWELLS
Raised between Portland and Bellingham, Mark Howells has been in the Puget Sound region for 30 years. He did IT Security and Audit before coming into the museum scene. In 1974, he worked his first museum job at the Oregon Historical Society as a junior summer docent. However, what lead him down the path to guest services was his experience in visitor studies during an extension course at the UW where he volunteered with the Washington State History Museum. Mark has worked at SAM since November 2015.

SAM: Graphic Masters: Dürer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, R. Crumb comes to an end on August 28. Which artist have you enjoyed the most in this exhibit?

Howells: R. Crumb. He’s my generation. I had to hide his comix from my mom when I was a kid. Alternative comix were a fun part of my kid-hood, so I guess the nostalgia factor with Crumb was the best part.

What is your favorite piece of art currently on display at SAM?
The Bierstadt (Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast). He got the gray of the Pacific Northwest skies just right. That’s hard to do. I know that the location was just from his own imagination, but I go down to that area at the mouth of the Columbia quite a bit and I always look to see if I can find “that place.”

Who is your favorite artist?
I’m a historian, not an artist. Recently, I’ve studied up on local Pacific Northwest artists, so maybe Philip McCracken right now.

What advice can you offer to guests visiting SAM?
Ask questions. Don’t be intimidated. It’s just art.

Tell us more about you! When you’re not at SAM, what do you spend your time doing?
I like to hike around the Puget Sound and nerd-out on the history all around us. I’m trying to learn more about the built history in our communities. I do volunteer history work for the Camp Harmony Executive Order 9066 Committee (the Puyallup Fairgrounds was an Internment Camp in 1942) and I’m on the Archives Committee for the Queen Anne Historical Society doing glamorous digitization projects for them.

—Katherine Humphreys, SAM VSO

Mark Howells with Philip McCracken’s War God. Photo: Natali Wiseman.

SAM Art: Beauty Bounty & Bierstadt

A Portrait of a Place

Although Albert Bierstadt had not traveled inland into the Washington Territory in 1863, he had amassed the materials he needed to paint a portrait of a place that he could identify as Puget Sound. He had made oil studies of the land forms and Natives he saw along the Columbia River. He had acquired Northwest Coast Native objects, including the examples exhibited here, all of which can be found in Bierstadt’s painting. He also had an extensive library on the early history of America to use for reference—in this case, he appears to have drawn from an illustration in James Gilchrist Swan’s early authoritative study of the region’s topography and people, The Northwest Coast, published in 1857.

 The fine points of the little-known Puget Sound landscape itself were less important to Americans in 1870 than was the fantasized idea of Puget Sound—a storied inland sea that was a gateway to exotic-seeming points of the globe and lands of unknown peoples. In the still primeval wilderness that Bierstadt depicted, the mysterious realm of an ancient class of seafarers and fishermen, Americans might imagine the modern seaport that would soon arise there—and taking pride in their vision and ingenuity, accord Bierstadt a place in history as the artist who made a valuable and pioneering record of the noble past that was a new maritime civilization’s prologue.

Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast, 1870, Albert Bierstadt, born Solingen, Prussia, 1830; died New York City, 1902, oil on canvas, 52 1/2 x 82 in., Gift of the Friends of American Art at the Seattle Art Museum, with additional funds from the General Acquisition Fund, 2000.70. Photo: Howard Giske. On view starting today (June 30) in Beauty and Bounty: American Art in an Age of Exploration, Special Exhibition galleries, fourth floor, SAM downtown.