Thomas Day: Man, Maker, Mogul
May 22, 2013
The elegant Grand Salon was the setting for a panel discussion on the many lives and interests of Thomas Day, the subject of the Renwick Gallery’s, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color. Day, a carpenter by training, learned the art from his father and became the most famous craftsman in North Carolina, in the years before the Civil War. His work is both fluid and idiosyncratic, and he created furniture as well as architectural and decorative motifs for the region's elite and mercantile middle class. Born in 1801, Day lived in an increasingly difficult period in our country's history. How did a free man of color attain such a prominent place in society when the country was to become greatly divided in the years leading up to the Civil War? The four panelists John W. Franklin, Donna Day, James L. Roark, and Michael A. Ausbon, helped to answer that question and let us in on Day's art, family, the times he lived in, and how one man could carve out an extraordinary life for himself.
John Whittington Franklin, senior program manager at the National Museum of African American Art and Culture moderated the discussion and, to get things started, told some fascinating stories about his own father, distinguished scholar John Hope Franklin, to whom the exhibition's notable catalogue is dedicated. As a graduate student at Harvard in the 1930s, the senior Franklin traveled to North Carolina to work on his dissertation about free men of color in North Carolina, but, as a black man, he was not allowed to sit in the main research area. Instead, he was given his own small room, a cart for books, and a key to the stacks. That is, until researchers in the main room complained about Franklin being given preferential treatment. Segregation and division by race was not limited to Thomas Day's era. Interestingly, when Franklin hired a professional typist to work on his dissertation, to their joint amazement, they discovered that she had been typing on a table made by Thomas Day.
Family member Donna Day discussed the importance of education in the Day household, a legacy that has been passed down through the generations. Thomas Day and his wife, Aquila, made sure that their three children were educated in all the arts, and were sent to the Wesleyan Academy in Massachusetts. Day, himself, was educated in Quaker schools, and helped to give him entry into the higher echelons of society. James L. Roark, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of American History at Emory University, painted a picture of the time, and the precarious dance Thomas Day had to practice each day as a free man of color in a white society. "He was a complicated man in a complicated time—a free black in a world dedicated to slavery." Day, prosperous until an 1857 bank failure, was also the owner of fourteen slaves at the height of his business. Day's skills outside of the shop, what Roark referred to as, "negotiating racial etiquette everyday of his life," proved just as vital to his survival as his unmatched skills inside the shop.
Those skills as a master craftsman were described by Michael A. Ausbon, associate curator of decorative arts at the North Carolina Museum of History. Ausbon took us inside Day's workshop and showed us the elements typical of Day's pieces which were in demand and deemed the best made in North Carolina. Often characterized by undulating shapes, fluid lines and spirals, Roark talked about Day's "forms and the playful balance between positive and negative spaces," which seemed appropriate for a free man of color who had to perform a delicate balancing act his entire life.
Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color remains on view at the Renwick through July 28, 2013.
Upcoming Cineconcert: Andrew E. Simpson and The Wind
May 16, 2013
On May 19th, composer and pianist Andrew E. Simpson will perform his original score for the 1928 silent film The Wind at a special afternoon screening at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. Lillian Gish, the "First Lady of American Cinema", plays an innocent girl who moves from her Virginia home to the western prairies and is haunted by the ever-present wind. Joint Programs Coordinator Alli Jessing spoke to composer Andrew Simpson about his process for connecting his music to the history of silent film.
Eye Level: When did you start composing scores for silent film, and what was the first film you worked with?
Andrew Simpson: I first started composing silent film scores in 2005, and began accompanying them as a piano soloist in 2006. The first score I wrote was for Liberty, a 1929 Laurel and Hardy comedy short directed by Leo McCarey. This is a very funny film, which features the usual high-class slapstick pranks: the boys make a successful prison break, but end up wearing each others' pants in their haste to put on civilian clothing. Eventually, a crab falls into Stan's pants, with predictable results, and they destroy phonograph machines and records in front of a store, attract the attention of the cops, and wind up on the high girders of a construction site. The film is very high-energy, with lots of suspenseful moments on the girders (which lasts for about half of the 22-minute film). Its energetic activity fits well with my own musical style.
I wrote Liberty for the Snark Ensemble, the silent film group which I founded with composer/performer Maurice Saylor. My score is fully composed and notated, scored originally for two woodwinds (clarinets and saxophones), piano, and percussion. The score draws strongly on jazz styles, from the Dixieland-inspired title theme to the Benny-Goodman-esque and sound in the faster girder section. The Snark Ensemble has performed Liberty many times; in fact, I believe that it is the group's most-performed score. The ensemble makes its AFI Silver Theatre debut in late April 2013, and this film is on the program.
EL: What scene in The Wind was the most fun to score? Which one was the most challenging?
AS: The most fun was a scene early in the film when Letty (Lillian Gish) arrives from Virginia at her cousin Beverly's (male) ranch in west Texas, and the two cowboys who pick her up at the train station and bring her to Beverly's place are vying with each other to impress her. The Wind, as a powerful drama, has only a few truly comic scenes, and this one needs underscoring which captures the humor but also the underlying seriousness (at one point, in the midst of the funnier stuff, Letty catches sight of sand blown against the window by the wind, something which frightens her greatly: this ominous image recurs throughout the film). Because my score for The Wind is for chorus and instruments, there is text (I compiled the text and wrote original lyrics). The music in this scene is based on a melody like a fiddle tune with a bright, easy feel, to which the chorus adds whimsical words, such as:
Sopranos/altos (to the tenors/basses):
I don't want to dance, I don't want to play you; I just want a little home And little ones to stay you.
Tenors/basses (to the sopranos/altos):
I ain't the best, But sure I ain't the worst, neither.
In a way, the words here stand for Letty's amused but standoffish attitude towards the cowboys and the men's invitations to her to dance.
The most challenging scene was the big storm scene (the "norther"). For one thing, it's quite long—several minutes—and so the pacing must be careful (don't peak too soon or for too long, in other words). The music must rise to the power of the film's visual climax, which is always a great challenge. Musically, the melodic and harmonic material should build steadily while not becoming redundant, and it should closely track the developing emotions of the characters. EL: What interests you about the relationship between music and cinema? AS: Music and cinema share a fundamental trait: both unfold in time. You can't listen to a piece of music or see a film without seeing it front to back. Even if the order of the film or the music is deliberately reversed, you still experience that order from front to back when listening or watching, and so it is still linear. Composers think in terms of filling time, and questions of proportion and pacing in music parallel what directors think about, as well. What I try to do in my silent film scores is to track the emotional and dramatic essence of a film as closely as possible while honoring music's own special rhetoric.
Secondly, I have always found that most of my musical ideas and pieces spring from a visual stimulus - a painting, sculpture, photograph, or even a remembered image - and so the visual appearance of silent films also suggest musical analogues to me. Video stimulates audio, you might say, although the resulting audio feeds back into and informs the video. This two-way street, this mutual influence, fascinates me.
EL: Who is your favorite classical musician, and who is your favorite contemporary musician?
AS: If you're talking about "old" composers, it's Beethoven. Among "new" composers, I don't really have a single favorite, although I admire such composers as John Adams, Thomas Ades, Kaija Saariaho, and Chen Yi. I also have an ongoing research interest in Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis. He is best known to American audiences as the composer for the film Zorba the Greek. But he is also a classical composer, with operas, chamber music, and orchestral pieces. There are many, many others working in all areas of music who produce exceptionally fine work: it's an exciting time to be in the field!
EL: If you won the lottery tomorrow and could fund your dream project, writing a new score for any film, what would it be?
AS: Well, I'd like to do a big historical epic for an equally big orchestra, something such as Ben-Hur or Abel Gance's multi-hour Napoleon. I'd also like the chance to conduct the orchestra. I'll be conducting the National Gallery of Art Chamber Orchestra in two new short Civil War film scores of mine on October 20, and this will be a great challenge!
The Wind cineconcert is on Sunday, May 19, 2013 at 3pm in American Art's McEvoy Auditorium. This program is jointly presented with the National Portrait Gallery. Free tickets distributed in the G Street lobby 30 minutes before the start of the program (limit two per person).
Fabricating for an Exhibition: Jim Baxter and Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color
May 14, 2013
The exhibition Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color opened last month at the Renwick Gallery. Georgina Goodlander chatted with Jim Baxter, an exhibits specialist at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, who created architectural components inspired by Day's work to complement the pieces of furniture on view.
Eve Level: Tell us about your job. What do you do at the Museum?
Jim Baxter: As an Exhibits Specialist, my main job is to fabricate exhibition pedestals, cases, platforms and architectural components. I also install, maintain, and de-install art.
EL: How did you get into this kind of work: What's your background? Are you an artist?
JB: I studied art at the University of Maryland, specializing in sculpture. Finding that people were more apt to buy furniture than sculpture, I started building custom furniture. At the same time I worked for an art transport company, where I built crates and packed art for the Smithsonian and elsewhere. Through this company I made the contacts to help me get a job, first at the National Portrait Gallery, then at the Renwick Gallery. Now, after 38 years away from making art, I've started doing figurative ceramic sculpture and totally love it. I've found that modeling, or what I consider "building" the human figure is like constructing a piece of furniture. You need to have the same understanding of proportion, joinery (how the bones connect and move), balance, and grace.
EL: You recently created some architectural components for the exhibition Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color. What did that involve?
JB: I started by meeting with the designer to establish what could be built in the limited time I had before the pieces needed to be installed, and what material should be used. I began the project by making an actual size mock-up of one of the units cut in half so everyone could see exactly how it would look in the gallery space. I worked from both the designer's drawings and actual photographs of each component. I then drew to scale the entire component on a Masonite backboard, noting the depths of the different layers and dimensions. Then I fabricated and glued the pieces to the backboard starting with the bottom layer and working up. The curves were first roughed out, then I refined them by eye and feel to give them a graceful flow.
EL: What challenges did you encounter in the Thomas Day project?
JB: Building the stair component was the biggest challenge since my shop is so small. Everything had to be laid out exactly for each of the four panels to fit together perfectly when installed.
EL: Do you have a favorite work in the Thomas Day exhibition?
JB: Thomas Day's newels are definitely my favorite even though we weren't able to get any for the show. (A newel, also called a central pole, is an upright post that supports the handrail of a stair banister.) I made one for the stair component based on photographs. They're so wonderfully whimsical and crazy. I think Day's creative imagination was truly let loose with his newels.
EL: Looking back, what has been your favorite project at the Museum?
JB: I can't think of a particular project that would be my favorite but two exhibitions really stand out. These were Ruth Duckworth (ceramic sculpture) and Sam Maloof. I had the opportunity to meet two of my favorite artists before they passed away. It was just a hand shake and a hello but one I'll never forget.
In This Case: Prairie Chicken
May 9, 2013
Kelly Trop interned at American Art from September 2012 to May 2013. She worked in the Public Programs office and Luce Foundation Center and wrote this post about her experience.
As an intern at the American Art Museum's Luce Foundation Center, one of my first assignments was to write an object label for Edward Kemeys' bronze sculpture, Prairie Chicken. The Kemeys biography at my disposal mentioned he was the first American to make a career out of animal sculpture, but there was no specific information on this particular sculpture. Now Prairie Chicken and I were deep in uncharted territory. Who was going to tell me about this sculpture's creation? How was I going to determine its historical and artistic significance? And were those really a pair of tiny wings sticking out of its neck?
I started by taking a close look at the statue. From the level of detail in the texture and features, I concluded that Prairie Chicken was a realistic portrait of an actual wild animal. But I'd never seen a prairie chicken before, so I researched them by reading online and watching an embarrassing number of prairie chicken videos. It turns out that Kemeys' sculpture is an anatomically accurate life-size model of a small prairie chicken, which is a type of grouse that was once ubiquitous in the Midwest. Kemeys would have been able to see prairie chickens in action at their 'leks', or breeding grounds, and he would have noted their booming mating calls, inflatable orange eyebrows and throat sacs, and the mobile, horn-like pinnae feathers at their necks. As a newly-fledged prairie chicken connoisseur, I can tell you that prairie chickens are at their most appealing when stomping around all puffed up, trying to attract mates or scare off rivals!
Edward Kemeys learned anatomy by hunting and dissecting many wild animals and birds. He often dabbled in amateur taxidermy to capture a particular pose. It is possible that he used one or more of his homemade models as a reference for Prairie Chicken. However, without proper tools and training in taxidermy, he probably couldn't have kept his models' throat sacs full of air throughout the drying process. So while this work may unwittingly reveal Kemeys' weaknesses as a taxidermist, his execution of its pose shows both a dedication to accuracy and an attention to detail.
Kemeys' dual role as an animal portraitist and public sculptor became clearer to me over the course of my research. Kemeys was working on this sculpture in the 1870s, when prairie chickens were more numerous than ever before. But shortly thereafter, the rapid approach of homesteads and farmland into wilderness areas began driving the birds' population down. Today, despite conservation efforts, all species of prairie chickens are now vulnerable or endangered. While Kemeys may not have anticipated this particular fate, he saw his sculptures both as personal records and public memorials.
Near the end of his life, Kemeys moved to Washington, D.C., and tried to convince the government to commission his work for public spaces in the city. Sadly, he did not succeed in that goal. However, since case 16b in the Luce Center has Prairie Chicken and and many more of his sculptures, you can still experience a little bit of the wild west when you visit the American Art Museum!
Picture This: Paikbot Family Day
May 7, 2013
One of these activities was the opportunity to create your own exquisite corpse on a stack of televisions. People posed in front of a black screen and saw their image on the top television, while someone controlled what body parts were displayed on the other screens.If all this seems intriguing, come see Nam June Paik's work in his exhibition which runs until August 11, 2013.