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, July 12, 2019

Drill Like a Medieval Soldier

How do you stop a knight from charging? If you’re a soldier in 14th or 15th century Europe, you use a well-trained infantry line.
Composite Half-Artmor for a Pikeman (from the Higgins Collection)
Composite Half-Armor for a Pikeman
Infantry, or foot soldiers, fought alongside knights (heavy cavalry) throughout the Middle Ages.  They were generally professional soldiers, and often mercenaries, but (being less wealthy and not noble-born) lacked the money and connections to equip themselves as knights did.  Infantry wore simple armor and fought on foot, primarily with polearms (such as pikes and halberds) ranging from six to sixteen feet.

Though not individually impressive, a unit of foot soldiers could create a compact wall of spear points, capable of stopping or turning aside a cavalry charge.  The trick was to listen to orders, move together, and not panic and break formation in the face of 1,500 pounds of charging horse and rider!

Some of the polearms in the Higgins Collection
Some of the polearms
in the Higgins Collection.
“Knights dominated in the High Middle Ages because you need training and constant practice to make an effective infantry line,” says Neal Bourbeau, WAM’s Education Programming Coordinator. “With the Crusades, and into the 13th century, there were more attempts to organize and practice, and we see more examples of these formations stopping cavalry charges.”  By the 15th century, military victories relied as much on foot soldiers as on mounted warriors.

You can learn something of what it took to be a medieval soldier at WAM, at our new Medieval Soldier Drills!  Participants will learn basic infantry formations and how to hold – and wield – a medieval polearm in this hands-on outdoor demonstration.  Learn to march as a unit and the best way to brace your weapon using our six-foot practice polearms. Don’t worry – no actual knights will be charging your formation!

Gather in the Stoddard Courtyard at 10:30 AM for practice on any Thursday or Friday this summer (weather permitting).  No sign-up is required, but participation is first-come first-served. The activity is recommended for ages 9 and up, though all are welcome to watch.

To learn more about medieval warfare, visit one of our Arms and Armor Demonstrations, held most Wednesdays and Saturdays during the summer (see full schedule), and visit the WAM Library to browse books on the subject. We hope to see you there!

Neal Bourbeau shows a guest (a young girl) proper halberd stance
Neal Bourbeau shows a guest proper halberd stance.
Medieval Soldier Drills and all Arms and Armor Demonstrations are free with Museum admission.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

On the Trail of Otto Dix: A visit to the Academy of Fine Arts Dresden

The next stop on my journey to learn more about Otto Dix was the Academy of Fine Arts Dresden, where Dix taught master student Gussy Hippold-Ahnert and many others. He was a well-loved professor, who worked along side his students to encourage their proficiency in Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity, a popular style that Dix developed and perfected in the mid-twenties. At the Academy, I paged through archival model records to look for the name of the woman who modeled for "The Pregnant Woman" (1931), the piece that inspired my upcoming exhibition, With Child: Otto Dix / Carmen Winant.
Marcia Lagerwey searches through documents related to Otto Dix's time at the Academy
Marcia Lagerwey searches through documents
related to Otto Dix's time at the Academy. 
Although I was unable to identify the pregnant model with certainty, my hours in the archive were far from fruitless.  Highlights included the discovery of another photograph of Dix in his studio with his students and the pregnant model, showing more of the model than the MFA photo by Erfurth (which will be included in the exhibition); finding out that Gussy Hippold-Ahnert and other students also modeled for each other; and perhaps, most stunningly, seeing the actual letter to Dix outlining his firing from the Academy by the National Socialists, or Nazis, in April, 1933.

The Nude Room, where students work with nude models and study anatomy, today as in Dix's day.
The Nude Room, where students work with nude models
and study anatomy, today and in Dix's day.
Next, I visited the nude room where Dix and his students likely would have worked with the pregnant model, creating drawings that would become the inspiration for Dix’s and Hippold-Ahnert’s paintings, both to be included in the exhibition this fall. Walking through the halls of this prestigious Academy, that still carried on in much the same way as it had during Dix’s tenure there 86 years ago, I felt the presence of this master painter, Dix, its most famous artist. I couldn’t take enough pictures of the towering dome with its dancing gold angel, Fama, the Roman goddess of fame, enticing Dix and his students to ever greater expressive heights.

Academy of Fine Arts Dresden, Germany (exterior)
Academy of Fine Arts Dresden, Germany
Marcia Lagerwey, Guest Curator of With Child: Otto Dix / Carmen Winant (Sept 21 to Dec 15, 2019)
Dresden, Germany
Sunday, May 26 (posted June 4, 2019)

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Clemente Program: Connecting Learners, Transforming Lives

Thirty-five years ago, Clemente founder Earl Shorris pitched the idea of a free college-level humanities course to residents of some of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City; he offered them not job training or financial skills, but reading comprehension, analytical thinking, self-confidence, and a better understanding of the world in which they lived.  Through the humanities, he hoped his students would build ties to community life, and find the path to escape generational poverty.

Today, there are over 5,000 Clemente graduates worldwide. 

Clemente class of 2019 explores the galleries with one of their teachers.
Clemente class of 2019 explores the galleries with one of their teachers.
For the last five years, Worcester has offered the course in the studios and galleries of Worcester Art Museum.  As with all Clemente courses, students must be over the age of 17, earning less than 150% of the federal poverty rate, and sufficiently literate to read a newspaper.  The course itself is free (primarily sponsored by MassHumanities), as are all required books; WRTA bus passes are available for all students who need them, as is childcare at the nearby Trinity Lutheran Church.

The students come from a variety of backgrounds, but all have faced barriers to their education and careers.  “Some of us are single moms, some of us work.  We all have our struggles,” says LaToya Lewis, a mother of four who has a Bachelor’s degree, but for the last six years has encountered many obstacles while trying to continue her education.  She describes how every Tuesday and Thursday, she leaves work at 5pm, picks up her kids, makes dinner, and rushes them to WAM by 6. “I have to be Super Woman for an hour.”

Mandy Small calls the Clemente course “my first college anything.”  She applied during a low point in her life, struggling with depression. “I heard about Clemente right at the moment I was losing my faith in humanity,” she recalls, “and that means I was losing faith in myself…This program has helped me to stay focused, to get me to where I need to be.”

Across the 8-month program, professors from local colleges (including Clark University and WPI) cover a range of topics, from U.S. History to philosophy, art history to literature.  Instead of a traditional lecture, each class is centered on group discussion, inspired by readings and visits to the Museum galleries.

Two Clemente students take a closer look at a manuscript page.
Two Clemente students take a closer look at a manuscript page.
At first, many students weren’t sure how to contribute.  “It was like learning a whole new language,” says LaToya.  “What’s that word? I never heard it before.  You think, ‘I don’t know nothing.’  But the more you come, the more it’s a family.”

“There’s a sense of respect,” agrees Naomi Osei-Owusu.  “No one is afraid to speak up.  There’s no wrong answer, no judging.  Even when you make a mistake, you don’t feel like you failed.”

Officially, these students receive only a certificate of completion and six transferrable credits from Bard College, but they walk away with so much more. As Earl Shorris hoped, the Clemente students gain a sense of ownership over their knowledge. “The most important thing I learned,” says Naomi, “is that we’re all philosophers.  We are all historians.”

“This is the first time I’ve learned my own history,” says LaToya. “I try to tell my kids how important it is to know your history.  I share everything I learn with them.”

This year's program concluded with a graduation ceremony on Sunday, May 19, and the students look forward to the next phase in their lives.  “I’m going to take these credits that I got back to a traditional school,” says Naomi.  She’s been out of school for a few years, but the Clemente program has given her confidence.  “I feel ready,” she says with a smile.

“I’m going to get back on track,” LaToya says, explaining her plan to pursue a Master’s in Social Work, and eventually set up a non-profit of her own.  “These classes have helped to give me a direction, a different perspective.  As I move forward, I can’t forget to turn around and bring someone with me.”

Sarah Leveille
Digital Content Specialist
May 28, 2019

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Journey toward an exhibition: "With Child: Otto Dix / Carmen Winant"

On the trail of Otto Dix, there are exceptional people still forging on in the spirit of Dix himself, with his creative, painterly commitment to life in its manifestations: both its acute suffering and sensuality. Andrea Dix, the spouse of Jan Dix (Otto Dix’s youngest son, who died in January), is one of these people. She hosted me recently in her Bed and Breakfast, where she lived and worked with Jan, a stone's throw from Lake Constance, Germany, where I also visited the Museum Haus Dix.

Andrea Dix and Marcia Lagerwey (right)
stand at the doorway to Andrea's Bread and Breakfast home.
There, Dix and his family resettled after he was fired by the National Socialists from his teaching post at the Art Academy in Dresden and fled into inner emigration, still in Germany but close to Switzerland in case he needed to leave quickly. In Hemmenhoffen, he lived and worked, very isolated from the city that he loved, Dresden, and stranded in the natural world. “I feel like a cow in front of nature,” he said. But there, in that luscious landscape, he continued to work daily, his vision changing slowly to include landscape, while he raised his family and kept a low  profile. He was not permitted by the National Socialists to paint portraits that showed the underside of society at that time, but he managed to continue here and there to paint what he saw, a hard, dark vision of Germany in the thirties and forties.

Otto Dix's studio in the Museum Haus Dix.
As an artist, Andrea still works, as her husband Jan worked, to create exquisite jewelry, and, as it soon became clear to me, to carry forward the story of Jan’s father Otto Dix and his censored attempts to “create meaning for our times,” to be a witness, to show both ugliness and beauty, often side-by-side in the same image. Andrea’s human stories told while paging through photo albums over breakfast revealed a creative, dynamic family. I began to see Otto Dix in a new light, to understand better how he saw everything and had the courage to depict what he saw. This vision and a silver ring made by his son—a fertile female crescent—connected me to this family spirit and perhaps gave me a bit more courage to live fully myself.

Marcia Lagerwey and Andrea Dix (right)
explore photo albums of the Dix family.

Marcia Lagerwey, Guest Curator of With Child: Otto Dix / Carmen Winant (Sept 21 — Dec 15, 2019)
Oeningen, Germany
Saturday, May 18, 2019 (Posted May 22)

Monday, May 20, 2019

Royal Armouries hosts WAM’s Higgins Curator of Arms & Armor

Last year, Britain’s Royal Armouries Museum published my new translation of their manuscript I.33. Dating to the early 1300s, the manuscript is the oldest surviving treatise on swordfighting. To celebrate the new book, the Armouries organized a daylong conference on the manuscript at the museum on May 10, followed by a weekend of hands-on workshops on the techniques of I.33 and related systems of combat.

Folio 32r, Royal Armouries MS I.33 (detail)
I was of course delighted when the Armouries asked me to be keynote speaker for the conference! I first began working on I.33 back in the 1990s, when I was fresh out of graduate school, coming over to see the manuscript at the Tower of London in 1994 and at the Armouries’ new museum in Leeds in 1996. In fact, it was my work on I.33 that brought me into the arms and armor world, playing a major role in getting me hired as the Paul S. Morgan Curator at the Higgins Armory in 1999. So coming to Leeds was quite the stroll down memory lane!

It was also a look into the future—over the weekend I saw many excellent presentations and workshops by some very talented, skilled, and creative scholars and practitioners. Nowadays I am phasing out my work on early combat treatises to focus my attention on the permanent installation of arms and armor at WAM. But I can do so in good conscience knowing that I’m leaving the field to an admirable cohort of successors who will build on my research in new and exciting directions in the years to come.

—Jeffrey L. Forgeng, The Higgins Curator of Arms & Armor and Medieval Art

May 20, 2019

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Head Start Students Introduced to World of Art

Two Head Start students
sketch in the galleries
Every week, a dozen pre-schoolers step off a yellow bus and follow a docent into "their" Museum galleries to learn about perspective, light, and art. These are the Worcester Head Start students, and throughout the 2019 school year, each of the 35 classrooms across the city have visited the Museum at least once – six of the classes, at the Mill Swan B location, visited three times.

“It gives them a sense of ownership,” says Carlene Sherbourne, Ed.D., the Education Manager for Worcester’s Head Start. “They see it as their place, their museum. When the bus comes down the street and they recognize the building, they get excited!”

The Head Start program has 615 students, targeting the most at-risk children in Worcester. Karen Waters, Assistant Director and Family Services Coordinator, explains that they provide as many services as they can in-house, from nutritional needs to dental hygiene and mental health; they also connect families to whatever resources they need in the larger community. “It isn’t just about getting the children kindergarten-ready. We are also giving the parents the foundations they need for future success.”

Their partnership with the Worcester Art Museum ensures every child has an opportunity to visit, learn about art, and create their own. Each trip focuses on just 2 or 3 pieces, one of which the students sketch in the gallery, followed by an art project inspired by the day’s topic. “It helps them to really focus and look at the art,” says Christine Lindberg, the program’s atelierista (art instructor). “They’re developing a critical eye, an awareness of materials and perspective. They also develop the language to talk about it, as they listen to and answer questions.”

Each of the four Head Start centers in the city showcase student art in their halls, alongside photos of the collection pieces that inspired them. In order to track growth and learning, all student projects are carefully documented, and the teachers speak proudly of their students’ progress. “Children can learn anything if it’s presented on their level,” says Christine Lindberg.

Students practice the skills learned at WAM in the Head Start classrooms.
The partnership for this year culminates in an art exhibition in the Museum’s Higgins Education Wing, entitled “World of Provocation: Making Learning Visible,” which will run from May 22 to June 5, and include an opening reception on the 22nd. At the exhibition’s core are four murals, one from each Head Start center, created by all the students. These will be surrounded by selected artwork and projects from throughout the year, showing what the students have learned and how. “We want everyone to see what children are capable of,” says Karen Waters. “We also hope to grow understanding of early childhood education, and the important work of educators.”

-- Sarah Leveille, Digital Media Specialist

May 16, 2019

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Study Workshop Reveals Insights into Whistler’s Process

In early April, I participated in a three-day hands-on workshop about James McNeil Whistler’s watercolors held at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Led by paper conservator, Emily Jacobson, conservation scientist, Blythe McCarthy, and the former Freer curator of American art, Lee Glazer, the workshop introduced participants to material examination and analytical methodologies for object-based research. If we learn about the types of pigments, papers, and working methods Whistler used in his practice, how might that data inform art historical research? We engaged in guided and close looking of the fifty-two Whistler watercolors in the Freer’s collection. This often involved inspecting an artwork with a magnifying glass, microscope, or even a light box.

Examining a Whistler work using a light box

Throughout the workshop, I learned how to identify different types of nineteenth-century watercolor paper, application techniques, and how to interpret multispectral imaging. For instance, Whistler’s 1880s watercolors often fluoresce in ultraviolet light, an indication that the artist mixed zinc white throughout his painting. With this information, we were able to conclude that Whistler found zinc white to be a unifying color in his watercolors, which is in contrast to his preference for black in his oil paintings. We often think of watercolor as an unforgiving medium, but through infrared imaging, we could see that Whistler often made changes to his paintings. I discovered how Whistler became more confident and expressive with the medium. His early watercolors often served as preparatory studies with extensive graphite under- and overdrawing to delineate tonal values and perspective. In contrast, his later watercolors of the 1880s are more experimental, and he tested the limits of the medium. The Whistler Object Study Workshop was an immersive experience enabled me to gain greater facility with American watercolor and new ideas in how to interpret and present Whistler at the Worcester Art Museum.

--Erin R. Corrales-Diaz, Assistant Curator of American Art

May 1, 2019

Inspecting Whistler watercolors with magnifying glasses

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Glazing Through Ceramics at Winterthur

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

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

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

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

-Elizabeth Fox, Curatorial Assistant, American Art Department

April 8, 2019

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Meet CMAI Artist Toby Sisson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- April 10, 2019

Video: Toby Sisson discusses her inspiration for this piece.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The WAM Library Continues to Evolve

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

A Little Library History

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

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

Dewey’s Innovative Classification System 

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

Switching to the Library of Congress System

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

Bibliographic Barcoding

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

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

--Rebecca Morin, Head Librarian

April 1, 2019


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

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

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

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

Friday, March 15, 2019

Woman Warrior: In celebration of Women’s History Month

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

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

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

--Eddie Ouano, Curatorial Intern, Asian Art Department

March 15, 2019

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Travels with Hiroshige from a Technical Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 12, 2019

Friday, March 8, 2019

Endurance of an Idea

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

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

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

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

Image caption:

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

Monday, January 28, 2019

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

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

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

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

-Erin Corrales-Diaz, Assistant Curator of American Art

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Works of art remind me of home

My wife has been an artist her whole life. She is an oil painter and art teacher, who can recite the names of all of the greats. When I first met her, she was a student in Art College in Calcutta. We moved to the United States together with big dreams. We were excited at the prospect of a country filled with opportunity and promise. We got married and a few years later, we had our first child. A baby girl. In 1984, we packed up what we had and moved to Worcester, Massachusetts with that three-month old baby. We had both immigrated to the United States just a few years before. Everything felt new. There was so much about the United States that I had not learned yet. When we first came to Worcester, so many things still needed translation--words, customs and traditions.
Even with all of the newness, the thing that always felt familiar to us was art. It spoke all languages. We could look at a painting and feel its message, with no need for explanation. No worry about choosing the right word, or understanding its tone. Art made us feel like we were a part of this new place. It was something that was natural in a land where everything else needed to be learned. There was something here we already understood.
Today, my family has been in Worcester for over thirty-four years. I know all of the roads by heart. It is truly my home. I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for years while we raised our two children, while my wife taught art and always stayed close to it. When it became time for me to retire, I wanted to return to the place that had made me feel welcome when I was a stranger in a new place. I now spend several hours a week at the WAM. It’s the perfect part-time job for a retiree. I learn about the paintings and exhibits, and get to watch new faces feel what this place has always made me feel. 

There is so much that I would like to share with someone who is considering visiting the Worcester Art Museum. I am no docent, but nothing makes me happier than sharing the things I have learned from the visiting speakers and brilliant staff here at the Museum. 

One of my favorite things about WAM is the rich collection of Asian art. It is incredible to see the long history of my people represented so many miles from home. Much of this began with Ananda Coomaraswamy, who began bringing Indian art to this area in the early 1900s. Today, Vivian Li, associate curator of Asian art and global contemporary art, carries on that tradition. There are two upcoming pieces I am especially looking forward to seeing on display. The first is A Vegetarian Lion, A Slippery Fish (2013) by Bharti Kher.  Kher was born in London and now lives and works in India. Her perspective is one that feels especially interesting to me, since her sense of both cultures have shaped who she has become and the art that she creates. 

It’s also special to see pieces of my childhood home make their way to WAM. The Museum plans to commission a decorative jhula from the Indian state of Gujarat that will one day be displayed in the Asian Art Gallery. The jhula is a porch swing with room for two. It reminds me of dusty summer days in India. These pieces, like me, are pieces of another world within this one. We bring our culture, traditions, and stories with us. 

To me, that is the beauty of this Museum. You can look at a piece and feel at home and like you are learning something new at the same time. I am proud to be a part of the fabric of the vibrant Worcester community, and even prouder to see not only my rich heritage and culture, but the culture and heritage of so many others, all on display in one place.

-Barin Bando, Guest Services Representative

(Originally from India, Barin Bando moved to Worcester in 1984.  A shorter version of this WAM Update appears in the Winter/Spring 2019 issue of access magazine.)

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Tiffany Ecclesiastical Department: Turning Churches into Art

In the last few decades of the nineteenth century, Boston experienced a building boom. Houses, museums, libraries, and churches all competed to be the most beautiful buildings in the newly settled Back Bay area of the city. Designed by rising architect Henry Hobson Richardson in a medieval revival style he would become known from, Trinity Church became the trendsetter for exteriors. With John La Farge’s stained glass windows installed in the 1880s, Trinity Church became known for its innovative interior as well.

Mt. Vernon, 1930s
The pastors and congregants of other churches looked to Trinity Church for inspiration and an opportunity to stand out in the city. But how did they select the windows and decorations that would adorn their sacred spaces and give meaning to their lives? In the case of the Mount Vernon Congregation Church, previously located on the corner of Beacon Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, two sets of their stained glass windows program have been preserved by the Worcester Art Museum, and the paperwork from the 1890s survives to give modern viewers insight into the now-destroyed church.

LCTS design for chancel
Throughout the 1890s, the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company offered printed catalogs to potential buyers, with a variety of window designs they claimed were “historical records, written in lines of beauty, of the growth of the church.” The company also offered to collaborate with churches to offer sketches and estimates. In 1889, the decoration committee of the Mount Vernon church did just that. For the sum of $3,500 (about $98,000 in today’s money), the church contracted with Tiffany designers for woodwork around the apse and pulpit, as well as space for five panels, each depicting one of the Four Evangelists and Christ. The dome of the apse was “cover[ed] in aluminum leaf and decorate[d] with all over pattern and bands, forming panels” with mixtures of glass, metal leaf, wood, and decorative elements. Central to Tiffany’s Byzantine Style as seen in their ideal Chapel at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the goal was to dazzle the eye with overwhelming, jewel-like details.

Angel of the Resurrection catalog

A notice in the Boston Globe on December 18, 1899, mentioned how the pastors used the windows as illustrations for their sermons, describing a now-lost window dedicated to a recently deceased widow who bore her plight “with exemplary patience.” While these decorations helped churches to stand out and attract new members with their art and design, they also offered their parishioners reminders about scripture and a spiritual retreat from the everyday world.

– T. Amanda Lett
PhD Candidate, History of Art and Architecture Boston University and Guest Curator of Radiance Rediscovered: Stained Glass by Tiffany and La Farge.
Tiffany employees at work

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