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, February 25, 2021

A Passion for All Things Floral

As part of our lead up to this week's 19th annual Flora in Winter, we recently featured two floral designers participating in WAM's bloom-filled extravaganza. Now meet two more talented, passionate arrangers, Carla Morey and Susan Dewey (celebrating 19 years participating in Flora!), who created original arrangements that interpret selected artworks from our collection. Among other things, we'll explore the inspiration and thought-process behind their floral masterpieces for this year's event, what excites them about participating in Flora, and learn more about a memorable experience for one arranger. Here's a hint: It involves Winslow Homer’s great-grandnephew!

Meet Carla Morey: Milton Garden Club, Museum of Fine Arts Floral Design Chair, GCA Floral Design Judge 

Years in Flora: Five

Carla enjoys a wonderful sense of accomplishment
when she puts the final touches on the floral design,
then steps back, and observes it next
to the artwork she's interpreted.

Favorite arrangement: Dark Release (1982) by Joan Snyder

Well, since it’s my only previous piece, it’s my favorite! It was a challenge to interpret because it is an abstract painting done on wood. The artist used mixed materials, so it gave me the chance to really think outside the box. I used wood, wire, paper, paint, and of course, fresh plant materials. The artist was in a dark period of her life, and that shows through the feeling of chaos throughout the painting. But there is hope, depicted in the title and, I think, the use of gold as a burst of optimism.

Carla poses with her striking Flora in Winter 2020 interpretative arrangement
 of  Joan Snyder's Dark Release (1980).

Flora 2021 artwork: Standing Figure of a Beauty (Bijin) (about 1680-1690)

Carla's inspiration: 

The colors, the interpretation of the piece, and the Japanese nature of the subject. I will use materials you can find in Japan—for instance, orchids. The colors range from recessive colors, such as blue and green, to dominant warm colors featuring tones of red and yellow. And I want to be sure the pure white doesn’t dominate the arrangement. The woman depicted is not from wealth. We know that because the materials are not fine, so I will use typical flowers as well, not just the expensive orchids. Using a round armature, I hope to capture the movement of her garments.

Kakiemon (Japanese) Standing Figure of a Beauty (Bijin)
(about 1680-1690). White porcelain decorated with enamels.
 The E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and
 the Stoddard Acquisition Fund, 1998.182

What makes you excited about Flora in Winter?

During the cold winter months in New England, it gives me the feeling spring is coming and the floral material available is bright and cheerful. It’s always great fun to see the other arrangers and their work. And I feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment to put the final touches on the design, step back, and look at it next to the artwork.

What material or technique would you really love to try? 

I would like to work more with wire and leaf manipulation. Practice, practice!

Meet Susan Dewey: Worcester Garden Club, Osterville Garden Club

Years in Flora: 19

Susan in WAM's Renaissance Court with a lovely
 Flora Challenge Class arrangement from a previous event.

Favorite arrangement: Coast in Winter (1892) by Winslow Homer from Flora in Winter, 2003.

I have always loved the simplicity and power of this painting.

This floral interpretation from 2003 of Winslow Homer's  Coast in Winter (1892)
 is Susan's most favorite Flora arrangement. 

Flora 2021 artwork: Overmantel from the Baldwin House, Shrewsbury, MA (American, 18th century)

Susan's inspiration:

I always try to choose an artwork that conveys a clear message, or emotion, or one that will work with a particular floral design style because of the work’s color scheme, thematic content, or visual movement. This painting’s strong horizontal movement, plus the simplicity of the content, inspired me to create a layered, horizontal design. I chose both traditional and tropical plant material, massed and layered in a design created atop a tall, classic urn.

Overmantel from the Baldwin House, Shrewsbury, MA (American, 18th century).
 Oil on panel. Gift of Mrs. Eveleth V. Hill and Mrs. John W. Lasell, 1980.32

What is your most rewarding Flora experience?

It is very hard to choose my favorite Flora in Winter experience over 18 consecutive years that I’ve been lucky enough to be a designer, but probably the design I created for Winslow Homer's Coast in Winter in 2003 was the most meaningful. I have always loved the ocean and Homer’s sense of natural drama and strong emotional message, yet simple use of subtle color and painterly texture, just spoke to me. 

I spent weeks doing mock-ups of my design at our dining room table, soliciting opinions from my husband and two teenage children. I walked the beaches of Cape Cod for inspiration with my mother-in-law, Frani Dewey, who introduced me to the Worcester Garden Club, and also loved the Museum.

My father-in-law, Chuck Dewey, whose grandfather was a founder of WAM, really loved my final design. I can see him now, sitting quietly on a bench in front of my Coast in Winter arrangement. I always think about those times when I am at Flora. Those memories are a comfort now that both Frani and Chuck are gone.

The true highlight of 2003 happened on the night of the "Flora Euphoria!" celebration. I met Jessie Winslow, Winslow Homer’s great-grandnephew, who was there with his girlfriend! He introduced himself to me as I was standing in front of the design and sharing my inspiration with some visitors. He waited until everyone was gone, then came close and said, “I am Jessie Winslow, my great-granduncle painted this, and I have to tell you that you captured the painting perfectly! I have been to Prout’s Neck [the Homer family’s place in Maine] many times and your design just captures that place. I’m going to take a picture of it and share it with the family!” 

I was thrilled, of course, because to me that is the essence of Flora’s value. This annual event is a  celebration of incredible art showcased and made more immediate (and sometimes more understandable!) with flowers, which helps to inspire all Museum visitors.

A 2003 photo captures Susan proudly posing with her floral interpretation
of Winslow Homer's Coast in Winter (1892) painting.

Experience the beauty of Flora from the comfort of home by registering for our “Passport to Virtual Flora." It includes all related online programming, plus a virtual tour of the 24 floral arrangements and Japanese table display in McDonough Court, along with a bonus video tour of the professional floral arrangements in the Museum's public spaces. View more details here.   

—Profiles compiled by Sarah Leveille, Digital Content Specialist, with editorial assistance from Cynthia Allegrezza, Marketing Coordinator

February 25, 2021

Please note: All images here are pre-COVID; visitors to the Museum are currently required to wear masks. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Meet the Creative Minds of Flora in Winter

Every winter, the Worcester Art Museum galleries spring to life through the artistic floral arrangements of Flora in Winter. Meet two of this year's talented designers, Marne Mailhot and Nancy Martin, selected to create original arrangements interpreting select works in our collection. Let's discover  what's inspiring them this year, their favorite past arrangements, and what's behind their passion for all things floral. 

Meet Marne Mailhot, Worcester Garden Club

Years in Flora: Five

Marne with her favorite Flora arrangement,
 “Case of Swords, Higgins Collection," from the 2019 event.

Favorite arrangement: "Case of Swords, Higgins Collection"

We actually had a house fire that year, which started in the mulch on an especially hot June night. When I made this arrangement, we were still living in an apartment while rebuilding our home. I remember feeling a little nervous, wondering whether I could gather the same energy and joy making that year’s arrangement with so many things up in the air.

I went to the flower market to get my flowers, cut and conditioned them in buckets scattered all around our little apartment, with our Golden Retriever underfoot. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself calmed, allowing myself again to be carried along the creative process, even in these circumstances. When I was finished, I remember looking at what I’d done and felt so much hope for our family and myself, with the joy and peace that could be summoned by the beauty of flowers.

Flora 2021 artwork: Caligula (Roman, 37-40 CE)

Marne's inspiration:

I love monochromatic arrangements, and the challenge of an all-white piece. In addition, there is so much fascinating history behind the figure and person of Caligula. Whenever I begin thinking about a Flora arrangement, I research the floral trends of the time period in which the piece was made, as well as the symbolism of the flowers I think may help capture the spirit of the artwork. Caligula was so notorious for lavishness and excess that it will be really wild expressing that through flowers.

Caligula (Caius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) (Roman, 37-40 CE).
Marble. Museum purchase, 1914.23

What's been your greatest challenge as a Flora designer?

WAM sends each of us a folder with a print of our artwork in early fall. I leave the folder open so every time I pass by it I can see the print, and spend time with and get to know the artwork. It helps me get a real sense for what the artist was feeling and trying to communicate—why this painting, or these people? Each year, I hope to make something that has energy the artist himself would recognized and be moved by if he were at Flora.

Marne embraces the creative process
 participating in Flora provides her.

Meet Nancy Martin,  Framingham Garden Club

Years in Flora: Three

Nancy (left) with her favorite interpretative arrangement
of the 
Portrait of Ann Gibbes, John Wollaston the younger (1767)
Flora in Winter 2020. The portrait is on the right.

Favorite arrangement: Portrait of Ann Gibbes, John Wollaston the younger (1767)

Ann has an arresting gaze that draws in the viewer’s eye. In addition, Historic Charleston in South Carolina, where Miss Gibbes lived, is a personal interest of mine!

Flora 2021 artwork: Child’s Mummy Case (Ancient Egyptian, Roman Period, 32 BCE-200 CE)

Nancy's inspiration:

As a designer researching the Child's Mummy Case, I made discoveries that helped me choose the container and flowers I will use to interpret it. I also learned there are few child mummy cases in the collections of some American museums. Regardless of the time period, the loss of a child is heartbreaking for a family. My design will be a celebration of a beloved child’s life.

Child’s Mummy Case (Ancient Egyptian, Roman Period,
 32 BCE-200 CE). Cartonnage. Museum acquisition, 2000.49

What excites you about Flora in Winter?

There is so much energy as the designers complete their arrangements. Seeing other designers’ beautiful creations, I marvel at the materials they’ve used to interpret the art. There are always surprises and ingenious combinations.

What is your most rewarding Flora experience?

Knowing that my arrangement is enjoyed by the many visitors that attend Flora. My husband and I have been members of the WAM for more than 30 years. I'm honored to be chosen as an interpretative designer for Flora, and to help the visitors learn what a wonderful museum WAM really is.

Close-up of Nancy's colorful floral interpretation
of the 
Portrait of Ann Gibbes.

Next week, we profile two more Flora in Winter designers as we countdown to the February 25–28 event. 

Experience the beauty of Flora from the comfort of home by registering for our “Passport to Virtual Flora." It will include all related online programming, plus a virtual tour of the 24 floral arrangements and Japanese table display in McDonough Court, along with a bonus video tour of the professional floral arrangements in the Museum's public spaces. View more details here.   

—Profiles compiled by Sarah Leveille, Digital Content Specialist, with editorial assistance from Cynthia Allegrezza, Marketing Coordinator

February 18, 2021

Please note: All images here are pre-COVID; visitors to the Museum are currently required to wear masks. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Story Behind a Wartime Burial Party

Four men with shovels set to work on an old battlefield, digging graves, while a fifth crouches beside a wagon filled with the grisly remains of Union soldiers. The laborers wear no uniforms or other signs to identify them; all we know is that all five are Black.

A Burial Party, Cold Harbor, Virginia is a photograph taken by John Reekie, one of 100 collected in Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War. This two-volume work extensively catalogued every aspect of the American Civil War, from generals and their soldiers at camp to the grim aftermath of the battles, through a series of pictures taken by photographers who traveled with the armies. A conscientious photojournalist, Alexander Gardner paired each image in his book with a detailed caption, providing context and insight into the lives of soldiers and the horrors of war.

A Burial Party, Cold Harbor, Virginia.
Photograph by John Reekie, April 1865, one of 100 collected in
 Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War. Gardner identifies the
 five African American men as Union soldiers “collecting the remains of their comrades,”
 but tells us no more about them. This photograph was acquired by WAM in 2020.

The Battle of Cold Harbor was one of the bloodiest of the American Civil War. Fought from May 31 to June 12, 1864—following a month of escalating conflicts as Union troops advanced on Confederate fortifications—the battle finally ended with thousands dead or wounded as the Union army retreated. Battlefield ethics at the time generally allowed the withdrawing army to leave men behind to bury the dead without being harassed by the enemy; but at Cold Harbor many of the Union bodies were left unburied. Gardner speculates in his caption that the assigned troops “may possibly have been called away before the task was completed,” and notes that the dead were similarly left by the Union Army at both Gettysburg and the First Battle of Bull Run.

According to Gardner, in such cases “the native dwellers of the neighborhood would usually come forward and provide sepulcher [burial] for such as had been left uncovered,” but at Cold Harbor the local Virginians apparently refused the task. Gardner does not record the reason, but one can imagine the physical and mental toll of such a task. The work was apparently uncompensated, too; after Gettysburg, Union troops hastened after the retreating Confederates, telling the local civilians to complete the burials. The locals demanded to know “who was to pay them for it.”

A Burial Party, Cold Harbor, Virginia was photographed in April 1865, a full ten months after the battle ended. Gardner identifies the five African American men as Union soldiers “collecting the remains of their comrades,” but tells us no more about them. While perhaps understandable in this case—it isn’t the only photograph that fails to identify its subjects, and Gardner was clearly more interested in the broader story of care for the dead—it does speak to a larger pattern. 

Alexander Gardner (American, born in Scotland, 1821–1882), 
  President Lincoln on the Battlefield of Antietam (1862)
  from Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War,
 albumen print from wet collodion negative on mount with lithographed typography,
Stoddard Acquisition Fund, 2008.53

The American Civil War is considered the first war to be extensively photographed and documented, with countless portraits of officers and scenes of men in their camps. However, there are comparatively few images of Black soldiers—even though they made up an estimated 10 percent of the Union troops (179,000 soldiers). These men were organized into their own, segregated regiments; African American men and women attached to the white regiments tended to be non-combatant volunteers: cooks, blacksmiths, laborers, nurses, spies, and scouts. It is these, along with refugee former slaves performing similar functions, who we see far more often in American Civil War photographs.

American (19th century), African American Union Army Troops on Drill,
 near Chattanooga, Tennessee
(1864), albumen print from wet collodion negative,
Stoddard Acquisition Fund, 2008.54

Every photograph in Gardner’s Sketchbook was selected to tell part of the story of the war as he perceived it. While the particularly gruesome imagery of A Burial Party adds to his overall narrative of the horrors of the war, we are still left to wonder why he chose an image of Black men (whether soldiers or civilians; note that we only have Gardner’s word to identify them) performing burials instead of white. Is it meant to present them as hardworking men, laboring to perform a final service to their fallen comrades? Similar stories of the loyalty and spirit of former slaves—delivered to the North through letters written by soldiers in the field—did much to raise Abolitionist sentiment during the war. On the other hand, the image also could serve to reinforce notions of racial hierarchy, as the Black men perform the most menial and undesirable of tasks.

This photograph was acquired by WAM in 2020, a page from the first edition of Gardner’s Sketchbook. The almost mundane morbidity gives us a glimpse into the horrors of war, stripped of Victorian associations of loyalty, bravery, and patriotism. It also adds to WAM’s collection of works depicting people of color—including two other 19th-century photographs—and will, we hope, open the door to difficult but necessary conversations about the history of race relations in America.

—By Sarah Leveille, Digital Content Specialist, based on research by Nancy Kathryn Burns, Stoddard Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs

 February 11, 2021

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