Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Bones of Cooperstown

This is the first in a series of posts by guest blogger, Michele Harvey. Fenimore Art Museum will exhibit new work by Harvey in the exhibition Watermark: Michele Harvey & Glimmerglass, beginning April 1, 2010.

I needed to see the bones of Cooperstown.

The Fenimore Art Museum had requested I put together a landscape show with a sense of place. I had been to Cooperstown many, many times, but wanted to dig deeper. The scenery and history are unique. This presented an opportunity to explore and enlarge my understanding of this historic town. I turned into a tourist of the out-of-the-way. It is a place to capture the imagination. Each foray would present a different understanding, which would feed my creative vision.
As fate would have it, one of the first things to catch my eye was a Candlelight Ghost Tour of Cooperstown. Being open but skeptical, I waited on the corner of Pioneer Street and Main, for my host. The night was chilly and misty and I was the only soul to brave the weather. Bruce Markusen (a docent at Fenimore Art Museum by day) was my dauntless guide and led me through an interesting, eerie romp of the town. An excellent storyteller, Mr. Markusen captured my attention from the first footstep. Being a historic tour, I was free to satisfy my interest with a side of a Cooperstown rarely seen. I will not give away the punch line, but Cooperstown will never seem the same in broad daylight again. I did walk the same route, the next morning. There it was. The town was decidedly different.
This led me to my next stop. A park oddly named Indian Grave. From the street it appears an unremarkable greensward, dotted with old trees. But the roadside plaque tells the tale and invites invitation. Inside an iron gate, the landscape alters. Looking back upslope, to the street, one clearly sees the sharp outline of a large burial mound. Here the bones of an Indian had been discovered, disinterred and reburied with honor in 1874. It's very close to the Susquehanna River. Near where other Native American graves were known to exist. One may only guess, it being a choice location, that there was some reason behind such a regal tomb for the remains. After all, it was only a block away from the busiest part of the Ghost Tour and it's spectral sightings.

In my next post, I hope to enchant you with a tale of Fairy Springs and it's surrounding haunts.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Big Crate

By: Christine Olsen, Registrar
As any registrar can attest, sometimes we have to get creative in our line of work. Case in point: When a painting for our current exhibit America’s Rome came to us from the Spanierman Gallery in New York City last spring the crate was larger than I expected and I had to think fast on my feet. The painting, Effect Near Noon – The Appian Way by George Loring Brown, is only 81” high x 110” wide but its crate measures 92 ½” high x 118” wide. Below is a picture of the painting on display in the gallery (it really is a beautiful piece, due much in part to its scale).
By crating standards it really isn’t that large, but this is the largest crate that has come into Fenimore Art Museum during my time here as Registrar. Despite receiving measurements from the crate fabricator and checking the maximum door height of our loading dock prior to shipment, upon delivery I discovered that the crate simply wasn’t going to make it through our loading dock doors and down the winding halls to the Great Hall Gallery.

After weighing my options, one of which was to uncrate the painting on the loading dock thereby exposing it to a rapid shift in temperature and humidity as well as a long hand-carry to the gallery, I opted to take a more creative, and believe it or not, safer route. After triple checking the door measurements and carefully discussing the logistics, the crate was driven over the lawn of the museum and brought directly in through the back, emergency entrance of the Great Hall Gallery whose door frames are extra tall.

The next day, after acclimating to the environment of the gallery, the painting was unpacked and hung and the crate moved to my office for storage; the only storage room in which it would fit. Below is a picture of the crate in my office to give some perspective; it will feel really empty in here once it is gone.
Needless to say this will all have to be done in reverse in January when it is time for the loan to go back to Spanierman Gallery. By then there will be snow to contend with on the back lawn of the museum…but that is another blog.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hansi Durlach’s Photographs of Sharon Springs, N.Y.

By: Michelle L. Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions
We all know the feeling. You’re driving along, maybe exploring a new route leading you to a familiar place, when you discover something new. Or you happen to notice something – really notice something – for the first time. Several years ago I had this experience driving through Sharon Springs, New York, a few miles east of Cooperstown. Most folks only know the Sharon Springs that sits right on Route 20, a major East-West thoroughfare through central New York. But just a very short way off of 20, north on Route 10, is one of the most haunted places I’ve been. Not Halloween-haunted, just resounding with the murmurs of a life (two lives, in fact) long gone. I knew there had to be more to this place.
The second of those two lives was captured on film by the photographer Hansi Durlach who was born in 1930 in Vienna, Austria. From 1968 to 1972, she shot the majority of the Sharon Springs photographs and they were eventually published in the 1980 book The Short Season of Sharon Springs: Portrait of Another New York. Stuart Blumin, professor of history at Cornell University, wrote the text of the book. In October 2001, Durlach gave the Fenimore Art Museum a collection of over 300 of her photographs and negatives of this small town. After having just fell in love with Sharon Springs, I was so excited for the museum to receive this collection.

In the 1960s while Durlach was studying photography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under Minor White, she applied for a Radcliffe Institute grant to conduct a socio-photographic documentary of Sharon Springs. Her interest in the village initially stemmed from her husband’s family, who had summered there beginning in the late 1800s, and grew based on her own ethnic heritage, the variety of people in the community, the architecture, and the natural environment of the rural village. Her goals as outlined in the grant narrative were to create a permanent visual record of the people and environment of Sharon Springs that conveyed a sense of place, and to position the unique qualities of the village into a larger context.
Sharon Springs began its history as a spa resort in 1825 when a David Eldredge set up a boardinghouse there, almost a quarter century after Saratoga Springs, 60 miles northeast of Sharon Springs, became a resort town. Eldredge’s investment was meant to attract visitors to the natural mineral springs located in the village. During the heyday of Sharon Springs’ popularity, the majority of the visiting population was Protestant. Also included, however, was a population of upper-class German Jews from Manhattan who were accepted into the Protestant society. When spa-going fell into disfavor, the Jewish population chose to continue visiting Sharon Springs and by 1900, they comprised the majority of the summer population. After World War I, less prosperous Eastern and Central European Jews from Brooklyn replaced the wealthy Manhattan Jews. More specifically, the Sharon Springs Jewish population was Hasidic Jews of the Satmar sect. In the late 1950s, a Satmar Rabbi from Brooklyn, Yoel Teitelbaum, began visiting the village and many of his followers followed suit. Even after his death in 1979, a few Satmar continued to visit the baths, sustaining Sharon Springs’ status as a resort for a few more decades. They found the new solitude of Sharon Springs a welcome change from the hectic pace of life in the city – a place where they could enjoy the health aspects of the town without the social pressures of the previous era. At the time of Durlach’s project, Sharon Springs’ visiting population was a largely older group of Hasidic Satmar Jews who had been coming since the days of Rabbi Teitelbaum. There is no question of her success in achieving her goals. Durlach’s photographs are infused with the strength, spirit and passion of a people committed to the memory of the past, the distinction of the present, and the optimism of the future.
All photography is from the collection of Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Chair Fit for a Pot

By John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections
Have you ever seen a roundabout or corner chair? Seems a little odd when you think about the name doesn’t it? Why would anyone willingly want to sit in a corner? Well, it’s not really for a punishment, at least not this one. In fact, this chair, while not the most comfortable thing in the world, was used for a slightly different purpose. Okay, so try this one; have you ever heard of a “close stool?” No? Don’t worry, that was a period term in the 18th century to describe this chair.
Want a hint? Think chamber pot. Still confused? Well this chair is actually a potty chair, or close stool. The large decorative elements hanging down from the chair are used to conceal a hanging chamber pot. Though the framing to hold the chamber pot is long gone, the heavy corner blocks and concealment elements tell us what we need to know about the chair’s purpose. On the arm there is a plaque too that reads in part: “1738/Brought from England by/Sir Wm. Johnson.” That’s right; this was the potty chair for Sir William Johnson.
The chair is in the Rococo, also referred to sometimes as the Chippendale style and includes the typical motifs; ball and claw feet and in this case, two pierced back splats. Like most Rococo designs, if you look at this chair, it almost seems alive, think Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” The legs appear as if they’re ready to walk away, the arms almost embrace you when you sit. This is my favorite style of furniture, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because the craftsmanship that went into making the furniture during this time period was astonishing. I can’t imagine making furniture like this, though I have to admit, I thoroughly intend on trying.

“Corner Chair,” ca. 1760, Unidentified Maker, Mahogany, Cherry, and Russian Leather, H 31” x W 29 7/8” x 28 ½”, N0002.1996, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A 17th Century Calling Card

By: Paul D’Ambrosio, Vice President and Chief Curator, and Eva Fognell, Curator of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art
It is probably one of the 17th-century’s most feared calling cards. An object, not a piece of paper, carrying a visage, not a name. It is also exceedingly rare; only one or two others are known to exist anywhere in the world.
Why refer to the club as a “calling card?” The 17th century Captain William Hyde explains, speaking of the Iroquois: “Now When These Men Goe a Scalping in Canada, they scratch the markes they have on their faces and bodyes upon their Clubhamers which they always leave behind them with the dead body, that it might be Knowne who did the action.” It was also a powerful statement to leave your war club next to your slain enemy’s body on the battlefield.
War clubs were often inscribed with personalized information and messages. On this club the self portrait features the owner’s tattooed face; a rayed sun motif at his mouth, a straight line and a dotted line running diagonally across his face, and a zigzag line arcing over his left eye. The small notch in his ear indicated that there may have been a feather or down decoration there. The self portrait is linked through a “power line” with an image of a turtle, the owner’s guardian spirit, on the other side of the club.. Warriors also ornamented their bags, spoons, bowls and other personal items with their particular guardian spirit. Also present on this club are markings illustrating the owner’s war records, or records of his war exploits; two slain enemies are visible under the turtle. A wolf with his tongue lolling out adorn the end of the club, its eyes were likely once inlaid with shell.

As a product of one of the New England coastal Native American groups in the mid-17th century, it is likely that this piece was used during King Philip’s War in 1675-76. Family records state that it was captured by Lieutenant John King in 1676 in a battle near Hatfield, Massachusetts. King helped lead the colonists and their Indian allies against the followers of the Indian leader Metacom, known to the English as “King Philip.” The war was particularly bloody for the time period in the American colonies; more than half of New England’s 90 towns were attacked by Metacom’s followers, including Plimouth Plantation itself, and more than 800 colonists and 3,000 Natives lost their lives. The Natives lost the war, and Metacom’s head was reportedly displayed at Plimouth Plantation for 20 years. Don’t count on seeing it there today.

The club remained in the King family for more than 300 years. One of the owners, Timothy Dwight (President of Yale College and an important writer of travelogues through the early Republic), wrote of the club in 1821, “I had one of these [war clubs] in my possession many years; in shape not unlike a Turkish sabre….On it were formed several figures of men….Some of them were standing; some of them were prostrated; and a few had lost their heads.”

Every time we see this club, we think of the recreated 17th-century objects and buildings at places like Plimouth Plantation and how rare a treat it is to see and experience anything surviving from the 1600s. This war club stands as a vivid reminder of the sometimes violent clash of cultures that accompanied the expansion of colonial settlements into Native territory. The club’s turbulent history, however, stands in marked contrast to its serene and elegant artistry, a testament to the proud and vibrant culture from which it came.
Photography by Richard Walker.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Laying it out and making it all fit

By: Chris Rossi, Associate Curator of Exhibitions
When I first started at Fenimore Art Museum we would lay our exhibits out on graph paper. A scaled outline of the gallery would be laid out and we would painstakingly make little cutouts of paintings, sculptures, and exhibit cases. Then we would slide them around our floor plan until we got them where we wanted them. Little dabs of glue stick would hold them in place until some poor soul accidentally gave the page a good knock. Then your gallery got “redesigned” and you spent time muttering under your breath while you tried to get it back in order.
You can imagine our delight when we found the beauty of designing in a graphics program. Yes, you still had to make a floor plan and size stuff, but no one could knock the darn thing off the table and scatter little pieces of paper to the wind. You could even create multiple versions of a layout and email them to your colleagues! Ya-hoo, we were talking progress.

So, imagine the delight and disbelief when we stumbled across a 3-D design program that was actually user friendly. This baby could help you lay out a gallery in 3-dimension, color the walls, chose floor treatments, place paintings and allow for 3-d views that made you feel like you were walking through a dollhouse. And (are you sitting down?), it was free.
At this point many of you are nodding your heads and saying oh yes its Sketch-up (from Google). You would be right. For someone who started out way back using little cutouts to do floor plans this is indeed and amazing program. It is fairly intuitive to use. I find myself gaining skill as I go along. It does not do every single thing I would like it to, but it is a wonderful tool for giving you a fairly accurate feeling for how a gallery will look upon completion.

I used the program last year to good effect in laying out America’s Rome and the overall graphic treatments in the gallery. It was invaluable for figuring out how many animal-related objects could fit in the main barn for the Wild Times exhibit, and how the colors and graphics would relate to each other as you moved through regions. This year I have been laying out platforms for dresses for next year’s Empire Waists, Bustles and Lace exhibit.
My next trick will be to learn how to interface google earth and sketch-up. The possibilities seem endless and as the technology evolves there will always be another exciting opportunity to do it better.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Dirty Feathers: What to do?

By: Eva Fognell, Curator of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art
Following up with an update on the conservation treatments for the Thaw objects slated to travel. First let us go to the Seminole bag Shaun was cleaning last time I blogged on this topic. What has happened to it? I am thrilled with the way this piece looks today. Gwen and Shaun decided to fill in the gaps in the fabric on the shoulder strap with material of almost the same color. There was quite a bit of red stroud missing and it made the applied beads very vulnerable and unsecured. That was one of the reasons for adding the material. What I had not counted on was the change in how the eye reads the pattern beaded on the strap. Before when you looked at the strap the missing fabric became the focus and the beadwork blended. Now, voila’ – the added red fabric lets the eye see the beadwork as the focal point and now the fact that the strap carries two patterns becomes obvious and stands out. I have been visiting the bag almost daily in awe over the difference in appearance.

Another miracle work performed is cleaning the dirty eagle feathers on the full headdress in the collection. Shaun has cleaned each feather individually with a solution applied with a small brush. The dirt is absorbed by a cotton pad that is placed behind the feather being treated and when the feather dries it is clean. Guess it’s a bit like when the feather was attached to the bird. Rains outside – wet bird, stops raining - the bird dries. Seems pretty simple or what? However – not so when you are dealing with a museum artifact. I have to admit to frail nerves when they started to wet the first feather and of course as long as the feather was wet it looked like a drenched cat. Not good for a curators’ nervous system. What have I done, what did I approve?? What if it never looks like a feather again? It is ruined!! Not so, the feathered headdress is looking its stunning self. The dark coating is off the delicate feathers and although we are not trying to make things look new – it looks refreshed and once again more detail can be seen.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Surprises at Every Turn, or, the Odd Desk

By: John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections
It’s not really a secret around the curatorial department that I like furniture, especially desks and chairs. Always have, likely always will. It’s weird really when you think about it. I could have so many more “normal” hobbies as a 25 year old, yet I’m drawn to antiques. In the same breath I blame and thank my grandfather and my great-great uncle for this love affair. My grandfather left me a 1929 Model “A” Ford when he died; my uncle left me two late 19th-early 20th century violins and a host of books when he passed. Both of them taught me to appreciate antiques and to take care of them, which is probably why I ended up going into the museum field.
Imagine then, if you will, my amazement as a student, and later in my current position when I found a desk, taller than me, that was married to a bookcase, had pressed glass handles, and was painted blue and green on the interior. I’m not sure shocked even begins to describe what I first thought. But someone obviously appreciated the desk (the original piece) and the bookcase (the later addition) and wanted to have one piece of furniture that they could use and enjoy. Why it has a blue interior on the bookcase and green shelving in the desk area is beyond me, and I doubt we’ll ever know, but it adds charm to the piece regardless.
The desk dates between 1830 and 1870 and is a matched piece. If you look at the writing surface, the outline looks a little weird. That’s because there should be leather or other material present as a softer writing area. It was used in Hartwick, NY, just over the hill from Cooperstown and we think that is where the whole of the desk was built. It’s pretty plain over all, but it worked well for someone. It’s definitely worn and used, but has to be one of my favorite pieces in the collection.
Stay tuned, next time I’ll show pictures of our Roundabout or Corner chair from Sir William Johnson. You won’t believe what that was used for, but it’s still a great piece.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Travels of Eel Spearing at Setauket

By: Christine Olsen, Registrar
Many paintings in our permanent collection have devoted fans and when they are removed from exhibit we inevitably receive inquiries as to their whereabouts. Paintings need to occasionally be relocated to storage in order to prolong their life as well as to allow for other works in our collection to be seen in the finite gallery space, and sometimes paintings go out on loan to exhibits at other museums. Of course, the positive outcome of loaning a painting from our collection to another institution is that it will exponentially increase the visibility of the painting and further educate the public about folk art and the collections at Fenimore Art Museum.
To the chagrin of our visitors our most well-known painting Eel Spearing at Setauket by W.S. Mount will go on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and subsequently the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for the exhibition “American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915”. The painting left this week and will not return to Fenimore Art Museum until June 2010. You can see an exhibition description on the Met’s website.
It takes a lot of time and work on the part of both institutions to make a loan happen; I have been preparing for this particular loan for over two years. Loan agreements were signed once the conditions of the loan were finalized between institutions, I completed a condition report on the painting and our conservator made sure it was secure and safe to travel, a specialized crate was fabricated and the painting packed, insurance coverage was established by the borrowers, and shipping with a fine arts handler was scheduled. Because of the importance of this painting, I couriered the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and we will oversee installation and deinstallation at each venue; a perk of the job! I must be intimately familiar with the condition of the painting in case something changes during the loan period, as well as specific installation and display requirements. Fortunately, the borrowing institutions have excellent security, art handling, and conservation staff that will make my job easier.

If you want to see Eel Spearing at Setauket in a different context or have never seen the painting and would like to, I highly recommend you take a trip to either the Metropolitan Museum of Art or LACMA for this exhibition. You won’t be disappointed, and we just might gain a devoted fan!
Above: Eel Spearing at Setauket, 1845 by W. S. Mount. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY. Gift of Stephen C. Clark.
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