25 August 2014

Anne Hollander and Tom Tierney and costume history

Woman in Blue, Henri Matisse, 1937, from Fabric of Vision.

Two leading lights in the world of textile history died last month.  Anne Hollander, an independent scholar and curator, studied the role of costume (the art world's  portmanteau for apparel) in art throughout history.  Ms. Hollander, in her many books, analyzed how artists, as disparate as sculptors in ancient Greece and the 20th-century British painter Lucian Freud, used clothing and drapery to convey meaning. She pioneered the serious study of fashion and clothing; prior to her work "It [fashion] had this taint of a women's-page subject" stated Judy Thurman, a New Yorker writer quoted in Ms. Hollander's New York Times obituary.

Given that clothing and accessories are freighted with immense symbolism, it seems obvious now that the depiction of apparel - clothing which can signal status, wealth and power, among other characteristics - would seem an obvious focus of study, but this was not always so. A major corrective to this oversight arrived with the 2002 exhibit Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting, curated by Ms. Hollander for Britain's National Gallery.

Exhibition catalog.

Ms. Hollander wrote about robes, tailcoats, veils and dresses; Tom Tierney drew them.  Dover books have sold over 4 million copies of his paper doll books, reason enough to sit up and take notice even if the books themselves weren't so charming and, due to his meticulous research, so informative. If you can't get to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mr. Tierney's books will help scratch the fashion itch. You can even see Kate Middleton in her unmentionables - evidently things have loosened up at Buck House - in the officially sanctioned William & Kate paper doll book.

Selection of Dover paper doll books by Tom Tierney.

The phrase "making history come alive" is over-used but nevertheless genuinely describes the utility of Mr. Tierney's books, which can flesh out the opulence  of Tudor England - Henry VIII and his wives - or demonstrate just what Jane Austen meant when she wrote about pelisses and spencer jackets.

Finally, a book about someone very much still with us, Queen Elizabeth II - Dressing the Queen: the Jubilee Wardrobe. As a public figure the Queen must dress the part and has a dedicated and talented wardrobe staff, marshaled by Head Dresser Angela Kelly. This book gives a glimpse of the process for preparing the Queen's wardrobe for the Jubilee Year. Yes, the volume celebrates hereditary rank and privilege, like any reporting on the royal family, although I happen to think the Queen gives good value for money. One tidbit is that, to avoid any unfortunate accidents, small weights are sewn into the hems of some garments.  The images below are taken from the book.

Blue outfit with sleeve detail, worn to Armed Forces Muster, 2012.

Service of Thanksgiving, St. Paul's Cathedral. 

The planning and craftsmanship involved is impressive; protocol plays a role too; during a trip to Ireland, the Queen wore a green suit and hat for an open-car procession. For the opening of the Olympics, two identical peach dresses were made in secret; one worn by a stunt double parachuting into Olympic stadium and one for the Queen, who appeared on the podium with hardly a feather out of place after her apparent sky-dive.  As I said, good value for money.

Dressing the Queen: The Jubilee Wardrobe. ISBN 978 1 905686 74 2

Anne Hollander wrote many books, among them:
Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting. ISBN  1 85709 907 9
Moving Pictures. ISBN 0 394 57400 1
Feeding the Eye. ISBN 0 374 28201 3

Tom Tierney's books are available at the Dover site and many bookstores.

16 August 2014

Erie Canal Museum Syracuse New York

Cargo carried on the Canal.

I took a class at Quilting by the Lake this summer; DH tagged along and arranged a business meeting nearby. As much as I enjoyed the class, I "skipped school" one day early so we could indulge our interest in American history and visit the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, New York. Back in the Pleistocene era, when I was in school, we learned the Erie Canal song in elementary chorus:
I've got an old mule and her name is Sal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
She's a good old worker and a good old pal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
We've hauled some barges in our day
Filled with lumber, coal, and hay
And every inch of the way we know
From Albany to Buffalo

Low bridge, everybody down
Low bridge for we're coming to a town
And you'll always know your neighbor
And you'll always  know your pal
If you've ever navigated on the Erie Canal
There are several more verses to this popular song, written by Thomas Allen in 1905. Why don't we celebrate feats of civil engineering or modes of commercial transportation in songs today?

Source: http://eriecanalmuseum.org/

This 363-mile long waterway, begun in 1817 and opened in 1825, made possible expansion into the Northwest Territories by connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes. The lending institutions established to help finance the canal construction became the banks that enabled New York to become the financial capital of the US, eclipsing Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston as a trade center.

As you can see, where there was once a canal directly in front of the building there is now a highway; the original canal was replaced, and largely rerouted, in 1918. In fact, where I stood to take the picture would have been water or towpath. After the 1918 reconstruction the old canal sections were mostly filled in - what a lost opportunity.

Weighlock Building, now the Erie Canal Museum.

The canal's 36 original locks addressed the elevation differential of about 565 feet as the waterway climbed from the Hudson River to Lake Erie.  A lock is a section of waterway that can be made watertight by closing gates at both ends; water is then pumped into the section to raise the watercraft waiting inside the lock. Shippers paid duties based on the tonnage of their cargo, and the canal boats were weighed at weighlocks, only one of which survives (anywhere in the US) and now houses the Museum.

Left: model of the weighing mechanism. Right: model of the weighlock.

The highlight of the museum is an actual canal boat, now in permanent drydock, as it were, which visitors can investigate. Many canal boats were family-owned, so, in addition to carrying cargo and passengers, these vessels served as houseboats. Young children wore harnesses so they could be pulled up out of the water quickly in case of falling overboard.

Canal boat, stern.

"Time to Dream" sculpture on the roof.

Passengers and crew stood or sat on the upper deck, but in case of a low bridge had to lie prone or go below; hence the song line "Low bridge everybody down." Life-size casts provide a human presence on the boat and elsewhere in the museum. My own Scots-Irish ancestor, David Logan, probably took a canal boat when he emigrated to Rochester, New York, in 1833, and then again when he journeyed further to Buffalo, en route to his final destination in Michigan, around 1850.

Canal boat.

Female passenger with her precious possessions.

Heating and cooking onboard.

Can you guess what this little seat, with a curtain, is for?

At the tiller.

Keeping organized.

The museum also recreated the weighmaster's office, with its desk-with-a-thousand-cubbies, and all-important stove, and has exhibits depicting a period tavern and general store and lots of info on the construction and planning of "Governor Clinton's Ditch," as the project was derisively labelled when first envisioned.

The original canal was replaced in 1918 by the larger New York State Barge Canal, but the 1959 opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, as well as the growth of railroads and highways, made the canal system obsolete in the second half of the 20th century. There is still some shipping on the canal as well as recreational travel.

The weighmaster.

Sandstone facade.

On the recommendation of the museum desk, we walked over to Armory Square for a satisfying dinner at an Irish-themed gastro-pub, Kitty Hoynes.

Syracuse is struggling economically, but has many beautiful buildings from its hey-day that escaped the urban renewal impulses of the 1960's.  Fortunately, some far-sighted Syracuse women challenged the planners of Interstate 81, which had been slated to go right over the weighlock building; their efforts saved this irreplaceable piece of our history.

Graffiti carved by 19th mule drivers on a mule barn wall.

For more images and information on life on the canal, this book can be ordered from the museum gift shop.  No ISBN number, but many historic photos and brief but concise explanatory text.

31 July 2014

Everson Museum of Art Syracuse New York

Scarab Vase (Apotheosis of the Toiler), Adelaide A. Robineau, 1910.

Our travels took us - DH and I - to the Syracuse, New York, area recently. We visited the Everson Museum of Art on a bright Sunday afternoon and practically had the place to ourselves.  The permanent collection of the museum is comprised primarily  of American art, and the collection, though small, is strong, with some heart-quickening treasures, such as the covered vessel by master potter Adelaide Alsop Robineau  (1865 - 1929) pictured at the top of this blog. Robineau was one of the most important American artists you may have never heard of, creating ceramic masterpieces with a technical skill that is undervalued today. She both formed the shapes and the surfaces of her works, something rather rare in the world of art pottery at the time.

Syracuse Center for the Study of Ceramics.

More of Robineau's work is displayed in the most amazing part of the museum, located in the basement. The Syracuse China Center for the Study of Ceramics, opened in 1986,  has examples of every major global pottery type, beginning with  Pre-Columbian work, and continuing right up to the sculptural forms of Peter Voulkos  and Robert Arneson. It was the first  collection in the nation devoted to the chronological presentation of art work in clay and remains one of the most comprehensive.

Syracuse China, for whom the center is named, was for over a century a major manufacturer of fine china. The story of this venerable American manufacturer parallels that of many other industries in the Rust Belt - rising labor costs, less demand for products,  and other factors, squeezed them out of business. The company was  purchased by Libbey Glass, of Toledo, Ohio, in 1995.  About ten years later the Syracuse factory was closed,  and the brand seems to be extinct.

Art tiles and other treasures - we opened every drawer.
Eighteenth-century Staffordshire English teapots.

Dedham Pottery, Dedham, Massachusetts.

My great-aunt Ruth received a Master's degree in geography through summer study at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, while teaching full-time during the Michigan school year. She visited the Dedham Pottery works with fellow students on a field trip from Worcester, and purchased some pottery. I believe this was in the 1930's and Ruth had little money, so she could only afford seconds, items which were less than perfect. I love the pieces all the more for that.

My inherited Dedham pottery.

The note in front of the plate, in Ruth's hand, states:
 Bought when on Clark U weekend field trips. Bought - with flaws - to have souvenir when money was less plentiful.

American Arts and Crafts vessels.

The Dictator, Victor Schreckengost, ca. 1939.

Victor Schreckengost designed the famous Jazz bowl, so admired by Eleanor Roosevelt.  It is difficult to see in my photo, but the satirical sculpture above represents Nero, with figures of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Hirohito as his attendants. We were also pleased to encounter the work of the Korean potter, Shin Sang-Ho, shown below.

Jar, Shin Sang-Ho, 1987.

For any student or collector of ceramics,  the Everson Museum is a must-see.

Opened in 1968, the Everson was I. M. Pei's first museum.  The Brutalist style, to which this edifice belongs,  and which was so popular with 1960's urban renewal planners, has not aged well in general.  The hulking, cantilevered cubes of this building suggest a fortress or tomb, wherein art lies immured, rather than a welcoming place for study, enjoyment and even celebration.  Warning - the Wikipedia entry is also out of date as the Stickley furniture collection formerly housed here has decamped.

Entrance? your guess is as good as mine.

Successful buildings don't need directional arrows.

Le Corbusier has a lot to answer for.

While the spiral staircase is a triumph of concrete construction technique - and I am truly a fan of concrete, used well -  this building shares the same problem as the recently shuttered American Folk Art Museum in that so much space is given over to monumental stairs and other showy features that the net-to-gross-floor area seems very out of whack. The net floor area is the usable square footage left after one subtracts features like elevators, stairs, lobbies, and bathrooms, etc.  Small museums - which still have to have fire egress stairs of the same dimensions as big museums - can end up with grand sculptural gestures and not enough space for exhibits, collections management, shops and all the other activities housed in an arts center.   Moreover, although the museum rests on a large lot - almost an entire city block - it was designed as a stand-alone piece of sculpture in and of itself, and would be difficult to modify or enlarge.

Left: Old stone building. Right: colored, texture concrete, museum interior.

The exterior and interior are of pigmented concrete, with reddish-colored sandstone aggregate pebbles exposed by the bush-hammered surface of the concrete. The use of this material may have been intended to evoke the materials - sandstone and limestone - used in many old Syracuse buildings, as well as the Erie Canal, but the monolithic concrete lacks the human scale of the worked stone blocks. The various concrete modules are linked by fenestrated connecting passages, and while light pours in through these passages, the overall effect of so much looming concrete is menacing. It's a relief to enter the galleries, which are fairly mundane, top-lit spaces, and see the wonderful art.

28 July 2014

Marble Collection quilt

Marble Collection.

After four years, I finally utilized the 9" squares of marbled fabric made in a fabulous workshop with Elin Noble. The marbleizing techniques with which we are familiar today evolved in the Middle East beginning in the 15th century, as a way of decorating paper to be used as a substrate for calligraphy.  The craft move westward as the techniques were adapted to produce decorative paper sheets utilized by European craftsmen in the book-binding arts. 

9" marbled fabric squares.

My marble fabric workshop samples languished in my fabric collection until I admired the "Thousand Pyramids" quilt below, with its bright accents of yellow, from the Quilts and Color exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Somehow, in my mind's eye, the book arts tradition of marbling collided with a venerable American quilt pattern, and I set to cutting up my marbleized fabric squares into equilateral triangles. I indulged my love of yellow, generally the stepchild of today's quilting world.

Thousand Pyramids quilt, ca. 1920, maker unknown.

Lengthwise grain marked lightly in pencil.

After auditioning every yellow solid in my stash I marked 4 1/2" strips, then subdivided these into equilateral triangles. (I use both rotary cutting techniques and scissors in my work.) To ensure the triangles were eventually sewn with the lengthwise grain running in consistent alignment, I marked the grain lightly on the back.

Since the appearance of fabric is dependent of how light strikes the woven surface, stitching the yellow triangles in just any old alignment would have resulted in the solid yellow material looking variable and uneven in tone, distracting from the beautiful randomness of the marbled fabrics. This quilt is all about contrast - the stability and regularity of geometric triangles as a foil to the animated chaos of the marbled colors.

My large gray felt wall helps me organize the layout, and sticky notes record the position of each piece.

Final layout of triangles.

Sewn rows of triangles.

I love the look of carefully sewn quilt backs.

All basted, with a solid yellow as the backing.

I basted on the floor, as usual, as the lines of the oak strip flooring help align everything.  A solid yellow backing will reinforce the golden glow of the yellow triangles in the top.

In the hoop.

Using 1/4" quilting tape as a guide for outline quilting.

Narrow border of random triangles.

A shot cotton binding vibrating in pink and periwinkle sets off the yellow but works with the colors of the triangles. This quilt is not an earth-shaking or innovative visual symphony - it's more of an etude, perhaps - but it has some impact, and I am pleased to get those marbled fabrics out into the world, at last.

03 June 2014

We take Manhattan - and bit of Brooklyn

Detail, quilt by Mrs. Green McPhearson, 1861.

On May 23, we were in Manhattan for a very special event - our son's graduation from Columbia Law School (and yes, he does have a job.) We naturally celebrate our son's hard work and persistence, but also cheer as this marks the end of our career as parents of students. 


However, let's start at the beginning - the graduation ceremony began at 3:30 pm, so we had time to take in a ground-breaking exhibit at the New York Historical Society, an institution we had not visited before. Entitled Homefront and Battlefield: Quilts &  Context in the Civil War, this exhibit originated with co-curators Madelyn Shaw and Lynne Zacek Bassett as a response to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and was developed with support from the American Textile History Museum.

There's been an effluence of ink and paper - and video - documenting and exploring the Civil War; nevertheless this exhibit and the accompanying book fill an important gap addressing the role of textiles at war and at home. After all, King Cotton - a labor-intensive plantation crop - was at the root of it all.

My copy - already full of notes. ISBN 978-0-937474-05-1

Botanical Album Quilt, Esther Matthews, 1859.

The quilt above was made for Addison Blair Martz by his grandmother Esther. The floral designs are based on plants found in the Martz's native Virginia; like many loyal to their native commonwealth, Addison joined the Confederate army and died of wounds received at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Patriotic quilts.

In addition to quilts, many other types of textiles are displayed, amazing survivors from an era of upheaval, deprivation and loss.  Quilts and coverlets are show highlights, but a partial list of artifacts on view includes: an enormous cotton bale, uniforms and kit, children's clothing, mourning attire, slave cloth, "free cloth," a fully dressed camp bed, paintings, prints, etchings and political cartoons, daguerreotypes, a scrap of the flag from Ft. Sumter, regimental flags, letters and paper ephemera, a bandage roller and surgical lint, a hospital shirt, and even a Ku Klux Klan hood. 


Frankly, I am not much of a Civil War buff and skipped this show when it originated in Lowell, Massachusetts. However, I am very glad I had the chance to rectify my stupidity and catch the show in New York.

On our way to Columbia, we passed Jacob's Pickles and the gods of hospitality smiled on us. We'd never been able to score a table here before but that day, perhaps because of the rain, we snagged outdoor seats. What's a little drizzle to a foodie wanna-be?  As the name implies, this restaurant serves a lot of vinegar-y veggies as well as Southern-inspired comfort food. We sampled four types of pickles and shared a delicious order of shrimp and grits.

Pickled beets, cukes, green beans and carrots.

Right: proud parents line up at the gate. Left: graduation scenes.

We enjoyed the graduation ceremony and listened to a moving speech by Roberta Kaplan, the attorney who, basically, defeated DoMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) in her successful appearance before the Supreme Court.

Couldn't end the blog or the trip without a photo of our stylish friend Elke, with DH, in front of statuary at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. DH is hiding the "naughty bits" of the sculpture with his coat, making sure this blog stays G-rated.

Elke, a vision in indigo.