Asian Art Museum is reopening in May! Find out more about visiting »

Art & Social Justice Stories

Over the past several years, SAM has presented Art & Social Justice Tours during the week of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Facilitated by SAM staff, the tours invite conversation and personal responses based on artists and artworks on view in SAM’s galleries. Since we can’t be together in the galleries this year, we’ve invited SAM staff to reflect on the important connection between art and social justice from home. These responses were shared on SAM’s Instagram stories throughout the week as SAM staff members offered perspectives on art at SAM or in their homes, that honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

These videos were too good to only live in our highlights, so we’ve gathered them here for you. Hear from Brandon Vaughan, one of SAM’s board members, on Swedish artist Eitil Thorén Due, and Seattle artist Christina Martinez.

Cindy Bolton, Chief Financial Officer at SAM, shares an artwork from her home by Charly Palmer. Check out Freedom in Bolton’s story and find some optimism in this artwork.

Yaoyao Liu is a museum educator at SAM and she discusses Takahiro Kondo‘s sculpture, Reduction. This newly installed contemporary sculpture sits on the recently restored fountain in the Fuller Garden Court at the renovated and expended Asian Art Museum. We look forward to reopening SAM’s original home later this spring so you can see this work in person.

Virtual Tour with Mary Wallace

SAM Docent, Mary Wallace is taking us to Seattle’s waterfront to wander the Olympic Sculpture Park and do some close looking at the monumental sculptures that call the park home. Mary Wallace is one of SAM’s talented and trusted docents. Docents volunteer a ton of their time learning about the art at SAM to lead tours for art lovers of all ages. While we can’t have in-person tours at the moment, we hope you will follow Mary’s tour on your phone the next time you visit the Olympic Sculpture Park.

We’ll start first with a big shiny tree. It is called Split and it is a tree made of steel. The branches are made of 20 different sizes and the tree was designed by artist Roxy Paine on a computer. Look closely and notice lines, shapes, colors, and texture. Compare Split to the Garry Oak that’s planted next to it. Make a list of the similarities and differences between these two trees. What about the sculpture looks real? What looks unreal? Is this tree realistic or abstract? Think about a way to describe this shiny tree. If you touched it, how would Split feel? Can you smell it? Could you taste it? You can see it. Could you hear wind going through its branches? Would the branches move? Why do you think the artist made this tree? The artist, Roxy Paine, likes to make artificial versions of nature. He thinks it is interesting to control nature and this is his way of doing it. What are other ways that we control nature: building dams, burning forests, having wolves go back into forests. Would you like to have a tree like this in your yard? Why do you think it is called Split?  

Take a picture of this tree with your mind and pack up your senses. What were those senses again? Put it all in your memory bank. We are going down this hill and into that greenhouse where we will meet another tree. 

Welcome to Neukom Vivarium where a nurse log lives.

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful tall evergreen tree that was about 100 years old. One winter there was a lot of snow, and rain, and wind and the tree was blown back and forth for many days. Eventually it was blown down. It laid on the forest floor for about 10 years growing all sorts of things on it. One day, an artist named Mark Dion, saw it and decided that it must go to live in a museum. It lives inside this building now. But how does it live if it cannot get rain, sun, wind and soil? Look around and find the sprinklers, the green tinted glass and the fans. 

Once a year, a gardener brings dirt to put all around the tree. How is this tree like the one you just saw? How is it different? Is this tree alive or is it a dead? Is it an artificial tree like you just saw? If it is dead, how come things are growing out of it? What do you think is going on here? This is a nurse log and it is decomposing all the time. That is how things grow from it. What is decomposing and what makes it decompose? Since it is decomposing all of the time to support new growth, eventually this nurse log will disappear. Any stick that has growth of moss, lichen, or fungi is also a kind of nurse log. Is this art or is it nature? Do you wonder if this was a good idea to bring this tree out of the forest and put into a museum? Why do you say that?

Remember what Split looked like and what the nurse log looked like. Which one would you like to have in your back yard? Make room for this nurse log next to Split in your memory bank.  

Walk uphill through the Meadow. You’ll pass a big red sculpture on the right, called The Eagle as you head to the big sculpture at the end of the path on the left. Stop once or twice to look at it as you walk. How does it change as you get closer? What shapes, colors, textures, materials do you see? Is the piece realistic or abstract? What do you make of this? Why do you say that? What does it remind you of? Why would the artist make this? What would you call it? 

Its name is Bunyon’s Chess. What senses are you using to enjoy this? Sight for sure, and maybe the smell of the salty air that surrounds the art. The artist likes to use wood to remind you of forests and waters that keep them green and healthy. He also likes to use materials like steel and wood from buildings that have been torn down. The artist likes for his sculptures to move. When the wind is strong, what part of this sculpture do you think moves?  

Add Bunyon’s Chess to your memory bank and leave room for one more sculpture.    

Walk east and down the steps into the Valley. There is a large sculpture in front of you. Think about describing it: color, shapes, texture, materials. Is it realistic or abstract? Walk down the steps to the gravel. What senses will be used to look at this piece: sight, and maybe the smell of the trees and plants around it. We can’t touch, but what does your sight tell you about how the surface might feel? How is it like Bunyon’s Chess that you just left: both are made of steel. Richard Serra is the artist who made this piece and he calls it Wake. What are three definitions of the word, wake:  wake up, wake from a boat, a ceremony to honor a dead person. The artist made this piece in honor of a friend who died. 

There are five parts of Wake and the artist invites you to run and/or walk through them. Remember to look up to the sky as you do. When you get to the other end, share how you felt and what you thought going through it. Why did the artist make five parts instead of one? How would it feel going around just one part?  Did it look different when you got to the other end? Is Wake realistic or is it abstract art?

There are steps on the left. Go up those steps towards the building at the top.  Stop twice on your way up, turn around and look at Wake.  Does it look different? Why do you say that? Go to the railing at the top and look back at Wake. How does Wake look from the railing? Do you see anything different in the top of Wake

How are Bunyon’s Chess and Wake alike and how are they different? Which one would you like to have in your yard?  

Have a seat in the grass or in the red chairs outside of the PACCAR Pavilion. Sit and look at the views. Think about one thing you will remember from your tour today. Think about the reasons to remember them. Was it because of the story, or the way the sculptures were alike or different, or the shapes you saw, or the materials, or the way it made you feel? Take one sweeping view of the Olympic Sculpture Park as you leave and wave goodbye to all of the art you saw.  

– Mary Wallace, SAM Docent

Images: Split, 2003, Roxy Paine, polished stainless steel, 50 ft. (15.24 m.), Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2016.17.3 © Roxy Paine, photo: Stephanie Fink, Paul Macapia, Benjamin Benschneider.

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.

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

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.

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 Book Club: Empathy Lives On in Parable of the Sower

We’ve finished reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler for SAM Book Club and our final reflection takes us inside an immersive installation by Saya Woolfalk at SAM to consider how change and empathy are intertwined. Our colleagues at the Northwest African American Museum are also reading Parable of the Sower for their June Book Club and and we will be joining NAAM’s live discussion on June 26. Join us by registering here! Please read along and share your thoughts with us while you stay home with SAM!

Empathy is a word that can buzz through the air, or be embedded in one’s mind and body. Octavia Butler and Saya Woolfalk make this word come alive in characters who try to keep humanity on track. 

Right now, 2020 is bringing dystopia right to our doorstep every day. If you pick up Parable of the Sower, a 15-year-old girl who has a condition of hyper empathy becomes your guide. Lauren Olamina’s vision of 2024 is not far away, and you join people running from an apocalypse. They follow Olamina, who calls her empathic abilities a disorder. By the end, you realize it is her super power, as she formulates an entirely new vision that ultimately offers hope to all around her. If you haven’t read it, now’s the best time ever. It’s an omen of the future we’ve got to figure out together. 

Unfortunately, Octavia Butler died in Seattle on February 24, 2006.  Four months later, on June 22, a young senator gave a commencement speech at Northwestern University, and said, “I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit. . . . it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential”. Barack Obama’s references to empathy kept coming while he was President. So did discoveries in neuroscience, which identified circuits in our brains that are wired to give us an ability to understand what other people are feeling. However, at the same time, the empathic deficit disorder continued to be seen in a rise of Hyper Individualism based on self-absorption, chronic loneliness, and a lack of curiosity about strangers or others. 

Artist Saya Woolfalk steps into this era and establishes an Institute of Empathy.  She cites Octavia Butler’s writings as a source of constant inspiration, helping her take leaps of imagination. In 2010–11, Woolfalk reaches out to biologists and theorists to consider the possibilities of interspecies hybridization as a factor for human improvement. One scholar, Ed Cohen offered a prophetic observation, “Unbeknownst to us, our futures may depend on the ways we learn to live with the viruses that take place within and among us—though the referent of this “us” would then be up for grabs. Yet this coincidence . . . troubles us both physiologically and conceptually.”[1]

Unafraid of complexity and troubling concepts, Woolfalk creates a species of Empathics that are conceived to assist our evolution. By 2012, they are entering museums and offering evidence and research about how human beings can find ways to increase their empathic abilities. This Institute has presented solutions through guided dreams, role playing in cyber space, hybrid cosmologies in planetariums, performances and projections that have gained attention across the planet. 

Only the Seattle Art Museum has offered The Institute of Empathy a permanent home. Three Empathics reside on the fourth floor and offer their suggestions for enhancing self-transformation. Theirs is not an immediate quick fix installation, as becoming empathic is not a sudden pit stop. It takes time to figure out what these alternative beings are about. They invite you to see their virtual chimeric space where healing gases are being downloaded, and you are welcome to walk into their mosaic shower which sends a flow of imagery down into a sacred pond full of insight. The Empathics also selected art from other cultures in the museum’s collection that can help enhance your ethical disposition and state of mind. Just as Octavia Butler’s novel ends with a glimmer of hope for a new philosophy called Earthseed, so these empathics reinforce a conviction that we can create the change we need. 

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Photo: Chelsea Werner-Jatzke. Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, © Seattle Art Museum, photo: Nathaniel Willson.
[1] “The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment; or, How Scale Undoes Us One and All”, by Ed Cohen, Professor at Rutgers University, published in Social Text 106, Spring 2011, p.27.

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.

Virtual Tour with Carol Frankel

The recently renovated and expanded Asian Art Museum reopened only a few short weeks before SAM had to close due to COVID-19. In this virtual docent tour, Carol Frankel takes us through one of the reimagined galleries—the Color in Clay gallery overlooking Volunteer Park. Carol Frankel has been a SAM docent since 2007. After 25 years at the University of Puget Sound, she became a docent and found her real interest in Asian art. She travels regularly to Japan to visit friends and seek out new and interesting places. When not sleuthing out some Asian art object, she cooks with her grandchildren by FaceTime if not in person.

Many may find this gallery, which is organized solely by color, perplexing. It is filled with several objects, none of which have a label. For me, it’s the most rewarding room to explore, with so many interesting and thought-provoking opportunities. To help narrow our virtual tour, we’ll focus on two colors: blue and white. 

We’ll start by looking at blue pieces. Blue can be the most desired and difficult color to achieve in textiles, paints, and ceramics. While we’re focused on this precious hue, you may be surprised that our first three objects are primarily brown, green, and cream.

These are sancai 三彩  ware. The name literally translates to “three colors.” A railroad company named these precious objects! There were Tang dynasty tombs still in-tact all over China in the 1920s when the Longhai Railroad started developing rail lines throughout the country. In the process, they dug up many tombs and ceramic pieces. The most prevalent were glazed in three colors: brown, green, and cream. These works were sold to museums all over the world under the name “Tang Dynasty Sancai.” 

So why are these on our blue-themed tour? If you look closely, you can see touches of blue and whenever we see blue in Chinese ceramics we can assume it uses cobalt that came from West Asia—also known as the Middle East—where the element was prevalent. This confirms that in the 7th and 8th centuries CE China was trading across the continent. (Additionally, we can see the evidence of trade with the west in the facial structure of the wine merchant.) 

The development of glaze was a notable achievement of the Tang Dynasty, but most important in our exploration of blue and white pottery was the move from the darker clay popular in China at that time to the whiter clay, which eventually led to porcelain. At the end of the gallery, you can see how this change in materials created a spectacular lack of color.

We’ve now seen blue and white separately, and if you were to look to your left in the gallery, you would see the colors combined. 

We have now skipped ahead maybe 700 years to the Ming dynasty in China. The Ming blue-and-white objects are what some consider the pinnacle of ceramic ware. In the gallery is a large Ming plate, pictured above, surrounded by blue and white examples from Vietnam and present-day Iran (the origin of the cobalt blue glazes used in the sancai ware).  

While Persia had the natural resources to create a deep, rich blue, what they didn’t have was the white clay available in China. Their clay was dark and in order to create a good blue and white, they had to first glaze the piece with a white glaze! If you were to look at the unglazed foot of each of these pieces (the back of the plates), you would see a dark gray clay, whereas the accompanying Chinese ceramic’s foot shows a bright white. You can also notice differences in the glazes of these two cultures. While the colors are similar, the lines are slightly different. Look closely at the Persian works and you’ll notice the blue glaze is somewhat blurry and the Chinese blue and white edges are crisp. In China, potters learned to mix the cobalt glaze with some of the indigenous kaolin clay and were able to obtain the sharp edges seen in Ming ceramics.

The world really opens up through the lens of only two colors. Once the museum reopens, you can return to the Color in Clay gallery and explore using another color combination as a vehicle to consider materials, trade, history, and fashion.

– Carol Frankel, SAM Docent

Images: Installation view Color in Clay gallery, Asian Art Museum, 2019, Jueqian Fang. Figure of foreign merchant holding wine skin, 8th century, Chines, earthenware with sancai (tricolor) glaze, 14 5/8 x 10 x 6 1/2in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 38.6. Tripod plate, 8th–9th century, Chinese, earthenware with sancai (tricolor) glaze and incised decoration, 1 7/8 in., diam. 7 1/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.49. Phoenix head ewer, 8th-9th century, Chinese, earthenware with sancai (tricolor) glaze and molded decoration, 12 5/8 x 4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 44.8. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Silk Road, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., September 16, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Silk-Road-trade-route. Jar, 9th century, Chinese, porcelain with white glaze, 8 3/4 in., Silver Anniversary Fund, 59.121. Dish with the eight auspicious Buddhist symbols, late 15th century, Chinese, porcelain with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, h. 1 9/16 in., diam. 7 1/2 in., diam. bottom 4 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 51.85. Dish with foliated rim and Chinese landscape, late 15th to early 16th century, Vietnamese, stoneware with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, diam. 13 1/4 in., Mary and Cheney Cowles, the Margaret E. Fuller Fund, and the 1999 Maryatt Gala Fund, 2000.118. Plate, 16th century, robably Iranian (Persia), Mashhad, stonepaste with underglaze-blue, black, and sage-green decoration, h. 2 3/8 in., diam. 12 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 57.17. Plate, 17th century, Iranian (Persian), stonepaste with underglaze-blue decoration, 2 1/2 x 13 7/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 48.146.