All posts in “Seattle Art Museum”

Self-portrait by Morris Graves

Object of the Week: Self-portrait

One day here at SAM I received a phone call from a visitor who had enjoyed her time at the museum and who had felt particularly attached to a couple of the paintings here, and who was sorely wishing she had written down the name of the artist because his work was really touching. There was one, in particular: It was a portrait (a self-portrait, she wondered?), and the man had a moustache (our van Dyck, I wondered?), and she thought she remembered there were other portraits of the same guy in that room. Ah. Morris Graves.

The facial hair was a helpful descriptor, but so was the defining characteristic this woman singled out when describing the painting: vulnerability.

Graves’s Self-portrait of 1933 is a rare subject for the artist, who most figured was too private a man to put himself out there by painting himself much. Against a soft abstract background, his form emerges, defined by a rhythmic, undulating outline. His head is perched upon an impossibly long neck. He gazes sidelong out of the canvas with a look that wants to tell us something, and many have thought they knew exactly what.

Graves, though, was a hard character to pin down. He was interesting. Frederick Wight, who was director of the Art Gallery at UCLA, met Graves and later described him as “an exceedingly tall thin figure, with large transfixed, rather alarmed eyes . . . He is shy and self-aware to a degree, aloof yet (you suspect) ruthless in his self-determination . . . In short he is very birdlike: receding, private, mobile, and migratory . . . he has the willful steely quality of a bird—its fierce capacity to survive.”

Nancy Wilson Ross, a friend and confidant of Graves’s, called him “mysterious,” saying he carried moods redolent of changing seasons. Ross ended on the same comparison as Wight: “Like the birds Graves knows so intimately, he is a migratory creature; not so much willfully nomadic as purposefully so.”

Author Margaret Callahan attached some curious distinctions to Morris Graves when publishing the photo in The Seattle Times in 1948.

No doubt Graves’s seasons of mood meant that he left different impressions on the many who encountered him. Besides, perceptions vary: “steely” and “birdlike” to one might look like unapproachable and withdrawn or even admirably stoic to another. We might get a totally different animal to fill the metaphor.

Theodore Wolff, an art critic who produced a catalogue essay on Graves, was struck by his encounter with the artist—so moved that he typed up the following letter:

Dear Morris:
Just a word to say how very happy I am to finally have met you. I am most particularly pleased at the extraordinary quality of strength and sturdiness you radiate; you resemble your Joyous Young Pines much more than you do any of your birds (!!).¹

Bird? Pine?

One would think that going to the source would provide clarity, but Graves’s own letters produce more questions, revealing more quirks and intricacies of character. He is alternately kind and sensitive, harsh and resentful. There are moments of resolute pride and of defeated self-doubt. At times Graves is fully convinced of his importance and the value of his art. On December 5, 1932, at an early stage of his career around the time he produced his Self-portrait, he boasted in a letter to his intimate friend Merita Mills:

I know I can paint in all the violent color and draw all the magnificent lines I want to someday, and be thrilled with the results; smug as it sounds, I just am unavoidably sure I can do it.²

The verve with which he began his career finds a sad bookend in the self-deprecation that shows up in some of his last letters. In 1997, Graves wrote to SAM curator Vicki Halper, saying

My painted images have, somehow, only been very minor Shinto haikus trying to communicate my mind’s range of humanitarian, rational, and irrational experiences and ideas.

I’m a fifth-rate rural American painter of the 1930s and 40s. I gladly surmise that you have all along been aware of this.
–Morris³

What makes the Self-portrait so fascinating and magnetic is that it seems to reveal something of how Graves saw himself. But what’s in a self-portrait? Are we really learning anything? As a description of oneself, is it any more truthful than another’s description—or any more complete? For me, a self-portrait does reveal; it just doesn’t reveal everything. No one picture, in paint or in words, could convey all the complexity of Morris or of you or of me, and to think we know him from this painting can’t be quite right.

The Self-portrait doesn’t say everything there is to say about Morris Graves. Gladly, we get more doses of the artist’s self-reflection in the third floor PONCHO Gallery. Hanging right next to Self-portrait is Morning, a painting where the figure, a slender shirtless man, squirms uncomfortably on his bed, a voyeuristic display in front of us. Across the room from these hangs the solitary Moor Swan, a painting Graves exhibited in the 1933 annual show of Northwest artists at SAM, in which it won the big $100 purchase prize. A period photo reproduced here captures Morris with his winning piece, and Morris, it must be said, is looking very birdlike, indeed.

Some have read the Moor Swan as a symbolic self-portrait. I’m okay with that, as long as we remember: He is the bird and the pine; He is the moustache and the swan.

Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGES: Self-portrait, 1933, Morris Graves (born Fox Valley, Oregon, 1910; died Loleta, California, 2001), oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 19 3/4 in., Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Florence Weinstein in memory of Max Weinstein, 85.268, © Morris Graves Foundation. Photo published by The Seattle Times, 1933, 1945, 1948.
¹Reproduced in Morris Graves: Selected Letters, p. 97.
²Reproduced in Morris Graves: Selected Letters, pp. 254-255.
³Reproduced in Morris Graves: Selected Letters, pp. 316-317.
Joyous Southern Christian Leadership Conference Marchers Outside Jefferson Davis Hotel, Montgomery, Alabama by Dan Budnick

Go Tell It: Civil Rights Photography at Seattle Art Museum

SAM is highlighting a series of documentary photographs exploring the lived experiences of African American men and women during the Civil Rights era, featuring major works from the collection by artists including Dan Budnik, Danny Lyon, Roy deCarava, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, Marion Post Wolcott, and others. The exhibition includes a photo series capturing Martin Luther King Jr.’s march to Montgomery, a stark image of man entering the “colored” entrance of a movie theater in Jim Crow Mississippi, a powerful image of a black nanny holding a white baby, and lithographic renderings of mugshots that reclaim these stigmatizing documentary portraits.

James Baldwin by Joseph Norman

As a contemporary counterpart to these historical works, the exhibition also features a work by Philadelphia-based interdisciplinary artist, Shikeith, called #Blackmendream. In this documentary video, the artist interviews nine young black men, their bare backs turned to the camera as they answer questions such as: “When did you become a black man? Do you cry? How were you raised to deal with your emotions?”. The resulting film is a poetic take on what it means to occupy a black body today, and an exploration of the emotional lives of black men. The hashtag in the film’s title is an invitation for viewers to respond to the artist’s questions themselves, and to continue discussions about what is happening to people of color in the country today.

Go Tell It: Civil Rights Photography is now on view in the Knight | Lawrence Gallery at the Seattle Art Museum through January 8, 2017.

Images: Joyous Southern Christian Leadership Conference Marchers Outside Jefferson Davis Hotel, Montgomery, Alabama, March 25th, 1965, 1965, Dan Budnick, American, b. 1933, photograph, 11 x 14 in., Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Benham Gallery and Dan Budnik, 2000.42., © Dan Budnik. James Baldwin, 1986, Joseph Norman, 10 x 8 in., lithograph, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Joseph A. Chazan, 2000.26, © Joseph Norman.
Italian Room at the Seattle Art Museum

Object of the Week: Italian Room

A powerful quality exclusive to older objects is their ability to spark our imagination as we reflect on where in the world these things have been before they arrived in front of us. It can be totally captivating. The display of historic artworks in our galleries at SAM is only the latest chapter in a long story for each of these pieces. The period room installed on the fourth floor—called the Italian Room a bit anachronistically but not without reason—is a great case study in the life of an art object.

The wood panels hang in a metal stud framework erected during SAM’s expansion in the 2000s, but they are installed at the exact angles and dimensions of the historic room’s specifications. About 145 original pieces comprise the installation. How and why did they come here?

Details of the Italian Room at Seattle Art Museum

An Italian art dealer named Renato Bacchi acquired the room in the 1920s from its original installation in a building scheduled to be remodeled, perhaps “saving” it. The building was located in Chiavenna, a town in northern Lombardy, in a breathtakingly beautiful mountainous region. In the mid-1930s the room, in boards, passed from Bacchi to the German-born antiques dealer Adolph Loewi, who installed it in a Venetian palazzo that served as his gallery space. The Jewish Loewi was persecuted by the Fascist Italian government and moved, with his paneled room, to the U.S. in 1939. Loewi had become one of the most successful international dealers in period rooms, and he proved successful once again, finding a buyer in the notable Northwest architect John Yeon, who had encountered Loewi and his paneled room in Los Angeles. The room enjoyed another interesting chapter as Yeon’s dining room in the architect’s San Francisco flat. This custom installation was a highlight of Yeon’s renovation of the once-rundown building that housed it. Ed Hardy later rented that apartment.

After Yeon passed away in 1994 the building was sold, but Yeon’s partner, Richard Louis Brown, saw that the room was professionally de-installed that it might have another life somewhere else. From his own home in Portland, Brown set about finding a new home for the paneled room, and with SAM, he had a taker. The timing was just right; the museum, in plans for its expansion, would finally have the space to consider a permanent display for such a period room. In 2000, Brown officially donated the Italian Room, doing so in memory of John Yeon. Folks were invited to view the conservation and installation of the room in progress, and since the grand reopening of the expanded SAM in 2007, the Italian Room has been a focal point of the collection.

Italian Room at Seattle Art Museum

In the same year that he brought SAM’s Italian Room to the U.S., dealer Adolph Loewi imported another of the period rooms he would end up dealing: the Gubbio Studiolo now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See, old things have wonderful stories—not just about where they’ve been, but about who and what they’ve encountered along the way.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Italian Room, ca. 1575-1600, spruce, willow, and fir, 171 9/16in. x 200 5/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Richard Louis Brown in memory of John Yeon, 2000.218, Photo: Nathaniel Willson. Photo: Collin Shulz. Photo: Collin Shulz. Photo: Nathaniel Willson.
Kehinde Wiley Portrait

Kehinde Wiley’s Galvanizing Impact

“The history of painting by and large has pictured very few black and brown people, and in particular very few black men. My interest is in countering that absence.”

Kehinde Wiley

Experiencing a meteoric rise on the art scene, Los Angeles native Kehinde Wiley has assumed his place as an influential contemporary American artist. Graduating from the influential Yale School of Art, Wiley received his MFA from the program in 2001. The artist went from the Ivy League to a leading art program—residency at The Studio Museum in Harlem. It was there that a lot of things came together for Wiley in the context of the show he was working on: he found inspiration in the assertive and self-empowered young men of the neighborhood. This kicked off the artist’s serious work in portraiture on modes of representation and the black body.

Installation view of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

“It’s almost like he’s looking back into history to envision a new present and a new future,” said Catharina Manchanda, Seattle Art Museum’s Jon & Mary Shirley Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art. Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic is a 14-year retrospective of the artist’s work that features 60 works, including his signature portraits of African American men reworked in the grand portraiture traditions of Western culture, as well as sculptures, videos, and stained glass windows.

Installation view of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

The Brooklyn Art Museum organized the exhibition, which is traveling to a number of cities around the country, experiencing a rousing reception. “He’s received a great amount of attention in part because the work is so captivating, but perhaps what adds special urgency to the work are the political discussions Americans have been having over the course of the last year regarding the lives of black men and women in this country,” Manchanda said. “There is so much possibility in this moment. It’s my hope that this exhibition will engage viewers in an important conversation, as well as create a galvanizing experience that will last long after they leave the galleries.”

Installation view of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

Wiley does not copy traditional portraiture styles from the 18th and 19th centuries, but rather creates mashups where he’s drawing from many sources, like a jazz artist improvising or a hip hop artist mixing pieces of songs together using different ideas and references. The same process—mining elements and then combining them from various sources—fuels Wiley’s work: classic portraiture styles and floral wallpaper designs from the 19th century, among others, serve as inspiration. Altered in color as much as detailing, these compositions frame and elevate his contemporary subjects.

Also on view in the exhibition is the full length film, An Economy of Grace, which documents Wiley as he steps out of his comfort zone to create a series of classical portraits of African-American women for the first time. The exhibition includes works from this project and highlights Wiley’s collaboration with fashion designer Riccardo Tisci at the couture firm Givenchy to design gowns inspired by 19th- and 20th century paintings.

Don’t miss this exhibition— which closes very soon on May 8! We also invite you to hear from scholar and independent curator Tumelo Mosaka, who will be at Seattle Art Museum on Thursday, April 14, to explore topics related to the exhibition and Wiley’s unapologetic ability to address the historical absence of the black figure by creating portraits of his own desire.

Images: Photo: Stephanie Fink. Installation views of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic at Seattle Art Museum, Photos: Elizabeth Crook, © Seattle Art Museum.
Camel

Object of the Week: Camel

Of the nearly 24,000 objects in SAM’s collection, two sculptures have probably had the broadest impact on visitors’ experience of the museum since it opened in 1933. They have proven a popular attraction for visitors of all ages, newcomers and regulars alike. For a long time, though, they weren’t even physically in the museum. They’re the greeters, the guardians. They are: the camels.

Writing in 1968—35 years after the arrival of our Chinese camels and the opening of our doors—SAM founding director Dr. Richard Fuller proclaimed the camels “unquestionably the most popular items” in the museum’s collection. No doubt this was partly because he enthusiastically encouraged kids to have a go at riding them.

Riding the Camel

Kids on the Camel

Standing on the Camel

Chosen specifically by Dr. Fuller and his mother, SAM co-founder Margaret MacTavish Fuller, to be the symbolic guardians of the museum, they were installed on either side of the front entrance. Former SAM curator and historian Josh Yiu reflected on their significance: “They were the first works of art that children and adults alike experienced at the Seattle Art Museum. The camels achieved an iconic status because they introduced art, the museum, and China to the general public.”1

Asian Art Museum Exterior in 1933

Dr. Fuller also clearly saw in the pair of marble bactrians an impressive aesthetic achievement, one that complemented the striking Art Deco design of SAM’s original building in Volunteer Park and echoed the cultural focus of its artworks. In his personal correspondence from 1933, Fuller wrote the following justification:

“Granting that the sculptor had made no attempt to achieve lifelike forms, I think that there is no question but that his results are great works of art…Viewed purely from the view-point of artistry, I personally think that it would be almost impossible to have modern sculpture designed that could have coincided more perfectly with the spirit that we endeavored to attain in the design of the building, and it seems especially fortunate that they should, at the same time, emphasize our interest in Oriental art.”

Camel

In 1986 conservation concerns won out, and the camel-riding tradition came to a sad, but necessary end (hundreds-of-years-old marble sculptures, folks). We no longer sanction it, at least! The Chinese camels journeyed downtown for the inaugural installation here in 1991, and today replicas flank the front doors to the Asian Art Museum.

Camel replica being installed

You can still see (not ride) the originals in our grand stairway.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Josh Yiu, A Fuller View of China, Seattle, Wash.: Seattle Art Museum, 2014; 46.

IMAGES: Camel, Chinese, late 14th-mid-17th century, marble, each 101 1/2 x 56 x 36 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.814.1, 33.814.2, Photo: Jasmine Boothroyd. Photos: SAM Archive.
Les Annees 90

Object of the Week: Les Années 90 (The Nineties)

Congolese artist Chéri Samba has said that he likes to incorporate text into his narrative paintings because it keeps the viewer’s eye on the art longer. For visitors who find Samba’s acrylic painting of The Nineties in our Emblems of Encounter installation, it’s not just the French text that needs deciphering. Untangling what’s happening in the picture—as well as thinking about how the text informs the scene—all takes time and effort. Samba has created an image rich with symbolism and relationships for sorting out, and there’s plenty to delve into before even getting to the language.

Most clearly, the scene shows us two men. In the lower left, a figure in a blue suit, sleeves rolled up, lounges passively. His pocket is stuffed with cash, while the chest next to him is noticeably empty. His brown skin contrasts the fair skin of the second man. He looks and gestures toward this figure, who stands near the center of the composition, donning green pants and a white jacket, and gripping a briefcase in his left hand. He’s not looking back at the seated figure to receive the gesture. Instead, he gazes outward purposefully, toward the portion of the canvas where threatening clouds have lifted just a bit.

Les Années 90 (detail) by Cheri Samba

There’s a ground in a burnt sienna color very nearly connecting them both, except for a path of moody blue water. The scale of the figures—the man in the blue suit fills about twice as much of the canvas as the other man—also communicates to us that there’s distance between them. Our view of the water ends as it comes to what looks like a grey stone wall, its edge jagged like the irregular coastlines of the two land masses on which the figures stand. With the rough wall, forming a barrier between the men, there’s further separation where connection seems more natural.

The man in the blue suit is seated on a grassy green surface. Above and behind him, we see the outline of the continent of Africa, filled in with the same fertile green, composed of many short marks, as blades of grass in a field. The artist has laid a symbol onto the map, and because of its shape and function we’d expect this to be an “x”–only one arm of this symbol is significantly longer than the others, so the shape more closely resembles a cross.

Samba’s painting offers a biting satire of hypocrisy and greed, in a scene reflecting on corrupt leadership and rapacious opportunism. Judging by the work’s title, The Nineties, we imagine the artist is reflecting on a specific time period and likely responding to certain wrongs. That he painted this only in 1991 adds even more weightiness to the picture; it seems to be a dark vision of what he foresaw unfolding as much as a rebuke of events he had already witnessed.

Emblems of Encounter installation at Seattle Art Museum

In Emblems of Encounter, Samba’s thoughtful critique joins a group of objects that chart 500 years of the complex and difficult history of European-African interaction. Considering The Nineties, even without the specific narrative laid out, I’m reminded that our understanding of nuanced histories depends, to a large extent, on what side of the shore we stand as we perceive them.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Les Années 90 (The Nineties), 1991, Cheri Samba (Congolese, born 1956), acrylic on canvas, 59 x 77 x 1 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 93.81, © Cheri Samba. Les Années 90 (The Nineties) (detail). Salt cellar, ca. 1490-1530, Sapi culture, Sierra Leone, ivory, 6 3/4 x 3 5/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck, 68.30.
Art Behind the Badge

Life Beyond the Badge

The last time you visited SAM, did you have any idea that many of the Visitor Services Officers (VSOs) who protect the art in the museum are also visual artists themselves, as well as writers, musicians, and thespians? It’s true!

One former SAM VSO, Aaron Bourget, worked at SAM in 1996 and moved on to start his own photography and videography business that focuses on documenting artists. Last year, Aaron made a documentary on the guards and working artists who protect SAM’s art collection called Art of the Guardin’ Variety.

According to the film’s Vimeo page, it is “an informal portrait of the working artist and a glimpse of the talent behind the badge.” It watches like a love letter to Aaron’s time working behind the scenes of the museum, and to those who continue protecting it today. In it, he interviewed many current VSOs about what the experience is like working in a museum while artists themselves.

Artist Vaughn Meekins

Vaughn Meekins, a textile artist and six-year veteran of SAM, affirms that no one spends as much time with the art as those hired to guard it.

“You come to this job because you have a passion for art, and you want community in some regard,” Meekins said in his interview for the film. “I’m an artist, whether I’m doing security, or cooking food in the kitchen, to me it’s all art.”

Artist Rebecca Bush

Rebecca Bush, a VSO at the Asian Art Museum since 2009 who creates multimedia paintings, shares the same sentiment.

“Lots of people expect that we’re here to say ‘don’t touch!’ But when you’re approachable, it can be a great experience for the visitors,” Bush said. “I like working here as an artist because I like being in the presence of art, and seeing people enjoying art. As an artist, it’s fulfilling to see people do so.”

To get even more insight into the lives of the artists who guard the art, watch Art of the Guardin’ Variety at: https://vimeo.com/101584343.

Dawn Quinn, SAM Copywriter

Photos: Natali Wiseman
Head of a Woman

Object of the Week: Head of a Woman

Our mission statement here—“SAM connects art to life”—truly guides much of our work and many of the decisions our leadership team makes. We see art as a response to life and as something that should be accessible to everyone in their different journeys. Believing our art is relevant, we want to show people how it’s relevant. It’s why we have a blog series where we talk about our collection objects!

In the museum space, we also connect art to art. When SAM expanded in 2007, the curators made a point of bringing their permanent collection displays together in thoughtful ways. We published a book at the time, called Bridging Cultures, which outlined the curators’ thinking. If art connects to life, and if all of us who share life are interconnected, then all art is somehow linked too. Finding those points of connection can be difficult. I love wandering our permanent collection galleries because these connections across people and across time become clearer and more meaningful to me.

Mexican American artist Emilio Amero was born in Ixtlahuaca in 1901. He trained at the Fine Arts School of San Carlos, and in 1924, he worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera on a mural project at the Ministry of Education Building in Mexico City. In 1955 Amero finally realized his own mural, not in his native Mexico, but in Norman, Oklahoma, where he had taken up a teaching post at the university about a decade earlier. He worked in a wide range of materials over his career, but his work in lithography was particularly significant. So, why are three Amero paintings, including this striking Head of a Woman, hanging in our gallery of Pacific Northwest Modernism, alongside works by Mark Tobey and Guy Anderson?

From 1941-1947, Amero brought his talents to Seattle. Invited to teach at the University of Washington on a Walker-Ames Fellowship, Amero established a reputation as a skilled artist and teacher. A 1942 advertisement for a print shop Amero ran quotes Walter F. Isaacs, then director of the School of Art at the University of Washington, who calls him “one of the most able and versatile art teachers in this country.” In 1943 Amero moved to the faculty at Cornish School of the Arts. For the school’s 30th year, opening of September that year, he served as director and instructor of painting, drawing, commercial and graphic arts—joined on the faculty, as he is today in our galleries, by Guy Anderson, who taught children’s art. Not to brag on us, but we have an important collection of Amero paintings that is a monument to his time here.

Amero Ad in Seattle Times

Like other notable artists working in Seattle at the time, many of whom grew up in the Pacific Northwest, Amero was geographically far from the forms of Modernism developing in New York. His vision was essentially different because it was rooted in Mexico. There, Modernism developed after the Social Revolution of 1910, as artists like Amero and Rivera shrugged off what had become an oppressive European influence, looking instead to ancient indigenous Mexican art. The heritage of Amero’s native Mexico inspired his form of Modernism much like the land and peoples of the Pacific Northwest inspired Tobey and Anderson.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Head of a Woman, 1947, Emilio Amero (Born Ixtlahuaca, Mexico, 1901; died Norman, Oklahoma, 1976), tempera on panel, 18 1/4 x 15 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 47.134, Photo: Natali Wiseman. Caption for ad: Seattle Daily Times, August 9, 1942, p. 30.
Seated figure with conch shell

Object of the Week: Seated Figure with Conch Shell

Some historic cultures have made learning about them easy for us by producing the things they did. The size and significance of their monuments or the influence of their visual art and literature make sure that these people are known and remembered. Other cultures have left a quieter presence that requires investigating, digging, researching, and lots of thinking about relatively few objects. To me, these cases are all the more amazing because they show us how much we can learn with only a little bit to go on.

SAM’s Seated figure with conch shell (ca. 300 B.C.–A.D. 400) hails from one of these materially quiet cultures: early Colima, in West Mexico. The state of Colima, with its capital city also called Colima, lies straight West of Mexico City, and its landscape is dominated by the Volcán de Colima—or the Volcán de Fuego—one of the most active volcanoes in Central America.

Scholars in Pre-Columbian (before Europeans arrived) Mesoamerica (a region and grouping of indigenous cultures in what is now southern Mexico and northern Central America) have learned much of what they know about cultures in West Mexico from figures like this one. Unlike other regions of Mexico that are visibly marked by Aztec temple complexes and monumental stone sculptures, West Mexico has left today’s art historians much smaller mementos. In Colima, specifically, ceramic figures are the most common form of material culture to survive. A lot of these were found in burial tombs, so they likely had a significant place in the Colima people’s vision of the afterlife.

In SAM’s figure, the forms are essentialized and rounded. The facial features are simple shapes: a long, angular nose; oval, protruding eyes with slits across the middle that look a lot like coffee beans. Triangular ears point outwards from the sides of his head. The circular holes at their centers seem primed for functional use; maybe he once donned a pair of colorful earrings? He has a small mouth with lips turned down slightly, suggesting the seriousness of his role. The figure’s coloring comes from a slip with red pigment applied to the figure by its maker, and the black spots are patina. The all-over smoothness was accomplished by rubbing a stone along the clay surface.

Seated figure with conch shell

The conch shell has special importance to our understanding of this figure and to early Colima, where shell trumpets would sound to mark special ceremonies and community events. The conch also seems to have symbolized wealth and status, and that might have developed from people associating it with these important happenings.

Oh, and that’s a big damn shell! It’s enormous compared to the figure. It matches the length of his torso and has significantly more volume. Why is it so big? Maybe the people in early Colima found really huge conch shells. Maybe the scale is meant to emphasize the importance of the conch shell in the life of the community, with its role extending from important moments in life to the eternity of death. I wonder, too, if the scale suggests something about the size of the figure, meaning that this was a small person—even a child? Personally, I like that reading because it fits with the figure’s relaxed, kind of undignified pose. Imagine he’s just learning to play his shell trumpet, and he’s the figure someone picks to accompany you to the afterlife!

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Seated figure with conch shell, ca. 300 B.C.-A.D. 400, Mexican, West Mexico, Colima, ceramic, 14 1/4 x 12 5/16 x 9 5/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 64.103, Photo: Natali Wiseman.