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Oral history interview with Kay WalkingStick, 2011 December 14-15

Archives of American Art
Sound recording: 7 sound files (5 hr., 21 min.)

Transcript: 105 pages

An oral history interview of Kay WalkingStick conducted 2011 December 14-15, by Mija Riedel, for the Archives of American Art's Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America, at WalkingStick's studio, in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York.

WalkingStick speaks of her childhood experiences and her parents; her grandfather Simon Ridge Walkingstick and jurisprudence; Dartmouth and Indian scholarships; how her parents met; her mother as a big influence; drawing and art in the family; her siblings; Syracuse; outdoors; Onondaga Valley; painting; winning a Scholastic Art Award; moving to Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania; attending Beaver; the 1950s; Pratt; review in Artnews; Danforth Foundation; Christianity; the women's movement; Cannabis Gallery; Native American heritage; Teepee Form and Chief Joseph; using wax; Dawes Commission; influences and artists; Catholicism; Italy; Bowling Green; sketchbooks; eroticism; Edward Albee's summer camp; Wenger Gallery; The Cardinal Points; being biracial; spirituality; Rome; abstraction and patterns; Il Cortile; Cairo; traveling; teaching; Cornell; Stony Brook; photography; technology; social and political commentary in art; changes to artwork over time; landscapes; mountains and the Rockies; Colorado; dialogues with God; symbols; art world; dealers; the WalkingSticks; Late Afternoon on the Rio Grande; art theory; drawing; diptych format; Venere Alpina; Sex, Fear and Aging; prints and books; and curiosity and humor. WalkingStick also recalls Simon Ralph WalkingStick, Margaret Emma McKaig, Charles WalkingStick, Murray Peterson McKaig, Benton Spruance, Michael Echols, Bear Paw, Bertha Urdang, Ramona Sakiestewa, Jody Folwell, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, Emmi Whitehorse, George Longfish, David Penny, Dirk Bach, Bryn Mawr, and Marsden Hartley.

Journey to Mingering Mike's Magical, Musical World

Smithsonian Magazine

Lots of kids create their own fantasy worlds, populating them with monsters or superheroes—representations of friends and family, persecutors and allies, foils and alter-egos. For some, it’s a way of getting by when they don’t fit in, or of escaping the hard reality of their daily lives.

Mingering Mike was one of those kids with a vivid fantasy world. As a young man growing up in Washington, D.C. in the late 1960s, he didn’t think of himself an artist. He was Mingering Mike—a made-up character for the musical world he inhabited in his mind. “Mingering” was jabberwocky, a mash-up of words he created. Mike wasn’t his real name, either. But even as he toiled behind closed doors—insulating himself from a sometimes chaotic home life and then a bit later from those who might report him for evading the Vietnam draft—he strove for stardom and recognition. Now, decades later, at the age of 64, his early fantasy-life creations are on display in the new exhibition "Mingering Mike's Supersonic Greatest Hits" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through August 2, 2015

The works encapsulate a universe of real and imagined song recordings, made-up record labels, and vividly drawn faux album covers, complete with liner notes, fleshed-out themes and recurring musician-stars, and all with Mingering Mike as a central character. At the museum, they are being presented as relics and signifiers of a certain place and time, but also are celebrated for their art, wit and social commentary.

The works are accessible to anyone who’s ever fantasized about being a rock star, or who appreciates a sly sense of humor, music or history. Mingering Mike wrote songs, and occasionally acted out the fantasy by going over to his cousin’s house to freestyle—saying whatever came into his head—and laying it over the beat of hands rapping on a phone book and the percussion of his own voice. Cousin “Big D” became a frequent collaborator and character on Mike’s recordings, real and imagined.

Eventually, over a prolific decade between 1968 and 1977, Mingering Mike wrote more than 4,000 songs, created dozens of real recordings—on acetate, reel-to-reel, and cassette—and drew hundreds of faux labels and album covers for his real and imagined 45 RPMs and 33-and-a-third LPs, none of them ever released beyond the boundaries of his living room.

His hand-drawn LP covers and record labels are rendered as faithful replicas of the real thing, but made of posterboard or cardboard and cut to the square dimensions of an LP cover, or fashioned into circular-shaped 45s. The made-up label names include Sex, Decision, Green and Brown, Ramit Records, Gold Pot Records, and Ming War Records, among many others.

It never occurred to Mike—after all that work—that he eventually would lose the collection (which had been put away, like childish things, into storage), or that it would be found again by someone equally as passionate and driven. Or that they would join up like two Mingering Mike characters—one, a bearish and shy African American man who grew up in rough neighborhoods and the other, a lanky, thoughtful record-collecting white guy from a middle class Washington, D.C. suburb—inspiring the music and art worlds with their love for their endeavors and their mutual admiration.

By the time he was 18, Mike had lived in 13 neighborhoods around the nation’s capital. The District of Columbia of his youth was a gritty, urban place, hard hit by poverty and inequality. Several major downtown corridors were burned and looted over three days of rioting in April 1968 in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.

Mike, a peaceful introvert who observed this simmering and sometimes boiling cauldron, was raised by an older sister, but all was not well at home, either, with her alcoholic husband adding an element of fear and chaos.

The boy escaped in part by watching TV—detective shows, "Hit Parade," and the dance-and-music-focused "Soul Train," a huge favorite. Local AM radio—WOOK and WOL, both of which played “black” music—inspired him. But Mike was an protean listener, citing Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Tony Bennett and Bing Crosby among his inspirations.

It all spoke to him. “You hear what artists say in the music," he says, "it sounds so incredible to you at that particular time in your life and you wonder if you can do things like that. That’s what music is all about—either the words or the melody, that’s what it’s all about, to be able to connect to someone. [And] “some people don’t even pay attention to it.”  But he was drinking it in and trying in his own way to reach out.

Mike drew and crafted his first LP cover in 1968. Sit’tin BY THE Window by G.M. Stevens, on the made-up Mother Goose Enterprises Records. On the cover, a man with neatly trimmed hair, “G.M. Stevens,” wears a green T-shirt, dark pants and green socks. He sits with his chin on his hand, looking at you, possibly wondering what’s going on around him. Mike wrote liner notes and attributed them to “Jack Benny.” The notes reported that the musician had been “playing all the little chip joints this side of  16th and 17th street not where the White House is, he’s bend [sic] kick [sic] out of there three times and told never to come back."

Another of Mike's album covers that year was Can Minger Mike Stevens Really Sing, on the imagined Fake Records. There was a variety show-style LP cover, The Mingering Mike Show Live From the Howard Theater, which honored the real Washington, D.C. music venue, known for hosting jazz greats Duke Ellington and Billie Holliday in the 1940s and 1950s and that Mike frequented with a brother, who worked there.

Mike’s real world got turned upside down in 1969 when he was drafted in the Vietnam War. As he completed basic training in 1970, he decided the war was not his destiny, so he went AWOL. As he sat, isolated, keeping under the radar so he wouldn’t get turned in for draft-dodging, the songs and the art came tumbling out.

And just as R&B evolved from sweet love ballads and doo wop in the 1950s and early 1960s, to the message-oriented statement songs in the late 1960s and 1970s, so did Mike’s songs and art change and grow. 

As he spent more time at home, and the war dragged on, his LPs often took on a more somber tone. There was the Joseph War character and musician, modeled on a cousin who had gone to Vietnam. Joseph War appears first as a tie-wearing, clean-shaven man with a high-fade haircut, and then, on others, evoking a skull-cap-wearing bearded Marvin Gaye and a Super Fly-ish Curtis Mayfield. 

Mike also took on ghetto stereotypes with fake LP covers starring Audio Andre,—a slick, red-suit-wearing sharpie—and the injustice of poverty, with The Drug Store, a fake album sleeve featuring a pastiche of a junkie’s tools—gloves, syringe, matches, a rubber hose to tie off with, and a square of foil holding a mound of white powder. Then there’s Isolation. “This album is dedicated to my dear troubled kin," say the liner notes, "& to anyone else whom once was, but’s not anymore, ‘you can only dig it if you’ve been there.’”

There was also humor. The Exorcist, a phony 45 dates to 1974, the year the Linda Blair horror film was terrifying audiences. It was released on the imagined Evil Records label. Others to follow were: Instrumentals and One Vocal, by the Mingering Mike Singers & Orchestra and Boogie Down at the White House, from 1975, featuring two bell-bottomed, platform-shoe-sporting characters disco-ing on the sidewalk in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“It was just fun being able to have that creativity,” Mike says.

That creativity flowed until 1977, when Mike received a pardon letter in the mail from President Jimmy Carter. He performed community service and got a job. The fantasy world receded as he became an adult in his late 20s, out in the real world. “I started noticing it had been a year when I hadn’t written anything, and then it was like a pressing thought that I’ve got to do it, and then I said, ‘no, when it’s ready it will come out,’” he says.

But by the 1980s, he still hadn’t created much new, and he moved his collection into storage. At some point, Mike couldn’t make the payment on the unit, and the contents got auctioned off.

The creations—and the magical world—were then truly lost to him. But, in 2004, vinyl record collector Dori Hadar stumbled upon a cache of the phony LP covers at a flea market. Hadar was an investigator for a Washington-based defense attorney, but he too, had an escape world. On weekends and holidays, he was a "crate digger," mining thrift stores, flea markets and record shows for obscure LPs to add to his collection.

But the crates he came upon that day in 2004 were full of LPs that he struggled to understand. They were by artists he’d never heard of, and they seemed to be hand-drawn. Maybe they were a school art project. Whatever they were, Hader had to have them, and he paid $2 for each one—a hundred or so. The same day a collector-friend said he’d seen similar strange-looking LPs being sold by the same vendor elsewhere. Eventually, after some cajoling, the seller led the two to a storage unit where more treasures awaited.

Hadar pieced together the evidence at the unit and followed a trail of clues to an address in Maryland, and eventually found Mingering Mike. But Mike did not want to meet with Hadar initially. Hader wanted to give everything back to Mike.

“I was skeptical of it,” Mike recalls, but when Hadar presented a plan to curate and protect the collection, Mike was touched. They became fast friends, bonding over music and collecting. “We're quite an unlikely pair,” says Hadar, now 40.  “I'm not sure how our paths ever would have crossed had it not been for his albums popping up at the flea market,” he said.

Instead, Hadar became Mike’s co-conspirator, his manager, his protector, his maven and his friend. “Mike is a really unusual and intriguing guy,” says Hadar.  Quiet and reserved, until he assumes the Mingering Mike alter ego, then he throws on a costume, and starts telling jokes.

But, he says, “When I tell him about an exciting development—like someone interested in optioning his life story for a biopic, for example—he usually says, ‘wow, well that sounds pretty good.’”

“It's almost as if he has expected this all along,” Hadar adds.

Mike knows his art touches people, but—despite his youthful ambitions—he’s not seeking fame. “On the one hand he’s very savvy and aware, and on the other he’s completely divorced from that world,” says Trevor Schoonmaker, chief curator at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art.

Schoonmaker had read about Mike and was intrigued. He included some of Mike’s fake LP covers in a Nasher exhibition in 2010, “The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl.”

That aware/unaware dichotomy—which creates the aura of a childlike introversion and a savant-type mysticism—has drawn many to Mike. During the Duke exhibition, David Byrne, a founder of the pioneering art-rock band the Talking Heads, approached Mike to see if they could make a record together. Byrne is both a visual artist and a musician, and his work was also in “The Record” show at Duke. But, the venture with Mike did not work out for various reasons. 

More recently, Peter Buck, a co-founder of the band R.E.M., commissioned Mike to draw the cover for an upcoming solo LP. “He wanted to be a superhero,” says Mike, who obliged Buck’s fantasy.

The Smithsonian “is the perfect place for his work,” says Schoonmaker. “Not only is his work undoubtedly and almost so incredibly American and of a moment and a place and a time, but he’s from D.C. He’s in the backyard of the Smithsonian.”

George Hemphill, a Washington, D.C. gallery owner and collector who has been representing Mike since Hadar brought the two together in 2004, says he, too was captivated by Mike’s uniqueness.

Mike’s detailed universe is like a novel, with character development, plot lines, and plenty of narrative detail, Hemphill said.  “The thing that clenched it for me in terms of narrative power was when I saw an album that was not a successful seller and was now being offered at a discounted price,” said Hemphill.

Mike pretended that one of his LPs was not popular, so the dollar figure on the price tag is crossed-out replaced by a hand-written lower dollar figure. Sometimes, Mike painstakingly cut cellophane—complete with the record store’s price tag—off the covers of real LPs he’d bought, and then slipped his fake LPs into those same cellophanes.

Aside from the Peter Buck commission, and some other periodic requests, Mike doesn’t create much anymore. He says he doesn’t feel that urge or drive the way he did when he was a kid. He may still like bringing out his alter ego every once in awhile, but he says he prefers to fly under the radar. “It’s best to be low-key so there are no interruptions or people gathering around me,” he says. He wants to be a regular guy at his job and at home.

The fame he’s had over the last decade “hits me every now and then,” he says. And when something new comes up—like the Smithsonian exhibition—“I don’t react doing yippee and back flips and stuff like that, but it’s really incredible.”

“It’s like Rip Van Winkle goes to sleep and he wakes up 40 years later," he adds, "and everyone’s enjoying and amazed by this person’s talent.”

"Mingering Mike's Supersonic Greatest Hists" is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through August 2, 2015 and includes nearly 150 works of art by the Washington, D.C. artist. The collection was acquired by the museum in 2013.

The Scandalous Story Behind the Provocative 19th-Century Sculpture "Greek Slave"

Smithsonian Magazine

Karen Lemmey, sculpture curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, knew she was making a bold move.

In the museum’s recently opened exhibition, Measured Perfection: Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave, she installed the artist’s 1849 patent application to protect his famous artwork Greek Slave from illegal duplication, juxtaposing it with a video clip of museum staff 3D-scanning Power’s artwork. She did it, after all, at a building that was once the U.S. patent office, but the scan will allow the museum to print out a full-scale replica of the artist’s work.

“Powers was fiercely protective of his artwork, and he was concerned with competition,” Lemmey says of the American artist, who lived and worked for much of his life in Florence, Italy. Scanning a model of his work, which could then be printed on-demand, represents “Powers’ worst fear,” Lemmey admits. “On the other hand, I think he was so clever and so committed to using whatever worked best for his production that he would have been interested in 3-D printing and 3-D scanning,” Lemmey adds.

Powers applied for the patent, the exhibition makes clear, because the artist hoped to “control the explosion of knockoff replicas and unauthorized images.” Both the patent and the video appear in a show that focuses on the processes and techniques that Powers used to create the plaster model—depicting a nude, shackled woman—and then the steps he employed in his workshop using the latest technological tools of the time, to carve six marble Greek Slave sculptures, which he sold to prominent patrons.

Several of these nude sculptures toured the United States from 1847 to the mid-1850s with stops in New York, New England, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Louisville, St. Louis and New Orleans—drawing such large crowds that Greek Slave became “arguably the most famous sculpture of the 19th century,” says Lemmey.

Several of sculptures toured the United States from 1847 to the mid-1950s with stops in New York, New England, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Louisville, St. Louis and New Orleans—drawing such large crowds that Greek Slave became “arguably the most famous sculpture of the 19th century.” (Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS)

The highly provocative stance of the female figure, which Powers described as a Greek woman stripped and chained at a slave market, was seen as so salacious that men and women viewed it separately. Though it addressed the 1821-1832 Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire, abolitionists seized on it as social commentary on the highly volatile subject of slavery in the United States.

“People sit before it as rapt and almost as silent as devotees at a religious ceremony,” reported the New York Daily Tribune in 1847. “Whatever may be the critical judgment of individuals as to the merits of the work, there is no mistake about the feeling which it awakens.”

“It was sensational and scandalous. It was the first time many Americans had ever seen a sculpture of a nude female figure,” says Lemmey. Unauthorized copies were manufactured and sold, prompting Power’s patent application.

The exhibition, not only contextualizes the artist’s work with the help of 3D printing, but also introduces new scholarship; Powers may have used an aesthetic shortcut, using life casts instead of modeling parts of his sculptures—a scandal akin to a discovery that Leonardo Da Vinci used tracing paper.

The show’s focus is the plaster cast dated March 12, 1843, and made from the artist’s clay model. It is described as Powers’ “original” Greek Slave. As nice as it would have been to feature one of the marble sculptures in the exhibition, the piece is a challenge because of its age and fragility to move from one museum to another, according to Lemmey.

Powers cast six marble Greek Slave sculptures, which he sold to prominent patrons. (Brooklyn Museum/Corbis)

“I think, in some ways, if we had the actual Greek Slave in marble, as delightful as it would have been, it would have kind of stolen the show,” she adds. “It’s hard to look at process when you’re looking at the finished work of art. This is giving you the opportunity to look at how something is made and then to go back and appreciate the finished work.”

The artist’s process included a fascinating measuring device called a “pointing machine,” a tool that is variously dated to the 18th century, or even as far back as ancient Rome. The machine allowed sculptors to use several adjustable “arms” and pointers to measure the contours of the prototype and transfer them to a block of marble stone.

Lemmey describes Powers’ creation process as the envy of European artists, “which says a lot because there was quite a bit of anxiety about what America could produce culturally,” she adds. In addition to charting the process Powers used to make the sculpture, the exhibition examines a time when a rising American collector class was making the voyage to Europe more frequently.

“They are building wealth, which puts them in a position to buy. So when you get to Florence as an American tourist, and you see a fellow American who’s really done right by himself, you are in a sense making a patriotic statement by buying his work and bringing it back to the United States. So Powers is, in a lot of ways, a cultural ambassador.” Powers’ studio was a must-see on the Grand Tour and was even listed in travel guides of the period.

That cultural ambassadorship came from a man, who identified as 100 percent American, and whose wife couldn’t wait to return to Cincinnati, where she grew up, to raise her children there. “He is keenly aware that he is raising American kids in Florence,” Lemmey says. (When Nathaniel Hawthorne visited Powers in Florence in 1858, he noted that Powers “talks of going home, but says that he has been talking of it every since he first came to Italy.”)

Perhaps precisely due to his distance from his homeland, Powers was able to tailor his Greek Slave, which interestingly appealed to both northern and southern audiences, to the fraught politics of the day—the divisive period leading up to the Civil War.

“He’s capitalizing on an American interest in slavery in general,” Lemmey says. “This composition was [acquired] by both Northern and Southern collectors. It sort of underscored the abolitionist sentiment, but also somehow resonated in a way with certain collectors in the South.”

Hiram Powers (1805-1873) (GraphicaArtis/Corbis)

Still Relevant

Charmaine Nelson, associate professor of art history at McGill University who has studied Powers within the context of race theory and trans-Atlantic slavery studies, sees things quite differently. Greek Slave enjoyed a “rather extraordinary reception on both sides of the Atlantic” and became “the iconic neoclassical work of the 1840s,” and the sculpture remains relevant today for Powers’ ability to “cleverly speak to the topic of American slavery indirectly, to create a fantastically popular sculpture that was accepted by multiple and complex publics.”

But, Nelson adds, he missed an opportunity.

“Powers’ decision to represent his slave as a white, Greek woman in the midst of the political turmoil of American slavery, speaks to the supposed aesthetic impossibility of the black female subject as a sympathetic and beautiful subject of American ‘high’ art of the time,” she says.

“If one looks at the landscape of black female subjects in neoclassical sculpture of the era, we see not the absence of black female subjects as slaves, but their absence as beautiful subjects rendered in compositions which produced narratives that called for the dominantly white audience to view them as equals and/or as sympathetic victims of slavery.”

Having located his slave in a Greek and Turkish context, then, Powers allowed his mostly white audience to determine whether it wanted to read an abolitionist narrative onto the work. “At the same time,” Nelson adds, “the work more sinisterly inverted the colonizer-colonized relationship, representing the sexually-vulnerable and virginal slave woman—the locket and cross on the pillar are symbolic references to her character—as white (Greek) and the evil enslavers and rapists as men of color (Turkish).”

White audiences’ choice to avoid confronting slave-owning practices may have been responsible for the sculpture’s popularity in the South, Nelson says. And, Powers’ agent Miner Kellogg, who created a pamphlet to accompany the works on their American travels, may have also helped frame the work for audiences that would have otherwise rejected it.

“If one looks at Powers’ personal correspondence, we can see the way he shifted over time from a rather ambivalent opinion about slavery to being a strident abolitionist,” Nelson says. “I think that his distance from America in these critical years allowed him to question the normalization of slavery in the United States.”

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. Cast of the Forearm and Left Hand of "Greek Slave" (thumb and two missing fingers), around 1843 plaster (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Greek Slace—Daguerreotype, 1848-49 (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum,. Mold of a Child's Hand, 1840-50, plaster (original image)

New Scholarship

If viewers of the day had known of Lemmey and her colleagues’ research, the artwork would have been widely criticized. Powers may have repeatedly committed the artistic equivalent of plagiarism: using “life casts,” sculptures made from molds of body parts.

A life cast of a forearm and hand that exactly matches the left arm and hand of Greek Slave in the show prompts the question of whether or not the artist crossed a boundary. “Modeling in clay and body casting was strictly observed,” a label discloses, “sculptors risked their reputations and credibility if they were suspected of ‘cheating’ by substituting a body cast instead of modeling the figure themselves.”

“You’ve taken a shortcut that you ought not to have. You are not modeling it from the sketch; you are way too close to the original,” Lemmey says, noting several life casts in the exhibition, from a cast of Powers’ daughter Louisa (then aged six months) to a hand that, if rotated, fits the “Greek Slave” plaster cast like a glove.

“He would have been absolutely eviscerated by critics if they understood what this is suggesting.”

But, she adds, few if any patrons were probably privy to the casts. “We don’t know how much behind the scenes we are looking at. That’s part of the fun of this exhibition.”

Another gem in the show is a daguerreotype of one of the six marble sculptures, which Lemmey believes represents the version of the sculpture that was purchased by an English nobleman and subsequently destroyed in World War II.

“This may be the only visual record of that sculpture, which makes the daguerreotype all the more important,” says Lemmey of the image, which was in the collection of Powers’ agent Kellogg, who organized the Greek Slave tour of the United States.

“I love the idea that this has a really rich provenance of being made in front of an object, possibly in Powers’ presence, passing from the artist directly to his agent, who is also an artist, and then descending in the Kellogg family and then purchased by this individual giving it directly to the museum,” Lemmey says. “Imagine if a daguerreotype is the only standing record of a sculpture that’s gone forever.”

Measured Perfection: Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. through February 19, 2017. Home to more than 100 other works of Powers’ on exhibit and held in open storage, the museum also has an exquisite three-quarter size version of Greek Slave on its second floor. On November 13, when the Renwick Gallery re-opens after extensive renovations, a full-size 3D print of Greek Slave will go on display in the Octagon Room, created from a scan of the American Art Museum’s original plaster cast—the focus of the current exhibition. The National Gallery of Art, which recently acquired a full-size marble sculpture of Greek Slave from the Corcoran collection, says it will put the marble sculpture on view by spring of 2016.

Pare Lorentz

National Portrait Gallery
This photograph showing documentary film pioneer Pare Lorentz, at left, and cinematographer Paul Ivano, beside the camera at center, was made in 1936 near Bakersfield, California. There, Lorentz was at work on The Plow That Broke the Plains-his first film for the New Deal's Resettlement Administration. An ardent supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lorentz was hired in 1935 to publicize the challenges that the nation's agricultural industry faced during the Great Depression. Through a skillful combination of visual elements, music, and commentary, he created a sympathetic portrait of the American farmer in his documentaries. His next film, The River (1937), focused attention on another New Deal initiative, the Tennessee Valley Authority. In response to the movies' critical success, Roosevelt established the U.S. Film Service. Lorentz revolutionized the way documentaries were used, positioning them as a medium for transmitting social and political messages.

Watch These Six Flower Bloom Events From Your Couch

Smithsonian Magazine

Spring is unfolding right before us, but the only problem is that many of us are self-isolating inside our homes in an effort to weather out the COVID-19 storm. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on seeing spring’s spectacular blooms. A number of gardens and public spaces around the world are documenting the blossoming of cherry blossoms, tulips, orchids and other flora in real time and capturing it via videos and photographs. Here are six to see right now.

"The Orchid Show," New York Botanical Garden, the Bronx, New York

New York Botanical Garden (Courtesy NYBG)

Now in its 18th year, "The Orchid Show" has proven to be the at the top of New Yorkers’ spring to-do lists for nearly two decades, and it’s easy to see why. Every spring the New York Botanical Garden transforms its Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a sprawling glass-enclosed greenhouse, into an orchid paradise, and this year’s theme doesn’t disappoint. Called "The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope," the virtual event features floral designs by the artistic director of the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris, who over the years has created arrangements for His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well as other notable figures, and includes a tour of the facility with Marc Hachadourian, NYBG’s director of glasshouse collections and senior orchid curator. For this show, Leatham morphed each of the conservatory’s sprawling galleries into a riot of oranges, purples, pinks and reds accompanied by light installations, mirrored sculptures and overhead floral arches. In describing his concept, Leatham says, “Color is the first and most important aspect of my work, always. I want every gallery to be a different color experience, like looking into a kaleidoscope.”

National Cherry Blossom Festival, Washington, D.C.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. (National Cherry Blossom Festival)

With the arrival of spring, the National Mall in the nation’s capital becomes synonymous with cherry blossoms, and this year is no different. Presented by the Trust for the National Mall and the National Cherry Blossom Festival, along with the National Parks Service, Bloom Cam is exactly what’s needed during this solemn time and serves as a way to transport viewers virtually to the city’s lush forest of 3,800 cherry trees that shrouds the Tidal Basin in a canopy of pink-and-white blossoms. The trees have been an iconic part of the landscape since 1912 when Yukio Ozaki, Tokyo’s then-mayor, gifted more than 3,000 cherry blossoms in an act of friendship between Japan and the United States. This year’s virtual festival celebrates that symbolic exchange through a range of online-specific events, including an opening ceremony featuring music by Japanese singer-songwriter Naotaro Moriyama and a tour of the Tidal Basin with a National Park Service ranger.

Keukenhof Gardens, Lisse, Netherlands

Keukenhof Gardens (<ahref="flickr url"="">yisris - Flickr/Creative Commons)

Every fall, gardeners plant approximately seven million tulip bulbs at Keukenhof, considered one of the largest flower gardens in the world. Located 25 miles southwest of Amsterdam, the “Garden of Europe” has been drawing crowds to its prolific fields of blooms since it opened to the public in 1950. While seeing the fields this year is a bit different than in years’ past, the gardens are still drawing viewers, albeit virtually, through a series of videos and other online activities, including colorful posts on the Tulip Festival Amsterdam’s Instagram and Facebook pages. Highlights include a tour with the garden’s managing director, who discusses the different types of tulips (parrot tulips, double tulips, etc.), and a walk around the Willem-Alexander Pavilion’s 1,000 flowerbeds with a gardener who has been working there for more than two decades. In addition to tulips, Keukenhof also features daffodils, hyacinths and other flowers.

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, Lancaster, California

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve (Courtesy of California State Parks, 2019)

Cruising through Lancaster, a city located about 80 miles north of Los Angeles, poppy fields are a common sight come spring. But one location is particularly fruitful when it comes to the orangish-red blooms: Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. Encompassing more than 1,700 acres, poppy blooms carpet the property’s undulating hills, and the reserve has captured its peak via live camera. Although the reserve is home to numerous hiking trails, the California Department of Parks and Recreation is asking that the public not visit, but rather enjoy the flower show from home.

Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show, London, United Kingdom

Chelsea Flower Show (<ahref="flickr url"="">Kent Wang - Flickr/Creative Commons)

While you can’t actually smell the thousands of flowers featured at the annual RHS Chelsea Flower Show, which typically takes place for five days in May on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in Chelsea, London, home-bound floral enthusiasts can still savor the sights online. Since this year’s show has been canceled, the Royal Horticultural Society has uploaded an interactive virtual tour of its 2017 show that lets viewers “walk” through the 11-acre site and experience its impressive variety of blooms, including orchids, lilies, begonias, peonies, chrysanthemums and more.

Theodore Payne Foundation’s Native Plant Garden Tour, Los Angeles, California

Native Plant Garden Tour (Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers & Native Plants)

Normally, the Native Plant Garden Tour is a two-day festival featuring tours of some of the most astounding gardens in the greater Los Angeles area, but this year the Theodore Payne Foundation had to approach the popular event a bit differently. Through videos and photography, the foundation has captured the season in all its glory and uploaded the content for everyone to enjoy. The tour includes virtual visits to 42 gardens, including strolls through the landscapes of private homes in Santa Monica, Del Rey, Long Beach and more. Viewers can also follow along on YouTube to see the event’s “garden tour social,” that includes commentary by horticulture experts like Margaret Oakley of Oakley Gardens and Evan Meyer, executive director of the foundation.

Memorial To A Marriage

National Portrait Gallery
In 2002, the cross-disciplinary artist Patricia Cronin carved a Carrara marble self-portrait with her then partner, now wife, the pioneering feminist artist Deborah Kass. Conceived in the tradition of nineteenth-century funerary sculptures, Memorial to a Marriage presents two influential feminist artists and life partners in an eternal embrace. As a powerful commentary on gender, sexuality, and marriage, it tells both a transcendent story and one that is historically and culturally significant. The work was made a decade before Cronin and Kass were granted the right to marry in their home state of New York. After creating the original marble sculpture for New York City’s historic Woodlawn Cemetery, Cronin made three bronze casts of the work, one of which is shown here.

En 2002, la artista interdisciplinaria Patricia Cronin esculpió en mármol de Carrara un autorretrato con su entonces compañera y ahora esposa, Deborah Kass, pionera del arte feminista. Siguiendo la tradición de las esculturas funerarias del siglo XIX, Memorial to a Marriage presenta a estas dos influyentes artistas feministas y compañeras de vida enlazadas en un abrazo eterno. Con un impactante comentario sobre el género, la sexualidad y el matri- monio, la obra narra una historia trascendental, de significado histórico y cultural, ya que fue realizada diez años antes de que Cronin y Kass obtuvieran el derecho de casarse en el estado de Nueva York, donde residían. Después de completar la escultura original de mármol para el histórico Cementerio de Woodlawn, en Nueva York, Cronin hizo tres versiones en bronce, entre ellas esta.

1965 - 1975 Welthea Thoday's World War II Friendship Quilt

National Museum of American History
In the early 1940s Welthea B. Thoday sent squares of white cotton fabric to friends, family members, and coworkers and asked that each make a block for a World War II quilt. Many of the blocks she collected contain significant dates and slogans that were popular during the period, such as “Keep em Flying” or “AMERICA IN THE AIR ON LAND ON SEA” or “Save Paper – Tin – Grease.” Other quilt blocks depict the Four Freedoms, flags, and other iconic symbols. In a small booklet, “Record of World War II Historical Quilt,” Welthea Thoday identified and sketched each of the quilt square contributions and noted the significance and symbolism of the designs. The World War II Friendship Quilt was exhibited at several 1976 Bicentennial events. The colors red, white, and blue dominate on this patriotic commemorative quilt. First planned in the early 1940s, the quilt was completed in the 1970s. Welthea made the central panel, copying the design from a three-cent postage stamp that was introduced on July 4, 1942. It depicts an American eagle with its wings outstretched to form a large “V” (for Victory). The eagle is surrounded by thirteen stars and a “Win the War” banner is unfurled across its breast. Around this central panel, Welthea arranged thirty-two of the pieced, appliquéd, and embroidered blocks that she had received from friends and family. Placement of the four red-and-white symbolic squares in the corners (the cross, feather, “V” and star) gives a sense of order to the other twenty-eight individually designed blocks. Born in 1896 in Scituate, Massachusetts, Welthea B. Thoday began her career as a stenographer for a Boston automobile insurance company in 1914. In 1928 she entered the field of advertising and was one of the first women to do announcing and writing for a radio sales program. She retired at the age of 74, after twenty years as a textile editor for a Boston textile publishing company. When Welthea was 100 years old, she was interviewed by her niece, Susan McKanna. In the taped interview, she discussed the original idea for the quilt, recalling the many government programs that were being promoted during World War II and the idea that it would be “nice to make a record of them.” In 1998, at the age of 102, Welthea Thoday died. Preserved in needle and thread, pen and ink, her World War II Friendship Quilt and the booklet “Record of World War II Historical Quilt,” together provide a vivid commentary on the period.


National Museum of African Art
Multi-colored wood standing male figure on a circular base surmounting a staff. Figure once had movable arms which are now missing and the neck joint is covered by a striped cloth. Figure is wearing a western style jacket, tie and openwork crown.

The Best Photography Books of the Year

Smithsonian Magazine

What makes photography wonderful is its ability to capture a piece of our reality in a fraction of time, while also creating an image that connects to a universal human experience. The key to success is the photographer’s point of view. The ten books below are ones not to miss this year because of these artists’ unique perspectives. From photographing a place that you’ll never have access to (The Long Shadow of Chernobyl) to creating a gallery of hope in a war torn country (Skate Girls of Kabul) these books celebrate the talent of these photographers and give you another way of experiencing the world.

Father Figure: Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood by Zun Lee

Image by Zun Lee / ceiba foto. Carlos Richardson with Selah (original image)

Image by Zun Lee / ceiba foto. Jerel Willis with Fidel (original image)

Image by Zun Lee / ceiba foto. Billy Garcia and his daughter Esmeralda (original image)

With a compassionate eye and a knack for lush black and white imagery, Zun Lee’s lens shatters the stereotypes of the absent father in black America. Image after image builds a narrative that conflicts with the commonly held story of the missing man, and offers a new view–where fathers of color are loving, involved and here to stay.

The Unraveling, Central African Republic by Marcus Bleasdale

Image by Marcus Bleasdale / Fotoevidence. Christian anti-balaka attack Muslim property in PK 13 on the outskirts of Bangui after the Muslim Seleka government fell and Muslims in the area fled. The country was ruled by the minority Muslim government following the coup in March 2013. After months of oppression, the local population takes out their anger and frustrations on the largely innocent Muslim population. (original image)

Image by Marcus Bleasdale / Fotoevidence. A member of the Christian population around PK13 on the outskirts of Bangui runs through looted and burning homes of the Muslims who fled after the Seleka President Michel Djotodia resigned and left the country in disarray. (original image)

Image by Marcus Bleasdale / Fotoevidence. People displaced by the fighting between ex-Seleka and anti-balaka forces find shelter in an old factory on the grounds of the Catholic church in Bossangoa. (original image)

Image by Marcus Bleasdale / Fotoevidence. The mother of Eliam Fedongare, 24, greets him and celebrates as he arrives home with his father Jean de Dieux. They were abducted from their farm by ex-Seleka forces as they fled Bangui and were forced to march through the bush for nine days. Four of the others who were taken were shot and killed when they became too tired to continue. Eliam and his father escaped during an attack on a local village. (original image)

Image by Marcus Bleasdale / Fotoevidence. Yousufa, 11 is severely malnourished. He has been trapped in the enclave of Yaloke as politicians and the UN debate the evacuation of the group of 467 Peuhl who are trapped here. In the meantime, the Peuhl are receiving poor aid and assistance. Ten percent of their number have died in the past months. (original image)

While the world looks the other way, an unending cycle of sectarian violence has plagued the Central African Republic for the past three years. In a state that photographer Marcus Bleasdale calls “psychotic,” the population, along with the partisan rebel groups have carried out revenge killings of increased magnitude and viciousness. CAR has become a failed state, ignored by most of the world, where life is bleak and full of horrific murders. Bleasdale documented that descent into terror in an unflinching and powerful way.


The Unravelling: Central African Republic

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Dirt Meridian by Andrew Moore

Image by Andrew Moore / Damiani. Pronghorn Antelope, Niobrara County, Wyoming, 2013 (original image)

Image by Andrew Moore / Damiani. Grossenbacher Homestead, Sheridan County, Nebraska 2013 (original image)

Image by Andrew Moore / Damiani. Bassett Livestock Auction, Rock County, Nebraska, 2006 (original image)

Image by Andrew Moore / Damiani. Uncle Teed, Sioux County, Nebraska, 2013 (original image)

Image by Andrew Moore / Damiani. Storm Blow, Sheridan County Nebraska 2013 (original image)

A rarely focused-on seam of the United States, the 100th meridian that divides the country neatly into east and west, is the subject of a beautiful book of aerial landscapes by Andrew Moore. In the part of the nation often referred to as “flyover country”, Moore gives you reason to look longingly. Taken with a specially modified large format camera and etched in loving light, these images capture a unique and timeless perspective.


Andrew Moore: Dirt Meridian

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Southern Rites by Gillian Laub

Image by Gillian Laub / Damiani. Amber and Reggie, 2011. Amber: “Last year, when we had the first integrated prom, I couldn’t go. I was in the hospital after a flare up from my sickle cell anemia. I was devastated that I missed out on history being made. Prom is everything around here in this small town.” (original image)

Image by Gillian Laub / Damiani. Shelby on her grandmother’s car, 2008. Shelby: “All these people who run around screaming that the Confederate flag is racist, they’re not stupid. They’re ignorant. Because ignorance is the absence of really knowing what happened. I am not going to hide it from nobody. If I want to show the rebel flag, I’m going to, because that’s my heritage.” (original image)

Image by Gillian Laub / Damiani. Prom prince and princess dancing at the integrated prom, 2011 (original image)

Image by Gillian Laub / Damiani. Sunday church, 2014 (original image)

Image by Gillian Laub / Damianini. Sha’von Patterson holds a photo of himself and his brother, Justin. (original image)

Gillian Laub was surprised when she stumbled into a racially segregated prom in Georgia a little over a decade ago, but the legacy of racism in the Deep South goes far beyond that, she was soon to find. Laub’s portraits of the people she met and the stories they told is an eye-opener for our “post-racial’ society and the dimension this recounting brings to the conversation is nuanced and real.


Gillian Laub: Southern Rites

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JR: Can Art Change the World?

Image by JR / Phaidon Press. "Elmar," Flatiron Plaza, New York, 2015 (original image)

Image by JR / Phaidon Press. "Inside Out," Pantheon, Rome, Italy, 2014 (original image)

Image by JR / Phaidon Press. "Women Are Heroes," Favela de Jour, Brasil, 2008 (original image)

Image by JR / Phaidon Press. "Women Are Heroes," Action in Kibera Slum, Train Passage, Kenya, 2009 (original image)

Image by JR / Phaidon Press. "Face 2 Face," Separation Wall, Palestinian side, Bethlehem, 2007 (original image)

Street artist JR brings art into spaces where it’s not normally seen, often using photographs as social commentary on issues affecting the site. This book offers a behind-the-scenes look at his entire body of work and the process of creating these moving juxtapositions. The book is an inspiration for those trying to create socially engaged art and make a difference in marginalized communities.


JR: Can Art Change the World?

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The Skate Girls of Kabul by Jessica Fulford-Dobson

Image by Jessica Fulford-Dobson / Morland Tate Publishing. (original image)

Image by Jessica Fulford-Dobson / Morland Tate Publishing. (original image)

Image by Jessica Fulford-Dobson / Morland Tate Publishing. (original image)

As women in Afghanistan of all ages face stringent restrictions on their movement and life choices, the NGO called “Skatiesan” provides a means for unfettered freedom and joyful confidence building. An engaging way to bring girls back into the school system, Skatiesan was founded by Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich in 2007 These images by photographer Jessica Fulford-Dobson, highlight what a little confidence and community spirit can do to help engage hard-to-reach students . Skate culture comes to Kabul and girls rule!


Skate Girls of Kabul

~ Jessica Fulford-Dobson (author) More about this product

Where the Heaven Flowers Grow: The Life and Art of Leonard Knight by Aaron Huey

Image by Aaron Huey / Outsider Books. (original image)

Image by Aaron Huey / Outsider Books. (original image)

Image by Aaron Huey / Outsider Books. (original image)

Image by Aaron Huey / Outsider Books. (original image)

Image by Aaron Huey / Outsider Books. (original image)

Image by Aaron Huey / Outsider Books. (original image)

Using hay bales, tree trunks, old cars, the natural desert adobe and 300,000 gallons of paint, Leonard Knight built “Salvation Mountain,” a colorful pyramid of art in the California desert. A visionary artist, Knight was an “outsider artist” to some, perhaps a madman to others. Salvation Mountain was his statement about love and his spiritual commitment to the place. While county supervisors wanted to tear it down, photographer Aaron Huey documented Knight and his work, and in the process, recognized a kindred spirit of sorts. The “mountain” is now a recognized National Folk Art Shrine by the Folk Art Society of America.

Occupied Pleasures by Tanya Habjouqa

Image by Tanya Habjouqa / Fotoevidence. A woman in Gaza without a travel permit marches through the silent dark of an underground tunnel on her way to a party in Egypt, clutching a bouquet of flowers, 2013 (original image)

Image by Tanya Habjouqa / Fotoevidence. Two furniture makers take a break in a pair of plush armchairs of their creation in the open-air in Hizma against Israel's 26-foot high Separation Wall, 2013 (original image)

Image by Tanya Habjouqa / Fotoevidence. West Bank: After grueling traffic at the Qalandia check point, a young man enjoys a cigarette in his car as traffic finally clears on the last evening of Ramadan. He is bringing home a sheep for the upcoming Eid celebration, 2013 (original image)

Image by Tanya Habjouqa / Fotoevidence. Hayat Abu R'maes, 25 (left) recently took a yoga lesson from a visiting American yoga instructor. She is now teaching the young residents of her village, Zataara, a small village on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the West Bank. The women are increasing in number each week. They call it, "inner resistance." 2013
 (original image)

Image by Tanya Habjouqa / Fotoevidence. A Palestinian youth from Hebron enjoys a swim in Ein Farha, considered to be one of the most beautiful nature spots in the entire West Bank. It, like many other nature reserves and heritage sites in the West Bank, is managed by the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority. Palestinians are not allowed to operate touristic enterprise or have any say in the management of the parks, 2013 (original image)

This collection of quirky images of everyday life in the West Bank and East Jerusalem show the altered perspective that can come from living in the Palestinian territories. Humor is certainly a powerful antidote to fear for Palestinian photographer Tanya Habiouqa, who finds unexpected juxtapositions that make us smile at the absurdities of life under these circumstances. 


Occupied Pleasures

~ Tanya Habjouqa (author) More about this product
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The Long Shadow of Chernobyl by Gerd Ludwig

Image by Gerd Ludwig / Edition Lammerhuber. When Soviet authorities finally ordered the evacuation, the residents’ hasty departure often meant leaving behind their most personal belongings. The Soviet Union did not admit to the world that an accident had occurred until two days after the explosion, when the nuclear fallout cloud reached Sweden and scientists there noticed contamination on their shoes before entering their own nuclear power plant. Opachichi, Ukraine, 1993. (original image)

Image by Gerd Ludwig / Edition Lammerhuber. Workers wearing plastic suits and respirators for protection pause briefly on their way to drill holes for support rods inside the shaky concrete sarcophagus, a structure hastily built after the explosion to isolate the radioactive rubble of Reactor #4. Their job is to keep the deteriorating enclosure standing until a planned replacement can be built. It is hazardous work: radiation inside is so high that they constantly need to monitor their Geiger counters – and are allowed to work only one shift of 15 minutes per day. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine, 2005. (original image)

Image by Gerd Ludwig / Edition Lammerhuber. Severely physically and mentally handicapped, 5-year-old Igor was given up by his parents and now lives at a children’s mental asylum, which cares for abandoned and orphaned children with disabilities. It is one of several such facilities in rural southern Belarus receiving support from Chernobyl Children International, an aid organization established in 1991 in the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Vesnova, Belarus, 2005. (original image)

Image by Gerd Ludwig / Edition Lammerhuber. The evacuated city of Pripyat, once brimming with life, is now a chilling ghost town. For an exiled resident, the stillness of a city boulevard stirs memories of her former life. In her hand is an old photo of the same street years earlier. Pripyat, Ukraine 2005. (original image)

Image by Gerd Ludwig / Edition Lammerhuber. Nineteen years after the accident, the empty schools and kindergarten rooms in Pripyat – once the largest town in the Exclusion Zone with 50,000 inhabitants – are still a silent testament to the sudden and tragic departure. Due to decay, this section of the school building has meanwhile collapsed. Pripyat, Ukraine, 2005. (original image)

Image by Gerd Ludwig / Edition Lammerhuber. On April 26, 1986, operators in this control room of reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant committed a fatal series of errors during a safety-test, triggering a reactor meltdown that resulted in the world's largest nuclear accident to date. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine, 2011. (original image)

It’s been nearly 30 years since the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, but the post-apocalyptic aftermath still resonates with audiences today. But thanks to fearless photographer Gerd Ludwig, you don’t need to venture anywhere near the site in the Ukraine. Ludwig has been capturing the experiences of those impacted and documenting the spaces left behind. He’s also photographed the people who decided to return to the contaminated town nearby. With redacted CIA documents, maps and interviews, it is an impressive record.


The Long Shadow of Chernobyl (English, German and French Edition)

~ Gerd Ludwig (author) More about this product
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Amelia and the Animals by Robin Schwartz

Image by Robin Schwartz / Aperture. (original image)

Image by Robin Schwartz / Aperture. (original image)

Image by Robin Schwartz / Aperture. (original image)

Image by Robin Schwartz / Aperture. (original image)

Since her daughter, Amelia, was three years old, she and her mother, photographer Robin Schwartz have investigated the world of exotic animals and their reaction to human contact. Along the way Amelia has befriended chimpanzees, tiger cubs, elephants and owls. The resulting photographs are beautiful and strange, just as any adventure story should be.


Robin Schwartz: Amelia and the Animals

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Feast in Dream Village 1988

Human Studies Film Archives
Cataloging supported by Smithsonian Institution Women's Committee

Edited film on the Kodi, pastoral agriculturalists of west Sumba, Indonesia. Film documents a ten-day feast in Mangganipi (Dream Village) which is part of a traditional system of exchange among the Kodinese. Priests hired by the sponsor of the event direct the ritual which is intended to restore the fertility of the village's fields and protect the health of its inhabitants. Film documents the preparations for the feast, invocation of the spirits, and the enactment of various sacred rituals. It also reveals the underlying social drama of the ceremony as it follows a conflict which develops between the feast's sponsor and the head priest. Included are commentaries by priests which provide insights into the meanings of the ritual.

Clement Greenberg

National Portrait Gallery
The critic has always played an important role in American culture. From Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walter Lippmann, critical writing sharpened the sense of what it meant to be American and also pointed to the future. In American art, there has been no more important writer than Clement Greenberg, whose work was essential in shaping postwar culture. An unsuccessful poet, Greenberg began writing criticism and commentary, finding a home in midcentury magazines like The Nation. Greenberg was both profoundly nationalistic and relentlessly avant garde in his critical stance. A formalist, he argued that American abstractionists were at the leading edge of world art, advancing the history of painting as it moved inexorably toward pure abstraction. In this representational portrait by René Bouché, Greenberg is shown doing what he did best: thinking—with typewriter at hand.

Professor Pompey Magnetizing an Abolition Lady

National Museum of American History
This 1852 satirical print employs 19th century skepticism surrounding mesmerism, or animal magnetism, an early form of hypnosis, to attack women abolitionists and miscegenation – interracial coupling. A seated female abolitionist is mesmerized by the black Professor Pompey figure, who touches her breast and face, asking how she feels. Her answer reveals that she has begun to fall under his sexual control during the exercise: “Oh, I seem to be carried away into a dark wood where I inhale a perfume much like that of a skunk.” This print uses her dream to propose that whites should naturally find black people repugnant, yet the women abolitionists do not. The piece therefore presents a satirical depiction of women belonging to the abolitionist cause, suggesting their true motive to be interracial mixing. Other formally dressed black characters offer sexually suggestive commentary. A white minister standing behind Professor Pompey laments, “These are the days foretold by the prophet.” This is most likely an allusion to Acts 2:16-17: “But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” This Biblical passage not only speaks directly to the activity of mesmerism, but its reference to “the last days” mockingly adds apocalyptic undertones to the print and the prospect of abolition.

Thomas W. Strong was a New York-based printer and wood engraver who began his career around 1840. His shop specialized in comic literature and he employed many talented cartoonists and draftsmen who would go on to work for Harper’s Weekly and Vanity Fair.


National Museum of African Art
Wood standing male figure with movable arms wearing a pith helmet and holding a seperately carved long knife. Figure is painted white with a dark green sleeveless shirt.


National Museum of African Art
Wood standing male puppet wearing a multi-colored crown and sleeveless green shirt with movable arms, lower jaw, and neck joint covered by cloth.

Pete Seeger sings and answers questions at the Ford Hall Forum, Boston, Mass. [sound recording]

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
In 1967, Pete Seeger was the guest speaker for a two-hour program at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston, MA, on the topic of "Music and Social Justice." Pete's remarks are interwoven with 35 illustrative songs, mostly excerpts of varying length, while a few are sung in their entirety. His commentary, revealing a widely-read and analytical aspect of Pete, is wide-ranging historically, including early injustice to the Indians, and discrimination against Irish-Americans, etc. Injustice to African Americans, and the American labor movement receive major attention. In general terms, as well as with regard to specific issues, he discusses the use of song in promoting social justice. Modern media such as TV are lambasted for having great potential to educate but which are instead devoted to trivia. The entire second half of the program is devoted to questions from the audience and Pete's responses. The ongoing Vietnam War is prominent in this segment, including Pete's interactions with TV officials relative to their censorship of his hard-hitting anti-Vietnam War song, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, which Pete sings in its entirety. An extended enthusiastic round of applause (almost certainly accompanying a standing ovation) concludes the event. Liner notes provide background, as well as a transcript of the program.

Program notes (8 p.) inserted in container.

Recorded November 12, 1967 at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston, Massachusettes.

Stellar Connections: Explorations in Cultural Astronomy - Pt. 4, Babatunde Lawal

National Museum of the American Indian
In Indigenous worldviews -- where humanity, nature, and the spiritual realm are closely connected -- the night sky provides spiritual and navigational guidance, timekeeping, weather prediction, and stories and legends that tell us how to live a proper life. Cultural astronomy, also referred to as archaeoastronomy or ethnoastronomy, explores the distinctive ways that astronomy is culturally embedded in the practices and traditions of various peoples. In Part 4, Babatunde Lawal gives a talk entitled "A Big Calabash with Two Halves: The Yoruba Vision of the Cosmos." Afterwards, Douglas Herman, Senior Geographer of the National Museum of the American Indian, moderates a Question and Answer segment featuring Babatunde Lawal, John MacDonald, and Michael Wassegijig Price. Babatunde Lawal is a professor Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. He specializes in African and African Diaspora art with a personal research focus on the ancient and contemporary arts of Nigeria, particularly the visual culture of the Yoruba and its influences in the Americas. His publications on Yoruba art examine its ontological, social, cultural, religious and aesthetic implications as well as the dynamics of change. Much of his data derives from formal and iconographic analyses reinforced with field interviews and the Odù Ifá, a collection of origin myths, astronomical speculations, philosophical commentaries and remedies handed down from the past and often referenced by Yoruba diviners to help clients in times of crisis. Babatunde Lawal's presentation at the symposium will focus on the Yoruba vision of the cosmos as "a big calabash with two halves." The top represents the male Sky, and the bottom, female Earth. The calabash is thought to be sustained by a constellation of metaphysical and physical phenomena (àse) on which depends the future of humankind. So it is that cultural astronomy looms large in Yoruba culture and art, being used for a variety of purposes such as social control, measuring time, determining direction, coping with the vicissitudes of the existential process and, most importantly, reinforcing their belief in life after death. The symposium was webcast on October 20, 2012 from the Rasmuson Theater in the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Archaeological Research in China (manuscript), 1923-1934

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives
Carl Whiting Bishop was an Associate Curator and Associate in Archaeology at the Freer Gallery of Art from 1922 to 1942.

This unpublished manuscript constituted a field report that chronicled Bishop's Gallery-sponsored expeditions in northern and central China during the period 1923 to 1934. The reader is provided with a record of the day-to-day operations completed, of obstacles and opposition encountered, and the results obtained from their work. Key diplomatic and scientific representatives from the West and China are recorded who aided and contributed to the investigations. Moreover, there are descriptions of the academic, social and political climate in China during a period of civil war and economic strife. Against this background, Bishop also discussed their efforts in view of the history of China, with commentary on the country's geography, topography, climate, flora and fauna, mineral products, and ancient customs and legends.The manuscript consists of an introduction, 19 numbered chapters, 3 appendices and a series of plates and figures related to his text.

Archaeological Research in China (Appendices) 1923-1934

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives
Carl Whiting Bishop was an Associate Curator and Associate in Archaeology at the Freer Gallery of Art from 1922 to 1942.

This unpublished manuscript constituted a field report that chronicled Bishop's Gallery-sponsored expeditions in northern and central China during the period 1923 to 1934. The reader is provided with a record of the day-to-day operations completed, of obstacles and opposition encountered, and the results obtained from their work. Key diplomatic and scientific representatives from the West and China are recorded who aided and contributed to the investigations. Moreover, there are descriptions of the academic, social and political climate in China during a period of civil war and economic strife. Against this background, Bishop also discussed their efforts in view of the history of China, with commentary on the country's geography, topography, climate, flora and fauna, mineral products, and ancient customs and legends.The manuscript consists of an introduction, 19 numbered chapters, 3 appendices and a series of plates and figures related to his text.

Archaeological Research in China (Plates and Figures) 1923-1934

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives
Carl Whiting Bishop was an Associate Curator and Associate in Archaeology at the Freer Gallery of Art from 1922 to 1942.

This unpublished manuscript constituted a field report that chronicled Bishop's Gallery-sponsored expeditions in northern and central China during the period 1923 to 1934. The reader is provided with a record of the day-to-day operations completed, of obstacles and opposition encountered, and the results obtained from their work. Key diplomatic and scientific representatives from the West and China are recorded who aided and contributed to the investigations. Moreover, there are descriptions of the academic, social and political climate in China during a period of civil war and economic strife. Against this background, Bishop also discussed their efforts in view of the history of China, with commentary on the country's geography, topography, climate, flora and fauna, mineral products, and ancient customs and legends.The manuscript consists of an introduction, 19 numbered chapters, 3 appendices and a series of plates and figures related to his text.

Through the Looking Glass: Museums and Internet-Based Transparency

Smithsonian Education
Dr. Maxwell Anderson Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Ring Auditorium) Washington, DC Wednesday, March 11, 2009 2:304:30 pm As museums adapt to the potential of social computing, the old-school website focused on facilitating physical access and rudimentary collections information is fast becoming a necessary but insufficient front door for museums online. By opening museums to public participation, and by revealing operational details that are normally kept confidential, museums have the potential to animate strategic planning, anticipate outcomes-based inquiries from governance authorities and funders engage a new generation of users, mollify a prying press, and encourage philanthropy. This presentation will present some ways in which the Indianapolis Museum of Art is striving to open itself in unexpected ways to the general public. Author of many publications and an internationally known speaker, Dr. Anderson is a leader in moving museums toward incorporating web mediated technology in their daily lives. His publications on museums and technology have promoted greater transparency among institutions, and his advocacy led the Indianapolis Museum of Art to launch, in 2007, the first real-time museum dashboard, revealing over 50 fields of sensitive financial and performance data and soliciting commentary from the general public about the museum's commitment to openness.

Ai Weiwei at Hirshhorn: Demetrion Lecture

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Recognized around the world for his extensive practice bridging art and activism, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has spent his career redefining the purpose of art as “the fight for freedom.” Viewed as cultural commentary, his conscience-driven body of work ventures far beyond the art world and into the realm of modern politics, addressing government conflicts, the movement of refugees, incarceration, and perceived injustice. His unorthodox approach to art making and his expanding social media savvy have arguably led to Ai becoming one of the most well-known living artists in the world. His work, although eclectic, is largely built upon his own experiences. Trace, for instance, foregrounds his own experiences of incarceration, interrogation, and surveillance. In 2011, he was detained by the Chinese government for eighty-one days and prohibited from traveling abroad until 2015. In conjunction with the opening of his major new exhibition, "Ai Weiwei: Trace at Hirshhorn," the Museum is thrilled to host Ai in conversation with Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu for the annual James T. Demetrion Lecture.

Survey Finds Most People Are Biased Against Atheists, Including Atheists

Smithsonian Magazine

In many parts of the world, secularism is on the rise, even in the United States where there has been a slow but steady drop in the number of people who affiliate themselves with a religion. Despite those changes, Benedict Carey at The New York Times reports that a new study reveals that an implicit bias against atheists, or those who don’t believe in any supernatural deity, remains, with most people judging atheists as less moral than religious people.

For the study, researchers surveyed 3,256 people in 13 countries from North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, collecting data on their age, religious affiliation and belief in god. Among brain teasers and random questions on a questionnaire, they included a query describing a man who tortured animals as a child and as an adult went on to abduct and kill five homeless people who are buried in his basement. One half of the subjects were asked: “Which is more probable? 1) The man is a teacher; or 2) The man is a teacher and does not believe in any gods.”

The other half were asked: “Which is more probable? 1) The man is a teacher; or 2) The man is a teacher and a religious believer.”

Carey reports that 60 percent of people given the option selected the man as an atheist. Only 30 percent of people given the option selected him as a religious believer.

Agence France-Presse reports that the bias was strongest in more religious countries including the United States, United Arab Emirates and India. New Zealand and Finland, both very secular nations, were the only countries in the study that did not show a bias against non-believers. The study appears in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

“It is striking that even atheists appear to hold the same intuitive anti-atheist bias,” study co-author Will Gervais, psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, tells AFP. “I suspect that this stems from the prevalence of deeply entrenched pro-religious norms. Even in places that are currently quite overtly secular, people still seem to intuitively hold on to the belief that religion is a moral safeguard.”

But Ryan F. Mandelbaum at Gizmodo reports that atheists don’t exactly need to worry about villagers armed with implicit biases and pitchforks. In a commentary in Nature published along with the recent study, Arizona State University psychologists note that most relationships are not as cut and dry as the survey question presents. “Atheism is rarely the only piece of information known about interaction partners,” they write, “and it is possible that, when included with the social information that individuals collect naturally, atheism will be perceived as less indicative of immoral behavior.”

In the United States, at least, the social stigma around atheism may have caused people to choose to hide their non-belief, however. Daniel Cox at FiveThirtyEight reports that Gervais ​was also the lead author on a study published earlier this year which found that one in three people in the U.S. surveyed in the sample did not disclose their lack of belief. Using that data, the researchers suggest that number of people who identify as atheist in the U.S. might actually be as high as 20 percent to even 35 percent—a significant jump from the 3 percent to 11 percent who have self-identified as atheists on recent Pew and Gallup polls.

Karl Marx, My Puppy ‘Max,’ Instagram and Me

Smithsonian Magazine

Karl Marx, who was an acute analyst of society, though less successful as a revolutionary prognosticator, wrote one of the most evocative sentences on modern times when he described how under modernity “all that is solid melts into air.”

Marx meant that the instrumental, market relations of capitalism were colonizing all aspects of human life, shredding any distinction between public and private as well as bending “traditional” institutions—marriage, the family, religion and so on—to its omniscient will.

Early on—he wrote in the mid-19th century—Marx recognized that everything could be monetized.

Because he was also a romantic and somewhat sentimental, he realized that personal relationships were disappearing in an ever-expanding market for goods and services. What Marx argued was that traditional institutions and relationships would dissolve—melt into air—paving the way for a new society based on the revolutionary achievements of capitalism and married to a new humanism founded on the abundance created by capitalism. In this scenario he would be disappointed. Marx underestimated the extent to which capitalism would find continual ways to reinvent and reinvigorate itself, not least by continually melting into air and re-emerging in astonishing new forms.

The parrot tulips in Still Life with Fruit and Flowers by Cornelius de Beet recall Holland's tulip mania of the 17th century. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The theoretical model of the modern economy—still taught in the text books of Econ 101—posited the production of goods and services along rational, predictable economic lines. But in reality the actual dealings of trade and the market was shot through with uncertainty and irrationality.

What Marx recognized, but as a hardheaded 19th-century empiricist repressed, was that there was always something mysterious about market relations. Human psychology, in particular the desire to chase the “next big thing” and make a killing, made swindling not just a by-product of the market, but very possibly it’s raison d’etre.

Instead of fulfilling society’s material needs, the market took on a life of its own, fulfilling not needs but the demands for a quick buck. Or a quick guilder as the case may be—consider the “Tulip Mania” in 17th-century Holland, then probably the most advanced economy in the world.

It began with the rational idea of producing flowers for a population that was becoming interested in taste and adornment, not just subsistence, but it quickly metastasized into a speculative bubble. As the price of ever more exotic breeds of tulips rocketed into the stratosphere, along with the renowned “black” tulip, which may or may not have actually existed, the whole edifice collapsed with the over-extension of the credit market and the bankers’ realization that everyone had been walking on air.

Massachusetts, 1 Dollar, 1807 (Counterfeit) (National Museum of American History)

Other speculative bubbles have followed regularly, down to the American housing bubble of the early 2000s. Perhaps these free-market catastrophes are just episodic results of the natural exuberance of business and the regular oscillation of expansion and contraction of markets in modern times. But there may be something more systemic at work.

The historian of American counterfeiting, Stephen Mihm, cogently addresses this point in an analysis that points out that it didn’t matter if coins and bills were counterfeit or contained diminished amounts of silver and gold, so long as people maintained the fiction that these symbols of value actually contained real value. Velocity was the important thing: if everyone remained complicit and kept things moving then the system would work. It’s only when, like Wile E. Coyote, people looked down that they realized that there was nothing but air beneath their feet.

The ubiquity and rapid expansion of the internet, and the services provided by it, ranging from retail to human relations—pornography, online dating—would have delighted Marx for adding another dimension to his prophecy (think about how Amazon has destroyed the brick-and-mortar shop) while appalling him because of its evidence of capitalism’s ability to continue to generate new social relations out of its basic business of buying and selling.

33 cent Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote panel of ten from the National Postal Museum (National Postal Museum, Copyright United States Postal Service. All rights reserved.)

With the internet roughly 25 years old, and social media only slightly less so, it is interesting to pause—something the internet doesn’t actually let you do—to assess the ways social media has become a new product and a new way of relating to other people. In particular, the question that troubled Marx is one that should interest (and perhaps trouble) us: Are people just commodities?

And with the appearance of the virtual world, how do we know that anything is an accurate representation of the real world or just carefully crafted “smoke and mirrors”?

Even as a stodgy old historian, I am on social media, shilling my academic wares and delivering selected images or commentary on my life. Or rather, what appears to be my life. It’s hard to tell.

What seems potentially different and new about the Internet is not that it provides an accelerated way to market things, but it vastly expands the opportunity to make money by doing nothing; i.e. the dream of the confidence man and woman.

For instance, I just acquired a puppy and posted pictures of him, which have garnered many “likes” and favorable comments. I’m connecting with my fellow Netzins and the Twitterati. With my dozens of followers, I assume that I will soon be receiving money and dog food from various anonymous corporations that like the style of my posts even though they’ve never met my dog; whose name is Max, by the way.

In his mordant novella, The Confidence Man, set on a Mississippi Steamboat, Herman Melville provided one variant of the confidence man: a shadowy individual who buttonholed his fellow passengers, imploring them to buy shares in the Blue Sky Mines. The poor guy actually had to work hard, going out in the world with his fake stock certificates and a plausible pitch. Now it can all be done virtually—in no-place at all except in cyberspace.

Fraud is inevitable not just with big financial crimes but in smaller, more personal areas in which a connection is promised but is actually vaporous—something like a tenth to a quarter of all on-line dating profiles are fraudulent—shysters hoping to lure lonely hearts to part with their money.

But fraud will always be with us. What is more interesting is how marketing on the Internet, and its various permutations from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to Pinterest to Snapchat, has become a market not for “things” but for individuals.

Follow the National Portrait Gallery's senior historian David Ward and his #cutepuppy on Instagram at dcward412 for Insta and @david_c_ward on Twitter. (Screenshot David Ward Instagram)

Here the revolutionary development is on Instagram, where the images of people—not the people themselves, mind—become monetized to the point that the individual receives money just for simply posting pictures of themselves in a variety of poses and situations.

The Internet, of course, has rapidly expanded the range of celebrity culture but this was still usually tied to an actual thing or product that the “celebrity” had done; movie stars made movies, athletes played sports, musicians dropped tracks. There was an actual product tied to the individual and the larger entity that she or he represented.

But while there have always been people who are famous for being famous, now this is becoming a whole category of privileged worker under the Internet mode of production. The Kardashians are a prime case in point but so are fitness and lingerie models, skateboard kids and sites providing pictures of cute animals.

People, once they achieve a critical mass of “likes” and followers on social media, now get companies or brands to pay them money. For no real reason at all. Meanwhile, the traditional journals, newspapers, magazines and other providers of solid scholarship are struggling to compete in advertising markets that are chasing after the providers of cat videos and Kardashians.

As the wider social connections of the visible world have dissolved and we are thrown back—as Marx also predicted—on the isolated and alienated individual self, that isolated self has become a commodity for sale—a sale whose terms are completely randomized and inexplicable. What Marx didn’t anticipate (how could he? The poor bastard didn’t even have a telephone) was how modern society would end up selling the “air” itself: the image of someone who is apparently real but who has no real life outside of his or her appearance on social media. As the ad says, “Image is everything.”

Like the tulip craze, the current iteration of social media will doubtless fall away to be replaced by something else; Twitter is already declining. It’s inevitable that what we now see as inevitable and necessary parts of the virtual world will disappear to be replaced by something else, a reinvention that, like Wile E. Coyote, keeps us all running on air. Just don’t look down.

In the meantime, I have to go on my social media platforms and post pictures and video of Max, my #cutepuppy.

I don’t actually have a puppy. Or do I? You’ll never know for sure.

A South African Colouring Book

National Museum of African Art
Suite of eleven prints + cover combining imagery and text representing individuals and events associated with political oppression and racial injustice in South Africa. Images include scenes of protest, police violence against demonstrators, a funerary cortege, a beauty pageant, and depictions of manual work. One of the prints includes a page from the artist's passbook, with handwritten text below. Many of the prints include a color bar in bright pigments and an area of two parallel rows of five circles, some with the directions "colour these…"
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