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

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

How WAM Spent a Fun “Summer Together” with Worcester’s School Children

A summer without camps? As the school year was coming to an end last spring, parents, students, and organizations were realizing that typical summer camps would not be a reality. A big question emerged: How could summer programs be offered to Worcester’s school children? With the strict social distancing guidelines required to operate during the pandemic, many organizations, including WAM, simply could not operate in-person programs safely. 

While the summer was looking bleak for welcoming crowds of young people into our institutions for fun learning, the Boys and Girls Club of Worcester and Recreation Worcester put out a summer SOS Zoom call. Discussions began among youth-serving city offices, non-profits, and cultural organizations about how to offer a wide variety of programs for all students. The emphasis had to be on the FUN, as we knew many students just completed weeks of homebound virtual learning.

Committees made up of youth workers and educators from organizations throughout the city formed to brainstorm programs and themes that could be offered to each age group: Pre-K and Kindergarten, Elementary, Middle and High School. Ideas flowed with new ways to provide students with art, music, writing, science, physical fitness, games, and social-emotional learning opportunities through a virtual platform. 

The Worcester Education Collaborative offered virtual training on best practices for reaching students during these unusual times. As the new Manager of Public and Education Programs for WAM, this was a great opportunity to see the passion for youth programming from cultural partners throughout Worcester. The discussions among these organizations led to the creation of Worcester’s “Summer Together”—City-Wide Virtual Summer Youth Programming from the City of Worcester Division of Youth Opportunities and its numerous partnerships.

A visit to the calendar shows the wide range of programs offered by working together. Students and families can choose to participate in creative writing and poetry sessions or take in virtual nature walks and animal feedings, or join us for art activities, or select babysitting classes and virtual playgroups. 

“Summer Together” offered WAM’s Education Division an opportunity to reach out to new audiences and to share our collection with more students and families. Preschool students enjoyed story-time sessions that shared a few works from the collection and an art activity. Helmutt, WAM’s trusty mascot, always made an appearance!

Looking rather regal, Helmutt is ready for his preschool session on crowns.

We highlighted our Arms & Armor programs with our “Meet a Knight” programs. Elementary-age students heard from Neal Bourbeau, WAM Programming Coordinator, dressed in his knightly attire about the education and training it took to become a knight and accompanied by a shield-making activity.

Neal Bourbeau, WAM's Programming Coordinator and Resident Knight, with our demonstration shields.

Middle school students learned more specifics from “Neal the Knight” about how the armor worked and were given an activity to create their own piece or suit of armor. High school students had sessions on our large outdoor sculptures and discovered how citizens represent their ideals in art with a look at the new Black Lives Matter mural in downtown Worcester. We offered three sessions for each age group. You can find these virtual programs by visiting our playlist on WAM’s YouTube channel.

A high school virtual program explored our sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro (Italian, born 1926),
Rotante dal Foro Centrale, 1966, cast bronze, Anonymous gift, 1971.124

Creating these videos was a learning process for us, as we continue our transition from in-person education sessions at the Museum to virtual programs. Many segments of our “Summer Together” videos can be used in a variety of formats and found their way onto WAM’s social media pages for audiences of all ages to enjoy.

A big supporter of Worcester’s “Summer Together” programming and WAM’s contributions to it is the United Way of Central Massachusetts. We thank them for their grant. In making summer contributions to Summer Together, the United Way’s President and CEO Tim Garvin, stated: “As a community, not only do we want to care for our kids, we want our kids to understand how much hope and support we have for them for a great future. For the agencies, I hope this will give them the finances so they can run wicked awesome summer recreation camps and cultural programs.”

We agree and want the children to know that we miss them, and WAM will do its best to run “wicked awesome” programming for them now and in the future. If you have an idea for a virtual youth program you would like us to consider creating, please email me at aileennovick@worcesterart.org

The local organizations participating in the "Summer Together" program.

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

August 26, 2020

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Making Art During the Coronavirus: A Chat with Artist Randy LeSage

Each year, WAM'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. Randy LeSage’s four-part series Departure was featured from May-October 2019.

Randy LeSage has taught art classes at WAM for more than 25 years. While the widespread effects of coronavirus have paused in-person classes at the Museum, artmaking is not on hold. Randy reports from his home studio to Lauren Szumita, curatorial assistant of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, with updates on his personal practice during this time and sage advice about freeing the artist within.

LS: How has the coronavirus and its knock-on effects, such as quarantine and social distancing, impacted your practice?

RL: I have been thinking of the nature of trying to make art these days. In some ways making art seems small in relation to the situation with Coronavirus. Yet it also feels like a natural response. Mainly, coronavirus has made venturing afar difficult to draw and paint. But that appears to be becoming less restrictive. I hope to feel more at ease working on site in open areas and park settings, with safe distancing and mask wearing as needed. One does feel some psychological challenge in adjusting to the changed reality.

LS: What is your studio space like?

RL: My studio is a small but useful room. Though cluttered, I try to keep it organized: materials kept in specific stations, some good lighting (a window and adjustable lamplights), a drawing table, an easel, and another plank board table. I can’t work terribly large, but when I’m painting, I can push it up to a 30x40 inch canvas. Otherwise, I can go outside to work.

A view of Randy’s at-home studio.

LS: You exhibited at WAM from May through October 2019. How has your work changed, or not, since then?

RL: Since my exhibition at WAM last year, I have continued with the visual dialogue between nature and the man-made. I continue to make art in other media (drawing, painting, printmaking, collage) related to landscape, figure, and abstraction. 

I recently created some small clay ‘human head’ sculptures, handled in an almost primal manner by carving basic planes, simple scoring, and pushing and pinching the clay without too much agonizing. Because clay can be so malleable, in the past I would get so lost in altering form that I often found myself ending up with a frustrating lump of clay. I recently heard a sculptor mention that clay always wants to go to nature. 

Not knowing quite why I felt inclined to fashion these sculptures, I reflect on how primary and vulnerable these little faceted ‘jewels’ of human form appear and wonder in what place they reside. I placed them together, on simple bases and backdrops. Then I set them against some old, grainy black-and-white photographs of past industry, a subject that has endured for me. 

This low-tech, somewhat childlike, almost anachronistic setting seemed to fit with them. The scale makes the clay heads appear large, yet they are vulnerable. They reminded me of the sculptures on Easter Island, only here the settings are old industry. Sentinels that are slowly deteriorating, noble, clumsy, enduring.

Fracture Sentinel II: Lapointe Machine Tool showcases Randy’s explorations in clay.  

LS: You've mentioned that explorations in clay represent a new direction of your work. When is the last time clay make a significant appearance in your work? And what’s the value of working outside of your preferred medium?

RL: Two years ago, I taught a class at WAM called “Your Primal Landscape.” While students mainly worked in drawing and painting, the Museum had a wonderful exhibit of contemporary Japanese sculptors creating ‘archaic’ clay vessels [Archaic Avant-Garde: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics from the Horvitz Collection, on view October 27, 2018 – March 1, 2020]. I brought the class to view the basic primary forms and how the artists utilized the nature of clay to exhume expressive directions. The students responded strongly to it, so we had a class working with the primal aspects of clay. 

As I recently created the clay head sculptures, I kept the freshness of the medium in mind. In that spirit of seeking directness and simplicity I placed these human heads against the backdrop of some old photographs and graphics related to labor and factories. It’s low-tech and kind of a hoot.

Working Sentinel is an example of Randy’s intent to seek directness and simplicity
 in his art by placing the clay human heads against the backdrop of old photographs
 and graphics related to labor and factories. 

LS: Many people are using their free time in quarantine to explore creative pursuits. From those who have years of experience to those just looking to get started, do you have any advice on how to unlock your creativity at home?

RL: I think it’s vital to try to keep challenging your creativity, working in new mediums and with varied points of view. Reflecting on and celebrating the wonders of life, nature and our interactions are primary. Whether as a pastime, or as a consistent way of life, we can find solace and advantage through art. It’s part of being a more complete human. I think we have a chance to better recognize the basic impact art can have for us and our environment.

As an instructor and maker of art, I must remind myself as well as my students that you have to make art to make art. Don’t be afraid to put paint on canvas, make a mark on paper, or push a piece of clay around. We all need to play a bit, stay open, and let something happen. It could be that sudden feeling of being taken aback by a color you put down next to another color, or the way one shape relates to another. It can feel remarkable, heavenly, provocative. As the musician, Chet Baker, put it, “let’s get lost.”

Randy captures a lone figure clutching a lunch pail against a desolate cityscape in his Walking to Work oil painting.

This monotype, Changing Landscape: Shifting Planes, features horizontal landscape planes receding in space. 

All images courtesy of Randy LeSage.

August 18, 2020

Friday, August 7, 2020

Carefully Conserving a Museum Treasure: the Worcester Hunt Mosaic

The Worcester Hunt Mosaic is one of the most impressive and iconic objects within the Worcester Art Museum. In addition to being among the first artworks visitors see when they enter the grand Renaissance Court, the floor mosaic’s compelling narrative can be viewed from any side.
The early-6th-century mosaic was excavated from a villa at Daphne in ancient Antioch (modern-day Turkey) in 1932. Hunting was an aristocratic pastime and a common theme in mosaics and other forms of art at Antioch, and more generally in the Roman world. The figures in the scene, hunters on foot and horseback attacking lions and tigers with swords and bows, face outward to the perimeter of the mosaic.

Fig. 1. Antioch, Roman, Worcester Hunt Mosaic (early 6th century). Cubes of marble and limestone
embedded in lime mortar. Excavation of Antioch and Vicinity funded by the bequests of the
Reverend Dr. Austin S. Garver and Sarah C. Garver 1936.30

The Hunt Mosaic, which was brought to the Museum in 1936, has seen many conservation campaigns over the years (Fig. 1). When the mosaic arrived at WAM, it was maintained primarily by mosaic artists. These initial conservation attempts unfortunately resulted in the use of nonreversible oil paints for in painting, inaccurate reconstructions of portions of the scene, and misplaced integration of tesserae from the borders of the mosaic into the central composition.

Additionally, the mosaic was perceived as an extension of the Museum floor rather than a work of art as it is today. Visitors walked on the ancient stone surface. Occasional performances and even dance parties took place on the mosaic. To protect the mosaic from damage from such activities, between 1937 and 2000 there are records of multiple instances of coating application and removal on the mosaic. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a more preventative approach was taken. All coatings were removed from the mosaic surface and a permanent railing was installed around its perimeter. Coating stone is not a conservation approach taken today.

Conservators now focus on developing treatment protocols that are minimally invasive and easily reversible. It was only in the 1990s that the Hunt Mosaic received professional conservation attention for the first time.

Due to its placement in the floor and its position near a Museum entrance, the mosaic easily accumulates dust and debris. Caring for the mosaic today involves the attention of the WAM conservation staff who regularly vacuum the mosaic and simultaneously keep an eye out for any damages or concerns. In the past year, in situ conservation work was conducted to continue conserving the mosaic (Fig.2). 

Fig 2. The WAM conservation team works in situ on the Hunt Mosaic in the Renaissance Court
before the Museum temporarily closed in March 2020 due to COVID-19.

In the early 2000s, small areas of loss were filled with painted, plaster tesserae (small pieces of tile) that eventually wore away. In addition, as a result of natural wear over time, thin cracks in these plaster fills began to form. The resulting area of damage needed to be stabilized by removing broken plaster tesserae and replacing them with new ones (Fig. 3 A & B). The cracked plaster tesserae were excavated using small scalpels, micro chisel tools, and a hide mallet. New plaster fills were cast directly from a silicone mold taken of the mosaic (Fig. 4). Plaster tesserae were cut to size, toned to match the exact color of the surrounding mosaic, and secured in place with a conservation--grade adhesive mixture (Fig.3 C & D). These meticulous steps guarantee creating a seamless transition with the original mosaic stone. 

Fig. 3. The intricate conservation process includes removing loose tesserae (A);
clearing crumbling fill material (B); placing new tesserae in areas of loss (C);
 and in painting white plaster tesserae with conservation grade pigments (D).

Fig. 4. A silicone mold of mosaic tesserae and the resultant cast plaster fills. 

From the early 1930s to the present day, the Worcester Hunt Mosaic is the focal point of the Renaissance Court at WAM. The preventative and less invasive techniques conservators now use will help preserve the mosaic for the future. We look forward to welcoming you back to the Museum this fall for you to see and experience the remarkable mosaic once again.

—By Elle Friedberg, WAM Pre-Program Intern in Conservation, and Paula Artal-Isbrand, WAM      Objects Conservator
August 7, 2020

“Hunting Scene.” Worcester Art Museum. Accessed July 6, 2020. https://www.worcesterart.org/collection/Ancient/1936.30.html. 

Becker, Lawrence, and Christine Kondoleon. The Arts of Antioch: Art Historical and Scientific Approaches to Roman Mosaics and a Catalogue of the Worcester Art Museum Antioch Collection. Worcester, MA: Worcester Art Museum, 2005.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

A Near-Disaster Meets a Fortunate Ending for Three Orantes at WAM

What is an orante figure and why are three so special to the Museum? To find out, let's take a closer look at these rare sculptural treasures from ancient Greek and Roman times.

The three large female terracotta statues pictured here (Figs. 1-3) were excavated in the late 1800s from ancient underground tombs in modern-day Canosa, a town in southeastern Italy that was heavily influenced by Greek culture in Antiquity (4th through the early 3rd centuries BCE). The role of these terracotta statues, which were once painted in bright colors, was to mourn or pray over the deceased laid out to rest in these family tombs. Their raised arms and hands are gestures of prayer. This is why they are known as orantes—from the Latin verb orare meaning to pray.

Fig. 1. South Italian, Orante Figure, 4th-3rd century BCE, Terracotta with white slip,
Stoddard Acquisition Fund, 2008.50

Fig. 2. Greek, Funerary Statue of a Young Maiden, 500–450 BCE, terracotta,
Museum Purchase, 1927.45

Fig. 3. Orante on loan to WAM (E22.10)

Today, fewer than 50 orante figures survive in museums around the world, and only eight of them are in U.S. museums, three of which are at the Worcester Art Museum. The three statues at WAM have fascinating modern histories filled with occurrences of disaster, good fortune, and serendipity alike.

Two orantes (Figs. 1 and 2) were purchased as a pair from a dealer in London in the 1920s. Sadly, one was severely damaged in transit across the Atlantic Ocean as one can appreciate in this photo (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. The Funerary Statue of a Young Maiden (1927.45) orante broke in many pieces
during transit from London to America.

Meant to flank two doorways, the pair no longer served this purpose after the damage, so the disappointed Museum director lost interest and the broken orante was put in storage while the intact one was sold to the New York auction house Parke-Bernet Galleries Inc. in 1946. This auction house was later purchased by Sotheby’s.

It was not until the mid-1990s—when objects conservation as a specialty in the field of art conservation was first introduced to the Worcester Art Museum—that the broken orante was rediscovered in storage and earmarked for conservation. During the treatment, WAM contacted Sotheby’s to inquire about the 1946 sale of the second intact orante in hopes of learning more about its current whereabouts.

Due to the rarity of this genre of sculpture, it was surprising to hear that an orante had been offered on consignment to be sold by Sotheby’s the previous week. I was asked to share archival photos of the sculpture in question and, to everyone’s amazement, it was the same orante WAM sold in 1946! I also learned that the sculpture was in Tasmania, Australia—literally on the other side of the world!

Fortunately for WAM, the owner of the sculpture and Sotheby’s agreed that the Museum could purchase the orante directly from the art dealer and thereby bypass the planned auction. 

After more than six decades, eight different owners (as we learned from Sotheby’s), multiple restoration campaigns, and a trip halfway around the world, the second orante was to be reunited with its former companion at the Museum. I went to pick it up in New York City and couriered it on a truck (Figs. 5 and 6) back to WAM in February 2008.  

Fig. 5. Picking up the second orante (2008.50) from Sotheby’s in New York City,
and bringing it back to Worcester.

Fig. 6.  Orante Figure, 2008.50

The second orante, which showed signs of having broken after it left Worcester, had been extensively restored so that the entire original ancient surface was buried under many layers of modern paint. At WAM, it was fully disassembled (Fig. 7), all the old restoration materials removed, cleaned, and reassembled. Susan, Costello, the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Objects Conservation, masterfully conserved and restored the reunited pair of orantes to their current state.  

Fig. 7. The second orante (2008.50) taken apart during conservation.

Well, the story continues because there is still one more orante to join the duo. While Sue was busy working on the two precious orantes in our conservation lab, I received a phone call from an anonymous person. He asked if the two ancient female statues in the conservation lab were rare. I replied that they are indeed quite rare. The caller then said, “I know of a dealer who has one for sale, but I can’t go into further detail” and hung up. That evening, as I was driving home to Somerville, I got stuck in a traffic jam and decided to take an alternate route. The detour took me past an art gallery in Cambridge, which had an orante in the window! Of course, I knew it was the one the caller spoke of earlier that day.  

A short time later the caller contacted me again to tell me he purchased the orante and would offer it to WAM on a long-term loan. He thought it would be ideal for WAM to have not one, not two, but three orantes. 

This third orante needed conservation treatment, which was skillfully undertaken by Sue’s successor, Kari Dodson. The three orantes were finally displayed for the first time in the initial Jeppson Idea Lab exhibition I curated in 2013. 

I invite you to visit these three ladies now on permanent view in our Greek Gallery when WAM opens again this fall. To learn more about them, see photos of the tombs where they came from, the exhaustive conservation process during which fascinating discoveries were made, and view images of orantes in other museums, please explore this content on the comprehensive iPad that accompanies the sculptures. In the meantime, this content is also available to view on our website.

Finally, this iPad features an interactive section where adults and children can help paint these statues with bright colors again!

—By Paula Artal-Isbrand, WAM Objects Conservator

August 5, 2020

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