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

Friday, January 17, 2020

Flora in Winter: Behind the Scenes

Flora in Winter is the biggest event of the year for the Worcester Art Museum. Every January, thousands of visitors come to see our galleries bloom with dozens of floral works, bringing a bit of spring to the dead of winter. The highlight of the four-day event is the Interpretive Floral Designs, two dozen captivating arrangements by some of the region’s top florists, paired with and interpreting selected artworks throughout the Museum. But what does it take to plan an event on this scale?

Designers may choose to focus their interpretation on
color, shape, light effects, or any other aspect.
Here is a summary of the year-long process, according to WAM Director of Education and Experience Marnie Weir:

February/March: Pre-planning begins almost immediately after the previous Flora ends! WAM staff members meet with our Flora Co-Chairs: Kim Cutler, Kathy Michie and Sarah Ribeiro. The team makes decisions on priority issues, including dates and themes for the coming year – this year’s theme is Epic Bloom!

Commercial arrangements occupy
public Museum spaces.
Spring: Our departments of Education and Registration begin selecting the artworks for interpretation. This is no easy decision. Do we want to highlight popular works or draw attention to lesser-known ones? Which works have been interpreted in recent years? Are some of the choices scheduled to go on loan, or be cycled out of the Galleries before January? Locations for commercial arrangements are also selected – works by garden clubs and professional florists, placed in public spaces such as the Lancaster Lobby and Renaissance Court balcony.

Late Summer/Early Fall: Invitations (and a list of selected artworks) are mailed to our selected arrangers, who RSVP with their top choices. We do our best to match designers with their first or second choices! Once these are finalized, arrangers can begin planning their creations, sending us updates on their plans, inspirations and designs.

Fall: Now that the arrangers are settled, it’s time to think about everything else – we contact performers, caterers and other talent for the Friday night Flora party, and we begin developing related programming for the weekend. We also start to get the word out, including a “Save the Date” on our website and plans for printed fliers and social media.

December: The entire four-day schedule is finalized, and Marketing produces the promotional fliers, which are mailed to several thousand constituents, including many Massachusetts garden clubs. Meanwhile, our volunteer docents begin planning their tours – doing further research on the selected artworks, and sharing their knowledge of botany and floral design.

January: With all of the paperwork finalized, we design and print specialized Flora in Winter maps, showing the location of every arrangement throughout the Museum, alongside statements provided by the arrangers. Nearly every staff member will be involved in some way over the four-day event, so we all participate in training and preparation to ensure everything goes smoothly.

Tuesday: With Martin Luther King Day on Monday, nearly all the prep work must be done on Tuesday, while the Museum is closed to the public. Galleries are set up with pedestals and tables for the arrangements, lighting is prepared, and additional signs are posted to point the way to workshops and lectures. There is also often some final coordination with outside performers and businesses.

Wednesday: Commercial arrangers deliver their works and set them up throughout the public spaces.

Visitors can enjoy art and arrangements together!
Thursday: At 6 AM, arrangers and staff begin to arrive. Most of the arrangements are at least partially pre-made, but our designers know to expect anything – it can sometimes take as much as two hours to get every detail right! Once all designs are complete and gallery spaces cleaned, the docents have a special tour to see the finished arrangements and discuss ideas and interpretations. Finally, doors are opened to the public at 10 AM!

There is no event at WAM quite like Flora, and we hope you will take the opportunity to see our galleries in bloom.

Learn more about the event – including programming schedule and prices – on our website!

Sarah Leveille
Digital Media Specialist
January 17, 2020

Monday, December 16, 2019

Deck the Halls - WAM's Seasonal Celebration

In honor of the holiday season, WAM has decked our halls with a dozen festive trees!

From the "Worcester Tree" celebrating the city's businesses and institutions to the "Candy Tree" dripping with (artificial) sweets to the "Tree Spirits" on the Renaissance Court balcony, each creation brings a unique look to brighten our lobbies and galleries.

This year's holiday display was planned and arranged by Sally Jablonski of Herbert E. Berg Florist, with the help of the rest of her staff. Sally has been a friend of the Museum for close to thirty years. WAM contacted her in July to discuss plans to refresh our holiday decorations and expand their presence in the Museum.

Sally Jablonski and the "Rockin' Music Tree"
"I had no idea what the scope of the project would be," Sally remembers, but almost immediately, she began putting together ideas. "Once they told me how many trees they would need, I started surfing the internet, looking at art books, coming up with as many ideas as I could." Some of these included upside-down trees (such as the "Origami Tree" in the Lancaster Lobby) and mannequins decorated as trees (from which came our four "Tree Spirits"). Michelle Lowell, also of Herbert E. Berg Florist, helped develop the designs for this project.

There were many challenges along the way. The "Worcester Tree" is covered with creative ornaments and memorabilia donated by Worcester businesses and organizations, which Sally was gathering right up until a few days before the trees were erected. Meanwhile, she collected every retro item from the 70s and 80s she could find - toys, board games, records, old telephones, comic books and more. "I didn't know how it would all come together," she admits. Working with guest designer Julie Lapham, she created the "Retro Toy Tree" and the "Rockin' Music Tree," a pair of towering artificial pines in Salisbury Hall, framing the corridor leading to the Photo Revolution exhibition which inspired them.

Perhaps the biggest challenge was the "Manzanita Tree, a gold-painted rubber tree dripping with crystal ornaments, designed to stand in the Chapter House. "Almost right away, it started to fall apart from the humidity." Sally took the tree home, recreating it in a smaller (and sturdier) design, and brought it back the next day, ready to display.

The final version of the "Manzanita Tree"
Sally revealed that she found the four "Tree Spirits" the most fun to create. "They were difficult. I didn't even know how they would stand," she explains. "But difficult doesn't mean not fun." For these, she traveled into Boston, gathering materials she thought might be interesting to work with, from artificial pine cones and berries to peacock feathers. She was delighted with how they turned out, each one a unique creation.

Sally says she was largely inspired by her own holiday memories, going to see the Christmas display at Denholm's storefront in downtown Worcester, and spending the holiday at her grandmother's house. She hopes that visitors to WAM will walk away with new holiday memories, and that the trees will bring them joy and fun.

Sally will be returning in January to create an arrangement for WAM's Flora in Winter event; she has been an arranger since the 1990's (when the event was known as Tribute to Flora). Her 2020 arrangement is "still in the idea stage" - she has been paired with a work of art from WAM's collection to interpret through flowers, and is now researching designs and color palettes for inspiration.

We look forward to seeing what she comes up with next!

"Deck the Halls" will be on view through January 5, 2020.

- Sarah Leveille
Digital Media Specialist
December 16, 2019

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Meet CMAI Artist Matthew Gamber

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 current CMAI artist is Matthew Gamber, an Associate Professor in the Visual Arts Department at the College of the Holy Cross.

Matthew Gamber’s series, This is (Still) the Golden Age, is a unique set of images created by pressing a piece of photographic paper to the screen of a cathode-ray television. The TV provides both the light source and the subject (a program or commercial) projected directly onto the photographic paper. The resulting still images are somewhat abstract–as the moving images are rendered into blurry shapes–yet still recognizable. He writes about the process and his inspiration in this interview with Lauren Szumita, Curatorial Assistant of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

Matthew Gamber, Leave it to Beaver, from This is (Still)
the Golden Age, 
2006, gelatin silver print, (c) Matthew Gamber
LS:  To start, how did you come to be connected with Worcester?
MG: I have been teaching at College of the Holy Cross since 2014, having taught at the school once before in 2008. In the time between those two appointments, I met many artists in the area, many of whom have become close friends and colleagues.

LS: We are excited to feature works from your series This is (Still) the Golden Age at WAM. Can you explain more about the process of creating this series?
MG: I wanted to create an image where the light was both the subject and the object. I began by thinking about the crossover between broadcast media and photography. On a primary level, photographs record the absence or presence of light. As contact prints (or photograms), these are a direct index of an object, but they also have the artist’s desire to have touched, which is an artistic gesture. What one sees is the recent absence of the object touching the light-sensitive surface–its residual shadow. The television image, the electronic image, its transmission exist in a continuum within the larger electromagnetic spectrum of which visible light is a small fraction.

LS: The images in this series date to the mid-2000s, but many of the featured programs, like The Brady Bunch, are much older. Were these developed from previous negatives, or were these re-runs that you caught on TV?
MG: Sports broadcasts, like Wimbledon, were captured at the time of the initial broadcast as if it were a decisive moment. However, several were reruns. Many postwar sitcoms, in particular, exist because they were first shot on film and then edited before broadcast. Our access to these programs could have only happened through A) the foresight of properly archiving the episodes and B) networks discovering an audience for resyndicated content. These shows replay continuously, and if one hasn't seen them, they can be rediscovered by a new generation. I am experiencing the episodes as my parents' generation might have first encountered them. When I made these cameraless negatives from the television, to me, it was as if they were broadcast for the first time.

LS: Since you captured the image by turning the television on, not sitting and waiting for a certain shot, did you have an idea of what the final product would look like?
MG: Before the widespread use of magnetic recording, which could transduce signals and could be replayed in the future, early television programs were broadcast into the atmosphere and lost—essentially live theatre seen at a distance. My technique requires that the television unit be in a completely darkened room. I am unsure of what the image will be when it comes up to full brightness on the cathode ray tube. This series was created from a long series of failures. For me, it was a discovery about what photography's shortcomings were in its ability to create a meaningful document of something in our everyday experience.

LS: I think one of the most exciting things about this work is that it's a type of cameraless photography. Can you comment on your practice?
MG: For me, it is the mistakes at the seams of intent that generate meaning in the artwork. I was interested in using photography for purposes for which it was not intended to be used. I tried to bring 19th-century thinking to bear on the 21st-century as a way to understand these what might be considered common uses of photography. In a sense, I wanted to create a kind of alternate history where Anna Atkins had tried to collect television broadcasts, rather than the wide variety of British flora. I wanted to imagine what it might have been like if one had skipped over the rise of Kodak and the development of what we know as photojournalism, cinema, or the vernacular.

LS: You seem to have this interest, in this series and others, in isolating different aspects of photography and exploring them a little bit further, maybe breaking down the value systems.
MG: Which came first: an idea or a technique? I'm not challenging any traditions of photography insomuch as I’m trying to understand why images are made the way are. I'm fascinated with the evolution of photographic conventions, whether intentional or entirely accidental. I'm interested in challenging rules we accept as a means to understand how conventions began.

LS: Is there anything that you hope viewers will take away from your work?
MG: I hope that viewers will make a connection between the photographs in the Photo Revolution exhibition. I was inspired by many of the artists whose work is in the show. I hope visitors see a shared dialogue in reevaluating what photography can show us. In the 1960s and ‘70s (in parallel development with MFA programs in academia), you find a number of young artists mining photography's past, challenging conventional uses of the medium. It was a means to explore aspects of lived experience that are not easily documented through a lens.

Works from This is (Still) the Golden Age will be on display in WAM’s Sidney and Rosalie Rose Gallery until March 29, 2020.

   Lauren Szumita
Curatorial Assistant of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs
December 10, 2019

Monday, November 4, 2019

Brief History of Photography at WAM

In preparation for our upcoming exhibition--Photo Revolution: Andy Warhol to Cindy Sherman--we asked WAM's Stoddard Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, Nancy Burns, to explain some of the background of WAM's world-class photography collection.

Honey Locust and Leaf Pod
Anna Atkins (1989.9)
The Worcester Art Museum organized its first exhibition dedicated solely to photography in 1904, in a time when the new medium had not yet become fully accepted into the domain of fine art. Few museums at the turn of the century demonstrated such a progressive approach to photography. The Museum’s founder, Stephen Salisbury III, deserves much of the credit for WAM’s early venture into photography. Salisbury was an avid collector of photography and impressed upon Museum leadership the importance of the medium nearly from the day the doors opened.

WAM acquired its first photograph, a daguerreotype—the earliest photographic process—as a gift in 1901 (Portrait of a Young Girl; 1901.1279). Six years later, the collection expanded significantly when it received a cache of 107 daguerreotypes, albumen prints, and tintypes as part of a bequest from Salisbury. Though the Museum continued to receive photographs as donations from benefactors, only one photograph had been purchased by the Museum before Stephen Jareckie was appointed as the first dedicated curator of photography in 1962. With Jareckie at the helm, the Museum began to collect aggressively.

There have only been three curators of photography in the nearly six decades since the department began: Jareckie, David Acton (now Curator of Photography at the Snite Museum at the University of Notre Dame), and myself. Jareckie and Acton deserve the lion’s share of praise for the Museum’s rich holdings. Between them, they acquired over 90% of the 4,000+ photographs over the course of fifty years. At present, WAM’s highly respected collection of photography spans the history of the medium, beginning with an 1840s cyanotype by British photographer Anna Atkins to a 2019 photo-relief by the Vietnamese artist Thế Sơn Nguyễn.

As the Worcester Art Museum looks toward the future of photography, we recognize a significant shift that has taken place in the past two decades. Photography is no longer solely a paper-based medium. Rather, with the advent of digital photography, it migrates instantly from screen to screen. Today, people engage with photography almost exclusively using digital platforms like tablets, cell phones, and computers. Society’s new “frames” are social media outlets like Facebook and Instagram. In fact, museums and galleries are some of the last places where one finds contemporary photographs on paper. As an encyclopedic collection, the Museum is always looking back and forward. Looking to the years ahead, WAM considers the exciting possibilities presented by photographs that exist beyond the page.

Our upcoming exhibition - PhotoRevolution: Andy Warhol to Cindy Sherman - will look at art from the 1960's 70's and 80's, including photographs, works incorporating photographs, and works inspired by photography. You can learn more about the show on our website.

Nancy Kathryn Burns
Stoddard Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs
November 4, 2019

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Five Questions about the Silk Road

1. What was the Silk Road?

The Silk Road was not a single road at all, but a network of trade routes connecting China to trade partners throughout Asia, Europe and portions of Africa. Depending on the time period, at least three overland routes operated at a time, plus the maritime (sea) trade routes.

2. What cultures were connected by the Silk Road?

China can be considered the “anchor” of the trade routes, and their oldest trading partners were likely the nomads of the central Asian steppes, and settlements in Thailand and along the Ganges River in India. Across the centuries, many other cultures became involved, including Persia, Parthia, Japan, Rome and other Italian cities, Vietnam, Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, Egypt, the Indonesian islands, and other civilizations in the Near East and the Arabian Peninsula. Because goods were traded indirectly – passing from merchant to merchant down the road – some wound up in surprising places, such as silks from China in a 6th century German burial.

3. What goods were exchanged on the Silk Road?

Silk was one of the major exports from China, which kept the secret of its creation (silkworms) carefully hidden for thousands of years, but arguably the trade of horses and camels was more important in sustaining and expanding the Road. China, unable to raise good cavalry horses for its army, exchanged silk for horses from steppe nomads, who in turn traded the silks and more horses further west and south for other desirable products, such as grains. Spices were also widely traded, especially along sea routes, as well as incense, glass and other luxuries. Precious metals and stones were exchanged – China imported a great deal of gold and silver from the west, and some of the oldest trade on the routes (dating as far back as 5,000 BCE) was of jade, a stone highly prized for carving.

The Silk Road also saw the exchange of ideas – from artistic styles to technologies to religious – and, occasionally, diseases.

4. When was the Silk Road established?

As stated above, some jade trade can be traced as early as 5,000 BCE, although the more extensive trade for horses likely began closer to 2,000 BCE. Other portions of the Road had their own histories, but many scholars date the Road to the 1st century BCE, when China consolidated routes to India and to Western powers, including Persia and Rome.

Trade along the Road rose and fell with the civilizations surrounding it. The major periods of trade occurred under Han Dynasty China (particularly 130 BCE – 200 CE), T’ang Dynasty China and the Byzantine Empire (especially the 8th century), and the Mongol Empire (13th-14th century).

5. How long did it take to travel the Silk Road?

The land route from Rome to the Chinese capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an) was roughly 4,300-4,500 miles. A single traveler could make the journey in around a year, and some diplomats and envoys are recorded doing this (though most took longer, due to the complications of travel). However, merchants generally only traveled short distances, exchanging goods at the next large city before returning home. Depending on how long an object waited to be bought and carried along the next leg of the journey, it could be in transit for years, even decades!

The sea route from Egypt to eastern China could be quicker, but was also much longer – ships needed to sail around the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Subcontinent, and Mainland Southeast Asia, a distance of at least 7,500 miles – and even more prone to disruption by weather. Traveling by sea took anywhere from 6 months to over a year.

Performers from India Society of Worcester at WAM's 2017 Diwali celebration
Curious to learn more? Come to WAM’s upcoming Fall Community Day – Travel the Silk Road! Held in partnership with the India Society of Worcester and the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts, this FREE* day will include crafts, music, stories, food and activit
ies from countries all along the traditional Silk Road. We hope you will join us on Sunday, November 3 and travel the Silk Road!

*Admission and most activities are free, though some workshops will have an additional charge.

- Sarah Leveille
Digital Media Specialist
October 17, 2019

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Trouble with Pregnancy: A Forum on Art and Reproduction

Held in connection with the exhibition With Child: Otto Dix/Carmen Winant, WAM's upcoming Forum, The Trouble with Pregnancy, reflects on the often troublesome imagery, literature, history, medical, and social issues surrounding pregnancy. To explore these issues, we have invited a range of speakers, including medical and health personnel, poets, art historians, and curators. Each will bring a unique perspective to the question of how pregnancy and childbirth are presented and discussed in our society, historically and today.

Marcia Lagerwey, guest curator of "With Child: Otto Dix/Carmen Winant."

One of the speakers, Sara Shields, MD and author of Woman-Centered Care in Pregnancy and Childbirth gives us a preview of what she will discuss during the Forum:

A woman-centered care approach to reproductive health including pregnancy, labor, and beyond, asks us to transform practices and systems that are currently provider-centered, fetus-centered, and technology-centered.  Talking about the unspoken parts of woman-centered reproductive care reminds us to listen for the issues that often lie just beneath the surface. This includes looking at all the ways the current US maternity system is not working well for all women in this country--the shocking disparities in maternal mortality and infant mortality rates along with the realization of how racism impacts these; the rising cesarean section rate and medicalization of the birth process; the recognition of postpartum mental health issues; the renewed conversations about sexual abuse across a woman's lifespan; and the increased awareness about how common pregnancy losses and infertility are.  All of these topics come up as we think about and react to this exhibition, With Child: Otto Dix/Carmen Winant.  While these topics are challenging and difficult, talking more transparently about them can be transformative and can help us find more holistic, healthy solutions to these issues.

Our hope is that these presentations will provide a basis for both celebration and thought, and drive conversation and discussion throughout the day. We will explore many themes, including: pregnancy in times of war and political turmoil; the absence of pregnancy and birth as major themes in art; the creative impulse in the visual and verbal arts; and, most relevant to today, the growing voice of women in making medical decisions about their own bodies.

Please join us on Friday, October 18, for either (or both) of the two sessions, morning and afternoon, in WAM's Higgins Education Wing Conference Room. Admission is free. RSVP to aileennovick@worcesterart.org or at 508.793.4341.

The Forum is organized in partnership with the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester County Poetry Association, and Worcester State University.

More information can be found on our website, and on WAM's Facebook Event for the Forum.

- Marcia Lagerwey
Guest Curator, With Child: Otto Dix/Carmen Winant
October 10, 2019

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Smelting Iron with the Vikings

I recently had the opportunity to take part in a medieval-style iron smelt organized by Hurstwic, a locally based but internationally active group that reconstructs Viking Age culture. During the past year Hurstwic has been working to rediscover the Vikings’ techniques for extracting iron from iron ore. I couldn’t pass up this rare opportunity for a hands-on experience of medieval ironworking. The techniques of smelting iron ore had a major impact on weapons and armor in the Middle Ages, and I have often spoken about ironsmelting in my work as a curator. But there’s nothing like hands-on to learn how something really works!

Jeffrey Forgeng (center) with Hurstwic members at the furnace.
It was a hot summer day, not the friendliest weather for tending an ironsmelting furnace. We all helped mix clay, sand, water and manure to build the furnace, and we took turns feeding iron ore and charcoal into the top of the furnace so that the flames could work their magic. Bit by bit, the heat converted the iron oxide into pure iron while melting out the silicates in the ore. There was a tense moment near the end of the smelt when the furnace cracked under the intense heat, but our expert Vikings patched it up quickly, and at the end of the day we were rewarded with a fine, workable mass of metallic iron.

Carefully adding ore and charcoal to the furnace.
I can guarantee I will never look at a medieval sword quite the same way again!

Have a look at the technology of Viking Age ironsmelting and learn more about Hurstwic.

--Jeffrey L. Forgeng
Higgins Curator of Arms & Armor and Medieval Art

Don't miss our Arms and Armor Presentation "The Viking Age" on October 12th!

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