Object of the Week: Wounded Eagle No. 10

In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated Black artists in SAM’s permanent collection throughout the month of February.

“I wait until intuition moves me, and then I begin.”

– James Washington, Jr.

Though born and raised in Mississippi, James Washington, Jr. is proudly remembered as a seminal Northwest artist and member of the Northwest School. Close to other notable artists from the region, like George Tsutakawa, Mark Tobey, and Morris Graves, Washington shared an affinity for the natural world. Surely informed by his upbringing—his father was a Baptist minister—Washington’s work also possessed spiritual elements, further connecting him to his cohort of Northwest artists. In Washington’s words, “art is a holy land where initiates seek to reveal the spirituality of matter.”

Before moving to Seattle in 1944, Washington taught as a WPA artist in Mississippi. Upon his arrival in the Pacific Northwest, he worked in the Bremerton Naval Yard as an electrician. Then a painter, he was soon introduced to Mark Tobey, who would become a lifelong friend and mentor. As Washington continued to navigate Seattle’s arts community, he also traveled and, in 1951, visited the famed social realist painters Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros in Mexico. Although this meeting was the impetus for the trip, it was another experience altogether that altered Washington’s artistic trajectory: when visiting the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán, he was drawn to a piece of volcanic rock which he couldn’t leave behind—this stone would be the first of many sculptures Washington would carve, and the reason for his move away from painting.

Wounded Eagle No. 10 (1963) is just one of seven stone sculptures by Washington in SAM’s collection. It is a tender and sorrowful image, rendered delicately by the artist despite its granite medium. And while Washington would carve a variety of animals and humans, birds were a recurring subject—the eagle, in particular, for its symbolism of salvation and ascension. Guided by a self-described ‘spiritual force’ intrinsic to his geologic materials, Washington would alter his stones only slightly, preferring instead to let their natural form, shape, and coloration determine the subject matter. Moved by intuition, he considered himself a conduit through which art would reveal itself.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Wounded Eagle No. 10, 1963, James Washington, Jr., granite, 8 x 10 5/8 x 13 1/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 68.159 © James W. Washington

Object of the Week: Hester Diamond Tribute

What lasts

This abstract composition is pieced together from fragments of ordinary things—corrugated cardboard, painted fabric, and wrinkled burlap. The surface is pierced, stained, and gouged, painfully reminiscent of scarred skin. It comes from a series called Sacchi (sacks), which use humble materials to create compositions that hover between painting and sculpture. Alberto Burri, who had been a doctor in the Italian army during World War II, started making art when he was a prisoner of war in Texas in 1943. As much as anything, the Sacchi seem to be about the temporary nature of materials, experiences, life—for many viewers in the 1950s, they seemed to express the suffering and darkness of the war years.

Burri created Sacco in 1955 when he was staying in New York. He had become friends with Harold and Hester Diamond, a young New York couple with an interest in art (Harold, a schoolteacher, would go on to become a prominent art dealer). Harold’s brother owned the Upper West Side building where Mark Rothko had his studio, and the Diamonds, who lived upstairs, arranged for Burri to use the studio. He included the sleeve of one of Harold Diamond’s discarded shirts in the lower right of this work, and presented the work to the Diamonds at the end of his stay.

Decades later in 1995, Hester Diamond gave Sacco to the Seattle Art Museum in memory of the artist, who had died that same year. Harold Diamond had passed away in 1982, and Hester, with her second husband Ralph Kaminsky, had become a friend of SAM and a supporter of the Seattle Opera, whose Ring cycle brought her to Seattle numerous times. Over the years she gave three more works to SAM, all very different from the Burri.  

One of them is this wonderfully strange family portrait of Leda, Jupiter in the form of a swan, and their three children, hatched from eggs—a work by the mid-16th century Flemish painter Vincent Sellaer. The combination of appealing and unsettling visual qualities is typical of Mannerism, a style which attracted Hester’s interest beginning in the early 1990s. Previously devoted to 20th-century art, she fell in love with the refined technique, inventiveness, and beauty of 15th- and 16th-century European painting and sculpture and shifted her collecting focus.

Hester Diamond was an enthusiastic and generous friend to international art institutions, artists, curators, scholars, and gallerists. The seriousness of her commitment to art was matched by her sense of humor and love of adventure as she explored new fields. A lifelong New Yorker, Hester had a close relationship with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and made significant gifts to her hometown museum over the decades. SAM is fortunate that she also recognized how works from her collection could make a difference here in Seattle.

Hester’s collecting interests could encompass a post-war collage roughly fashioned out of the ephemeral everyday, as well as a painting superbly crafted to last forever. Both are now valued works in our collection which future generations will be able to enjoy thanks to her generosity. Sadly, they outlast Hester herself, who died on January 23, 2020 at the age of 91. She will be greatly missed.

Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture

Images: Sacco (Sack), 1955, Alberto Burri, burlap, cardboard, muslin, and paint, 35 1/2 x 28 1/4 in., Gift of Hester Diamond in memory of Alberto Burri, 95.134 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Leda and the Swan and Her Children, ca. 1540, Vincent Sellaer, oil on wood panel, 43 1/2 x 35 1/16 in., Gift of Hester Diamond in honor of Chiyo Ishikawa on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2004.31. Photograph ©️ Carla van de Puttelaer, 2019.

Object of the Week: Rat water dropper

Made from ceramic, bronze, copper, or even jade, water droppers are small vessels used in calligraphy and brush painting. Designed with two small holes, one for adding water and one for dispensing water, only a few drops fall out at a time—a crucial feature when preparing liquid ink, which involves grinding a stick of ink against an inkstone with water.

Though an unassuming instrument, water droppers have a long history. The earliest known examples of Chinese water droppers can be dated to the 5th and 6th centuries, while Japanese water droppers date to the 8th century. Centuries later, during the Edo period (1603-1868) and into the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan saw the emergence of more complicated water droppers in various shapes and sizes, ranging from plants and deities to animals and fruits.

Such decorative droppers became popular accessories for the nobility and literati, and were often inscribed or made in auspicious forms. The zodiac animals are a set of calendar symbols that came to Japan from ancient China, and their representation served to invoke good luck and prosperity. This 19th-century dropper in SAM’s collection, modeled in the shape of an undeniably expressive and charming rat (the first animal in the zodiac), was likely intended to symbolize success, creativity, and intelligence.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Water dropper modeled as a rat, 19th century, Japanese, bronze, 1 5/8 x 3 1/2 x 1 7/8 in., Gift of Frank D. Stout, 92.47.119

Object of the Week: Confrontation at the Bridge

This 1975 screenprint by Jacob Lawrence was commissioned on the occasion of the United States’ bicentennial. The prompt: to create a print that reflects an aspect of American history since 1776. Lawrence, one of 33 artists to contribute to the portfolio An American Portrait, 1776-1976, chose to depict the infamous incident in Alabama known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, hundreds of unarmed protesters—led by civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis—organized a 54-mile march from Selma to the state’s capitol, Montgomery, advocating for the voting rights of African Americans. As demonstrators began their route out of Selma, they were met by a barrage of state troopers at Edmund Pettus Bridge. With orders from Alabama Governor George Wallace “to use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march,” the state troopers attacked the activists—resulting in the death of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson—using clubs and tear gas. Though the march dissipated due to this senseless violence, two days later the protesters safely reached Montgomery (thanks to court-ordered protection) and numbered nearly 25,000.

As horrible as these events were, what took place on March 7—publicized nationally and internationally—helped galvanize public opinion and finally mobilize Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson five months later.

In Lawrence’s screenprint, the troopers’ brutal actions are represented through the presence of a vicious, snarling dog. To its right, we see African American men and women of various ages clustered together, their political solidarity conveyed through their visual unity. A tumultuous sky surrounds them, whose jagged cloud forms find likeness in the choppy waters below.

This horrible event would leave an indelible mark on our nation’s history and is remembered today for the courage shown by the thousands of activists who marched for a more equitable world. When articulating his choice to depict this important moment, Lawrence recalled: “I thought [the Selma-to-Montgomery march] was part of the history of the country, part of the history of our progress; not of just the black progress, but of the progress of the people.”

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Confrontation at the Bridge, 1975, Jacob Lawrence, serigraph; ink on paper, 19 1/2 x 25 15/16 in., Anonymous gift in honor of Jacob Lawrence and Gwen Knight, 92.10 © Jacob Lawrence

Object of the Week: The Important an Unimportant

Since John Baldessari’s death last week, there has been a commensurate stream of articles recounting his outsized influence as a pioneering artist and educator, with a prolific career spanning decades.

With beginnings as a painter, Baldessari, like many artists of the 1960s and 70s, eventually gravitated toward conceptual art and the pre-eminence of ideas over objects. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Baldessari imbued his conceptual art practice with humor and wit, employing “a sort of Dada irony and sometimes colorful Pop Art splashes . . . to rescue conceptual art from what he saw as its high-minded self-seriousness.”[1]

Baldessari’s enduring interests included the relationship between text and image—which often meant pitting them against one another to challenge their assumed accuracy—and the appropriation of images from photography and film. His 1999 painting, The Important an Unimportant (from the Tetrad Series), in SAM’s collection is an exemplar work in this regard, a combination of digital printing, hand lettering, and acrylic paint on canvas.

The composition, made up of quadrants, juxtaposes square images—a glass with red daisies, a woman’s finger pointing down, and two skeleton hands playing an organ—with a textual element that reads, “the important an unimportant.” If these sequences appear heterogeneous and somewhat anachronistic, it is because they are. For example, the excerpt in the upper right is lifted from Goya’s 1797 painting The Duchess of Alba, painted while the duchess mourned her husband’s death. In the lower left, a still from Erich von Stroheim’s 1928 silent film, The Wedding March, is a not-so-subtle harbinger of the fate which befalls the romance and aristocratic aspirations of the film’s protagonist lovers. The text in the lower right, even, is an excerpt from Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), “for whom nullity was a muse.”[2]

Taken together, these citations enrich our understanding of Baldessari’s wide range of influences. And whether we know the exact origins of his chosen references or not, the appropriated images and texts are here imbued with new meaning. We are invited—and, importantly, required—to participate as viewers to consider their relationship to one another and the history of visual representation more broadly.

A serial creator, Baldessari always adhered to his now-famous maxim to “not make any more boring art.” A simple enough credo, such a motivation directly impacts us as viewers, who are on the receiving end—simultaneously empowered and challenged by his work. Perhaps best articulated by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, “[Baldessari’s] work amuses, unsettles, questions and makes you look twice and think thrice; laugh out loud; and in general gain a sharpened awareness of the overlapping processes of art making, art viewing, and art thinking.”[3]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: The Important an Unimportant, 1999, John Baldessari, digital printing, hand lettering, and acrylic paint on canvas, 94 x 94 in., Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2014.25.6 ©️ Artist or Artist’s Estate
[1] Jori Finkel, “John Baldessari, Who Gave Conceptual Art a Dose of Wit, Is Dead at 88,” The New York Times, Jan. 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/05/arts/john-baldessari-dead.html.
[2] Adam Kirsch, “Fernando Pessoa’s Disappearing Act,” The New Yorker, Aug. 28, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/09/04/fernando-pessoas-disappearing-act.
[3] Roberta Smith, “Tweaking Tradition, Even in Its Temple,” The New York Times, Oct. 21, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/22/arts/design/22baldessari.html.

Object of the Week: Rosary Bead

This 16th-century Flemish rosary bead or “prayer nut,” not even two inches in diameter, is a virtuosic display of wood and ivory carving. Floral patterns encircled by delicate ivory bands adorn each hemisphere. These swirling petals draw the beholder in for a closer look, which turns out to be worthwhile: the bead’s subtle hinge and clasp lead to hidden depths.

Opening the prayer nut reveals two impossibly small and detailed scenes from the life of Christ. The smaller side shows Saint Christopher bearing the young Jesus safely across the river, while the larger side bears an intimate scene of the Virgin and Child with Mary’s parents, Saint Anne and Saint Joaquim.

The sight of the intricate carvings alone is breathtaking, but these objects were wonderfully interactive as well. At the height of their popularity, most prayer nuts were worn on rosaries. These strings of beads were central to a multisensory experience of worship, where different beads loosely corresponded with recitations of ‘Aves’ and ‘Pater Nosters’, among other prayers. We can imagine the feeling of the prayer beads in hand, the sound of them clacking together in time with the holy words, combining into a trance-like meditation, in which the worshipper was meant to visualize and contemplate scenes from the Bible.[1] Those men and women lucky enough to have a beautiful prayer nut at the end of their rosary would open it carefully at the culmination of their prayers and be rewarded by an actual vision of these scenes.

However, we can’t only call these people lucky—they were also wealthy. Prayer nuts were symbols of status as much as faith, and church Reformers specifically criticized prayer nuts as empty claims to piety by the superrich.[2] This beautiful example in SAM’s collection would likely have been particularly precious, as it is made of sandalwood (an unusual choice) and ivory, both import goods from faraway continents.

I am continually in awe of the way objects like these, with a bit of context and empathy, can connect us to people we have not remembered in written archives. They never mean only one thing, and their stories will keep unfolding as long we care to look under the surface.

Linnea Hodge, Curatorial Division Coordinator


[1] Reindert Falkenburg, “Prayer Nuts: Feasting the Eyes of the Heart,” in Prayer Nuts, Private Devotion, and Early Modern Art Collecting, ed. Evelin Wetter and Frits Scholten (Abegg-Stiftung, 2017), 15-17.
[2] Falkenburg, “Prayer Nuts”, 13
Images: Rosary Bead, Miniature Religious Scenes, early 16th century, Flemish, sandalwood, pear wood, and ivory, 1 9/16 x 1 7/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 67.4, photo: Craig Boyko Art Gallery of Ontario, 2016

Object of the Week: Solstice Echo

In the weeks leading up to the winter solstice, light—increasingly subsumed by darkness—feels like a precious resource. It can be easy to forget just how much we rely on daylight, and difficult to remember what life was like even six months ago. Luckily, Saturday brings with it the shortest day and longest night of the year, and longer and longer days thereafter.

For artist Edda Renouf, the solstice is a perfect subject given her interest in light, nature, and the passage of time. Known for her minimal and meditative compositions, Renouf’s paintings and works on paper often engage material qualities that are intrinsic to her given mediums. In Solstice Echo, for example, the weave of the paper is enhanced by the verticality of the composition’s emergent form, further dramatized by deep red and black oil pastel hues.

In the words of Renouf, whose work is often linked to post-minimalism and the work of Agnes Martin: “Materials speak to me and unexpected things happen. It is from a silent conversation between materials and imagination, from intuitive listening that the paintings and drawings are born.” Renouf’s quiet and meditative compositions reveal essential truths about painting and drawing through simple formal decisions.

In Solstice Echo, the oil pastel sits on the surface of the textured paper—calling attention to its two-dimensionality—but also highlights a depth and deeper material structure that belies the paper’s inherent flatness. Taken together with the work’s title, Solstice Echo is indeed a meditation on light and space, capturing the subtle tension between lightness and darkness.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: Solstice Echo, 2004, Edda Renouf, oil pastel on paper, 9 1/2 x 8 1/4 in., The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States, a joint initiative of the Trustees of the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection and the National Gallery of Art, with generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, 2008.29.31 ©Edda Renouf

Object of the Week: Cedar Bark Mat

While this Haida cedar bark mat from ca. 1900 reads like a painting—mounted and viewed two-dimensionally—its function was primarily utilitarian. This mat, meticulously woven from cedar bark, and others like it would serve a multitude of purposes: such mats could be found on walls or in doorways to prevent cold drafts and rain, or used as room dividers. Other times they might be used when foraging and drying berries, or for comfort when digging clams and cleaning fish. On more special occasions, these mats would be presented as potlatch gifts or as ceremonial ground cover.

A number of things can be fashioned from cedar—its bark is especially versatile, processed and turned into what is in essence a thread. Cedar tree people appear throughout Haida oral tradition, and cedar bark, essential to everyday life, is known as “every woman’s elder sister.” Like an older sister, cedar bark deserves respect and helps its younger sister by providing material for clothing, baskets, and other important items. The mat itself, with its overlapping bands and geometric gridding, was also woven by a Haida woman. (The painting on the mat was likely added by another—male—Haida artist.)

Yaqui poet Richard Walker wrote a poem, The Cedar Tree (excerpted below), which celebrates the importance of the cedar tree for First Nations and Northwest Coast peoples, and the wide-ranging activities and traditions that are passed on from one generation to the next as a result:

And what else do we know, but that

This tree continued the life,

growing to great heights,

providing shelter for birds and

other animals,

providing bark fiber for clothing,

and for fishing nets,

providing bark fiber for baskets

in which to collect berries or cook shellfish,

fine woven baskets that are passed from

mother to daughter, and from grandmother

to granddaughter?

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: Cedar bark mat, ca. 1900, Haida, painted cedar bark mat mounted on burlap and panel board, 70 x 35 in., Gift of R. Bruce and Mary-Louise Colwell, 2019.3.7

Object of the Week: Salomé with Head of John the Baptist

Throughout the early part of the 20th century, an art and design movement known as Art Deco grew in popularity. First originating in France as Arts Décoratifs, it was characterized by its use of rich materials and amalgamation of different artistic styles, including Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Persian influences. Art Deco quickly gained influence, and shaped everything from architecture to car designs, with artists and designers working to achieve a sleek elegance that was distinctly modern. One artist who worked within the style was Boris Lovet-Lorski. Born in Lithuania in 1894, Lovet-Lorski gravitated towards the highly stylized and flattened aesthetic of the Art Deco movement, and throughout the 1920s and 30s he showcased his skills through allegorical female nudes sculpted in bronze.

Lovet-Lorski often found inspiration in antiquity and mythology, and Salomé with the Head of John the Baptist in SAM’s collection is no exception. Designed around 1930, the piece draws from the story of Salomé’s “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Salomé was the daughter of Herod II, prince of Judaea, and Herodias. Sometime after Salomé’s birth, Herodias chose to divorce Herod II and marry Herod Antipas (Herod II’s half-brother), a decision opposed by John the Baptist, who was imprisoned for his criticism. For Antipas’ birthday, he asked for his new step-daughter, Salomé, to perform a dance for him. Antipas was so taken with her skill and beauty that he agreed to grant her any wish. Fueled by her mother’s continuing anger towards John the Baptist for criticizing her divorce from Herod II and subsequent marriage to Antipas, Salomé asked for John the Baptist’s head, delivered to her on a platter.

In Lovet-Lorski’s work, Salomé is portrayed in the middle of her dance, erotic in her slinky half-split. As is often the case, Salomé takes on the role of a femme fatale, a seductive woman using her wiles for her own gain. This is emphasized by the Art Deco sleekness of the sculpture, as she hangs her head over the half-shown face of John the Baptist.

Hayley Makinster, SAM Curatorial Intern

Image: Salomé with the Head of John the Baptist, ca. 1930, Boris Lovet-Lorski, bronze on self base, 15 1/2 x 28 1/2 x 10 1/2 in., Gift of Mrs. John C. Atwood, Jr., 34.145 © Boris Lovet-Lorski

Object of the Week: Bulul

Hailing from the Philippines, bulul figures are perhaps the most common and well-known of Ifugao sculptural traditions. An isolated and landlocked province surrounded by rugged and precipitous terrain, Ifugao and its people long resisted Spanish colonization, which left much of their culture, religion, and artistic traditions intact.

For the Ifugao people, known for their elaborate terrace farms and complex irrigation systems, rice is a cornerstone of daily life. Representing a rice deity, bulul are highly stylized and carved from a single piece of wood. Standing bulul figures are often depicted with hands resting on their knees, slightly bent, while the arms of seated bulul figures are typically folded. Most often carved in male and female pairs, figures could also be androgynous.

The figures are understood as fundamental in ensuring a good harvest, as well as guarding the season’s crop from thieves. They also represent the harmonious union of oppositional elements and the promise of good fortune. Every harvest, bulul would be brought out to share in the bounty of rice, chicken, pig, and rice wine. The rich, mottled patina of the bulul in SAM’s collection demonstrates its use in various rituals and ceremonies, which would include smoke and grease from food offerings.

Bulul can be venerated and passed down for generations, ultimately overseeing many harvest seasons, as well as a number of ceremonies celebrating the abundance and generosity of the earth.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: Bulul, late 19th, early 20th century, Philippines, wood, 22 x 6 x 6in., Gift of Georgia Schwartz Sales, 2003.96

Object of the Week: Foolish Extravagance

This etching by Francisco José Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), titled Foolish Extravagance, is part of series titled Los Disparates (The Follies) from 1815/16–1823/24. Completed by an artist who lived through the oppressive Spanish Inquisition, among other sociopolitical events, each print from the series variously address themes of foolishness, misrepresentation, abuse of power, and fear.

Disparates was published posthumously in 1864 by The Royal Academy of San Fernando, from the 18 (of 22) plates in their possession. When The Royal Academy first produced this edition, they did so under the title Los Proverbios, sending scholars on a quest to match the prints with their respective proverbs. Later proofs by the artist—with handwritten titles beginning with the word “disparates”—shifted their meaning: these images were not illustrative of proverbs, but rather of follies. In the time since, the series has evaded clear interpretation, and “any promise of clear symbolic meaning that these things might offer is empty.”[1]

In Foolish Extravagance, four bulls twist, jerk, and careen one on top of another, seemingly free-falling against an amorphous black background. Offering little information, this black void heightens the sense of disorientation and absurdity that the image conveys. Lacking any rationalism that would be signaled by a horizon line, or other compositional cues, this and other etchings from Los Disparates evidence an absence of reason and coherent meaning.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: Foolish Extravagance, 1815, Francisco José Goya y Lucientes, aquatint and etching, 8 5/16 x 12 3/4 in., Manson F. Backus Memorial Collection, 35.133
[1] Douglas Cushing, “Beyond All Reason: Goya and his Disparates,” Blanton Museum of Art, February 23, 2015, https://blantonmuseum.org/2015/02/beyond-all-reason-goya-and-his-disparates-2/.

Object of the Week: Two Totems with Man No. 56

Artist James Castle was born in Garden Valley, Idaho in 1899. The fifth of seven children, he was born deaf, and spent his whole life unable to speak, read, write, or sign. Castle started drawing at the age of six, leading to a lifetime of creativity with art serving as his own personal form of communication.

In 1931, Castle moved with his family to Boise, Idaho, where Castle remained until his death in 1977. There was much that was unconventional about the artist: largely self-taught, his primary drawing materials included soot from the family woodstove, mixed with his saliva, which he would apply to an upcycled piece of cardboard (e.g. a milk carton) with a found utensil, oftentimes a sharpened stick. His drawings were heavily influenced by the environment he lived in, and were sometimes a mix of highly realistic and abstract imagery. He also drew many scenes from the family’s previous homes, which are believed to be recreated from memory.

Though Castle was seemingly content to produce artworks for himself and his family, in 1951 his nephew shared some of the drawings with his art professors in Oregon, who immediately expressed interest. Thus began a new stage of Castle’s life, in which Castle’s work continuously garnered more attention, culminating in an exhibition of his works at the Boise Art Museum, the highest honor he achieved during his lifetime.

Today Castle is considered one of the most recognized self-taught artists. Two Totems with Man No. 56, in SAM’s collection, was produced using stove soot and saliva to make charcoal, which was then applied using a matchstick to a found salvaged piece of cardboard. As with many of the artist’s pieces, it has a knotted string hanger. A more abstract example of Castle’s oeuvre, the meaning behind the totems in Two Totems continues to evade scholars, although it is a motif Castle returned to often. Even so, with this and other works, we are able to gain valuable insight into how Castle viewed the world around him.

Hayley Makinster, SAM Curatorial Intern

Image: Two Totems with Man No. 56, 20th century, James Castle, stove soot drawn with matchstick on cardboard, 6 3/4 x 9 3/4 in., General Acquisition Fund, 74.33 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Couplet

Oracle-bone script (jiaguwen) is a form of Chinese writing that emerged during the Shang Dynasty—dating from the 14th–11th century BCE—and is considered the earliest known form of systematic Chinese script.

Some of the oldest oracle-bone inscriptions were short texts inscribed on the flat shoulder blade bones of oxen and shells of tortoises. Such bones were used for divination, a process which involved the inscription of a question with a bronze pin—lending the script its characteristic angularity—and then heating the bone to reveal cracks, which would be divined for answers.

The symbols used eventually became words, which were later developed into a Chinese script that is recognized today as part of China’s long tradition of calligraphic arts. This work by Rao Zongyi, titled Couplet, utilizes the ancient script, brought to life for a contemporary audience.

Rao—a poet, calligrapher, painter, and scholar of the humanities—produced the couplet in 1971 while a visiting professor at Yale University. Composed by Rao, the poem describes in red ink a kun-style operatic performance by Chang Ch’ung. Together the two scrolls read: The wind makes the snow dance amidst the sunlight, the music hangs like clouds on her garments.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Couplet, 1971, Rao Zongyi, red ink on paper, 74 5/16 x 14 3/16 in., Gift of Chang Ch’ung-ho and Hans Frankel from their collection, 2010.9.6.1-.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Time-(B)

Two identical, white clocks sit on a scale. One—reading 12:15—appears the heavier of the two, sitting ever so slightly below its counterpart at 12:04. Of course, the minute discrepancy (pun intended) between the weights of the two clocks—correlating with their respective times—is impossible, but the power of the photographic image lies in its ability to convince us otherwise.

Ever a master of the conceptual punchline, photographer Kenji Nakahashi plays with our interpretation of time and its assumed objectivity. His longstanding interest in the documentary value and, again, assumed objectivity of photography—a time-based medium—is also at play, and clearly inextricable. In his characteristically understated way, Nakahashi tackles the subjectivity of both time and photography in one fell swoop.

Born in present-day Ibigawa, Japan, Nakahashi moved to New York City in 1973, where he lived until his death in 2017. His time in Japan was formative, but living and working in the United States is where Nakahashi developed a robust studio practice centered on everyday objects and materials. This is when he began turning the mundane—such as two clocks and a scale—into a source of poetic beauty, conceptual rigor, and humor. For Nakahashi, such small observations and actions became an important activity that allowed him to render the world anew.

Elisabeth Smith, Collection and Provenance Associate

Time-(B), 1980, Kenji Nakahashi, ektacolor print, sheet: 11 x 14 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Kazuo Kondo, 95.35 ©Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Study for Aleko’s Horse

Marc Chagall was a prolific artist, producing numerous pieces in a variety of media. Renowned for his richly colored, idiosyncratic style of painting that weds abstraction and Cubism, some of his lesser-known masterpieces revolved around the theater. Chagall’s relationship with the stage began in 1911, when he worked on set designs for the Ballets Russes. He continued to contribute to Russian-based stage designs throughout the ‘20s, before moving to Paris in 1923.[1] While this was an artistically productive period for Chagall, the Nazi occupation of France made living in Paris unsafe for the artist, who was Jewish. With the assistance of organizations working to extricate artists and intellectuals from Europe, Chagall and his wife immigrated to New York for the duration of World War II, arriving in the United States in 1941.  

In 1942, Chagall was hired by the Ballet Theater of New York to design the ballet costumes and sets for a new play. Based on the poem “The Gypsies,” by Alexander Pushkin, the ballet Aleko featured music by Tchaikovsky.[2] The ballet follows the story of Aleko, the protagonist who falls in love with a Romani girl named Zemfira. Their love is not everlasting, however, and by the fourth act Aleko kills Zemfira and her new lover in a fit of jealous rage. While Chagall had worked on set designs before, this was the first time he applied his skills to a ballet. He ultimately designed four backdrops—one for each act—and over 70 costumes. While the ballet’s production was to be completed in New York, union rules forbade Chagall from painting his own sets. As a result, production moved to Mexico City, an environment which greatly influenced Chagall’s designs. Heavily inspired by both Russian folklore and Mexican art and architecture, Chagall produced beautifully whimsical hand-painted ballet costumes and backdrops, including numerous design studies.

Chagall’s Study for Aleko’s Horse is one such study, merging images from both the second and fourth acts of the play. The study’s rich, vibrant colors and whimsical subject matter capture the dynamic and psychological aspects of the story. In the second act, which revolves around a lively carnival, Aleko and Zemfira are still in love. By the fourth act, Aleko dreams of strange and nightmarish fantasies, with images that twist and swirl before his eyes. Aleko’s nightmares take him to the brink of insanity—and, jealous and enraged, he kills Zemfira, in love with another man.[3] The juxtaposition of these two scenes represents the dramatic turn of events, synthesized in Chagall’s study as a densely layered, colorful dreamscape.

Hayley Makinster, SAM Curatorial Intern

[1] Stephanie Barron, “Marc Chagall and Twentieth-Century Designs for the Stage,” LACMA Unframed, 1 August 2017. https://unframed.lacma.org/2017/08/01/marc-chagall-and-twentieth-century-designs-stage
[2] Liesl Bradner, “Marc Chagall Reveals his Theatrical Side in LACMA’s ‘Fantasies for the Stage,’” LA Times, 23 July 2017. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-ca-cm-chagall-lacma-20170714-story.html
[3] Leland Windreich, “Massine’s ‘Aleko,’” Dance Chronicle 8, no. ¾ (1985): 156-160, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1567580
Image: Study for Aleko’s Horse, 1953-56, Marc Chagall, Oil on canvas, 18 × 24 in. (45.7 × 61 cm), Gift of Gladys and Sam Rubinstein, 2014.26.9 Estate of Marc Chagall/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Object of the Week: Aphrodite Torso

Ancient Greek art is often associated with beautiful marble statuary depicting heroic subjects, and beautiful male and female bodies. However, until the Hellenistic period of Greek history, the female nude was not portrayed in large sculptural works, passed over instead for heroic male nudes. This all changed when Praxiteles, one of the most renowned Attic sculptors of the 4th century BCE, designed the first life-sized female nude statue. Purchased by the Temple of Aphrodite at Knidos, his revolutionary nude portrayal of the goddess Aphrodite became famous, and was a well-known tourist attraction in its day. As was the tradition, the Aphrodite statue would have been brightly and realistically painted. According to historians, this produced a statue so lifelike that men would fall in love with her instantly. Praxiteles’ creation led to a new era of Greek sculptural work that now included the life-sized female nude in the artistic repertoire, inspiring thousands of copies and derivations.

Designed during the 2nd century BCE, this statuette in SAM’s collection depicts the nude torso of Aphrodite, carved by an unknown artist. While this statuette is not life-sized, the pervasive popularity of Praxiteles’ work (lasting well into the Roman Empire) would have influenced both the subject and style of this statuette. Although her legs and arms are missing—most likely broken in antiquity—it appears from the curve of her shoulders that Aphrodite would have been adjusting her hair. While she was often depicted emerging from the sea, this statuette might have portrayed the goddess wringing seawater out of her hair. Discovered in Egypt, this statuette was a byproduct of the constant trade between Hellenistic Greece and their colonized counterparts throughout the Mediterranean. Although Egypt was a Greek state by the 2nd century BCE, the Ptolemaic rulers continued to favor Egyptian art and iconography over Greek works. The presence of this statue in Egypt could mean that it belonged to a Greek government official living in Egypt at the time.

Hayley Makinster, SAM Curatorial Intern

Image: Aphrodite Torso (after Praxiteles), 2nd century B.C., Egyptian, marble, 13 1/16 x 5 1/4 x 4 3/8 in., Norman and Amelia Davis Classical Collection, 61.74

Object of the Week: Kylix

A kylix is a type of ancient Greek drinking vessel, designed to hold wine for members of a symposium, or an after-dinner drinking party. Seated on cushion-covered couches along the walls of the host’s dining room, these party-goers would recline on their left elbow while drinking with their right hand. Because of their recumbent positions, kylikes were the perfect vessel to drink from. Relatively shallow, and with a handle on either side of the cup, men, and sometimes their consorts could drink without spilling while reclining with ease.

The outside of this particular kylix is decorated with a symposium scene, depicting various red figures. Each man holds a skyphos – another type of wine-drinking vessel – while dancing with an upraised hand. The inside, or tondo, of the kylix introduces yet another scene, and would have been revealed as the attendee finished his wine. The scene depicts two youths reclining on a couch while flinging the contents of a kylix with their right hand. While this may appear like a rowdy moment brought on by an excess of wine, the two men are instead playing kottabos. A fairly challenging drinking game, kottabos was a common feature of the after-dinner festivities, and the kylix was the equipment of choice. Partiers would loop their right index finger through the handle, aim, and fling the dregs of their wine at the target, which was usually a bowl balanced on a stand or floating in water. Playing required agility and good aim, and missing could result in dosing your fellow guests with wine! Perhaps the reward of cakes or sweetmeats made the mess worthwhile.

Hayley Makinster, SAM Curatorial Intern

Images: Red-figure Kylix (cup) with Symposion Scene, active ca. BC 700 – 480
Painter of the Paris Gigantomachia, ceramic, 5 1/8 x 16 1/8 in., Gift of the Norman and Amelia Davis Classical Collection, 59.30

Object of the Week: Tsuba

A tsuba is a hand guard of a Japanese sword, mounted between the handgrip and the blade, to protect the user’s hand. Either carved or molded, they also help balance the sword, which is comprised of a number of complicated—but equally important—components.

While highly practical in its purpose, there is, as with all things, room for ornamentation and embellishment. This 19th-century example in SAM’s collection, made of copper alloy with gold and silver inlay, depicts an elegant nighttime landscape. Under the arc of the crescent moon, the spray of gold plants and flowers appear to be basking in the moonlight, also gold.

Prior to the 17th century, the functionality of a tsuba was more important than its decoration. From the 17th century onward, tsuba became more elaborate, with carving and molding techniques more sophisticated. Designs on tsuba—such as this one—often draw their subject matter from Japanese folklore and nature, and importantly signal the status of the sword’s owner.

Currently, on view in SAM’s third-floor galleries, this tsuba is part of the exhibition Gentleman Warrior: Art of the Samurai, which explores lesser-known aspects of samurai culture, including patronage of the arts. From the tea ceremony to Noh theater, the samurai class helped advance various artistic practices in the service of showcasing both their military might and cultural prowess.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Tsuba: Plants in Landscape and Moon in Inlay, 19th century, Japanese, copper alloy with gold and silver inlay, 2 5/8 x 2 1/2 x 3/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 34.95. Photo: Elizabeth Mann

Object of the Week: Milk Container

The fall weather has arrived and, with it, decorative gourd season. [1] This Pokot gourd, however, is not purely decorative or ornamental, but carries with it important food traditions and community symbolism.

Like this elegant vessel, inscribed with geometric patterns, such milk containers are made by Pokot women to contain a thick, yogurt-like dairy beverage (also known as mala ya kienyeji or kamabele kambou) that is prepared from cow’s or goat’s milk, and mixed with the ashes of the cromwo tree—a tree endemic to western Kenya. Produced by Pokot communities for generations, the beverage is prepared by fermenting milk inside dried hollow gourds, later adding cromwo ash for its antiseptic properties, aromatic flavor, and distinctive color.

To make the gourd vessel, the hard skin of a calabash gourd is hollowed out, dried, and smoked using cromwo wood. The milk is then poured into the gourd, whose natural bacteria magically assists in the fermentation and acidification process. Once the milk begins to coagulate, whey is removed and fresh milk is added. This process repeats for one week, with the addition of an occasional shake.

Historically a staple of the Pokot diet, ash yogurt’s presence has decreased significantly due to shifts in livestock farming, as well as other environmental and economic factors. While the yogurt beverage is still made by some families, it is far less abundant. Still, the tradition persists. As poetically described by a food activist and scholar of global fermentation processes: “the gourd itself is the vehicle of perpetuation.”[2]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

[1] Colin Nissan’s “fist-pumping celebration of fall” was first published online by McSweeney’s in 2009 and has since proven to have consistent longevity on the internet, in no small part due to the efficiency with which the essay captures the American mania for autumn.
[2] Sandor Ellix Katz, The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012), pp. 181-182.
Image: Milk container, Pokot, gourd, leather, and metal, 7 1/2 in., diam.: 4 1/4 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.1053

Object of the Week: We Are All in This Together

The words “we are all in this together” announce themselves in bold, sans-serif force, asserting the urgency and agency of the message. Created by artist Mark Mumford in 2002, the work—whose title is the same as the text—was created in the context of and in response to the protests that took place before the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

As with many artists who work with language, Mumford is interested in the slippages of syntax and the ways in which words carry a multitude of meanings. In the case of We Are All in This Together, the message can be read as either empowering and uplifting, or apathetic and resigned. For the artist, “meaning hovers on the threshold of realization, and where the knotty relationships between seeing and reading, reading and believing, believing and seeing are given a full and lively expression.”

Currently on view in the Brotman Forum, the work transforms the entrance of the Seattle Art Museum into a shared textual experience that is visible from the outside of the museum as well. Though made over 15 years ago, the work carries more political significance than ever. The words especially ring true today—a day designated for climate strikes around the world—when millions of people will march for urgent climate action. As is the case with any issue, we can choose either action or resignation; whichever you choose, there’s no denying that we are all in this together.

Elisabeth Smith, Collection & Provenance Associate

Images: We Are All in This Together, 2002, Mark Mumford, vinyl lettering produced from CD formatted for a MAC with both a FreeHand and an EPS version of the artwork, dimensions variable, Gift of Carlos Garcia and James Harris in honor of Kimberly Richter Shirley, 2003.60 © Mark Mumford. Installation view, Seattle Art Museum, 2019.

Object of the Week: Still Life with Fruit and Vegetables, After Juan Sanches Cotan

From very far away, one sees the softly rendered image of a still life, complete with various citrus fruits, root vegetables, and leafy greens. Their shapes are loose and open, lacking definition aside from the sharp color contrasts between the bright yellow of the lemon, orange of the carrot, and deep black of the background. As one moves closer to the work, peering intently at it, the fruits and vegetables in the window sill reassert their construction in a pointillist fashion. Each “brushstroke” turns out to be a dot of distinct color, contributing to the ambiguous outlines and shapes.

However, the work is not a painting with layers of dots of color. Rather, Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz created Still Life with Fruit and Vegetables, After Juan Sanches Cotan by layering cut and hole-punched paper scraps from magazines into a collage. To add yet another dimension to the work, Muniz then photographed the collage, which resulted in the final work: an enlarged chromogenic print. This photo is based on a still life by Juan Sanches Cotan, a notable Spanish Baroque painter, known for his austere yet deeply realistic still lifes.

The optical relationship between part and whole has been something that has interested Muniz for many years:

It’s like the fur in Vermeer’s painting of The Woman Reading a Letter at the Frick. You get up close and you can’t see fur anymore, just a blur of brushstrokes. Then you go back and it’s fur again. . . . I think art without pretenses of being more than a visual exercise can indeed be powerful and complete.1

Throughout his career, he has used elements such as sugar to construct portraits of children working on sugar plantations, peanut butter and jelly to recreate the Mona Lisa, and garbage to depict pickers in one of Brazil’s largest garbage dumps. His works connect past and present and create illusions of famous and recognizable works.

Emma Ming Wahl, SAM Curatorial Intern

1 Vik Muniz, “Bomb Magazine: Vik Muniz by Mark Magill.” Vik Muniz. Accessed September 10, 2019. http://vikmuniz.net/library/vik-muniz-by-mark-magill.

Image: Still Life with Fruit and Vegetables, after Juan Sanches Cotan, 2004, Vik Muniz, Chromogenic print, 72 x 99 1/2 in. (182.9 x 252.7cm) Gift of Jeffrey and Susan Brotman, Jane Davis, Barney A. Ebsworth, Henry and Mary Ann James, Janet Ketcham, Sally Neukom, Virginia Wright, and Ann Wyckoff in honor of Chiyo Ishikawa, 2004.93.

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Object of the Week: Birdcage

In a scene from the 2008 Disney animated movie, Mulan, Mulan’s grandmother holds a caged cricket, closes her eyes, and crosses a bustling street in China. Like the pet cricket in Mulan, the practice of domesticating and keeping animals in cages such as crickets and birds traces back to China’s earliest records.

This birdcage in SAM’s collection, pictured here, was likely created during the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911) or Republican period (1850-1920). In China, a pronounced appreciation for bird keeping arose during the Qing dynasty. During this period, the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) particularly enjoyed raising pet birds, and the emperor’s fascination subsequently permeated China. As aviculture spread throughout the country, many men would stroll through the early morning streets, swinging their birdcages back and forth like a pendulum. To this day, Chinese bird keepers swing cages to encourage birds to grip to their perch, an exercise which prevents birds’ feathers from falling off.

As much as aviculturists value their birds, they equally value the craftsmanship of the birdcages. The maker of this birdcage remains unknown. Crafted from hardwood, ivory, and metal, intricate carvings and patterns are etched into the wood. Ivory insets depict beautiful landscapes, evoking scenes of the world where the bird once flew free. Also notable is the cage’s design, which reflects recognizable architectural features of a pagoda, such as steps trailing up to the door and the two-storied structure. Pagodas originated as sacred places to preserve Buddhist relics, and this distinct structure can be found throughout China’s built environment.

While intricately handcrafted birdcages have diminished recently due to industrialization, the cage markets in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong continue to thrive, allowing this rich artistic tradition to live on. See this work on view at SAM in Pure Amusements: Wealth, Leisure, and Culture in Late Imperial China.

Lauren Farris, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern

Image: Birdcage, 1850-1920, Chinese, wood, metal, ivory, 26 x 12 1/2 x 12 1/2in., Gift of Henry and Mary Ann James, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.11.

Object of the Week: Yuka

It wouldn’t be too difficult to argue that we live in a youth-obsessed culture. If we only take a moment to look around, we can see it everywhere. It pops up in advertisements, in movies, and in TV. It works its way into our minds with anti-ageing skin creams and anti-graying hair dyes. It settles into our society and fills us with the irrefutable fear of getting older. To be young—or so our culture seems to suggest—is to be wild, uninhibited, and free. And, conversely, to be old is to be slow, sidelined, and ignored.

While this is never fully true in reality, it is difficult to deny that, in our current society, old age is a thing that many people fear. Some might argue that this is even more prevalent for women, who are judged more frequently on their looks than men and who, as such, feel more pressure to maintain a youthful appearance. How many times have you heard a woman complain about “getting old”? It is because women have so much more to lose when they lose their youth.

In her series My Grandmothers, however, photographer Miwa Yanagi presents a fascinating and poignant counterargument to our societal fear of aging.

For My Grandmothers, Yanagi interviewed a variety of women between the ages of fourteen and twenty, asking them to describe what they thought their lives would look like in fifty years. She then staged photos to capture these descriptions. The photo above is titled Yuka, named for a woman who imagined herself living on in the U.S. with her younger, playboy lover. Yuka, with bright red hair and a cigarette, riding down the Golden Gate Bridge in the sidecar of a motorcycle, hardly fits our stereotypical idea of an old woman. She is laughing with abandon, unashamed and unconstrained.

With Yuka, as with the other portraits in the series, Yanagi explores the idea that old age is liberating rather than limiting. Women, no longer defined by their beauty and (as one critic noted) by their reproductive abilities, are free to live for themselves, on their own terms, by their own rules. According to Yanagi, young women today are restricted by society’s expectations and are unable to express their true desires for the lives that they want to live. When they are freed from their youth, they are freed from those confines. Old age, it seems, is not so much our great nightmare as it is our ticket to a more liberating life.

See this photograph in person at the Seattle Asian Art Museum when it reopens in early 2020!

Isabelle Qian, SAM Curatorial Intern

Image: Yuka, 2000, Miwa Yanagi, chromogenic print, Plexiglas, Dibond mounted on aluminum with text panel, 63 x 63 in., additional text: 15 5/8 x 15 5/8 in., Gift of Janet Ketcham, 2004.33, © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Object of the Week: Disc with dragon motif

From some of the first recorded dragons found in Mesopotamian art, to the dragons found snarling onscreen and in books, numerous cultures have fostered their own myths and beliefs about dragons. Still, most of the dragons we encounter today are the fearsome fire-breathing creatures of the European tradition who lay waste to cities and hoard mounds of gold.

In Chinese culture, however, the dragon is highly revered and a symbol of good fortune. Originally associated with the stars and constellations that appear in the spring, dragons began to represent the seasons of rain and the coming of summer.1 Instead of bringing fire and destruction, Chinese dragons brought rain for crops and livestock.

In many areas of China, the dragon symbolizes harmony and prosperity. The number nine has long been associated with heaven and dragons have often been described in nines—leading to this number being deemed particularly auspicious. Later, dragons even began to be equated to the imperial throne and the reigning emperor through architecture and garments.

Far more sinuous and twisting than their Western European counterparts, Chinese dragons had bird-like wings with long plumes and whiskers. In this jade disc from the 8th century B.C., two dragons intertwine and almost chase each other across the mossy green stone. Each deeply abstracted line flows through one another. If one looks close enough, one can glimpse the dragon’s long coiling snout, the orb-like eye, and the curving jaw. Tangled with their bodies and tails, these two creatures’ plumes function as the outer ring of the disk.

These stone rings, or bi disks, were often carved with sky imagery and buried with the dead. There, dragons signified heaven, harmony, and balance within the natural order of life.2 Rather than functioning as harbingers of doom and destruction, the dragon in Chinese culture and mythology continues to be a symbol of luck and prosperity, hoping to bring balance to many.

  – Emma Ming Wahl, SAM Curatorial Intern

1 Wilson, J. Keith. “Powerful Form and Potent Symbol: The Dragon in Asia.” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 77, no. 8 (1990): 286-323. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25161297.

2 Lopes, Rui Oliveira. “Securing the Harmony between the High and the Low: Power Animals and Symbols of Political Authority in Ancient Chinese Jades and Bronzes.” Asian Perspectives 53, no. 2 (2014): 195-225. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24569921.

Image: Disc with dragon motif, 10th  – 8th century B.C., Chinese, Nephrite, Diameter: 9 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 39.11.

Object of the Week: Bullet

As we have seen too many times in recent weeks, a single bullet can destroy a life, a family, and a community. In this photograph by Harold Edgerton, a bullet is frozen in time and space, its trajectory and destruction momentarily bound.

Born in Nebraska in 1903, Edgerton studied electrical engineering at MIT. His academic background, coupled with his interest in motion and high-speed photography, allowed him to produce images that made visible the imperceptible. After earning his PhD in 1931, Edgerton developed and improved upon various stroboscopic models—a repeatable flash device better known today as a ‘strobe’—ultimately applying for 45 patents between the years 1933 and 1936. The high-powered repetition of the strobe allowed Edgerton to effectively freeze objects in motion in order to capture them on film, resulting in iconic photographs that bring together science, technology, and art.

The history of photography is inextricable from the history and development of military technology—to borrow from French theorist Paul Virilio, “For men at war, the function of the weapon is the function of the eye”—making the bullet a fitting subject for Edgerton to capture.[1] In this photograph, printed in 1961, the bullet serves to represent technological achievement and photographic mastery; today, however, it is hard to see a single bullet as anything other than destructive, especially when they are rarely singular, more often multiplied in the hundreds and deployed in seconds.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

[1] Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London: Verso, 1989), p. 20.
Image: Bullet, 1961, Harold Edgerton, gelatin silver photograph, 9 1/2 x 8 5/8 in., The Harold and Esther Edgerton Family Foundation, 96.48 © Edgerton Family Foundation

Object of the Week: Daedalus/Upliftment

In Daedalus/Upliftment, a young Black man struggles to take flight. His gaze is fixed on the ground instead of the sky, with eyes downcast and obscured by gold sunglasses. One hand is outstretched to conceal himself. The other grasps a plume of pheasant feathers, with a rope tied around his wrist. A wreath of ostrich feathers adorns his neck, draping his chest and blending into bright white pants. The feathers symbolize the deities Yoruba Orisas Obatala of wisdom, and Osun of love.

This full-body portrait portrays someone steady, yet vulnerable, someone who embodies the emotional juxtapositions of freedom and captivity, hope and doubt. The dazzling high-tops—inlaid with gold leaf and spray paint detail, dripping to the edges of the canvas—paired with grayscale triangle-patterned socks are captivating. Although a symbol of value, the gold sneakers carry much weight: a strain against the aspirations and ability to rise.

Daedalus/Upliftment is from Dr. Fahamu Pecou’s 2015 series, I Know Why The Caged Bird Blings, the series title inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” A visual/performing artist and scholar, Pecou concentrates on Black masculinity in his work. Pecou probes today’s media representations, expectations, and images of Black men removed from Black agency—including stereotypes of violence—and their emotional toll on readings and performances of Black masculinity. In 2017, Pecou was the subject of a retrospective exhibition “Miroirs de l’Homme” (Mirrors of the Man) in Paris, France and a recipient of the 2016 Joan Mitchell Foundation “Painters and Sculptors” Award.[1]

Pecou continues to lead speaking engagements across the nation, and gave a TED Talk in Atlanta, Georgia, “An artist’s counterpoint to black masculinity and identity stereotypes,” sharing his own testimonies as a Black man in America.

Daedalus/Upliftment alludes to the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus built wings of feathers and wax for himself and his son, Icarus, to escape their prison. Despite Daedalus’ warning, Icarus flew too close to the sun, melting the wax on the wings, falling and drowning in the ocean. Pecou reinterprets this classic tragedy and questions the actions of Daedalus as Icarus’ father. Daedalus/Uplifting provokes a meditation on paternalism and masculinity, with “the breakdown of intergenerational communication and the emotional complexities within the Black male experience that trouble the desire and ability to take flight.”[2]

In the far-right corner of the stark white background, Pecou leaves us a surrealist poem:

Uplift meant

Uplift men

up… lift men

UP! lift men…

Up.

– Rachel Kim, SAM Curatorial Intern

Image: Daedalus/Upliftment, 2016, Fahamu Pecou, acrylic, gold leaf and spray paint on canvas, 84 × 48 in., Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, 2016.20 © Artist or Artist’s Estate
[1] “The Official Website of Visual/Performing Artist and Scholar Dr. Fahamu Pecou.” https://www.fahamupecouart.com/
[2] Fahamu Pecou: https://www.instagram.com/p/BItROlBDUIg/?hl=en

Object of the Week: Mirror with the Judgment of Paris

Homer’s paired stories of The Iliad and The Odyssey have fascinated artists and creators for centuries, generating art, literature, and music. One such artwork, The Judgement of Paris, is an Etruscan piece from around the 4th–3th centuries BCE, and is currently on view at the Seattle Art Museum.

This ancient work illustrates the critical moment that ultimately led to a 10-year war that ravaged the Mediterranean. Deftly etched into the back of a circular mirror, a riveting scene leaps out: four figures tangle with one another, three clad in traditional Greek garments with delicate folds and drapery, and one almost nude (save for a few accessories). This nude woman on the left, the goddess Aphrodite, faces the other three as they each raise their hands to their mouths­­—in shock at her attire or, possibly, at the decision that has just been made in this scene.

The figure hidden behind the remaining two clothed women is Paris, a young man ordered by Zeus, the king of the gods, to determine the most beautiful goddess. Each of the three goddesses represented here—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite—offer him a bribe. Hera swears to make him a king, Athena promises wisdom and bravery in battle, and Aphrodite pledges the world’s most beautiful, albeit married, mortal woman: Helen. Paris’s fateful decision to align himself with Aphrodite and sail with Helen to Troy would eventually enable the deeply destructive Trojan War of which Homer wrote.

I find this scene quite interesting due to its historical and cultural references, but also for its touch of irony. Used for numerous occasions, ranging from funerals to weddings, mirrors in Etruscan culture feature mythological moments that deal with physical appearance, specifically “any tale in which vanity or comeliness gained its rewards.”[1] Although Paris’ choice did reward him a love affair with Helen, it also caused one of the longest and most famous sieges in literary history. This seductive tableau—simultaneously puzzling and inviting—raises questions surrounding sexuality, fidelity, and appearance in classical cultures.

Emma Ming Wahl, SAM Curatorial Intern

Mirror with scene of the Judgment of Paris, 4th–3rd century B.C., Etruscan, bronze, 10 3/8 x 7 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 48.36
[1] Nigel Spivey, Etruscan Art (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1997), 77.

Object of the Week: Slow Cooker

With these works, we have created art pieces that serve as cultural and historical artifacts that value and document the experiences, struggles, and achievements of those who have found their way, often through migration and exceptional sacrifice, to new places where they now work to contribute meaningfully within their communities.

  – Margarita Cabrera

Soft vinyl covers the customary porcelain, metal, and glass of this trusty kitchen crockpot. While the clear lid is left exposed, plush fabric replaces the sturdy handles and appliance parts. Red stitching adds a playful contrast against the sky blue base, and the remaining long, loose threads speak to homemade craftsmanship.

Slow Cooker is part of artist Margarita Cabrera’s soft sculpture series, which reimagines commercial objects from bicycles and cars to household tools and cleaning supplies. Cabrera was a featured artist in Pop Departures, a 2014 exhibition at SAM that explored contemporary artists who look to Pop Art for artistic inspiration or critique. The malleable and everyday forms of Cabrera’s sculptures draw on stylistic elements of works by Pop artist Claes Oldenburg.

Cabrera is an artist, activist, and community organizer. She infuses her art with socio-political and personal reflection as a Mexican American. Topics of cultural identity, migration, violence, inclusivity, labor, and empowerment—with a focus on US-Mexico border issues—are at the forefront of Cabrera’s art practice.[1] In her transformative justice initiatives, Cabrera organizes artistic collaborations in local communities. For her 2010 outreach project, Space in Between, Cabrera partnered with Latinx immigrants from Mexico and Central America to create sculptures of Southwestern US desert plants.[2] Using fabric from the uniforms of Border Patrol forces, the soft sculptures recall embroidery techniques from Los Tenangos, Hidalgo, Mexico and traditions of Otomi Indigenous communities. The workshops empowered the participants to share their journeys of tremendous danger and sacrifice, crafting dialogues of unity, healing, and resistance.

Playful and interactive, the collapsible textures of Slow Cooker invite touch and public engagement. The bold, bright colors are illustrative of traditional woven Mexican designs. Slow Cooker provokes us, and perhaps teases us, as consumers and viewers, to reconsider these unassuming objects and the hands that made them. Cabrera shatters the invisibility of immigrant laborers in factory, farm, and service jobs—engaging the need for active listening and policy change at the ground level, igniting a political conversation that remains urgent and necessary.

Rachel Kim, SAM Curatorial Intern

[1] “Margarita Cabrera.” © Margarita Cabrera, https://www.margaritacabrera.com/sample-page/
[2]“Margarita Cabrera: Space in Between. February 10 – June 10, 2018.” Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art, Hamilton College, https://www.hamilton.edu/wellin/exhibitions/detail/margarita-cabrera-space-in-between-1-1-1-1-1-1-1
Image: Slow Cooker, 2003, Margarita Cabrera, vinyl, thread, and appliance parts, 13 × 8 × 10 in., Modern Art Acquisition Fund and General Acquisition Fund, 2015.7.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: In Case of Fire

In Case of Fire is striking. Disorienting and surreal, the black-and-white landscape unfurls into the supernatural. A tree is anchored in a sea storm, a larger-than-life chicken is perched on the remains of a sinking home, animals and human figures are scattered against scenes of disaster.

Just as the flames and embers of fire possess movement, this linocut—a print carved onto linoleum block—captures the turbulent motion of winds, hills, and water swirling in waves across the surface. This fantastical presentation is of an apocalypse. Yet, despite the chaotic and apocalyptic imagery, In Case of Fire feels intuitively familiar. The fragmented images are contained in a single frame, and recall the nature of dreams with their strangely linear order of otherwise disconnected events and forms. Fishing and work-a-day motifs reflect the roles of labor and personal memory.

Seattle-based artist Barbara Earl Thomas is a storyteller. Though born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Thomas remains deeply connected to her Southern roots: Thomas’s parents had “left behind family and friends and a history rooted in slavery and sharecropping to take up 1940s war jobs.”[1] As an art student at the University of Washington, Thomas studied under Jacob Lawrence, who remained her close mentor and friend until his passing in 2000.

The composition and dramatic scope of In Case of Fire is inspired by folklore, myths, Biblical tales, and magical realism, drawing on the storytelling traditions passed through generations in Black history. An active figure in writing, arts administration, and public art commissions, Thomas maintains a social responsibility in her artwork. She invokes issues of inequity and injustice across communities and writes, “It is the chaos of living and the grief of our time that compels me, philosophically, emotionally, and artistically. I am a witness and a chronicler: I create stories from the apocalypse we live in now and narrate how life goes on in midst of the chaos.”[2]

Rachel Kim, SAM Curatorial Intern

[1]Upchurch, Michael. “Barbara Earl Thomas’ Linocuts Blend the Surreal with the Lyrical.” The Seattle Times, Apr. 12, 2013. https://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/barbara-earl-thomasrsquo-linocuts-blend-the-surreal-with-the-lyrical/
[2] “Barbara Earl Thomas.” Claire Oliver Gallery. https://www.claireoliver.com/artists/barbara-earl-thomas/
Image: In Case of Fire, 2014, Barbara Earl Thomas, linocut, 24 × 36 in., Modern Art Acquisition Fund; Gift of John D. McLauchlan in memory of his wife, Ebba Rapp, by exchange, 2017.14.2. © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: A Feast

As we continue through summer, a season known for family dinners, picnics, and midnight feasts, food becomes a large figure in our lives. Many are connected to it on an intimate level through memories and desires. Painted on a massive sixty-foot scroll, A Feast (2001) by Li Jin dramatizes this deeply important role that food plays in everyday life, specifically in Chinese life and culture. The scroll begins and ends with an essay in light ink calligraphy, written by the artist’s friend, detailing the cultural significance of food. He bookends both essay halves with the declaration that you must “eat as much as you can.”

Juxtaposing this essay, Li Jin offers a sumptuous feast for the eyes with many paintings of dishes and ingredients. He not only gives us plates of steamed crab, sandwiches, and hotpot, but he also presents pig and chicken heads with whole onions and skewers of radish. Combining raw ingredients with more gourmet dishes, he fashions a work that at once showcases the relationship between the Chinese people and food alongside a dazzling display of the consumption of food.

Surrounding these loosely painted images in bold colors, simplified Chinese characters march through the space detailing many different recipes of foods not depicted. Through this unconstrained method of painting, paired with calligraphy, the scroll becomes more alive with action and realism. In the words of the artist, “the scroll could have been lengthened indefinitely. The continuous presentation of food simulates a real feast, where tables can be added to accommodate more dishes.”[1]

Born in 1958 in Tianjin, China, Li Jin’s work has continually evolved as he reflects upon the ways in which people connect to nature and his attempts to represent life in an honest and lifelike manner.[2] His work in A Feast capitalizes upon these enthusiastic and unapologetic qualities as he crafts a world where everyone is invited to the table to join together and eat as much as they can, a philosophy fitting for the possibilities and simple joys of summertime.

Emma Ming Wahl, SAM Curatorial Intern

[1] “A Feast,” SAM Collection Online, last updated December 2012, http://art.seattleartmuseum.org/objects/30404/a-feast?ctx=a1efcea2-91cb-470f-a4a4-d9d18c33d912&idx=0
[2] “Li Jin,” Inkstudio, last updated 2019, https://www.inkstudio.com.cn/artists/63-li-jin/overview/
Image: A Feast, 2001, Li Jin, ink on Xuan paper, 33 x 708 5/8 in., Partial gift of Meg Maggio and the Courtyard Gallery, Beijing and partial purchase with funds from Rebecca and Alexander Stewart, John and Shari Behnke, and the Modern Art Acquisition Fund, 2003.119 © Li Jin
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