Object of the Week: Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup

Over the past several months, we have been rethinking how we present our historic collections of American art, and this has led us to consider some of the hidden histories behind some of our most iconic works. Take, for example, Raphaelle Peale’s Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup, a tiny jewel of a painting with some far-reaching tales to tell. Its subject—an arrangement of exquisite objects and mouthwatering fruit rendered so naturalistically to seem almost palpable—is outwardly straightforward and seemingly innocuous. That is, until you take a closer look.

Raphaelle Peale was one of the many artistic children of Charles Willson Peale, a formidable portrait painter and purveyor of knowledge famous for his many likenesses of George Washington. Peale-the-Elder had a vast collection of art, cultural artifacts, history, natural history, and prehistory (including, impossibly, a fossilized mastodon that he had taken upon himself to excavate from a Connecticut swamp), which he displayed in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall as America’s first museum. He had high aspirations for his talented son, so you can imagine how disappointed he was when the younger Peale opted for the modest and intimate practice of still life over the more prestigious and public pursuit of history painting.

Yet, while unobtrusive in both style and substance, Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup offers clues that Raphaelle Peale shared his father’s fascination with natural phenomena and the world’s cultures. Its heightened realism reflects the humanism and empiricist pursuit of reason associated with the Enlightenment in America and Europe, while its accumulated objects reaffirm the expanding global awareness of the early 19th century. A porcelain creamer from China shares pictorial space with a Celadon dish from Korea, and together they stage a cluster of strawberries of the type cultivated on the Peale family’s experimental farm. Presiding over the scene is an African ostrich egg in a mount made of Bolivian silver, an object that would have been considered rare and exotic and therefore highly collectible in America. Below is a related example from the museum’s silver collection.

The popularity of ostrich eggs in Peale’s time reflects a centuries-long history of worldwide cultural exchange, for the form itself is echoed in the egg-shaped ivory salt cellars such as this one carved in Sierra Leone for the Portuguese elite during the Renaissance period.

The human cost associated with the trade in exquisite objects and the extraction of the materials from which they were crafted adds an additional layer to our story, and it is one that we are actively exploring as we continue to study our collections of American painting and silver. We invite you to watch this space for more on that front, and join us as we shape a new vision for American art at SAM.   

– Theresa Papanikolas, SAM Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art

Images: Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup, 1814, Raphaelle Peale, oil on wood panel, 12 1/8 x 19 3/l6 in., Acquired in memory of Ruth J. Nutt with funds from the General Acquisition Fund; Bill and Melinda Gates Art Acquisition Fund; the Kendrick A. Schlatter Estate; an anonymous donor; Thomas W. Barwick; Susan Winokur and Paul Leach; American Art Acquisition Fund; Patricia Denny Art Acquisition Endowment; 19th  and 20th Century Purchase Fund; the Council of American Art; Geraldine Murphy; and from the following donors to the collection, by exchange: Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection; Estate of Mark Tobey; Estate of Earl Henry Gibson; Paul Denby Mackie in memory of Kathleen Lawler and Nona Lawler Mackie; Estate of Mrs. Reginald Marsh; Estate of Hollister T. Sprague; Mrs. John C. Atwood, Jr.; Norman and Amelia Davis Collection; Mrs. Brewer Boardman in memory of Mrs. Edward Lincoln Smith; Mr. and Mrs. Boyer Gonzales; Mrs. Frederick Hall White; Mr. and Mrs. George Lhamon; Ernest R. Norling; Mrs. Eugene Fuller; Milnor Roberts; Jane and David Soyer; Mrs. Reginald H. Parsons; Elizabeth Merriam Fitch and Lillian Fitch Rehbock; Mr. and Mrs. John H. Bolton; and Jacob Elshin, 2014.23Ostrich Egg Standing Cup, ca. 1790, John McMullin, ostrich egg and silver mount, height: approx. 10 in., Gift of Ruth J. Nutt, 2014.24.31. Salt cellar, ca. 1490-1530, Sierra Leone, ivory, 12 3/16 x 7 7/16 x 4 1/2 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.189.

Recognize & Reflect with Priya Frank

We don’t necessarily recognize the magnitude of an experience in the moment, until we get a chance to look back and realize how that experience or moment was pivotal in shaping how we see the world and ourselves in it. Having the opportunity to reflect on 2020 through this piece in the Seattle Times helped me recall what carried me through the past year.

There were some incredibly big moments, such as becoming the Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at SAM, but truly what carried me through the past year were the small moments. It was the simple gestures and findings that held space for me to breathe and discover untapped creativity as a coping mechanism, both for myself and for others in my community. Utilizing my passion to connect, convene, and build community took on a whole different meaning, as I needed to relearn how that would even translate in our new reality. 

I wondered how I would continue to center my values of joy and optimism during a time filled with so much pain, grief, and reckoning. But those glimmers of hope—whether it came from my amazing colleague Rayna who built the Little Purple Library at The Station in Beacon Hill, my neighbor Rosie who gave me hand sanitizer in mid-March (basically gold!), and my friends who all rallied to join a car parade for my Mom who turned 70—those are the moments and events that will shape the way that I live my life, do my work, and hold myself in gratitude to the community I have the privilege of being a part of, and in service to.

I hope that all everyone who has found inspiration in art or community in the Seattle Art Museum while they stayed home with SAM is able to reflect on the stress and intensity of the last year in order to identify and act on the positive things that will influence and uplift the future.

– Priya Frank, SAM Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Photo: Natali Wiseman

Object of the Week: Flower Ball

Almost one year ago, the Seattle Asian Art Museum reopened its landmark building after a three-year restoration and redesign. On the north side of the museum, curators and education staff collaboratively designed the Community Learning Gallery, which includes works from SAM’s collection, interactive stations, and art-making activities focused on storytelling. One corner of the room asks the question: “What are masks for?” Anchoring this space is the exuberant and expansive circular painting Flower Ball by Takashi Murakami, hung adjacent to masks from Nepal, Korea, Indonesia, and Japan, and a creative-making activity by Romson Regarde Bustillo.  

AAM Reopening Educator Preview

The Asian Art Museum opening weekend on February 8, 2020, welcomed more than 12,000 visitors in the first two weeks. One month later, we closed the museum in alignment with COVID-19 public safety recommendations. And, suddenly, the question on the Community Learning Gallery wall label: “What masks do you wear to disguise or protect yourself?” gained new and critical associations. 

Seen in person, Flower Ball is magical and disorienting. Murakami uses spatial recession to create the illusion of a three-dimensional sphere coming towards you in space. The 98 ½-inch diameter circle is covered in flower faces, each wearing the mask of an emotional expression like a smiley face emoji. Flowers are Murakami’s self-described icon and appear as a recurring image in his colorful pop art. Trained at the Toyko National Museum of Fine Arts and Music, Murakami developed a trademark aesthetic—dubbed “Superflat” by the artist—that brings together the contemporary cultural penchant for cuteness (kawaii), the two-dimensional composition of traditional Japanese paintings such as Nihonga, and the illustrative styles of anime (animation) and manga (comic books). 

AAm Reopening Celebration

When I imagine this painting hanging in the dark gallery of the closed museum, I picture each of the flower faces peacefully sleeping, eyes closed, a few mouths snoring, and the painting waiting patiently for us all to return. We hope to reopen the Asian Art Museum this spring, and as people come back to the gallery, I envision Murakami’s flower faces waking up in joy and smiling down at all the visitors who look back at them with their own masks on, everyone happily and safely reunited.

Bonus! You can find an art making activity in Chinese, Spanish, and English inspired by Flower Ball here.

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

Images: Installation view Asian Art Museum, 2019, photo: Jueqian Fang. Photo: Robert Wade. Flower Ball, 2002, Takashi Murakami, acrylic on canvas, diameter: 98 1/2 in., Gift of Richard and Elizabeth Hedreen, 2016.24.1 2002 © Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Photo: Jueqian Fang.

Object of the Week: Mask for Tengu

These days, people are wearing masks everywhere you look. Bandanas, medical paper masks, fashionable masks with elaborate designs, face shields—there are many ways to wear our masks while expressing ourselves. Me, I love my mask with sharp teeth on the front, for an extra bit of Halloween in December. SAM, too, has its fair share of masks, and one of my favorites in the collection is the Mask for tengu, a Japanese festival mask depicting the maliciously grinning face of a tengu.

Tengu are one of the more famous youkai, or mythical creatures, in Japanese lore. Depicted as bird-men either with beaks or long noses, they are figures of dangerous cleverness that will either teach you magical secrets or abduct and torment you. They have an array of abilities including fire and wind manipulation, flight, and otherworldly swordsmanship. They are said to live deep within the mountains and forests of Japan, and many shrines that worship tengu are similarly placed. Interestingly, these are one of the few youkai to have come about with Buddhism, as they often tempted Buddhist priests and posed as mountain ascetics in old tales.

The tengu mask in SAM’s collection is one that would have been worn during festival processions. Festivals in Japan are often lively and bright affairs with elaborate costumes and parades, with dancers balanced on floats. It’s likely that someone in the past wore this mask as they pretended to be a fearsome tengu, playfully frightening the children watching. It’s equally likely that in Japan today, someone is wearing another tengu mask and doing the same. There are tengu festivals held all over Japan, from Tengu Matsuri on Mt. Tengu in Hokkaido, to the Shimokitazawa Tengu Festival in Tokyo. While the tengu Matsuri is a more traditional affair, the Shimokitazawa festival is a modern take on setsubun, where beans are thrown to ward away evil. People dressed as tengu take to the streets, visiting shops and homes to throw their beans of evil’s bane to bring good luck and fortune.

Although SAM and the Asian Art Museum are temporarily closed, when they reopen, head on over to see the Mask for tengu on view. It, and many other masks and youkai-depicting items will be on display! In the meantime, everybody continue to mask up, and stay safe.

– Kennedy Simpson, Former SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art

Image: Mask for tengu, 18th-19th century, Japanese, wood and brass, 10 1/8 x 7 1/2 x 13 1/2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 45.104

Object of The Week: Coiled Basket

“The earth is our first teacher.”

–Vi Hilbert (1918-2008), Upper Skagit elder, storyteller, and language expert

‘Tis the season of thanks-giving and, as we acknowledge the suffering and bewilderment of our time, we also recognize the importance of gratitude for our families and friends, and for Mother Earth. According to Indigenous philosophies, Earth is the First Teacher. From her body come the gifts of food and medicine that nourish our bodies and souls. Many Native practices, old and ongoing, like the First Foods ceremony and the Salmon ceremony, celebrate these gifts and teachings of gratitude and giving. For generations, Coast Salish Peoples have respectfully shaped wild spaces and harvested the natural materials and foods of the Pacific landscape and waters, practices that renew their living link with the land.

Puget Sound Native Peoples make many kinds of baskets—the materials, shape, and technique used are determined by their purposes—which were critical to the gathering, storage, and preparation of roots, bulbs, berries, shellfish, and other traditional foods. Moving across the foodscape during the seasons, elders impart knowledge to younger generations, thus perpetuating Indigenous memory.

Worn with a strap around the neck or attached to a belt to keep hands free to collect, this well-used berry basket is of a practical size for children to harvest fruit from the bush. Such coiled baskets are created by coiling a foundation material, like split roots, then piercing the coils with an awl and stitching them together with another material. Nimble fingers wove sturdy cedar roots to create the body of this basket. The decorative elements—a checkerboard pattern arranged in large diamond shapes—are overlapped with beargrass (yellow color) and horsetail root (dark color). Basket makers have an intimate connection to nature, knowing where and when to gather and just how much material to take so that the plant can continue to thrive.

“. . .promoting the visibility of traditions, and culture, and history is the work of decolonizing.”            

   – Valerie Segrest, tribal foods educator and coordinator of the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project[1]

The provenance of this basket sheds light on the colonial history that suppressed Native traditions and culture. Although the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott guaranteed rights to continue customary practices of hunting, fishing, and harvesting, central Puget Sound tribes were denied access to such resources. Through unabated resistance, tribes have regained some of these rights in modern court cases.

This Muckleshoot basket was one of many Native artworks acquired by James Wickersham (in 1899), a member of the Washington State House of Representatives and, later, Territorial Governor of Alaska. Settlers and officials availed themselves—through purchase and confiscation—of “Indian relics” in the belief that such items, and the people themselves, would disappear. However, baskets continued to be made and used traditionally; enterprising Native women created a new genre of basket to sell to outsiders, forging an outlet to experiment with new shapes and sizes, as well as to financially support their families.

The right of a community to define its diet and shape its food system—known as “food sovereignty”—is at the heart of tribal sovereignty, according to Valerie Segrest (who you can watch talk about the topic here). Programs such as the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project revive ancient relationships to the land and to food, promote the healthy cultivation and consuming of Indigenous foods, and advocate for environmental action to nurture and protect food sources.

“When we take better care of our land, we are taking better care of ourselves.”                        

Valerie Segrest

Berries are important Indigenous foods and are high in nutrition and medicine. Many types of berries inhabit our coastal and mountain landscapes, including elderberry, huckleberry, blackcap raspberry, cranberry, salal, salmonberry, service berry, soapberry, thimbleberry, wild blackberry, wild strawberry, and wild cherry. Berries are used in salad, pemmican, fruit leathers, as a sauce for venison, teas, and soup. Huckleberries are much desired by the elders because they are sweet but don’t elevate blood sugar and are rich in antioxidants. For other locally sourced foods, you can visit this website.

Try Valerie Segrest’s mountain huckleberry pie recipe

  • 2 pie shells (basic pie crust recipe or store bought)
  • 5 cups of huckleberries
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 4 tablespoons tapioca or 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • Juice of half a lemon (optional)

Mix all the ingredients together and pour into the bottom pie shell and top with the second pie shell. Snip any excess off of the edge of the top pie shell and then crimp the entire edge with a fork. Don’t forget to cut a few slits in the top to allow the steam to escape. Put the pie into a 350° oven for 35-40 minutes. When the huckleberry filling is bubbling through slightly and the crust looks golden brown, the pie is ready. Allow the pie to cool completely before serving.

– Barbara Brotherton, SAM Curator of Native American Art

Images: Coiled basket, 19th century, Muckleshoot, coiled cedar root; imbricated with bear grass, horsetail root, and leather, 5 1/2 x 6 3/4 in., Gift of the Native American and Oceanic Arts Council and friends in memory of John Putnam, 2001.1048. Edward S. Curtis, Puget Sound Baskets, 1912, photogravure. Northwestern University Digital Library Collections. http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/curtis/info.cgi?id=nai.09.port.00000018.p. Muckleshoot tribe’s Valerie Segrest’s fresh huckleberry pie, photo courtesy of Valerie Segrest.
[1] Valerie Segrest is a nutrition educator focusing on indigenous foods. She received a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition from Bastyr University and a Masters in Environment and Community from Antioch University. She is an enrolled member of the Muckleshoot Indian tribe and serves as coordinator of the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project and is also an instructor for the Northwest Indian College’s Traditional Pants Program. With Elise Krohn, Segrest is the co-author of the book Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit: Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture.

SAM Creates: Wishing You a Happy Diwali!

Family festivals at the Seattle Asian Art Museum connect families with performances, art activities, and other programming related to SAM’s Asian art collection. While our Asian Art Museum remains closed, families at home can make art and learn more about Asian art, as well as our wonderful community partners.

Diwali is the Indian festival of lights, celebrated by many people throughout South Asia, as well as in Seattle. For the past 10 years, in collaboration with our community partner, Junior Asha, SAM has organized a Diwali celebration for families held at the Seattle Asian Art Museum each November. Junior Asha is the youth chapter of the Asha for Education – Seattle Chapter. Asha is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to bringing about socio-economic change in India primarily through education. In addition to raising funds for education, Junior Asha members also support the local community by volunteering at events such as the Diwali Family Festival at the Asian Art Museum. 

Free First Saturday, Diwali Family Festival, Asian Art Museum

Each year members of Junior Asha have dedicated their time to creating programming for the festival. This has included dance performances showcasing different types of Indian dance. Festivities performed by members of Junior Asha. One component that has remained constant across many celebrations is the youth and Tiny Tots fashion show led by Junior Asha. Members also spent time in the months leading up to the event learning about the art on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum and working with SAM docents to create their own My Favorite Things tour of the museum. Members presented their tours at the Diwali Family Festival sharing their own unique opinions on artwork with the community. 

Although we won’t be gathering in person this year, we’re happy to highlight our incredible partnership with Junior Asha and to share an art activity from last year’s Diwali Family Festival for families to create at home. We’re looking forward to once again gathering together in celebration in the future.

Free First Saturday, Diwali Family Festival, Asian Art Museum

ART ACTIVITY: LUMINOUS LANTERNS

For ages 6-10+

Add a bit of color and light as you celebrate Diwali from home! Design and decorate a paper lantern with cutouts, tissue paper, and more. You can then place a light source inside when it gets dark out and see your creation come to life. 

What You’ll Need

  • Construction paper or cardstock 
  • Pencil
  • Scissors 
  • Tape or washi tape
  • Hole punch, push pin, or X-acto knife (optional, requires adult assistance)
  • Tissue paper (optional)
  • Markers (optional)
  • Tea light candle or flameless LED candle (optional)
  1. Cut a piece of square construction paper in the shape of a plus-sign, with four equal sides surrounding a square in the middle. If your piece of construction paper is rectangular, you can make it a square by folding over a corner and cutting off the extra paper on the bottom.
  2. The middle of the plus-sign will be the bottom of your lantern, so you can leave that alone for now. With pencil, sketch out a design or pattern on each of the other four sides that you can easily cut out or trace later. This can be inspired by something you see in your home or an artwork in the Asian Art Museum.
  3. Using scissors, a hole punch, push pins, or an X-acto knife, cut out or trace the design that you created. You can bend the sides of the paper over and cut out symmetrical shapes using scissors. Remember to have a grownup help you if you are using push pins or an X-acto knife. If you like, you can tape pieces of tissue paper over the cutouts to add different colors to your lantern.
  4. You can turn your plus-sign around and add decorative tape or other designs in marker. Once you have finished with what you want to cut out and add, fold the four sides of the plus-sign up to create a box without a top. You can add more decorations by cutting out and folding smaller pieces of paper, then taping them on the sides.
  5. Once you’re happy with your lantern, wait until the sun sets and place a light source inside. How do the colors and shapes change when there’s a light inside? During Diwali, people put up many lights to celebrate the special day. You can make even more lanterns in different colors, shapes, and sizes too!

KEEP LEARNING WITH A STORY

Learn more about the lights, food, and festivities of Diwali in the book Binny’s Diwali by Thrity Umirgar, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani. You can follow along with a read aloud of the book, check it out through the King County Library System, or purchase it from a bookseller.

Yaoyao Liu, SAM Museum Educator

Photos: Jen Au

Two-Way Mirror: An Interview with Barbara Earl Thomas

Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence, which will be on view for a year at SAM, centers Black youth in a series of all-new artworks at once delicate and resilient. This Seattle-based artist uses cut-paper and glass portraits and transforms an entire gallery into a luminaria. A place for reflection, the works cut to the core of the fundamental values we assign to light and dark. The disarming expressions of children in Thomas’ portraits ask us to consider how we see each other and how we internalize and project innocence and guilt. Drawn from a community of family and friends, The Geography of Innocence celebrates young lives and their futures in full consciousness of the pervasive violence against Black children. SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Catharina Manchanda interview this important artist in anticipation of the upcoming exhibition. Tickets to visit the galleries will be available starting November 1!

Catharina Manchanda: Biblical narratives form the backdrop of many of your works, and you bring the symbolism of light and shadow to bear on the political situation in this country. What narratives do you explore in The Geography of Innocence?

Barbara Earl Thomas: It’s the two-way mirror through which I see the world. It’s narrated to me in my grandmother Phoebe’s voice with whom I often spent the weekends and summers; where at each exit to the bathroom, kitchen, or bedroom, she’d say, “I’ll be right back, God willing.” This set a tone for the temporality of each moment of this life as she moved through her day. Her God ruled every moment and was the reason for everything good. The devil, his dark wily opposite, was the root of all evil. She loved and admonished us in those terms. Everything was literal. When I misbehaved, the devil had gotten into me. This meant I was not quite responsible for my misdeeds, but in some moment of inattention, I’d let down my guard, and admitted the demon who caused me to climb that tree and fall out, or say some bad words to my cousins who were also full of devils. She reminded me that hell was paved with hot stones, filled with fire, and it came out of your eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. I saw this, clear as day. My grandfather admonished her because he knew by nightfall, I’d be so crazed with this idea of the devil, that instead of sleeping on the couch, I might have to sleep with them. These were some of my first stories heard, sung, and repeated. They formed the backdrop of beauty and mystery of my world.  

As a young person I was drawn to the oratorical language of the sermon and its talk of miracles and prophecy—none of which I’d seen. It was the music I listened to, the silences from the adults as I entered the room, and the ladies who prayed over me when I was sick. The ritual and the shape of sanctuary no matter the denomination—Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Lutheran and Evangelical—was all the same to me. I’d wander into Holy Names Cathedral just off Union Street, or accompany a friend to one of the many Pentecostal churches often set up in temporary store fronts, fleeting in their residence. During these services accompanied by full bands, there were people who sang as each member became possessed by a holy spirit. There were the Jewish people walking to synagogue on Saturday. All these places in my small world were little fires of community where deep emotion and imagination converged. There were stories, food, songs, candles, holy water, and scenes of strange happenings from some mythical past about some next world. 

I was intrigued by the language and cultural references around how we describe victims when we think and speak about the violence so prevalent in our country. There is something of heaven and hell to this: violence spirals down from police shootings of young Black men, to nightclub massacres, to random sniper killings of the oldest and then to the youngest among us, our children. I thought, this is where it will stop, with the children. Certainly every adult will draw the line when it comes to the wholesale slaughter of children. Sadly, that was not the case, but what emerged for me from the myriad mass shootings—with Sandy Hook most notably—was the language around sympathy, guilt, and innocence. In thinking about why we as adults couldn’t put children first, I was drawn to studies that demonstrated how we, as a culture, see our children. Here young Black children are seen as less innocent and, therefore, less worthy of public grief than white children.

My ideas for this exhibit surfaced after several readings of Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows and a subsequent re-reading of a mid-1980’s James Hillman essay, Notes on White Supremacy. Prescient in its content, Hillman explores the deep-seated world of mythology around the concepts of light and dark, black and white. As I’d read the essay so long ago, I’d forgotten Hillman’s reference to Tanizaki’s book. It was a happy connection. Both the book and essay deal with how deeply imprinted our associations with language and its usage of the words and concepts are associated with darkness and light. From guilt to innocence they hold a deep well of our associated fears of the unclean and besmirched. Conversely, we associate light and white with all that is pure, clear, clean, and, therefore, innocent and unblemished.

Light and dark. Light and shadow. What is seen and unseen. What is clear and what is mystery—these kinds of experiences are part of my story in addition to my formal education. This is the base that provided the vocabulary and shaped my narrative of the world. As a Black person, I can’t help but see myself in the landscape and imagine how others might experience me based on how I appear to them. I search myself to see how I react to and employ my thoughts and opinions, because aside from being Black I’m also human and subject to the world’s influences.

In this new body of work, I use multiple images of Black children: bold, frontal, and almost life size, so that their faces engage the viewer. In my cuts, I explore youth and its innocence imprinted in and on the subjects’ expressions. I purposefully insist on this particular view and stance because it’s not the one most given to us often in the media or popular culture. The backgrounds may hold contrasting stories that compete with the figures and their stance—the push and pull of the opposites; the yin and yang.

CM: Elsewhere you noted: “I create stories from the apocalypse we live in now and narrate how life goes on in the midst of chaos.” This statement is acutely felt right now—can you talk about it in relationship to the work that will be on view at SAM?

BET: As a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, now as then, there was much ado and action around issues of inequity. The utopian movements that sprang up were numerous. Like formal religion, these communities and/or cults were created as foils to the many disasters life holds. We are afraid and terrified; there is nothing new in that. We construct magic circles and ritual movements to distract and protect ourselves from floods, storms, fires, famines, diseases and yes, now plagues. It is my observations and my experiences that interest me, so like a good witness I note, record, and echo back to my viewer my literal experience of the world through visual stories.

CM: You call yourself “artist, writer, thinker.” We also know that you are an engaged reader. How does your reading and writing practice inform your visual work?

BET: Reading is life. As an active reader I’ve always used literature and all of my reading to inform my world.  I read and write to get at truth and to clarify my own thought process. It’s easy for me to talk about my thoughts and correct or rephrase as I go. There is something about being in a room and engaging in a conversation that can make even confused thought processes sound plausible. But when I write I am forced to create clear sentences and connect thoughts and see if they hold water. When I read, I’m looking for the rigor and willingness in the author to think things all the way through. Writers like James Baldwin, August Wilson, and John Edgar Widman are American writers who do that for me. Poets like Pablo Neruda and Rilke capture truth in a nonlinear image condensed. Most recently, I’ve been reading Colin Thurbron’s travel writing, Pico Iyer, and rereading Robert D. Kaplan. I love good travel writing as it is a way to see the world through others’ eyes and be in other parts of this world without traveling. What all these authors share is clear thinking and hard truth telling, which is something I demand of myself in my own work.

CM: You are making a lot of new work for the exhibition, which include different kinds of processes. Would you tell us about the use of the negative space in your paper cuts (you say you draw with the knife!) compared to the wall hangings?

BET: The negative space allows the light to shine in contrast. It heightens the experience. When paired with the positive it creates shadows and mystery. The concept demonstrates that both are needed to create the particular magic that is this story. Both positive and negative space are needed to create a world that exists as sculpture in the round—one that is not flat or one-dimensional. Both are needed to create the emotional response that I seek. When people are surrounded, they are forced to surrender their senses for a moment. 

CM: You are pairing your cut paper works with illuminated glass panels for the installation at SAM, what prompted you to pair these in the two adjacent galleries?

BET: I think of this exhibition as one installation made up of several parts. Each separate element has its role in the installation of the paper-cut portraits. Most of the figures are inspired by children of friends and neighbors, some are random portraits I’ve found. All are chosen because there is a way for me to show the part that I think is missing in many of our depictions of the innocence that lives in and marks the dark face of a child. I’m creating a space that holds the viewer in light and shadow to demonstrate something about illusion and how our imagination creates the monsters in the shadows even when there is nothing there. In this case I’m cutting the beautiful from the darkness and placing viewers in the shadows to make them a part of the world they observe. The portraits are cast as precious objects, surrounded by what feels like sacred objects—my candelabras.  The hand-cut wallpaper is designed to create fountains of movement as the viewer is invited to the suspended centerpiece, Bodies in the Matrix.

Images: Siblings, 2020, Barbara Earl Thomas, American, cut paper and hand-printed color backing, 40 x 26 in., Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, photo: Spike Mafford. Color Wheel, 2020, Barbara Earl Thomas, American, cut paper and hand-printed color backing, 40 x 26 in., Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, photo: Spike Mafford.

Object of the Week: K’ómoks Imperial Stormtrooper

I would like to acknowledge that the museum sits on the Indigenous land of the Coast Salish People in and around the city of dᶻidᶻəlalič (renamed Seattle for Chief siʔaɫ).

My work is a response to the ways in which photography has been used as a mechanism of colonization. Decolonizing photography for the use of American Indians has to occur through the articulation of a Native representational subjectivity. In the place of colonizing representation, I want to produce images and sensory experiences that convey representation of, by, and for American Indians.

– Will Wilson

Since 2012, Will Wilson has put cultural sovereignty at the root of image-making events he calls the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX). The thousands of images created over the course of this project now comprise the largest Indigenous created archive of images of Native peoples. These photo sessions—in which Wilson uses an old wet-plate technology to produce tintypes—are held in tribal communities and at urban institutions such as museums. Wilson’s CIPX event at the Seattle Art Museum, which took place in November 2017, centered on capturing the rich complexity of Native peoples living in the environs of Seattle, members of local reservation-based tribes, and “urban Indians” who came to Seattle from other places. Wilson invites anyone who wants to be photographed to present themselves however they want—wearing what they choose, holding objects that are important to them, and posing to their liking. As part of the exchange, he gives the tintype to the sitter while asking for permission to digitize the image for use in large-scale prints, like the work in SAM’s collection, K’ómoks Imperial Stormtrooper (Andy Everson). It is an amazing process to witness and reminds us that, for those who take authority over the processes of representation, methodologies and interpersonal exchanges matter.1

The sitter in this portrait is K’ómoks First Nation’s artist Andy Everson. His recent work draws from his two passions: Indigenous art and Star Wars. He transformed the stormtrooper into a positive figure by doing away with the uniform’s whiteness and covering it with formline designs. Everson wanted to change the stormtrooper from someone who blindly follows instructions from his higher-ups to someone who is able to take action for himself and for his own people. And so began this idea of the West Coast warrior, a defender of the land.2

Chilkat weavers were the inspiration for Everson when he created the Northern Warrior (2015), with its distinctive yellow, blue, white, and black colors. He also replaced the stormtrooper’s helmet with a traditional conical hat, made out of maple wood that his ancestors in Alaska would have worn.3 Many of his ancestors were warriors, and when their territory was threatened they did not hesitate to defend themselves. When they entered battle, they wore slatted armor suits and hard wooden helmets carved with their crest, proudly representing their ancestral lineage. The hat on this helmet displays the Kwakwaka’wakw crest of the sisiyutł—the double-headed serpent. This symbol of the warrior reminds us of the dichotomies in life—good and evil, right and wrong—and puts a human face in the middle to teach us that we must choose where we stand.4

Everson’s stormtroopers tell a story to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples about the importance of a warrior spirit. The works speak to the histories of Indigenous resistance and defiance in opposition to colonizing forces, and the importance of remaining steadfast in the face of adaptation and change.5 Like Wilson’s CIPX series, Everson’s stormtroopers draw people in with its familiar figure and invite people to engage with an art form, perhaps unfamiliar to some, that ultimately fosters a new kind of cultural exchange.

Speaking of stormtroopers, don’t miss the premiere of The Mandalorian season two on October 30. Will we find out Baby Yoda’s origin? Are there more of them? I hope so, and I hope you all have a safe and happy Halloween!

“I would like to see the baby.” – The Client, The Mandalorian

– Tina Lee, SAM Exhibitions and Publications Manager

Images: K’ómoks Imperial Stormtrooper (Andy Everson), Citizen of the K’ómoks First Nation, from the series Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange: dᶻidᶻəlalič, 2017, printed 2019, Will Wilson, archival pigment print
56 1/4 × 44 1/4 in., Ancient and Native American Art Acquisition Fund, 2019.26.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Northern Warrior, 2015, Andy Everson, edition 99, giclée, image source: andyeverson.com. Image courtesy of Pixabay.
[1] Brotherton, Barbara. “New Archives of Indigenous Self-Representation.” In Double Exposure: Edward S. Curtis, Marianne Nicolson, Tracy Rector, Will Wilson, 22–26. Seattle Art Museum, 2018.
[2] The Huffington Post B.C. “Andy Everson’s Stormtrooper Acts as Modern First Nations Warrior.” Accessed October 27, 2020, https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/07/24/andy-everson-stormtrooper-first-nations_n_5618449.html
[3] Baluja, Tamara. “Star Wars characters get Indigenized by Comox First Nation artist.” Accessed October 27, 2020.https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/star-wars-indigenized-andy-everson-1.4463320
[4] Everson, Andy. “Northern Warrior.” Artwork by Andy Everson. Accessed October 27, 2020. http://www.andyeverson.com/2014/northern_warrior.html
[5] Avdeeff, Melissa. “Andy Everson: Resistance and Defiance in Indigenous Digital Art.” Accessed October 27, 2020. http://mediacommons.org/imr/content/andy-everson-resistance-and-defiance-indigenous-digital-art

In Honor of 25 Years of Dia de los Muertos at SAM

In 1995 Carlos Contreras, an artist and staff member at the Seattle Art Museum invited Fulgencio Lazo to create a tapete to accompany his traditional altar for Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. What began 25 years ago as an effort to share a Oaxacan-style installation made from sand and pigments (a tapete) in Seattle turned out to be a much-revered tradition at the Seattle Art Museum, spreading throughout the city and beyond.

Unfortunately due to COVID-19, we are not able to have a tapete nor gather in person at SAM for the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration to pay homage to those whom we have lost, in a way that feels so very personal to all of us in 2020.  There is no replacing this in-person experience, but we want to mark this 25th anniversary to reflect and honor our partnership through a series of photos tracing back to 1995. We also want to recognize, with deep gratitude, the many, many hands that have prepared the tapete each year with so much care and love. To work with artist Fulgencio Lazo and Erin Fanning has been a lesson in what true and authentic community building looks like, and we are overwhelmed by their generosity of heart and talent.

Lazo and Fanning express that remembering those who have passed away “. . . gives us strength in 2020, a year of monumental loss for so many around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands within the United States alone, disproportionately affecting Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. This pandemic, coupled with the continuing humanitarian crisis at our southern border and the ongoing police violence directed at our African American siblings, has resulted in so many unnecessary deaths. The toll of all this loss is overwhelming and can cause numbness. In the face of this, we look to Day of the Dead for solace, to remember those who have passed away. It is our hope that we can remember our dead, celebrate their lives and gather our collective strength.”        

This beautiful installation launched a partnership with Lazo and his wife, Erin Fanning, that has continued for the past 24 years, inviting thousands of visitors to experience these remarkable pieces and what they represent.

2011 at the Olympic Sculpture Park

Dia de los Muertos is a time to remember and honor those who have passed away. It is believed that the spirits of the dead return to visit with their living family. Through Day of the Dead, we express a myriad of conflicting emotions: fear, love, mourning, joy, beauty, and anger, among others. These powerful personal emotions are brought to a very public space in the Seattle Art Museum’s annual installations. And with great skill, experience, and an extraordinary sense of artistic vision, Lazo seemingly effortlessly, creates art that engages.

Dia de los Muertos 2018. Photo: Robert Wade

Each October during the last few years, artist Fulgencio Lazo and his team of collaborators have crisscrossed Washington State, making scores of sand paintings—some years using as much as two tons of sand!

Lazo has been a full-time, professional artist for 30 years, working predominantly in acrylic on canvas and printmaking in his studios in Seattle and in his hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico. He often incorporates wooden sculptures within the tapetes.

This installation from 2015, depicting a boat full of women textile workers and weavers, was dedicated to the thousands of men, women and children who have died while attempting to immigrate. Throughout the years, Lazo has worked closely with (from right to left) Jesús Mena, José Orantes, Víctor y Mirtha González and Amaranta Ibarra (not pictured above).

Additionally, hundreds of young people have participated in the making of the tapetes. Community volunteers, as young as three and four years old, have molded the sand and applied pigments. Over the years, thousands have helped to make this celebration their own. The communal spirit of the tapete and the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration is truly palpable.

In his own practice as an artist, Lazo aims to create warm, vibrant, whimsical images that celebrate family and community. His artwork depicts elements characteristic of his Oaxacan and Mexican heritage, like masks and human figures in an exploration of themes of identity.  Color and graceful lines evoking free movement are ever-present in his pieces, bringing joy to the viewer.

Lazo explains “I paint musical instruments, unicycles, birds, children’s toys, flowers, buttons and other elements of everyday life to create a sense of community and playfulness. Whether at a wedding, at an outdoor market, or on the street corner where neighbors gather, these shared experiences strengthen and define a culture. I take these experiences in and with my brush I try to synthesize them, thus rendering them universal. Using iconographic motifs and symbolic representations, I strive to recreate and celebrate the life cycle of my Zapotec indigenous heritage. In a tangible way I express the resilience of my own identity. With joy, through color and synthesis, I show the possibilities for any who care to embark on this path.”

– Priya Frank, SAM Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion & Erin Fanning, Community Collaborator

Photo: Mia McNeal. Photo: Robert Wade. Photos courtesy Erin Fanning.

Sculpture Park Summers Are For Conservation

Perched on a hillside overlooking the watery expanse of Elliott Bay, the Olympic Sculpture Park is a welcoming, art-filled green space. Free and open to the public year-round, the park plays host to visitors in every season. Because of its exposed, marine location, the sculptures that live at the park are subject to deterioration from both environmental and human causes. We take good care of the sculptures, cleaning and tending them year-round, but with Seattle’s rainy winters, summer is the window in which conservation maintenance and treatments can be carried out. Despite the pandemic, this summer was no exception as without maintenance, deterioration both structural and aesthetic quickly compromises the sculptures and installations. 

If you visited the sculpture park this summer, you probably noticed the massive white tent covering Alexander Calder’s The Eagle. The distinctive red paint coating Calder’s soaring, swooping sculpture had deteriorated and needed repainting. Thanks to a generous grant from Bank of America, The Eagle received new primers and a new coat of red paint. It looks amazing! Due to a multi-year collaboration between art conservators, the artist’s estates, coatings scientists, industrial paint manufacturers and industrial painters and advances in polymer technology, the new coating will be more durable than the previous one while still maintaining the color, saturation and low gloss finish of the original paint.

Echo by Jaume Plensa sits near the shoreline and can be seen from some of the ferries that cross Elliott Bay. Made from marble dust and polyester resin over a steel framework, Echo’s off-white exterior becomes discolored throughout the year. Not only distracting from the beauty of the sculpture, this soiling, for which we can partially thank the feathered friend pictured above, speeds the deterioration of the artwork. To protect Echo, SAM conservators cleaned her and applied a sacrificial coating. As the sculpture is over 45 feet tall, this was no small feat!

Offering visitors an opportunity to pause and shelter from the sun or rain, Seattle Cloud Cover by Teresita Fernández is a series of laminated glass panels encasing abstract, color-saturated photographs. Attached to the bridge over the railroad tracks that cross under the park, its glass panels needed cleaning. Using long-handled brushes, dirt, dust and other debris were carefully cleaned from the top and pedestrian-facing panels. Additionally, caulk used in the brackets holding the glass panels was scraped out and replaced. Caulk shrinks and swells with changes in humidity and deteriorates due to age and weather exposure.

Mark Di Suvero’s Schubert Sonata, a ribbon of twisting steel that rotates on a single, carefully balanced point, is sited near the Olympic Sculpture Park shoreline. With its proximity to Puget Sound, chlorides (naturally occurring salts present in the air near bodies of water) are a concern. These chlorides cause aggressive, rapid corrosion of uncoated steel and other metals such as bronze. To address this issue, while maintaining the raw steel aesthetic of the artist, a corrosion inhibiting protectant was applied. Invisible to the eye, this coating will extend the sculpture’s lifespan.

These projects are just a sampling of the conservation treatments completed over the last few months. Other conservation treatments included cleaning and coating bronze sculptures and addressing loses in painted surfaces to prevent corrosion. In addition to these projects, members of the SAM conservation team are regularly onsite at the park to make sure that each sculpture is looking its best. Before the rainy, short days of our northwest winter drive us all indoors, get yourself to the Olympic Sculpture Park to enjoy the stunning artwork and expansive views.

– Rachel Harris, Asian Art Conservation Center Associate

Images: The Eagle, 1971, Alexander Calder, painted steel, 465 x 390 x 390 in., Gift of Jon and Mary Shirley, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2000.69 © Calder Foundation/Artist’s Rights Society, NY. Many thanks to Diamond Painting LLC for their work on the Eagle repainting project. Echo, 2011, Jaume Plensa, Spanish, Born 1955, Polyester resin, marble dust, steel framework, Height: 45 ft. 11 in., footprint at base: 10 ft. 8 in. x 7 ft. 1 in., gross weight: 13,118 lb, Gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2013.22 © Jaume Plensa. Seattle Cloud Cover, Design Approved 2004; Fabrication Completed 2006, Teresita Fernández, American, Born 1968, 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. Schubert Sonata, 1992, Mark Di Suvero, American, Born 1933, Painted and unpainted steel, Height: 22 ft., Gift of Jon and Mary Shirley, The Virginia Wright Fund, and Bagley Wright, 95.81. © Mark di Suvero.

SAM Receives Major Gifts from The Friday Foundation

Today, the Friday Foundation announced a critical infusion of over $9 million in philanthropist gifts to nine organizations in the Seattle arts community. The Seattle Times reported the good news.

The gifts are created to honor the lives and legacies of the late Jane Lang Davis and Richard E. Lang, who were inspired collectors and supporters of the arts. The Seattle Art Museum is among the recipients of the Friday Foundation’s generosity with two incredible gifts, one of which responds to the current moment, and the other which looks to the future of the museum and its collection.

In April, the Friday Foundation gifted SAM $2 million for its Closure Relief Fund, which was initiated in late March after the museum closed its three sites: the Seattle Art Museum, the Seattle Asian Art Museum, and the PACCAR Pavilion at the Olympic Sculpture Park. The downtown museum has since reopened with new safety protocols in place, including limited capacity and hours, but the Asian Art Museum and PACCAR Pavilion both remain closed.

The Closure Relief Fund has supported all museum operations, including its dedicated staff, during the six months of closure, when all earned revenue was lost, fundraising events were canceled, and memberships declined. The Friday Foundation gift was the single largest gift to that fund, and it arrived at a crucial moment as the museum faced the crisis directly. This remarkably generous gift joins the hundreds of others to the Closure Relief Fund from SAM’s board, members, and friends, all of which have ensured the vibrancy and security of the museum both during and after the closure.

The Friday Foundation is also gifting SAM $2 million to fund the Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global Contemporary Art. This exciting new fund will enable SAM to continue its focus on bringing work by emerging artists from all over the world into its collection, to share with the entire community and create dialogue with the over 25,000 objects in its global collection. You’ll be hearing more about this fund, and the art it will bring to Seattle, in the years to come.

Amada Cruz, SAM’s Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO, expressed her gratitude: “These gifts are a shining example of what community support for art and art institutions looks like, and it reflects and furthers the incredible legacy of the Langs. The acquisitions endowment is particularly meaningful, as it will help shape the future of SAM’s collection. We are extremely grateful for the generosity of the Friday Foundation.”

Object of the Week: Broken Arrangement

“I kind of got a bit of an illicit thrill out of cutting them up.”

– Brian Jungen

Though first launched in 1984, a new pair of Air Jordan 1 sneakers still regularly fetches a price tag of $150-250. This past summer, a rare pair of Air Jordan 1 High sneakers worn by Michael Jordan in 1985 sold at auction for $615,000, no doubt propped up by the popularity of the recent Jordan docuseries, The Last Dance, which premiered during nationwide stay-at-home recommendations. The shoes have held their status and notoriety in basketball and sneakerhead culture for decades, so how does their status change when a contemporary artist cuts them apart?

Brian Jungen’s (Dane-Zaa, Canadian) sculptures are rendered from dismantled Nike sneakers and echo the ovoid shapes and abstracted figures prominent in the traditional Indigenous cultural designs of Northwest Coast peoples. Jungen gained wide recognition for his series, Prototypes for New Understanding (1998-2005), which presented reassembled sneakers as Northwest Coast-inspired masks. However, Broken Arrangement (2015-16) presents an even more abstracted form, fluid in what might be perceived from each angle: an open mouth, a staring eye, or perhaps a raised tail.

While attempting to decipher the shapes, what becomes unmistakable is the ubiquitous Nike “swoosh” logo that appears throughout the disassembled and rearranged sneakers. Jungen’s appropriation of Nike’s iconic shoe comments simultaneously on the widespread commodification and cultural cooptation in contemporary society. Not lost on the artist is Nike’s stature as a corporate icon headquartered in the Pacific Northwest, as well as its influence on global consumer culture and problematic history of exploitative labor practices. Jungen’s reassembly of Nike products and iconography into works reflecting Northwest Coast design is an act that confronts the value placed on Indigenous cultures and artworks by Western society—indeed a broken arrangement in its own right.

Jungen has expanded his exploration of the connections between sport and global economic systems. In 2004, Jungen created the enormous installation Court, a full-length basketball court comprised satirically, and somewhat precariously, of sewing machine tables that evoke the scope and scale of sweatshop labor. More recently, Jungen has considered connections between the basketball court, community, and ritual. Just last year he installed new work against the backdrop of a basketball court during the exhibition Brian Jungen: Friendship Centre, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, not necessarily as critique, but as a “. . . site of, you know, incredible pain for people who you know weren’t involved or interested in sports. But it’s also a place for a lot of First Nations people that is a site of ceremony, especially for gatherings and dancing . . . So that’s kind of what how that started—and I wanted to create a space in a museum that seemed a bit more kind of welcoming, or a place that possibly a lot of youth could identify with.”[1]

As with all things, professional basketball looked different in 2020. In the past few weeks, fans watched as the Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Lakers won the 2020 WNBA and NBA championship titles, respectively. The teams and players slogged through a condensed summer of play in the “bubble” on three basketball courts at Disney properties in Orlando, Florida. Daily COVID-19 tests, wristband tracking devices, no fans, and limited contact with family members resulted in zero positive cases during the season. Remarkably, it worked. That’s not to say the season, both in basketball and in America, was without struggle and anger directed at racial injustice and police violence across the country.[2] Players boycotted, made actionable demands of league management and government officials, and used their international platforms to call attention to crises happening in communities across the country. The NBA is a multibillion-dollar global industry, yet the players challenged each other to reconfigure the bubble and their sport’s stature within popular culture to deliver a powerful message for people watching amidst a global pandemic and social upheaval.

As Jungen articulates, “sport fulfills the very basic human need for ceremony, and that used to take place in many different cultures on a much smaller scale, very locally. Now I think that takes place with mass media and professional sports for a lot of people.”[3] Broken Arrangement is about much more than basketball and sneakers, of course. Jungen’s sculpture challenges knowledge and perceptions of Indigenous art and artistry through popular culture’s reverence for mass produced objects. Ripped apart and transformed into an entirely new object, the source material is simultaneously familiar and difficult to decipher in its final form. We’re trying to make sense of a lot of broken things right now, and one can only hope that they will become as beautiful and meaningful as Jungen’s arrangement.

– Philip Nadasdy, SAM Associate Director of Public Engagement

[1]  CBC Radio, As It Happens, “How this B.C. artist uses sliced up Air Jordans to connect with his Indigenous roots,” June 19, 2019, www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-wednesday-edition-1.5181432/how-this-b-c-artist-uses-sliced-up-air-jordans-to-connect-with-his-indigenous-roots-1.5181452.
[2] Sean Ingle, “NBA will return but anger still burns after historic stand on racial injustice,” The Guardian, August 27, 2020, www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/aug/27/nba-takes-historic-stand-on-racial-injustice-milwaukee-bucks-jacob-blake-shooting.
[3] Donnovan Bennett, “Q&A: The intersection of sports and art from an Indigenous perspective,” Sportsnet, October 10, 2019, www.sportsnet.ca/basketball/nba/qa-intersection-sports-art-indigenous-perspective.
Images: Broken Arrangement, 2015-16, Brian Jungen, Nike Air Jordans, painted fir plywood, stainless steel, 20 x 14 x 21 1/2 in., Margaret Fuller Purchase Endowment, 2016.4 © Brian Jungen. Court, 2004, Brian Jungen, sewing tables, painted steel, paint, basketball hoops and backboards, National Gallery of Canada. Friendship Centre (detail), Brian Jungen, June 20 – August 25, 2019, Art Gallery of Ontario.

Object of the Week: Mercedes Benz Coffin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping the Art Safe at the Asian Art Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Rachel Harris, Asian Art Conservation Center Associate

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

Object of the Week: Story Scroll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Northwest Annual Exhibition & Seattle Art Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Brynn Strader, Intern, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library

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

Object of the Week: War

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

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

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

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

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

– Genevieve Hulley, SAM Curatorial Intern, American Art

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

The International Exhibition of Northwest Printmakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Brynn Zalmanek, Intern, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library

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

Object of the Week: Mandala: Zone of Zero

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

– Kimsooja

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virtual Tour with Susan Kegel

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

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

You can try this at home. What repeats?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Susan Kegel, SAM Docent

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

Object of the Week: Portrait Drawing of Gwendolyn Knight

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

Henry Bannarn, c. 1937

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

The Family, 1955, Charles Henry Alston
 

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

The Studio, 1977, Jacob Lawrence

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

Gwendolyn Knight, 1934-35, Augusta Savage

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

Genevieve Hulley, SAM Curatorial Intern, American Art

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

SAM Performs: Trapsprung Dances

In Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Trapsprung, a dancer reaches to the tip of their outstretched leg while balancing perfectly on the toes of their other leg. In Interview Magazine, the artist describes being drawn to “the very kind of visceral physical power and grace of dancers, and their occasional closeness to losing control.”

A split second before or after the moment in this painting, and the dancer’s balance will shift into another movement. Here, though, the dancer’s strength and poise are captured in an instant, while Yiadom-Boakye’s brushwork evokes the energy of the movement. Painted from memory and imagination, Yiadom-Boakye features portraits of Black people exclusively, creating images that explore “the wider possibility of anything and everything.” In the current socio-political climate, David Rue, Public Engagement Associate at SAM, initiated a project that celebrates and elevates incredible Black artists living and working in the city of Seattle through connecting them with this work by a prominent Black artist in SAM’s collection. Local artists Amanda Morgan, Michele Dooley, and Nia-Amina Minor, responded to Trapsprung in brief, personal dance works, and offered reflections on the artwork and their lived experiences.

It’s easy to assume that each and every work made by Black artists living right now will only be about police brutality, slavery, or protest. Plot twist! While these are important conversations to be had, it’s also critical to remember that we’re a very dynamic group of people capable of exploring a multitude of artistic experiences. 

What I believe is on the other side of this socio-political monstrosity is the beauty, power, and grace that exists within Black artists. These are qualities that I see within Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s work as well as within the dancers commissioned to respond to Trapsprung. Now is the time to celebrate and elevate their artistic excellence. 

David Rue

On my first visit to the Seattle Art Museum I immediately took notice of Trapsprung.  A Black ballerina dancing in a piece of art is not a common subject that you find in much of the art that is created, so I instantly saw myself in the work, being a Black ballerina myself. The aspect about the piece that I probably enjoy the most though is the perspective and action taking place within it. We are placed behind her and given her perspective as she moves; she moves with intent and direction as opposed to being static and placed in the space only to be seen. I think this demonstrates what women, and particularly Black women are capable of. We are not there to just be viewed or seen, we are a statement in just our being and use this as our power to go forth in all we do rather than let this inhibit us. I like to think the woman in that portrait would take on the world as such. 

Amanda Morgan

Amanda Morgan is originally from Tacoma, WA and is currently a corps member at Pacific Northwest Ballet. She joined the company in 2016 as an apprentice and was promoted to corps in 2017. In addition to dancing, Morgan is a choreographer and founder of her own project titled “The Seattle Project”, which aims to collaborate with multiple artists in Seattle and create new work that is accessible to the community. She has choreographed for PNB’s Next Step at McCaw Hall (2018, 2019), Seattle International Dance Festival (2019), and curated her own show at Northwest Film Forum this past February of 2020. She is currently continuing to still create and connect with artists during this time, and has a dance film coming out in collaboration with Nia-Amina Minor for Seattle Dance Collective this July.

Unstoppable.

Power and dynamic combined with softness and beauty.

Remembering all it is and what it feels like to be a Black woman.

Always acknowledging how much strength and resilience it requires to become the Black dancer in this artwork and the Black artist that painted it.

Michele Dooley 

Michele Dooley is a native of Philadelphia and began her dance training at The Institute of the Arts under the direction of Cheryl Gaines Jenkins. She graduated from the High School for Creative and Performing Arts under the direction of LaDeva Davis and earned a BFA in dance at The University of the Arts, under the direction of Donna Faye Burchfield. While earning her degree, she spent three seasons with Eleone Dance Theatre. Michele trained at Bates Summer Intensive, BalletX summer program, and DCNS Summer Dance Intensive, worked with choreographers such as Gary Jeter, Tommie Waheed-Evans, Dara Meredith, Milton Myers, Nora Gibson, and Ronen Koresh, among others. 

I see her and she’s flying.

Purposefully turned away from a world that is often drawn to her image partly because she makes it look so easy. But I see the effort, the commitment, and I can stand to learn something from the subtlety.  I remember reading that a bird’s wings have evolved to provide lift and reduce drag.  They use their strongest muscles to lift while their wing anatomy minimizes turbulence, friction, and all that would drag them down to the ground. 

I see her and she’s flying.

Nia-Amina Minor

Nia-Amina Minor is a movement based artist and dance educator from South Central Los Angeles. She holds a MFA from the University of California, Irvine and a BA from Stanford University. Nia-Amina is a co-founder of Los Angeles based collective, No)one Art House, as well as a Company Dancer and Community Engagement Artist Liaison with Spectrum Dance Theater.

Virtual Tour with Nana

Next in our series of virtual tours from Suzanne Ragen, aka Nana, we’ll be looking at an ancient Hindu sculpture and a Chinese sculpture from the 14th century. A SAM docent since 1965, Ragen began writing what she calls Nana’s Art History 101 for her grandchildren when the Asian Art Museum had to close for the safety of the public in March 2020. She recently started to share these virtual tours of SAM’s original home with us and we hope you enjoy them!

Ganesh, Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Auspicious Beginnings

Do you remember our first object, the Indian Story Scroll Cloth that featured the Hindu god Ganesh? He starts the story on that scroll because he is the God of Auspicious Beginnings, which means the story gets off to a good start. 

This stone sculpture of Ganesh was located in a niche of a Hindu temple wall. In Hinduism, there are three main gods: Brahma has four heads and is the creator of pretty much everything; Vishnu often wears a top hat and is blue and comes to earth to help when needed in the form of nine different avatars; and Shiva who is the destroyer and can end the world and then you start all over again.     

This Ganesh is connected to Shiva, we know that because the snake across his round belly is Shiva’s snake. When you look at Ganesh, what’s the first thing you notice? For me, his most striking feature is his elephant head. He also has four arms, a big belly, wears jewelry, and a crown. You might notice his candy dish in his left hand (he loves candy). What do you see near his right foot? That’s Mooshika, his rat sidekick who helps Ganesh trample down or wiggle through obstacles.

Why do you think he has an elephant head? The reason starts with Shiva and his wife Parvati, who live in a big, fancy house. Shiva is gone a lot, destroying things and Parvati misses him. One day when Shiva is gone Parvati makes a child out of clay to keep her company and breathes life into him. Once she goes to take a bath and tells her child, “Don’t let anyone in the house!” But Shiva comes home unexpectedly. Ganesh stops him and says “You can’t come in!” This makes Shiva so angry that he takes his sword and cuts off Ganesh’s head.

Parvati comes out and says, “How terrible! You have cut off the head of our child!” Shiva realizes the situation and tells his servant to go to the market and bring back the first head he sees. It is an elephant. Shiva places the elephant head on his child’s body. Ganesh comes back to life and in Hindu mythology, stays as a helper to his father and a good son to his mother.

 Many Hindus pray to Ganesh for good luck when they set a new goal. After hearing this story, what do you think is lucky about Ganesh?

Dragon Tamer Luohan

This Chinese wood sculpture from the 14th century came to the Seattle Art Museum soon after it opened its doors in 1933. How do I know this information? I looked at the label! If you look at the last numbers on any label (no matter what museum you go to), you’ll see there are a series of numbers. The numbers before the first period tell you what year the museum acquired the work, after the period is the number in which the object came into the collection that year. This is called the accession number. The accession number for this object is 36.13. This means that the object was acquired in 1936 and it was the 13th object acquired that year.

For the past 84 years this object was titled Monk at the Moment of Enlightenment. While the museum was closed for a recent renovation and expansion, our Chinese curator was able to examine it very carefully, using medical equipment like x-rays and CT scans, as well as looking closely. We can do that, too.

What we discovered from the scans is that the figure is hollow, made up of five different pieces of wood, held together with long iron pins, and was painted in reds and greens with a topcoat of gold, most of which has worn off. The curator was able to remove a panel in his back and found a single Chinese character inscribed inside that the museum had never seen before! It is part of the name for the Dragon Tamer Luohan. Luohans are Buddhist monks and this one’s particular job was to control the Dragon King. The Chinese believed that rainfall was controlled from the clouds by the Dragon King, so farmers would pray to this Luohan for the right amount of rain for their crops. Because of his size  (more than three feet) and quality, it is thought that he was originally in a temple in Beijing.

The other big surprise that was found inside him was a mud wasp nest in his head! It must have been there for 800 years. A fragment of a wasp was sent to a UW entomologist, who was able to determine its species. 

He is sitting on a tree stump, his body is twisted, legs with one foot touching the ground and the other crossed over that knee. He is grasping his robe in one hand and probably held a pail or a pearl in his other hand.  He is looking upward at the sky, communicating with the Dragon King for more or less rain to fall. He seems totally animated with his swirling robes and vigorous body language. Notice his elongated pierced ear lobes, a symbol of the Buddha, who began life so wealthy that he wore heavy gold earring which stretched his ears.

Many years ago I was leading a high school group on a tour and we were talking about enlightenment and what it is? (This was when he had his first title). I suggested that it might be what happens when you are puzzling over a math problem and the symbols and numbers are just making no sense. You keep looking at them and suddenly they fall into place. Eureka! Enlightenment! When I said that, I snapped my fingers, and at that moment there was a minor Seattle earthquake. The guards came and rushed us into a doorway. I did feel a certain odd sense of power.

– Suzanne Regan, SAM Docent

Image: Dragon Tamer Luohan, ca. 14th century, Chinese, wood with polychrome decoration, 41 x 30 x 22 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 36.13. Ganesh, Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Auspicious Beginnings, ca. late 10th to early 11th century, Indian , Odisha, possibly Bhubanesvara, sandstone, 18 1/4 x 9 1/2 x 5 1/2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 39.33.

16 Books on Race, Racism & Resistance for Grade Pre-K–8

We’ve curated a list of grade-level books with free online read-alouds on the topics of race, racism, and resistance for you to spend some time with over the summer. Many of these books will be available at Seattle Art Museum’s Ann P. Wyckoff Education Resource Center (ERC) when the museum can reopen. Others are available through the Seattle Public Library or the King County Library System. This book list caters to grades Pre-K through 8 but can spark conversation between people of all ages.

Family Fun Workshop, Dec 2018

PRE-SCHOOL – GRADE

Skin Again, by hooks, bell.  (Pre-K – K) New York: Jump at the Sun, 2004. 

This award-winning book introduces a strong message of loving yourself and others and offers new ways to talk about race and identity. Watch the read aloud above, find the e-book at the Seattle Public Library, or find this book at the ERC.

The Colors of Us, by Katz, Karen. (Pre-K – K) New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1999.  

Seven-year-old Lena and her mother observe the variations in the color of their friends’ skin, viewed in terms of foods and things found in nature. Find this book at the ERC!

The Skin You Live In, by Tyler, Michael and Csicsko, David Lee.  (Pre-K +) Chicago: Chicago Children’s Museum, 2005.

Rhyming text and illustrations celebrate being happy with the skin in which one lives, whatever that skin might be. ERC available and the e-book is at SPL & King County Library System.

All are Welcome, by Penfield, Alexandra. ( Pre-K – Grade 3) New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018.

Follow a group of children through a day in their school, where everyone is welcomed with open arms, where students grow and learn from each other’s traditions. You can find the e-book at Seattle and King County Library System.

I Am Enough, by Byers, Grace. (PK – Grade 3) New York: Balzer + Bray, 2018.

A story of loving who you are, respecting others and being kind to one another. The ERC has this book and Seattle Public Library has the e-book.

Let’s Talk About Race, by Lester, Julius and Barbour, Karen. (Pre-K – Grade 3) New York: HarperCollins, 2005. 

This children’s book introduces the concept of race as only one component in an individual’s or nation’s “story.” Find this book at the ERC.

Something Happened in Our Town, by Celano, Marianne.  (Grades K – 3) Washington, DC: Magination Press, 2018.

This story follows two families—one White, one Black—as they discuss a police shooting of a Black man in their community. The story aims to answer children’s questions about such traumatic events, and to help children identify and counter racial injustice in their own lives. Check out the e-book through SPL.

 Enough! 20 Protesters That Changed America, by Easton, Emily.  (Grades K – 3) New York: Crown Books for Young Readers, 2018. 

America has been molded and shaped by those who have taken a stand and said they have had enough. In this dynamic picture book, stand alongside the nation’s most iconic civil and human rights leaders, whose brave actions rewrote history. The e-book can be found at the Seattle Public Library & King County Library System.

GRADES 3 – 8

Not My Idea: A book about Whiteness, by Higginbotham, Anastasia. (Grades 3 +) New York: Dottir Press, 2018.

A children’s picture book that invites white children and parents to become curious about racism, accept that it’s real, and cultivate justice. For a limited time, you can download a free pdf version from the publisher’s website.

We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, edited by Hudson, Wade and Hudson, Cheryl Willis. (Grades 3 – 7) New York: Crown Books for Young Readers, 2018.  

What do we tell our children when the world seems bleak and prejudice and racism run rampant? With 96 lavishly designed pages of original art and prose, 50 diverse creators lend voice to young activists. E-book is at Seattle Public Library and a digital audiobook is available through King County Library System.

Little Dreamers: Bold Women in Black History, by Harrison, Vashti. (Grades 3 – 6) New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2017.  

Based on her popular Instagram posts, debut author/illustra​tor Vashti Harrison shares the stories of 40 bold African American women who shaped history.

Find the e-book available through Seattle Public Library & King County Library System or find the book at the ERC when SAM reopens.

Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History, by Harrison, Vashti. (Grades 3 – 6) New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019. 

Vashti’s follow-up to Little Leaders documents the lives and accomplishments of Black men throughout history, spanning centuries and continents. This e-book is available through the Seattle Public Library & King County Library Systems.

Rise Up! The Art of Protest, by Rippon, Jo. (Grades 3 – 7) New York: Charlesbridge, 2020. 

Celebrate the right to resist! Human rights belong to every single one of us, but they are often under threat. Developed in collaboration with Amnesty International, Rise Up! encourages young people to engage in peaceful protest and stand up for freedom. Get the e-book on the Seattle Public Library website.

A Good Kind of Trouble, by Ramée, Lisa Moore. (Grades 4 – 8) New York, NY: Balzer + Bray, 2019. 

After attending a powerful protest, Shayla starts wearing an armband to school to support the Black Lives Matter movement, but when the school gives her an ultimatum, she is forced to choose between her education and her identity. E-book & digital audiobook available at Seattle Public Library & King County Library System.

 Ghost Boys, by Rhodes, Jewell Parker. (Grades 5+) New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2018. 

After seventh-grader Jerome is shot by a white police officer, he observes the aftermath of his death and meets the ghosts of other fallen Black boys including historical figure Emmett Till. E-book & digital audiobook available through Seattle Public Library & King County Library Systems. 

 Raise your Voice: 12 Protests That Shaped America, by Kluger, Jeffrey. (Grades 5 – 8) New York: Philomel, 2020. 

Starting with the Boston Tea Party, moving to the Women’s March, and ending with the Standing Rock/Dakota Pipeline Uprising, this book covers 12 protests that shaped our nation. The e-book is available through the Seattle Public Library.

– Kim Christensen, Education Resource Center Education Assistant

Photos: Robert Wade & Jen Au.

Virtual Tour with Nana

Suzanne Ragen has been a SAM docent since 1965 and remembers when the Asian Art Museum was SAM’s only location. Since the museum has had to close for the health and safety of the public during the global pandemic, Ragen has been creating tours for her grandkids called, Nana’s Art History 101 and now she is sharing them with us. Learn more about objects in the newly renovated and expanded Asian Art Museum while you stay home with SAM.

Haniwa warrior figure

Take a moment to look at this sculpture. Who do you think he is? Why do you think he’s wearing armor? What is he standing on?

Members of the ruling royal class in Japan were buried in massive mounds in Japan 1500 years ago. These mounds were surrounded by brown terracotta figures (same clay material as our ordinary flower pots). Figures like this one were placed in these tombs to guard and honor the deceased. 

Take a closer look at the figure of the warrior.  What weapons does he carry? There’s his sword and sheath, his bow upright in his left hand and the quiver for his arrows held in his right hand. How does he protect himself? There’s his close-fitting helmet and his upper armor was originally made of laced and riveted metal strips. His sturdy leggings and his skirt may have been made of very thick leather. 

How would you describe his expression? I think he’s stoic and ready for battle. I have been asked on tours why his arms are so short.  My only guess is that made him less liable for breakage as they can be kept close to his body. What do you think? 

These warriors also had another purpose beside protecting the ruler who was buried in the mounds. The term haniwa literally means clay cylinder, which is what the warrior stands on. Do you notice the hole that’s in the middle of the haniwa? This would have been sunk into the ground to permit drainage and inhibit erosion. Haniwa were made by a special guild of potters and come in all sorts of shapes. SAM has in its collection a Haniwa Woman and a Haniwa horse. Think of the drama these figures gave to the tombs of people of rank—a tribute to their power. Imagine the awesomeness of walking toward a huge mound sheathed in smooth river rocks, sometimes encircled by a moat, surrounded by these brown haniwa figures. Wondering about the life of the person buried there.

My favorite part of this sculpture are the little carefully tied bows at his neckline and belt and on his leggings. Who would have added such a delicate personal touch? Think back for a moment to Some/One in the first installment of Nana’s Art History—the armored kimono made of steel dog tags by contemporary Korean artist Do Ho Suh. What do you notice when comparing these two warrior’s armors? Which one would you rather wear? 

Ankush (elephant goad)

In India, only kings and high royals owned elephants.  They were important for grand parades and festivals, for hunting and for battle. Imagine an elephant going into battle; it would be as effective as a tank. Elephants are very intelligent but can be volatile and dangerous; they need to be strictly controlled.

So who managed these enormous animals? They were controlled and cared for by a mahout, a man who descended from generations of elephant professionals. A  boy of mahout lineage is assigned an elephant when both are young. The boy and the elephant grow up together; they bond and work together all their lives.

The mahout’s primary tool is an ankush, or prod. It has a sharp point and a curving hook, which on this one is in the shape of a mythical dragon-like creature. This ankush is made of metals covered with gold and chunks of very precious rock crystal. It was surely ceremonial as it is quite impractical, too heavy and too valuable.

The mahout has taught the elephant a very complicated language of jabs and pokes which he administers either from sitting high up behind the enormous head with its huge flaps of ears or leading him from the ground. One source said that there are over 100 spots on an elephant, each when poked, being a particular command. Elephants have a very tough hide.

This ornate ankush was probably taken from a royal armory in India around 1850 by the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was exhibited in 1948 to honor the establishment of independent nations such as India after centuries of British rule.

If you go to India today, you can still see elephants elaborately draped in gorgeous fabrics, bejeweled and bearing ornate chair or even sofa-like saddles in royal parades, weddings or important celebrations. Look for the mahout and his ankush. Have you ever read Babar? Quite a different story.

Reduction

OK, kids. We have looked at a lot of old things. Now we are going to see a statue made in 2015.

This statue of a man in meditation pose sits in the huge main entrance hall of the Asian Art Museum, one of only two artworks in that space. (The other is on the ceiling.)  It was made by Takahiro Kondo in 2015 in Japan. Kondo uses his own body as his model, so the seated statue is about life size, 34” high. His legs are folded in the lotus position, his hands arranged in meditation mudra, eyes downcast. Try to arrange yourself in that pose. He sits above a tiled water fountain, original to the 1933 building—a perfect location as Kondo says he works with water and fire.

Kondo makes his figures from porcelain (a very fine white clay) and fires them several times with different shades of blue underglaze. Then comes his ground- breaking overglaze that is made of metals- silver, gold, and platinum that he calls “silver mist” or gintekisai. He was granted a patent for this technique in 2004. It produces the bubbled texture that you see. Look at the way the metal glaze drips and bubbles and makes beads—like water or jewels. 

Kondo made a series of these Reduction sculptures following the nuclear disaster in 2011 in Fukushima, Japan. He says that this figure is “meditating on the essence of the world,” calling attention to the causes and consequences of nuclear disasters in Japan and all the world. His work and message is in major museums all over the world.

Kondo was born in 1958 and is a 3rd generation ceramicist. His grandfather was named a Living National Treasure in Japan for his underglaze cobalt blue wares. Takahiro is carrying on his grandfather’s tradition in a very modern way, and even lives in his grandfather’s original studio in Kyoto. He graduated from university in Tokyo and got a Masters in Design from Edinburgh College of Arts. 

– Suzanne Ragen, SAM Docent

Images: Haniwa warrior figure, 6th century, Japanese, earthenware, 53 1/4 x 16 1/2 x 10 3/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 62.44. Ankush (elephant goad), ca. 1600 -1700, Indian , Thanjavur, Tamilnadu, steel with gilding, copper with gilding, rock crystal, 32 x 8 in., Gift of Mrs. John C. Atwood, Jr., 54.38. Reduction, 2015, Takahiro Kondo, porcelain with blue underglaze and “silver mist” overglaze, 33 7/16 x 25 9/16 x 17 11/16 in., Robert M. Shields Fund for Asian Ceramics, 2019.5, © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

SAM Creates: Poetry Inspired by Calligraphy

This art activity is part of SAM’s Look & Make Activities designed as grade-specific lesson plans for remote learning. Find more information and artworks to inspire creative learning through these activities available for download on our website in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

A Branch of the Cold Season includes both calligraphy and an image of a plum tree painted in ink. For hundreds of years, artists have practiced calligraphy, a type of decorative handwriting made with a brush or pen. Calligraphy can be a work of art on its own or it can go along with painted images. Even if someone cannot read what is written, they can enjoy calligraphy by thinking about its movement or style. The lines of calligraphy above the branches in this artwork were written by a monk, a member of a religious community. The monk’s name was Zhen. The painted plum tree was later added by the artist Yang Hui. Yang Hui gave this artwork as a gift to his friend, who was preparing to travel to a city far away. The Chinese characters, or written symbols, read: “When the plum blossoms begin to bloom. Imagine some of these nights you will be thinking of each other in the bright moonlight.” The image of a moon represents friendship and this work of art connected these two friends wherever they went. How do you stay connected to your family and friends who are far away? 

LOOKING QUESTIONS

  • What is going on in this painting? What do you see that makes you say that?
  • In this artwork, one artist wrote the words and one artist painted the image. Why do you think they were put together? How would it be different if it was just words or just the image?
  • This is a painting of a plum blossom, which often blooms in February and March. In Chinese art, plum blossoms can be related to winter or the coming of spring. What season is it right now where you are? What plants, flowers, or other parts of nature do you see often? Which plants have meaning to you and your family?

MOVEMENT ACTIVITY

Go for a walk outside! As you are walking, look closely and notice the nature around you. What trees, flowers, plants, and animals do you see? As you observe them, notice how they move. Do they sway in the wind? Do they jump around? Move closer to what you see (at a safe and respectful distance, if it is an animal). What new details do you notice when you are close up to the plants and animals? Can you move like the branches of a tree? 

ART ACTIVITY: Make Nature-Inspired Artwork & Poetry with A Friend!

What You’ll Need

  • Paper
  • Pencil
  1. Choose one of the plants or animals that you saw on your walk, or often see this season. Ask your family member or friend to do the same. 
  2. On a blank piece of paper, make a drawing of your plant or animal. You can look out your window or find a picture to draw from. You could also close your eyes, remember what it looks like, and draw from your imagination. Think about how it moves. Can you draw your plant or animal in motion?
  1. When you are finished, share your drawing with your partner. Then, switch drawings with them. 
  2. Look at your partner’s drawing and, on a separate piece of paper, create an acrostic poem with the name of the season you are in. To write an acrostic poem, you write one word up and down, then start with those letters for the beginning of the poem’s lines. Here’s an example using the “spring” as the first word: 

Sun is peeking out
Park bench
Rabbits and singing birds
I see it all
Now I move to the
Grass

  1. When you are happy with your poem, draw it into your partner’s drawing. You can put the lines wherever you want, they don’t all need to be together. Notice the style of your partner’s drawing. Is it cartoonish? Is it long and looping? Is it sharp and detailed? Try to write letters to go along with your partner’s drawing, as if the words are little drawings themselves. 
  2. Show your artwork and read your poems out loud to each other when you are done. 

KEEP LEARNING WITH A STORY

Learn about the seasons through haikus paired with clear scientific explanations in an animated read aloud of Our Seasons by Grace Lin using a free trial or join three friends as they go hiking in part one and part two of a video read aloud of The Hike by Allison Farrell.

Images: A Branch of the Cold Season, ca. 1440, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Yang Hui with Monk Zhen of Huan’an Temple, ink on paper, 30 5/16 x 56 1/16 in. (77 x 142.4cm), Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 51.132. Photo: Paul Macapia

Virtual Tour with Nana

When the Asian Art Museum had to close due to health and safety concerns around COVID-19, Suzanne Ragen, a SAM docent since 1965, began writing what she calls Nana’s Art History 101 for her grandchildren. When Suzanne first started volunteering, Dr. Fuller was SAM’s Director and the Volunteer Park location was our only museum. She describes the reopening of the Asian Art Museum earlier this year after it’s renovation and expansion, as feeling like coming home. We are all thankful that Nana is sharing these virtual tours of SAM’s original home with us!

Story scroll of sage Bhavana

Imagine that the year is around 1850 and you live in a small Indian village where most of the people are weavers. It’s been a long hot day of work but a treat is in store for all of you this evening.  A storyteller is coming with his very long cloth scroll and he is going to tell and sing to you the story of Bhavana, the celestial weaver who wove cloth for the gods. He lights a lamp and starts to unfurl the long cloth that is wound on his bamboo poles. That’s how this object was displayed before it came to the Seattle Art Museum.

At SAM you can only see the beginning and end of the 30 yards of the story. Look at the first section and you will see the Hindu god Ganesh with his human body and elephant head. Even though most people in the original audience could not read, they would recognize Ganesh by his unique characteristics. Ganesh is the god of beginnings, so this is a good place to start our story. We’ll read the scroll from the top to the bottom.

Above Ganesh are the three main Hindu Gods—Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma.  The story goes that the sage, or wise man, Bhavana was victorious in a great war thanks to his army of tigers. As the victor, he can marry the daughter of the sun. Many gods attend their wedding, some arriving in flying chariots. Where do you see the chariots? Keep looking down past the chariots, towards the bottom of the scroll. Bhavana is making colored dyes from his enemies’ bodies.  

You’re part of the audience and if the storyteller did a good job, you would pay him some hard-earned rupees! You might also appreciate the donor who commissioned the scrolls for your village. Look at the patch at the end of the story and you can see the name of the person who paid for the scroll.

What are some stories that you know? Who first told you these stories and how do you show them that you appreciate their storytelling?

Some/One

We are now jumping from 19th-century India to 2001 for a look at Some/One, a sculpture by contemporary Korean artist Do Ho Suh. You might not be able to tell from the image, but this is a large sculpture, taking up almost the entire gallery. It’s located in the new expansion of the Asian Art Museum, along with art from all over Asia mostly done by currently living artists.

By looking at this picture, can you tell what the sculpture is made of? There are a ton of small, silver rectangles. These are stainless steel military dog tags that soldiers wear around their necks to identify themselves. The artist commissioned a veteran, or someone who served in the military, to manufacture hundreds of these dog tags, but with made-up names. Do Ho Suh sculpted the dog tags into a kimono-like garment that would have to be worn by someone over eight-feet tall! A steel structure holds it together, covered with a glass fiber reinforced resin and rubber and copper sheets.

Do Ho Suh made this as a student when he was given an assignment to create a piece of clothing that could serve as his identity. Suh had moved to the US for school from South Korea, where every male citizen must serve at least two years in the military.  

Why do you think Suh titled this work Some/One? One reason might be that each dog tag represents an individual soldier, but as a whole they make one—the military. When you see this work in person, you’ll notice that the tags are so shiny that you can see yourself reflected in the kimono. How do you think it might feel to see yourself in this art? 

If you were asked to make a piece of clothing that reflected your identity, what would you create?

Later in our virtual tours we will look at a Japanese terra cotta soldier called a Haniwa from around 500 AD who is also wearing armor.

Fireman’s Coat

Imagine that you live in the city of Edo (now Tokyo, Japan) around 1800.  Unlike today’s Tokyo that’s filled with tall, steel skyscrapers, 200 years ago, the houses were made of wood, bamboo and paper; the floors are covered with tatami mats made of straw. These materials would be very flammable! Now, pretend you are a fireman, a highly esteemed profession. The only way to control a fire in your city is to destroy the buildings around the one that is on fire to stop the spread. When the alarm comes, you reach for a coat like this one.

The fireman’s coat is made of very thick cotton, dyed with indigo. You would soak the coat in water before going to the fire, which might make it weigh 75 pounds, but would help protect you. The outside is solid navy blue and bears your fire brigade ID. The design of the rabbits is on the inside of the coat, closest to your body—that means when you see this at the museum, the coat is displayed inside out.

Why would rabbits be on a fireman’s coat? There is a traditional Japanese story that the Man in the Moon came to earth disguised as an old starving traveler.  He met three animal friends on the road. Monkey was agile and could climb trees to bring the old man fruit.  Fox was clever and could swim and bring him fish. Rabbit could only gather grass, so he asked the old beggar to light a fire. He jumped into that fire to offer his body as a meal. The old man was so touched by Rabbit’s sacrifice that he pulled him from the fire and invited Rabbit to live with him on the moon. He is still there. Do you agree that Rabbit is an appropriate emblem of protection from fire for firemen?

Can you tell what the rabbits are doing on the coat? They are pounding rice to make mochi in the enormous pot, with steam clouds floating above them and a few plant fronds at their feet. Have you ever eaten mochi? Mochi is rice pounded into a paste, often with added water, sugar, cornstarch, and coloring, then molded into shapes. It is traditionally made in a ceremony called mochitsuki.  Mochi is especially popular around the New Year as a symbol of good fortune.

Now when you see the Man in the Moon, you might think of this story and enjoy a delicious treat.

– Suzanne Regan, SAM Docent

Images: Section of a story scroll of sage Bhavana (Bhavana Rishi Mahatmyan Patam), mid 18th century, Indian, opaque watercolor on cloth, 58 x 34 1/4 in., Gift of Leo S. Figiel, M.D., Detroit, Michigan, 76.41. Some/One, 2001, Do Ho Suh, stainless steel military dog-tags, nickel-plated copper sheets, steel structure, glass fiber reinforced resin, rubber sheets, diam. at base: 24 ft. 4 in.; height: 81 in., Gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2002.43 © Do Ho Suh. Fireman’s coat, 19th century, Japanese, cotton, 49 1/4 x 49 1/4 in., Gift of the Christensen Fund, 2001.417.

A Message of Solidarity

The Seattle Art Museum believes that Black lives matter and stands in support of Black families, friends, colleagues, and communities across the country as they grieve and seek justice for the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and all victims of police brutality. We mourn the lives lost and, as we say their names, we recognize that we cannot be silent.

Systemic and institutional racism pervades every corner of American life, including cultural institutions such as the Seattle Art Museum. SAM recognizes the inequities faced by Black Americans, and we acknowledge the work that SAM must do and the impact of our work on our community. Since the 2000s, SAM’s Education & Community Engagement Committee has helped guide SAM’s programming and community partnerships. We will continue to listen to this inspiring group of advocates as we make changes to better lead by example within our arts community and city to create a country where Black people and other people of color are not oppressed.

In 2017, the museum’s Equity Team and leadership integrated an equity statement of the museum’s official values into SAM’s strategic plan, which guides all we do. It reads:

We are responsive to cultural communities and experiences, and we think critically about the role art plays in empowering social justice and structural change to promote equity in our society. We are dedicated to racial equity in all that we do.

We know that we can do more. We must begin by looking at ourselves and working to uncover the structural biases within our own organization.

Art is a crucial way of sharing unique perspectives, reminding us of the past, and envisioning future possibilities. Throughout history, art has been used for education, revolution, politics, propaganda, emotions, subversion, and sharing transformative experiences. SAM believes that art always contains a message and cannot be neutral. We rely on our collection, exhibitions, and the artists we work with to reflect our institutional values and we can, and will, take tangible actions to enact necessary change in our society. 

We are committed to:

  • Striving for racial equity in our exhibitions, educational programs, hiring practices, and all activities at the museum
  • Sharing work by Black artists in our collection and in our communications. For the next week, we will not be promoting the museum on social media, in order to amplify the views of organizations, artists, activists, and individual Black voices
  • Continuing to increase the acquisition and exhibition of more works by artists of color
  • Featuring artwork by Black artists in the following exhibitions and installations in the next year:

John Akomfrah: Future History
Aaron Fowler: Into Existence
Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle
Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence
Storied Objects
Lessons From the Institute of Empathy

There are many ways to show support and solidarity at this moment. As a part of the Seattle art community, SAM would like to encourage you to support local Black-led arts organizations through donations and engagement. This list is by no means comprehensive and we encourage you to add to it in the comments.

SAM Connects: Naramore Virtual Art Show

Since 1985, Seattle Public Schools has held the Naramore Art Show to share the works of its arts students and to celebrate their achievements with their community. Floyd A. Naramore, whose name is honored by this exhibition, was a visionary architect who invested deeply in his community and in the education of students. He designed over 22 schools, including Roosevelt, Garfield and Cleveland high schools, and several middle school buildings.

Seattle Art Museum has been a partner in this program for many years now, providing support and promotion of the exhibition.  Around this time of year, artists and their family and friends would gather at SAM for the highly anticipated celebration and awards ceremony, normally filled with live music, refreshments, and performances. This time-honored tradition was dedicated to celebrating the creativity and excellence of each participating artist. The museum’s lobby would be abuzz with joyous chatter as students’ excitedly perused the halls looking for their art, and beaming as they saw their work—a piece of themselves hanging on the walls.

But with growing concerns of the COVID-19 global pandemic and social distancing guidelines, our small team of SPS administrators and SAM educators feared this would be the first time in over 30 years the exhibition might not be shown, at least in person. As stay home orders began, extended, and schools were forced to cancel the remainder of the school year in person, it became clear that our fears had come true. As we came to terms with this fact, we also reminded ourselves that Naramore is the culmination of a school year of hard work by art students and teachers. We were committed to creating space, where none had existed before, to honor the time, energy, and voices of young artists. Thanks to hard work from administrators across SPS, we were able to turn that desire into a reality. Naramore continues on as a virtual museum on the SPS website and includes over 200 works of art by students from across the district. The show will be on view through June 30, 2020 and can be accessed online here! Additionally, students are invited to continue sharing artwork they’ve been creating at home during quarantine on Instagram under #artistsofsps.

You are also invited to join us for the virtual celebration on Thursday, June 4th at 5:30 P.M. The celebration will include a viewing of the artwork, keynote by Superintendent Denise Juneau, student video diaries, and more! No registration required, just tune in on YouTube, stream on the Seattle School District webpage, or tune in to any local TV channels:

  • Comcast 26 (standard-def) 319 (hi-def)
  • Wave 26 (standard-def) 695 (hi-def)
  • Century Link 8008 (standard-def) 8508 (hi-def)

At this time more than ever, we need to center the creativity and insight of our young people and amplify their voices for the world to hear. From the devastation of COVID-19 to relentless police violence against black and brown people, our community is in crisis. Art has the power to express our fears and our joy; document our history; shape our dreams, and so much more.

We are forever grateful to these young people who have given us the gift of their perspective and ask that our community take the time to reflect on their wisdom and leadership, so that we can all do our parts in dismantling injustice.

Molly Cain, Baby Gun

A photo of a sculpture of a toddler-sized hand posed as if it is holding a gun

Ever since I was a kid I’ve been kinda obsessed with the dichotomy between the innocence of children and the harsh violence of guns. Things like nerf guns and videogames were fun as a kid but what are they saying about gun violence? That is what inspired my piece. I wanted to highlight the soft innocence of the toddler hand vs. the violence of the hand motion.

Remi Adejumobi, Overcoming

image of a line drawing of gun, with the top being the head of  Martin Luther King, Jr. and a rose coming out of the end

I was inspired by the idea that Martin Luther King symbolizes peace. Our society needs lass hate and violence and more peaceful thoughts and actions. The colors flower draws attention to hope, to the possibility that we can make our country a more beautiful place to live in if we support each other more and find ways to overcome our negative feelings.

Camellia Maxson, Pear

I created this piece because I wanted to show emotion in another way besides the face. I liked the idea of someone who is so angry squeezing a pear until it bruises and leaks juice. I chose markers because it is a medium I enjoy working with due to the markers quick drying nature and flat colors yet easy to blend when needed. The main challenge was drawing the hand squeezing the pear.

Ella Maurer, The Beginning

I created this piece to capture the emotions felt during the beginning of my relationship, while connecting with others who have felt similar emotions, past or present. I want to spread comfort thought knowing that others have felt caution, growing, trust, love, and more.

Art & Justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, & Ahmaud Arbery

The young girl gazes directly into the camera: serene, open, determined. Her arms cross in front of her; her hands reach for those of the other children beside her. Together, they form a chain that cannot be broken.

She is 11-year-old Quintella Harrell, as the photo’s caption notes, and she’s participating in the campaign for voting rights for Black people in Selma, Alabama, that took place in the early months of 1965. The photo was taken by Dan Budnik, who uses documentary photography as a tool for activism and to bear witness to the battle for equality. A few weeks before this photo was taken, a 26-year-old church deacon from Marion named Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by a state trooper as he tried to shield his mother from the trooper’s nightstick, dying eight days later. Days after this photo was taken, the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, led by civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis, would begin. The images of state troopers attacking the activists during what came to be called “Bloody Sunday” galvanized public opinion, eventually leading to the march’s safe completion on March 21—and to the passing of the Voting Rights Act.

This moment of a young girl’s perseverance is captured forever in this black-and-white photo, but it’s far from the distant past. Today, Dr. Quintella Harrell is 65 years old. How much has changed?

SAM expresses deep compassion for those seeking justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. We share in the grief, anger, and frustration that their friends, families, and Black communities are feeling, which has spread across the country and the world. SAM is committed to doing our part in the necessary work of creating racial equity. Art can play a critical role in creating structural change and equity; it deepens empathy, asks tough questions, and offers new visions for collective responses to our world. We must create that new world together.

Image: Quintella Harrell, 11 Years Old, With Other Young Voting Rights Protestors, Dallas County Courthouse, Selma, Alabama, 4 March 1965, 1965, Dan Budnik, gelatin silver photograph, 11 x 14 in. Gift of Getty Images, 2000.38 ©️ Artist or Artist’s Estate.

SAMBlog