Art & Me Preservation Family Workshop | Wearable Art
The art doctor is in! Explore the wear and tear of wearable art in this hands-on online workshop for children ages three to eight and their caretakers. From metals and jewels to seeds and plastics, see the possibilities of wearable art and how our art doctors care for the objects. Then, string together your own untraditional creation as you learn from conservators.
Part of a yearlong 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.
I do see that we have some people who have written some things in the chat. There were some people who were really interested in the boots. Would anyone like to share a little bit about the boots? They said that they liked the gold toes and the cacti. Could someone share a little bit about the boots for our visitors?
LEAH BRIGHT: Well, those are a really interesting piece. They’re actually made out of porcelain, so we included them because they look like boots, which can be a form of wearable art. You can’t actually wear them; they’re made out of ceramic. They’re called “Cowboy Boots,” and they were made in 1980 by the artist named William Wilhelmi.
ML: Thank you, that’s great. We also have another person who is really interested in the coat and the patterns that are on that coat in the middle.
LB: I do love that coat; it’s a very cool coat. That is quilted, and it’s called a “Men’s Quilted Coat” by the artist Jeff Garner, who is a fashion designer and artist who is really dedicated to using sustainable materials and to making sustainable fashion more popular. I love that ruffle on the top. It looks very fun.
ML: Yeah, lots and lots of fun. Well, thank you everyone for joining us. We’re going to get started, so let’s move to our next slide. You today have joined our “Art & Me Preservation Family Workshop.” We’re coming to you from the National Museum of Asian Art: The Freer and Sackler Gallery as well as the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Lunder Conservation Center, so our two Smithsonian museums have come together for this program here today. Now, we’re going to do a little bit of introductions. I’m Matthew Lasnoski. I’m the Audience Engagement Specialist at the Freer and Sackler. I’m going to turn it over to my colleague Ellen Chase, who is going to introduce herself.
ELLEN CHASE: Hi, everybody, I’m Ellen Chase. I’m the Objects Conservator at the Freer and Sackler, and that means that I take care of all the three-dimensional objects, anything not flat, in our collection. Next, Leah’s going to tell you she’s also an Objects Conservator but not at the Freer and Sackler.
LB: That’s right. Hi, everybody. My name is Leah Bright, and as Ellen said, I’m also an Objects Conservator, but I work at the Lunder Conservation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum just like my colleague Laura.
LAURA HOFFMAN: Hi, I’m Laura Hoffman, and I’m the Lunder Conservation Center Program Manager, so I work very closely with Leah and other conservators. We’re a visible art lab, so I handle all of the outfacing programs for conservation. You might hear us refer to the Smithsonian Art Museum as SAAM for short, and it also includes the Renwick Gallery, which is our museum of craft and several of the artworks that you just saw in the slide before.
ML: Awesome, we’ll go to our next slide. Now, we’re going to turn it over to Ellen, and she is going to explain a little bit more about what a conservator is and does.
EC: Just like Leah and I were saying earlier, we are both conservators. Have any of you heard the word conservator before? Do you know what a conservator is?
ML: I see some people writing in the chat. It looks like someone has been here before and says that it’s like an art doctor.
EC: Yes, that’s right, very good. Oh, there’s Laura’s shirt. That’s right, what a conservator does, our main job is to take care of and preserve art and historical objects and anything that’s part of our cultural heritage or part of our culture and try to preserve it for the future so that when you get older and have grandchildren the pieces are still there. We take care of them the same way a doctor takes care of a person, so we want to make sure they stay healthy, and if they get sick, then we try to make sure they get better and fix them.
If you look in this slide, tell me what you notice. Do you see anything in there that looks a little bit different or looks a little bit special? Take a look at what she’s doing and how she’s doing it. Is there anything she’s wearing that looks unusual to you?
ML: I see some typing. Someone said she’s wearing purple gloves.
EC: Yes, you are right, and so I have my own purple gloves here. Why do you think we might wear gloves? What does anybody think?
ML: William says that there is oil on hands.
EC: Very good, yes, so even though we wash our hands all the time, everybody has oil on their fingers that can hurt artwork, so we wear the gloves to protect the art from the oils on our hands, but we also wear the gloves to protect our hands. Sometimes we use materials that are not so safe for people. Another thing that she’s not wearing but that I’m wearing, tell me if any of you recognize this that I’m wearing right now. Does it look familiar to you?
ML: Okay, I see someone writing, and we got three people who said lab coat.
EC: Right, it’s a lab coat, and so just like a doctor wears a lab coat, I wear a lab coat. Again, just like with the gloves, it’s to protect the artwork. If you’re wearing a fuzzy sweater, I don’t want to leave little bits of my sweater on the artwork, but it’s also to protect me if we’re working with materials that are not so safe. Sometimes I’m not so neat. You can see I have paint on my sleeve, so when I’m working with paint sometimes, I like to wear this so I don’t get it on my clothing.
Tell me, there is one other thing in the picture that the conservator is working with that’s something sort of unusual or a little different that might help her understand what she’s looking at. Does anybody notice what she’s using to see the art object?
ML: Let’s see. Someone says that she might have special glasses.
EC: Well, kind of like that. In the picture, she’s actually using a microscope. One of the reasons she’s using that is we always look really closely at things. One of the most important parts about conservation – or the same as when you’re a doctor, when you go and they examine you to make sure you’re okay and understand what’s happening – we do the same thing with art. Sometimes we use big microscopes like that, and sometimes we use more portable things like this. It just helps us look a little more closely so we can understand what we’re looking at and understand the art objects.
Now we’re going to start talking a little bit about what we’re going to look at today, but first I’m going to show you my desk. We’ll talk more about the different kind of tools and different materials that we use while you guys do your activity, but this is just a quick idea of different things we might use to work on an art object.
So, how do you guys think you can wear art? What do you think that means? We were talking about it a little bit at the very beginning, but if you look at the picture on the right – that’s in our collection, it’s a painting of a woman from China – what do you notice about her that you also notice about the other pieces which are also in our collection?
ML: Wearing nice clothes.
EC: Right, she is wearing nice clothes, but if you look at the pieces on the left, you can also see that those pieces are very similar, right? In our collection, we have images of people wearing wearable art, and then we also have wearable art itself. But what do you notice? Does it look like regular clothing? Do you think my sneakers are wearable art or are they just something that I wear?
ML: It looks like someone wrote the word, “fancy.”
EC: Yeah, they’re not always fancy, but when we collect something that is art, it’s going to be something that’s more than just a T-shirt. There’s going to be some special artwork, like the way it’s made or maybe what it means or maybe the kind of materials that are used. There are different things about it that will make it special and more than just my sneakers. Leah is going to tell you a little bit about other pieces that are in the Smithsonian that are wearable art.
LB: Okay, so this is one of my favorite pieces that is in the Renwick collection that Laura mentioned. Take a good look. Do you see any familiar shapes? How do you think this would be worn? Where would you wear it on the body? It’s pretty unique and kind of special, but there’s some familiar shapes and pictures going on.
ML: So, I’m seeing a few people write bracelets.
LB: Yes, excellent. There you go. You guys were spot on. This is a bracelet. This is specifically called “Curtains and Balcony Bracelet” by the artist Joshua DeMonte. He makes artwork, particularly jewelry – so wearable art – that he makes on a 3D printer. So, just the same kind of printer that you would print out your homework or maybe a picture, but it prints with a special kind of plastic, so this is made out of plastic. As you can see it looks like a window and some curtains, so you can see how different it looks on a person’s body, and then on the right it’s on display at the museum. Once a piece of wearable art comes into the museum, it’s not worn anymore because that could cause damage. It could get dirty or broken, and we want to make sure the artworks are preserved for as long as possible. You can see that, from this piece, wearable art can be really anything you want. Think about this when you make your own piece, just use your imagination and make whatever you want.
We have another example that is also in the American Art Museum collection, but it’s used with really different materials. This is another really pretty piece called “Africa” by the Baltimore artist Joyce Scott. What do you see in this one? How is it different than the other piece? What do you think it’s made out of? It’s definitely very different. Where do you think this one would be worn?
ML: We’re getting a variety of responses. The first one that came in said that they were beads potentially or it looks like it could be sewn, too, someone thought. They weren’t sure if it was beads or sewn together like crochet.
LB: That is a very astute observation. It’s kind of both. It is made out of beads. They’re really tiny glass beads, and Joyce uses a technique that is kind of like sewing, where she weaves these beads together to make designs. It’s almost like she’s drawing or painting but with beads. She uses beads, which is a pretty traditional part of jewelry making, and then she makes these really unique and special kinds of wearable art. Today, we’re actually going to be using beads in our activity, and Ellen is going to show how beads are used in others ways in collections at the Freer and Sackler.
EC: Sorry about that, so these are three different pieces in our collection. Take a minute and take a look at them to see what sorts of things you notice. What do you see when you look at these artworks? Especially look at how you think the beads are held together, what makes them into one?
ML: Someone says they really like the birds or swans on the right.
EC: That part is not a bead, but see how there’s a bead on top. That is a special medicine box, and so you could wear that and carry it with you so you have your medicine with you, but that bead on the top is one way that you could use beads, and it’s got a thick cord. The one in the middle – that necklace, if you look at it, that’s actually lots of really thin cotton threads that have been put together that have been put together to make another thick cord. If you look at the one all the way over to the left, that’s actually gold wire, so you can use lots of different things to string beads.
During your activity today, it’s the same idea. You could use lots of different things to string beads on in your activity when you make your own. Could you go to the next one please?
Take a look here. These are all different kinds of beads that we have in the Freer and Sackler collection, and they look really different, right? There are lots of things to notice about them, so take a look and tell me what kinds of things you’re seeing. What do you notice? What do you see when you look at all these different beads?
ML: Someone says that the two gold ones together almost look like acorns.
EC: They do a little bit, you’re right, but those are made out of metal. Those are also quite little. Sometimes it’s hard to tell in these pictures, but they’re all different sizes. As you can see, they come in lots of different shapes, and what else is different about them? Do they all look the same in terms of their color?
ML: No, someone says the blue ones really stick out, like the one in the middle, and then the horse.
EC: And then the horse, right. Those are both bright blue, and some of them are light brown. They come in different colors, and they’re made out of all different kinds of things. You guys think you can take a close look to see if you can maybe figure out what any of them are made out of?
ML: Someone says the blue one looks like it’s made out of glass.
EC: Yes, you’re right, it is. That’s exactly what that is. If you look to some of the other ones, does anyone have some ideas about what some of the other materials might be?
ML: People like the animal beads.
EC: Yeah, so the little blue one down at the bottom is made out of glass. The one way over on the left, the black one, we’re not totally sure what it’s made out of, but it might be made out of something called jet, which is actually pressed carbon.
ML: Another question is are any of them made out of brass?
EC: None of them are made out of brass, but those two little ones in between the ram and the blue one are made out of gold. I see someone wanted to know if they make beads out of bone, and yes, they do. If you look at the one on the right, that’s a bead that’s made out of bone. There are beads that are made out of ceramics, beads that are made out of glass, beads that are made out of bone, beads that are made out of organza and jet, and there are beads that are made out of stone all on this one slide. It gives you an idea of the really wide range of things we have to take care of, even just from our beaded art.
If you go to the next slide, please Laura. These are some other examples in our collection. Things to think about what might happen for beaded art, what are some things that might happen, what are some things we need to worry about or take care of? What do you guys notice about any of these pictures? Is there anything you think might be a problem or something conservators might have to worry about?
Some of the beads are broken. You can also see in the necklace that the string broke, and so that’s something we have to worry about. When we take care of the art, we want to make sure to handle it really carefully and make sure we don’t break anything. Sometimes if something does break, sometimes things get old and really fragile and something happens like in this case, and then we have to worry about how to put it back together again.
They might turn color, that’s true, too, depending on what the bead is made out of. Very good. We also worry about how much light they’re exposed to and do all kinds of things to make sure to take care of them. I’m going to talk about one specific piece quickly, and then you guys are going to get to make your art.
This is a piece in our collection. It is Indian, and it would be worn by men on their sixtieth and eightieth birthdays as part of the ritual and celebration. It’s made out of gold and jewels, and you can see these brown round beads. What do you think the brown beads might be? Does that look like anything that you guys might recognize?
You’re muted, Matthew, sorry.
ML: Someone thought it might be a fruit or a nut.
EC: Yeah, right. These are a special kind of seed, and they have a very important significance. Right, rudraksha. These are strung on a silver wire, and the beads themselves are fragile. They are sensitive to light, and they’re sensitive to handling. The wire itself is sort of strong, but the pendent – the metal part – is very heavy. Whenever we exhibited this and whenever we handle it, we have to be really careful to not pull on the wire and also making sure that the beads don’t get damaged because there’s heavy stuff in between.
Once the museum is back open again, if you come and look, it’s in the galleries, and you can see we have a very special way of displaying it so that we’re not putting in pressure or stress on the beads or the wire.
I think now we’re going to go to the activity, and Laura is going to tell you all about what you’re going to be doing.
LH: Alright, so I hope you guys all got your materials ready. If not, I’m going to stop the share, and we’re going to start to make some art together, so gather your beads, gather your string, sometimes I like to use tape, so you might want a piece of tape with that. Let’s turn this back so that you can see us all. I have here this leather cord that I have, and I am actually tying one end so that the beads will stay. Then, on the other end I’m going to take a piece of tape, and I’m going to put this over it. It’s going to act almost like a needle and thread where it just gives it a little easier tip to make it go on because I can make it really tight up top. So, I’ve got my knot at the end and then my tape here.
Then, because we’re all art doctors here, I’ve got some tools. If I was using really, really small tools, often conservators will use different types of tweezers. I don’t actually need them, but I think it’s sometimes a little fun. Here’s my bead here. Yes, you can see Ellen has hers as well. She’s actually in the lab. I’m just going to thread it on – it’s a little hard to thread it on with the tweezers. I’m going to decide how many I want on here. Actually, I made the tape a little tight, so I have to take off the tape. Sometimes with art doctors, they have to figure out the correct process, so they’ll do a lot of testing ahead of time. With this, I don’t think the tape was as helpful with the leather cord because the leather cord is pretty solid on its own. I also pulled out a ribbon, and I feel like with ribbon it might be more helpful.
I’m curious, for you guys in the chat, if you want to share which materials you decided to use. I’m using slightly more traditional ones, but then I also found this fun peacock feather that I thought I could tie around here. Sometimes what you can do is have them be loose. Other times you can tie a knot so that it’ll stay in place.
I have some different examples. I love beads, and I love doing different ones, so I have lots of different examples. Here is a necklace that I have which is kind of fun because they slide, but they do have knots all across, and it’s really long so I can layer it. Then, I have this other fun one that has all different types. Not as beautiful as the ones we just saw, but I also thought it would be fun. I tried to wear as much wearable art as I could. I know you do as well, Leah. We both have on some really cool leather necklaces.
I just love the stories that come from it, so this was given to me by my sister when she was travelling. My earrings are from my parents. These two rings I actually made at a silver making workshop for art doctors in order to better understand metal making processes. This ring here was made by our Lunder Conservation fellows in metals. Not only is she a talented conservator, but she also makes her own jewelry and makes all of her own metals and uses mythology as her inspiration, so I just love that piece. I even have on my – you know it’s sometimes fun to wear something on your lab coat as well, so here I have a broach that’s my grandmother’s. What about you, Leah?
LB: Well, I have so much jewelry that it was hard to decide what to wear today, but I decided on my brightly colored leather necklace here. I went on a trip to Cuba to visit with other art conservators there, and that’s where I bought that. My earrings are actually made out of gourds. They’re little pieces of dried gourds, and I got these in Mexico.
LH: But you’re not going to eat the gourd later?
LB: No, but maybe if I get really, really hungry, but I don’t think it would very good. It’s really the outside, the hard part of the gourd.
ML: It’s interesting that you mention the gourd because some of the people that wrote in some of the things they’re using are penne pasta to string. Someone is using olives, so it seems like food is an inspiration for a few of our people for their wearable art.
LH: It reminds me of Oktoberfest, that German festival where they wear necklaces that are made of pretzels and then they eat them on their way. Penne pasta might stay longer if you treat it. The olives might be just a delicious snack for later today that you can wear around.
LB: Laura, should I show what I made?
LH: Yes, if you guys have other examples, I think this would be a great time to show them.
LB: I was inspired by this activity and decided to make another necklace. It might be kind of hard to see.
LH: Put it up closer to the camera.
LB: Here we go. I used some elastic that I had from making face masks, and I had some big wooden beads, and then I decided to tie some ribbon to make these kind of springy parts. These blue beads are made out of coils of magazine strips, so I cut up magazine pages and made them into beads.
LH: I know, Ellen, you have some examples, so for your examples for the last couple minutes maybe we can pull up – I’m going to share my screen, and we can do the art doctor conservation report with it.
EC: That sounds perfect.
LH: Okay, great, give me on second here.
EC: Okay, so remember how I said earlier that as conservators we always look at things very closely to understand how things are made and how they might be taken care of. This is an example for you guys to see what we do, and we’re going to do it together and work on some of the types of things that we look at. I’m going to show you that necklace in the picture, which is actually a necklace that I made. Once you guys finish your necklaces you can use the same art doctor conservation report to look at your necklaces. We’re just going to quickly show you how to do one now. You can do it with me if you’re looking at your own piece if you’re ready or you can give me suggestions and help me write my report.
So, quickly, if you look at the report, the first question is art doctor or conservator’s name. I’m the conservator, so I’m going to use my name, Ellen. Then, the art’s name – sometimes in the museum we have numbers to be able to tell the art apart, but sometimes we also have the name of it, so we can understand. In this case, I think I’m going to call it “The Paper Towel Necklace” because these beads are cut from paper towel tubes.
The first part we’re going to look at carefully is what three words best describe your artwork? Maybe if you guys look at the picture or if you can look at it as I’m holding it here, what are some good words to describe my wearable art that I made? Does anybody have any ideas? The first thing that I would say is that there are five beads so that I would know, so if I came back later to look and only saw four beads, I would say “hmm, what happened?”
I see that Grace raised her hand. Can we do it that way or does she need to type in the chat? Go ahead and type in the chat, Grace. So then another thing that I might say is that it’s on a black cord. That’s another way to describe it. Can you guys think of anything else to help describe this necklace?
ML: Someone said colors.
EC: Very good, right. They’re different colors, so what I would probably do is say which colors so that I would know. Someone was talking earlier about changing colors, so we always take pictures as part of our examination. We would also write it down, so we could look at it later and understand what kind of condition it’s in.
The next thing is to circle which emoji best describes how you felt making the art. I don’t know about you guys, but I had a great time making this, so I would definitely circle the smile emoji. The last part of the report is what can you do to take care of your art? This is a little different because I just made it, and it’s not a museum object, but if I were worried about it, because it’s made out of cardboard, I would want to not get it wet. What are some other things we’ve talked about that I might be able to do to it so that it doesn’t break and I can keep it for a long time? Does anybody have any ideas?
ML: I see some typing. Okay, someone said, “be careful.”
EC: Yes, exactly, that’s the most important thing always, so be careful. I’m doing this, but don’t do that. Be very careful. Hold it with two hands so that it’s not putting any pressure on the string. If it were a real art object, I wouldn’t be carrying it in my hands at all. I would be carrying it on a tray, so it would be supported. I would probably keep it out of the light so the colors don’t fade too much. Yep, Mary, right. Put it in a box and put it out of the sun in a safe spot. That’s perfect. That’s what I would write, and then the last thing on your report is to sketch the artwork that you created, so you can know what it looks like. Once you guys are finished with your projects you can do the very same thing.
LH: Alright, thank you, Ellen. As we’re about to wrap up here, we would love to see the pictures of your wearable art. Please email them to me at the email that I sent to you. We’ll add it to our Learning Lab, and I have the link to the Learning Lab right here that I’ll put in the chat. Also, we are planning our next Art & Me program for November, and we would love, love, love to hear feedback about when we should offer these. We really want to hear from you, so please leave all of your open and honest feedback. We want to offer these throughout the year online, and we really want to make sure they’re at times and the content that you want. A big thank you to Matthew, Ellen, and Leah. It was so much fun learning about our wearable art today, and you all were wonderful participants. Thank you so much!