Welcome to WAM Updates

WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

We hope you like reading the Updates! If you are interested in learning about something specific, or have a suggestion for a WAM Update, please update us at wamupdates@worcesterart.org

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Glazing Through Ceramics at Winterthur

Wedgwood Portland Vase pitcher nineteenth century
Wedgwood Portland Vase pitcher,
nineteenth century
On April 4-5, 2019, I ventured down the Brandywine Valley to participate as a scholarship recipient in Winterthur Museum’s annual conference Ceramics Up Close: Hands-On Study Days. Over the course of the program, collectors and visiting scholars like myself took part in hands-on workshops and presentations dedicated to the study of ceramics. The forum’s main speakers included ceramics experts such as the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Chief Curator of Decorative Arts, Anne Forschler-Tarrasch, PhD, who oversees the nation’s largest collection of ceramics ranging from Vietnamese stoneware to Wedgwood pottery. In her presentation, she displayed highlights from the BMA’s Beeson Wedgwood Gallery, including an eighteenth-century jasperware copy of the Portland Vase, which is almost strikingly similar to two mid-nineteenth-century copies in WAM’s collection (1901.7 and 1937.142).1 The BMA’s ongoing efforts in documenting their Wedgwood collection involve identifying potential fakes through XRF analysis. For instance, one black basalt teapot with caneware design was determined fake due to its rough unglazed interior and large portion of cobalt not found in other Wedgwood stoneware.2

Anne Forschler-Tarrasch with Wedgwood pottery
Anne Forschler-Tarrasch with Wedgwood pottery
Amanda Isaac, the Associate Curator of Mount Vernon, discussed George and Martha Washington’s numerous dinner services at Mount Vernon (e.g. Society of the Cincinnati service), explaining how they acted as powerful social currency and agents of sociability in eighteenth-century America.3 Colonial Williamsburg’s Curator of Ceramics and Glass, Suzanne Hood, highlighted this fact while describing the Foundation’s collection of Chinese export porcelain, as part of her exhibition “China of the Most Fashionable Sort: Chinese Export Porcelain in Colonial America.” During her workshop, she provided pre-1775 examples of export porcelain that were owned and used in Colonial America based on archaeological evidence found in historic sites like Williamsburg. These pieces included serving dishes with lotus decoration and a platter featuring Indian textile patterns, which are inspired by plants like hibiscus and pomegranate native to Southeast Asia.4 According to Hood, rather than commissioning specific colors and patterns, eighteenth-century consumers concerned themselves with purchasing the most fashionable porcelain brought over from abroad. Finally, Leslie Grigsby, Winterthur’s Senior Curator of Ceramics and Glass, led her workshop on ceramics inspired by literature (e.g. Aesop’s Fables), ending the conference on a delightful note with her lecture on ceramics celebrating the English monarchy up to King George III’s reign.

Leslie Grigsby
Leslie Grigsby
Ceramics Study Days at Winterthur was a positive, enriching experience that allowed me to connect intimately with decorative arts professionals and exclusively handle rich collections of ceramics. Most importantly, I learned how ceramics served wide-ranging functions as important commemorative vessels and status symbols that dictated colonial taste and consumption. As Curatorial Assistant at the Worcester Art Museum, I currently work on projects involving the reinstallation of the American art galleries. One of the galleries will feature approximately thirty decorative objects, including Chinese export porcelain, that integrate with the fine arts and explore the cost of luxury in the British colonies. By witnessing some of the finest examples of ceramics during my time at Winterthur, my hope is to utilize the knowledge gained to better educate and foster appreciation for American decorative arts, because objects like ceramics have fascinating histories that can broaden our understanding of early America.

[For more programs and enrichment opportunities at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, visit the link here.]

-Elizabeth Fox, Curatorial Assistant, American Art Department

April 8, 2019

India textile patterned platter 1770
India textile patterned platter 1770
1 In her workshop demonstration, Forschler-Tarrasch presented a nineteenth-century copy of Wedgwood’s Portland Vase in pitcher form, which closely compares in quality to WAM’s copies. Conversely, the BMA’s eighteenth-century Wedgwood Portland Vase is a first-edition copy made of higher quality (hence its softer, lighter blue jasperware with a gray tinge).

2 Various Wedgwood fakes from the twentieth century can be attributed to one Staffordshire potter, J. Palin Thorley, who formerly apprenticed at Wedgwood Factory before immigrating to the U.S. in 1927.

3 The Society of the Cincinnati service was commissioned by Revolutionary War veteran and Society member Samuel Shaw, who brought the service over from Canton (Guangzhou) in 1784.

4 The platter does not show a “tobacco leaf” design, as formerly understood by collectors. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Meet CMAI Artist Toby Sisson

Each year, Worcester Art Museum’s Central Massachusetts Artist Initiative (CMAI) invites two artists who live or work in the greater Worcester area to have their art showcased in a solo installation in our Sidney and Rosalie Rose Gallery, alongside other contemporary artists in our permanent collection.  The first CMAI artist for 2019 is Toby Sisson.

In Toby Sisson’s piece, American | naciremA 1, the word “AMERICAN” appears again and again, forward and backwards, in block capitals or cursive, in different angles and sizes, in black, white and grey.  In some ways, it resembles a page torn from a diary, and indeed Toby compares her process to journal writing: “It helps me understand what I think.  Making my art helps my thoughts crystallize in my head.  I keep experimenting, making adjustments until I reach a sense of resolution.”

Born in Minneapolis, Toby worked as a bartender for thirty years before deciding to pursue her love of art.  She enrolled at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, and graduated magna cum laude and co-valedictorian, soon after earning her MFA from the University of Minnesota.  In 2009, she moved to New England to take a position as professor of studio art at Clark University, and creates her own art in her Providence and Worcester studios.

For her CMAI exhibition, Toby created a new piece, American | naciremA 1.  From early on in the process, she felt that this collage would be a significant piece, a turning point in her artwork.  “I’ve been interested for a long time in text, collage, and working in black and white.  But now it was all coming together in a new way.”

Toby Sisson discussing her work, American | naciremA 1.
Her inspiration was partly political, partly personal.  Toby often begins with a question or idea inspired by something she read or saw; in this case, W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of “Double Consciousness.”  DuBois wrote that black Americans must contend with a dual identity – on the one hand, their own concept of self, or how they perceive themselves, and on the other hand how they are perceived by white culture, the dominant culture.  “Double Consciousness” refers both to the gap between these two perceptions, and the ways in which each person reconciles them within himself or herself.

Toby overlaid this concept with personal experiences of growing up in a mixed-race family.  In particular, she remembered her father being a member of the Nacirema Club in Minneapolis, a social club founded by African Americans.  Opening in 1955, the club was one of the few places where the black population of Minneapolis could gather for community meetings, Christmas parties, and other social events – segregation laws barred them from white clubs.  Over the decades, a community grew around the Nacirema Club and a few others in Minneapolis, with a vibrant musical scene including jazz musician Bobby Lyle, soul singer Wee Willie Walker, funk band Flyte Tyme, and even Prince.

Today, Toby better understands how the beloved community fixture was created from the black community’s need to have an alternative space – even after segregation was struck down, the exclusive atmosphere of clubs catering to whites continued to make the African American audience and musicians unwelcome.  The Nacirema Club – one of a network of similar clubs across America – was subversive by its very existence, as was its name: Nacirema is “American” backwards.

Once she had her concept – Double Consciousness, creating a space for yourself when the larger culture doesn’t recognize you – Toby needed a way to make it visual.  She started pulling together ideas from artists she admires: Glenn Ligon, who uses text to create art from words; Martin Puryear, a sculptor who works with ambiguous, almost organic forms; quilters, who take apart old clothes to create new designs.  Though without the vibrant colors usually associated with quilts, Toby’s piece is a patchwork of texts, recombined to create a new whole.

For Toby, the process of creating the piece is as important as the final product.  She describes it as an “intuitive, constantly evolving” process, rearranging the text fragments in new combinations to find what works.  Talking through her ideas with WAM Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs Nancy Kathryn Burns also informed her process, helping to crystallize the concepts that shaped the final product.

So in the end, what does she hope viewers will take away from American | naciremA 1?

“I’m not as attached to the idea of ‘what people take away.’  Once a piece leaves my studio, how it works in the world will depend on the minds of others.”  She prefers visitors to form their own ideas and impressions while looking at her artwork.  With the title and artist statement as a starting point, she allows viewers to form their own questions, and search for answers in the work. “I get excited when they catch associations and references I wasn’t fully conscious of,” she admits, which fits with her own complex ideas of authorship: “Who really creates the work? It’s somewhere between the author and the audience, in the ambiguity.”

Toby Sisson’s CMAI artwork, American | naciremA 1, will be on view in WAM’s Sidney and Rosalie Rose Gallery through May 12, 2019.  She also has an upcoming show at Brown University in June.  She will continue her American | naciremA series with further works exploring ambiguity and Double Consciousness, and is excited to see how the concepts will evolve.  You can learn more about her here: https://tobysisson.com/home.html

- April 10, 2019

Video: Toby Sisson discusses her inspiration for this piece.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The WAM Library Continues to Evolve

For over a century, the Worcester Art Museum library has provided significant resources related to the study of art to both the Museum staff and the entire Worcester community. By 1912, the library’s collection of about 2,000 books was catalogued and circulating to “clubs and schools in the city or in Worcester County.” Now made up of 60,000 volumes, the library is undergoing a reclassification and automation project that will make it easier for all patrons to access the wealth of art information it houses.

A Little Library History

Books on a shelf in WAM library
A sampling of WAM Library books
 in the 750 class of the DDC
The idea of free public access to libraries in which patrons had the ability to browse open shelves and check out books was an obscure concept in America before the 1870s. Most libraries in existence before 1876 were referred to as private “social libraries,” which were solely subscription based and only open to a select elite class.

Library historians have noted many factors that contributed to the rise and expansion of the public library movement after 1890 and the shift of these “social libraries” to true free public libraries. One important factor for this shift was the development of the library profession as a whole—with the assistance of a famous library figure, Melvil Dewey. Dewey’s pioneering ideas for libraries to run uniformly, with efficiency and cost-effectiveness, would bring about changes that would ultimately make the library more accessible to the average library patron.

Dewey’s Innovative Classification System 

One of Dewey’s most famous contributions to libraries was his publication of the Dewey Decimal Classification system (DDC) in 1876. For the very first time, library catalogers were able organize (or classify) books together around a similar topic or subject using a standardized system, thus making it easier for patrons to look at all of the books a library had on a particular topic or subject. Without getting into the technical aspects of cataloging a book using the DDC system, it is helpful to understand that the system uses Arabic numerals within a structured hierarchy to represent subjects. For example, “700” is the numeric main class for “arts & recreation,” and “750” is the second class assigned for “painting.” The implementation of the DDC system in libraries across the world meant that a patron could walk into any library and browse the shelves in the 750 area to find books relating to art, and specifically, to painting. The implementations of this system not only made cataloging and finding books dramatically more efficient, it brought uniformity to the organization of libraries.

Switching to the Library of Congress System

It is in the spirit of Dewey’s dedication to efficiency, uniformity, and accessibility that the WAM Library is undertaking its current reclassification and automation project. For numerous reasons, many academic libraries began reclassifying their books from the DDC system to the LCC system in the 1960s and 1970s. Although we are moving away from the DDC system, it is an appropriate and timely choice for us to adopt the Library of Congress (LCC) system. First, we are seeking uniformity with our academic library peers, both in close proximity and across the country.  By 1996, only 25% of academic libraries were using the DDC, and most recently (2017), it was reported that only 19% of academic libraries are using the DDC. Second, we are seeking efficiency for both the processes of cataloging and retrieving books. Our patrons will no longer have to look in multiple locations for books on the same topic or subject, and we will no longer have to reclassify books on a case-by-case basis. Lastly, but most importantly, we are hoping to increase the accessibility of our library for all patrons. The Library of Congress system is more widely known, used, and understood. It is also constantly undergoing revisions and changes to make the system more inclusive and representative of all cultures, religions, and people.

Bibliographic Barcoding

The back of a book showing a new barcode
One of the very first books
to receive a barcode!
The automation piece of our project will allow for better care and maintenance of the library’s collection. In total, we have about 60,000 individual books—quite a large number to keep track of with pencil and paper! Each of the publications will receive a unique number on a barcode label. The barcode label is attached to the unique bibliographic record that is assigned to that book in our online catalogue system. These barcodes can be scanned using technology associated with our online catalogue to allow us to easily track the locations of books as they move about, conduct accurate inventories, and better analyze the growth and development of certain areas of our collection.

While we do miss seeing all of you in the library, we look forward to sharing all of these improvements with you when we re-open. We appreciate all of your patience and support as we work through this comprehensive project!

--Rebecca Morin, Head Librarian

April 1, 2019


Kevane, M., & Sundstrom, W. A. (2014). The development of public libraries in the United States, 1870-1930: A quantitative assessment. Information & Culture, 2, 117-144.

Lund, B., & Agbaji, D. (2018). Use of Dewey Decimal Classification by Academic Libraries in the United States. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 56(7), 653-661.

Shorten, J., Seikel, M., & Ahrberg, J.H. (2005). Why do you still use Dewey? Library Resources & Technical Services, 49(2), 123-136.

Worcester Art Museum (1912). Bulletin of the Worcester Art Museum, 2(4).

Friday, March 15, 2019

Woman Warrior: In celebration of Women’s History Month

Otagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875), a Japanese Buddhist nun, is considered one of the most important female artists in Japan. Raised as the adopted daughter of the Otagaki family, she received the broad education typical of a samurai family.  She excelled at a great variety of arts, including calligraphy, poetry, the game of “go,” and multiple forms of martial arts.

Otagaki Rengetsu, Tea Bowl, glazed stoneware with incised calligraphy
Otagaki Rengetsu, Tea Bowl, Edo Period (1603–1868),
glazed stoneware with incised calligraphy
Tragedy struck many times in her life.  Starting around 1819, she lost at least four children at an early age, two husbands, two siblings, and finally, her adopted father in 1832. This led her to join the Chion’in Temple in Kyoto as a nun and take the name Rengetsu. Soon after the death of her father, she began to travel Japan and compose poetry, creating tea wares to help support herself. Though she quickly became famed for her works, she remained humble, often describing her work as clumsily done. Her poetry, painting, calligraphy, and pottery all have a distinctive directness that is free, unconventional, and elegant.

She was also an outspoken pacifist. During the Boshin War (1868-1869), the civil war between the ruling Tokugawa shogunate and the imperial court, she penned a long poem decrying Oshio Heihachiro for his rebellion against the emperor and wrote a shorter one addressing the general Shimazu Tadayoshi, who supported the court, urging restraint toward his rebellious countrymen.

--Eddie Ouano, Curatorial Intern, Asian Art Department

March 15, 2019

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Travels with Hiroshige from a Technical Perspective

Utagawa Hiroshige, Awa Province: the Naruto Whirlpools, from Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces
Utagawa Hiroshige,
Awa Province: the Naruto Whirlpools, 1855,
woodblock print, ink and color on paper
The Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) is renowned for the technical virtuosity he employed to create his woodblock series Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces (1853-56). Each print shows how the artist took advantage of new inks and advanced printing techniques to design the stunning images presented in the WAM exhibition Travels with Hiroshige.

Japanese woodblock print production is not a solitary effort, and Hiroshige’s fame rests on a complex collaboration of publisher, artist, block carvers, and printers. The skill of each was important to the final artwork.  After applying the artist’s drawing to a block of cherry wood, the carver created a key block by skillfully removing all the wood around the lines. The key block would then be inked and used to print black and white proofs. The artist used the proofs to indicate the colors and effects for each area. Most prints required the carving of ten or more additional blocks, one for each color.  Registration marks helped the printer keep the lines and colors in proper alignment.  Each block was re-inked between impressions and colors were printed one at a time.

The Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces series is particularly celebrated for its wide use of color gradations, called bokashi, which can be seen on every print.  After the background colors were printed, a gradation of color for certain areas was achieved by an extra step that reused the original color block: after washing the block, the printer applied the graded tint of pigment in selected areas.  This was done by hand with a moist brush that had been partially dipped in the pigment.  
Other techniques that were effectively used in the series include overprinting (one color over another), embossing, and the use of woodgrain to add texture.  In the latter, blocks with prominent grain patterns were selected and specially prepared to give the appearance of movement in monochrome areas such as the sea.

Visitors to Travels with Hiroshige will be stunned by the colors, especially the blues. The blue pigment used in this series revolutionized Japanese woodblock printing. Prussian or Berlin blue was accidently synthesized in a German laboratory in the early 1700s. The vivid blue pigment is stable, lightfast, and amenable to being mixed with other pigments. Before the arrival of Prussian blue in Japan in the 1820s, artists and print publishers used blue pigments derived from natural sources, such as indigo and dayflower petals. These vegetable dyes produced muted blues that fade dramatically when exposed to light. Imported Prussian blue made possible a wide range of intense and long-lasting blue hues. They were translucent and especially effective in expressing depth in water and atmospheric distance. The availability of the new blue pigment was a major factor in the development of landscape as an important subject in Japanese prints.

The print at top right shows printing gradations in the sky. Woodgrain adds movement to the water, and overprinting can be seen on the rocks and the whirlpools. A scene composed of mainly sky and water was made possible by the use of Prussian blue pigment.

--Susannah Baker, co-curator, Travels with Hiroshige

March 12, 2019

Friday, March 8, 2019

Endurance of an Idea

When I first stepped into the exhibition, Archaic Avant-Garde: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics from the Horvitz Collection, I was struck by the physical power of the ceramic pots that were standing tall against the muted chartreuse walls. As I began to study each object, I immediately was reminded of this quote from the Minnesota potter, Samuel Johnson:
It’s a strange thing to adhere to an artistic lineage within a culture that celebrates novelty and independent genius. Yet, here I am, making jars using old techniques and referencing forms that my teacher and his teacher made before me. I don’t think it makes the work anachronistic or nostalgia, but rather reflects the endurance of an idea standing firm in its relationship to time and place.

Even as new technologies are being introduced to the ceramics field every day, these new-generation makers in the show still find a need to prolong their history using archaic techniques. I was visually struck by how the pots made in the last 60 years felt as if they had jumped out of the ancient kiln sites in Japan but also alluded to contemporary aesthetics. For example, Koichiro Isezaki’s Penguin #3 challenges the function of the vessel, yet the surface treatment maintains connections to the ancient techniques of the yakishime (unglazed stoneware) style of wood-firing. Because the culture in Japan continues to celebrate their ceramic history, these new and up-and-coming makers are able to intertwine individuality with old processes.

Each object in the show has an underlying historical context that can be traced back to various kiln site aesthetics. Some of the pots stand firm in the style of a specific kiln site while others show combined characteristics such as Shiro Tsujimura’s Stoneware Jar.  This particular object exhibits a traditional form that is common throughout Tokoname ware while also overlapping with the Shigaraki style of feldspar inclusions. Even though the object labels each name one artist, each object demonstrates a deep rooted collection of hands, minds, and history that is forever marked into the work.
As a maker, who also creates using wood-fired kilns like the potters in this show, I constantly turn back to look at various histories for inspiration in both formal processes and surface techniques. I believe sustaining culture through art provides education for new-generations of makers to understand the value of maintaining history in the present and in the future.

--Abby Nohai, Artist-in-Residence, Worcester Center for Crafts

Image caption:

Abby Nohai giving a talk to WAM docents at opening of Archaic Avant-Garde. Photo credit: Tom O’Malley.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation shines in the American paintings galleries

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, 1898, Oil on canvas
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, 1898,
 Oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art
A temporary addition to the American paintings galleries (Gallery 332) allows the Worcester Art Museum to tell a more complete story about American painting in the nineteenth century. On loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Annunciation, by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), will be on view at WAM until February 25.

The son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, Henry Ossawa Tanner often painted religious subjects that explored the presence of the divine in human life. Discouraged by the racism he experienced in the United States, Tanner left for France in search of artistic acceptance. While abroad, he traveled to the Holy Land and later incorporated his experiences into his paintings. The Annunciation references the moment when the Archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God (Luke 1: 26-38). Tanner radically reinterpreted the biblical scene, casting Mary as an awkward adolescent dressed in Middle Eastern peasant clothing and the angel as an abstracted vertical flash of light. In forgoing traditional religious holy attributes like a halo or angel wings, Tanner humanizes the moment and creates a modern version of the spiritual narrative. The Annunciation brought Tanner critical acclaim and became the first of his paintings purchased by an American art museum.

You can learn more about this remarkable painting by taking a docent-led tour on Saturday, February 16 at 1pm. Titled “Henry Ossawa Tanner and the Emergence of African-American Fine Art,” this extended Zip Tour takes place during Black History Month.

-Erin Corrales-Diaz, Assistant Curator of American Art

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