Jack Coughlin, “James Joyce,” ca. 1975

This post was written by student Amanda Sawyer.

Jack Coughlin, an Irish American artist born in 1932, is best known for his portraits of literary figures. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design and enjoyed a successful professional artistic and teaching career. [Today, he is professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. – ed.] Coughlin deals primarily in printmaking but also does work in drawing, painting, and sculpture. His print, named after the famed Irish novelist, James Joyce, is expressive of the style so commonly used by Coughlin.

 

Coughlin James Joyce

Jack Coughlin, “James Joyce,” ca. 1975. Etching on paper, Gardiner Permanent Art Collection, Oklahoma State University Museum of Art, 80-0024.

During the 1960s, many types of artistic expression were explored. Some of them moved as far away as possible from traditional renderings and notions of what constitutes art. Coughlin’s exploration was much more subtle. His figures are highly representative of the individuals depicted; his methods of portraying the human form hold both naturalistic and illustrative qualities. By filling in areas of the subject with a sense of depth and form, Coughlin conveys the existence of the actual person. The areas he leaves blank, or simply described with a single line, leave the viewer to interpret. Inspiration for this technical method stems from artists such as Francisco Goya and Martin Schongauer, men whose work explored both animal and human forms.

Although Coughlin’s prints do not come swiftly to mind when considering art after 1960, his prints represent an aspect of American design and artistic thought. His influences fall within the European tradition, but are unique in their execution. The blank spaces and somewhat awkward positioning of the figures create a subtly altered view of these prominent figures. Coughlin’s work is modern in that it retreats from strictly traditional notions of artistic expression; he allowed himseld the luxury of exploration in terms of combining minimalistic representation and hyper-realistic study.

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See Your Art and Make It, Too: Robert Rauschenberg at the OSU Museum of Art

This spring, students in Art Since 1960 honed their skills as critical writers. Art critics introduce work to a wide variety of audiences, suggesting ways that museum and gallery visitors might approach work, putting artists and artworks in historical context, and explaining why the work excites them. In this essay, student Audrey Gleason reviews the current exhibition, “Robert Rauschenberg’s World,” on view at the OSU Museum of Art through June 10.

New Friends, Old Friends: Works from the Collection is an exhibition series starting with Robert Rauschenberg’s World at the OSU Museum of Art in Stillwater, Oklahoma. This particular installment of the series is on display from January 24th to June 10th, 2017. I have the incredible opportunity to be on the student staff at the museum. As a result, I spend a large amount of time with the artworks on display, and I learn a lot about the shows, as well as getting to hear from visitors about their thoughts and interpretations.

Rauschenberg-Narcissus-1990

Robert Rauschenberg (American, 1925-2008), “Narcissus,” 1990. Acrylic, enamel, and fire wax on stainless steel. Long-term loan to the OSU Museum of Art.

Robert Rauschenberg is an American artist whose career spanned nearly half a century. He is well-known for his experimental “combines,” which blurred the lines between painting and sculpture, as well as using non-traditional materials for both. In the early stages of his career when he did not have a whole lot of money and resources, he would walk around his neighborhood and look through trash for interesting pieces to use in his work. He had a rule that if he could not find anything useful on his own block, he could walk around one other block directly next to him, but that was it. He really had to get creative and push himself to make do with what was available. There is also the infamous story of the time he painted on his own bedspread after running out of canvas. Rauschenberg kept up this experimental and discovery-seeking spirit throughout his career. Whenever he at last received good recognition for any one medium or project, he felt it was time to move on and try something new. He worked in painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking, papermaking, and performance, as well as combinations of two or more of these.

The exhibition at the museum highlights two distinct periods in Rauschenberg’s career. There are two large-scale mixed-media prints on stainless steel, which were part of Rauschenberg’s ROCI project in the 1980s and 90s, and there are four different photo lithographs on paper from the 1960s. The Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange project (ROCI) aimed to promote global peace and appreciation for other cultures by traveling to ten different countries and making art with the native people of those countries. The pieces at the OSU Museum of Art, Narcissus (1990) and Venus Rapture IV (1991), were done in the American phase of ROCI (Figures 1 and 2). In my experience of guarding art at the museum, people are drawn to these pieces more than Rauschenberg’s lithographs, mostly because of the reflective surfaces and more easily recognizable imagery such as Venus, a bicycle, and a photography studio. However, people also enjoy looking at the lithographs and hunting for more subtle but still recognizable imagery such as a turtle and a “Vote Baby Vote” poster. As for me, I can spend hours upon hours standing in the same room with the same art and somehow I know I’ll go to the museum tomorrow and make a new connection that I hadn’t noticed before.

Rauschenberg-Venus-Rapture-1991

Robert Rauschenberg (American, 1925-2008), “Venus Rapture IV,” 1991. Acrylic, fire wax, and variegated brass leaf on stainless steel. Long-term loan to the OSU Museum of Art.

The OSU Museum of Art features an artLAB space for families and art enthusiasts of all ages to engage with exhibitions. During Robert Rauschenberg’s World, there are plenty of collage materials available for people to make their own work inspired by Rauschenberg. But these materials aren’t just limited to cut-up magazines. There are huge bins of recycled materials like cardboard, wood, pop tabs, rocks, and old jewelry, just to name a few. Plus, there are mirrors set up for people to draw on them with dry-erase markers to mimic how Rauschenberg created work on reflective surfaces. On Family Day in February, parents and their children did these activities together, opening up new doors for how parents think about introducing art to kids. Who needs premade coloring pages when kids can create their own compositions and expand their creativity with collaging?

Even more exciting is that the activities have expanded since February so people can make connections between Robert Rauschenberg’s World and Oklahoma and Beyond, the other exhibition on display at the museum. There is a community collage project in the artLAB inspired by Joseph Glasco. At Family Day in March, people helped paint two different canvases, and now visitors are encouraged to cut up pieces from one canvas to collage on top of the other. Although the activity is associated with Oklahoma and Beyond, there are strong ties to Rauschenberg’s creative process as well.

Robert Rauschenberg’s World successfully introduces viewers to Rauschenberg’s legacy, while also leaving room for them to want to know more. People can experience two separate stages of his career, and then go on to ask, “What happened in between?” Perhaps they will look him up online or open one of the many books about Rauschenberg at the museum. A lot of people ask me what his pieces mean, and I tell them that Rauschenberg purposefully does not reveal his intentions because he wants the audience to make connections and draw meaning from his work on their own. They usually seem relieved to know there isn’t a right answer they’re trying to dig out, but rather anything they come up with is one of many right answers. It is a good way to introduce people to looking at and thinking about art. Plus, they gain new perspectives about what art can be after experimenting for themselves.

Whether you’re an art student, an art enthusiast, a professional artist, a parent, a teenager, a chemical engineering major, age 73 or 37 or 3 or 7, art is relevant to everyone and everyone can learn how to appreciate it and engage with it. Robert Rauschenberg’s work especially does not claim to be for only a small highly intelligent percent of the population, but for everyone to think about and create meaning from. He made his work on reflective surfaces just so that everyone could be a part of it. The student staff loves having conversations and answering your questions, and we hope you become inspired by Rauschenberg to experiment and try new things, not just in art but in all aspects of life.

Student essays are lightly edited for grammar and length, but their content is not changed. Read more student writing about Robert Rauschenberg on the blog! And make sure you visit the exhibition before it closes this Saturday, June 10.

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The Yellow-Cheeked Meadow Mouse Explains America

Last fall, students in ART 3663: History of American Art had the opportunity to visit the OSU Museum of Art’s study room in order to get a close look at works from the permanent collection. In small groups, they selected a single object to study together for an hour, and then they wrote individual papers based on the ideas generated in the group. In this post, student Jessica Harper writes about the 1847 hand-colored lithograph, Yellow-Cheeked Meadow Mouse, by John Woodhouse Audubon.

When thinking of the animals in America during the mid-1800s, the name John James Audubon is the first thing to come to mind. Audubon was not the first to attempt to catalog America’s creatures, but he is the most well-known. Audubon was famous during his time for his scientific books like The Birds of America (1827) and Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1847). These collections of works done by Audubon were extremely popular at the time and are still treasured today, as the piece in the OSU Museum of Art makes evident. Yellow-Cheeked Meadow Mouse, from the Viviparous Quadrupeds, can be used to tell some very important concepts about American identity, history, culture and value.

john-james-audubon-arvicola-xanthognathus-yellow-cheeked-meadow-mouse-natural-size

John Woodhouse Audubon (American, 1812-1862), printed by John T. Bowen (British, 1801-ca. 1856, active in Philadelphia, PA). “Yellow-Cheeked Meadow Mouse,” Plate 115 from “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America,” 1847. Hand-colored lithograph, OSU Museum of Art purchase, 10-0001.

John James Audubon was not originally from America, but his story does demonstrate some common values of American people. As demonstrated in many of the paintings we have seen, immigrants and their descendants colonized the land to make a place for themselves, a home (for example, Fanny Palmer’s Across the Continent). In America, a foundational value is that you can create a life for yourself—all you have to do is work hard. This isn’t the case for everyone in reality, but for Audubon it was. He was born in Haiti, the son of a French sailor who left him to be raised by his stepmother.  He later came to America to avoid being sent to the French army. Once in America, he tried his hand at many things and failed, going bankrupt at one point and being thrown in jail, afterwards having to leave his town. He left his family to try and make a living doing work on the river, collecting and drawing many species of birds. Those drawings became The Birds of America, with which he finally hit his big break. It became extremely popular in London, where he had found someone to print it. He returned to his family, with whom he later moved to New York. Audubon worked diligently and was eventually rewarded; this is the idea behind America for many immigrants. They can come to America and make a better life for their families.

Birds of America was so popular that Audubon succeeded it with his second book, which addressed mammals in America. Audubon was not able to complete the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America due to illness, but his son continued in his footsteps and finished the large book, which included 150 species. John Woodhouse Audubon was actually the one who completed this illustration of the Yellow-Cheeked Meadow Mouse. Despite this slight change in authorship, the book was still widely popular. Becoming educated in fields like science and art was increasing in popularity during these times. The American Association of Medicine was founded during this time, and the first natural history museum was created only a few years earlier. In Charles Willson Peale’s painting, The Artist in His Museum, he shows the first natural history museum in America with many diverse specimens to see. Audubon’s books were almost like portable versions of a natural history museum for those who could not go to one.

museum_peale.artist.lg

Charles Willson Peale, “The Artist in His Museum,” 1822. Oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

People were beginning to find value in knowledge and scientific exploration of the land they have claimed. However, they were not the only people who were interested in the unknowns of America. Audubon’s books were first printed and became widely popular in London. Now this may have been due to more availability of printmaking in London, but also may have been partially because of the curiosity of British people about America. Prints and books made learning about these organisms and the land much easier. Not only do the books show the different animals that you could actually encounter in America, but you can also see different kinds of environments and landscapes that are possible in America through them.

At the same time, America was viewed as an untamable wilderness by many, especially those who did not live here. Audubon’s descriptions of wild animals only help to enhance this message to outsiders. Not only are the animals depicted in his books often not seen commonly in other areas of the world; but also the images do not show any sign of human interference. Europe was seen as full of people, whereas America was envisioned as almost lacking human inhabitants. During this time people tended to focus on the land and its wild natural beauty. Euro-American artists and poets like William Cullen Bryant admired these natural aspects of America, and completely ignored the existence of any other inhabitants (Native Americans) of this land. They often showed the land as ripe for the taking with no obstacles, enhancing the idea of Manifest Destiny. Audubon does the same thing. He may not be ignoring the inhabitants of the land for the same reasons, but nevertheless, there is no sign that there are any people in his scientific illustrations, other than the creatures he is illustrating. The habitats of the animals do not show any presence of people or manmade structures.  He is illustrating the wild and untamable creatures of America and strengthening the message that America is a vast wilderness. Though many saw the wilderness as a challenge to be conquered, Audubon was concerned about conservation, and did voice his concern about the elimination of bird habitats and the negative effects this had on the creatures.

Love and curiosity toward nature is how Audubon originally started illustrating the many species of birds in North America. He studied birds during his youth and would draw them as a hobby. When hard times befell him, he used this interest and skill to create his first book, Birds of America. When his book became extremely popular, it became clear who Audubon’s audience was. Like many during previous times, his audience was wealthy, educated individuals. Though prints made art more accessible to the general public, the text included in Audubon’s books was not designed for leisure reading for the less educated. These illustrations were made to be commissioned for educational purposes. This fact explains many aspects of Audubon’s paintings.

Audubon made his scientific illustrations very thorough, including many concepts that were important to an animal and its survival. The amount of detail he put in his paintings was not simply to show his skill, but to realistically depict these creatures. The goal of scientific illustrations is to allow for education on a creature without actually needing the creature to be present. This was the goal of Audubon’s illustrations; the audience should feel as if they are actually watching the creature in its original habitat. Many of the illustrations he completed were done in a way to be the actual scale of the creature. The habitats that he placed these creatures in were also supposed to be educational. The background illustrated with the animal was not simply artistically appealing, but was made to be an accurate depiction of the habitat in which the animals lived. Many of the creatures can even be seen with specific types of food that they would consume. All of these aspects are included in the pictures because they were important parts of the organism’s lifestyle. These illustrations were not only made to be appealing to the eyes, but were made to tell a story of an organism and the environment in which it survives.

Audubon did not have the privileged life of some; he worked and failed before finally accomplishing something that was capable of stabilizing his life in America. However, he was still able to make his life into something great through his eventual successes. He demonstrates the values of dedication and strength held by many early Americans—the idea that hard work will lead to success in the future. Though this was not often the case, it was still a common dream held by the people.  At the same time, his art work, and that of his son following in his footsteps, demonstrates the untamable nature of America that has so many, including foreigners, entranced. The Yellow-Cheeked Meadow Mouse shows only the wild, natural side of America and the creatures that one might encounter. Many people during this time were interested in enjoying the world around them and learning about it and Audubon helped make that possible.

 

Works Cited

Chowder, Ken. “Drawn from Nature.” PBS, 25 July 2007.

John James Audubon.” Audubon. National Audubon Society, 14 Sept. 2015.

 

Student writing is edited for length and clarity, but the content is not changed.

 

 

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Cyrus Baldridge, “Soochow Coolie,” 1937

Last fall, students in ART 3663: History of American Art had the opportunity to visit the OSU Museum of Art’s study room in order to get a close look at works from the permanent collection. In small groups, they selected a single object to study together for an hour, and then they wrote individual papers based on the ideas generated in the group. In this post, student Roxanne Beason writes about the 1937 drypoint, Soochow Coolie, by Cyrus Baldridge.

“…Even our limited attempt at thinking in terms of the outer world was unusual to my college generation. Thinkers were Suspect.” –Cyrus Leroy Balrdridge

As an adventurer, Cyrus Leroy Baldridge never shied away from incorporating his personal perspective and the sights of his travels into his prints and illustrations. As a 10 year-old, his talent in drawing landed him the position of the youngest person to ever ­­be admitted into Frank Holme’s Chicago School of Illustration. Without scholarship, he paid his way through his attendance at University of Chicago by taking any kind of work that came his way. While in college, Baldridge gained political awareness that inspired him to join the cavalry and later set forth across the U.S. to document by illustration the diversity of America’s geographical sociology. Baldridge was most famous for the documentary illustrations he created in the throes of World War I for newspapers such as The Stars and Stripes, Leslie’s Weekly, and Scribner’s. In 1920, Baldridge joined up with politically like-minded Californian writer, Caroline Singer, and together they traveled to China, Japan, through the Middle East and Africa. Baldridge and Singer later retired to Santa Fe, NM, where Singer died from Alzheimer’s and Baldridge shot himself with a World War I pistol a decade later.

Cyrus Baldridge (American, 1889-1977), "Soochow Coolie," 1937. Drypoint, Gardiner Permanent Art Collection, 80-0008.

Cyrus Baldridge (American, 1889-1977), “Soochow Coolie,” 1937. Drypoint, Gardiner Permanent Art Collection, 80-0008.

Soochow Coolie, a drypoint etching, is a work based on Baldridge’s travels with Singer. It depicts a local man from the city of Suzhou (Soochow), in the province of Jiangsu, China. In this essay, I suggest that Baldridge’s Soochow Coolie uses a derogatory title to reveal a worldview that negates the weary expression of the Chinese local. Through this contrast, Baldridge’s print offers a moment of perspective and documentation of the turmoil endured by China leading to World War II.

At the heart of China’s central east coast, the city of Suzhou (the more recent accepted Romanization of “Soochow”) was a destination documented in many of Baldridge’s illustrations. Before World War II, Suzhou’s foreign trade suffered because it had very little modernized industry, even within their main export—silk. Disparity between wealthy landowners and the poor working class was apparent in the everyday bustle of the heavily populated city. Referring to many of these hardworking people, Baldridge often uses the term “coolie” to describe them in his writing as well as in the title of his piece, Soochow Coolie.

The word “coolie” is a dated and derogatory slur that the occupying British used to describe indentured laborers in Eastern Asia. Throughout Baldridge’s 1947 book, Time and Chance, he utilizes language that was common for this time period such as “coolie” and “negro” in casual reference to racial identities. Although this sort of racial rhetoric was common, Baldridge was aware of its derogatory effect and used it to elicit sympathy for the man’s weathered appearance.

Baldridge’s Soochow Coolie print shows the weary downward gaze of a Chinese man cast in shadow. With his hair pulled back with a cloth, viewers can see his whole face and the way in which Baldridge uses softened charcoal-like contrast within the crosshatching detail to reveal not only the man’s exhausted expression but also the contours of his weathered skin and sunken cheeks, alluding to his low economic status as a laborer.

Economic disparity, overpopulation and the fight for day-to-day survival were not the only problems occurring in China at this delicate time. In 1937, the same year Baldridge printed Soochow Coolie, the war between the Republic of China and Imperialist Japan had erupted to full-scale proportions. Japanese troops occupied the province of Suzhou, making Baldridge’s association between the melancholic laborer’s portrait and the seizure of the city seem like a blatant political statement about the Second Sino-Japanese War.

December 13th, 1937 marks the day that began the worst part of the Japan’s invasion on China; in the capital of Nanjing (about 134 miles from Suzhou), Japan’s war crime known as The Nanjing Massacre, or “The Raping of Nanking”, was the event where approximately 300,000 non-combatant citizens were slaughtered, and raped, including women and children. Despite such atrocities happening in the world, the U.S. had very little involvement in the events of World War II at this point in time; in addition, many Americans still harbored racist animosity and Sinophobia toward Chinese people. I think there is no coincidence in Baldridge’s artistic decisions in Soochow Coolie. I believe the ambition of this work was to convey the fragile state of Chinese citizens by depicting a weary, war-torn citizen as well as the apathy from the rest of the world by labeling him the racial slur “coolie.”

In Baldridge’s monograph, Time and Chance, he writes about his recollections and experiences in China with a great fondness. In his accounts he explains how Chinese people live together with very little friction and reasonableness because of their teachings from Confucius and their Buddhist principles. In one passage, he explained the fascination that led to the creation of Soochow Coolie, “My models, the coolies, in spite of their hard struggle for survival, were a hilarious, grinning lot, wisecracks… There prevailed among them a live-and-let-live attitude so mystifying to westerners… they tell the story of men surviving by their wits in a land where four hundred million struggle for bare subsistence.” The man in Soochow Coolie shows that, in a moment of confusion and turmoil, empty expressions would reflect the loss and hopelessness of the circumstances at hand. Baldridge’s description in Time and Chance differs greatly from the pain and depletion he captured in Soochow Coolie, which suggests Baldridge’s deeply-felt empathy for his subject in the print.

Throughout Baldridge’s illustrations, he captures beautiful portraiture of the people he met in his global expeditions. During these travels, he managed to see a lot of war and chaos, which turned him towards the non-interventionist liberal ideals of American democracy in the wake of World War II. Recognizing the privilege and opportunities that he was given, he believed the importance was to keep peace between all nations without the use of war. His drypoint etching, Soochow Coolie, was his way of addressing an unseen side of a global issue at the time—reminding viewers to stay aware and remember the effects of war.

 

Works Cited

Baldridge, Cyrus Leroy. Time and Chance. New York: J. Day, 1947.

Cyrus LeRoy Baldridge.” Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Gandhi, Lakshmi. “A History Of Indentured Labor Gives ‘Coolie’ Its Sting.” NPR, 25 Nov.            2013.

HSA – Heritage Signature Auction Catalog #6050. Cyrus LeRoy Baldridge Original Artwork for “I Was There”: With the Yanks in France, Sketches Made on the Western Fron 1917-1919. Dallas: HSA – Heritage Signature Auction Catalog #6050, 2010.

 

Student writing is edited for length and clarity, but the content is not changed.

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John Ames Mitchell: Humor and American Identity

This fall, students in ART 3663: History of American Art had the opportunity to visit the OSU Museum of Art’s study room in order to get a close look at works from the permanent collection. In small groups, they selected a single object to study together for an hour, and then they wrote individual papers based on the ideas generated in the group. In this post, student Audrey Gleason writes about the 1881 etching, A Young Republican, by the artist and entrepreneur John Ames Mitchell.

The 1881 etching by John Ames Mitchell, titled A Young Republican, reflects a more humorous depiction of America than traditional idealistic images. It satirizes the Victorian values of contemporary America while incorporating popular medievalism of the nineteenth century.

John Ames Mitchell (American, 1845-1918), "A Young Republican," 1881. Etching, gift of Oklahoma City Art Museum/Fairgrounds, 98-0004.

John Ames Mitchell (American, 1845-1918), “A Young Republican,” 1881. Etching, gift of Oklahoma City Art Museum/Fairgrounds, 98-0004.

There are two characters in the etching who represent America and Europe respectively. The boy in the etching, who represents America, is positioned with body language such that he is read as lazy. His legs are casually crossed and he is seated on the armrest of the chair. The expression on his face is very neutral, even apathetic. The king figure, who represents Europe, is rather fat and dressed very fancily. He has a plate in front of him with meat, suggesting that he just ate a very rich meal. Of course, the largely monarchical Europe is symbolized by the king’s crown, not to mention the elaborate castle setting. But the symbolism goes deeper than this. The boy’s lazy and apathetic body language contradicts the American dream that hard work can make any person successful. Victorian values at the time “taught people to work hard, to postpone gratification, to repress themselves sexually, to ‘improve’ themselves, to be sober, conscientious, even compulsive” (Howe 521). Clearly, the boy in the etching is rejecting those teachings. Mitchell relies on this contradiction as the heart of his humor. According to his obituary, he was known to like other people and enjoy their company, so we know this image is supposed to be read as funny rather than bitter. He is not necessarily upset that Americans can be really lazy, but instead finds it humorous.

Further symbolism can be discussed in the purposeful selection of a child to represent America. For one thing, America was literally much younger than the rest of Europe, which is one explanation for why the former was depicted as a boy and the latter as a man. For another, this was an era when scientific knowledge was just starting to emphasize “children’s biological and psychological vulnerability” (Perera 1862). Children were therefore finally being treated differently than adults, both in real life and in artwork. More specifically to Mitchell, “life was like a child to him” (Miller 88). If America is represented by the child and the child is like life, that would suggest America also represents life. Similar to a child, America has often been portrayed as a land of opportunity, if not vulnerable then impressionable, or a place to start new. However, the boy in this etching is shown as lazy, without much vitality. Again, in this contradiction lies the humor of the piece.

Life magazine, which Mitchell founded in 1883, was a “sophisticated and humorous response to the Victorian values of the late nineteenth century” (“About John Ames Mitchell”). America was at that time very interested in the medieval, especially in romanticizing it. In fact medieval literature as we think of it today came from the nineteenth century, when “medieval writings were systematically collected, mapped, and edited” (Scanlon 716). This rediscovery of information about the medieval period is reflected in the subject of the etching and the location. The medieval aspects relate to American Victorianism in that “nineteenth-century America’s ideas about the Middle Ages…were so flexible that the period functioned as a mirror” (Fleming 1084). In other words, America found identity in medieval culture through combining it with contemporary Victorian culture. This mirror effect is also seen in the etching in the relationship between the boy and the king. In theory they are very different, but in fact the way they are depicted as just lounging about a decadent castle very lazily, causes them to end up being more similar than you would think.

Etchings themselves were considered important methods of communication. Nineteenth-century libraries became dedicated to collecting “every imaginable pictorial medium ranging from paintings to lithographs, engravings, etchings, photographs, and larger runs of photomechanical reproductions…in new professional periodicals” (Brodherson 3). This tells us that good etchings were successful in communicating messages to the public, and were in fact so successful that others felt it was necessary to document them for the long term. A humorous etching like Mitchell’s could be compared to a comic in The New Yorker magazine today. A Young Republican was published in American Art Review by editor Sylvester Rosa Koehler, who “encouraged an American etching revival in the 1880s” (“Sylvester Rosa Koehler papers”). Even this aspect ties in with contemporary Victorian values, as “literature and the other arts were expected to benefit society by elevating or instructing their audience” (Howe 527). Indeed, Mitchell’s etching satirized American culture in order humorously to point out its flaws.

Contradictions such as the American dream versus laziness, shown in both the subject matter and symbolism of A Young Republican, make the etching a humorous depiction of the country. Romanticized medievalism and Victorian values also contribute to the satirical nature of the piece. Altogether, the image represents a less idealistic America than traditional American artwork; instead, Mitchell’s etching adds to those existing traditional images to expand the way people think about America, and provide a more complete picture of the country.

 

Works Cited

About John Ames Mitchell.” SFPL. San Francisco Public Library, n.d.

Brodherson, David. “Public Library Picture Collecting In Late Nineteenth-Century America.” Library & Information History 28.1 (2012): 3-25.

Fleming, Robin. “Picturesque History and the Medieval in Nineteenth-Century America.” The American Historical Review 100.4 (1995): 1061-094.

Howe, Daniel Walker. “American Victorianism as a Culture.” American Quarterly 27.5 (1975): 507-32.

Miller, A. “John Ames Mitchell.” Life 72.1864 (1918): 88.

Perera, Frederica. “SCIENCE As An Early Driver Of Policy: Child Labor Reform In The Early Progressive Era, 1870–1900.” American Journal Of Public Health 104.10 (2014): 1862-1871.

Scanlon, Larry. “Introduction.” American Literary History 22.4 (2010): 715-723.

Sylvester Rosa Koehler Papers, 1833-1904, Bulk, 1870-1890.” Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

 

Student writing is edited for length and clarity, but the content is not changed.

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Interpreting “Gwine to Heaven” by Blanche McVeigh, 1945

This fall, students in ART 3663: History of American Art had the opportunity to visit the OSU Museum of Art’s study room in order to get a close look at works from the permanent collection. In small groups, they selected a single object to study together for an hour, and then they wrote individual papers based on the ideas generated in the group. In this post, art history major Viktorea Levasheff writes about the 1945 etching and aquatint, Gwine to Heaven, by the well-known Texas printmaker, Blanche McVeigh.

Blanche McVeigh was born in Missouri in 1895, but she grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. She worked a lot with etching and aquatint on paper. Her subjects included New Mexico themes, Fort Worth area landscapes, western themes, and her impression of African American spirituals. Gwine to Heaven, created in 1945, focuses on her interest of African American spirituals. This essay examines attitudes on race in the American South during 1945 and religious beliefs in the South at the time in order to interpret Gwine to Heaven. Background information on McVeigh’s other works, as well as the symbolism she uses, are also helpful in coming to conclusions about what she was trying to communicate in Gwine to Heaven.

Blanche McVeigh (AMerican, 1895-1970),

Blanche McVeigh (AMerican, 1895-1970), “Gwine to Heaven,” 1945. Etching and aquatint, Gardiner Permanent Art Collection, 80-0078.

At the bottom of the composition is a young male figure, who looks to be one of the younger figures. This character has a facial expression of confusion, being intimidated or confronted, and of fear. The figure above him looks slightly older, about twenty years old, and is making a gesture of indignation, unsatisfied acceptance, or surrender. He holds up his hands, (and his wings), as if to signify that he’s given up on something, or has had to accept something without a choice. The third figure is another resembling that of a child; his facial expression is also child-like. This figure peeks from behind the uppermost figure, looking down possibly in fear or confusion. The uppermost male figure is middle-aged. He stands up straight, facing away from the viewer, with an expression of resentment. Seen together, the age differences, facial expressions and postures create a pattern of child-like versus adult emotions.

The reverberating expressions of resentment on the older figures cause us to question: what is being resented? The figures are represented as floating angels, with white robes, and remnants of light placed across the chest and around the head. This gives off the impression of strong religious association, leading us to the history of African Americans during times of slavery, when Christianity was the established religion everywhere in the country. Slaves were brought up around Christian beliefs. Everyone, including African Americans, was made to believe in striving for Christian righteousness. For African Americans, reaching full spiritual enlightenment, or reaching anything, was purposefully made difficult.

We might wonder if the feelings of resentment expressed in the print are geared towards rejecting a set of Christian beliefs. During times of slavery, African Americans weren’t given a choice with anything, this included what religion they associated with. They were made to believe that by being slaves, they were following biblical teachings. Slave masters justified slave ownership by acknowledging the bible’s discussion about slaves and masters. It was believed that God created black people to be slaves, and that being slaves was their highest God-given capability. White supremacists believed that African Americans had little to no potential beyond being slaves. This history makes the facial expressions a lot more understandable.

In a more modern context, in 1945, the feelings of resentment would likely not have been geared towards religion as much as they would have been geared towards racism. In 1945, racial disputes were still a major problem in American society. Racial tensions in the South were especially high. McVeigh was from Fort Worth, which is part of the Southern-most part of the country. The composition and the title of the piece suggests a struggle with Christianity and a struggle toward reaching spiritual enlightenment. In 1945, the person/people represented in Gwine to Heaven would have been struggling to reach acceptance in American society. The real struggle would have been to overcome the challenges of racism. Emotions that would have typically come with this struggle would have been intimidation, fear, resentment—precisely the emotions expressed on the faces of the figures.

McVeigh was white, and her intended audience would have been mostly southern white Americans. This lets one know that the artist could not have been able to relate to the figures, but she could express sympathy for them. Sympathy is expressed by how McVeigh places light around the figures’ heads, to give the effect of halos. All of the figures are in the guise of flying angels, which are heavenly figures, which were not figures to be ridiculed. McVeigh wanted her audience to be sympathetic toward her figures and toward African Americans of the time.

The title of the piece, written in dialect, suggests that the intended audience was particularly the southern population. For centuries, the ancestors of the southerners dwelled on the biblical concept that anything associated with darkness was evil and worthy of death. For too long, this concept was used as an excuse to harm black (“dark-skinned”) people, and to forbid them from even entering a church. A lot of the books of the Bible emphasize the prohibition of anything associated with darkness. McVeigh objects to this convention by dressing the figures in her print in white robes and angel wings, which clearly distinguish them from the black background. McVeigh has communicated to the viewers that the figures are not part of the darkness, but far from it. The lit halos contribute to this as well.

Blanche McVeigh (American, 1895-1970),

Blanche McVeigh (American, 1895-1970), “Triflin’ Woman,” n.d. Aquatint, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, 1941.6.23.

McVeigh’s composition attests to the fact that African Americans are just as worthy as anyone else of striving toward spiritual enlightenment and social equality. In other pieces, such as Triflin’ Woman, McVeigh depicts a black family in a moment of normal, regular life. The trifling woman wears a fancy dress and heals, while engaging in a conversation with two men. Next to them, another woman holds a bag atop her head, and a baby in her arm. Another small child stands by her side. With this piece, McVeigh has shown a black group engaged in normal activity. Typically, most other artists in the area would have shown a white group engaged in this activity, believing that black people would not have been worthy of the subject matter. This piece would have communicated to southerners that black people are normal human beings and they have normal lives.

Reference:

Sonstegard, V. (2015, April 24). Blanche McVeigh: Printmaker, Gallery Owner, Educator.

Student writing is edited for length and clarity, but the content is not changed.

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The Racial Issues Faced by Native American Artists of Today

Students in my ART 4763: Native American Art and Material Culture course regularly make use of interviews in the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program’s Oklahoma Native Artists Project. Last fall, I asked students to bring together interviews from the Project with interviews or artists’ statements published elsewhere, in thematic discussions that explore the range and diversity of Native artists’ experiences. Last week, Project director Julie Pearson-Little Thunder and I presented papers about the use of oral history in art advocacy and pedagogy at the Oklahoma Arts Conference. As these students’ essays make clear, oral history is a vital tool in understanding contemporary art and experience. In this post, Zakery Frick returns with a discussion of racism in the contemporary art world, examining how it has impacted Native artists and how it continues to affect us today.

Ever since Europeans landed on the shores of the continent, Native American people have faced persecution, devastating wars, and cultural deterioration. Many tribes were completely wiped out, either violently or domestically, such as being absorbed into European culture. Today, many Native tribes do still exist, and despite what has been done in the past, they are proud and independent people. However, racism is still strong across the world against people of all cultures and ethnicities, and Native American tribes are no exception.

Several of the artists I will be using in my discussion have had some form of racial issue in their life, and not just from people who aren’t from a tribal background. How has art been affected by these racial issues? Opinions are mixed, with some artists thinking that traditional styles of work may be dying out because they aren’t respected outside the tribes, while others see it as an opportunity to make work that is really impactful and important. And some have even been victim to reverse-profiling, meaning that their work isn’t seen as traditional enough to be considered Native American art. In this essay, I will discuss these issues person by person, and will come to my own conclusion based on their evidence.

First, I would like to address the issue of schools and institutions not even considering Native American art and crafting to be real forms of artistic representation. They aren’t respected by the artistic world most of the time. Shan Goshorn had firsthand experience with this. When she went to college, she went to the Cleveland Art Institute to learn skills in silversmithing. However, when she started to make jewelry in the Native American style she was told to stop. “[I]t was very difficult because you absolutely had to do things their way,” she said, “In the silversmithing department, it was even more amplified. They just had no appreciation of Native American art. None.” Goshorn was the only Native American to be attending those classes, and it wasn’t just the silversmithing department. Her other interest, photography, also didn’t have an open attitude to Native American art. Despite these issues though, Goshorn graduated with a bachelor’s degree and is now a renowned political Native American artist, doing pieces of all kinds ranging from weaving to photography.

Norma Howard, untitled, watercolor on paper, 2016.

Norma Howard, untitled, watercolor on paper, 2016.

Another example of persecution against Native Art in schools is a recollection from Norma Howard, a well-known landscape painter, from when she was in grade school. She was in third grade and was drawing Indian figures on the chalkboard. “[The teacher] got mad at me. She told me, ‘Norma, what are you doing?’ You know, being a little Indian girl in the sixties, we were taught not to look at people in the eye.” Norma recounted what the teacher told her when she didn’t answer: “‘You aren’t supposed to be drawing what you’re drawing! You’re supposed to be drawing Presidents, and stuff like that.’” This confused her greatly because at home she was allowed to draw whatever she felt like. “And that really had an impact on me, when your teachers tell you not to do something. . . it has an impact on your life.” That interaction caused her to stop drawing for about 3 years, at least as consistently as she used to. However, she eventually went back to doing what she loved. Still, the fact that an educator actively discouraged her from drawing Native subjects, and the reaction to it afterwards, exemplifies the impact and issues of race in the educational setting.

Patricia Deadman, "A Day in the Park," 1996. Black and white negative printed on color paper.

Patricia Deadman, “A Day in the Park,” 1996. Black and white negative printed on color paper.

Some artists notice this kind of racial segregation when they move, as was the experience of Patricia Deadman, from Ontario. She was adopted at a young age by a non-Native couple, and lived in Woodstock. She then moved to London, Ontario, and was met with a very different atmosphere than when she lived in Woodstock. “There are not a lot of Native people in the city, but more than in Woodstock [Ontario], so you notice different tensions. You’re sitting on the bus and nobody sits beside you, that sort of thing. It’s like, ‘wait a minute . . .’ Why is this happening?” Because she was raised outside of tribal culture, Deadman didn’t really understand the reason for the tension around her. She recounts how in Woodstock, “you just go about your business. I was not really consciously aware or raised believing I was different.” In fact, she almost felt forced to be involved with Native matters because of the many Native issues that were being brought up during the 1980s. An artist who originally never identified as a Native American, just as a human, felt like she had to start getting involved because of the social and political issues around her. To me, that seems like a bad thing, because she felt she had to change her art style and basically her life outlook because of social pressure, even though she was having no issues personally.

Anita Fields, "Considering the Earth and Above," 2008. Installation at the Eitejorg Museum .

Anita Fields, “Considering the Earth and Above,” 2008. Installation at the Eitejorg Museum.

Some artists, such as Anita Fields, see the divide of cultures in the US and the racial history of the Native people as an opportunity for Native artists. “I think that for a Native American artist the role that we play is similar to any other culture. We have the opportunity to document events that are going on in the times that we know.” It could be an opportunity for artists to branch out; to be seen not strictly as a Native American artist, but as a unique artist in themselves. Fields feels that art is a conduit for cultures to come together, and share ideas. “Art is a powerful communicator. It carries the message of who we are. Again, the role of the artist has always been to document the times, document what is going on in the here and now.” She thinks right now Native American artists are growing in popularity, and as a result have a strong opportunity to show the messages of their people through their art to a world that is more open to learning and understanding new culture than it ever has been in the past. I think with the way social media works today, and how quickly things can be sent to people, Native artists have a major chance to educate others on what Native American art and culture really is, and abolish the stereotypical ideals that other cultures have of them.

Bill Rabbit, "Our Land," undated. Acrylic on canvas.

Bill Rabbit, “Our Land,” undated. Acrylic on canvas.

However, stereotyping isn’t just the fault of other cultures. Sometimes Native American tribes aren’t sure what they can define as Native American art, as was Bill Rabbit’s experience. Bill is an experienced and now very successful painter, but when he started out he was not part of tribal life or schooling. He lived in Wyoming and learned to paint there. However, the way he had learned to paint wasn’t the way that the Five Tribes Museum expected, so he was rejected. “The Five Tribes [Museum show] wouldn’t let me enter because I didn’t paint the traditional, flat-lined type of work. So, right in the beginning I had great advice from Randy Woods… Randy said, ‘Paint what you like and share with people, and if they like it, they’ll buy it and if they don’t, they won’t.’ So that was kind of how it started.” This was an issue because Bill was part of a generation who was starting to change the norm of what was considered Native American art at the time, even to Native Americans. Now he is a respected artist in his own right, and helped to make the idea of what constitutes Native American art a little more open.

Many Native American artists have varying feelings about the situation of racial influence on their culture. Some view it as opportunity to educate, and others view it as issues they simply had to overcome growing up or when trying to succeed. I do feel that racial restrictions such as those evident in the school system are horrible, and things definitely still need to change. Honestly I feel that a true artist doesn’t identify with a race or culture, but considering the history of the Native American people, I can understand the strong desire to represent your culture through your work, whatever that may be. With the widespread recent change of “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People’s Day”, though, I think that is a sign that we are progressing in the right direction in regards to cultural acceptance.

Student essays posted on the blog are edited only for length and clarity. Did you enjoy this post? Check out earlier posts in this series by Jenn Johnson, Bridget DixonZak Frick, and Roxanne Beason!

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