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 22, 2021

Uncovering Ancient Egyptian Treasures

When The Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu watercolor was accessioned by WAM in 1925, it marked a seminal moment of American excitement and fascination with ancient Egyptian culture and archaeology.

This significant watercolor presents part of a register and column from the mortuary temple complex of Ramses III, located near the West Bank of Luxor, Egypt. The temple was first recorded by Europeans at the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century and later described in detail, capturing the public imagination. Given the ongoing interest in the temple, an initial clearing and excavation began in 1859, continuing for the next 40 years. 

Today, the complex remains a significant archaeological site containing more than 7,000 meters of relatively well-preserved reliefs, colossal statues, a hypostyle hall, a columned portico, and evidence of several buildings that once surrounded it.

Howard Carter (British 1873-1939), 
The Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu (1909),
watercolor over graphite on medium,
slightly textured off-white paper,
Mrs. Kingsmill Marrs Collection, 1925.145

What's interesting is that images like The Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu often served as souvenirs for foreign travelers. Here, the watercolor highlights the architectural elements and reliefs visible to visitors of the temple. The large columns and heavy geometric design, iconic features of the site, are highlighted via a subtle tilt at the column’s base. The perspective places the viewer in the shade beneath the pillars further emphasizing their weight and imposing stature. In addition, the relief in the left panel is in the sharpest focus likely because this panel depicts Ramses III, to whom the site is dedicated.

The Rameses III relief presents two figures facing one another with two small cartouches hovering between their heads. The figure at left is a depiction of the falcon-headed god Ra. In addition to his distinctive falcon-like features, the pharaoh Ra is associated with the noon-day sun, depicted here as a circle above his head. The second figure’s proximity to the god indicates his high status, and the cartouche indicates that he is the pharaoh Ramses III. A detail from a relief of Ramses III from the sanctuary of the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak (seen below) further confirms the figure in the Carter watercolor as Ramses III.


Relief from the sanctuary of the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak
 depicting Ramses III

The Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu was painted in 1909 by Howard Carter who was best known for his contributions to the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. One of the best-preserved ancient burial sites ever unearthed, it sparked worldwide press coverage and is still considered one of the greatest archaeological finds in modern history. 

Carter was born in Britain, the son of the artist Samuel John Carter. Artistic talent ran in his family as he grew up taking art lessons, with three of his ten siblings exhibiting their artwork at the Royal Academy. During his youth, Carter developed his artistic skills copying details of a family friend’s Egyptian antiquity collection. At age 17, he grew increasingly involved in Egyptian archaeology by recording and copying Egyptian tomb decorations. In 1905, between excavations, Carter moved to Luxor, Egypt and began working as a freelance draughtsman, painting watercolors for tourists, and serving as a local guide. 

The Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu was completed in 1909, the same year Carter began supervising excavations for Lord Carnarvon who served as the primary financial backer for the archeological dig. In 1922, in his proposed final season of work under Lord Carnarvon, that King Tut’s tomb was discovered by Carter and his team.

Following the frenzy of the King Tut discovery, Carter became something of a celebrity who lectured across Europe and the United States throughout 1924. The acquisition of Carter’s watercolor by WAM in 1925 occurred at the height of public anticipation around the excavations at the King Tut burial site and Carter’s popularity. The excavation of the tomb continued for a decade coming to an end in 1932, but it forever left its mark on the world of art history and archaeology. 

The Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu will be on display in the Museum’s upcoming exhibition on Egyptian art and artifacts, Jewels of the Nile, along with five other watercolors by Carter in the WAM Collection. Jewels of the Nile will be on view June 18, 2022 through January 29, 2023.

—By Gabrielle Belisle, Fellow for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

    January 22, 2021

Friday, January 8, 2021

Here's the Scoop on How "Kimono Couture" went Virtual

Rachel Parikh, WAM's Assistant Curator of Asian and Middle Eastern Art, reveals the behind-the scenes details about our first virtual exhibition, Kimono Couture: The Beauty of Chiso, for which she was project manager.


As project manager (with very short notice), how did you approach creating this virtual exhibition, essentially shifting from a static to dynamic presentation?

I first met with Vivian Li and Christine Starkman, the co-curators of the exhibition, to discuss what concepts, ideas, and visual elements they wanted to bring to life in a virtual format. We wanted to emphasize the enduring and innovative artistry in creating a kimono at Chiso, the renowned 465-year-old, Kyoto-based kimono house. We decided that it would be best to tell this story through a variety of themes, from the materials used to decorate the kimono, to the collaborative process in its production (Chiso employs nearly 600 artisans!). 

I teamed up with an amazing web engineer, Amanda Cheung, and designer, Ian Dickens, to create the exhibition. They intuitively understood what we wanted for the look and feel. Through their thoughtful and striking designs, layouts, and animations, Amanda and Ian masterfully conveyed Chiso’s core value: bi hitosuji, which translates to “nothing but beauty”.

How was this experience different from curating a physical exhibition?

Obviously, we were not directly working with the objects. While this makes certain aspects of curating a show easier, it does give rise to other challenges, especially from an engagement standpoint. In an in-person exhibition, wall labels are usually supplement to what you are seeing and experiencing, but in a virtual format, you have to lean into story-telling. Thus, we made the virtual exhibition both interactive and animated to not only guide the visitor through an experience that made sense, but to also give them an engaging way to understand and appreciate the subject matter.

Image from Kimono Couture Week 1. Each section of the exhibition
 concludes with a “Featured Kimono” tab for the viewer to learn more
 about the kimono representing that week’s theme. 

What was the biggest challenge?

This was an unprecedented venture for WAM, so we didn’t have anything to compare it to. We had to work through the learning curve, and that involved making sure everyone was on the same page. We were able to learn from the experience and create something that is beautiful, insightful, and inviting. Now, we have a set-up that we can replicate moving forward. 

Additionally, because the virtual exhibition was the first of its kind for WAM, another challenge was figuring out how to contextually navigate it. Kimono Couture was intended to be an in-house exhibition.  We realized early on that we cannot replace it or replicate an in-person experience, and so we had to shift our thinking and our approach for it to be successful on a virtual platform, which, for example, involved readapting elements, like the flow and content. 

Image from Kimono Couture Week 3 discussing the main decorative
 techniques with behind-the-scenes images of the Chiso artisans at work. 

What was the thinking behind staggering the exhibition over 10 weeks?

We wanted the exhibition to be immersive for the visitor to get the most out of their experience with the material and to get to know Chiso. We thought that staggering the show over 10 weeks was a great way to achieve this. Each week, the visitor encounters a new theme through a different Chiso kimono. These bite-sized moments allow for one to really understand the material and content. We like the idea of creating a full story over time, in a sense mimicking the long, storied history of Chiso. The concept is also part of the exhibition’s overall interactive experience—it invites you to come and be part of a new theme. 

One of my favorites is “Decorative Techniques", which features hotspots on a Chiso kimono that explains all the different tie-dyeing techniques used to create the garment. The staggering also provides a personalized experience—you can come visit any time and experience it how you want, whether it’s visiting every week, or waiting until all the weeks are revealed and binging it like a Netflix show. 

Image from Kimono Couture, Week 3: Decorative Techniques.
The featured kimono (right) has hotspots that reveal a detail from
the garment and describe the decorative technique
used to create it (left).  

Additionally, the 10 weeks also acts as a countdown to our in-house exhibition, The Kimono in Print: 300 Years of Japanese Design (February 6 – May 2, 2021). Kimono Couture beautifully dovetails into The Kimono in Print through our specially commissioned Chiso wedding kimono—the first kimono to ever be commissioned as art for a museum—which is featured in both exhibitions. Kimono Couture gives you an opportunity to go behind-the-scenes in its creation, while The Kimono in Print lets you see it in person. The last year certainly blurred the lines between time and space, and I think both of these shows collectively embody that through their different platforms and ways of experiencing them. 

Chiso Co., Ltd., Worcester Wedding Kimono, 2020,
 barrel tie-dyeing (okedashi shibori), paste-resist dyeing (yūzen),
colored flour paste-resist dyeing (iro utsushi icchin-yūzen),
threadline paste-resist dyeing (itome yūzen),
snowstorm wax-resist dyeing (fubuki rōketsuzome),
gold leaf, and embroidery on woven silk.

What opportunities does a virtual exhibition offer that a physical exhibition doesn’t?

There are actually quite a few. First, you really have an invaluable opportunity to look at how these kimonos are made through stunning images and details of the kimonos that might otherwise be difficult to see in person, especially when the garments are in cases. Second, the exhibition is asynchronous— you can visit anytime and from anywhere through a computer or a phone. Third, while you are not feeding off of the crowd energy you find in an in-house exhibition, you have the opportunity to interact with a virtual exhibition in a personal way and through a personalized experience. 

 Image from Kimono Couture, Week 2: Materials of the Kimono.
This installment features stunning details from a Chiso kimono
 to highlight the different types of materials used,
such as gold thread and foil. 

This is a whole new venture for WAM. How will this change how we engage with our audiences in the future?

This is a major milestone for us with regard to audiences and accessibility. We can bring WAM to everyone and everyone can be part of the WAM community. It’s exciting to think of people half way around the world engaging with our exhibitions. It also really changes what a “visitor” means to us— we now have the opportunity to provide WAM as an experience in any size, shape, or form—and that just opens up so many exciting possibilities for us and for our growing community. 

Image of  Kimono Couture’s main page
from a phone. 

To view the virtual exhibition, visit Kimono Couture: The Beauty of Chiso. New weekly installments debut each Saturday through February 6, 2021. 

Kimono Couture: The Beauty of Chiso is organized by the Worcester Art Museum in partnership with Chiso, the revered 465-year-old kimono design and production house based in Kyoto, Japan. Support is provided by the Fletcher Foundation and Michie Family Curatorial Fund. Research for this project was made possible by the Japan-United States Friendship Commission and the Northeast Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies. Additional support is provided by Emily and James Holdstein, and Sandy Hubbard and Thomas J. Logan. The exhibition is sponsored by Cornerstone Bank and Imperial Distributors, Inc.

The Kimono in Print: 300 Years of Japanese Design is generously supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. Early research for this project was made possible by the Japan Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

—January 8, 2021

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Timeless Treasures: Beloved Thank-You Notes from Student Visitors

One of the joys of working in the Museum's Education Department is greeting the students arriving for their field trip tours, which are on hold for now. As students gather in the Lancaster Lobby, you can hear excited snippets of conversations and sense their enthusiasm and anticipation. Students then break into groups and meet the docent who will take them on their journey through the galleries. Museum staff and visitors can see the students as they ask questions and view art from around the world. When the students return to the lobby to gather back together, there is much chatter about their experiences. We're always curious what they thought of everything they saw.


One window we have into their time at the Museum is through the thank-you letters we receive from students. We love reading these letters! The notes are incredibly insightful and honest. As Jan Ewick, our school tour supervisor, was departing after 30 years with the Museum, she shared the file of letters she kept in her desk. Here, we share a sampling of these treasured thank-you notes from students who visited WAM on a field trip and also from those students who had a docent bring the Museum to their classroom.

This April 1996 letter from Nora stands out because of this future archaeologist’s enthusiasm for the classroom visit from a WAM docent.

Dear Louise,

Thank you very much for your effort and the time you spent with us. I really appreciated the information about Ancient Egyptian art and life. It helped a lot with the planning of our pyramid. My friend Angela and I are planning to move to Egypt and work as archaeologists in Giza and the Valley of the Kings. Your activities on hieroglyphics have helped us determine what to write in our plans. Thanks again.

Sincerely, Nora

This letter from the same visit shows a wide range of enthusiasm for the Egyptian topic in the classroom.

Dear Louise,

Thank you so very much for coming to Miss Greene’s sixth-grade classroom. I enjoyed having you come to our class and talking to us about Egypt. Some people didn’t like doing the things that you gave us to do. But I did. I enjoyed every bit of it. When you first came I thought, "Boy I would love to know all the stuff she does." But truly I really did enjoy having you come to our class, and hope you can come again.

Sincerely, Nikki

Many people, including our student visitors, are curious if the works on view are replicas. They often voice that the artwork looked “real.” Students also are often surprised and appreciate seeing the contemporary works along with the ancient works. This letter from Donny mentions both of these aspects from his February 2017 note.

Dear Worcester Art Museum,

Thank you for opening the museum early so that we can see your work. The statue that interested me the most was the Knight in armor because he had a shield and other things on him. I also liked the mummy case because it looked like a real mummy. I saw a lot of pictures in one room that had a Rocket TV and the TV was really bright and colorful. I thank you Worcester Art Museum for showing us around.

Sincerely, Donny

One letter, in particular, from Amy in Florida, reveals many of the interesting questions we receive from students.  

I am 9 years old and in fourth grade. I’m in art class. I have questions to ask about your museum. I am wondering if you buy or rent your paintings? Did anybody ever rob your museum? Do you have a kids museum? How do you get big art through the door? Do you have a restaurant? Why do you show Egyptian art? I think I have asked enough questions. May I please have some pictures of your museum?

Thank you, Amy.

Our WAM docents do a great job of answering our student visitors’ questions and sharing how museums work.

Our fourth-grade Worcester Public Schools students can draw and write on their tours. They have specific works for their curriculum that they stop at and discuss with a docent. One artwork is Phillip Evergood’s The Rubber Raft (about 1945). 

The label for this work reads, “When this painting was included in the summer 1945 ‘Contemporary American Painting’ exhibition at San Francisco’s California Palace of the Legion of Honor, a reviewer for Time magazine singled it out as ‘a war footnote in which two helpless, parched men sprawl on a raft surrounded by voracious sharks.’ Like viewers today, the reviewer was no doubt captivated by the bold, violent colors and dramatic draftsmanship that helped emphasize the ominous storyline—as well as the detail of the vivid red mouths and snapping teeth of the hungry sharks encircling the doomed sailors.”

Discussions of this work combined with students’ natural curiosity in sharks have inspired many drawings that have been shared with us, like these here.

Some of our student tours see work from the Middle Ages and meet Neal Bourbeau, our programming coordinator and resident knight, who shares the armor and stories of knights with them. The students honest reflections on their tours provide a glimpse of the work our docents and staff do to keep an excited group of students focused on the learning goals their teachers have for the visit! Here are some snippets from sixth graders’ thank-you notes. 

Arms & Armor Presentations are popular with school children.
Here, a field trip visitor participates in an interactive session
with Neal Bourbeau, WAM program coordinator (right). 

Dear Neal & Mary,

I am a sixth grader who said that the sword is "shiny." I wanted to thank you for an amazing field trip we had today…I was surprised that dogs back then wore Armor. I like that Mary was still talking when my friends sometimes go wander off. Also that Neal was nice and that people said it was pretty fun. --Lexi

I am writing to you today to say thank you for the tour and excellent field work you have prepared for us. I have learned many new things on the visit. For instance, all of the heavy armor knights have to wear. I learned that the art work in the museum is thousands of years old. Thanks gain for the presentation because it was awesome. --Helen”

I am writing to thank you for teaching our group more about the medieval times. Even though my group was distracted with the iPads, you still wanted to keep going with the lesson. I learned a lot more that I didn’t know. --Jayda

We went to the Art Museum because we are learning about religions. I learned that Jesus when he was a baby looked more like an adult. Also that the armor they wore in the Crusades was really heavy. Some feedback that I have is you actually explained to us really good about the paintings and stuff we learned and you showed us more about their weapons and some of the armor they wore so thank you very much for being nice and sorry that we might of got off track.--Carina

I really loved the tour and the beginning when we got to learn about the things they wore to battle. The tour was awesome because we got to see paintings and sculptures they made. The things that people got to wear was also cool because they got to see what is feels like. Thanks so much! --Lindsay”

Honestly I think you guys did an awesome job presenting. You did an awesome job about explaining everything carefully. Keep up the good work and keep putting smiles on people’s faces.--Justin

This last letter is one we've treasured for many years and reminds us of the importance of sharing works of art with young visitors. Students can learn important history and visualize techniques of creating art from our collection, but they also can find beauty and learn about themselves.  

Dear Staff of the Art Museum,

I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed going to the Art Museum with my school and seeing all of the beautiful art work. Never in my whole life have I ever seen so many beautiful sculptures and paintings. Most of all I liked seeing the realism paintings. They were so graceful and real. Every time I look at them it makes me feel good about myself and happy to be here. I hope that next year I will get to go to the Art Museum again.

Sincerely, Cassie


We look forward to welcoming students like Cassie back to the Museum when it is safe for them to return for docent-led tours. We miss seeing their smiling faces and witnessing the joy they experience when they explore our galleries. 

—By Aileen Novick, WAM's manager of public and education programs, and Jan Ewick, recently retired school tour supervisor at WAM

December 15, 2020

The images of Museum staff and docents pictured with school children were taken at the Museum prior to March 2020.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Shining a Light on Hanukkah at WAM

Hanukkah, the eight-day holiday, which means "dedication" in Hebrew, commemorates the rededication of the second Temple in Jerusalem and the lighting of a sacred lamp putting an end to a dark period in Jewish history. The Hanukkah miracle? The lamp, which only had enough oil for one day and night, stayed lit for eight full days and nights!

In the darkness of December, we welcome the lights to brighten our homes and warm our hearts. Holiday lights—from Diwali to Christmas to Thai Floating Lanterns—show up across myriad different cultures and traditions; these festivals all invite their celebrants to spend time focusing on the joy of bringing in light to brighten our longest nights.

Last year, the Worcester Jewish Community Center (JCC) and WAM made their own Hanukkah history with a truly special celebration at the Museum for nearly 600 people who enjoyed the Hanukkah-themed art, crafts, activities, food, and story times.  JCC preschoolers sang Hanukkah songs in the Renaissance Court, the Wachusett Jazz ensemble performed, and the Chubby Chickpea food truck was a big hit—especially their mouth-watering donut holes ("sufganiyot") and cider. The holiday spirit associated with the Hanukkah lights as they glowed on an otherwise gray, snowy day was surely felt by the attendees.  

Almost immediately after last year’s successful event, we began planning our 2020 Hanukkah celebration. Unbeknownst to us, the COVID-19 pandemic attempted to foil our plans. But it could not; the community would not let that happen! Food, family, lights, and love will be guests again this year as we usher in the spirit of celebration into our lives and into our hearts—this time, in a virtual way.  

Hanukkah 2020 is calling. The JCC and WAM 2020 Hanukkah program is answering. The second Hanukkah at WAM celebration is Sunday, December 6, 11am – 2pm, on Zoom. Be sure to check out the full schedule of events, with a mix of live and recorded happenings, and plan to join us. We are thrilled that Rabbi Valerie Cohen and Cantor Rachel Reef-Simpson of Temple Emanuel Sinai and Rabbi Aviva Fellman of Congregation Beth Israel will participate this year.

Throughout the virtual Hanukkah at WAM program, we will hear from five local individuals—Maxine Glassman, Ron Rosenstock, Nina Ryan, Steven Schimmel, and Wendy Wong—each sharing a “show-and-tell” story about a family menorah. From one family’s first electric menorah, to a musician’s unique harp-shaped menorah, we’ll discover more about these important personal ritual objects. 

Another highlight of the day is the collaboration of WAM’s Library with PJ Library and PJ Our Way/Young Jewish Families of Central Massachusetts. PJ Library is a free program created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation that sends age-appropriate Jewish books and music monthly to families with children ages newborn to 8 years old. 

PJ Our Way is a related free program allowing older children to select their own books online. This year’s Hanukkah at WAM features three story sessions, with the first beginning at 11:45am. The readers are Mindy Hall, Outreach Director of Jewish Federation of Central MA, and Rebecca Morin, WAM’s Head Librarian.

Hanukkah at WAM also will feature a preview of the Museum’s upcoming exhibition, What the Nazis Stole from Richard Neumann (and the search to get it back), which will open in May 2021. Claire C. Whitner, Director of Curatorial Affairs and the James A. Welu Curator of European Art, will share the extraordinary story of  Dr. Richard Neumann (1879-1959), a discerning Austrian-Jewish collector committed to promoting the important role of the arts in civic life. Neumann escaped from Nazi-occupied Vienna and Paris during World War II. His family led a 50-year effort to reassemble his art collection alongside restitution advocates, provenance researchers, and museum allies.

The small fraction of his collection successfully restituted to his heirs, will be on extended loan to WAM in keeping with Dr. Neumann's lifelong desire to have great art accessible and enjoyed by the public. 

Rounding out the special virtual festivities will be an edible dreidel craft, cooking demos, a suncatcher art activity, Hanukkah music, and blessings brought to you by dozens of exceptionally talented special guests. 

Here then is the 2020 Hanukkah miracle: counting our blessings, realizing the joy of being together to celebrate, and annual lights that cannot be extinguished. While all our activities will be virtual on December 6, we hope to gather in-person next year. 

Please help make this day shine like a fully lit menorah as Worcester community partners gather to celebrate.

Pre-registration is required to participate in the Virtual Hanukkah at WAM 2020 on December 6. Register here and view the full schedule of events here

—By Emily Rosenbaum, Executive Director of the Worcester Jewish Community Center. 

December 2, 2020

All images are from the 2019 Hanukkah at WAM.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Stitches in Time: The Ambient Art of Jean François Millet

As fall draws to a close, the weather gets colder and the days get shorter. For many of us, that means spending more time indoors. Two works in the Worcester Art Museum's collection by 19th-century French artist Jean-François Millet—the etching Woman Sewing (1855-1856) and the drawing The Vigil (about 1853)—use the domestic sphere as a way of reflecting the interior lives of their subjects.

In both artworks, Millet presents women working on needlework by ambient light from a candle or an open window. The works have a warm, familiar feeling that calls to mind late nights finishing projects, or perhaps a few hours of quiet time at home. Consistent with most of Millet’s work, these are romanticized images of daily life in rural France in the 1850s.

Jean François Millet (French, 1814–1875), The Vigil (Women Sewing),
(about 1853), conte crayon on cream wove paper,
Museum Purchase, 1962.38 

Jean François Millet (French, 1814–1875), 
Woman Sewing (1855-1856), etching on cream
laid paper, Miss Kingsmill Marrs Collection,

Born in 1814, Millet spent his childhood on a farm, making him familiar with the hard work agriculture entails. He was familiar with using farm tools and the physical exhaustion that resulted at the end of a long day. Millet was never a wealthy man. Rather, he garnered only modest success in his various enterprises and occasionally even struggled with poverty. During his teenage years he was sent away for artistic training that eventually led him to spend a few years living in Paris.

In 1845, Millet, his wife, and their nine children relocated to Barbizon, France, a rural community bordering the Fontainebleau Forest. There he became a founding member of the Barbizon school, a group of artists who focused on soft, romantic depictions of rural life and the landscape. The Barbizon artists promoted en plein air painting, or painting outdoors, in the hope of elevating the status of landscape painting to that of history painting and mythological subjects.

After spending his daytime hours studying the lives of farmers, in the evening Millet focused his attention on his wife and children. Requiring concentration and an attention to detail, sewing was largely considered women’s work. Women were expected to keep up with the needs of their family, which often equated to darning socks, mending pants, and making dresses.

Before electricity was common, this usually meant working long hours in low light conditions after spending the day on copious household tasks. Working solely by candlelight strained the eyes and hurt the back and neck from stooping over the work. In addition to necessary tasks, such as repairs, needlework also was seen as suitable amusement for women associated with their virtue and value. In a letter to a friend, one woman described the act of sewing as follows:

“[Sewing] fills up the interstices of time... It accords with most of the indoor employments of men, who... do not much like to see us engaged in anything which abstracts us too much from them. It lessens the ennui of hearing children read the same story five hundred times. It can be brought into the sick room without diminishing our attention to an invalid.”¹

In the mid-19th century, sewing was both a necessary task to maintain everyday attire and an opportunity for personal expression. It became a central activity for women regardless of class status. This was a common scene in the homes of farmers and Millet as well. Woman Sewing by Lamplight (1870-72) is another example of a work by Millet depicting a woman stitching (The Frick Collection, New York). In the didactic text accompanying the painting, curator Charles Ryskamp includes an excerpt from a letter by the artist, written the same year the painting was completed:

“I write this today, November 6th at 9 o’clock in the evening. Everyone is at work around me, sewing, and darning stockings. The table is covered with bits of cloth and balls of yarn. I watch from time to time the effects produced on all this by the light of the lamp. Those who work around me at the table are my wife and grown-up daughters.”²

Jean-François Millet (French, 1814–1875), Woman Sewing by Lamplight (1870-1872),
oil on canvas (lined), The Frick Collection,
 Henry Clay Frick Behest, 1906.1.89

Today, worn socks and torn hems are more likely to be replaced or brought to a tailor for repairs. However, needlework and the fiber arts are still thriving in homes across the world. While they are pursuits still frequently associated with women, a growing number of men have taken up the fiber arts in the last few decades. Those who practice embroidery or knitting often describe the repetitive nature of these pastimes relaxing, practical, and rewarding. Some have used their talents to create fine art, and others use their work to make political statements, just as suffragettes once did with their embroidered sashes. 

With winter looming upon us, now is as good a time as ever to take up a relaxing indoor hobby. Many fiber arts require few supplies to get started and YouTube tutorials are an excellent way to learn the basics of just about any form of needlework from crochet to dressmaking. As a head start, here’s a beginner cross-stitch pattern of a candle. Thankfully, electric lighting makes seeing our handiwork so much easier, but a candle serves as a reminder of centuries past.

Download the candle cross-stitch pattern

—By Gabrielle Belisle, Fellow for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

    November 18, 2020


¹ Letter from Mrs Trench to Mrs Leadbeater, May 1811                                                                    Thom, Danielle. “'A Stitch in Time: Home Sewing Before 1900' • V&A Blog.” V&A Blog, 25 July 2019, www.vam.ac.uk/blog/news/a-stitch-in-time-home-sewing-before-1900

² Source: Art in The Frick Collection: Paintings, Sculpture, Decorative Arts, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Uncovering the Stylish Complexity and Craftsmanship of Samurai Armor

The Worcester Art Museum is home not only to European arms and armor, but also the arms of other cultural groups including Japanese armors. Japanese samurai armor and the samurai themselves are especially intriguing sparking the imagination in much the same way as the knights and armor of medieval Europe. Here's an overview of the different types and styles of samurai armor represented in The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection at WAM. Let's get started on learning more about these historic artifacts.

First, who were the samurai? They were the armed retainers of greater lords in Japan with their role on the battlefield and society shifting over time. Naturally, this impacted the design of the samurai armor. To better understand of the armor itself, let's examine the various parts that make up a suit of Japanese armor. These are presented here in this illustration.

Wall art from "Helmutt’s House," part of the Museum's
Samurai! exhibition in 2015.

The armor of the samurai is known as a Yoroi, meaning armor. Another term, Gusoku, literally means a complete suit of armor. Sometimes a suit of armor is referred to as Rokugu, meaning six ingredients. This last, Rokugu, is about the six main components of the armor: the Kabuto, the Mempo (face mask), the Do, the Kote, the Hai-date, and the Sune-ate. There are several broad types and many styles of armor within those categories. In some cases, an armor can fall under multiple styles and we'll explore that in this WAM Update.

The Kozane armors are the first and oldest type. These armors were constructed of small scales, or kozane, about an inch in length vertically and a quarter inch horizontally, made of iron or hardened leather lacquered and drilled with holes. The lacquer provided water resistance to the kozane. These were laced to each other using leather or silk laces and overlapped at the edges to form long plate sections. The sections were then laced to each other in overlapping vertical layers. For the torso, these were tightly bound but were made of looser layers for areas requiring flexibility for movement. The laces were colored and often a blend of hues and patterns were used for decorative effect frequently relating to the samurai’s heraldry or mon

Kusazuri (tassets), Japanese, late 18th–early 19th century.
Iron, lacquer, and silk with gilding.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.694.1

A detail of the kozane construction.

The oldest style of kozane armor was the ō-yoroi, or great armor, which appeared in the 10th century when the samurai were mounted archers rather than swordsmen. It featured a box-like construction with four panels of kozane to cover the chest, back, and sides. The Do consisted of three joined sections: those of the chest, left side, and back; and a separate, right-side panel called a waidate.

When donning the armor, the waidate would be tied on first to cover the gap on the right side and then the do wrapping around the other three sides. On the front of the do would be a tsurubashiri, a piece of soft leather affixed to the front of the do primarily to protect the lacing from the samurai’s bow string. It possessed large sode that acted as shields. The ō-yoroi  sat somewhat heavily on the torso of the warrior, weighing about 60 pounds, and frequently lacked the hai-date and kote (or only one worn on the left arm freeing the right arm for archery). While adequate for horse archery, its boxy shape, however, made sword use difficult.  

In this image below, a samurai wears an ō-yoroi complete with tsurubashiri. He carries a quiver of arrows on his back plus a ring at his belt for holding a bow string.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japanese, 1839–1892),
Inamura-Ga-Saki Moon at Daybreak,
Portfolio/Series: Tsuki hyakushi (One Hundred Aspects of the Moon)
 月百姿. September 1886, Woodblock print; ink, color, embossing,
 and burnishing on paper, Prints, Alexander H. Bullock Fund, 2002.195 

The next style of kozane armor is the do-maru. It emerged in the 11th century as a tighter-fitting torso armor that wrapped around the body in a form called haramaki, or belly band, which tied around the side. It was used by lower-class samurai and ashigaru, or soldiers, who largely fought on foot and could not afford the more expensive ō-yoroi. It was lighter, under 40 pounds, and certainly more flexible than the o-yoroi and suitable for sword fighting. 

The role of the samurai evolved during the 13th to the 16th centuries and they increasingly fought dismounted with greater use of the sword. Additional defenses—such as the kote and hai-date—were added to protect the limbs. The sode gradually became smaller and less obtrusive. While the style faded from usage in the 16th century, due to the better protection offered by Tosei Gusoku, it along with          ō-yoroi saw a return to popularity as ceremonial armors during the Edo period (1603-1868).

Dō-maru gusoku (full set of armor for a samurai).
Japanese. Edo Period, early mid-18th century.
 Iron, leather, lacquer, silk, copper alloy, gold, hair, textile, paint.
Arms and Armor. Bequest of Dr. John C. Cutter. 1910.47

Armor for a Samurai with Mirror Maedate. Japanese.
Late 18th–early 19th century. Brass, iron, silk, and leather with lacquer.
 The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.712

The next type of armors is the Tosei Gusoku, or modern armors. These coverings were a reaction to the gradual adoption of firearms during the late 15th and into the 16th centuries. Constructed from ita-mono, or long laminated iron plates, these were riveted tightly together to form the do to provide better protection against firearms and melee weapons.

The ita-mono of the do proper could be aligned in strips vertically (tatehagi) or horizontally (yokohagi). These strips are sometimes visible or even hidden to resemble a smooth homogenous piece. Occasionally the joining rivets are obvious; in other cases, knotted laces were used. There are many variations in style. Unlike the kozane type, these were often only lightly laced so more of the plates were visible. The plates were frequently lacquered and painted with different colors and symbols. Wealthy samurai had their armor punched with extra holes to allow for traditional lacing patterns to mimic the older kozane armors often featuring embossed plates to emulate individual kozane, as seen in this image. 

Right and Left Osode (shoulder guard), Japanese, 18th century. Iron, silk cord, fabric,
 brass, gilding, and lacquer. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection.
2014.697.5 and 2014.697.6

A common style of Tosei Gusoku was the Okinawan do, meaning tub sided, which is a reference to the shape of do. The do consisted of a breast and back plate arrangement hinged on the left side and tied on the right. It was heavily used during the later Sengoku Jidai, the Age of Warring States (1467-1615) by samurai and ashigaru alike. 

The Okegawa do shown below is an example of okashi gusko, borrowing armor or, as it was known in Europe, munitions armor. These were armors owned by a lord who lent them to common soldiers, ashigaru, as they were unlikely able to afford their own. Frequently, these armors were marked with the mon of the owning family.


Tatami Gusoku (traveling or folding armor). Japanese. 19th century.
 Iron, leather, silk, hair, and lacquer.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.704 

Byo toji okegawa do was a style of okegawa do where the ita-mono had large knob-shaped rivets that bound the plates and could add to the visual aspect of the armor’s presentation. These rivets sometimes took the shape of mon, or heraldic symbols. Here's an example of Byo toji yokohagi okegawa do style armor.

Breastplate Japanese, late 18th–early 19th century.
Iron, lacquer, silk, brass, leather, paper, and bone, with gilding.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.694.9

Another style of Tosei Gusoku was the Yukinoshita do. This armor, named for the region of Japan where this style was developed, consisted of five large sections of plates designed to wrap around the body. The two examples of Yukinoshita do shown here also represent uchidashi do, an armor with an embossed decoration on the breastplate.

Suit of Armor with Embossed Fudo Myo-o and Bonji Characters.
Japanese. 18th century. Iron, textile, leather, lacquer.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.711

Breastplate of a Yukinoshita-Do Armor, with Embossed Design of a Dragon. 
Date-family crest/Japanese, 18th century. Iron, silver, copper alloy, gold lacquer,
 and silk cord. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.696.3 

Our last type of armor represented in the WAM collection is the Tatami-do, folding armor. It is made from small plates sewn to a fabric backing with gaps filled by flexible kusari, or mail armor. This armor was both easily stored and highly portable for traveling without the considerable bulk of a regular do. In addition to okegawa do, tatami do were often used as okahsi gusko.

Tatami Gusoku (traveling or folding armor). Japanese. 19th century.
Iron, leather, silk, hair, and lacquer. 
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.704

The various types of Japanese armor profiled and showcased in this WAM Update is far from comprehensive. All the artifact armor presented here is from the Edo period (1603-1868), with many made like the older medieval styles, such as the do-maru. These were meant as a show of status and for ceremony rather than for practical use.

These armors are rarely displayed because their heavily organic nature makes them more challenging to conserve even though they are newer than their European steel counterparts. 

We hope this overview sparks an interest that leads you to explore the fascinating subject of samurai armors.

To get started on that journey, don’t miss the opportunity to “Meet a Samurai Live! during WAM’s Travel the Silk Road Virtual Fall Community Day on Sunday, November 8 at 2:45pm. It's an ideal chance to learn more about samurai armors. Register here for the free online Community Day event, or follow the fun on Facebook Live.

Find additional details here on the virtual programs and activities planned for the Fall Community Day. Hope to see you as we Travel the Silk Road!

—By Neal Bourbeau, WAM Program Coordinator

    November 5, 2020

Neal Bourbeau, the WAM Update contributor,
dressed in samurai armor.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Inside the Nature-Driven World of Artist Susan Swinand

Fascinated with the natural world, visual artist Susan Swinand is driven by a limitless curiosity to know about every structure, pattern, form, and force—and the details of how they all operate together. Her work contemplates the questions of chaos and order, freedom and restraint, and tries to find the proper balance between them. How much is too much, she ponders.

This approach bodes rather well for Susan. As the winner of the Sally R. Bishop Best in Show Prize at the 2019 ArtsWorcester Biennial, her recent work is presented in this solo exhibition, Nature Imagined by Susan Swinand

Susan Swinand in her studio.

A longtime faculty member in our studio art program, Susan’s work has been shown widely throughout central New England for many years. Recently, Erin Corrales-Diaz, assistant curator of American art, asked the artist to reflect on her work, her inspiration, and process.¹

EC-D: Throughout your long and successful career, spanning a variety of media, your work consistently engages with dichotomies: metamorphosis and stasis, form and formlessness, and organic and manmade. How does your work complicate these perceived dichotomies, and why does it continue to fascinate?

SS: The more I observe the natural world and our own human nature, the more it seems there is an ideal harmony of opposites or a balance of forces in everything. Nature is both soothing and horrifying, magnificent and disgusting, creative and destructive. If you are looking for truth, you can’t just focus on the beautiful. And you won’t be satisfied just eating the roses on the cake.

Susan Swinand, All in Together, III, 2019, watercolor and gouache on paper

EC-D: The natural world seems to be a frequent source of inspiration for you.

SS: I am obsessed with the natural world. I want to know about every structure, pattern, form, and force—and the details of how they all work together. More and more I am pondering the questions of chaos and order, freedom and restraint, and trying to find the proper balance between them. How much is TOO much?

EC-D: One aspect of your work that immediately captivated me was your radical use of materials. For instance, you use watercolors as oils or acrylics and vice versa. What prompted you to defy material expectation and how have these techniques informed your practice?

SS: I taught painting for many years and watercolor painting was always in demand. Most of the watercolor painting that I saw around seemed formulaic and very predictable—more a craft than a process of discovery. I always wanted a painting to feel like it was alive, happening, filled with the unexpected.

Throughout my career I tried to give students obstacles or problems that would force them to find a new way. I wanted watercolor to be a real painting medium and not just pretty, tinted drawings. Watercolor is a bodyless paint and lacks texture so I worked hard to make the medium more physical—scratching, glazing, mixing in dry abrasive media, collage, patterning—anything I could think of to give it presence.

A gallery view of Nature Imagined by Susan Swinand.

EC-D: You’ve mentioned that when you approach a painting you are in a “state of not knowing.” There are no preliminary drawings; rather you allow the materials and brushstrokes to guide you. This desire to tap into your imagination seems to draw a parallel with the automatic drawing of surrealism.

SS: Shapes are an important part of my work and can present themselves in the process of working with the wandering of the pen or in a puddle of water left by the shape of the brush. I am subconsciously choosing the shapes that evoke meaning. Years ago, I realized that everything in the universe was created by energy acting on matter. In my work I try to imitate nature’s creative process and put all my energy into my materials to see what they will do. Art for me is about giving FORM to emotion, ideas, or experience.

EC-D: Your paintings often reflect a sense of humor. What is the significance of play and whimsy in your work?

SS: I guess it is just in my nature to love a little laughter. We need it to balance the sadness. Sometimes a shape appears in a painting, and I laugh out loud. It astounds me that an abstract shape can do that. Painting is amazing.

Susan Swinand, Night Fishing, 2012, watercolor on paper

Discover more about Susan’s creative process, her friendship with Sally Bishop, and how both nature and imagination inspire her art in a new video, “Susan Swinand: Visual Artist.”

Join a free Virtual Artist Talk on Tuesday, November 10 at 6pm when Erin Corrales-Diaz, assistant curator of American Art, continues the conversation with Susan about her work and making art. Register in advance here. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the event.

Learn more about Susan and her artistic endeavors and accomplishments by visiting her website.

Nature Imagined by Susan Swinand is on view at WAM through February 7, 2021. The exhibition is organized in partnership with ArtsWorcester

—October 29, 2020 

1. This interview originally appeared in the winter/spring 2020 issue of access magazine.

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