Thursday, June 6, 2013

Object Lab Day 4 - Object Lessons and The Last Day at Chipstone

Everything we had been experiencing and learning all week came together today into a nice connective picture. The first thing we did when we got to the house was getting introduced to three different decorative arts and material culture scholars from Yale, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and University of Wisconsin Madison. Just as the three men and women introduced themselves and told us their stories of what they do and how they got there, I realized I wanted to ask them so many questions about design and meaning but had no idea what questions to ask.

What we started doing this morning was followed each scholar to a different object they chose throughout the house. 

We first revisited the 18th century side table one of the groups blindly analyzed on day two,

What was so interesting was how much significance this piece could have even though it was not exactly a craftsman piece. It was a hodgepodge of material and detail choices, much like how people mix and match their features on a new automobile they ordered. 

It was so cool to look into the story that this piece told as we dissected what it was made out of and how the manufacturer ran his furniture business and how that met the tastes wealthy New Englanders from the 18th century had for custom furniture and a creative blend of neoclassicism and mythology symbols. This picture shows the bronze leafing painted onto the ebonized wood, and how the designs reflect in the mirror.

We learned that these tables would never be put in a dining room because the Lyre communicates the atmosphere of music and hospitality, intended for a parlor.

When do you ever get to turn a museum furniture piece upside-down?

After doing that we discovered the continuation of neoclassical themes down to the imitation bronze feet, and the various ways gold leaf can be done with different underlays (the feet's leaves are grey underneath whereas the swan/lyre has yellow under it)

After that we went upstairs to analyze a Massachusetts Card Table,

There were many amazingly interesting levels to this piece, but some of the coolest things I took away from the analysis was the social act of playing on a card table like this, where the shape of the table effects the social context, and how the multiple lives of this table relate to the design (which came in handy later in the day).

We were told to all sit at the table as if we were playing a card game (4 at a time)

And then as we sat in the various seats, we realized how the leg placement creates a social hierarchy and automatically sets up relationships around the table. If you look closely you can see everyone sitting on the sides (right and left) is looking towards the person at the top of the table (bottom right, where the folding leg comes out). This also set up the realization that candles impacted the design of table tops, as this table has square corners with depressions carved for candles to light the game (since it would be used mainly at night).

Next we went downstairs and sat around a tea table.

This was especially insightful because we got deeper into the social context of the table. We looked at this table in many ways, through its craftsmanship - the amazing mahogany wood grains (from its cellular structure) and perfect carving artistry, as well as what it was like to own a tea table. We learned how much etiquette played into the use of this piece of furniture, and it had potential to impact a person's life either negatively or positively.

At the tea table, etiquette graces could either banish a country bumpkin from the family name or bring a woman into the social elite of the neighborhood.

Along with the hierarchy of whoever had the role of pouring the tea (the woman who held the teapot had command of the situation), the tea table also was the way wealthy women in early America could reach genteel status in society. Also, just as we had discussed with the card table, the way this table was formed impacted the experience of using it. If tea was served at a nighttime occasion, which was common, the way a center candle would light up peoples' faces and reflect off of shiny ceramics on the table brought a deeper drama to the personal experience of having tea with people. Even though we kept the room lights on, Ann opened our eyes to realize that light has a large impact on our experience of furniture and our social interactions around it.

After lunch, Sarah gave an inspiring presentation on Object Learning, and showed us that it had been what we were doing all week long at Object Lab. Basically we had been learning concepts and relationships with larger things by studying objects, and she set up the strategy of what we were doing all week:

Step One: Basic Descriptions and Initial Observations (Experienced at the Milwaukee Art Museum when we sat in chairs and took in the whole museum)
Step Two: Description of Physical Qualities (Experienced from the blind touch observations and sensory purchase at the antique store)
Step Three: Investigation of Associate Qualities (Historical and Metaphorical, experienced at the Koehler Art Center and This morning's workshops with the scholars)
Step Four: Classifying and Arranging (Experienced at the MOWA museum, where a reinvented art museum shows us how they classified their art exhibits purposefully)
Step Five: Synthesis (this was the next step, to explain the significance of what we observed)

We then were told to go outside for a little while while the filmmakers got ready to make short films about our object lessons. When we came back, we were grouped in threes and brought to our objects. Ours was this extremely intriguing table,

Which folded open!

We then went crazy with analyzing and observing it. Going through each step, we uncovered meaning after meaning, and discovered the material, function, age and even region and type of owner this table belonged to. What Peter (our overseeing scholar) kept asking us was "what is this thing?" and we kept dismissing the question for deeper discussion on its symbolism and architectural relationships. Once we started to realize it reflected a mannerist, literary mindset, we realized it could have been a desk. At that moment, Peter told us to open the drawer (which was concealed), and what we found was ink stains!

The whole process will be explained in the video, but what we basically came to was that this table was a 17th century writing desk that would have been owned by a very wealthy governor or someone living in a city like Boston in New England.

After filming, Peter told us that this table was in fact one of two known surviving American desks or livery tables from the 17th century, and would have been owned by the thin upper crust of New England society. Its quite a valuable table, apparently the only other one is on display at the Met, and we were touching it and moving it all around the house! Afterwards, we were all reflecting on how being able to interact with the furniture in very real ways helped us really understand it in its entirety.

Apparently thats one thing that Chipstone really likes to do when they educating, which I think is amazing. Sarah asked us what we learned from the week, and it was really great to start to see how we figured out how to observe and analyze well, as well as find a deep appreciation and understanding of Early American Decorative Arts.

After we talked about the week, we went to the carriage house garage for a BBQ, but first, we found finished spoons John had made. These were really cool to see, and each one had its own personality, which John said comes from observing the wood after its split. I'm definitely planning on making some spoons for fun when I get the chance. Apparently its a nice relaxation activity.

Overall, the week was really an amazing experience, and I'm so thankful for Chipstone for giving me the opportunity. We all really bonded well over the week, learned a ton, found a great camaraderie in our similar passion for art objects and history, and I think we all could say we came out of it pretty transformed in ways of seeing things. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Object Lab Day 3 - Exciting Interpretations

Today we seemed to be acting primarily as art curators in two different museums in Wisconsin. The first was the Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, and the second the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend. It was a less photographic day at Object Lab, because they didn't allow cameras. So I'm pulling images from websites.

When we first visited the Kohler Art Center we were instructed to go into three different installations to pull three words describing each art piece.

My group first explored this installation:

We came up with the words "Frozen, Swelling, Gathering" and a few others. We thought it looked like a sea swelling and shooting out waves of water, as well as movements of earth plates that create mountains and valleys. It was amazing to be in the space.

After coming up with names, we were told the name of the artists and the title: Rush to Rest by Kavanaugh and Nguyen. Here is a video from the museum's site about the piece:

The next installation was this large glowing, white Tyvek and metal thing:

At first we were completely drawn into the sculpture. We stood inside its tentacles and talked about how it felt like we were in a sea anemone. Eventually, we came to the three words "Protecting, Resting and Exclusive." 

Later on we were told the sculpture was made by John Grade and is titled "Capacitor." It had a complicated mechanism that was supposed to create gentle movements, but the machine had broken down. What came out of the experience was an insight of how natural organisms, like the cellular coccolithophore can defend us against the perils of weather. 

This is a coccolithophore:

Apparently it was what this sculpture was inspired off of.

Sometimes they can be seen inside boats... actually no, this is just another artistic interpretation from somewhere on the web. 

The next installation we explored was this one:

I found this sculpture amazing. When we walked into the room, (to the left) all we saw was black grass, then we followed the grass and found this room full of black flowers, ponds and ribbons. Then, the next room had tall black flowers all perfectly straight and in same height rows to look like a cube. (sorry, I couldn't find a photo)

After taking in the piece, I started to feel a sense of dread and grief in it. I started to notice the contradiction with the black flowers. Once I realized that flowers should be happy and colorful, I realized this garden must be grieving. It also must be like a person who has to live with death all around them once a loved one dies. My words I came up with were "Grieving, Sprawling and Frenetic." There were many other ideas I was pulling out of the piece, but it made me think of how I noticed the tendency of some people fighting for control by becoming frenzied with making things "okay" in life. This of course doesn't apply to all, I started to notice that struggle inside this part of the garden, as if the person was trying to cope with an over-abundance of "joy" that may just be disorderly and unrested. Ever experience that feeling? What was even more interesting was how the cube of carnations in the next room contrasted with this garden. It seemed to reach rested consonance with the presence of black. It still carried it, but it was at peace compared to this middle garden.

What amazed me was how different the real intent was, yet how much it could still relate to the process of grieving. The Artist's name was Lauren Fensterstock, and the name of the piece is "Celebration of Formal Effects, Whether Natural or Artificial." The installation told the story of how unnatural the phenomenon of modern gardening and lawn-keeping is. It was about the contradiction between control and things you can't control. The grass represents the manicured American Lawn and the middle part tells the story of 18th century British "Ruinous Gardens" that are controlled vegetation intended to be "more beautiful than nature itself" (from the description).

Black covers all of these paper plants because it is the one unnatural color we find in plants, besides a few details here and there. As I started to take in these explanations from the curator, I started to see how this all relates to my own personal narrative I picked up. Of course black wouldn't be a natural color, and of course we would relate it to death, its all about the absence of color and light! Thinking about this, as well as the story of the fight for control that the piece was telling, I tied together the thread of how unnatural death actually is, and how nature might even tell us that. 

If this piece is telling me that the control of nature in unnatural, and this piece also made me walk through what it is like to live life in the wake of loss and death, then a second narrative that points to how we weren't meant to experience death in our lives wouldn't be too far fetched, right? The only reason why this wouldn't seem completely crazy is from the biblical theology that points out that our world is in its broken state. When Christians refer to "living in a fallen world" this is what they are meaning: things aren't the way they are supposed to be when the world was originally created. We can see glimpses in how the world should have been, through good relationships, great food, etc. but there is still an element of brokenness, be it terrible storms, sickness, loneliness, etc.

Here is a video about the garden installation:

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Object Lab Day 2 - Million Dollar Chairs and Clay

Today we spent the majority of the day at the Chipstone Estate.

First we went into a hollow beside the house,

Once situated on a really old rock wall, we read poems and quotes from very different parts of mankind. Starting with the biblical passage of Jeremiah 18:2-6, going through mythology all the way to scientists saying clay could scientifically begin life, we realized the relationship between humans and materials - specifically clay.

We then went to the house, and learned that the house was actually built in the early 1950s by a couple named the Stones who collected Early American furniture and British ceramic ware. 

They clearly caught the Williamsburg/Colonial-bug and wanted to relive the 17th and 18th century.

We learned about how ceramics and porcelain began in the Western world, originally as earthy clay ceramics made in Britain and fine porcelain made in China. 

What I found so interesting was seeing the defining characteristics this long ago (16th and 17th century) that carry over to cultural ideals. I started thinking about the delicate-ness of Asian refinement. These bowls actually were examples of real China imports and fake British made Chinese look-alikes. Something we aren't at all used to today.

Then we went into a room full of some million dollar chairs. Some were worth less, but apparently museums have gotten really jealous of this collection. 

As we started talking, I realized the greatness of the ornamentation of these types of furniture. It may have been the biggest insight of the day, but as a designer I've been indoctrinated with the Bauhaus mentality that all ornament is unnecessary. This modernist-infused thinking has come from an industrialized society that copies ornament for the sake of sales. However, these chairs had ornament for better reason than just marketing. They were way more involved in the status and personal life of their owners than we may view our furniture today. This could be a class thing - for all these chairs were owned by the upper class, which as we know think very differently than the middle class - but ornament and the way shapes were formed into each chair told a story about its owner. 

Each one of these chairs were owned by an 18th century American - So they lived in Philadelphia or Boston in the 1700s, actually before the Revolutionary War. So, what was going on in the minds of these Early Americans was establishing themselves as "new British Elite" with the clout and legitimacy that their neighbors at home had, or could marvel at. So, at this time, what could make people marvel at you? Well, first by what you were able to afford, and second probably by how impressive your possessions are. So, logically we discovered that the chairs with more carvings cost more than the simpler ones. Actually, chair customers would pay per carving! 

The other really significant thing I realized about ornamentation during this discussion was that these chairs have symbolism in their detailing that tells artistic meanings about its owner. Vase shapes in the center back, shells and dragon-and-pearl-claw feet all call symbolism to classical culture, using literature and mythology references like Venus to reflect femininity and even the power of beauty.

We then talked about some earthenwares over coffee

Actually held the first porcelain cup made in America (or one of the first, its worth a ton of money and has a cool story)

Then, we got into groups and were blindfolded and brought an object to figure out. 

We then tried to describe it to each other, and then came up with a creative description for it as if it were in a museum - only we've never actually seen it.

We named ours the "Treehouse Chair" and described it as the King of the Forest's throne that he hewed out of a tree, more on this later...

Then we shared our descriptions

Our description was:

"The Treehouse Chair: If the King of the Forests claimed a tree as his throne, he would carve a seat out of a sturdy trunk and the back of his chair would be shaded by leafy foliage. The Treehouse Chair, with its sturdy tree trunk-like three legs, its simple hewn timbers, this piece of early American furniture exemplifies how true organic craftsmanship mimics nature and its honesty to material."

 This table was originally meant as a dressing table for a bedroom.

The group thought it had earrings. 
Makes sense!

We then were given buckets!

And then went to the carriage house,

And found lunch!

And we got to eat like 18th century people, which got us on a discussion about how societies eat and find nutrition. It was fascinating, people who worked back-breaking hard labor pretty much just ate this, and didn't get much nutrients...

We also talked about how unnatural eating bread and milk-based foods is to the human body. Which was interesting to ponder... We might want to make sure we're eating balanced, and this was quite refreshing.

Then we went to an antique store! We were given 20 dollars to find a treasure that spoke to our senses, and basically we went wild

Later on we talked about how our treasure actively and meaningfully engaged us (and our senses)

And we had many interesting things, ranging from corn teapots to cast-iron elephants

and my deco-expressive pot-thing I found. (I think its a casserole dish...)
I thought it was particularly engaging because of how strong and expressive it was. It seemed like it wasn't afraid to let its energy loose, but it also had a beautiful orderliness that made me think of the speed lines found in the expressions of art deco architecture and even how the ocean's sea foam layers itself on the beach.

Also today we learned about making things!

Randy over there is an expert furniture maker,

He was showing us how to plane wood, hand-drill holes and do all sorts of furniture making like the early Americans did, without machines.

We also did pottery turning!

A hand turned lathe too!

In the end, I started to carve out a spoon, and didn't get it finished just yet. But isn't that yellow wood cool?! 

After everything today, I briefly sat down to read and found this cool quote that I think relates to what we were learning about how objects can relate to our humanity. We were learning about what ornamentation did for early Americans artistically, and if what that particular way of beauty was a personal achievement symbol or artistic expression of achievement, what implications does a thought like this have on the world of designed objects?

"And it is the brittleness and bitterness of contemporary debates about civil matters that Wolfe feels the 'intuitive language of the imagination' can and must positively contribute to. Art does this not by avoiding difficult things and emphasizing feelings, but by being an alternate mode of reasoning and understanding. Wolfe believes the arts can counterbalance the pragmatic and utilitarian ethos of political efficiency with 'the necessary contemplative space that pulls us back from the realm of action in order to send us back wiser and more fully human' [22]."  

This quote is from a larger post written by James Mccullough on an arts, culture and theology blog called Transpositions. The full article, which is a review on a book, can be found here: