The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Recently I received a message via Facebook from Beth Heller, a colleague in Colorado, regarding the conservation of a vulnerable watercolor. The work in question was unusual enough that Beth began researching the artist and conservation literature to see if she could turn up any information for the fragile work. She quickly hit on the finding aid for our Adelia Gates collection and wrote to me that she had “an Adelia Gates watercolor in my studio right now . . . Have you seen any?” The name and the fragile brown paper she described sounded familiar. Several years ago, I had examined a Gates watercolor in our collection, but chose not to treat it due to the extreme sensitivity of the unusual paper Gates worked on.
My colleague’s inquiry piqued my interest. Our Adelia Gates Finding Aid is sparse, but intriguing and mysterious. Further research in the Smithsonian Institution’s Collections Search Center next pointed me to The chronicles of the Sid: or, The life and travels of Adelia Gates, by Adela E. Orpen, available in our Botany library. With that title, I became even more curious! The book was written in the first person by Adela Orpen, Gates’ ward in rural Kansas during the Civil War, who went on to become “a popular authoress” and whose writing offers amazing insight into 19th century thinking and conventions around class, race, and gender. Not much is known about how the book came into the collection except for an ownership inscription, which we have connected to the wife of the mathematician and scientist Louis Agricola Bauer, living at The Ontario apartments in Washington, D.C.
Happily, someone inserted an annotated table of contents to botanically-related passages, making my reading more focused and saving me from having to read too much (forgive the pun) flowery prose about the lives of immigrant, freedmen pioneers, and working women. Young Adelia Gates is described as brilliant, motivated to go to college, and constantly studying between her farm work, parenting, and schoolteacher duties. She began to paint when she was a young woman, but had few resources: “She had no colours, she had no brushes . . . She made paints for herself out of the juices of the flowers and plants themselves.” To earn money for college, Gates went back East to work in the textile mills at Lowell, MA.
It wasn’t until 50 that Gates finally began serious studies in botanical painting in Switzerland. Her studies at Madame (Emile) Vouga’s school in Geneva promoted the use of dark paper and opaque pigment, as opposed to traditional watercolors: “The new style evaded this difficulty of white upon white by simply doing away with the white paper and using coloured paper instead…White flowers now stand lustrous upon dark brown paper, and they are not in the least heavy.” In describing her later skill Orpen wrote “When the Sid [Gates’ nickname] begins to paint a flower, the first thing she does is to dip her brush into the colour she intends to use; there is no preliminary going over the outline with a pencil…there are none of those half-hidden black lines that always irritate the spectator who looks at flower pictures that have been carefully sketched in.”
Gates also explored boundaries as a solo woman traveler. Gates sought out rare flora in the Sahara and on the lava fields of Iceland. On the subject of her search for botanical subjects in Colorado, Orpen describes how Gates “was one day beguiled far up into the mountains in search of some tempting flowers that she had heard were then in blossom…so taking off her shoes and stockings, she determined to use all the prehensile members provided by Nature… [A frightful cliff climb ending in a tumble, injuries, and the loss of shoes ensue]…There was but one ray of comfort in this disastrous climax, the Rubus deliciosus was within reach.” Which turned out to be, coincidentally, a flower featured in the painting my colleague was treating, and a serendipitous bookend to my own investigation of Adelia Gates.
Women have often been described as muses, inspirational figures whose aura and/or beauty and/or power inspire male artists to produce works of art. Think of Kiki of Montparnasse (also known as Alice Ernestine Prin) who, early in 20th century Paris, charmed artists including Modigiliani, Alexander Calder, and Man Ray; and sat for portraits by photographers, including Andre Kertesz. A French country girl turned model/singer/actress/artist, she was, according to Billy Kluver and Julie Martin biography, Kiki’s Paris: Artists and Lovers 1900-1930, one of the early 20th century’s truly independent women. Around the same time and back in the United States, another young woman, Georgia O’Keeffe, was also described in similar terms—a muse who riveted an artist’s attention (in her case, photographer Alfred Stieglitz) and became, on her own, a trailblazing talent and a larger-than-life public figure. Photography helped O’Keeffe to shape her own life-path, celebrity and legacy, too. Her shrewd understanding of how photographic images of her would be useful to focus attention on the images she made as a painter are fascinating to consider, particularly from our vantage point in what’s often described as a celebrity- crazed, reality-TV addicted world.
In a wonderful piece Barbara Buhl Lynes, curator at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, wrote for click! photography changes everything, she explains that while Stieglitz’s photographs of O’Keeffe in the late teens and 1920s may have triggered a sensation, it was how O’Keeffe herself went on the exploit the power of photography to her own ends that is, particularly in National Women’s Month, the more interesting part of the story. You can read more about the story of O’Keeffe’s success in determining and controlling her own destiny, as well as our image of her.
Footage of the 92 year old Georgia O'Keeffe taken in and around her home in New Mexico.
Women have often been described as muses, inspirational figures whose aura and/or beauty and/or power inspire male artists to produce works of art. Think of Kiki of Montparnasse (also known as Alice Ernestine Prin- https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Alice_Prin) who, early in 20th century Paris, charmed artists including Modigiliani and Alexander Calder, and Man Ray (http://www.flickr.com/photos/confetta/2973043917/) and sat for portraits by photographers, including Andre Kertesz (http://chagalov.tumblr.com/post/961277151/kiki-de-montparnasse-paris-1927-by-andre)). A French country girl turned model/singer/actress/artists, she was, according to Billy Kluver and Julie Martin biography, Kiki’s Paris: Artists and Lovers 1900-1930, one of the early 20th century’s truly independent women.
Around the same time and back in the United States, another young woman, Georgia O’Keeffe, was also described in similar terms—a muse who riveted an artist’s attention (in her case, photographer Alfred Stieglitz [http://click.si.edu/Image.aspx?image=5220&story=700&back=Story]) and became, on her own, a trailblazing talent and a larger-than-life public figure. Photography helped O’Keeffe to shape her own life-path, celebrity and legacy, too. Her shrewd understanding of how photographic images of her would be useful to focus attention on the images she made as a painter are fascinating to consider, particularly from our vantage point in what’s often described as a celebrity- crazed, reality-TV addicted world. In a wonderful piece Barbara Buhl Lynes, curator at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, wrote for click! photography changes everything (www.click.si.edu), she explains that while Stieglitz’s photographs of O’Keeffe in the late teens and 1920s may have triggered a sensation, it was how O’Keeffe herself went on the exploit the power of photography to her own ends that is, particularly in National Women’s Month, the more interesting part of the story. You can read more about the story of O’Keeffe’s success in determining and controlling her own destiny and our image of her (http://click.si.edu/Story.aspx?story=700).
Smithsonian Institution Archives' (SIA) Fulfillment Manager & Photographer, Michael Barnes, has become the “unofficial” photographer for the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s (NMAAHC) Save our African American Treasures program. Over the past two years, he’s traveled to cities across the country with members of the Treasures team. Michael documents the events and some of the objects that individuals bring in to share and learn more about. At a recent program in Detroit, Michael photographed a woman who brought in locks of hair that she had saved from members of her family. He was struck by how powerfully those keepsakes evoked remembrances of loved ones. It also made him think back to a woman who came to a Treasures program in Charleston, South Carolina in May of 2009. This woman brought in her grandmother’s sack that contained a tattered dress, three handfuls of pecans, and a lock of hair. This sack was given to her grandmother, when she was a 9-year-old slave girl by her mother, who she never saw again once she was sold. The story itself was sewn into the sack. Save Our African American Treasures is a collaboration among cultural institutions, community leaders, and the public to preserve and collect African American material culture. NMAAHC launched Treasures in January 2008. Since then, the program has been conducted in Atlanta, GA; Charleston, SC; Chicago, IL; Detroit, MI; Los Angeles, CA; Topeka, KS; St. Helena, SC; and Washington, DC. The centerpiece of the program is Hometown Treasures. Participants bring up to three personal items for a 20-minute, one-on-one professional consultation with experts on how to care for them. The specialists serve as reviewers, not appraisers, and do not determine items’ monetary values. Objects such as books, paper, and textiles can be reviewed. SIA staff members have supported the Treasures program by serving as reviewers. Reviewers listen to information provided by the participant, and/or ask questions to help place the object in a historical context, and provide advice on how to care for these items. The NMAAHC collects some of these items for the new museum that will open on the National Mall in 2015. However, since we don’t collect everything that we review at Treasures, its important that we help families preserve these precious possessions in the non-museum environment of their homes. Additionally we hope to raise awareness about preserving other items that they did not bring to Treasures. In order to facilitate this we offer additional educational components, including: Preservation Presentations: Informal one-hour lectures cover topics such as photographs, textiles, provenance, and planning for disasters. The sessions include an opportunity for participants to ask questions. Hands-on Preservation: Participants have the opportunity to learn how to store and to practice packing garments, store paper and photographs, and keep ceramics in good condition for generations to come by using preservation tools, materials, and techniques. Oral Histories: Participants record a brief personal memory, a family story, or a memory of a historical event. Family members are encouraged to interview each other. Expo: Local organizations are invited to host a table where they can distribute materials and answer questions from members of the public. As a companion to the Treasures project, the museum has produced African American Treasures: A Preservation Guide, a 30-page guidebook that is distributed free to attendees at the program and to individuals, community groups, and educators to highlight the importance of proper preservation techniques. The guidebook is part of a Treasures kit, which also includes white cotton gloves, archival tissue papers, and archival documents sleeves to help people keep their personal treasures safe.
More than 150 people brought family objects to the first Treasures program held in Chicago in January 2008. In the crowd was Patricia Heaston of Chicago, who brought a white sleeping-car porter’s cap, and a gold-colored pin bearing the image of an African American woman. She learned that the white porter’s cap was rare (most caps were black or blue), and its color meant that its owner had tended to prominent travelers (perhaps even Presidents) on a private train car. The image on the pin was that of Madame C.J. Walker (1867-1919), the first African American female self-made millionaire. The pin was probably given as a prize to successful sales agents of Walker’s hair-care products. Treasures is not the only way that NMAAHC collects objects. On our website, individuals can learn about our acquisitions initiative and access a donation form. Treasures is made possible with support from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The grants also support the pre-design and construction of the museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., scheduled to open in 2015.
Tracey Enright is the Public Programs Coordinator at the National Museum of American History and Culture
- 1 of 9