Converse with a Conservator | Folk & Self-Taught Art
A little bit about this program in case this is your first time is that this is a monthly series in which we have a dialogue with a different conservator from our lab. Since your camera and mics are off, please submit your questions through the Q&A feature. I’ll be your host and moderator, and we’ll get to as many questions as we can. This is a different kind of program because we’re not going through a presentation. It really is guided by your questions.
If you have attended before, then you know I always like to do a little bit of housekeeping before we get started, but I promise I will keep it very brief. First, keep the Internet browser open. After the program you’ll find a survey, so please fill that out at the conclusion. As a reminder, this program is being recorded, but only the panelists’ audio and video will show up. Our wonderful intern Armando Rivera is working behind the scenes in case you have technical issues, so you can message him in the chat box should any issues arise. We also have closed captioning so please use the CC option at the bottom of your screen to take advantage of this offering.
Now, I’d like to gratefully acknowledge the diverse and vibrant native communities who make their home here in Washington, DC, the native peoples on whose ancestral homelands the museum has gathered, and the labor of people who were enslaved in constructing SAAM’s historic building. Now, a little bit about the Lunder Conservation Center at the museum: it’s the first visible art conservation lab on permanent display at the museum, and we showcase our conservation methods to the public. My role is to offer programs in person and now online, so tonight I’m delighted to be joined by our Objects Conservator, Leah Bright, who will be discussing folk and self-taught art. Leah, can you get us started and just tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to be the Objects Conservator here at SAAM?
LEAH BRIGHT: Sure, thanks, Laura. As Laura said, I’m an Objects Conservator, which basically means I help take care of the three-dimensional artworks here at SAAM. Let’s see. I guess if I start from way back, I always had an interest in art, and I’ve always loved to make things and just do things with my hands, so I always thought I wanted to do something hands-on. I attended the University of Oregon for undergrad, where I studied Spanish and Art History. Then after that, I knew I really wanted to dedicate myself to art conservation, and so I had to take some pre-requisites like chemistry and organic chemistry and fine art, and I also did some work with arts organizations and museums in Los Angeles and back in my home state of Alaska. Eventually, I ended up down here in the Washington, DC area, where I was a pre-program intern here at SAAM for a couple of years and also at the Freer and Sackler Gallery and Hirshhorn before I went to graduate school at the Winotor University of Delaware program in art conservation.
LH: I love when it’s full circle like that.
LB: Full circle. You’ll see some photos in my presentation of little baby Leah from my pre-program. After graduate school, I was a Mellon fellow in objects conservation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian before taking a job here at SAAM. That’s probably more information than you wanted, but that’s my story.
LH: We like it all. I know there’s a lot we could talking about, but specifically we chose to talk about folk and self-taught art here at the museum, and I think some people may be more familiar than others. Could you just briefly describe what folk and self-taught art is?
LB: Yes, excellent. That’s a good place to start. There really are no universally agreed upon definitions of these categories, and over time they’ve become more and more blurred, but folk and self-taught are considered more neutral terms than other words like outsider, vernacular, intuitive and visionary art. We try to be as specific as possible when talking about artists that we’ve put in these categories. I think it’s more effective to talk about some examples when defining these terms.
We have a large collection of quilts at the American Art Museum from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. These generally fit in the category of folk art. Folk art is generally used to describe works of art that were created within a specific tradition, often incorporating symbols and techniques that have been passed down. Quilts fit in that category, and they also show how artists could create something within a tradition but incorporate their individual vision and creativity.
Another example that I have–here’s how we store quilts that are in the collection just to give you a little conservation taste. We store them rolled so they do not have folds and creases that then can become tears. These were in our visible storage area that’s still in the center.
Another example are duck decoys. I really just love duck decoys, so I really wanted to give them a shout out. I think they’re very charming. They’re also a pretty good example of folk art as they fit within a very specific passed down tradition but often convey individual points of view and individual styles. All of these examples, the quilts and the duck decoys, are on view at the museum right now, so hopefully we will open back up soon, and you can go and see them.
LH: Leah, quick question before you move on. First of all, I just want to say I love doing these programs just to learn things like you love duck decoys. I don’t know if that normally would come up in conversation, so that’s just a wonderful detail.
LB: How can you not?
LH: They’re delightful, but we did just get a quick question before we move forward about the quilts and the storage. The question is if they’re rolled up don’t they warp into rolls so maybe just really quickly – I know we’ll be focusing more on treatment, but that’s a really good question.
LB: Yeah, that’s a great question. Generally, no, the materials that are used to make the quilts often are malleable enough and that they don’t stiffen into that rolled shape. I think even if they did take on a little bit of a rolled shape for us that would be better than if they were folded, which we always say a fold becomes a crease becomes a tear, so we really want to reduce those as much as possible. If you have something like quilts at home and you can only have the space to fold them, then I would encourage you to try to pad out those folds with something like an acid-free tissue or even like a clean cotton cloth to help reduce creases. These ones actually, the quilts themselves, are exposed to light but those are actually photographs. Large photographs of the quilts that are on the rolls to try to show what’s there.
LH: We also just got another question before you move on from this one. It says in the photos of quilts in storage, those are photos of quilts on the outside whereas the quilts are rolled between tissue. Is that correct?
LB: That is correct. One of the main vulnerabilities of quilts is light damage because they’re often made with things like organic dyes that can fade in light pretty quickly, so we try to keep them out of light. We cycle them in and out of the galleries with pretty relative frequency, and we have a contract textile conservator. Shout out to Julie Brennan who always does this for us. So, yes that’s a long answer to the question, but yes, those are photographs to show what’s on the roles.
LH: Also, you’re going to be excited about this because we’re getting a couple of questions about duck decoys. One person asked if we have a photo of where the decoys are in storage, but I don’t think that’s in the visible storage part of Luce, right?
LB: That’s a good question. I don’t have one today. I don’t think we have any duck decoys in Luce at the moment.
LH: That’s a good question. We’re going to have to dig into this, so we can see more of those.
LB: I think we actually don’t have a lot of them in the collection, so even some that are on display are often loans to us.
LH: One other question about the duck decoys is that are the decoys completely made from scratch or they modified from mass-produced versions? I don’t know if you know that.
LB: Wow, I do not know that. I don’t know about these specific pieces. I don’t know actually much about their histories. Yeah, that’s a great question.
LH: Perhaps this is going to be a future Converse with a Conservator specifically on duck decoys for you.
LB: Yeah, that would be a great question for our curator Leslie Umberger. She would know more.
LH: We had another question just more broadly about air control in storage. You know when you were looking at the one in Luce, that’s all pretty climate controlled, right?
LB: Yeah, the air in the museum is pretty tightly controlled, and we have little data loggers in those cases in Luce to make sure that nothing bad happens and that we can catch it really quickly if the temperature or the relative humidity goes out of a safe range. We also, in open storage like that at the museum, we try to keep things that aren’t as sensitive and that don’t need to be in such a controlled environment.
LH: Breaking news about the ducks. Ariel O’Connor, our co-fellow objects conservator says there are some duck decoys in Luce and the black duck is there. She provided a link, so I’ll put that in the chat box.
LH: I know there’s a lot more under this and someone asked a question about craft and thinking about that, so keep talking a little bit about this nuance between folk and self-taught and then kind of how craft falls within that as well.
LB: That’s a super great question. Yeah, I was kind of hoping someone would mention that. I’m in these different categories, so I’m just going to move on. I have so much to talk about, but I’m glad everyone’s excited about duck decoys. What a surprise. The other part of this general category is self-taught artists, who are generally individuals who did not receive any kind of formal artistic training, and sometimes they often didn’t explicitly set out to create art or even consider themselves artists.
The work of James Hampton that we will explore later is a particularly excellent example, but this is all kind of self-serving because I also really enjoy the work of Simon Sparrow, who’s pictured here. I think he actually did consider himself an artist. He was a painter early on in his life. He was actually born in West Africa to an African father and a Cherokee mother, and they moved to North Carolina when he was only two. He lived in Philadelphia for a while before going to New York. After he stopped painting, he started creating these assemblages of found materials, lots of jewelry and glitter and beads and all kinds of paint, and I think they exemplify well what someone who didn’t have a lot of artistic training but had this desire and innate kind of drive to create. You can see that there’s a lost bead and some minor corrosion on that bracelet, but I’m not thinking that I would replace that bead because I don’t really know what was there and that’s part of the life journey of the artwork.
This piece is actually in the lab right now, so if we were open you could see it on our table. It is starting to go on exhibition in the next couple of years so I’m making sure it’s really well documented and all the elements are stable before it’s displayed.
LH: Okay, great you had mentioned a little bit about the “Hampton Throne,” and we are getting a couple questions about that, so whenever you’re ready.
LB: That’s the next slide. Alright, let me go down in my notes. This is the most, I would say, iconic and the centerpiece of the folk and self-taught art collection partly because it was the first piece that was acquired. The full title–we frequently call it is just the “Hampton Throne” for short–but its full title is “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation’s Millennium General Assembly.” Laura should we do our poll now?
LH: We definitely should do this poll. Alright, you’re going to see this is just a fun question to test your knowledge, looking at this picture here, this whole installation. Alright are we ready?
LB: One hot tip. Not all of the pieces of the “Hampton Throne” are on display, so it’s not only what you see in this photo. Oh, here we go. This is so exciting.
LH: I know. It’s so fun to see the poll question come in and the results. We’ll give everyone just a moment to cast their vote. It’s great because we can see the numbers go up.
LB: Yeah, wow.
LH: You have a leg up if you’ve seen it in person, but even if not, even if you have, I think it’s tricky to guess. I’m always very bad at estimating that, you know when you guess the jelly beans in a bottle, so okay. I’m going to close it, and let’s launch it and see. Then you can let us know.
LB: The majority of people said the largest number so that was a trick. It is actually approximately 180 pieces that make up the entire throne complex and about a third of those are on display right now. It looks like so many pieces on display but in fact it’s only a third of what we have, which is pretty remarkable. Okay, should I close this Laura?
LH: Yes, you can close it, and everyone can close it out. I unlaunched it, so yes. If it’s still in your way good question. Please get rid of it so we can learn a little bit. With this piece being 180 pieces, I’m very curious to learn a little bit about what this piece is and how it came into our collection.
LB: Let’s see. We have some really amazing archival photos that came into the collection with the work, so I’m just going to go through those while I tell you a little bit about James Hampton and his work and how it came into the museum.
James Hampton was born in South Carolina in 1909, and he came to DC when he was only 19 to live with his brother, but then he joined the army, and he traveled around Hawaii. He went to Guam, Seattle, and Texas before coming back to DC. After coming back from the army, he worked for the General Services Administration as a janitor from 1946 to 1964 when he sadly passed away from stomach cancer, so this is him actually with the work.
There’s a lot of mythology built up around his life, particularly that he was kind of a loner and didn’t have a lot of people in his life when he came back to DC. These were some photos that someone took, and he said to actually have shown quite a few people the throne complex. These photographs were in the garage that he rented, which if you’re from the DC area you might recognize this area on the map. That’s close to the Convention Center, and it’s actually probably just a 10-minute walk to the museum. Hampton rented this garage in downtown DC where he lived and then worked on this throne complex for about 14 years as I said.
Let’s see. These are some photos of after he passed away and the landlord of his garage eventually found the throne complex in the garage, and he immediately thought that it was a really remarkable work and that something that a man had spent so many years working on should not just be thrown away, so he contacted the Washington Post. At this time, the American Art Museum was the National Collection of Fine Arts, and Harry Lowe was the director at that time. These are some really amazing photographs of Mr. Lowe in the garage, and here’s Henry Lowe with the pieces. He is quoted as saying when he entered the garage it was like opening King Tut’s tomb. I can imagine with all of the color, all the foils, and all those elements it would be pretty overwhelming.
The work immediately received quite a lot of attention. There were a couple of stories in the Washington Post, and in 1970 it was officially acquired by the museum. These are just some more photos of the work in the garage from that time period.
LH: I imagine a garage is not necessarily the ideal place for a conservator to have artwork being stored in.
LB: Definitely. Yes, ideally we prefer conditions that are pretty stable in temperature and humidity, not a lot of pest activity, and I would assume that this garage was likely kind of the opposite of those conditions, but remarkably it remains in okay condition. It did receive quite a lot of conservation treatment early on when it was at the museum. I can talk some more about his materials in a second, but he really didn’t use any screws, so structurally he used straight pins and small nails. He created these bridges with cardboard and adhesive, so to move these pieces around, it would have been pretty easy to damage them. Some of the early conservation treatments were probably what today we would think would be kind of upsetting and really invasive. They added a lot of different screws and additional pieces of wood to make sure that the pieces were all stable because they were actually loaned quite a bit early on.
Let’s see, just some more photos. There’s a wide range of different size elements from this large throne and these winged elements to medium stands. All of these pieces correlate with different parts of the bible. They are situated in parallel rows and that throne was the focal point. Objects on the right-hand side represent the new testament and Jesus and on the left the old testament and Moses.
LH: That brings up a question that I just wanted to mention here. I know we always talk about artists intent in conservation and so one question that came up is do you know why the artist made this particular work and the significance of it, so I just wanted to pull that out because I felt like that was a really good question tying in exactly with what you were going for.
LB: Yes, good question excellent question. Yes, I think it’s related to his religious beliefs, and I think his ultimate goal was to have some kind of ministry where he could preach from this central pulpit and then from that throne that I show. Small elements like these crowns and plaques that you saw on the wall. He also had a lot of writings of an unknown script in lots of notebooks, and so he had a lot of archival materials as well, which included those photographs that I showed first.
LH: Some questions about when you were talking a little bit about some of the materials, and there’s a question about the screws that you had mentioned. They’re curious about thinking about the screws being added to the Hampton throne and that’s considered a more aggressive conservation intervention, so how have the conservation practices changed over the years when looking at a piece like this, which has been in our collection for quite some time.
LB: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. I think what it comes down to is today we are often more focused on the intangible components and meaning of an artwork, so not only the material components but what they represent and what they mean that’s not only what you can see or what you can feel. Generally, we would not because Hampton originally did not have these materials on hand and his kind of ingenious use of things like pins and cardboard straps. That’s a really powerful illustration of his skill and imagination, so I think nowadays we probably wouldn’t do something as aggressive as adding screws and new pieces that weren’t there to begin with because that would kind of take away from his original plan and his original skill. Also, in those early stages of treatment, they actually added foil in some places that were really in poor condition, and now we really want to respect the history of their artwork and not only what it looked like when it was first created.
LH: I’m glad that you mentioned that because another question that came in is asking about specific religious purposes that Hampton had created this for. Are there ethical issues in displaying this kind of artwork in the museum and or when you’re mentioning the intangible, especially with folk and self-taught, are there any complications or considerations for this type of work?
LB: Definitely, yeah, absolutely, especially with him having passed before anyone from this institution could talk with him about it. Yes, this certainly is not the artist’s intent at all, so in some ways it’s like how can we say that we’re doing this ethically. I think ideally this work would still be displayed in its original setting, and it would be used in some kind of religious capacity, but I think for it to be preserved, I think that landlord couldn’t keep it in its garage, and the museum had to do something with it. I think there’s a lot of additional research that could be done to pinpoint more about his beliefs and his plans for the throne, but it’s generally understood that he wanted it to be displayed and he wanted people to see it and learn about it. That’s a little bit of a consolation for me to think that he hopefully would have liked this.
LH: In case people haven’t seen it, it really does have this spiritual effect when you see it in the museum. It’s so large, and there’s so much grandeur, and it really just envelops you. That’s what I first thought when I came in for the first time.
LB: It is really impactful and especially when you think that it’s not even all of the pieces. It’s really a pretty small part.
LH: There was a question about that, about if the museum would ever have the entire installation up at one time. If not, what kind of considerations go into that?
LB: Yeah, I think there have been several, I think four different iterations, of the throne on display, and I think it really generally comes down to space and what is stable enough to be displayed. Our current conservator Leslie Umberger only came to the museum in 2012, so I think she would really like to reimagine the display and to hopefully add more components, to do more research, and to really rethink how the museum interprets the piece. It’s really just an issue of time and that would take a lot of time for conservation, for registration, for curatorial, so it’s really just making sure that we can all collaborate together and do that, but yes hopefully at some point there will be more pieces on display.
LH: Now, you had mentioned some of the foils, and I was hoping maybe you could go into some detail because we’re getting a lot of questions about these different materials and what they more specifically are and how they’ve aged.
LB: Yes, I think for me these are kind of some of the more fun details, particularly about being a conservator because when we’re doing cleanings of the pieces, you’re able to see in detail elements that you wouldn’t be able to see. These pieces use a lot of cardboard and maps and things that he would have found at his job at the General Services Administration. On the left, there’s a chalkboard, which is property of the state department, and he used all kinds of foils such as regular household aluminum foil, which you can see there’s a tag that’s from a roll of Reynolds wrap that says “six feet left, order now,” which is really cool.
It seems like he also used tinfoil from liquor store displays and candy wrappers and other kind of food wrappers, really just anything that he could find. He used electrical conduits like this to create rounded edges. It seems like his goal was really to transform all of these everyday objects into something really extraordinary. He used furniture, and he would cut it, take the drawers out of dressers. He used jelly jars. Here’s some of the textured foils that maybe came from some kind of decorative display. A lot of lightbulbs, obviously he used that silver toned foil but also gold toned foils. Currently, you see a lot of browns like here but originally, I think a lot of those elements would have been colored that you can see on the right. He used a lot of craft papers that are really light sensitive, so we think that even possibly during his lifetime when he was working on it they had probably already faded, but in some areas that are hidden like up under pieces, you can see those bright colors. It’s really cool, and here’s some other examples of those colors.
To speak more about conservation issues: he also used plastics. He would put sheets of plastic over the front large faces of the elements. We’re not sure if that was to create more shininess or to try to protect the elements. Maybe he was already seeing degradation in his garage and wanted to protect them. That’s hard to say, but this is a detail showing some of that plastic. We think it’s cellulose acetate that is starting to curl, and it's quite dusty and getting pretty brittle. You can imagine that would be something difficult to dust and clean without snagging it. You can also see some discolored paper behind there.
A lot of the foils are in pretty good shape. Aluminum is inherently pretty stable, but in some places there’s some corrosion and lots of foil that’s starting to degrade, particularly because it’s very thin in some places. There’s a lot of foils, particularly gold ones, that were backed with paper, and those have not fared particularly well. You can see the photo on the left here, along these edges are where you would grab the piece if you were trying to move it, so those areas in particular are really vulnerable to damage.
One of the past conservators, Helen Ingles, did a really incredibly impressive amount of research into the conservation of foils, and she with the help of scientists at the Museum Conservation Institute found that the coating on some of the gold tone foils was actually cellulose nitrate, which is what we call a malignant plastic, meaning that as it degrades it can let off gas and cause other things to degrade as well. That was found on some of those gold foils, and unfortunately, we can’t really stop those degradation processes from going forward. We try to document everything as well as we can to keep the environment, the temperature, and humidity as stable as possible and to make sure we keep things like dust off of the pieces. You can see here’s my friend Gabby doing some vacuuming of the pieces in 2012, which at this time we moved the pieces from that display area into the galleries to clean them more easily. One of the largest challenges is on display all the pieces are really close together so it’s hard to effectively clean them without bumping into other pieces.
LH: Yeah, I’ve seen this be done where you put on little booties and the backpack. In order to move around with a vacuum, it almost looks like a ghostbuster.
LH: Right? So, you can be really careful about it, and of course you have to do it before hours because you have to be so careful.
LB: Yeah, and sometimes we’ll just use like a really soft bristle brush and then brush some of the dust onto something like a Swiffer if we don’t have the time or space to carry a vacuum into that space. As you can see here, the throne was quite dusty at this time, and we were using a screen to vacuum through to try to reduce the vacuum picking up any of the original textile fibers, just the dust.
Here’s me and Helen. I’m cleaning some other elements but using little soft sponges. I have some right here. They don’t look very exciting, but they’re just really soft sponges, basically similar to ones that you would use to apply makeup, so they’re really nice and soft and don’t hurt your face. Similarly, we like to use them on artwork, so they are not operating often. Sometimes dusting and cleaning can cause additional abrasion and damage so we try to use materials to clean that are softer and won’t abrade the original surfaces.
Here’s another time the elements on display were moved to clean and document them more in depth. This is in a kind of a conference room in the museum. They were moved into that area to be photographed and cleaned.
LH: Can I ask you a quick question? There are a couple questions from people here about how you would go about moving these different components safely.
LB: That’s one of the main challenges actually. It seems like Hampton put casters on the bottom, so they have little wheels probably from chairs that he found in the office, but they’re not in great condition, and a lot of them don’t roll very well. As you could probably tell, a lot of the foils and decorative elements are really pretty delicate. It’s really just that you move them very carefully, and you always have to use at least two people to handle the larger ones.
LH: This is the time where I usually would say if I were doing a tour, don’t try this at home. Skilled hands for moving and, of course, wearing gloves and things like that.
LB: Yes, we’re super lucky to have a staff of really skilled registrars and art handlers and exhibits people who do this. Moving things carefully is their bread and butter.
Let’s see what else I have. Look, that’s perfect timing. Moving things is definitely one of the main challenges, particularly because they are displayed so closely together. This is some of them getting moved back onto display after cleaning.
LH: We have a couple of questions about replacing of different elements. People asking about the foil as well as the bulbs that you had mentioned, the lightbulbs, so could you talk a bit about what your approach is on those?
LB: Well, I don’t think we would ever, at this point, replace any elements. As I was saying earlier, we really don’t want to erase the history of the work being in a kind of uncontrolled environment that may have caused some damage. If a piece of foil is about to fall off, we would likely use some kind of adhesive to put a lifting piece back down if it was about to fall off, but as much as possible we try to just use preventive measures to keep the work in better condition. Yeah, I don’t think–I mean never say never–but generally we would not do any kind of replacement.
LH: That being said, I know that some of the elements are what we like to call “exhibition copies.” Could you explain what that is?
LB: Yes, good segue. This is just some of the photography set up, and this is a photo of a detail showing some of the tags that are on the pieces. Our labeling, each of them is named with someone that Hampton–it seems like he had visions of these people, and so they’re named with those individuals. As you can see some of them are really close to where the public would be able to approach the piece, and so those tags could be easily touched or removed or pulled on. This was not when I was here, but an amazing intern, Anna Ersenkal, made a set of facsimiles, which are basically exact copies using archival materials. She made some replacement tags in case the tags were messed with or removed so that the originals wouldn’t be the ones that were damaged. You can see it’s pretty difficult to tell which one is the original one, which is the facsimile. She did a really incredible job. I actually have a little example here that another intern, Nicole Chasse, made with some amazing little storage housing. This is not one of the real tags. Anna actually made two sets of facsimiles, and then Nicole made the storage housings to make sure that the originals could be distorted in a really safe and archival way. I guess you’re right we do have some replacement elements on, but they’re really clearly labeled what they are, so for us they don’t really remove any of the history of the piece.
LH: I think with that, just from what I know, with this piece is that it’s more of a safety element because it’s so close to where the visitors are. It’s more about the safety of the piece than necessarily another reason for replacing it.
LB: Absolutely, yes, it’s not necessarily a condition issue but just a preventive technique.
LH: That being said, a question that was asked is are the pieces safer in storage or on display.
LB: Wow, that’s such a good question. That’s a tough one. I think that is kind of the age-old question of the conservator. You really have to think about what your priorities are, and I think these would probably be safer if we kept them in the dark in really nice archival boxes, but then we would completely lose any kind of public access to them. As conservators, our goal is to improve access for the public to have new perspectives of powerful works of art, so even if inherently it might be a little bit safer, I think providing access is really the main goal.
LH: That’s where it goes back to the artist’s intent. If the artist’s intent is for the piece to be shown then you have to balance it but put it out in the safest way possible. It’s job security for you in a way.
LB: Yes, good point.
LH: A quick question about the foils. I don’t know if you talked about how they’re attached, if they’re glued or there’s an adhesive or are there any parts of it that have glue, if not the foil component?
LB: Yes, he used glue. Helen did analyze quite a bit of his adhesive, and she found that everything that she tested was a hide glue. I don’t really think that any of my photos illustrate the adhesive but high glue can constrict when it dries, so he used that with those cardboard tabs. He would connect different elements of the furniture with adhesive but he did also use adhesive to put some of the foils down, but he also would make little balls of foil and use a pin or a nail to attach that to the furniture or to the substrate, and then sometimes he would put another layer of foil on top of that just mechanically kind of bunched on the other ball of foil. So yes, he used quite a bit of adhesive but not everywhere.
LH: Oh, and Ariel did add in one interesting tidbit that I wanted to share that during the 2016 treatment, one of the crowns that is now on display in the case next to the journal–it’s in a little separated area. I don’t know if you have a picture of that separated area, but it had torn foil on top of the lightbulb, and curator Leslie Umberger asked the conservators not to fix the tear because you could see the lightbulb was red from an old photography dark room. Ariel said that they only fixed things that needed structural repairs, so that was something.
LB: That’s a really amazing anecdote. Generally, unless the physical integrity of a piece is at risk, then we would do some kind of interventive treatment, but yes, that’s really cool.
LH: That is a great one. We only have a couple minutes left. There have been a lot of questions about the artist, James Hampton. I put in the chat box a bunch of different parts of different links, so please click on those to learn about them. We probably have time for just one or two more questions. I found a question that I really liked to wrap things up a little bit, which is that you mentioned that folk and self-taught art at the beginning were a little hard to define, but are there any artists or pieces that to you blur that line?
LB: That’s a good question. Off the top of my head, I think they often all do that. I think placing a category or naming an artist like that is inherently problematic because they didn’t choose that category for themselves, so I think none of the artists really fit perfectly into any category. A lot of the folk art in our collection was created by artists that we don’t know who they were. That didn’t really answer the question.
LH: No, I actually think that does answer the question. This is a category from the museums, not necessarily from artists themselves, so it is messy and it is blurry, and as you said it’s really about looking at the individual artist and artwork and the artist’s intent, not so much being stuck on necessarily the labels.
LB: Yes absolutely, because I think in some ways it also speaks to issues of just the museum and art world in general and thinking critically about who are the people in power creating these categories and putting these labels on artists. I think in an ideal world, we probably wouldn’t have these categories, and they would all just be artists and American artists who contributed to American art history in a really impactful way, but I think we can use these categories to really think critically about what we consider art and creativity and how we might ourselves privilege one style over another. If we really let our own creativity blossom, what could we create if we just went for it?
LH: Well, wonderful. Alright, so it is 6:15, so I want to be mindful of the time. Thank you, Leah for a wonderful program.
LB: I had one more thing I wanted to say. In my head, I was like I have to say this that I really just want to shout out at all the first line employees at the museum, like all of our guards and the janitorial staff. We’ve had the privilege of staying home for a lot of the pandemic, but they’ve had to go in every day and are really the heroes of keeping the collection safe. They don’t get enough credit, and so if you see them say thank you.
LH: Excellent point. A big thank you for all of our essential workers. Leah, thank you for joining us today. I put in the link–the survey should automatically pop up–if you’re having issues with it from the chat, I also put in a link for the next Converse with the Conservator, which is going to be on January 6, and it’s all going to be about painting care, so thank you for joining us today and have a wonderful evening. Thank you all.
Explore how art conservators preserve and protect the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection of folk and self-taught art.
On Wednesday, December 2, 2020, objects conservator Leah Bright discussed the unique challenges behind preserving folk and self-taught artwork. Often composed of unconventional materials like plastic, tin foil, glitter, and bottle caps, the collection requires a nuanced conservation approach. Discover compelling stories behind the artwork, such as James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly.