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

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Timeless Treasures: Beloved Thank-You Notes from Student Visitors

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


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

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

Dear Louise,

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

Sincerely, Nora

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

Dear Louise,

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

Sincerely, Nikki

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

Dear Worcester Art Museum,

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

Sincerely, Donny

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

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

Thank you, Amy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Neal & Mary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Staff of the Art Museum,

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

Sincerely, Cassie


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

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

December 15, 2020

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

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Shining a Light on Hanukkah at WAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 2, 2020

All images are from the 2019 Hanukkah at WAM.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Stitches in Time: The Ambient Art of Jean François Millet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download the candle cross-stitch pattern

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

    November 18, 2020


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

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

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Uncovering the Stylish Complexity and Craftsmanship of Samurai Armor

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

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

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

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

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

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

A detail of the kozane construction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—By Neal Bourbeau, WAM Program Coordinator

    November 5, 2020

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

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Inside the Nature-Driven World of Artist Susan Swinand

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

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

Susan Swinand in her studio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A gallery view of Nature Imagined by Susan Swinand.

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

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

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

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

Susan Swinand, Night Fishing, 2012, watercolor on paper

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

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

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

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

—October 29, 2020 

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Examining the Spooky Illustrations of Widdicombe Fair by Pamela Colman Smith

October in New England conjures images of colorful leaves, cozy hearths, and chilly nights, but for many it also brings to mind ghost stories, folklore, and things that go bump in the night. One such story has been passed down through the popular and whimsical folk song, “Widdicombe Fair,”¹ from Devon County in England.

First recorded in print form in the late 19th century, “Widdicombe Fair” is believed to have originated decades earlier. Some historians speculate that the names featured in the song belonged to 18th-century locals, while others believe they could refer to the Welsh tradition of the Mari Lwyd.² In 1899, the tale was published by Sabine Baring-Gould in book form and illustrated by artist Pamela Colman Smith. Each of Smith’s plates is represented in WAM’s collection of works on paper.

Fig.1: Pamela Colman Smith (American, active England, 1877–1950),
Untitled (Widdicombe Graveyard) plate 12 in Widdicombe Fair (1899),
 photomechanical relief print with and pochoir handcoloring on cream wove paper
trimmed along border, mounted on original cream wove paper sheet,
Sarah C. Garver Fund, 1997.75.12

The story told in Pamela Colman Smith’s Widdicombe Fair begins with a man named Tom Pearce lending his old mare to a group of men to assist them as they head for the fair. The names of these men include “Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawk, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.” They form the chorus of the folksong, which is repeated throughout. In it, they promise to bring back the poor horse, but when the time comes for their return and the troupe fails to appear, Tom begins an extensive search. Tom despairs as he finds his mare has taken ill and died, likely from the burden of carrying so many men. 

Their weary journey is immortalized in the full lyrics of the "Widdiecombe Fair" folk song: 

Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare
All along, down along, out along lee.
For I want to go down to Widdicombe Fair
Wi’ Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawk,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all

And when shall I see again my old grey mare?
All along, down along, out along lee.
By Friday soon or Saturday noon
Wi’ Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawk,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all
So they harnessed and bridled the old grey mare
All along, down along, out along, lee.
And off they drove to Widdicombe fair,
Wi’ Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawk,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
Then Friday came and Saturday soon
All along, down along, out along lee.
Tom Pearce’s old mare hath not trotted home
Wi’ Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawk,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all
So Tom Pearce he got up to the top of the hill,
All along, down along, out along lee.
And he sees his old mare a-making her will,
Wi’ Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawk,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all

Tom Pearce’s old mare, her took sick and died
All along, down along, out along lee.
And Tom he sat down on a stone and he cried
Wi’ Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawk,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all

But this isn’t the end of this shocking affair, 
All along, down along, out along lee.
Nor though they be dead, of the horrid career
Of Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawk,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all

When the wind whistles cold on the moor of a night,
All along, down along, out along lee.
Tom Pearce’s old mare doth appear ghastly white
Wi’ Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawk,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all
And all the long night be heard skirling and groans,
All along, down along, out along lee.
From Tom Pearce’s old mare and her rattling bones
And from Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawk,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all³

Even today, on windy moonlit nights, Devon locals say you can see the white ghost and rattling bones of the overburdened horse and hear the groans of the men. Smith incorporates the oral tradition of the folksong in the final plate of the series, shown in Fig. 1, as townsfolk gather around the tombstones of the song’s chorus. A closer look at the stones shows various life dates, ranging from 1760 to 1794, over 100 years before the publication of these prints. All the principal characters have long since departed, and yet their spirits live on through the singing of “Widdicombe Fair” and Smith’s spooky illustrations.  

Widdicombe Graveyard, highlights the lyrical tale’s status as a ghost story. Originally this plate (Fig. 2) was positioned at the beginning of the book, but ultimately moved to its culmination. At first one sees a robust horse bounding over a hill; however, closer examination reveals the outline of the moon passing through the mare’s hooves. Aside from a touch of delicate yellow highlighting around the inside edge of the horse’s linework, the horse merges into the gray night sky, implying it may be an apparition not a living animal. The effect is subtle, whimsical, and a touch unsettling. 

Fig. 2: Pamela Colman Smith (American, active England, 1877–1950),
 Untitled (Ghostly Mare) plate 13 in Widdicombe Fair (1899),
 photomechanical relief print with pochoir handcoloring on cream wove paper
 trimmed along border, mounted on original cream wove paper sheet,
Sarah C. Garver Fund, 1997.75.13 

In addition to Widdicombe Fair’s haunting subject matter, people more often recognize Pamela Colman Smith for her design work on the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck. She was commissioned to make the deck by British poet Arthur Edward Waite. While he wrote the guide for interpreting the cards, the art for all 78 cards was hers alone. The tarot deck was published a decade after her Widdicombe Fair book illustrations. In both the book plates and the tarot deck she uses the same stylized initials “PCS” in the bottom-right corner. 

Smith was well known in occult circles and was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a late-19th century secret society interested in the paranormal and metaphysical. Some speculate her contribution was downplayed because she was a biracial woman of Jamaican descent. Today, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is one of the most famous tarot sets in the world, and it is featured in media such as The Haunted Mansion, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Exorcist franchise, and even The Simpsons

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

    October 21, 2020


¹ Common variant spellings include Widecome and Widdecombe.

² The Mari Lwyd is an old Welsh Christmas tradition in which a horse skull is mounted on a pole and carried by a man hiding beneath a cloth. He would be accompanied by a group of men and would travel house to house singing to request entry. If the owner of the house relented, the group would be welcomed for refreshments before moving on.

³ Taken from the version written on Wikipedia

Friday, October 16, 2020

Have 30 Minutes? See Some Cool Art via a Zip Zoom Tour!

Zip Tours are a popular offering from our WAM docents. They provide a quick-tour option where visitors learn about just a few works of art within a 30-minute period. Many visitors appreciate a shorter tour that allows them to see works they know in a new way, or to see artworks they have not viewed before. 

A fun part of our tours is the discussion that takes place between the docent and visitors and between the visitors themselves. Since the Museum was closed for several months, due to the pandemic, our docents and visitors missed these art discussions. We created a solution: FREE virtual Zip Zoom Tours!

Our first program, "John Singer Sargent's Portraits" launched live via Zoom on Wednesday, October 7.  Docent Susan Gately shared a brief background of Sargent and provided details of his stays in Worcester at the Worcester Club. During a part of the conversation, viewers saw our large Sargent portrait, Lady Warwick and Her Son, paired with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Sargent portrait of Worcester woman, Mrs. Edward L. Davis and Her Son, Livingston Davis

Left: John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Mrs. Edward L. Davis and Her Son,
Livingston Davis
, 1890, oil on canvas, Los Angeles County Museum of Art,
Frances and Armand Hammer Purchase Fund, M.69.18 
Right: John Singer Sargent, Lady Warwick and Her Son, 1905, oil on canvas,
Museum Purchase, 1913.69

While looking at these portraits, viewers noted the differences between Sargent’s clients in Europe and America. One participant commented that she felt like Mrs. Davis was a woman who looked like she would “get down in the mud” to play with her son. Viewers sensed that Davis would be an interesting woman to converse with about her life and Worcester in the late 19th century. The textures and details of the women’s attire were also of interest to the virtual audience.

Another slide compared WAM’s Sargent 1890 portraits of Worcester women Lizzie B. Dewey in the red dress and Mrs. Alexander H. Bullock in the black outfit. The 30-minute discussion was rich with comments on the two women’s vastly different styles and depictions.

As these presentations take place on alternating Wednesdays, our next Zip Zoom will be held Wednesday, October 21 at 12:30pm. 

“Inspiration from Laocoön,” will explore how artists continue to be inspired by this famous Hellenistic sculpture. WAM docent Cathryn Oles will reflect on Nancy Graves’s 1988 sculpture, also titled Laocoön. She will reveal elements of the innovative stainless steel, bronze, and black enamel work that are reminiscent of the original sculpture. Here's an opportunity to learn about more works inspired by Laocoön and to share your thoughts on the artworks presented in this Zip Zoom Tour.

Register in advance for the October 21 virtual tour here. After enrolling, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the Zip Zoom discussion.

Select a Zip Zoom Tour that matches your interests by perusing our Fall 2020 schedule below and then register here. All virtual tours begin at 12:30pm.

November 4: WAM docent Brad Barker examines Paul Revere’s print of the Boston Massacre.

Paul Revere, The Bloody Massacre Perpetuated in King-Street Boston
on March 5th 1770,
 Boston, 1770, engraving with hand coloring,
gift of Nathaniel Paine. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

November 18: Explore Roman Hairstyles in the Museum’s Collection with WAM docent Mark Mancevice.

Roman, Bust of Venus, first century BCE,
white marble, Museum Purchase, 1914.57

December 2: WAM docent Deb Wallace delves into James McNeill Whistler’s elegant Arrangement in Black and Brown: The Fur Jacket, a portrait of his mistress, Maud Franklin. 

James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834–1903), 
Arrangement in Black and Brown: The Fur Jacket (1877),
oil on canvas, Museum Purchase, 1910.5

December 16: The Etruscan Cinerary Urn up close with WAM docent Barbara Eaton.

Etruscan, Cinerary Urn, 160–140 BCE,
 terracotta with traces of polychrome,
Museum Purchase, 1926.19

December 30:  Explore American abstract expressionism with WAM docent Peter Stultz. Learn more about painter Joan Mitchell’s Blue Tree (about 1964), a member of the American abstract expressionist movement.

Joan Mitchell, Blue Tree, about 1964, oil on canvas.
 Museum purchase, 1965.392

A virtual Zip Zoom Tour is an ideal way to learn more about WAM’s extensive art collection from the comfort of your home. Find additional information on these upcoming Zoom tours here.

We look forward to seeing you at an upcoming Zip Zoom!

—By Aileen Novick, WAM Manager of Public and Education Programs 

October 16, 2020

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Happy Anniversary! The WAM Docent Program Marks a 50-Year Milestone

Every year nearly 20,000 visitors—including hundreds of Worcester Public School students—experience the Worcester Art Museum on a docent-led tour. Next week, we launch our celebration of the 50th anniversary of the docent program, the cornerstone of the Museum’s education program and vital to its mission of connecting people, communities, and cultures through the experience of art. 

“These devoted volunteers are great lovers of art, whose commitment to sharing that passion comes through with every Museum conversation,” says Aileen Novick, manager of public and education programs, which includes the docents. 

Docent Cathryn Oles leads a tour with students from Worcester's
 Jacob Hiatt Magnet School  in 2016. 

The docent program began in 1970, when Richard C. Mühlberger, the then-curator of Museum Education at WAM, announced a new initiative to train a corps of volunteer gallery instructors to expand group tour services for the following year.

Women who “expressed an interest in art and an affection for WAM” were invited to participate in a 30-week training program, which began on September 28, 1970. Classes were conducted in the galleries and designed to give the volunteer guides a working knowledge of the Museum’s permanent collection.

The 82 female participants enthusiastically embraced and rose to the challenge. The first docent-led tours of the Museum were offered to college instructors and public-school principals in September 1971. By April 1972, 51 docents had conducted 445 tours. 

 Some of the Museum’s early docents are pictured here. 

With each subsequent training session, parameters changed. In the mid-1970s, classes met for 16 months, the course syllabus included an in-depth survey of the history of art and methods of visual presentation plus the study of the WAM Collection. Written applications were required, and participation was limited to the 19 most qualified candidates.

The program continued to adapt to the needs of the Museum and community. In the 1980s, trainees were especially encouraged to develop participatory activities for children. In 1981, the Docent-in-the- Schools (DIS) program provided a three-lesson experience with a specific theme for children from the Worcester Public Schools. Docents went to schools before and after they visited the Museum.

Otti Levine, a 31-year WAM docent, participated in the DIS program at Elm Park Community School. “This was a great program for the children. They were always excited to come to the Museum,” she recalls. “There was a special bond formed with the docent and the students because of these visits.”

A college student recognized Otti from the DIS program years later. “She told me she was getting a degree in art!” she recalls. This feedback inspires Otti’s role as a docent. “Because of the interaction with people, I can really make them see, engage, and appreciate art,” she explains.

In 1987 additional coursework was added to introduce the docents-in-training to the critical-thinking skills necessary to integrate information with the experience of looking at works of art. And by the 1990s—and continuing through today—docents became even more proficient in introducing art and the Museum’s collection and exhibitions to visitors of all ages. 

Ginny Powell-Brasier engages with a captivated audience
of school children on her docent tour. 

Some current docents are children of the early volunteers. Leslie Vigneau’s mother, Jean Miles, was a member of the second docent class of 1972 and a Docent Emeriti. “My mother continually told me I should become a docent because it was such a special time in her life,” Leslie explains.

Leslie eventually joined a class and has been a docent for 11 years. “My mother’s health began to decline around that time, and I would bring her to the Museum and attend classes with her. We even did a few tours together,” Leslie said. Jean continued as a WAM docent until her death in 2017.

“My mother was right,” she adds, “I love being a docent! I am a retired teacher and that really helps with tours. I am most comfortable with children.”

In 1994 men joined the ranks of WAM docents. Paul Mahon, a former science professor and longtime collector of Asian art, became a docent when he retired from academia in 2007. He relished the opportunity “to teach about magnificent art while standing in front of it, and no grading, to boot!” Becoming a docent allowed Paul to incorporate knowledge he acquired while visiting hundreds of museums in Europe and Asia.

“I enjoy sharing my love of art with visitors of all ages, from cub scouts to seniors,” he says. “I also love training fellow docents in STEAM tours where my science background is especially helpful.” 

Paul Mahon, a former science professor and longtime collector of Asian art,
 became a docent when he retired from academia in 2007. 

Jan Ewick, tour programs supervisor, has worked with WAM docents for nearly three decades. “These dedicated volunteers share their passion for art, the Museum, and discovery with visitors of all ages each year,” she said. “Their contributions of time and knowledge are immeasurable and, in keeping with the Museum’s mission of connecting people, communities, and cultures through the experience of art, our docents truly walk the walk.”

These sentiments are echoed by Director of Education and Experience Marnie Weir, "We couldn’t do what we do without our docents. They are an incredible group, whose engagement and enthusiasm tell such a special story.”

WAM docent Mary Dowling explains the significance of The Scarlet Letter VI 
during a gallery 
tour.  Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (founded 1982), 
The Scarlet Letter VI, 1993, oil and acrylic on book pages mounted on canvas,
Gift of Rosalie T. Rose in memory of Sidney Rose, 2012.94 

Look for more docent-related content in future WAM Updates, as the Museum pays tribute to its volunteer art ambassadors on their 50th anniversary of connecting people, communities, and cultures through the experience of art. 

—By Cynthia Allegrezza, Marketing coordinator
    September 24, 2020

Recent WAM Updates