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.