Student Responses to “Framing History” at the OSU Museum of Art

From July 7 – October 18, 2014, the Postal Plaza Gallery hosted the exhibition, “Framing History: Highlights from the Oklahoma State Capitol Senate Collection.” Co-curated by Senator Charles Ford and OSU Museum of Art director Victoria Rowe Berry, this exhibition also coincided with my History of American Art course this semester. For their second writing assignment, students wrote their own reviews of “Framing History.” Over the next few weeks I will feature the best of those reviews in full here on the blog. Today, partly in response to one student’s observation that there was no comment book available in the exhibition itself, I showcase a cross-section of ideas from some of the best student essays.

In addition to visiting the exhibition, students (and all visitors to the show) were provided with a free copy of the accompanying catalogue, written by Bob Burke with an introduction by Victoria Rowe Berry. Quotes within students’ comments come from that catalogue or from exhibition labels.

Although a significant number of students understood and even empathized with the feeling of pride displayed in “Framing History,” only a few left the exhibition with that as their primary response.

“Overall, “Framing History outlines the true essence of Oklahoma history and culture. The paintings in this exhibition all contribute to informing viewers on what life was like during our historical period, and who we should thank in regards to the formation of our beautiful state.” —Abby Unruh

“This exhibition celebrates artwork by Native Americans. A perfect example is by Willard Stone. His piece titled Exodus is, according to Bob Burke, “a design composed of two large teardrops.” One of the teardrops represents the man’s courage to survive and the other teardrop represents the amount of love in his heart. Overall, the sculpture has a relaxing and playful dynamic that evokes a strong emotion.” —Avery Boyd

Student Sarah Christensen offered an alternative reading of the show’s presentation of Exodus:

“Examples of a casual ignorance of true history are evident throughout the exhibition. In Willard Stone’s Exodus, a Native American man carries his child on his back. The cloth in which he is carrying the child, and the shape of his hair, together form twin reflecting teardrops that balance one another. The description provided explains that one teardrop represents the man’s determination in his search for happiness, while the other represents the heavy weight of the love he feels as he “carries on his short time on his long trail.” It is presented as an ode to personal strength, love, and determination, on a trail to perhaps the unexplored west, or the trail through life. However, even to my Texan eyes, untrained in Oklahoma history, it is clear that this is an emotional representation of the Trail of Tears. There seems to be an almost systematic ignorance of the true meaning of the piece.” —Sarah Christensen

Ashton Poarch questioned the overall representation of Native Americans within “Framing History”:

“While the works selected and commissioned for “Framing History” show the importance of Native American influence on Oklahoma and give good examples of Oklahoman icons, the exhibition fails to recognize the grim beginnings of Oklahoma and the U.S.’s poor treatment of Native Americans. The show creates a promising history of peaceful relations between Natives and white settlers, barely touching on the hardship felt by Indian tribes and the struggle of settlers living on originally unwanted land.” —Ashton Poarch

Students raised this question of the exhibition’s representation of history in relation to other subjects as well.

Bethany Howe wrote about Wheelock Presbyterian Church, by Vinson Lackey:

“The idea of the collection seems to be to shape Americans’ and Oklahomans’ views of the history and values of Oklahoma. To that point, we have Wheelock Presbyterian Church, by Vinson Lackey. This painting shows a small church built in 1846 as the oldest surviving church building in Oklahoma. The message conveyed is that Oklahoma has always been religious, and because it is still standing, shows religion as one of our core values. Although Oklahoma does value religion, messages like these are quite often used to sway votes for one candidate or another.” —Bethany Howe

Broadly, students were concerned by the inaccuracy of the historical overview provided by “Framing History.”

“The story that these paintings tell is one of a wide-open wilderness being tamed by hard-working, down-to-earth people, of bravery and industrious activity, of people working together: activities creating what is the state of Oklahoma today. Although these images and sentiments are not altogether untrue, they do focus on positive historic events, individuals, and landscapes. This tendency to gloss over the negative aspects of Oklahoma’s history is most clearly represented in the paintings depicting Native Americans. These paintings highlight dealings between the United States government and different tribes, as well as dealings between settlers and Native Americans. When observing these paintings, which are depicting events leading to the forced removal and genocide of entire cultures, it is clear that they glorify the idea of manifest destiny. Although intermittently there was beneficial cooperation between Native Americans and others, essentially every treaty led to devastating consequences for the Native Americans.” —Spencer Bradford

“It doesn’t take a well-seasoned “Okie” to notice that the “history” of “Framing History” contains a few plot holes. Out of the 51 pieces in the show, none go out of their way to depict any of the harshness of Oklahoma history. An important historical event that is not represented, and that we might even say the show goes out of its way to avoid, is the Dust Bowl. It is as if this crucial event was somehow forgotten: none of the artwork shows the harshness, the suffering, and the miserable struggle that was the Dust Bowl. Why would anyone leave out such crucial history in a show entitled “Framing History”? Viewers begin to notice that the history being presented is purely, almost bombastically, positive.” —Jennifer Johnson

Overall, Audrey Plunkett summed up the exhibition:

“In Ford’s effort to document what he deemed to be significant in Oklahoma’s history, he inevitably created a collection of pleasantries and a politically biased representation of the events that colored the Oklahoman spirit. Ford attempted to commemorate a past and a spirit that was not built on political gambit, but a vast dynamic of interracial tensions, hardships for all cultures involved, and a sense of motivation that arrived not only from a desire to conquer, but often a mere instinct to survive. The Oklahoman spirit is derived from resilience above all adversity. Had Ford collected pieces that reflected this rather than attempt to please the capitol with politically oriented paintings, he would have found a more truthful sentiment.” —Audrey Plunkett

Students noted repeatedly that the framing (literally!) affected viewers’ experience both of the artworks in the exhibition and the overall message of the show as a whole.

“Each piece is held in a vintage gold, ornate frame—which makes it easy for the viewer to assume that the painting is quite old as well. Senator Ford admits that he chose the ornate old frames so that visitors wouldn’t think, “Oh, that must have been painted yesterday” (Burke 11), when they basically were. All the paintings in the exhibition are contemporary paintings—painted in an older style. The frame acts as a misleading accessory to alter our perception of the collection.” —Kara Lackey

“Part of the exhibition’s message is told through the placement and flow of the collection, as curated by Victoria Berry. Her stated motivation is found in the catalogue: “We celebrate artists who with a stroke of paint, capture stories… the frames create a window into a historical event.” Berry wants the audience to thoroughly engage with the artwork as true glimpses into history without questioning the context. The antique-style frames make the paintings seem aged and impressive, straining credibility. Another way Berry strained credibility is found in the lack of dates on the text plaques by each painting. Although most of the works were created in modern times, the aged frames, lack of dates, and historic-styled paintings convince an unsuspecting audience otherwise.” —Ashton Poarch

The selective history and the misleading framing both contributed to students’ interpretation of the political agenda behind the exhibition.

“The curator and collector was Senator Charles Ford, and his co-curator was Victoria Rowe Berry. Senator Ford is also part of the Art Advisory Council [for the OSU Museum of Art]. This is no doubt not a coincidence as the senator is using art as a form of propaganda. Not only is he trying to convince viewers how peaceful Oklahoma history has been, he is also trying to show his generosity and claiming he has an interest in the arts.” —Cullen Pickens

“”Framing History” ended up being skewed by political references and motivations. Every painting displays the exact message one person, Senator Charles Ford, wanted it to. The collection does semi-accurately portray Oklahoma history, but is not honest about the horrible, gory truth in getting there. Everyone wants to forget about the bad things in our past, but it does not mean we skew the information just to satisfy a political agenda. As an Oklahoman, I would personally be more inclined to respect the history if it was presented truthfully, terrible things and all, rather than how the government is advocating for me to feel about it.” —Bethany Howe

“Absolutely nothing is wrong with giving Oklahoma a positive image, especially if you are a political figure in Oklahoma. In fact, one could argue that it would actually be personally beneficial, wouldn’t it? And that’s really the deception in this entire show, this entire collection. The Senator didn’t just buy artwork and put it in antique frames, Ford commissioned artists to show Oklahoma in this light. And with that knowledge in mind, wouldn’t some of that positivity be reflected back onto Ford himself? Ford comes about as close as one can to taking credit for the positivity of the collection without actually creating the art himself. At the end of the day, this show with its deceptively old-looking paintings and frames acts less as an accurate representation of Oklahoma history and more as political propaganda for the state and Senator Ford himself. Whether one feels cheated by the falseness of the show, or they overlook this and still feel pride for Oklahoma, it must be noted that by “cropping history,” Ford has woven a very effective display of positive propaganda for both himself and the state of Oklahoma.” —Jennifer Johnson

“While “Framing History” could be considered soft propaganda by its purposeful lack of dates, politically engrossed commissioners, and misleading use of style and presentation, its typical audience welcomes the exaggeration (borderline fantasy) of Oklahoma’s history. “Framing History” probably didn’t need to beg and urge the viewers to believe in it as much as it did; without the assigned course readings, I would have fallen into the same trusting pitfall due to the sense of Oklahoma culture I was raised with.” —Ashton Poarch

Some students, however, gave the show—and its visitors—the benefit of the doubt. How might critical thinkers, they asked, respond intelligently to this exhibition?

“Critical viewers will roam the exhibition with their own knowledge of Oklahoma history. In doing so, the viewer naturally tries to link the art with a time period. There is no date to be found on the object labels; however, some frames are dated, revealing that they are modern works of art. At the moment of this discovery, the viewer begins to question the authenticity of the exhibition as a whole. One is intrigued about why Ford chose these modern artists who work in a past style, and why he would present them in such a ‘trickery’ kind of way. Ford has given the viewer an assurance of their knowledge and a confidence that they cannot be fooled by period frames, missing dates, and old styles of artistic rendering. This state is exactly where my classmates and I were when leaving the exhibition.” —Stacy Bush

“Could Victoria Rowe Berry have been co-curating the show with Senator Ford set on a mission of exposing the fraudulence of “Framing History”? If so, she did an excellent job of undermining the Senator’s attempt at a politically motivated and misguided display of an untrue history of this state. If not, the exhibition “Framing History” does an immaculate job of looking foolish for the attempt to take twenty contemporary Oklahoma artists to create an art show that proves true to the history and development of Oklahoma. It all adds up to an excellent falsity for viewers to uncover when browsing through the “Framing History” exhibition at the Postal Plaza Gallery.” —Savannah Barrington

[Student comments have been edited for brevity and typographical errors have been corrected, but they have not otherwise been altered.]

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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