Swimming with Sharks

March 19, 2010

John Singleton Copley’s famous painting Watson and the Shark was commissioned by Brook Watson to document a harrowing event at age 14 as a maritime sailor. While swimming alone off Havana Cuba in 1749, Watson was repeatedly attacked by a shark. The shark first removed some flesh from Watson’s right calf, then bit off his entire left foot at the ankle. Rescued by his shipmates, the teenager subsequently had to have his left leg amputated below the knee. In the painting Copley has depicted Watson as a romanticized ghostly, nude figure on his back, woefully vulnerable to the more powerful beast acting on animal instinct. One seldom sees a more graphic vision of the classic theme Man versus Nature.

John Singleton Copley, "Watson and the Shark," 1778, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ferdinand Belin Fund

In Los Angeles we have made an art form of controlling our environment: manicured palm trees, diverted river water, flood channels, fire breaks. However, once in a while Angelenos are starkly reminded of natural threats in our midst—say, by this Los Angeles Times photo last October of a shark breaching in Santa Monica Bay near Gladstone’s restaurant.

As a regular ocean swimmer in this area, such photos are of immense interest to me. In chatting with the photographer, Randy Wright, I found he has recorded several more shark sightings there. On the Shark Research Committee website, local surfers have posted dozens of similar accounts, including some nibbles by smaller sharks. I hide from my swim buddies the fact that a sea lion pup with head cleanly sheared off was discovered in our Redondo Beach training area.

Of course, such photos and reports generate countless theories within the swim/surf community of what provokes a shark attack, or doesn’t. For instance, “they will attack if attracted by sparkly jewelry, or by wetsuits resembling seals.” “They won’t savagely attack humans because we’re not blubbery enough.” “They’ll only strike in deep water because they spring up from below.” Almost 250 years since Copley’s painting, shark tales continue to ignite the imagination. It seems there are only three facts everyone can agree on: 1) Sharks are an important part of the ecosystem unfairly maligned and overhunted. 2) Swimmers must respect the ocean for what it is—the wild—and acknowledge one’s limitations, even a few yards off Gladstone’s. And 3) One’s chances of being attacked or being fatally wounded are extremely rare, aggravated by swimming alone—Watson’s mistake.

Renee Montgomery, Assistant Director of Collections Information

Measuring Arts Education, Part III

March 18, 2010

Recently I explained how we in the Education Department measure the impact of our LACMA On-Site program through various activities in the classroom, at libraries, and here at the museum. Today I’m going to share some recent statistics from the thorough evaluation of that program.

After an eleven-month evaluation of the program, we learned that art and artists are a part of students’ daily use of what they know and their expanded viewpoints of the world. In addition to being engaged in thinking, talking about, and making art, schoolchildren have been positively impacted in ways that have fundamentally changed how they use language to talk about art and the artistic process. Through this program children and adults have found personal and meaningful connections with works of art. Parents, classroom teachers, school administrators, and librarians value the program and recognize the importance of the arts in children’s lives.

Here are six key findings:

The program makes a positive impact in language development for participants. Students are using art vocabulary and noting details in their language, and are able to express themselves using descriptive language. In LAUSD’s diverse population, the program also supports language development for English Language Learners. And teachers report that students’ use of descriptive language continues beyond the art workshops. One of the most significant benefits of the evaluation was identifying ways more students could have a chance to voice their ideas in short instructional settings by providing opportunities for students to work in small groups and pairs during instruction.(1)

Participants are using and exploring a range of new art materials not readily available to them, including collage, watercolor painting, oil pastel, and clay. Students and families are learning and applying specific skills and techniques related to these art media, which expands their understandings of those techniques and materials. (2)

Program participants overwhelmingly find personal and meaningful connections between their own lives and LACMA’s permanent collection as seen in their artwork. In particular, teens engage in library workshops because the content is relevant to their lives and families and librarians relate to concepts that resonate with their communities. (3)

The program content resonates with participants and administrators. In the schools, students and teachers relate that they are using LACMA arts curriculum for further development of critical thinking skills and other core academic areas. For example, the program fosters the development of students’ analytical skills through the process of expressing and supporting their opinions when talking about art. Teachers integrate the curriculum for varying purposes, connecting vocabulary words, art concepts, and workshop themes with their ongoing instruction. (4)

Classroom teachers, school administrators, librarians, and parents place a high value on the program and desire to continue the experience. Teachers recommend it to their colleagues, librarians value the program’s emphasis on family learning, and principals value the quality of LACMA’s staff, teaching artists, resources, and support. Both teachers and librarians note specific reasons to continue the collaboration with LACMA and see it as an integral component of the school curricula or library community programming.

In addition to achieving its short-term goals, the program has made strides in achieving longer-term goals, including increasing levels of action around art education by school administrators and sustaining arts engagement in the LAUSD elementary and middle schools.

The evaluation also documents a well-known, but sometimes overlooked, aspect of arts education: arts learning provides English Language Learners, students falling behind in traditional classroom settings, and students with special needs with opportunities to excel and often exceed their teacher’s expectations.

What does it take to provide meaningful, effective, large-scale programming in an urban and widespread area such as Los Angeles? These evaluation findings help to identify a programming model that can be transferred to other areas of the country, using shared outcomes and teaching strategies. Formal documents that share the evaluation findings, both in print and on LACMA’s website, will be available this summer.

(1) Across all grade levels, specific and descriptive language expanded. In the libraries, children used descriptive words to talk about art.

(2) Of particular significance, over 90 percent of all participating K-5 students applied skills in using art materials and over 80 percent of middle school students applied skills in using art materials. 92 percent of children participating in the library program applied an art skill or technique as well. Typically reticent in these situations, 51 percent of adults are applying arts skills or techniques for the first time.

(3) Across all programs, over 90 percent of participants are including personal content in their own artwork.

(4) At the elementary and middle school levels, 93 percent of teachers saw connections with other subjects.

Elizabeth Gerber, Manager, School & Teacher Programs

Nurse and Child: An American Story

March 17, 2010

Nurse and Child, an American daguerreotype made about 1850 by an unknown photographer, is an arresting image. It was the unflinching directness of the nurse’s gaze and the beauty of her face that first fixed my attention. Although this daguerreotype appears in the current Getty exhibition, In Focus: The Worker, which “presents a photographic history of working people across many cultures,” I can’t help but look at Nurse and Child through the lens of LACMA’s current exhibition, American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915.

Unknown American, "Nurse and Child," about 1850, hand-colored daguerreotype, image courtesy of the Getty Center

Like so many of the paintings in LACMA’s exhibition, what is riveting in this photograph is how the details and the composition offer clues about the complex relationships between blacks and whites in nineteenth-century America. Here an African-American caregiver, who may or may not be a slave (we don’t know where she lived), is pictured with her white charge, who appears to be around the same age as my own eight-month-old son, a feature that surely drew me further into the image. Her remarkably long fingers do not grip the baby’s hand with a fist but extend delicately along the child’s arm to softly restrain it from batting, like the impulse of the child’s other hand, and therefore blurring, “a necessary gesture in early photography, when exposure times were usually too long for a child to sit still,” notes Getty curator Paul Martineau. The nurse presses her head gently against the baby’s to keep it close, comforted, and stationary. The tenderness with which the nurse effectively collaborates with the photographer to achieve this image—ostensibly a double portrait—is palpable.

It is also clear, however, that the focus is on the white baby, who is dressed in a bright costume and is held to stand above the eye level of her nurse, in front of her, and in the light. Aside from the neatly tied, light-patterned headscarf, the figure of the nurse recedes into the background. Yet her face is aligned along the same plane as the baby’s, indicating at once their close bond and suggesting the dependence of a white family on the care and labor of African Americans. Such relationships are evident in many paintings in American Stories.

Mount, William Sidney, "Eel Spearing at Setauket," 1845, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, photo courtesy of Fenimore Art Museum, photo by Richard Walker

Consider Eel Spearing at Setauket, painted in 1845 by William Sidney Mount, which shows Rachel Hart instructing her young charge George Washington Strong on how to spear eels, or Winslow Homer’s Cotton Pickers, whose protagonists possess a stoic beauty akin to that of the nurse. While Nurse and Child portrays two actual if unknown individuals from 1850s America, we want to make up stories about their lives, stories that contemporaneous American painters often set to canvas.

Austen Bailly

Once Upon a Time in a Library Below the Bing Center

March 15, 2010

With all the recent buzz surrounding the release of Tim Burton’s new adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, I’ve had fantasylands and fairy tales on the brain. Imagine my surprise when I uncovered beautifully printed fairy tales in our library’s special collections! A handful of our books are relics from the personal library of Paul Rodman Mabury, an early and influential supporter of the original Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art. You can tell a lot about a person from his library, and it’s clear that Mr. Mabury was interested in fairy tales.

Mabury’s books are my favorite fairy tale volumes here, but they’re not the only ones. Our collection ranges from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century and shows a remarkable range of styles in illustration, type design, and overall presentation. They run the gamut from fine arts press limited editions to mass-produced publications; this breadth of publication types over a century demonstrates the level to which fairy tales continue to inspire independent artistic visions as well as permeate popular culture.

Although fairy tales were originally disseminated by means of oral transmission, the first printed fairy tales began to appear in fifteenth-century Italy and quickly became a staple of the blossoming book trade industry with tales by authors like Straparola and Basile. As printed tales developed as both a genre and a commodity, they continued to reflect the societies in which they were printed. In fact, scholars continually argue the importance of the fairy tale in the burgeoning concepts of national identity and common cultural heritage. Despite plots and tale-types that transcend languages and borders, fairy tale authors and illustrators imbue their unique versions with recognizable traces of the times and societies of which each figure was a member.

For instance, the books of British artist Arthur Rackham reflect a popular Victorian sensibility, including strong Japanese influence, overwhelming fantastical and floral images, and decorative, color plates. The binding corresponds: Rackham’s fairy tale books were printed by fine arts presses and bound in vellum with gold leaf decoration. On the other hand, the newly reprinted edition of Kurt Schwitters’s “Merz” fairy tales reflects a modernist rejection of traditional storytelling and imagery with tales like “The Scarecrow,” told completely in typographic illustration and, as Jack Zipes notes, “bordering on the grotesque,” rather than conforming to traditionally sweet or childlike imagery of fairy lore.

David Hockney’s Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is a combination of modern illustrations alongside an English translation of the Grimms’ German text. This modern vision of the Grimms’ fairy tales was handset and bound in a miniature edition with a keen eye toward recreating bibliographic and physical elements—letterpress printing, high-quality rag paper, colophon—in a traditional fashion.

The printed fairy tale in all of these forms is an artifact that represents more than “Red Riding Hood” or “The Little Mermaid”; these examples represent the significance of the book form in cultural phenomena like storytelling. Although oral tales retain properties of fluidity, these printed tales are moments of fixity—unique artistic visions that encapsulate specific cultural movements and sensibilities. It’s worth visiting the library to see them; I’d love to share them with you!

Maggie Hanson, Stacks Manager, Balch Research Library

On Robin Rhode

March 12, 2010

On Wednesday night, artist Robin Rhode kicked off his exhibition at LACMA with a performance. I was there with five of our high school interns as Robin burst through the doors of the Ahmanson Building, made his way quickly through the crowd, and began drawing on the wall with chalk. He grabbed a few audience members and involved them in pulling vigorously on the hastily sketched image of a rope. It looked as if they were miming a game of tug-of-war with an invisible opponent.

Robin picked Angela Hernandez, a senior at Fairfax High (and her skateboard), to be part of the piece along with a handful of other bystanders. Afterwards, I talked with Angela and the other interns about what they thought. Here’s what they had to say.

From left, high school interns Sequoyah Madison, Lexi Davis, Kelley Shim, Angela Hernandez and David Kamins in front of the wall drawing by Robin Rhode.

Angela Hernandez, Fairfax High School: I felt kind of shy. I don’t like to be the center of attention, so it was kind of weird and I didn’t really know what to do exactly. But as soon as he started to give us instructions and direction I was like, okay, this is cool. At first I thought he was being rude. But he has his intentions. I enjoyed it.

Kelley Shim, Beverly Hills High School: It was very unexpected. He really interacted with the drawing. You didn’t know exactly what he was doing, or what he might do next.

David Kamins, Hamilton High School: If an artist comes off as rude, I think he’s just trying to be very detailed. When he has other people in the work, he wants to make sure that they’re following his agenda and they’re going to produce the message he wants to get across to the audience.

Sequoyah Madison, Culver City High School: It makes you question reality. I liked the idea that you can just have a piece of chalk and get an idea across without showing your audience exactly what you’re thinking.

David: There was this ambiguity to it. Yes, there were instructions and you were told to pull on a rope, interact with an image on the wall. But what are we left with? The performance ended without any dénouement and people were sort of confused when it ended. I feel like that’s in the nature of performance art. There’s really no narrative. It’s ephemeral. It’s an interesting perspective you have to attain.

Angela: I don’t think art has to have a meaning. I’m sure it has one. But I think he’s given us a chance to think about it on our own. Art does that for people.

We also talked about the exhibition, including Robin’s Soap and Water (2007)—a bicycle cast out of soap lying next to a bucket of water.

Lexi Davis, Calabasas High School: I really liked the bicycle piece and I think it tied into the performance he did tonight. I was reading about him and he was saying that the piece isn’t permanent. You could just wash away the soap and it would be gone.  He never intended it to be there forever. And that was how his performance was too because the chalk could just be wiped away. You think of art as something that’s really permanent but his wasn’t at all.

David: You shouldn’t look at art based on the artist’s biography, but I liked seeing the artist tonight and getting a feeling for who he is. He has a personality.

A video of the performance is on view as part of the exhibition.

Amy Heibel

Win an Allison Smith Scarf Today

March 11, 2010

Allison Smith, Scarf (detail)

Yesterday we gave you some insight into artist Allison Smith’s limited-edition print and scarf, both designed in conjunction with American Stories. Today? We just want to give you the scarf! We just passed the 27,000 follower mark over on twitter, which seems just substantial/arbitrary enough to reward our twitter followers with a chance to win a prize. Follow us on twitter, where we’ll pose a little American Stories trivia question today. At the end of the day we’ll randomly select from the correct answers and reward you with an Allison Smith scarf! (And if you don’t win, don’t follow us on twitter, or just plain old like the scarf, you can find more info on it here.)

Allison Smith’s Limited American Stories Editions

March 10, 2010

Allison Smith, Untitled 2010 (detail), edition with Lapis Press and LACMA

Artist studios often reflect the processes and working habits of the artists who inhabit them, but it is with less frequency that these spaces serve multiple functions that involve histories outside the familiar one of quiet, solitary artistic production. So I was pleasantly surprised when I visited artist Allison Smith in Oakland, California, to find not only a studio but also a general store and meeting space that she calls SMITHS. As she describes on her website, “SMITHS is a project inspired by the history of general stores as intimate public spaces of exchange.” It is in this place, named after the artist but more generally after smith (or maker), where Allison and I first discussed her doing a project for LACMA.

Smith grew up in Virginia, perhaps the epicenter of historical reenactment, around re-enactors, whose relentless quest for authenticity in the fabrication of appropriate costumes and other forms of material culture inspired in her a deep concern for what it means to recreate objects from a particular historical moment and what it means to “perform” history.

As part of the Artist Editions program here at LACMA, led by Director of Special Projects Erin Wright, we invited Smith to create two new editions to coincide with American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915, both of which can be found in the shop located inside the exhibition. In addition to her collaboration with Los Angeles-based designer Gregory Parkinson, a scarf inspired by designs and textures from costumes and textiles depicted in the paintings in the exhibition’s paintings, Smith created a print with Lapis Press.

The print design was inspired by a quilt that Smith saw at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, known for its impressive collection of American folk art and quilts. The quilt, made by a convalescing Civil War veteran, was a gift of Florence Peto, who as it turned out wrote a lengthy description of it in her 1949 book American Quilts and Coverlets. Peto wrote: “Toward the close of the Civil War a wounded, discharged Union soldier decided to make a quilt to soothe his shattered nerves; he did not quite get away from it all for his quilt has silhouette figures of armed soldiers on horseback and afoot marching grimly around an intermediate border; in the central group foot soldiers surrounded women who appear to be offering refreshment on trays.”

Consistent with her past work, the limited-edition giclee print that she created for LACMA starts with a historical reference point, in this case the use of craft, whether stitchwork or knitting, for convalescing soldiers—a past tradition that challenges our modern definitions of masculinity and war. Secondarily, it is a hybrid of the handmade and the digital, in her words, made “using unique scanning technology, updating the tradition of ‘cheater cloth,’ or printed material meant to look like several different fabrics, usually calicos, appliquéd or patch-worked together.” Here patchwork and appliqué describe techniques for stitching together disparate materials, but these terms are equally descriptive of the ways in which Smith brings together historical craft forms to expose our most pressing contemporary preoccupations.

Rita Gonzalez, Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art

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