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 26, 2019

Modernizing Modern Art in the Donnelly Gallery: The Art of Museum Reinstallations

Seven months ago, Erin Corrales-Diaz, WAM’s assistant curator of American Art, asked me to devise a new display of American Impressionist works, in preparation for the reinstallation of the Museum’s James Corcoran Donnelly Gallery. This long-term installation would trace the development of Western art between 1890 and 1945, a period of societal change fueled by industrialization and the two World Wars across America and Europe. I welcomed the opportunity to revitalize the gallery and enhance WAM’s exceptional collection of American Impressionism through Modernism.

Three of our American Impressionism paintings,
including Girl Playing Solitaire (right).
In the project’s beginning stages, I collaborated with Erin—along with WAM’s Director of Curatorial Affairs and James A. Welu Curator of European Art Claire Whitner and Curatorial Assistant Olivia Kiers—to create preliminary gallery mockups and compose wall text.  These tasks were jointly divided between me and Olivia, who focused on telling the story of twentieth-century American and European Modernism.* Meanwhile, I selected twelve to fifteen Impressionist paintings and created different options for their placement based on size, visual symmetry, and themes posited. For instance, I decided to place John Twachtman’s contemplative Waterfall (ca. 1890) next to Childe Hassam’s sunny seascape Sylph’s Rock, Appledore (1907). Both works “flow” with one another, and at the same time demonstrate how American artists looked to New England’s untouched landscapes for inspiration.

Additionally, I helped unite on one wall three portraits depicting elite cosmopolitan women, particularly Frank Weston Benson’s angelic figure in Girl Playing Solitaire (1909). Each portrait significantly captures the diverse ways American Impressionists romanticized modern, feminine beauty of the twentieth century. After finalizing the preferred gallery mockup with curatorial staff, I crafted corresponding labels for each artwork, along with one larger wall text to provide context, and so helped curate a cohesive, streamlined display of American Impressionism that joins together modernist works. As a result, visitors entering the gallery are welcomed with a balanced arrangement of canvases that seamlessly transition from radiant portraits of young women in white to uncanny Surrealism.

As the curatorial staff brainstormed display ideas, we focused on exhibiting key works that not only aesthetically and chronologically complemented each other on the walls, but also promoted inclusivity and diversity in WAM’s collection. Cecilia Beaux’s Helen Bigelow Merriman (1908) – one of the Museum’s few paintings by Gilded Age female artists – resided in storage for years. Furthermore, Beauford Delaney’s Portrait of Gaylord (1944) and Sir Jacob Lawrence’s The Checker Players (1947) were chosen to highlight the cultural impact of African-American artists, writers, and musicians on New York City’s Harlem Renaissance. We believed these works deserved more gallery representation.
Paintings in the Donnelly Gallery, including City Interior (center).

Other museum staff members made significant contributions to the gallery refresh. Credit goes to WAM’s Director of Education and Experience Marnie Weir for editing rough drafts of labels by curatorial staff. Her guidance helped us refine our language and create relevant content that would boost audience engagement with the art. Rita Albertson, WAM’s George H. and Sybil F. Fuller Term Chair in Conservation and Chief Conservator, provided information on each painting’s condition and frame, some of which were incorporated into labels for American Impressionism. The registrar and exhibition design teams, led by Chief Registrar Gareth Salway and Exhibition Designer and Chief Preparator Patrick Brown, pulled off a variety of tasks: these involved moving artworks to and from storage, mounting wall vinyl, and supervising over the beautification of the gallery, which was repainted white for an updated, spacious look. Art handlers Wes Small and Trevor Toney diligently worked behind-the-scenes to ensure the initial preparation of the gallery went smoothly. These aesthetic improvements show that curators aren’t the only people involved in the setup of museum exhibitions—it truly takes a village!

Through each individual’s efforts, the new display successfully weaves together multiple perspectives—those of expatriates, women, and people of color. Cross-cultural influences abound throughout the gallery, with the wall text narrating how American and European artists spread their ideas. As a result, hidden connections between Impressionism and Modernism are revealed. One could even argue that Childe Hassam’s The Breakfast Room, Winter Morning, New York (1911), while featuring an ideal modern woman as the subject, reflects the rise in early twentieth-century urbanization, a major theme in Charles Sheeler’s City Interior (1936), which looks across from Hassam. Despite embodying distinct styles and interpretations of modernity, each painting in the gallery speaks to the other.** By bridging the gap between Impressionism and Modernism for contemporary audiences, the re-installed Donnelly Gallery fulfills WAM’s core mission of “connecting people, communities and cultures through the experience of art.”

Elizabeth Fox
Curatorial Assistant
American Art Department
September 26, 2019

*Olivia's article, titled "Celebrating Modernity in the Donnelly Gallery," can be found in the most recent issue of access magazine.

**Ironically, Charles Sheeler studied drawing and painting under the American Impressionist William Merritt Chase at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1903-6).

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Spotlight: Meet the Gardeners of WAM's Art Garden!

If you've visited the Worcester Art Museum this summer, you've probably seen the Art Garden growing in our Stoddard Courtyard. A joint project with the Southeast Asia Coalition of Central Massachusetts (SEACMA) and the Regional Environmental Council, WAM's Art Garden features Southeast Asian edibles grown in a milk crate structure designed by artist Andrew Mowbray. The plants grown this summer include purple perilla, fish mint, mustard greens, and especially Vietnamese lettuce!

Earlier, I sat down with three of the volunteer gardeners from SEACMA, elders in Worcester's Vietnamese community who take care of the three community gardens (the other two are located in downtown Worcester). These gardens are repeatedly harvested and replanted throughout the summer; the produce is sold in small shops and farmer's markets in the city, or shared as gifts in the community. After our conversation, they provided me with a good deal of lettuce (which is like Romaine, but with a buttery, slightly bitter taste) and several serving suggestions - lettuce with rice noodles, lettuce spring rolls, or using cut-up steak to make lettuce wraps with fish sauce.

Volunteers, artist and WAM staff gather to celebrate a successful summer!
"The gardens are helpful," says Son Ho. "It gives people a job to do, it connects them back to the community and their roots, and it's beautiful."*

Son Ho moved to Worcester from Saigon six years ago, and for the last five has worked at SEACMA. Warm and friendly, she does much of the talking, saying that her work with the Vietnamese community "matches her personality." Formerly a farmer, she loves working in the gardens especially, and looks forward to the planting every spring. "It feels good to have something I know, from my homeland."

Quyen Truong, Dong Nai province, arrived in Worcester four and a half years ago. He also works part time at SEACMA, where he interacts with the Vietnamese community, and is very enthusiastic about the gardens. "Having a garden is like having a child," he explains. "You nurture it and watch it grow. I'm very happy to have it."

On the other hand, Cam Tu Le grew up in a city and doesn't know much about gardening. "They just tell me where to water," he says. "It's very fun." Cam Tu teaches Vietnamese as a second language at SEACMA, and recently completed a course at QCC; he is now continuing his studies in mechanical engineering at WPI.

All three have been working in SEACMA's community gardens for the past few years. "When things are growing, there's a lot of pride that comes out of those moments," says Quyen.

"It's beneficial to the community as a whole," adds Cam Tu.

Anh Vu Sawyer, Executive Director of the Southeast Asian
Coalition of Massachusetts
One of the most important benefits is the opportunity for the elder volunteers to work closely with the younger, bridging the generational gap. Whereas Son, Quyen and Cam Tu are relatively recent arrivals, many of the youths have lived most, if not all, of their lives in America. They go to American schools, and grow up speaking little or no Vietnamese, leaving them feeling disconnected from their family and their past.

Sharing the gardens creates an opportunity to build those connections. "We work with the youth volunteers, actively teaching them how to tend the garden and water plants," says Son. These seemingly simple tasks serve as a gateway to deeper conversations, giving the youths a chance to learn about the community's history and culture.

Thu Nguyen, Director of Projects for SEACMA, explains that the program is also vital to the mental health of the older members of the community, who can come to feel isolated in the unfamiliar city. "This is active, socially engaging. It helps them feel normal, familiar, at home." Many of the elders have gardens of their own and come alive every summer when the time for planting arrives. The community gardens give them a chance to share this love, and interact socially with other gardeners.

"It's good to have exercise, to go out and be with people," says Quyen.

"I love having the gardens," adds Son. "It makes you healthy, it makes you happy, gives you clarity of the mind. It's so meaningful."

Over the course of the summer, all three have visited and worked in WAM's Art Garden. "It's very pretty compared to the other places," says Son. "Not just a patch of dirt. It has a vibe and energy. You get to decorate the place and have it look beautiful."

"Let's make an appointment," she laughs, "and come back every year!"

-- Sarah Leveille
Digital Media Specialist
September 24, 2019

*Translations provided by Thu Nguyen.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

This Weekend: The Unique Experience of "With Child"

This Saturday marks the opening of With Child: Otto Dix / Carmen Winant, my first exhibition as a guest curator for Worcester Art Museum. In the rush to put the finishing touches on the show, as well as the many events going on this week, I find myself pausing to reflect on its significance. I’ve known since the beginning of my research, now several years ago, that With Child would be a unique experience, offering our visitors a number of “firsts.” Here are a few highlights of this unique show:

Marcia Lagerway, standing between Dix's The Pregnant Woman (1931) and
Hippold-Ahnert's Sitting Pregnant Woman (1932, left).
  1. The first exhibition of Otto Dix to focus on the theme of pregnancy and childbirth, despite it being a theme he returned to many times throughout his career.  This, itself, provokes the question: why have critics ignored a theme that was clearly so important to him?
  2. The first to feature a dialogue between the works of a 20th-century German male artist (Otto Dix) and 21st-century American female artist (Carmen Winant). Each artist brings a unique perspective, while remaining dedicated to the goal of facing the experience of childbirth and pregnancy head-on.
  3. The first exhibition at WAM to provide, through both the labels and the brochure, a variety of voices of art and literary critics, journalists, medical practitioners, and Dix family members. Contributors include Dix scholar Olaf Peters, CUNY Art History professor Michelle Vangen, and the artist Carmen Winant herself.
  4. The first display outside of Germany of a painting by Gussy Hippold-Ahnert, master student of Otto Dix.  Her Sitting Pregnant Woman (1932) will be hung beside the Museum’s The Pregnant Woman (1931), depicting the same model from two different angles – Hippold-Ahnert’s revealing the model’s face.
  5. The first showing of Otto Dix’s Pregnant Woman (1966) outside of Germany.  This painting was his final nude portrait, and his last on this theme.
  6. The first visit to WAM by Otto Dix’s grandson, Leander Dix. He and artist Carmen Winant will be leading Opening Day tours of the exhibition at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. — this Saturday, September 21.  All tours are free with admission, but will be first-come first-served, so be sure to arrive early!
From left to right: Carmen Winant, Leander Dix and Marcia Lagerwey.

There is no “objective” curatorial voice on the walls in the exhibition, inviting visitors to draw their own conclusions and respond with their own feelings to this powerful theme in art. There is no “right” response to either the exhibition as a whole or to individual works, and we hope to encourage conversations in our exhibition response book, in the community exhibition located in the Higgins Education Wing, and in related programs.

With Child: Otto Dix / Carmen Winant is a focused exhibition with an unusual and relevant theme, and we look forward to welcoming you to it and hearing what you think and feel.

--Marcia Lagerwey
Guest Curator, With Child: Otto Dix / Carmen Winant
September 18, 2019

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

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