September 2009 | The Shelburne Museum and The Magazine ANTIQUES have a long history together. Within a year of the museum fully opening in 1953, Alice Winchester, the magazine’s editor, introduced it to her readers as “one of the…most unusual museums” in the country, its “collection of collections” assembled over a lifetime by Electra Havemeyer Webb, whom she described, with what turns out to have been some understatement, as “a person of rare discrimination, ingenuity, and taste.” In the years since, the magazine has published numerous articles about the astonishingly diverse holdings so ingeniously arranged by Webb at Shelburne, which only seem to appear more inspired and inspiring as the years go by. (For a list of the articles about the museum published by the magazine, click here)
During an unseasonably warm and sunny weekend last March, the museum and the magazine collaborated to give eight contemporary fine and decorative artists a close look at Webb’s masterwork, to see how it resonates with the creative mind today. The group included furniture maker Chris Lehrecke, glassmaker Toots Zynsky, ceramist Michelle Erickson, artist Robert H. Cumming, miniatures painter Elizabeth Berdann, printmaker Andrew Raftery, textile artist Richard Saja, and designer of jewelry and decorative objects Ted Muehling. Each was asked to choose one piece that sparked his or her imagination in a new way. As anyone who has been to Shelburne will tell you, though, the holdings are vast in number and virtually indescribable in scope, so it is no surprise that few were able to pick just one thing.
To get in the spirit, everyone was invited to stay at the Brick House, Webb’s rambling Vermont country house overlooking Lake Champlain, which has been carefully restored to what it looked like during the crucial years when she was formulating her ideas about collecting, decorating, and what she wanted her museum to be. Cell phones do not get reception in the Brick House, and there is no such thing as television. During the three-day weekend, there was just a hint of what it must have been like when Webb and her husband, J. Watson Webb (1884-1960), hosted house parties—excitement, conviviality, and delicious food and drinks. On Friday night a number of friends of the museum came for cocktails and dinner, along with Stephan Jost, Shelburne’s charming and energetic director, curators Jean Burks and Kory Rogers, and several other key museum people. But for much of the time the participants could relax in the Webbs’ den with its painted-wood “curtains” and lamps made from early coffee grinders, butter churns, and the like (a trend Electra Webb seems to have sparked), peruse their books and family photographs, and just talk—about their own work as well as what they were seeing at the museum.
Each morning after breakfast around the colonial revival tiger maple dining table, everyone set off for the museum. Because it is only open from Memorial Day to late October, the grounds were otherwise deserted, save for a few obliging staff members who unlocked doors and deactivated alarms, turned on lights, and removed dust sheets, not to mention provided much-needed lunches. Traipsing from one end of the site’s over forty acres to the other and crisscrossing the property, past the Round Barn, which houses seasonal exhibitions, past the Colchester Reef Lighthouse (hoisted on stilts as a new foundation was being built) and the Ticonderoga that now forever steams by it, Burks and Rogers took the group into a good many of the museum’s thirty-nine buildings.
The delight was palpable, the questions many, not only about specific objects but about the museum and its creator. Burks pointed out that what still holds it all together is Webb’s penchant for seeing “color, pattern, scale, and whimsy in all mediums,” however unlikely. Very little has been written or recorded about Webb’s “philosophy,” she said, remarking to me later that Elizabeth Stillinger’s chapter for her forthcoming book, A Kind of Archeology: Collecting Folk Art in America 1876-1976, is the best account of what seems to have made Webb tick. Stillinger very kindly forwarded me a copy of her illuminating chapter (the book is scheduled for publication by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2010). This, in turn, sent me back to the archivist at Shelburne for a copy of the typescript of the speech Webb gave at the Antiques Forum at Colonial Williamsburg Forum in 1958. Though so faint as to be almost unreadable, this document reveals a wry, self-effacing sense of humor while shedding light on the years Webb spent collecting—and realizing that though she wanted to start a museum, she did not quite know how to go about it.
Recalling that what “lit the fire” was her husband and his siblings’ desire to keep the collection of carriages and sleighs assembled by their parents, she explained: “I had my opening…. I had dreamed of it all these years, but…[had been unable] to explain to them what I wanted to do. So as long as this carriage collection was to be kept, they said I could do it. Well, from then on there was no holding me!” At first the family “suggested a Quonset hut” to house the carriages, and “that hurt a little bit. Then I decided that maybe a barn.” In the end, elements from twelve Vermont barns and two gristmills were hauled to the site and the first museum building was erected—a huge horseshoe-shaped “barn” that still holds the carriages collection.
Quite often, she admitted, people told her she was crazy. More than once she heard “You can’t do it! You cannot do it!” It is clear that little stopped her. It is also clear that she never considered the museum fully finished. Stephan Jost told me, “When I arrived at Shelburne I had the great fortune of having several meetings with Lillian Baker Carlisle who has since passed away. She was a scholar by nature and functioned as Mrs. Webb’s first registrar and curator [she also wrote several articles for Antiques over the years]. She told me how Mrs. Webb was always changing things and was frustrated by static museums such as Mrs. [Isabella Stewart] Gardner’s in Boston. I think the greatest honor we can do is maintain this dynamic spirit by interpreting her collection in new ways.” It is this sort of dynamism that motivated the March weekend. As the profiles that follow reveal, such endeavors not only allow the past to inspire the present, but also allow the present to offer new ways of looking at the past.
Image: Round Barn, built in East Passumpsic, Vermont, 1901, moved to the Shelburne Museum in 1985-1986, where it serves as the entrance. Photograph by courtesy of the Shelburne Museum, Vermont.
Next: Robert H. Cumming
Robert H. Cumming
Electra Webb could have used artist Robert Cumming in 1952. Several of his recent drawings (one is shown opposite) offer an easier way to transport the Colchester Reef Lighthouse to the Shelburne Museum grounds than the one she had to orchestrate. But as Grace Glueck, reviewing a show of Cumming’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote in the New York Times on April 17, 1998, “anything…can happen in a picture by Robert Cumming….His deadpan setups…often approach the surreal,” as they do in Lifting a Lighthouse, where a conversation about weather vanes being stolen by a helicopter from rooftops, a photograph in the Brick House of a World War I observation balloon, and the sight of the lighthouse awaiting its new foundation came together.
Cumming, who lives in Whately, Massachusetts, exhibits widely and has works in numerous major American and international museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Kyoto Museum of Modern Art, and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark. He works in many mediums—drawing, oils, sculpture, etching, photography (William Wegman of the photogenic weimaranars was a college friend and a graduate school roommate), and he even engages in performance art and makes furniture. Silhouettes—or more precisely Scherenschnitte, cut-paper art that in the United States was primarily made by Pennsylvania Germans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—are also in his repertoire. Indeed, it was an exhibition of some twenty-six of these at the Janet Borden Gallery in New York late last year that put him on the list of artists to invite for the weekend.
As it turned out, Cumming was the one artist in the group who had made several previous trips to the museum over the years. “There is always more to see,” he says, and “each time you come, you come with a different perspective.” Moreover, this was the first time he had been to the Brick House. “I loved the use of furniture and art and even the wallpaper there, not to mention the silhouettes by August Edouart that hung on so many walls. My tiny guest bedroom [which had been Electra Webb’s home office] had an absolutely beautiful chest of drawers and writing desk.” In his even tinier bathroom he was charmed by a lithograph entitled The Hill of Science, which depicts a young man, waving goodbye to his mother as he starts up an endless stairway to scientific achievement. The first few steps are labeled, “Virtue,” “Perseverance,” and “Patience,” which, ironically, brings us back to the story of the lighthouse, for it embodies all three.
When a friend, Ralph Nading Hill, told Webb that the lighthouse, built in 1871 in the middle of Lake Champlain, was to be demolished and suggested that she get it for the museum, she told him he was crazy. But he persuaded her to go have a look. “Luckily I told my daughter-in-law where I was going,” Webb told the Williamsburg audience in 1958, “because if that little boat had floated away, we’d have starved to death in this lighthouse….We got there and climbed up the reef, climbed up the ladder, he opened the door, and you’ve never seen such cobwebs….They were so thick that he had to go ahead of me and push them!” But she gritted her teeth and climbed to the very top, where, it comes as no surprise, she declared, “I have got to have the lighthouse!”
The disassembly and removal eventually required building a temporary dock, measuring, tagging, and recording every element, then loading it all onto two steel barges to carry to the shore. But the biggest problem came from the insurance company. As Webb recounted at Williamsburg: “Mrs. Webb,” she was told, “you cannot do this. We cannot insure you for marine insurance as well as land insurance.” But “I was going to get that lighthouse!” she said. “I went down to the museum one day and our boss foreman came up to me and he said, ‘Mrs. Webb…I am resigning and I am taking with me 5 men.’ Well, you can imagine how aghast I was, and before I could answer, he turned around to me and he said, ‘my 5 men and I are going to take the lighthouse down for you,’ and… ‘when we get it to the land we are going to give it to you and to the Shelburne Museum, and if you want us back we want to come back into the employ of the Shelburne Museum.’ Now it is men like that… [who] made the museum.” Perseverance, patience, and virtue.
Next: Chris Lehrecke
One of the first things that wowed Chris Lehrecke, a furniture maker from Dutchess County, New York, was the collection of woodworkers’ tools, including literally hundreds of planes, drills, saws, and the like, arranged on a long wall in the museum’s Shaker Shed. They appealed quite naturally to his craftsman’s soul, but he also saw in them a symbiotic melding of metal and wood that holds a great fascination for him—they are beautiful as well as functional objects that bespeak their materials’ unique properties, and that is what he aims for in his own designs.
The son of an architect, Lehrecke grew up in Tappan, New York, in a house furnished with modern designs by the likes of Ray (1912-1988) and Charles (1907-1978) Eames and Knoll, and as a teenager he was introduced to the work of Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) and George Nakashima (1905-1990). After graduating from art school he decided his talents lay in “building,” by which he means that he could have started making almost anything—”whether one is creating houses, boats, sculptures, or furniture, the processes of designing and making are closely connected,” he says. He found a job with a furniture maker in Brooklyn, and though the types of things the shop was creating—primarily 1980s postmodern—were not to his taste, he learned a lot about techniques and materials. By the time the business closed, he was ready to start on his own, and he set up a studio in Brooklyn. His first designs were stools, benches, and tables that showed African and Shaker inspiration.
In 1997 Lehrecke and his family moved upstate from Brooklyn to a sleepy little town in the Hudson River valley, where their house, converted from an 1820s Baptist church by the previous owner, stands beside a country road overlooking rolling meadows. A few years later he built a shop nearby, where he now does all of his work, aided by a small staff.
A lot of the time, however, Lehrecke is outdoors, hiking in search of wood and inspiration. Over the years he has established close ties with local loggers and sawyers, who know to inform him whenever they are on a job or see a fallen tree that might interest him. Not only does he let a log guide his design for a stool or table, working with its contours (and occasional deformities such as burls or wormholes) to determine its size and shape, but he is adamant about using indigenous woods in his work. “There are so many beautiful logs available to me locally, that the idea of working in exotic foreign woods seems perverse. I find it really strange that many designers who think it’s extremely important to support locally grown foods specify reclaimed lumber from Indonesia for projects in New York City.”
Walnut, cherry, ash, white oak, catalpa, and maple are some of his favorites. “Some woods work well both as furniture and as veneers for my lighting shades; others have rot resistant qualities best suited for outdoor furniture.” He mills and dries lumber in a shed near the studio—”currently we probably have fifty thousand board feet of wood in the drying shed.”
Lehrecke had never been to the Shelburne Museum before the March visit. While he was enamored by the display of tools on Friday, when he walked into the Horseshoe Barn on Saturday, he knew he had found “his object”—a nineteenth-century swell-body sleigh designed by James Goold of Albany, New York, on which the curves of the metal runners and dash and the curves of the wooden body reinforce and complement each other so beautifully that he just kept running his hands over them.
Returning home, he began sketching and then building a chair that likewise uses wood and metal’s intrinsic qualities to support each other—the steel strengthening and complementing the laminated ash he bent to form the continuous arcs of back and seat and arms and base. “For the final model I think I will replace the one-piece seat and back with bentwood slats,” he adds.
Next: Toots Zynsky
One of Dale Chihuly’s first students at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence in the early 1970s, glass artist Toots Zynsky recalls that the class was instructed to “just look at everything.” Though she has traveled widely, always looking, she says, “what was very special about the Shelburne weekend was the opportunity to be there with a group of artists from many different disciplines and to experience other people’s fascination with things I might otherwise have breezed past.”
She definitely had trouble finding just one object that moved her, and settled on three: a spirited carved carousel horse, a folk sculpture called Nine Pins, and a large pastel by Edgar Degas that was among the impressionist pictures collected by Electra Webb’s parents, Louisine Elder (1855-1929) and Henry O. Havemeyer (1847-1907). The Degas, Deux danseuses, inspired several of Zynsky’s distinctive glass vessels, including the one shown here. Entitled Cambré (a ballet term meaning to bend from the waist in any direction), the work takes up the subtle color palette of the pastel—”one of the things I realized on return visits to the museum was how many different colors Degas used in the white tutus,” she says.
Zynsky’s unusual technique, which she evolved after working with many traditional glass-forming methods, such as blowing, casting, and pâte-de-verre, involves huge quantities of glass threads. She was first drawn to working with these in the late 1970s, when she encased her blown pieces with massed glass threads, spun on hot. By 1982, when she made Barefoot Bowl, or Clipped Grass (acquired by the Corning Museum of Glass from her first solo exhibition, held at the Theo Portnoy Gallery in New York that year), she had recognized that the process of hand-pulling extremely fine glass threads required too much time and too many hands. A friend, the late Dutch artist and inventor Mathijs Teunissen Van Manen, came to her aid by inventing a pulling machine for her, and over the next twenty-five years—mostly spent in Amsterdam—they collaborated on developing ever more sophisticated devices, reincorporating essential parts from one machine to the next, so that now Zynsky has two that supply her with sufficient threads for all her work.
To create her vessels, Zynsky builds layers of the glass threads on a flat heat- resistant ceramic fiber board (“laying out each piece is a similar thought process to making a drawing or a painting”), which is then placed in a kiln for fusing. When the threads are thoroughly fused, she removes the glass from the kiln and shapes it in a series of molds to form a basic rounded shape; then, reheating as necessary, she pulls and squeezes the glass to give each object its unique contours, sometimes laying it briefly upside down on a simple cylinder to allow it to drape down. By using more colorless threads than she normally does, in Cambré she has captured not only the diaphanous character of the dancers’ skirts, but also the ephemeral nature of dance itself.
Appropriately, Zynsky is shown seated on the porch of the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building, erected at the museum by Webb’s children after her death, to house the impressionist works that she had inherited from her parents. The pictures hang in six rooms moved to the building from the Webbs’ New York apartment. A counterpoint to their Vermont house and to the collections assembled for the museum, the Park Avenue triplex was furnished in sophisticated neoclassical style, and the rooms retain many fine examples of eighteenth-century English furniture, in addition to the pictures by Degas, Claude Monet, and Mary Cassatt (who originally persuaded the Havemeyers to buy French impressionist works), among others.
Next: Michelle Erickson
A ceramist in Yorktown, Virginia, Michelle Erickson is probably the most familiar of the artists to readers of Antiques, for her work is often shown at the annual New York Ceramics Fair in January, and it has been written about extensively in Ceramics in America. She has mastered innumerable techniques of the potter’s art, and her works range from exact reproductions made for museum shops to wonderfully bizarre and amusing sculptural pieces.
In her final year as a studio ceramics major at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, Erickson was introduced to the vast collection of historical ceramics, mostly English pottery and porcelain, at Colonial Williamsburg, and was flabbergasted. “I could not believe that during my three years of studio ceramics I had never been exposed to anything I was seeing. These things were incredible and I wanted to know what they all were.” In the years since she has relentlessly pursued an understanding and mastery of a wide range of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century ceramic bodies and decorative techniques. Often working in collaboration with her partner, the ceramics scholar Robert Hunter, she has frequently had to rediscover these methods, for “very little was known about how these things were made—so I learned to read the artifacts and began to decipher the clues they contained…to develop a direct physical ‘dialogue’ with each object, whether a rare museum piece of delft or a fragment of the earliest colonial American earthenware chamber pot.” What she has managed to achieve in this respect is perhaps best revealed in her live demonstrations. Last year, at a symposium at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the eighteenth-century porcelain makers Bonnin and Morris, in front of some “three hundred captivated ceramics connoisseurs,” says Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, who organized the symposium, Erickson re-created the two-tiered pickle stand that was “the most ambitious form made by Bonnin and Morris’s American China Manufactory.” Overall, the tiny stand includes more than seventy individual pieces, and when Erickson finally removed her steady hand, “to put it mildly—the crowd went wild. In 2001 we could only speculate on how the pickle stand had been manufactured. Michelle…reformed several assumptions about the amazing process of making it,” says Kirtley.
Erickson’s own path to rediscovering exactly how the largely anonymous potters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created their wares may well explain her reaction to the collections at Shelburne. She had never been there before, and the sheer number of everyday objects collected by Electra Webb, and the ways she massed and displayed them to accentuate their decorative appeal, made Erickson realize that “much of what we have come to treasure in these institutions is accompanied by very little discussion of the people who created them.” A great contribution that contemporary craftsmen and artisans can bring to the conversation is through their “language of making,…which gives voice to…the relationship between objects and self-expression.”
Erickson is not shy about self-expression herself. Her works invariably reflect a social or political point of view. The jug shown here, for instance, on first glance could be mistaken for a reproduction of a Staffordshire transfer-printed example, but a second look makes clear that its decoration juxtaposes the horrifying conditions of child soldiers with such extravagant luxuries as Rolex watches. Although she has not had an opportunity yet to develop a piece related to her Shelburne experience, she feels that it will probably reflect concerns about global warming or animal rights: one thing that stopped her on the museum tour were the carved floats holding caged polar bears and sea lions in the Roy Arnold carved circus parade; another was the display of scrimshaw. “I am haunted,” she says, “by the intimate relationship between these large animals that were hunted for profit and the men who hunted them—who, after slaying and butchering these majestic mammals, spent hours virtually caressing their bones as they carved them.”
Next: Andrew Raftery
Printmaker Andrew Raftery is a patient man. His last two major works—Suit Shopping and Open House—each took him up to six years to complete. Over the past decade, the boyish-looking Raftery has revived the labor-intensive art of copperplate engraving, bringing that old master technique to bear on his carefully observed depictions of twenty-first-century life. Writing about Open House, Raftery’s suite of five engravings delineating a single moment occurring simultaneously in different rooms of a house for sale, Elaine Sexton observed in the April 2009 issue of Art in America, “the project quietly telegraphs the gravity to be found in the everyday, offering both irony and surprise.” The same could well be said about Electra Webb’s museum.
Born in North Carolina in 1962, Raftery received his BFA from Boston University’s School of Visual Arts and an MFA from Yale University’s School of Art. He was trained as a painter, but he has been making prints since he was eleven, “so my graphic sensibilities are pretty deeply ingrained,” he says. He began exploring copperplate engraving about a decade ago, and, like Michelle Erickson rediscovering how historical ceramic bodies were formulated, he has been working to re-create through copying and experimentation the exact techniques used by the old masters. But in both Suit Shopping and Open House, he takes the traditional visual clarity afforded by the medium a step further by creating his images—volume, texture, perspective, detail, everything—entirely with parallel strokes of the burin.
Given the time-consuming process and the painstaking precision he achieves in his engravings, it may come as something of a surprise that what intrigued Raftery most at the Shelburne Museum were the hatboxes, or bandboxes. Turned out in huge numbers in the United States in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, they were decorated with comparatively simple woodblock prints, often in three or four colors. “My first impression of the intense atmosphere created by the colors, lighting and installation” of the bandboxes “promised a rich and varied experience,” he says. “I appreciated the curatorial premise” offered by the different ways they were displayed—”some with hats and accessories massed to suggest their original function, some in well-lit cases providing an objective view of individual objects, and then towers of boxes that emphasize their sculptural nature. It allowed the material to speak in many ways and reveal its story through prolonged contemplation.”
And prolonged contemplation is what Raftery gave the boxes. On Saturday morning he asked if he could be left alone with them to sketch while the others were touring, and he spent many hours in the dimly lit interior doing so. Actually, what captured his imagination as much as any of the displays were the paneled walls Webb had originally installed in bedrooms of the family’s house on Long Island, on which she had framed the tops and sides of disassembled boxes that had been broken or ripped. “By excerpting and recombining the images Mrs. Webb created new narratives and pointed up the open-ended and even cryptic qualities inherent in the separate scenes,” Raftery observed.
On his return to Providence, where he is an associate professor of printmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design, he took time to study the comparable examples at the RISD Museum and looked into the woodblock techniques used to make the prints. “They are printed with glue-based paints (distemper). The paper is painted with a middle value base color and printed from several blocks inked with lighter and darker colors. This is very similar to the technique used to print the panoramic wallpapers of the early nineteenth century,” another subject that interests him greatly, particularly how “the fictive space of the landscape breaks through the confines of the actual wall. The hatboxes attempt to create a similar spatial effect on the outside of a cylinder, inverting the panoramic wraparound structure of the wallpaper.” This is a challenge Raftery would like to explore himself. “I have started drawing gardens around Providence to generate imagery for my new engraving project, and maybe even a hatbox or two,” he writes. We will wait patiently.
Next: Ted Muehling
Though most observers would hesitate to describe Ted Muehling as a folk artist, he says he is always “fiddling with materials” and thinks that in some ways that is what folk artists did. “For the most part, they were looking to solve a problem, and so am I,” he remarks. A visit to Muehling’s shop on Howard Street in Manhattan, with its vitrines filled with jewelry and decorative objects gives some idea of the materials he has “fiddled with” —silver, gold, porcelain, glass, bronze, ivory, precious and semiprecious stones. But it is in his atelier behind the shop and in the half-basement below where one really sees what problem solving means to him. Besides that, the space makes one realize that as far as collecting goes, Muehling would probably give Electra Webb a run for her money.
Dangling from the rafters are bird’s nests and driftwood. Piled on tables are shells, seaweed, and bits of coral; feathers; dried flowers, leaves, and seedpods; stuffed birds (a goose, wild turkeys, a crow, a hummingbird; there is a live canary in a cage as well); bird and reptile eggs; animal pelts, and snakeskins; and those are just some of the natural things: there are also neolithic tools, flint and stone arrowheads, scrapers, ax-heads, nineteenth-century Japanese bronze and lacquer pieces, Chinese ivory carvings, mythological figures and body parts cast in porcelain by the Nymphenburg porcelain manufactory in Germany, and Secession glass from the J. and L. Lobmeyr glass company in Vienna. The compartmentalized drawers of twelve nineteenth-century specimen and printer’s cabinets are stuffed with more eggs and feathers; stones and minerals; skeletons; dragonfly, butterfly, and moth specimens (thousands of them), insects (and Venetian glass replicas of insects); not to mention moonstones, opals, labradorite, aquamarine, quartz crystal, diamonds, and pearls—from seed size up.
Muehling has been accumulating things from the natural world since childhood and the “other stuff” for a long time. And he has figured out innumerable ways of translating them into beautiful, functional, objects, such as the silver spoons shown here; the handle of one is among many he has cast from bayberry twigs brought back from visiting his family on Nantucket. He designs glass for Lobmeyr and porcelain for Nymphenburg; for the latter, which has collaborated with important artists since its beginnings in the eighteenth century, he has created shell-shaped bowls, coral-textured plates, and a variety of lighting devices, including egg-shaped lanterns and driftwood candlesticks.
Muehling is entranced by candlelight. “I think the element of chance—unexpected movement and life—is what makes candlelight subliminally pleasing,” he says. Over the years he has designed simple silver candleholders, chandeliers in many mediums, candlesticks in porcelain, glass, and bronze, and lanterns in porcelain. It is not too surprising, then, that at the Shelburne Museum he was interested in the many types of early lighting devices he saw in the historic houses, including the unusual pewter whale-oil lamp illustrated here, which is distinguished by the two magnifying lenses that flank the wicks. Muehling has experimented with different ways of increasing the power of candlelight, including hand-hammered silver disks to reflect it; but he had never considered using glass to magnify it. Fortunately, there are myriad lenses accumulated over the years in those cabinet drawers. He is thinking about them. But then, he cannot get the museum’s renowned collection of decoys out of his mind. “I might carve a bird,” he says. “I do love birds.”
Next: Richard Saja
Art or craft? This is a question that can be applied to so many of the objects in the collections at the Shelburne Museum: cigar store figures, decoys, mocha ware, carved wooden food molds, quilts, stenciled walls, whirligigs, and weather vanes. It is an issue that also comes up when looking at the work of Richard Saja, whose singular take on the textile arts most familiarly reveals itself in hand-embroidered embellishments on traditional toile fabrics. They are certainly art by most contemporary definitions, and they are clearly also craft, to judge by the warm reception Saja received when, just before the trip to Shelburne, he showed his work for the first time at the American Craft Council’s annual exhibition in Baltimore. (The Craft Council, by the way, was founded by Aileen Osborn Webb, Electra Webb’s sister-in-law.)
A child of the 1960s and 1970s, Saja grew up amid the vivid pop-art fabrics of the age. “I was mesmerized by all the color, pattern, and texture evident in the fashions of the early seventies worn by my stylish mother,” he remarks. After high school he took classes in “surface design” (an all encompassing term for any process that changes the surface of a fiber: silk screen, embroidery, shibori, painting, distressing of any kind) at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. But he realized that he did not know exactly where he wanted to go from there and decided he needed an education not to be found at art school. Rather than a traditional college curriculum, however, he enrolled at Saint John’s College in Santa Fe, which offers only one course of study—the Great Books of the West program, in which, according to the school’s Web site, students read, discuss, and write about the seminal works “that have shaped the world in which we live….Their authors speak to us as freshly as when they first spoke. They change our minds, move our hearts, and touch our spirits.”
In many ways Saja’s needlework does the same. In 2005 he founded Historically Inaccurate Decorative Arts with the aim of finding new ways of presenting old textiles, most particularly French printed toiles, while also carrying forward the tradition of hand-embroidery. Onto the monochromatic toiles he embroiders in vividly colored threads all manner of amusing, often irreverent, details, transforming pastoral figures into wild-haired clowns or bird-faced suitors. Each design is different, even if he uses the same pattern repeat; mostly his creations are used on pillows, but he also stitches large swaths for chairs and even sofas. His imagination takes him in other directions as well, but always with echoes of earlier practices: sometimes he makes patchworks of toiles in different colorways or cuts out and appliqués elements from one onto another; on one silk bengaline wall hanging he used polyester glow-in-the-dark thread to form, in tiny French knots, lines from Paradise Lost spelled out in Braille.
Paradise Lost is, of course, one of the Great Books (actually Saja says it was his favorite). So is the Bible. Both figure in the wall piece shown here, which resulted from his contemplation of Shelburne’s Garden of Eden by American folk artist Erastus Salisbury Field. Field’s evocation of the peace and beauty before the fall moved Saja. “Rather than just being cheeky, I wanted to create a more serious piece,” he says. He chose the Quatre Parties du Monde, a toile designed by Jean-Baptiste Huët (1745-1811) in 1785, and transformed the Europe motif into a Temptation scene, in which the main figure is intended to represent Eve, and Milton’s Satan inspired the figure bearing a treasure box of apples on the right.
Next: Elizabeth Berdann
Elizabeth Berdann will be the first to tell you that she is a little odd. As a child she was entranced by Ripley’s Believe It or Not, particularly the girl who could “fit her entire fist in her mouth!” And by her late teens, she was watching autopsies and dissecting limbs at the morgue in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where she was born and raised. She knew she wanted to be an artist, though, and studied drawing at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, followed by a semester at the Parsons School of Design in New York, where she soon realized that her imagination was taking her in a different direction from the commercial design that is Parsons’ strength. She taught herself how to paint, and by the late 1980s had begun to move toward miniatures, an interest that solidified after she saw the exhibition of the Manney Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1991. But hers are not traditional miniatures. “My work expands the genre of portraiture by investigating the subject’s relationship to his/her appearance,” she writes, “and by incorporating directly or refusing to acknowledge the notion of the portrait as a reflection of a patron’s (or subject’s) vanity….I am interested in a rich array of nonphysical/metaphysical ideas: the dichotomy of the inner/outer experience, the definition of beauty, the problems of intimacy, and the marvel of the visible world.” Which means you often have to look very closely at her works to understand what you are seeing.
Because she had to leave at dawn on Saturday, Berdann arrived for the Shelburne weekend a day earlier than the rest of the group and was treated to an even more personal tour. Given her predilection for the weird (“I loved the creepy automatons,” she says, “and there was a baby doll [in the large collection of dolls begun by Electra Webb as a child] with two faces, one side happy and the other screaming, that I really liked”), curator Kory Rogers thought she would be particularly interested in the Circus Building, and he was right.
First conceived in the 1950s, the horseshoe-shaped Circus Building was originally designed to house a complete carousel and the five-hundred-foot-long miniature circus parade carved almost singlehandedly by Roy Arnold of Hardwick, Vermont, between 1925 and 1955. Completed in 1965, the building now also houses, among innumerable related objects, carved carousel animals and other elements made by the famous Gustav Dentzel Carousel Company of Philadelphia and a miniature three-ring circus complete with audience (more than thirty-five hundred pieces altogether) fashioned by Edgar Kirk (1891-1956) of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, between 1916 and about 1956. In addition, the collection includes more than five hundred circus posters dating from 1870 to 1940, many donated by Arnold or by Harry T. Peters (1881-1948), the renowned authority on and collector of American lithographs, who was also Electra Webb’s cousin. It was these that excited Berdann. “Watching Elizabeth rummage through the circus poster collection was like watching a child visit the circus for the first time,” Rogers said. “Initially she had a hard time focusing, but she very quickly gravitated to the sideshow material,” including a Barnum and Bailey poster advertising the “Conjurer’s Mammoth Black Mystifying Temple.” It promised “a living breathing, speaking head without a body” and a “Beautiful Blended Necromantic Transformation,” among other marvels and mysteries.
Since returning to New York, Berdann has begun her own sort of sideshow, an installation that will emphasize that “we can all identify with feelings of freakishness or not fitting in.” Some of the first pieces are illustrated above.
As of Labor Day the fruits of the Shelburne Museum—ANTIQUES collaboration will be on view at the museum, until the end of the 2009 season.
Next: Shelburne Museum bibliography
Bibliography of articles on the Shelburne Museum published by The Magazine ANTIQUES:
Alice Winchester, “The Shelburne Museum,” vol. 66, no. 2 (August 1954), pp. 110-121.
Alice Winchester, “The Prentis House at the Shelburne Museum,” vol. 71, no. 5 (May 1957), pp. 440-442.
Lilian Baker Carlisle, “The Stencil House at the Shelburne Museum,” vol. 75, no. 6 (June 1959), pp. 550-554.
Barbara Snow, “American Art at Shelburne,” vol. 78, no. 5 (November 1960), pp. 448-451.
D. Sisum and L. Harker, “American Folk Sculpture at the Shelburne Museum,” vol. 124, no. 3 (September 1983), pp. 429-499.
F. Weitzenhoffer, “Shelburne Museum: Louisine Hovemeyer and Electra Havemeyer Webb,” vol. 133, no. 2 (February 1988), pp. 430-437.
R. Shaw and R. N. Hill, “Shelburne: The Historic Structures,” vol. 133, no. 2 (February 1988), pp. 438-451.
R. Shaw, “Shelburne: Folk Structure,” ibid, pp. 452-461.
J. Wilmerding, “Shelburne: The American Paintings,” ibid., pp. 462-471.
D. A. Fales Jr., “Shelburne: New England Painted Furniture,” ibid., pp. 472-479.
C. Y. Oliver, “Shelburne: The Textiles,” ibid., pp. 480-489.
R. Shaw, “Shelburne: A Pictorial Sampler,” ibid., pp. 490-493.
H. Joyce and J. E. Edwards, “Three Historic Houses at the Shelburne Museum Reinterpreted (Dutton House, Stencil House, and Prentis House),” vol. 161, no. 4 (April 2002), pp. 105-113.
Henry Joyce, “Electra Havemeyer Webb and Edith Gregor Halpert: A collaboration in folk art collecting,” vol. 163, no. 1 (January 2003), pp. 184-191.
K. W. Rogers, “Slipups: Mocha Ware at the Shelburne Museum,” vol. 167, no. 6 (June 2005), pp. 96-103.
Jean M. Burks, “Quebec Country Furniture at the Shelburne Museum,” vol. 169, no. 4 (April 2006), pp. 124-133.