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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Boston, Salem, and the Fall so Far (part 1)

Blogs require constant attention.  I'm learning this slowly, and often reminded that between teaching, administrating, travel, and life, that I lack the constant diligence to be a blogger.  It's also why I don't have houseplants, but I digress.  This is a post about the fall thus far, not my ability to kill houseplants.

It's been my goal to get the students out and about so that they are seeing objects in person, and thinking about how context and presentation creates meaning and expectations for the audience.  It's also pretty useful to be able to touch things, to understand the weight of mahogany versus cherry, to run your hand around the rim of a bowl and feel the slight shift in texture indicative of a restoration.  And then there's the issue of scale: slides make everything seem about the same size.  There's no better way (that I've found) to get students to understand the physical presence of an object than to place them directly in front of it and allow them to spend time with it.

One of the best things about learning and teaching in NYC is the auction previews.  Looking back on my own experience at the Graduate Center, it seems like a missed opportunity that we didn't often leave the classroom. We went over to Christie's on September 23 to see the American Furniture sale items, and to spend some time with Andrew Holter (he's the Head of the American Furniture department, and an alumnus of the American Arts Program at Sotheby's), and to get the students to learn directly with objects.  The great thing about an auction preview is that you get to pull out drawers, look at dovetail joints, and understand the object not as a two dimensional image, but really as an object--a dynamic, historical, and aesthetic "thing" whose history of use is inscribed upon its surfaces if you can decode the marks.  I'm not precisely sure what I'm doing in the following picture but I know that we spent a bunch of time in front of this Philadelphia chest on chest, thinking through the object and examining the details.  

There are simply too many things about a chest like this to convey with slides.  Even if you tried to get every possible image of every detail, there's a certain luxury to be able to allow the students to self direct their own learning, to have a question about a detail, to walk around an object and get a sense of its presence.  I have a hunch that what we are talking about here is the manner in which the carving was done on this central drawer, how the artist created the texturing and detail in the background, what is carved out of the wood and what is carved and applied.  It also gives the students a chance to see the difference between original and later pulls, to see clearly the difference between primary and secondary woods, and to understand the subtle patterns of wear that are signs of original versus later additions to a piece.  Perhaps most important is that they understand surface and finish, qualities of an object virtually impossible to accurately convey in slides.

I should make clear too that this is not a substitute for classroom time, this all happens in addition to their class schedule.  Each week, excepting those when we travel, I make sure that Fridays are devoted to a site visit.  Museums, auction houses, galleries, and professionals in the field are all fair game.  Not only does it allow them to begin building a network, but it means that they need to be constantly engaging the material they are learning.  My belief is that by reinforcing these lessons through direct engagement, the students absorb more, understand more, and have a better sense of the breadth of the field.  It also creates a social aspect to their learning that I feel is important, because it dispels the notion that work, life, and learning are discrete aspects of a professional career.

So far this fall we've been to the Met as an introduction / overview, to the Christie's preview to handle objects and look closely, and this past Friday to Ralph Harvard, Inc. to talk with Ralph about his business, and look at some exquisite and early Virginia furniture (which, to be honest, is something virtually impossible to find anywhere else in NYC).  Ralph's a gracious host, does incredible work, and has the ability to immediately set the students at ease.   

Here's the students looking at some furniture, prints, and assorted objects in Ralph's space.  There are a number of great things here that students get to see up close, including Bermuda Queen Anne chairs, 18th century wall paper samples, and other assorted gems.  

Here's Ralph with some of our students.  Above them on the bookcase?  A whale's skull.  Not an obvious choice for most interior decoration, but one that fits beautifully into the room.  He has the ability to make spaces seem personal and warm.  While it stems from his knowledge of architecture and decorative arts, it allows students to see that in all aspects of the field (design, sales, curating, you name it), there are opportunities to be creative and to directly apply the knowledge you have gained.

Part two to follow... 

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