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

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Meet CMAI Artist Randy LeSage

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 Randy LeSage.

Randy LeSage shows several new works
in WAM's printmaking studio
Horizontal and vertical lines create shadows, the suggestion of buildings, trees and hills against a dark sky.  The landscape seems oddly familiar, one of the many 19th century factories that still dot the area, placed against the fields and waterways of the New England landscape.

However, the four prints of Randy LeSage’s Departure are not true landscapes, depicting an actual location; they are generalized, abstracted, and as the eye flows from one to the next there is a loss of structure, the rectilinear format giving way to something more fluid and irregular.

“The changing nature of the landscape has been a frequent condition of many of my works,” says LeSage, who has also created prints and paintings with titles such as Landscape Movements and Shifting Landscapes.  “The works that comprise Departure have…a relatively abstracted character.  This allows me to work in a freer manner than depicting specific forms and structures of a landscape or seascape.”

Demonstrating his process (see video below), LeSage begins by laying down lines to define the space on the paper, creating a balanced visual image – often incorporating common elements across a print series, such as right angles and deep curves – then introduces random elements to break that balance.  Sometimes balance is restored as he works, other times he pushes the imbalance as far as it will go.  “The idea is to surprise yourself,” he says, adding diagonal lines that were not present in previous pieces.  “You can’t repeat yourself, or the work dies.  It may have felt good the first time, but it has to keep changing.”

Two different versions of the same park
view, by Randy LeSage
Constant experimentation and change are also a hallmark of his body of work.  Scattered across the nearby tables are a wide variety of pieces: detailed line drawings of fictional landscapes; rough sketches of people seen on park benches; an impressionistic painting of trees in a field reminiscent of Monet, paired with an angular abstraction of the same scene.  Lesage explains, “the more abstract work I do, it naturally seems to call for a balance through more empirical study and specific accounts of everyday environment.  Vice versa, when more empirical or representational, the need for abstraction.”

Many of the works reflect the same visual elements and themes, particularly related to New England’s industrial landscape, and the heritage of the mills and factories of the industrial revolution.

A sketch of people in the park, and the more
detailed painting developed from it.
As a lifelong resident of Massachusetts, LeSage grew up immersed in that history and culture.  “I worked in a box factory, my parents in a shoe factory, other family members in other mills and factories.”  Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, that was the norm for many urban families, especially those of immigrant descent: generations were raised in company housing, worked their whole lives on the factory floor, and watched their children step into the same roles.  “There was a certain mentality, an orientation to that working class.  It was a struggle, and a separateness, being part of that community.”

By the time LeSage finished high school in the 1970s, the industries of central Mass were already beginning to wane.  “Now a lot of those old factories are stores or apartments, but they continue to populate our New England landscape.  It’s a past age, but it’s still amongst us.  It hasn’t been wiped away.”

Randy LeSage's artwork, Departure, will be on view in WAM's Sidney and Rosalie Rose Gallery through October 6, 2019.

-- Sarah Leveille
Digital Content Specialist
September 12, 2019

Departure by Randy LeSage, a series of four
abstract prints inspired by New England urban landscapes.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Move Oolong, Nothing to Tea Here

Moulton Tea Service, featuring Sugar dish, teapot, and creamer.
Made by Ebenezer Moulton, c. 1800-1810.
Gift of Annie Sprague Weston in memory of
Frederick William Paine, 1937.52-54.
I’m sipping from one of my novelty tea mugs as I write this update.  Though I drink a hot Earl Grey nearly every morning, I never stopped to think about what I am drinking from (beyond joy at an odd cat mug, of course).  At the start of my summer internship here at the Worcester Art Museum, I was assigned to study a silver tea service.  I was skeptical at first: how much could I really learn from a teapot?

I began my research by examining the tea set, because the markings and physical appearance of an object can tell as much about it as written notes or the historical record.  This silver tea service has three pieces: a teapot, a sugar dish, and a creamer.  All three have squared handles, engraved decorations, and the initials “JW” inscribed in an oval medallion on one side.

I continued by researching texts, starting with newspapers, old exhibition catalogs, and several books on the general topics of tea and silver.  Looking at secondary sources, including Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz and Empire of Tea by Markman Ellis, I began to understand the context of this tea set.  The pineapple-shaped finial at the top of the teapot alludes to the fact that the tea and sugar served with the set, like the pineapple fruit, were imported.  Merchants brought in sugar from the Caribbean, where enslaved and indentured workers cultivated and processed the raw sugar cane.  Wealthy patrons purchased sugar in large solid cone-shaped blocks; servants would cut pieces with special scissors, called sugar nippers, to fill the sugar bowl for serving.  Tea imported from China was an extremely expensive commodity; despite how common it is today, it didn’t become popular in the United States until the mid-eighteenth century.

Ebenezer Moulton, Sugar Bowl, c. 1800-1810.  Gift of
Annie Sprague Weston in memory of
Frederick William Paine, 1937.52
I was most curious about the people who had purchased the tea service.  Why did they buy it?  How did they use it?  Who purchased it, and for whom?  I dug into the museum’s curatorial files, searched for receipts from the artist, and scrutinized old estate files for any mention of this tea set.  When the service was given to the museum in 1937, the owner attributed it to her grandmother, Judith Weston, whose initials “JW” might be those marked on the set.  Without receipts or specific documentation for the service, it’s not possible to confirm absolutely that Judith Weston was the original owner.  There is little information about Judith at all: she lived in Duxbury, Massachusetts, married Gershom Weston of a shipbuilding family, and had several children.  Silver was often a marriage gift, so it is possible that Gershom ordered this service when he and Judith were married in 1820, although it was made at least ten years earlier.

An example of  a tea caddy, complete with a lock, for
storing loose tea leaves. American, c. 1800, Bequest
of Stephen Salisbury, 1907.152
Whether this tea set belonged to Judith or to a different woman in the Weston family, it was likely used for hosting company.  In a wealthy household, serving tea was one of the few tasks a high-class woman might perform in front of guests.  Women executed every step of serving tea with the utmost care, from opening the tea caddy to take out leaves, to pouring the water at the right temperature, to choosing to use sugar or not depending on the type of tea (yes for black tea, no for green).  As I drink my own sweetened green tea in a ceramic coliseum-shaped mug, it’s hard to imagine this kind of ceremony.  But the tea and sugar served in this set would have been as much a luxury as the silver itself, and making a show of serving it like this was a way to display the owner’s affluence and sophistication.

When I first set off to study the Moulton service, I had no idea how extensive and complicated a story it could tell.  It has made me look closer at other silver and furniture pieces in the museum to imagine what stories they might carry as well.

Toni Armstrong
Luce Curatorial Intern for Museum Diversity
American Art Department
September 10, 2019

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Stuart Pyhrr Visits the Higgins Collection

Stuart Pyhrr (right) and Jeffrey Forgeng
discuss a pair of gauntlets
Curators, educators, and other staff at the Worcester Art Museum are hard at work planning for the future gallery dedicated to the arms, armor, and Medieval Art in the Higgins Armory Collection.  The exhibition will incorporate nearly the entire Collection – over 2000 pieces – with the exception of objects that cannot be on permanent display due to conservation concerns.  To accommodate the sheer number of objects, the installation will include a variety of display types, which could include open storage drawers, wall cases, and gallery displays with mannequins.

In preparation for the new gallery, WAM’s Higgins Curator of Arms & Armor and Medieval Art Jeffrey Forgeng has been reviewing every object in the Higgins Armory Collection.  The review has several purposes, including determining the best way to present each object in the installation.  Additionally, spending time with each object has allowed him to identify pieces in need of conservation treatment.

As part of this collection review, WAM has brought in several consultants to discuss various aspects of the installation.  Last week the Museum had the pleasure of hosting Stuart Pyhrr, Distinguished Research Curator in the Department of Arms and Armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  According to Forgeng, Pyhrr is considered the foremost scholar within the arms and armor scholarly community.

Pyhrr became interested in arms and armor at a very young age, and began his nearly fifty-year career at the Met while in graduate school at NYU.  Since then, he has served in a number of positions within the Department of Arms and Armor, including as the department’s head from 1988 to 2013.  Pyhrr is currently researching and assembling provenance information about arms and armor in the Met’s collection, with a focus on pieces that have not been extensively published.

Pyhrr with WAM's Pembroke Armor,* his favorite
suit in the Higgins Armory Collection
It was invaluable to hear Pyhrr’s insights about specific pieces within the Higgins Armory Collection and to watch his analysis methodology.  We are thrilled to have had this opportunity to share our collection with and learn from such an experienced curator and scholar!

-Sydney Kasok
Curatorial Intern, Medieval Art and Arms & Armor
September 5, 2019

*"Three Quarter Field Armor, possibly for Henry Herbert, second Earl of Pembroke" (Northern Italian, Milan, 1560-1570). Steel (once blued) with gilding, brass, iron, with modern leather. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.12.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Richard Streitmatter-Tran: Artist-in-Residence

Richard Streitmatter-Tran, watercolor painting on silk
Stop by Richard Streitmatter-Tran’s Open Studio any Wednesday, and you will find a dozen projects underway.  Silk stretched over reclaimed frames.  Sketches and studies stuck against the wall.  Plates covered with watercolor portraits.  Woodshavings from a giant marionette arm he carves by hand.

“When people come, I want them to see something happening, not just a finished work,” he explains.  “I want visitors to see a working studio, a work in progress.” Piles of books on New England art – from impressionist painters to photographers – cover other tables, where he browses them for inspiration.  It’s very easy to become caught up in his enthusiasm for these projects – it’s as if everything he sees sparks a new idea.

Born in Vietnam, Richard came to America when he was adopted at 8 months old.  He grew up on Cape Cod in what he calls a “working class New England family.”

“Cape Cod is a time capsule,” he says, “where they still have soda fountains and AM/FM radios.”  He spent his formative years surrounded by the artwork of New England greats, including Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper.  “I’m very fond of Edward Hopper, his paintings of Cape Ann.  There’s places I grew up that still look like that.”

Sketches for future portraits
Richard attended the Studio for Interrelated Media (SIM) at Mass College of Art, where he studied new media, performance, and immaterial work.  “I had a strong conceptual basis, but I couldn’t draw a stick figure,” he laughs.  At first, this wasn’t a problem – the ideas he developed could be manufactured in other ways – “but it didn’t feel like it was really expressive of my own self.”

After graduating, he taught art, and was soon asked to develop a drawing course.  With no practical experience, he taught himself to draw, starting with the basics.  “It was slow, but there was pleasure in the incremental improvement,” he says.  “I started doing more work with my hands.  Sculpture comes naturally to me, painting and drawing is still more of a struggle.”

In 2003, he moved to Vietnam, where he has built most of his artistic practice.  As a working artist, he has presented in Asia and Europe, but never before in America.  “Part of this residency is coming back home,” he says, jokingly referring to himself as “the prodigal son.”

Richard's diptych, "Inconsolable" and "Crushed,"
acrylic on muslin, will be on display at the
Worcester Pop-Up Exhibition
“Lately I’ve been working with watercolor on metal and silk.  I thought it would be pleasant to come visit the New England greats, try to reconcile their techniques with my work now.”  He quickly learned that the thick watercolors of Homer and John Singer Sargent didn’t work on silk – “if you load it up, it drips through” – but he nevertheless tries new ideas every day.

One thing he hopes to emulate is the timeless nature of Hopper’s paintings, creating something that in fifty years will still feel distinctly Worcester.  “I’m not sure how I’ll accomplish that yet.  I don’t want to be too obvious.”

He also has two projects inspired by a recent trip to a Thailand studio: a sketch of a sarong, currently being developed into a large diptych partly inspired by the depiction of clothing and form in John Singer Sargent’s portraits of the elites; and the enormous marionette arm, a scaled up version of one from Thailand, which he is carving from pieces of an old fence by his family home, which was torn down in a recent storm.  “I love the grey of the pine when it’s been exposed to the salt air,” he says.  “It’s a very Cape Cod look.”

You can see Richard Streitmatter-Tran's work at any of the following events:
  • Tropical/Temerate Exhibition @ the Worcester Pop-Up (20 Franklin Street); Wednesday, September 11, 6-9 PM 
  • Saturday Open Studio (Worcester Art Museum); Saturday, September 14, 12-2 PM
  • StART on the Street (Park Avenue); Sunday, September 15
  • Third Thursday Artist Talk (Worcester Art Museum); Thursday, September 19, 6-8 PM

-- Sarah Leveille
Digital Content Specialist
September 3, 2019

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Really Really Free Market Comes to Worcester!

Jennifer Teo (second from left) with the organizers of
the Tokyo RRFM
Jennifer Teo of Singapore is here representing the Post-Museum, an artist collective she co-founded with Woon Tien Wei in 2007.  The two had been working as artists for at least a decade at that point, and were growing disillusioned with the Singapore art scene – which they found highly capitalistic, focused on a “top-down” vision of art imposed by government and commercial museums and art galleries.  “We wanted something more open to everyone, more meaningful activities, not just being busy for the sake of being busy.”

When Jennifer and Tien had an opportunity to rent a gallery space, they seized the opportunity to fill a void they saw in the Singapore cultural landscape, creating a relaxed, open space for artists, students and anyone from the larger community interested in joining in or simply socializing.  “The Post-Museum is focused on people creating the culture they want.”  From 2007 to 2011, they ran a combined gallery and studio space for artists, the only such place in Singapore to be entirely self-funded.  Artists and community members were able to gather, socialize and create art outside the constraints and pressures of the institution.

Although the physical space has since closed, the Post-Museum continues to work in Singapore, focused on commissioned projects, art activities, and most importantly community building.  “We wanted to get people to participate, come together, and work to make a better world.  It’s not just about the art, it’s the social part of the art, creating culture from the ground up.”

Singapore Really Really Free Market
One of the most important projects connected with the Post-Museum is the Really Really Free Market, a temporary market session passed on a gift economy, hosted by a horizontally-organized collective.  Effectively, a RRFM is something like a flea market where any and all goods and services are available for free – at the Singapore RRFM, currently one of the longest-running RRFMs in the world, people bring everything from old clothes and books to freshly baked pastries, and offer their knowledge as yoga instructors, tarot card readers, or just lend a listening ear and a free hug.  There is no price on anything, nor even a sense of bartering.  Jennifer explains that the point isn’t to acquire goods or find a deal; it’s about challenging how we assign values to objects and services, and building ties within our community.

All kinds of services can be found at the
Singapore RRFM
“It’s like a picnic,” she explains – the food might be the first thing you notice, but it’s not really what brought everyone there.  “For a time, there is total freedom.  Everyone has a good time, everyone makes friends.”

Jennifer has come to Worcester to organize our first RRFM on September 8, 2019.  Though she brings her expertise from Singapore, as well as various other cities in Indonesia, Japan, Thailand and the UK where she has helped to establish RRFMs, she sees this not as a personal project, but as “seeding” a new chapter – creating a team that will keep the movement going after she has left.

Everyone has something to contribute!
If you’re interested in joining the project – as an organizer or just a volunteer for the day – contact Jennifer Teo at Jennifer@post-museum.org and put WRRFM in your subject line.  You can also meet with Jennifer at any of our upcoming Southeast Asian Artist-In-Residence Open Studios, beginning Wednesday, August 21.

-- Sarah Leveille
Digital Content Specialist
August 26, 2019

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

From Anvil to Guild: Medieval and Renaissance Armorers

“Anvil” (Italian, 1400s-1500s).  Wrought iron. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1031.
"Anvil" (Italian, 1400s-1500s). 
Wrought Iron.  The John Woodman
Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1031
One afternoon, while looking through the John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, I discovered a 14th-century wrought iron anvil.  I felt a strong kinship towards it because I frequently used similar anvils in my metalsmithing classes in college. The anvil, arguably more a utilitarian artifact than a work of art in its own right, seemed to me a relic imbued with the presence of the often anonymous craftsmen who used it as one of their most basic and essential tools for shaping arms and armor.

Anvils have a flat end, a curved tip, and a large flat base that could be secured to a table or other surface.  By varying the hammer size, force of the blow, and location and angle at which a piece of metal is struck in relation to the anvil’s top face, an armorer would form the metal into his desired shape. The large hole in the surface near the flat end is used to hold other tools for more specialized adjustments (see image 3).  The versatility of an anvil to both shape metal and support other tools made it one of an armorer’s most prized possessions.

“Anvil” (Italian, 1400s-1500s).  Wrought iron. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1031. Top View.
"Anvil" (Top view)
My chance encounter with the anvil made me want to learn more about the hands and tools that created the objects in the Higgins Armory Collection, especially in the medieval and renaissance periods, the years in which this anvil was likely in use.  Through my exploration, I soon discovered a great deal about the structure of the armor-making industry.  One particularly interesting finding was that some armorers’ guilds, such as the one in Nuremburg, Germany, required apprentices to make one or more pieces of armor – such as a helmet or breastplate – as a test in order to become certified as a full member of the guild.  Afterwards, though the craftsman could practice independently, he was only allowed to make the specific piece of armor he fabricated for his test.  This practice no doubt fostered interdependence by forcing guild members to collaborate with each other.  Similarly, there were laws limiting the number of apprentices that a craftsman could have at one time.  This restriction of the workforce indicates an awareness of the limited market and a desire to regulate an individual’s production so that everyone could have access to commissions.

“Anvil” (Italian, 1400s-1500s).  Wrought iron. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1031. Detail.
"Anvil" (Detail)
This experience exemplifies what I love about art museums: those moments when interest in an object leads to a greater understanding of an entire society.

-Sydney Kasok, Curatorial Intern, Medieval Art and Arms & Armor
July 31, 2019


Ffoulkes, Charles John. The Armourer and His Craft from the XIth to the XVIth Century. London: Methuen & Co, 1912.
Pfaffenbichler, Matthias. Armourers. Medieval Craftsmen. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Wattenmaker, Richard J., Jan Firch, and Alain Joyaux. European Tools from the 17th to the 19th Century: Woodworking, Metalworking, and Related Trades: Flint Institute of Arts, April 26-June 7, 1981. Flint, MI: The Institute, 1981.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Plein Air Film Series: McQueen

Looking for something a little different on your Friday night? WAM’s Plein Air film series offers a night of fabulous art under the stars! All August long, we will be showing recent films featuring the moving, true-life stories of artists who connect people, communities and cultures, presented drive-in style in our Stoddard Courtyard.

Our first film is McQueen, a critically acclaimed 2018 documentary revealing the biography of one of the most shocking, divisive and successful fashion designers of our time.

McQueen: Official poster
McQueen: Official poster
A personal look at the extraordinary life, career and artistry of Alexander McQueen.  Through exclusive interviews with his closest friends and family, recovered archives, exquisite visuals and music, McQueen is an authentic celebration and thrilling portrait of an inspired yet tortured fashion visionary.  Directed by Ian Bonhôte and co-directed/written by Peter Ettedgui. – Official synopsis.

This is the fascinating story of one man’s journey from working-class roots to international fashion designer.  The documentary itself is extremely accessible, even to those with no knowledge of haute couture – explanations of the aesthetic in McQueen’s own words reveal not only the inspiration and artistry of his work, but also the inner workings of the Paris fashion scene.

Viewers are cautioned that this movie is rated R for both content and language. Alexander McQueen used his art to explore themes of violence and rape, and to work through his own troubled past, including incidents of abuse and violence.  These will be discussed, as well as drug use and McQueen’s death by suicide in 2010.

Tickets for the Plein Air film series are sold at the door on the day of the show.  McQueen will air on Friday, August 2 at 8 PM (sunset at 8:06).  Prices and details can be found on our website.  Non-member tickets can be brought back during regular Museum hours for one free admission to the galleries.

In case of rain, the movie will be shown in our Higgins Education Wing conference room.

Recent WAM Updates