In This Case: Alma Thomas, An Artist from Washington, DC
July 13, 2017

In This Case is a series of ongoing posts on art in the Luce Foundation Center, a visible art storage facility at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that displays more than 3,000 pieces in sixty-four secure glass cases. This piece was written by Luce Center work-study student, Deysy Alvarado-Bonilla.
Alma Thomas

Alma Thomas' Red Abstraction

Alma Thomas, a DC artist and influential painter, once said, "I've never bothered painting the ugly things in I wanted something beautiful you could sit down and look at." She dedicated her life to doing just that.

Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, on September 22, 1891. Her family relocated to Washington, DC in 1907, to seek a better public school system and escape racial barriers in the South. From a young age, Thomas loved the visual arts. As an educator, artist, and the first African American graduate of Howard University’s fine arts program, Thomas dedicated her life to exploring the visual arts in the District and developing her own creativity.

Alma Thomas taught visual arts at Shaw Junior High in the District for 36 years, while also working on her own paintings. When she retired at age 69, she devoted her life entirely to painting. At the beginning of her career, she made representational paintings inspired by French artist, Henri Matisse. During her time at Howard, she learned about Color Field painting, led by DC artists Gene Davis and Kenneth Noland. This style, emphasized flat color as opposed to the more gestural brushstrokes found in Abstract Expressionism. Peaking Thomas' interest, it catapulted her work in a new direction.

Today, Thomas is recognized for creating dynamic paintings of nature, and occasionally, historical events such as the moon landing. She gained attention for her unique process and abstract style, making her a "force of the Washington Color School." Her process began with covering a canvas with light washes of watercolor or acrylic paint. Then, she would cover the stained canvas with thick, repetitive brushstrokes of vibrant color. She derived her inspiration from the natural world around her, like rays of sun flickering through the leaves in her garden. Often, her pieces resemble intricate, colorful mosaics.

Red Abstraction, on view in case 43B in the Luce Center, is somewhat different than her other work. Instead of creating repetitive small strokes of watercolor or acrylic paint, she used broader strokes of thick oil paint on the entirety of the piece. Referencing the colors of fall leaves, she used deep warm tones of red, green and brown. She used paler tones in the background and then painted over the canvas with bold color similar to the technique used in her other work. The viewer is drawn to the muted tones at the edges of the canvas. Thomas used color to create movement and expression within her artwork. Her innovation and technique made her a household name in the DC arts community.

As an African American woman artist, Thomas overcame many social barriers, and yet, when once asked if she considered herself a black artist she replied, "I am an American." She was a strong believer in "the infinite possibilities of human progress." At the age of 80, Thomas proved that prejudices against her age, race, and gender could not prevent her from pursuing her passion. She became the first African American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1972, and the first African American woman to have her work included in the White House's permanent collection in 2009.

SAAM has more than two dozen paintings by Alma Thomas in its collection.

Posted by Bridget on July 13, 2017 in American Art Here, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Luce Unplugged: 5 Questions with Irreversible Entanglements
July 11, 2017

On Friday, July 14, escape the DC heat with a night full of jazz and rock-n-roll at our Summer Luce Unplugged Community Showcase featuring Irreversible Entanglements and Ian Svenonius. Irreversible Entanglements, a collaborative free jazz project, is made up of diverse members from all over the East Coast including Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New York City. It also features spoken word artist, Camae Ayewa, also known as Moor Mother. We spoke with Luke Stewart, bassist of the band, to hear more about why their music is rooted deep within spoken word traditions and free jazz, and how their shared politics continues to push them to create powerful, inspiring music.

Irreversible Entanglements

Irreversible Entanglements. Photo courtesy of the band.

Eye Level: Tell us about Irreversible Entanglements.

Luke Stewart: This band was inspired by the New York Art Quartet (NYAQ) with Amiri Baraka, a key ensemble in the 1960s Avant-garde jazz movement in New York City. Many of the issues Baraka addressed in his poetry during that time are still current, sometimes even more deeply troubling. He wrote about the rebellion in Newark; today, Camae Ayewa writes about Ferguson. Baraka wrote "Black Dada Nihilismus," Ayewa writes about "Black Quantum Futurism." The music, while influenced by the so-called Free Jazz movement, is written and performed with contemporary thoughts and feelings. It is a dynamic that draws from the past, addresses the present, and imagines a better future.

EL: What messages do you hope to communicate through your music?

LS: The world of sound is one of the most potent forces for change. As an instrumentalist and especially as an improviser, the messages stem from a collection of thoughts and experience. When we come together as this group, our individualities are focused into this free-wheeling, intensely beautiful group rooted in the history of this music and poetry. How we came together and who we are as people makes our intense message clear.

EL: How would you describe the DC jazz community?

LS: There's so much I could say, but let me keep it simple. The community has been a strong aspect in my life, on and off the bandstand. We experience lessons on life and perspectives on music through conversations and comradery among elders and peers. While here in DC, my path has introduced me to many people who have contributed to the music. And I am proud to have developed here because of the city's deep and strong community, with its history and legacies.

Just like DC's storied and over-told punk scene, the jazz community here has been essential to the history of music. Due to economic pressures, access, and a myriad of other factors, jazz has been the most marginalized of the popular music communities. However, when looking at its history, from Miles Davis to Christian Scott, Thelonious Monk to Jason Moran, DC's jazz community continues to produce musicians who share the stage with the "greats" at the highest level. And often times, the "greats" find themselves here in our community.

EL: Who are your musical inspirations?

LS: So very many. As I mentioned before, the New York Art Quartet featuring Amiri Baraka. I was lucky enough to have had quite a few personal interactions with him through DC jazz radio station WPFW and a mentor who was his personal friend and business partner. He was one of the greatest minds of the 20th and 21st centuries, whose work continued to develop until his death in 2014. I was also fortunate enough to have seen John Tchicai perform a few times before his death a few years ago. I've had some beautiful interactions with Milford Graves, who is still an inspiring figure. Roswell Rudd is still around and performing in New York and elsewhere. Also bassist Reggie Workman, who continues to teach and perform around the world.

There's a beautiful film profiling NYAQ, made by my friend Alan Roth called, "The Breath Courses Through Us." I introduced it when it premiered at the Library of Congress. There's also a very limited box set profiling the group, called "Call it Art," compiled by scholar Ben Young. Both of these together offer a great look into the group and their importance in the greater history of jazz. To me they are a great representation of the musical innovations of the '60s and continue to influence my work today.

EL: How do you foster each other's creativity?

LS: We all have individual paths in music and in life. When we come together our openness helps to create a synergy that hopefully gives the experiencer something to feel.

Hear Irreversible Entanglements play live this Friday, July 14th, and check out more details on the Luce Center's Facebook page. During the performance, enjoy free beer tastings from Port City Brewery, among other libations and snacks from a cash bar. The Luce Unplugged Community Showcase is presented in part by Washington City Paper.

Posted by Madeline on July 11, 2017 in In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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SAAM Arcade: Let the Video Games Begin
July 6, 2017

Kogod Courtyard

Gamers fill SAAM's Kogod Courtyard, the site of this year's SAAM Arcade.

SAAM is turning into a video game arcade! On Saturday, August 5 and Sunday, August 6, anyone can participate in game building workshops, hear musicians performing music inspired by classic Nintendo and Sega themes, and play more than 100 games. This free two-day takeover includes classic arcade games as well as 40 fresh indie games created by independent developers and students. One hundred games to try—including pinball, virtual reality, and even card games—might be an overwhelming prospect. So, we tested every new game in the Indie Showcase and have a few suggestions to fit almost every appetite:



Scene from Perception

When you want to be scared with a side of story, action, and wit: Perception.

Crafted by a team of veteran game developers (BioShock, BioShock Infinite, and Dead Space), Perception offers a fresh take on first person narrative games. Play through the lens of Cassie, a blind woman, as she explores the mansion haunting her dreams. Engage in a deadly game of hide-and-seek with relentless enemies. Travel back through history to exorcise your own nightmares.

Play if: You enjoy the "at the edge of your seat" tension and scares in games like Bioshock. Don't take our word for it, watch a playthrough:

Burly Men at Sea

Burly Men at Sea

Burly Men at Sea

When you're drawn to beautiful animation and dream of escaping the ordinary: Burly Men at Sea.

Burly Men at Sea is a folktale about a trio of large, bearded fishermen who step away from the ordinary to seek adventure. Set in the waters of early 20th-century Scandinavia, the game's story branches through a series of encounters with creatures from folklore. You play as storyteller and wayfinder, shaping the narrative around three ungainly heroes as they set sail for the unknown. Burly Men at Sea is distinct for its visual style, whimsical soundtrack, innovative draggable viewport mechanic, and use of brief choice-driven journeys to tell multiple unique stories.

Play if: You seek a way to combine the simplicity of Scandinavian design with choose-your-own-adventure. Get a feel for the game by watching a playthrough:

Tiler Teller

Tiler Teller

Tiler Teller

When you and your kids are hooked on tablets and want a way to interact with that touch screen through storytelling and a cuddly toy: Tiler Teller.

Built by students at the University of Southern California, Tiler Teller mixes together digital play and tangible toys. With a felt-crafted puzzle cube as the game's analog controller, this game combines craft art with digital design. While reading stories for children, parents also help them solve puzzles, learn numbers, and practice color recognition abilities.

Play if: You are a kid, have kids (or are a kid at heart). Not sure what to think? Watch the trailer:

We're looking forward to seeing you at our SAAM Arcade, Saturday, August 5 and Sunday, August 6!

Posted by Amy on July 6, 2017 in Museums & Technology, Post It
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Mind the Gap: Parallax Gap Now Open at the Renwick Gallery
June 29, 2017

Parallax Gap Installation

Parallax Gap is made of separate layers that were assembled in the Renwick's Bettie Rubenstein Grand Salon.

Parallax Gap, an architecturally-inspired work on view at SAAM's Renwick Gallery, is suspended from the ceiling of the Bettie Rubenstein Grand Salon and runs the length of the room. Created in a series of layers, it depicts nine different ceilings of iconic American buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries—some contemporaneous with the design and construction of the Renwick, beginning in 1859. The installation plays with the ideas of depth and perspective, offering the viewer a multitude of vantage points to explore the work. It is based on the concept of parallax—how the distance or depth of objects appears to vary when viewed from different lines of sight. It riffs on both Western and Eastern concepts of perspective through trompe l'oeil effects and multiple vanishing points, creating a sense of soaring volume and the illusion of both real and abstracted architectural space.

During the past few weeks, we've watched as the installation was assembled on the ground, raised to the top of the Grand Salon, and then beautifully lit.

Parallax Gap Installation

The precise work of adding LED strips to the installation.

Parallax Gap Installation

With Parallax Gap in place, members of the team add finishing touches.

Here is a timelapse of Parallax Gap's installation:

Parallax Gap was designed by FreelandBuck, an architectural design practice based in New York and Los Angeles. Independent curator Helen B. Bechtel coordinated the installation. It will remain on view until February 11, 2018.

Posted by Howard on June 29, 2017 in American Art Here, American Craft
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A Photographer and a Writer Walk into a Museum
June 22, 2017


Frederic Remington's Fired On

The other day, in my quest to look at works of art with fresh eyes, I asked a colleague to join me (that's one way to get new eyes) in a walk through the museum, and let me know what spoke to him. I was interested in what Jeff, a photographer, would choose. After walking through a few galleries on the second floor, we turned a corner and he fixed on a painting of an evening scene that glowed uncannily green. "That looks like a photograph taken with a night vision lens," Jeff said, referring to a lens that intensifies the light and is often used by the military during night missions. We both stepped up to take a closer look at the painting, Fired On, an oil by Frederic Remington, from 1907.

The painting features a foreground scene of two horses and riders under attack, though the enemy remains out of the frame. And, like a photograph, Jeff noted, "some of the figures at the rear of the scene are out of focus." The painting, lit by a full moon you cannot see, captures a moment of fear, perhaps most evident in the startled white horse. It is also the coat of the white horse, shining in the moonlight, that has made them an easy target. Is there such a thing as too much light?

Back at my desk, I started reading about Remington, who began his career as an illustrator before becoming a painter. As an illustrator, his colors were black, white and grey. As a painter, it took him a while to perfect his palette. In 1905 he expressed his frustration to a friend: “I’ve been trying to get color in my things and still I don’t get it. Why why why can’t I get it. The only reason I can find is that I’ve worked too long in black and white. I know fine color when I see it but I just don’t get it and it’s maddening. I’m going to if I only live long enough.” It was not until June 1908 that he was able to write in his diary that he had finally discovered “how to do the silver sheen of moonlight.”

That moon-lit sheen is certainly evident in Fired On. But something else was happening in the early years of the twentieth century: electricity was lighting up homes and cities and creating an artificial illumination that influenced artists, including Remington. This period also coincides with the advent of flash photography, which would brighten a night scene with a burst of sulphur. His treatment of light in the painting, clearly influenced by new technologies, is part of what Jeff responded to in the painting.

It was during this time, the last decade of his life, that Remington completed more than seventy nocturnes. An artist with one foot in each century, Remington's late paintings capture the meeting points between the natural and the modern worlds.

Posted by Howard on June 22, 2017 in American Art Here, Seeing Things
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