Art & Me Preservation Family Workshop | Lunar New Year

  • Celebrate the Lunar New Year and the Year of the Ox with the art doctors in this virtual workshop. From toys to tiles, see how artists have been inspired by oxen for generations and how Smithsonian conservators preserve these artworks. Then create your own ox masterpiece to ring in the new year.

    Part of a series that encourages families to experiment with artmaking and preservation techniques, this program is co-hosted by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art and is part of Lunar New Year DC.

    MATTHEW LASNOSKI: My name is Matthew, and I’m here from the Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art. I’m also joined by colleagues at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. We’re here today to celebrate Lunar New Year. We’re so excited that you’re here. Now is a great time before we get started to make sure that you have your supplies ready for the art making activity. We’d love to hear either some questions or things that you have in the chat before we get started.

    Awesome, cool. I see that we have people from all over the country here. People from Chicago and all over. Someone is really curious about what looks like maybe a stamp – the second one to the left looks like it has horns. I think that Ellen could tell us a little bit about that artwork. Someone just kind of wondered what it was and why it’s a standing.

    ELLEN CHASE: Okay. Hi, everybody. I’m Ellen. That is a tile, so if you look at it closely it’s made out of clay or ceramic, fired clay, and you can see it’s an ox. It’s not quite like the other ox. It’s standing up. It kind of looks like a human with an ox head, but it’s the same idea of showing that one of a bunch of tiles and it shows all 12 signs of the zodiac, and so the one we’re talking about today is the ox because it’s the year of the ox for Lunar New Year this year.

    ML: One other question before we get started is that ox and cows look similar and wondered if they’re part of the same family. I think Leah actually answered that question for us earlier this week, so I’m going to let her weigh in on that.

    LEAH BRIGHT: Hey, yeah. I had the same question, and so I just had to Google it, but I think they’re kind of the same thing, just slightly different. I think it’s depends on the year and how old a cow is, if it can be considered an ox, and if they do things like pulling carts and if they work for a living, then they’re called ox.

    ML: That’s great. I do see some people also wanted to know what our jobs are, and we’ll get to that in a few minutes because we’re going to introduce ourselves formally. Before we do that, I quickly wanted to introduce one of my colleagues YinYing Chen. She’s going to actually tell us a little bit more about the Lunar New Year and how it’s celebrated.

    YIN YING CHEN: Good morning everyone. I’m also from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. Before we really get started, I just want to share with you what ox symbolize in Chinese culture. Traditionally, China is an agricultural society, so ox as well as buffalo are the main animals for ensuring planting, farming, and harvesting. In other words, they are very important animals, and also, they have a very close relationship to farmers. Generally, they are known as being very hard-working, trustworthy, and diligent, so these are also the correct characteristics of people who are born in the year of the ox.

    Now, let me tell you more about Lunar New Year if we can go to the next slide. Lunar New Year is also known as Spring Festival. Lunar New Year as you can see in the pictures has a distinctive tie to food traditions. In Taiwan, where I was born and raised, shopping for Lunar New Year decorations and dry foods candies and cured meats in open-air markets is a beloved tradition. Also, it’s basically 15 days of celebration, field of feasts, at home with family and friends. Most of the foods are eaten during New Year have some symbolic meaning. For instance, a fish symbolizes a wishful abundance in the coming year.

    If we can go to the next line, New Year concludes with Lantern Festival. Around lantern festival, temples, park, and streets are all brightened up with ocean lanterns. The lanterns can be very simple like the one you see on the right, and the design can also be very delicate and complicated like the one you see on the left. One for my favorite Lunar New Year childhood memories happens to be carrying around lanterns in the neighborhood with my cousins. Now, without further ado let me turn it over back to Matthew. Thank you.

    ML: Thank you YinYing. That was really great. One person asked in the chat if ox is something that people eat. I know that because they’re so similar to cows they can be eaten. I know that they’re eaten here in the United States as well, but I didn’t know if that was a part of a Lunar New Year tradition at all.

    YC: Eating ox?

    ML: Yes, someone was curious. I don’t think it is a Lunar New Year tradition.

    YC: Yeah, it’s not. You don’t have to eat ox. Mostly you’ll have like a radish because it symbolizes that you can move higher in the next year or fish as I just shared. It’s about abundance, but that is not something you definitely eat.

    ML: Thank you. Now, we’re going to start our workshop today, and thank you YinYing for joining us briefly. She might not be staying through the whole program, but she was just going to help us with this introduction now.

    YC: Thank you all.

    ML: Today, we’re here for our Art & Me program. If you want to go to the next slide, Laura. I think it’s a great time for us to introduce our speakers. Today we’re going to be focusing on, since it’s the year of the ox in Lunar New Year, different ox related artworks in our collection. My name is Matthew Lasnoski. I’m at the Freer and Sackler, which is the National Museum of Asian Art. I work in our education department, and I’m going to turn it over to Ellen, who also works with me at the Freer and Sackler but has a slightly different role.

    EC: Hi, everybody. Like Matthew said, I work with him at the Freer and Sackler, the National Museum of Asian Art, but I am an Objects Conservator. We’ll talk a little bit more about what conservators are a little later on, but basically a conservator is someone who works with the collections, and we’ll talk a little bit more about how. Now I’m going to have you meet Leah, who is also a conservator but at a different museum at the Smithsonian.

    LB: Hi, everybody. Thank you for being here today. As Ellen said, I’m also an Objects Conservator and instead of being at the Freer and Sackler, I’m at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, and so is my colleague who can introduce herself next.

    LAURA HOFFMAN: Thanks, Leah. my name is Laura Hoffman, and I also get to work with Leah at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which we sometimes call SAAM for short. I also work at the Lunder Conservation Center within SAAM, and my job as the Program Manager is to offer programs just like the one we are doing today, so I’m very happy to be here.

    EC: Just like I was saying earlier, Leah and I are both conservators, and so I’m wondering have any of you heard of the word conservator before. Do you know what it means? Do you have an idea of what we might do for our job? Talk about it a little bit and if you have some ideas, it’d be great to put them in the chat so that we can see. What do you think a conservator might do?

    This is a conservator who I work with in the picture. Take a look and see if you notice anything about her. I see somebody said, “fix pots.” You’re right. That is one of the things that I do. Yes, we work to preserve the art as someone else said. What we do as conservators is, we work with the collection, and we’re kind of like the doctors for the artwork. Just like when you go to the doctor, sometimes you go to the doctor and they check up on you and make sure that you’re okay, and then sometimes when you’re not feeling well you go and then they help you feel better. We do the same thing for objects, so sometimes we just we always look really closely just the way the doctor looks at you really closely and examines you to see how you’re doing. Then sometimes we need to treat the artwork and sometimes we just do other things that help it stay healthy.

    Take a look at this picture and see if you notice anything a little unusual that you might not wear every day. Is there anything you notice that doesn’t look like something you would be wearing in your house right now? What do you notice on the conservator’s hands? Do you see anything special? See anything different?

    Gloves. Right! I have gloves like that, too. The reason we wear these gloves is because your hands naturally have oils on them that can hurt the artwork, and so we always either wash our hands really well, but if it’s something sensitive we’ll wear gloves.

    The other thing I don’t know if you can see it as well because it’s behind the words, but we also use magnification. Here’s mine. You can see it. This kind is called an optiviser, but it helps you see things really well and for the people who can’t see the images of the people talking when the slides are up, I’ll show you a little later, too. It helps us look really closely because the first thing we do with any artwork is look really closely and see what’s happening with the artwork.

    If anybody has any other questions you can put them in the chat, but otherwise maybe we’ll move on to the next one and talk a little bit more about conservation. This is my desk on a very busy day. This gives you an idea of some of the tools that I use, and there are lots of different things there that you might notice. A little later on we’ll have a chance to talk about tools more, and then you can ask me some questions. Maybe take a quick look and see if you notice anything that looks familiar to you on my desk that you might use or you’ve seen before.

    Paintbrushes. Right! Paintbrushes and paint and swabs, and we’ll talk all about those a little bit more later, but it gives you some of the ideas of tools I might use sometimes. If we can go to the next one, Laura’s going to tell you a bit about the project you guys are going to be doing.

    LH: Yes, thank you, Ellen. Thanks for giving us the all those great introductions. We want to start getting your hands busy since we are going to be doing the art making component as well. For this part if you haven’t already, take out your materials. We made it super broad this time around because we’ve seen so many different types of inspiration. You’ll see some of our examples as well as some examples at the museum as you guys are working. For this, we pretty much said anything you can dream up of because what you’re going to do is make your own ox toy sculpture. Here are some suggestions you could use modeling clay. You could use popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, also known as chenille stems, toilet paper roll, cardboard, cotton balls, bottle caps, really whatever you like. I’m going to demo right now for you, and we can start to make one together and you can keep making it as we show you more inspiration.

    Let me show you the next slide. There we go. What I have here to start is just a cork, so what I’m going to first do is I’m going to draw on a little face right here. I’m going to put on some eyes, the nose, and some circles right here, so you can see here I’ve got just a little start of a face. I know that oxen are known to have some horns, so I have a twist tie here, and I made it where it has little purple horns. Why not? It’s what I had, and I think it’s fun to make it colorful. Now we’ve got a little making of an ox, and as we’ll see, I noticed that some of the ox that we’re going to see later are often drawing a cart. I thought that would be fun, so what I need to in order to attach this to my cart is I’m going to use some other twist ties and make a harness. I’m just going to push this right on here. Again, mine’s the very quick way. You’ll see some more beautiful examples after. Then, of course I need my cart, so here I have this empty box, and I have some bottle caps, so I’m going to need something to stick them on with. I’m just going to use some tape. I’m going to put some tape on here, and I’m just going to stick them on very easily like this. Now I’ve got a very rough cart, and the last thing I need to do is try and attach it together like this.

    So, here is my very quick – whoops, I definitely need some better adhesive – but you can see here a little cart. I would recommend again that you use many different materials, and I just used what I had. What we’re going to do now is have you guys continue on. I’m going to pass this over to my colleagues, so you can see some different examples while you guys are working to get inspired. Later in the portion we are going to be doing a virtual show and tell, so what we’re going to do is have you all email us pictures if you want. We have so many people here, so I’ll probably take the first 10 and any others that we get that don’t show faces, we’ll use and put in our learning lab so that you all can show them all later on. Alright, I’m going to turn this over to Ellen for some inspiration.

    EC: Thanks, Laura. This is a piece that we have in the Freer, and it shows, like she was talking about, it shows an ox pulling a cart. I don’t know the exact dimensions of this but, it’s about this big. It’s not too big, and it almost looks like it might be a toy, but it’s actually not a toy. It would have been part of a group of different figures that would have been together in a tomb to show what life would have been like. It’s a good example to look at in terms of talking about how we might take care of some of the artwork that shows ox in our collection.

    While you’re making your artwork, also maybe take a minute and take a look at this and tell me if there’s anything you notice about this. Is there anything special about it you see that catches your attention or makes you ask questions? What questions do you have?

    While you’re thinking about that, I can tell you a little bit. This is from China probably around the 6th century. It does kind of look like a horse a little bit because it’s pulling a cart, but it’s actually an ox. If you look a little closely it has horns sticking up, and you can see the shape isn’t quite like a horse. It’s a little bit different. Some other things you can notice are what’s in the cart. You can’t really see it from here, but often what happens is that there’s a person inside.

    I’m trying to see what some other questions there are. Why is there a red circle symbol on it? Laura, if you go to the next slide, we can talk about it. There are some more details. I didn’t make this. Someone was asking how I made this. This was made a really, really, really long time ago in China. I take care of it, so I try and keep it safe and make sure that it stays healthy so that you all can come to the museum and see things like this. We try to keep them for a lot longer so that red circle right there is actually a label from a very long time ago. We don’t ever put labels on things like that now anymore, but it was a way in a museum that they would put a number on it, so they knew which object it was. I haven’t actually taken that off because I don’t know if you can see that it’s more than one color. Do you see different colors on here? The black color is clay, and then the white and the red and all those colors over it. That’s painted on top of it, and so the paint is actually pretty fragile because it’s very old, and so I have to be very careful. At some point, I’ll take the label off, but it takes a lot of work to do it a special way because I don’t want to pull the paint off.

    In these two close-up pictures you can look a little a little bit more closely at some of the things, and you see those lines. Laura, can you point out the lines on the left side, the horizontal lines with the brown smears, the cracks. On the other one, on the cart. See how there are those lines there. Those are cracks because it’s really fragile. At some point it broke, and it was put back together again, but you can still kind of see where the cracks are a little bit. Sometimes we’ll make those less visible, but for this piece, they’re there so you can see and that way you know when you’re handling it how fragile it might be.

    The other really careful thing about handling this one is the paint. Remember how we were talking about you can kind of see some of the paint has been lost, so I’m always really careful when I’m holding something like this. I wear my gloves and try not to make any more paint come off when I’m holding it.

    ML: Ellen, we have one question in the Q&A about humidity or water or moisture in the air and if that is a challenge for this artwork.

    EC: That is a really good question. Luckily for this piece, it’s not too bad because it’s fired clay. That means it’s been heated really high, and it’s not quite as big of a deal to have moisture in the air for ceramics and fired clay. We do have other things in the collection, and some of the pieces Leah is going to talk about, it is a really big deal to have moisture in the air. Maybe she’ll tell you a little bit about that for those because they are more sensitive, and I think that in fact is a good time for Leah to tell you about some of the other pieces we’re going to have you look at today.

    LB: Sure, thanks Ellen. This is the first artwork in the SAAM collection that I wanted to show you, and you might be able to see that it has many animals on it, not just oxen. If you can take a look and throw in the chat if you can see what other animals there are. While you’re taking a look, this is a really cool object in our collection. Do you think it’s a toy? Put in the chat if you think it’s a toy. It definitely looks like it, but it’s not actually a toy. Although it would be super fun to play with, it’s actually a model for a merry-go-round that was made for Coney Island in New York City. I wonder if you all have been on a merry-go-round? I remember when I was little being on a merry-go-round, and they generally just have horses, but this one has five cows, a goat, a lion, a camel, a horse, and two sleighs that are each pulled by two more horses. We actually have quite a lot of models in our collection, which are tiny versions of big things. The tiny versions help to show how these big things work. While this isn’t a toy, I hope it can give you some inspiration to make something really fun and unique and to use your imagination when you’re making your ox toy.

    The next piece that I’ll show you was actually made to be a toy. This is called “Man, Ox-Drawn Cart with Logs and Saw, Cow, Calf, and Trough.” It’s a long title, and there’s a lot going on in this one. I know I probably didn't give you a ton of time to look at that other one but see what you think here. What’s going on? What do you see? I have some of my own favorite parts of this toy, so I can share those with you a little bit later. While you look closely, you might think it’s weird for us in a museum to have toys in our museum collection, but toys can actually tell us a lot about the everyday lives of the people of the past. This toy is from probably around the 1950s and was made on a farm. This toy would have helped kids on the farm learn about what happens on a farm, how the ox are used to pull the carts, and more about everyday life on a farm. If this were in a home, you would move it around a lot, you could maybe change the clothes of the little person. You could probably use it with other toys, but in a museum, it has a totally different life. We are very careful to keep it just the way it was when it came into the museum. Like Ellen talked about earlier, we always wear gloves on our hands to keep the toy safe from any oils or anything we have on our hands. Just like Ellen mentioned earlier about the humidity, for this piece, wood in particular, can be really fragile and sensitive to water or to high humidity in the air. So, we want to keep water away from this piece, and that’s why it’s stored. It’s not on view, we keep it in a nice fancy box to keep any dust from getting on it to keep it from getting damaged by light and from that humidity that someone mentioned. As much fun as it would be to play with, in the museum we don’t play with them because we want to keep them safe and preserved for as long as possible so we can learn about farm life for many years in the future. I haven’t been looking at the chat. Matthew, were there any questions about this piece?

    ML: No, I didn’t see any specific questions.

    LB: Okay, perfect. One of my favorite parts of this is there’s actually a little baby. I don’t know if anyone can see that. You can see it better on the picture in the left, but there’s a little baby ox or baby cow. That’s probably my favorite part. I also like that the farmer has a little blue hat on. That was very cute. I hope that gives you some inspiration, too, for your own ox toy.

    We can keep going, Laura. These are two that Ellen made. Two little ox toys that Ellen made. I don’t know if you had anything you wanted to say about them, Ellen.

    EC: Nope, not other than I had a lot of fun making them, and I can’t wait to see some of the ones that you guys are making.

    LH: Could you just quickly share, since there are different materials than the ones that I had just showed, what materials you used?

    EC: Oh, sure, yeah. The red one is actually part of a paper towel roll that I painted red, and then it has pipe cleaner or chenille sticks for the horns. Then, the other one is made out of two parts of toilet paper rolls that I glued together and then more pipe cleaners or chenille sticks.

    LB: Alright. Part of keeping our artworks and our sculptures safe at the museum, we as art doctors write reports about them just like if you were at a doctor. The doctor might scribble down some notes about what’s going on with your own health, so we do that for the artworks. You guys could do that for your own ox sculpture just like we do at the museum. Then, you can think about if you want to play with it or maybe think about how you would best preserve it if it was in a museum.

    I would love if you guys could help me fill out this form for my sculpture, which is this one that I made. I can also grab it from behind me. I went a little wild with this. I had some pink tissue paper that I really loved, so I wanted to make it part of my ox sculpture. I made an ox out of a rolled piece of paper with the yellow. It’s kind of hard to tell what’s going on, but it’s just one of those mesh things that you might get fruit in from the grocery store. Then, just like Laura, I made a little cart out of some cardboard, and it has little wheels that I made out of cardboard and some bamboo skewers. I used that tissue paper inside the cart and also to decorate the ox itself because I just love that color.

    LH: I will say, Leah, that your construction is much more stable than my construction. The bamboo skewer is a great idea.

    LB: Thank you. It actually doesn’t move great, but the little wheels move. I was very proud of myself.

    To start this Art Doctor report for this artwork or this toy, first up is the art doctor or conservator’s name, which could be your name, but in this case, it’s me, Leah. The art name – I don’t know if you all could think of a good name for my little ox and cart? Do you have an idea of what you would call that? It could really use a good title. Maybe I would call it “Pink Ox and Cart” or something like that.

    Festival Cart! That was the first one I saw. That’s great. I love that. It is very festive, so you can title your artwork whatever you would like, and then the next in examination is what three words best describe your artwork? What three words would you use to describe my wild, brightly colored ox cart? I don’t know. Yellow, pink, paper. Those are some good words. It’s also kind of delicate, you could describe the condition of your artwork. Pink, cardboard. Pretty. Oh, thank you. Yes, so this paper is pretty delicate. You can think about for your artworks what might describe them, and then which emoji? I was very happy when I made this so probably the happy emoji or maybe the sunglasses one.

    Then, the next question is what can you do to take care of your art? For this one, just like I was talking about for the other artworks in our collection, I still want to play with this and move it around, but I’m going to be very careful when handling it. I would wash my hands before I touch it to make sure that I don’t get it dirty. Maybe I would also try to keep it away from water, particularly because of that tissue paper. If it gets wet the color is going to go everywhere, so maybe keep it out of a place like the bathroom where it could get really humid and wet. I would probably keep it away from the window, which the light would fade that bright color. Then, on the bottom of that form, if you want you can make a little drawing of your artwork, so then in the future you could know what it looks like when you first made it. Anyways, I hope that helps to demonstrate the Art Doctor report and how you can use it to keep track of the condition of your ox toys that you all make, so thank you for your help.

    LH: Great, thank you, Leah. Now we’re going to do the second part, which is our virtual show and tell so some people have already started emailing me. Please do at We won’t be able to get to everyone, but we’ll get to the first ones that come up, so please have them come in before I turn off the PowerPoint part I do want to say as kind of after this program, I encourage you all to take a look around in your home and your community see what kinds of toys you have lying around. I’m curious which one is your favorite and what materials that they are made out of. As we saw, ours were made out of all different types of materials and also think about – as an art doctor or conservator, a budding one – how would you store them so that they will stay safe? Just think about those.

    For this part, I’m going to take off the PowerPoint, and I know Ellen’s going to show some of those tools that she had mentioned while we’re getting those emails to come in. I’m also going to stop the recording for this part, so for the recorded part thank you so much for joining us, and we’ll get started now on this second half of our program.
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