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A World Of His Own: The Art of James Castle

Smithsonian Magazine

The world as seen through the eye of the self-taught artist James Castle, one that is drawn in black and white lines made from the simple mixing of soot and saliva, is a unique one. Not just for its place in time—in the waning years of the early 20th century when the Western frontier was being settled—but for the circumstances surrounding the artist's early life and his prodigious work output. "He stored his art in many locations around the family property—in barns, sheds, attics, walls," says curator Nicholas Bell, co-author of the show's catalog Untitled: The Art of James Castle. "But I wouldn't say he was trying to hide it from anyone, per se. Before he died he communicated through gestures to his family where all of his art was stored so they could take care of it."

Born profoundly deaf, Castle never learned to read, write or communicate in any traditional sense. Yet for nearly 70 years, Castle interacted with the world around him communicating through his art, creating drawings, books and constructions that reflected his individual reality. "James Castle is his own art history," explained John Ollman, owner of the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery in the 2008 documentary James Castle: Portrait of an Artist. "He's using himself as his own reference material."

Through February 1, 2015, Castle's work will be on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in "Untitled: The Art of James Castle," an exhibition that celebrates a 2013 acquisition of 54 Castle pieces, making the museum home to one of the largest collections of the artist's works. "James Castle's drawings and paintings confirm that art offers a fundamental way to know ourselves," said the museum's director Betsy Broun in a statement. "He worked for decades in the rural west, surrounded by family but with little experience beyond his community and with no formal art training. But his discerning eye found subjects all around, creating an extended portrait of his world."

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. Castle would often depict familiar landscapes—such as his boyhood farm home—with disruptions in the middle. Scholars have dubbed the monolithic forms in his work "totems," but aren't sure of their meaning. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. Castle couldn't read or write, but his artwork shows a fascination with texts. The grouping of letters here seems to recall a method for teaching pronunciation that Castle might have been exposed to while at school. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. Castle often played with kaleidoscopes, which influenced his use of shape. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, color of unknown origin. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, string. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, color of unknown origin. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, string, and wood. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and color of unknown origin. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and color of unknown origin. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, string. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Born two months premature on September 25, 1899, to rural postmasters who ran a general store out of the living room of their home in Garden Valley, Idaho, Castle grew up in the shrinking world of the pioneer frontier.  From the ages of 10 to 15, he attended the Gooding School for the Deaf and Blind, where he was taught an oral method of communication—not sign language. And with no formal art training he worked virtually unknown for the first 40 years of his life before the art world discovered him. But by 1964, Castle was being described as the "most important primitive since Grandma Moses," by the director of the Portland Art Museum, whose style "reminds us of Van Gogh."

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Untitled: The Art of James Castle

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Castle created his work using found objects: paper from his parent's post office, cardboard from matchboxes, soot from the wood stove mixed with saliva to create a kind of charcoal ink. He was profoundly productive, crafting works at a near constant rate for almost his entire life. Many of his drawings are on the back of used envelopes, or used pieces of paper or even on the interior of an unfolded matchbox (in the slideshow above, the images with slots in the sides are done on such a medium). His works largely reflects the rural landscape that surrounded him for his entire life: after leaving Garden Valley as a young man in 1924 (and moving first to Star, Idaho and then to Boise), his illustrations often recalled the farmyard of his Garden Valley home. Castle's works are all undated, but any surviving artwork is thought to date from after 1931, when he moved to Boise, meaning that landscapes which recall his boyhood homes must have all been painted from memory. Many of Castle's works also explore the idea of text, which seemed to fascinate Castle in spite of his reputed illiteracy. 

"At once inviting and inscrutable, Castle's art gives us access to a world navigated without language, though not the key to unlock it," says Bell. "Ultimately, grappling with these drawings reveals the limits of our understanding as well as one artist's extraordinary vision of the ordinary."

Female figure with child

National Museum of African Art
Kneeling female wood figure on base with proper left leg up, and proper right hand on pot, proper left hand on smaller seated figure with crossed arms. Figure is covered in white pigmentation with black hair, painted scarification, facial details, pot and base sides. Figure's eyes are inlaid with mirror glass and the face has open mouth showing teeth.

How Haiti’s Devastating Earthquake Prompted a Worldwide Effort to Safeguard Cultural Heritage

Smithsonian Magazine

This month marks the ten-year anniversary of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti. The epicenter was near the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince, home to 3 million. The January 12 quake wreaked havoc, becoming one of the largest natural disasters in human history. The Haitian government estimated that as many as 300,000 died, hundreds of thousands were injured, and more than one million were rendered homeless as more than 250,000 buildings collapsed. The region’s infrastructure—power, transportation, communication, healthcare and education systems—suffered severe damage and destruction.

Scores of nations and millions of people worldwide responded with aid and support. In the first few days and nights before U.S. troops arrived to clear the way for and deliver desperately needed humanitarian assistance, Haitians had to survive. Most were afraid of returning to their damaged homes and fragile buildings because of possible aftershocks. Instead they took refuge on the streets and in public parks and squares surrounded by unimaginable piles of rubble and coated by the ubiquitous fog of pulverized concrete that hung in the air. Getting through the shock of the quake, and seeing their loved ones die and possessions destroyed, they needed to draw deeply on their inner and collective strength. In the face of despair, they found strength in song. Hundreds of thousands sang through the night—anthems and hymns and songs of resilience and hope. The songs, deeply rooted in Haitian culture and history, were expressions of their very identity as a people and community, rallying their spirits, and buttressing their courage despite the lack of food, medical care and shelter.

It was an unbelievable evocation of humanity in the face of unimaginable catastrophe. One could not but admire the Haitian peoples’ will, tenacity and reservoir of collective experience. Thinking of material needs, we often forget how important culture, religion, identity and basic beliefs forged through a people’s history are in their surviving a disaster. People don’t forget their culture in such a time of need, instead they take refuge in it—praying harder, singing louder, holding on tighter to each other.

The importance of culture in surviving the earthquake and eventually recovering from it was made clear to me and others at the Smithsonian Institution as our fellow Haitian colleagues responded in the first few days. Patrick Vilaire, a sculptor and grassroots cultural heritage worker, rescued books and artifacts in the rubble. Parents and teachers rushed to the devastated Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral to recover musical instruments precious to their children from the teetering music school building. Artists from the Centre d’Art pulled paintings out of their pancaked building in order to save decades of Haitian artistic creativity.

Patrick Delatour, the minister of tourism and historical architect, was appointed by Haitian president Rene Preval to lead the recovery planning effort. Patrick had been a fellow at the Smithsonian in the 1980s, and in 2004 was part of a team of Haitian cultural leaders who organized and curated a program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival marking the 200th anniversary of Haitian independence—when the Haitians defeated Napoleon’s army, became an independent nation and abolished slavery. Among that team was Geri Benoit, former first lady of Haiti; Olsen Jean-Julien, more recently Haiti’s minister of culture; Vilaire; and others who played supportive roles, including Georges Nader, leader of Haiti’s largest museum and art gallery; Michelle Pierre-Louis, head of Fokal, Haiti’s largest cultural and educational foundation and more recently Haiti’s prime minister.

Delatour told me we needed something like the “Monuments Men,” the famed division of the U.S. Army that rescued the cultural treasures of Europe from Nazi destruction in World War II. The Smithsonian wanted to help our Haitian colleagues, but neither we nor any other organization had the template or funds to do so.

A conservator treats a historical Haitian painting at the Cultural Conservation Center. (Photo courtesy Olsen Jean-Julien, Cultural Conservation Center)

We were, though, inspired by the cultural rescue work of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, led by its founder, Cori Wegener—who had served as a U.S. Army civil affairs officer and “Monuments Woman” after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and helped restore the Baghdad museum, and the American Institute of Conservation, led by Eryl Wentworth, which in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, had trained about 100 conservators in disaster response. Their expertise helped guide our plans for Haiti. In collaboration with the Haitian government, institutions, and cultural leaders, we mobilized. Along with the U.S. President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities, the Department of State and USAID, the Department of Defense, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and others, we initiated the Haitian Cultural Recovery Project. Thanks to producer Margo Lion, crucial funding came from The Broadway League, New York theater owners who understood from their experience of our great disaster—9/11—how important culture was to the spiritual and material recovery of a nation.

Immediately we launched a drive to send paints, canvasses and brushes to Haiti’s Nader Gallery to be distributed to Haitian artists, so they could “paint the earthquake” and the aftermath. Our Haitian Cultural Recovery Project established a base of operations in a former UN building and compound in Port-au-Prince. Kaywin Feldmen, then head of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, agreed to detail Wegener to the Smithsonian to help guide the project. We hired a staff of about three dozen Haitians led by Jean-Julian and Smithsonian retired conservator Stephanie Hornbeck. We acquired generators, vehicles and equipment, established conservation labs, and hosted more than 120 conservators and cultural experts from the Smithsonian, and thanks to the American Institute for Conservation, from numerous American institutions such as Yale, the Seattle Art Museum, the Maryland State Archives, and others, as well as international organizations including the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) and UNESCO. We organized an exhibition of Haitian children’s earthquake art at the Smithsonian, mounted exhibits of Haitian art at several galleries, and hosted Haitian musicians and craftspeople at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Haitian conservators received advance conservation training at Yale University’s conservation center. (Photo courtesy Yale University)

After two years of work, we’d trained more than 100 Haitians from more than 30 museums, galleries, libraries and archives in basic conservation, saved more than 35,000 paintings, sculptures, artifacts, rare books, murals, archives and other Haitian treasures. We built and improved collection storage facilities at MUPANAH—the national history museum of Haiti, the national library and archives, Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Centre d’Art, ISPAN—the national cultural heritage preservation organization, and other cultural venues. We’d also restored some key works for the Presidential Palace, the Nader Gallery, the Centre d’Art and other institutions. With Yale University’s conservation center, we’d run an advanced internship program, and with help from the Stiller Foundation and USAID, we’d established and built a Cultural Conservation Center at Haiti’s Quisqueya University to preserve artworks and to train the next generation of conservators.

Conservation trainees at the Cultural Conservation Center. (Photo courtesy Olsen Jean-Julien, Cultural Conservation Center)

So, where do we now stand a decade after the earthquake?

Haiti’s overall recovery has been long and hard. Much of the billions of dollars in promised internationally aid never arrived. There was no large-scale construction of new homes, nor repair of damaged homes and institutions, no new roads, and only some replacement of infrastructure. It took years to just clean up the 10 million cubic meters of rubble—the equivalent of filling up almost 100 sports stadiums. Though there was a peaceful transition of presidential power from Rene Preval to Michel Martelly, there were difficulties with the legislature and local civic authorities. Following the controversial election of a new president, the country has experienced considerable protest and unrest. Economic stability and daily life for millions remains a challenge.

On the cultural front, artists and advocates have endured and made substantial progress. The Quisqueya University Cultural Conservation Center employed Smithsonian- and Yale-trained conservators Franck Louissaint and Jean Menard Derenoncourt to restore paintings and provide preventative conservation training to those in public and private galleries. The Center, led by Jean-Julien, has also organized cultural activities to increase public awareness of cultural conservation and has aided other organizations in fundraising.

The Cultural Conservation Center at Quisqueya University, Port-au-Prince. (Richard Kurin)

The Nader Gallery recovered more than 14,000 of its paintings and Smithsonian-trained Hugues Berthin has treated some 2,000 of them. Tourism has suffered given instability, thus art sales for this and other commercial galleries in Haiti have slumped. But creativity continues both in-country and beyond. The gallery has promoted both iconic Haitian masters as well as new artists and has mounted exhibitions in Haiti, Paris and Athens. It is currently planning for the 2020 Sydney Biennale and a Biennale in Haiti for 2021. Perhaps most significantly, the gallery established the Fondation Marie et Georges S. Nader with a collection of 863 paintings and art objects selected carefully by family members and art historian Gerald Alexis. The selection includes museum quality pieces created by both well-known and lesser known Haitian artists over the last century and represents the evolution of Haitian art. The goal is to exhibit the collection and also make it the foundation of a new public art museum.

Image by Photo Courtesy Georges Nader. Georges Nader today at the Nader Gallery. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian magazine. Georges Nader at the site of his earthquake destroyed museum in 2010. (original image)

MUPANAH, the national history museum, has engaged two of the conservators who trained with the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project to help manage and conserve its collections. The National Archives improved its 19th-century collection and is seeking support for new facilities. Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral is housing the remnants of three surviving larger-than-life murals that decorated its walls, and plan reconstruction for the future. Its boys’ choir has continued to perform over the years, including for tours of the U.S. and annual performances at the Smithsonian.

Image by Photo by Rosa Lowinger. Mural fragments were successfully removed from the Cathedral’s wall and are now safely stored at the site for future reinstallation. (original image)

Image by Photo by Stephanie Hornbeck. Surviving wall murals at Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral were saved by the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project. (original image)

Image by Photo by Stephanie Hornbeck. Surviving wall murals at Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral were saved by the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project. (original image)

Le Centre d’Art has made enormous progress. Founded in 1944, Centre d’Art was the historical leader in recognition of Haiti’s artists and the promulgation of their art internationally, starting with seminal acquisitions by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the 1950s. The collections of Centre d’Art consisting of more than 5,000 Haitian paintings, drawings, iron sculptures and other works and thousands of archival documents were severely compromised by the 2010 earthquake and initially treated by the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project. Ever since, the collection has been conserved, rehoused and studied, thanks to support from L’Ecole du Louvre, the William Talbott Foundation, Open Society Foundations and FOKAL. Most recently, the Centre d’Art joined the Louvre, the National Gallery of Art, Tate Modern and others in receiving prestigious recognition and substantial support from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project—enabling it to do more sophisticated restoration and conservation work in collaboration with the Smithsonian. It was an honor for me to attend the awards ceremony hosted at MOMA by Glenn Lowery and Bank of America’s Rena Desisto, and to stand with Centre board chair Axelle Liautaud and members Michelle Pierre-Louis and Lorraine Mangones in front of a Hector Hyppolite painting exhibited in the museum’s gallery.

Despite the destruction of its main building, the Centre has over the years produced exhibitions, held instructional programs and classes, and served as a meeting place for and supporter of Haitian artists. Centre d’Art recently purchased a historical, 1920s gingerbread-style mansion—Maison Larsen, to serve as a venue for its collections, exhibitions and programs. Support for the $800,000 purchase comes from the Fondation Daniel et Nina Carasso and Fondation de France.

A good deal of restorative work is needed to make this marvelous building operational, and funds for that are being raised.

Image by Photo courtesy Le Centre d’Art. The Centre d’Art has held exhibitions in other venues in the years following the earthquake and encouraged continued artistic creativity. (original image)

Image by Photo courtesy Le Centre d’Art. The Centre d’Art has held exhibitions in other venues in the years following the earthquake and encouraged continued artistic creativity. (original image)

Image by Cori Wegener. Olsen Jean-Julien and Richard Kurin at the collapsed Centre d’Art just after the earthquake. (original image)

Image by Photo © Wendy Desert, courtesy Centre d’Art. The Maison Larsen, once renovated will be the new home of the Centre d’Art. (original image)

Finally, the Haiti cultural humanitarian effort had great consequences beyond its shores. When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, the Smithsonian responded with many of the same partners that had mobilized for Haiti, and aided galleries, collections and museums in New York. This led to the Smithsonian partnering with FEMA to lead the Heritage Emergency National Task Force, which has since responded to saving cultural items from flooding in Texas, South Carolina and Nebraska, and from hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Smithsonian formally established the Cultural Rescue Initiative with Wegener as director, coordinating the work of numerous conservators, collections managers, and experts from divisions across the Institution, and gaining federal appropriations and support from the Mellon Foundation, Bank of America, the State Department and many others. The Haiti effort provided a model of how U.S. government agencies and cultural organizations could collaborate to save heritage in disaster and conflict situations. That is now enshrined in the Preserve and Protect International Cultural Property Act, and the U.S. government, multi-agency Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee. The Smithsonian, particularly its Museum Conservation Institute (MCI), works closely with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security on training investigators to prevent the looting and trafficking of cultural treasures.

MCI has taken the lead in training hundreds of Iraqis in cultural conservation at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil to reverse destruction by ISIS and others. Currently, the Smithsonian is working with Iraqi partners to stabilize the ancient Assyrian archaeological site of Nimrud and with the Louvre and Aliph Foundation support to safeguard and restore the Mosul Museum—both of which were severely damaged and looted by ISIS.

The Smithsonian has also worked in areas of Syria, Mali and Egypt to safeguard cultural heritage in light of conflict and terrorism, and in Nepal following a cultural devastating earthquake in the Katmandu Valley. Working with the University of Pennsylvania Cultural Heritage Center and others, the Smithsonian has engaged in research projects to better understand and respond to cultural destruction, and with ICCROM and the Prince Claus Fund, helps train professional cultural first responders from around the world.

Working with the Department of Defense and Defense Intelligence Agency, the Smithsonian, along with partners, helps encourage knowledge of U.S. law and international treaty obligations with regard to the protection of cultural heritage. And recently, as Haitian leader Patrick Delatour perhaps envisioned, the Smithsonian signed an agreement with the U.S. Army to train a new generation of Monuments Men and Women capable of addressing the complex issues of cultural preservation in today’s world. In short then, the Haitian experience provided the means for the Smithsonian, joining with many, many partners, to do a better job of safeguarding the world’s threatened human heritage.

The End of the Game, a Mystery in Four Parts

Smithsonian Magazine

Three months ago, I wrote an article for Smithsonian magazine about "Ghosts of a Chance," the new alternate reality game at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's (SAAM) Luce Foundation Center.

With Ghosts, SAAM became the first major American museum to host such a game. Georgina Bath Goodlander, program coordinator at the Luce Center, told me the goal was to attract the young audience that museums have a hard time holding onto. She hired John Maccabee, a former historical novelist and current game designer, to plan and execute the game, which started on September 8 and ended in an event October 25 at the museum.

While working on the game, Goodlander and Maccabee tackled questions about museum management and the digital future of brick-and-mortar museums. Can alternate reality games, which mainly take place on the Internet, be adapted for a physical collection, like a museum's? Will young gamers, with their notoriously flexible attention spans, be interested? And will regular museum-goers find the players and their quests disruptive to a more private, reflective experience?

When I asked Maccabeeall these questions, he told me I could only find the answers if I crossed the curtain: in other words, if I became a player.

The game took me from Wikipedia pages to online forums, from Washington, D.C.'s Congressional Cemetery to a dark lab hidden in the warren beneath the National Museum of Natural History. It also revealed a great deal about the Luce Center, and how the Internet has changed the museum-going experience.

1: The Game

When I started playing, I didn't know what an alternate reality game (ARG) was.

Maccabee sent me to Wikipedia, that great library of contemporary knowledge, which describes an alternate reality game as follows:

"An interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants' ideas or actions."

Finding that only marginally helpful, I followed the trail to Unfiction.com, a Web site that serves as a hub for the alternate reality gaming community. Here, players meet up on message boards to swap clues and information about the games they're playing. Unfiction.com had an entire board dedicated to the history of alternate reality games. There, I learned that the first alternate reality game was "The Beast," invented in 2001 by Microsoft to promote the Steven Spielberg movie Artificial Intelligence. The game's creators crafted a murder mystery and scattered the clues to its solution across Web sites, voicemail messages, fake ads and e-mails. Players worked together online to solve the clues and find the answer to the mystery. This collaborative model, in which players take on the roles of investigators, is the "traditional" ARG. In as much as any ARG can be considered traditional.

But I also learned that no two ARGs look the same. Some, like the LonelyGirl15 franchise (also a popular YouTube series) have "live events" in addition to their online storyline. At live events, players descend on a real location and role-play the story with hired actors. Since live events aren't scripted, players' decisions can change the outcome of the game.

Meanwhile, newer educational ARGs add interactivity to academic subjects. This is what "Ghosts" attempts to do with the collection at the Luce Center: create a communal experience in a space that's normally meant for individual reflection.

Museums exist in a strictly bounded world. There are necessary rules about how closely visitors can approach an artifact, and under what light and humidity conditions. There are even apocryphal tales of visitors being thrown out of museums because they mistook a priceless Edo-era Japanese teacup for a drink holder, or tried to tell time with an Egyptian sundial. Ghosts began with the lofty goal of narrowing the divide between observer and observed, by incorporating the interactivity possible through the Web.

2: The Story

Once I understood what ARGs are supposed to do, I was ready to join the hardcore gamers on the Ghosts thread at Unfiction.com. ARGs have multiple types of players. Some are hardcore gamers, those who solve clues and advance the storyline. Others are casual observers, who hang around on the forums and let the more experienced players handle the actual grunt work. I was of the second variety.

When Maccabee revealed his first clue, players were flummoxed by the unorthodox presentation, and many refused to believe the Smithsonian could be involved. In essence, Maccabee had hired a professional bodybuilder to crash an ARG conference in Boston, with clues tattooed (temporarily!) all over his body. Some of the players at the conference snapped pictures of the body art and posted them online, and within hours a player had traced one of the tattoos, labeled "Luce's Lover's Eye," to a matching painting that appeared in the Luce Center collection.

"I hope we shook [the players] up a bit," said Goodlander, with a mysterious smile, when I asked her about the bodybuilder bit.

Image by Georgina Goodlander. One of the quests on October 25 took players down four flights of stairs, into the depths of the museum, in search of clues. (original image)

Image by Georgina Goodlander. The Luce Foundation Center is a three-story exploratorium located in the top levels of the American Art Museum. The final quests in "Ghosts of a Chance" took place here on October 25. Nearly 250 people participated. (original image)

Image by Georgina Goodlander. Players look at the skull size and shape on these skeletons in order to learn how to determine cause of death. The forensics lesson took place in a laboratory at the National Museum of Natural History. (original image)

Image by Georgina Goodlander. The pictures next to Edmonia Lewis' marble statue of Cleopatra harbored a clue that led guests to the solution of one of the October 25 quests. (original image)

Image by Georgina Goodlander. Each quest concluded back at the Luce Center, where volunteers waited to sign passports proving that players had solved all the clues. (original image)

From there, the story got even more bizarre. The basic premise, as Maccabee revealed to me early on, was that certain artworks in the Luce Center collection had become "haunted." Players had to figure out who the ghosts were and why they had died. Then they had to banish the sprites back to the realm of the dead, or…well, in the real world, nothing. But in the world of the game: catastrophic destruction.

Maccabee's penchant for bodice-ripping Victorian drama meant that the story was always juicy, and I checked players' progress frequently on Unfiction.

But the clues that got me the most excited came from the live events.

3: Close Encounters in Congressional Cemetery

Part of the lure of the Smithsonian museums lies in what visitors can see: the meticulously curated and researched exhibits. But an equal part of the lure lies behind closed doors, where a lot of the Institution's work goes on. These research rooms are classified realms, accessible only to Smithsonian staff.

Maccabee enticed players by inviting them to an underground, secret laboratory in the depths of the Museum of Natural History. In keeping with the macabre theme of the game, players examined the skeletons of long-dead people and learned how to determine a cause of death. The ultimate goal was to connect two "mystery" skeletons with characters in Maccabee's story. These characters, who died of distinctly unnatural causes, became ghosts. Drawn by the art in the Luce Center, they took up residence there.

A few weeks later, a clue led players to a benign-seeming tour at the historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. There, we toured thousands of graves and stumbled upon a mysterious message from Maccabee's ghosts in one of the crypts. Actors, dressed in black, spoke to us in Morse code from the shelter of the trees. Later, I would learn that the ghosts in the graveyard were meant to be the ghosts in Maccabee's story, the same ghosts who had haunted the Luce Center. As with all the clues, these were immediately posted and analyzed online.

The haunting came to a head on October 25 at the American Art Museum, when a crowd of museum-goers and gamers solved a series of six quests that took them through every floor and past most of the artworks in the museum. Along with hundreds of other players, I trudged from first floor to fourth. I collected clues from artworks, from docents and from text messages sent to my phone. Maccabee told me afterwards that he partnered with the Playtime Anti-Boredom Society, a group that organizes nighttime street quests in San Francisco, to create the complex series of clues that greeted players.
It took four hours, but in the end, we banished the ghosts and finished the story.

4: The Future

When I wrote my first story about alternate reality games, I spoke with Jane McGonigal. Jane is a veteran game designer, but her most recent work focuses on using the ARG's collaborative model to address real-world questions.

"ARGs work best when players solve actual mysteries," she said then. In her opinion, museums were perfect for such mystery-solving, if only because the history of many artifacts is obscure or unknown.

It's no secret that mystery clings to museums like a coat. Despite this, Maccabee's story was not a true mystery. The final solution was as much explication as discovery. I always knew the players would defeat the ghosts, because the main point of this ARG wasn't to expel sprites but to see the artwork that had enticed them. This is what is meant by an "educational" ARG.

Jane also that "ARGs are not the future of gaming."

ARGs are not the future of museum-going, either. Or at least, not the entire future. There will always be those—perhaps the majority—for whom seeing a museum is a closed experience. But for those who played "Ghosts" on the Web and those who attended the various live events—estimates range as high as 6,000 online participants and 244 attendees at the live events—the game became a doorway into the museum and into a discussion. We didn't just look at the exhibits; we played with them.

These 12 New Museum Exhibitions Are Fall Must-Sees

Smithsonian Magazine

As summer wraps up, museums across the country are starting to launch new and exciting fall exhibitions. Some have traveled to new locations and others are never-before-seen explorations of society's present and past. Either way, they're an excuse to indulge in the cultural bounty of American museums during a fresh new season. Discover the history of tattoos, admire artwork on guitars, explore historical challenges for women, or try out a piece of sculptural clothing—just don’t miss these 12 new exhibitions around the U.S. this autumn:

The Field Museum – Tattoo
(Chicago, IL, October 21, 2016 – April 30, 2017)

Image by musée du quai Branly -Jacques Chirac, photo Thomas Duval. Silicone male arm with tattoo by Horiyoshi III, Japan. (original image)

Image by musée du quai Branly -Jacques Chirac, photo Claude Germain. Argentine tattooing tools made of cactus needles. (original image)

Image by musée du quai Branly -Jacques Chirac, photo Thierry Ollivier, Michel Urtado. Stamp for tattoo design after Christian pilgrimage. (original image)

Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, visitors to the Field Museum this fall can learn about the history of tattoos, an art form that stretches back more than 5,000 years. Browse 170 objects telling the story of tattoos, from a tattoo stamp used to ink designs for 17th century Christian pilgrims on the way back from Jerusalem to the very first electric tattooing machine. And don’t miss the Ötzi portion, a naturally mummified man from 3330 BC who was found in the Italian Alps—he’s covered in 61 tattoos. Initially developed in Paris at the Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac., the exhibition is in the United States for the first time at The Field Museum.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven
(New York, NY: September 26, 2016 – January 8, 2017)

More than 200 pieces (with almost a quarter of them from Jerusalem) from about 60 worldwide lenders are gathered for this exhibition, which explores how the Holy City shaped art from 1000 to 1400. The exhibition tackles six aspects of medieval Jerusalem: trade and tourism, diversity, holiness, holy war, generosity and the promise of eternity. Illuminated manuscripts, jewels, and metalwork will be on display alongside art pieces depicting life in Jerusalem throughout those centuries.

National Museum of American History – Everyone Plays: Sports and Disability
(Washington, D.C.October 1, 2016 – March 19, 2017)

Image by Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. A piece of adapted equipment. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. A Jersey Wheelers jacket owned by Ray Werner. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Ray Werner's wheelchair number. (original image)

Each year, thousands of athletes with disabilities participate in organized games like the X Games and the Paralympic Games. The National Museum of American History celebrates their accomplishments with this new exhibition, which celebrates innovation in adaptive sports and the athletes that use adaptive equipment. Highlights include equipment some athletes altered themselves (like double amputee Buddy Elias’ snowboard with crutch rig), prosthetic socks and feet used by Olympic bronze medalist Amy Purdy, and Mike Schultz’ motocross bike.

GRAMMY Museum – Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk
(Los Angeles, CA, September 16, 2016 – February 28, 2017)

The Ramones. (Danny Fields)

After a run at the Queens Museum in New York, the Ramones are heading to Los Angeles. This exhibition is timed with the 40th anniversary of the Ramones’ self-titled album, which launched the band’s career. Items on display are drawn from more than 50 public and private collections around the world, and the L.A. stint will explore how the band fits into the overall patheon of musical history. In addition to instruments and personal memorabilia from the band, materials from a long list of people involved with the Ramones will be shown—like Arturo Vega, who helped design the Ramones’ logo, and Linda Ramone, Johnny Ramone’s wife.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now
(San Francisco, CA, October 15, 2016 – March 12, 2017)

Image by Eikoh Hosoe. Eikoh Hosoe, Kamaitachi #17, 1965, printed 1971; gelatin silver print; 10 3/4 x 16 5/8 in. (27.31 x 42.23 cm); collection of the Sack Photographic Trust. (original image)

Image by Lieko Shiga. Lieko Shiga, Tomlinson FC, from the series Lilly, 2005; chromogenic print; 7 1/4 x 10 7/8 in. (18.42 x 27.62 cm); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift of the Kurenboh Collection (original image)

Image by Rinko Kawauchi. Rinko Kawauchi, Untitled, from the series the eyes, the ears,, 2005; chromogenic print; 9 7/8 x 9 7/8 in. (25.08 x 25.08 cm); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, anonymous gift. (original image)

As part of the museum’s expansion earlier this year, SFMOMA welcomed the new Pritzker Center for Photography. This exhibition will be housed in that new space, showing more than 200 photographic works from postwar Japan, when the country first began producing camera equipment and film. The exhibit is organized thematically, exploring Japan’s relationship with the U.S., the emergence of women as influential Japanese photographers, and changes in the cities and countryside.

Racine Art Museum – Sensory Overload: Clothing and the Body
(Racine, WI, September 23, 2016 – December 30, 2016)

Image by Jim Escalante. Sensuality II, 2011, by Herein Hwang. Steel wire construction. (original image)

Image by Janine Joffe. Tube skirt by Kathleen Nowak Tucci. Recycled motorcycle inner tubes and plastic snaps. (original image)

Image by Andrew Neuhart. Peaches by Kelly Nye. Les cuisses (un porte-jarrètelles) from the Crème de Pêche Series, 2009. Copper, found plastic peaches, pigmented silicone, industrial felt, lace, and garter clips. (original image)

Explore clothing as an extension of the human body at the Sensory Overload exhibition. While everything on display is wearable, the pieces present a sculptural and conceptual look at clothing that shows how the body can be an integral part of fashion presentation. Some pieces in the exhibition are meant to impede movement of the wearer, some are just accessories—but all of the items are meant to investigate cultural issues tied to the body.

The Franklin Institute – Robot Revolution
(Philadelphia, PA, October 8, 2016 – April 2, 2017)

Image by J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. Meet the versatile robot Baxter. (original image)

Image by J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. Watch CHARLI move and kick in all directions. (original image)

Image by J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. Meet the face-tracking ROBOTIS-OP. (original image)

Image by J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. Watch Yume climb to tall heights. (original image)

In conjunction with Google and Boeing, the Franklin Institute looks at the robot technology that’s slowly taking its place in modern culture. Forty different robots interface with guests who can learn about how robotics is changing the face of our world and what they can (and will eventually) do to help humans. As an added bonus, several of the robots are interactive. Play tic-tac-toe or a game of 21 against a robot, or pet a baby seal robot that reacts to your touch.

Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center – Women Hold Up Half the Sky
(Skokie, IL, September 25, 2016 – January 22, 2017)

Image by Les Stone. Women making soap. (original image)

Image by Les Stone. Women cutting blue blocks. (original image)

Image by Les Stone. Women in Africa. (original image)

Image by Les Stone. Women on a slope. (original image)

Image by Les Stone. Women sewing. (original image)

The book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn inspired this exhibition, which looks at the challenges women face in the modern world. The exhibition tackles everything from maternal health to violence and human trafficking. At the end of the exhibition, visitors can use interactive technology to connect with legislators and urge them to take action on the topics at hand. It also comes with a full slate of women-centric programming that explores topics like teen girls in the world today and women in the Holocaust. Come for the artifacts; stay for poetry slams, film screenings and panel discussions.

Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology – Nasca Ceramics: Ancient Art from Peru’s South Coast
(Cambridge, MA, October 1, 2016 – September 3, 2017)

Nasca bowl painted with three "harvester” figures. (Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, Harvard University)

The Nasca people of southern Peru are best known for the large-scale, animal-shaped Earth artwork that can be seen from above. But the culture doesn't have to be viewed from the air to be appreciated—in this exhibition, Nasca art from when the culture flourished 2,000 years ago bring the people's accomplishments to light on a smaller scale. On display are pottery bowls, jars, and plates with colors derived from 15 mineral pigments. The designs provide a unique look into the beliefs and customs that flourished during the Nasca people's heyday.

Musical Instrument Museum – Dragons and Vines: Inlaid Guitar Masterpieces
(Phoenix, AZ, November 5, 2016 – September 4, 2017)

Image by Musical Instrument Museum. “Martin D-50 Koa Deluxe” Acoustic Guitar, 2003, Pearl Works, C. F. Martin & Co. (original image)

Image by Musical Instrument Museum. “Dragon 2002” Electric Guitar, 2002, Pearl Works, Paul Reed Smith (PRS) Guitars. (original image)

Image by Musical Instrument Museum. “Night Dive” OM Guitar, 2004, Pearl Works, C. F. Martin & Co. (original image)

Image by Musical Instrument Museum. “Night Dive” OM Guitar, 2004, Pearl Works, C. F. Martin & Co. (original image)

This never-before-seen exhibition showcases 30 different instruments—guitars, banjos, and one ukulele—all decorated with intricate inlaid artwork. The designs on each piece are made with from abalone shell, mother-of-pearl, gold, copper, wood, and more. Inlay artists work diligently to place the materials mosaic-style into the instruments, creating a unique piece of art that can represent everything from classic artworks to a particular musician’s life story. Highlights include an intrricate dragon guitar with 90 percent of the surface covered with inlay and a gospel guitar that totes an exact replica of a medieval illuminated manuscript page.

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum – Charlie Daniels: Million Mile Reflections
(Nashville, TN, September 23, 2016 – March 31, 2017)

Charlie Daniels performs at a concert. (Creative Commons)

The devil went down to Nashville for the new Charlie Daniels exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame. The musician began his career in the 1950s and went on to work with other musical greats, including Elvis, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen. Visitors can explore Daniels’ legacy with costumes, instruments, awards, childhood mementos and never-before-seen photographs.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science – Mummies of the World
(Houston, TX, Opens September 24, 2016)

Image by Mummies of the World. This mummy is that of man named Nes-Hor, which means “the one who belongs to Horus”. Horus is the falcon-headed god of hunting and warfare and is a symbol of power. Nes-Hor worked as a priest in the Temple of Min, in the city of Khent-Min (Akhmim). Nes-Hor’s sarcophagus was constructed from wood and shows many patches and repairs made during ancient times. A detailed study of the symbols on the sarcophagus identified Nes-Hor’s name, parents’ names and occupation. On loan from: Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. (original image)

Image by Mummies of the World. Dating back to the early Roman period, the Egyptian cat mummy in Mummies of the World shows how Egyptian cats were ritually embalmed in a lengthy process using salt and various resins. On loan from: Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. (original image)

Image by Mummies of the World. Shrunken heads were prepared and worn by the victor of a battle, believing the victim’s power would then be transferred to that victor. Popular in the mid-19th century, shrunken heads were a collectible which became so popular that Europeans created replica shrunken heads from unclaimed bodies. On loan from: Buffalo Museum of Science and San Diego Museum of Man. (original image)

Image by Mummies of the World. On the South Pacific Island of Vanuatu, near Papua New Guinea and Australia, ancestors were revered and it was of significant importance to care for an ancestor after his or her death. In order to keep the spirits and wisdom of the deceased close after they passed away, the culture followed a detailed process to preserve the head. Several months after burial, the skull was removed and the face remodeled over the skull, using plant fibers, clay and pigment. The face was then elaborately painted. It is believed that the deceased chose the style of the modeling and decoration prior to death, in many cases. (original image)

Get ready to get spooky: This September, a traveling exhibition compiling mummies and related artifacts from 12 museums, organizations, and collections worldwide comes to Houston. The mummies come from every region of the world and guests can take advantage of cutting-edge, multimedia technology to learn about the culture and process of mummification. The exhibition doesn’t just show human mummies; check out the cat mummy on display, along with a dog, crocodile, fish, and falcon, all courtesy of the ancient Egyptians. Adding to the gruesome fun: a collection of shrunken human heads.

Christie's Is First to Sell Art Made by Artificial Intelligence, But What Does That Mean?

Smithsonian Magazine

On Thursday, the AI-generated “Portrait of Edmond Belamy” sold for $432,500—some 45 times its estimated value—in a sale trumpeted by Christie’s as the first auction to feature work created by artificial intelligence.

It’s a moment likely to be marked in the timeline of both AI and art history, but what, exactly, does the sale signify? For the AI community, the Verge’s James Vincent writes in the days preceding the bidding war, the auction provoked controversy among those who argued that the humans behind the canvas (a trio of 25-year-olds best known as the Paris-based art collective Obvious) relied heavily on 19-year-old Robbie Barrat’s algorithms yet failed to sufficiently credit him.

Then again, the entire draw of the otherwise mundane portrait is its attribution to an intimidating mathematical equation:

If the work was truly authored by this string of numbers and letters, does it matter who built and trained the AI? And, given the relatively blurred, imprecise vision the portrait—which Vulture art critic Jerry Saltz scathingly describes as “100 percent generic”—offers of its dour-looking subject, does “Edmond Belamy” even deserve a place in the art history canon?

There are no straightforward answers to these questions. The boundaries between AI, artists and AI-produced art are still amorphous, a fact readily exemplified by the current conflict between Obvious and Barrat. But before diving into the issue at hand, it’s worth revisiting the basics of the technology at the heart of this debate.

Back in August, Hugo Caselles-Dupré, one of Obvious’ three co-founders, outlined the collective’s creative process to Christie’s Jonathan Bastable. As he explained, Edmond and the sprawling network of Belamys depicted in a series of family portraits emerged thanks to a machine-learning algorithm known as the Generative Adversarial Network (GAN). American AI researcher Ian Goodfellow developed GAN in 2014, and as TIME’s Ciara Nugent notes, the rough French translation of “Goodfellow”—bel ami—provided the inspiration for the fictional family’s name.

Obvious’ GAN consists of two parts: the Generator, which produces images based on a data set of 15,000 portraits painted between the 14th and 20th centuries, and the Discriminator, which attempts to differentiate between manmade and AI-generated works.

“The aim is to fool the Discriminator into thinking that the new images are real-life portraits,” Caselles-Dupré said. “Then we have a result.”

The Verge’s Vincent likens the training process to tricking a bouncer at a club. At first, a drunk individual may not be able to act sober enough to gain entry, but with enough practice, an inebriated person’s performance may convince a bouncer to change their tune.

“The networks know how to copy basic visual patterns, but they don’t have a clue how they fit together,” Vincent writes. “The result is imagery in which boundaries are indistinct, figures melt into one another, and rules of anatomy go out the window.”

Barrat, a recent high school graduate now conducting research at a Stanford University AI research lab, has been at the forefront of this algorithm-powered revolution, which is tentatively termed GANism. In an interview with the Washington Post’s Meagan Flynn, Barrat explains that he started experimenting with the technology two years ago, first training GAN to produce original rap songs based on a set of 6,000 Kanye West lyrics and later expanding to surreal landscapes and nude portraits.

After fine-tuning his code, Barrat uploaded it to the sharing platform GitHub, where it was freely available to aspiring AI artists like Caselles-Dupré and the remaining members of his three-man team, Pierre Fautrel and Gauthier Vernier. GitHub exchanges between Barrat and Obvious further speak to the former’s contributions, with Caselles-Dupré repeatedly asking Barrat to tweak the code.

It’s worth noting, too, that Tom White, a New Zealand-based academic and AI artist, conducted tests designed to compare Barrat’s model with those produced by Obvious. As he tells the Verge, the series of Barrat portraits produced by the analysis look “suspiciously close” to that of Edmond Belamy.

(You can judge for yourself below.)

Caselles-Dupré readily acknowledges that Obvious drew heavily on Barrat’s work, but he tells the Verge the collective tweaked the algorithm to develop a unique portrait style.

“If you’re just talking about the code, then there is not a big percentage that has been modified,” Caselles-Dupré says. “But if you talk about working on the computer, making it work, there is a lot of effort there.”

Obvious’ borrowed code isn’t the only factor contributing to AI art world ire. As the New York Times’ Gabe Cohn writes, many members of the community find the Belamy portraits wholly underwhelming. Vincent points out that critics have further identified technical shortcomings, including low resolution and smeared textures.

In an interview with Cohn, Mario Klingemann, a German artist who has worked extensively with GANs, likened “Edmond” to a “connect-the-dots children’s painting.”

Speaking separately with the Post’s Flynn, Klingemann added, “It’s horrible art from an aesthetic standpoint. You have to put some work into it to call it art. … You have to put your own handwriting on it, make your own mark with these tools. That takes some learning and work and finding something different to say.”

Still, the debate over authorship barely begins to address larger questions of AI autonomy. Christie’s has been quick to capitalize on the Belamy portrait’s singular status, defining its medium with a heady catch-all description: “generative Adversarial Network print, on canvas, 2018, signed with GAN model loss function in ink by the publisher, from a series of eleven unique images, published by Obvious Art, Paris, with original gilded wood frame.” Obvious itself initially marketed the work as “created by artificial intelligence,” but Caselles-Dupré tells the Verge he now regrets using such definitive language.

Jason Bailey, the digital art blogger behind Artnome, explains why such phrasing is misleading, arguing that “anyone who has worked with AI and art realizes” algorithms are tools, not active collaborators or autonomous agents.

Regardless of Edmond Belamy’s true nature, the Christie’s sale marks a turning point. As a specific example of AI-generated art, it isn’t the revolution of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”—an actual urinal turned on its side that sparked the rise of modern and conceptual art—but the kind of work the painting (if you can call it that) represents certainly points to a departure from traditional definitions of art. And, judging by the hefty price tag seen at yesterday’s auction, collectors with large pockets, at least, certainly seem ready to embrace the burgeoning field of AI-led art.

John N. Robinson, His Life and Work

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Alyse Minter, Volunteer, Digital Services Division

I cannot, I feel, have any regrets about my accomplishments. What comes from art will just come. I don’t feel any need to strive. - John N. Robinson

One of my favorite parts of working in an archive is the opportunity to immerse myself in other people’s worlds, to learn more about their stories and experiences. One such person I encountered recently was John N. Robinson, a native Washingtonian and dedicated artist. Featured in Volume II, Edition 2 of the Here at the Smithsonian production series, Robinson’s artwork documents not only the regional history of Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia neighborhood’s growth and development, but also the personal history of his family, often featuring his wife, children, and grandparents. The episode features Robinson interacting with a group of fifth graders at the Anacostia Community Museum.


As I watched the video footage, I was struck by his dignity and gentle character, which is also conveyed to the viewer through his art. His style is one of celebration, encouraging the viewer to reflect on the beauty found in little things.

Born on February 18, 1912 in the Holy Hill community of Georgetown, Robinson was raised by his grandparents following his mother’s death when he was only eight years old, his father having abandoned him and his four siblings not long after. Their grandmother, Anna Barton, took in laundry to help support the family. Robinson and his siblings would assist her by delivering the clothes around Georgetown. Robinson remembered his grandmother as a “warm, lovely person.” Her husband, Ignatius Barton, was a U.S. Army veteran and had been a Buffalo Soldier in the Spanish-American war. Robinson described him as a kind man with a gruff exterior.

"In the Studio," 1945, by John N. Robinson, pencil and watercolor on cream paper, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Still image from "A Museum for the Community" program, "Here at the Smithsonian," Accession 00-132 - Office of Telecommunications, Productions, 1982-1989, Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Robinson enjoyed doodling and sketching in his spare time - and sometimes while on the job. He had to leave junior high school to begin working, due to the family’s financial situation. His grandfather arranged a job for him, dusting automobiles at the garage where Barton was employed. It was while at this job that a chauffeur noticed Robinson’s sketches on a discarded time card and showed them to his sister, Elizabeth Thompson. She brought them to the attention of James Herring, art professor and founder of the Howard University art department. Recognizing Robinson’s talent, Herring arranged for Robinson to receive art instruction at Howard for a time, free of charge. Robinson studied under the tutelage of James Porter, though he wasn’t able to stay long-term, due to financial hardship.

When he was seventeen, Robinson’s grandparents moved to the Anacostia neighborhood of Garfield Park. His new next door neighbor was Gladys Washington, with whom he fell in love; they married in 1934. Together, they had seven children, six of whom lived to adulthood. It was also after moving to Garfield Park that Robinson began to devote more time to painting, including religious murals in community churches. Robinson went on to be employed in food service at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, eventually rising to management. He retired in 1970.


Outside of his family and community, Robinson didn’t gain much notoriety as an artist until later in life. In the 1940s, he displayed his work at Lafayette and Franklin Parks, through the Outdoor Art Fairs sponsored by the Times Herald. Later his work was featured at the Barnett-Aden Gallery, a haven for multicultural diversity and one of the first black-owned art galleries in America. He exhibited a one-man show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1976, at a time when few blacks were welcomed there, through a partnership with the Anacostia Community Museum. Another one-man show followed at the Anacostia Community Museum in 1983. Other exhibitions included ones at Howard University, the National Museum of Natural History, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Atlanta University, Xavier University, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Oxon Hill Public Library, and the Washington Project for the Arts.

On October 17, 1994, John Robinson passed away. A family man, he mused that perhaps he could have been more ambitious in promoting his art earlier in life, but he also recognized success is not just in material things, but sometimes is seen best in “the happiness of those we love.”

"Here, Look at Mine," 1980, by John Robinson, oil painting, Still image from "A Museum for the Community" program, "Here at the Smithsonian," Accession 00-132 - Office of Telecommunications, Productions, 1982-1989, Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Direct quotes were taken from exhibition catalog - John Robinson: A Retrospective, 1976, Corcoran Gallery of Art and is available at the Anacostia Community Museum Library.

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Damage Control: How Artists Destroy to Create Art

Smithsonian Magazine

A woman strolls down a city street, wearing a flowing turquoise dress and red shoes straight out of Oz. She’s happy, carefree and carrying a torch lily—which she proceeds to swing, with glee and the greatest of ease, into the window of a parked car.

This 1997 video installation, Ever Is Over All, by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, encapsulates the beauty, irony and transgression at the heart of “Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950,” now on view at the Hirshhorn Museum. The exhibition traces the theme of destruction in contemporary art from the early atomic age to the present. The show begins, aptly enough, with a bang: Harold Edgerton’s footage of nuclear detonations.

In the early 1950s, the MIT engineer filmed a series of atomic bomb tests for the U.S. government, projecting an indelible vision of humanity’s destruction. Edgerton’s 12-minute silent film depicts fireballs that swell into suns, mushroom clouds that climb skyward, desert sands that quiver and settle back into place like ocean tides. “They’re a spectacle that you’re drawn towards,” says Hirshhorn interim director Kerry Brougher, who co-curated “Damage Control” with UCLA’s Russell Ferguson. “That’s the dual nature of the show—destruction as something horrendous but also something beautiful.”

Brougher sees the invention of the atomic bomb—and the looming prospect of global holocaust—as a turning point in art history, compelling artists to think differently about destruction. “In the face of the atomic bomb, what good did it do to make a painting?” he says. “Artists began to use destruction to fight fire with fire.” One such artist was Raphael Ortiz, whose Piano Destruction Concert—or what’s left of it—lies beside the Edgerton film in the entrance to the exhibition. Ortiz destroyed a grand piano on the opening night of “Damage Control” in October 2013, smashing the instrument’s keys and innards with a hammer in a ritualistic piece of performance art.

The work is a reenactment of Ortiz’s historic piano deconstruction at the 1966 Destruction in Art Symposium, which Brougher cites as a major inspiration for “Damage Control.” Initiated by Gustav Metzger, the symposium convened artists from around the world to announce a new, militant strain of destructive art that responded to political and social realities. While Ortiz wrecked his piano, Metzger painted on nylon with hydrochloric acid, creating "auto-destructive art,"and Yoko Ono imperiled her own body in Cut Piece, inviting the audience to slice at her with scissors.

“It was shocking,” Brougher says of the symposium. “People didn’t know how to take it.” But one thing was certain: the new destruction was here to stay.

Increasingly, artists inflicted destruction on themselves and their own artwork.In 1970, John Baldessari burned all of his earlier paintings in a formal reinvention called Cremation Project. (He baked some of the ashes of his work into cookies.) In his 2001 performance piece, Break Down, Michael Landy set up a disassembly line for his personal possessions, hiring an 11-person crew to inventory and destroy every last thing he owned.

Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen—now best known for his feature films, HungerShame, and 12 Years a Slave—put himself in the line of fire in Deadpan (1997), a restaging of Buster Keaton’s falling house gag from Steamboat Bill Jr. McQueen does more than remake the stunt; his presence as a black man transforms the work into a commentary on race relations and the precariousness of the black experience. “You need to be standing exactly right so you don’t get hit,” Brougher observes.

Some artists took aim at the work of their predecessors. In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg asked Willem de Kooning for a drawing of his to erase. De Kooning humored the younger artist, recognizing in the gesture an artistic changing of the guard, from abstract expressionism to pop art. He didn’t make it easy for Rauschenberg, however, giving him an extremely complex drawing that took weeks to erase. The result is a ghostly palimpsest that evokes the end of an era.

Jake and Dinos Chapman, Injury to Insult to Injury, 2004. © Jake and Dinos Chapman. Courtesy White Cube

In a similar act of creative vandalism, Britart's enfants terribles Jake and Dinos Chapman defaced a set of Goya’s 1810-1820 Disasters of War etchings—which depict the horrors of Spain’s war of independence from France—to create their Insult to Injury (2003), replacing the heads of victims with the grotesque heads of clowns and puppies.

But perhaps the most (in)famous example of desecration in “Damage Control” is Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, a triptych depicting the Chinese artist doing just that. When is destruction creative versus nihilistic? Brougher says it's a fine line, but it comes down to "the ideas behind it as you do it."Ai, for instance, broke the urn to critique societal values—how we decide what a work of art is "worth" and what that dollar value really means.

The final pieces in “Damage Control” touch on present fears of terrorism rather than cold war paranoia. Big Bang, by Israeli artist Ori Gersht, looks like a still life but is actually a film, divulging its eponymous surprise in slow motion, while Nature morte aux grenades, by Palestinian-born artist Mona Hatoum, disables a cache of grenades by fashioning them from candy-colored glass—but arranges them on a steel gurney that restores their lethal potential. Brougher sees the theme of destruction as a "continuum" in art history, with the world's proximate threats evolving from hydrogen bombs to suicide bombs and natural disasters. "There was no good moment to stop [the exhibition]," he says. "The hard part was limiting the number of artists in the show. There’s so much destruction."

"Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950" is on view through May 26, 2014 and will travel to the Mudam in Luxembourg, July 12- Oct. 12, 2014 and to the Kunsthaus Graz, mid-November 2014 to mid-March 2015.

Dugout Canoe

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
FROM CARD: "USED BY THE INDIANS IN SOUTHEASTERN ALASKA FOR TRAVELING, ETC. DUGOUT OF THE TRUNK OF A SINGLE TREE OF THE GIANT CEDAR (THUJA GIGANTEA). AN OPEN, ROUND BOTTOM KEELESS CANOE; LONG SHARP, OVERHANGING BOW WITH SNOUT-LIKE PROJECTION AND STRAIGHT NEARLY VERTICAL OUTWATER; FLARING SIDES; SHARP, OVERHANGING STERN; ENDS CURVED UP RATHER SHARPLY WITH A CARVED FIGURE OF A BEAR RESTING ON THE BOW AND STERN; PAINTED ALL OVER WITH TOTEMS; EQUIPPED WITH 5 PADDLES. THIS IS ONE OF THE LARGEST AND FINEST CANOES BUILT BY THE INDIANS OF THE NORTHWEST COAST OF AMERICA. THE PERFECTION OF ITS LINES, ITS BUOYANCY, AND ITS ORNAMENTATION CHALLENGE ADMIRATION.- H. COLLINS' SMITHSONIAN BOAT COLLECTION MS. P. 893. G. T. EMMONS "TLINGIT ETHNOLOGY" (MSS IN AMER. MUSEUM NAT. HISTORY) MENTIONS THIS CANOE; "ONE OF THE LAST OF THE CANOES, THE PROPERTY OF THE NAN-YA-A-YI [Naanya.aayí] CHIEF, SHAKES [Sheiyksh], OF THE STIKINE TRIBE WAS NAMED HOOTZ YORK (BROWN BEAR CANOE) FROM THE CARVED BEAR FIGURES SURMOUNTING BOW AND STERN. THE MALE BEAR LEANING OVER THE BOW WAS THE WATCHMAN LOOKING AHEAD, AND THE FEMALE WAS SHOWN RISING OUT OF THE STERN. IT WAS ALSO CALLED "KETE YOURK" (KILLER WHALE CANOE) AS A KILLER WHALE WAS PAINTED ON EITHER SIDE OF THE BOW. ON EITHER SIDE OF THE STERN WAS PAINTED A RAVEN. THE KILLER WHALE AND BROWN BEAR WERE BOTH FAMILY CRESTS, THE RAVEN THE WIFE'S CREST. THIS CANOE PROCURED FOR GOVT. EXHIBIT AT CHICAGO WORLD'S FAIR IN 1893 ... ". SEE U.S.N.M. BULL. NO. 127, PG. 218-19 [canoe is listed as number 76315]. [Bow and stern] ILLUS.: HNDBK. N. AMER. IND., VOL. 7, NORTHWEST COAST, FIG. 4, LEFT AND CENTER, PG. 9. THREE DRAWINGS OF SPECIMEN [by Bill Holm are] IN NAA [NATIONAL ANTHROPOLOGICAL ARCHIVES] ..." ...CONTINUED, SEE CARDS. Note re photos: Smithsonian Photographic Services color slide # 73-5071 is view of National Anthropological Archives drawing of complete canoe showing midships artwork; color slide # 73-5072 is view of NAA drawing of bow of canoe; color slide # 73-5073 is view of NAA drawing of stern of canoe.

A 1943 memo in accession file discusses the transfer of this canoe, listed as Division of Engineering number 76315, from the Engineering Division to the Department of Anthropology, and indicates that it formerly had been suspended from the ceiling of the Boat Hall of the Arts and Industries building, but in 1942 was moved to the West Court of the Natural History Museum as an air raid precaution. This canoe has been called various numbers while at the Smithsonian, including Division of Engineering number 76315 and Catalogue Nos. 168115 and 398282 while in the Department of Anthropology. E168115 is the number used currently for it by the Department of Anthropology.

Christie's Will Be the First Auction House to Sell Art Made by Artificial Intelligence

Smithsonian Magazine

At first glance, portraits of the Belamy family seem to exemplify life in the upper echelons of French society. The haughty features of patriarch Le Comte De Belamy are framed by a voluminous white powdered wig, while the dynastic matriarch, La Comtesse, oozes wealth in her colorful silk attire. Skipping ahead several generations, you’ll encounter Madame De Belamy, whose tightly coiffed hair is tucked inside a blue hat rendered in Impressionistic strokes, and her son Edmond, a comparatively dour-looking young man clad almost entirely in black.

But there’s a catch to this story of generational greatness: In addition to being wholly fictional, the Belamy family hovers in that amorphous space between artificial intelligence and art. Although its members’ names and places in the family tree were assigned by Obvious, a Paris-based art collective, their likenesses are the brainchild of Generative Adversarial Networks, a machine learning algorithm better known by the acronym GAN.

Now, Naomi Rea writes for Artnet News, the youngest member of the family—as depicted in “Portrait of Edmond Belamy”—is set to make history as the subject of the first AI-produced artwork sold by an auction house.

A canvas print of Obvious’ (and GAN’s) creation will be included in Christie’s late October auction of Prints and Multiples, the New York-based auction house reports. It remains to be seen how bidders will react to the AI work, but Obvious remains optimistic, citing an estimated sale price of €7,000 to €10,000, or roughly $8,000 to $11,500.

Hugo Caselles-Dupré, one of Obvious’ three co-founders, tells Christie’s Jonathan Bastable that GAN consists of two parts: the Generator, which produced images based on a data set of 15,000 portraits painted between the 14th and 20th centuries, and the Discriminator, which attempts to differentiate manmade and AI-generated works.

“The aim is to fool the Discriminator into thinking that the new images are real-life portraits,” Caselles-Dupré says. “Then we have a result.”

The painting is one of 11 portraits depicting the fictional Belamy family, which was named in honor of GAN creator Ian Goodfellow (Courtesy of Obvious)

According to an essay posted on Obvious’ Medium page, GAN analyzes thousands of images to learn the basic features of portraiture. The subsequent AI-generated portraits are both similar to the images in the original data source and singularly unique. A different image is rendered with every execution of the algorithm.

“This reflects a human creativity feature: We will never create twice the same thing,” Obvious writes.

Obvious, a three-man team made up of Caselles-Dupré, Pierre Fautrel and Gauthier Vernier, owes much to American AI researcher Ian Goodfellow, who developed the GAN algorithm in 2014. As Time’s Ciara Nugent notes, the rough French translation of “Goodfellow”—bel ami—provided inspiration for the fictional family’s name.

The Belamy portraits are painted in a semi-realistic style, their blurred details creating an overarching impression of motion. In the bottom right corner of the canvases, the artist’s signature is replaced by an intimidating mathematical equation:

Such proclamations of authorship are a central concern in the art world’s AI debate. Skeptics of the new technology doubt that machines can produce art, which has long been viewed as a uniquely human activity. If an AI researcher designs and executes an algorithm, who is the end product’s true creator: human artist or machine? And, most importantly, if robots can create art, where does that leave humans?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but as Rose Eveleth, host of the future-centric podcast Flash Forward, argued in a recent episode, this isn’t the first time humans have felt threatened—or entranced—by machine-made art.

Swiss-born watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz launched the golden age of automata, or kinetic sculptures designed to mimic human movement, with “The Writer.” The 1770s doll was made of 6,000 moving parts that allowed it to scribble out an array of messages, dip a quill into an inkwell, and blink with unseeing eyes.

At the time, philosophers were engaged in a heated battle over what it meant to be alive, Eveleth notes. While we don't think of today's AI as a living organism, modern technology does continue to raise existential questions about what it means to be human. Consider a more recent innovation: the camera. It also posed some philosophical problems, Caselles-Dupré tells Time’s Nugent.

“Back then, people were saying that photography is not real art and people who take pictures are like machines,” he says. “And now we can all agree that photography has become a real branch of art.”

By including “Portrait of Edmond Belamy” in its fall sale, Christie’s isn’t offering a final ruling on the value of AI art. Still, the decision is sure to attract ire, elation and, if the sale is successful, newfound faith in the burgeoning medium.

“I’ve tended to think human authorship was quite important—that link with someone on the other side,” Richard Lloyd, head of Christie’s Prints and Multiples department, tells Nugent. “But you could also say art is in the eye of the beholder. If people find it emotionally charged and inspiring, then it is. If it waddles and it quacks, it’s a duck.”

A Miniature Living Redwood Forest Springs Up In Brooklyn

Smithsonian Magazine

The thought of a redwood forest evokes visions of cathedral-like groves of trees as tall as skyscrapers. Typically, these trees don't share space with actual skyscrapers. Yet that's exactly what artist Spencer Finch has done with "Lost Man Creek," a recreation of a 790-acre portion of Redwood National Park in the heart of Brooklyn.

When he was asked to create an installation for the MetroTech Commons in Brooklyn, Finch says he was intrigued by the idea of laying a landscape over the landscape that was already there.

"I wanted something that was totally different from the landscape in New York," says Finch, who partnered with the Save the Redwoods League to select the section of park to recreate. "I wanted to take something from 3,000 miles away, an environment that was something New Yorkers don't typically experience, so they would be transported to a place that is far away."

Of course, to put a forest in a city, it must be scaled down. The living installation's trees and topography are 1:100th the scale of the actual California forest. The trees in California range from 98 to 380 feet tall. The approximately 4,000 baby dawn redwoods planted by volunteers in the center of the commons are one to four feet tall.

In a video about "Lost Man Creek," curator Emma Enderby of Public Art Fund, the nonprofit presenting the work, says that visitors will first be struck by the undulating wooden retaining wall surrounding the installation. Then, as they get closer, they'll see a forest writ in miniature.

"A number of our volunteers, who are New Yorkers—born here, grew up here—said to me this is something that they have never experienced—forests like this," Enderby says in the video. "Or never understood the scale of a forest like this."

The tiny trees spread their needles under the canopy of full-scale trees that live in the commons. The redwoods' roots dig into dark soil that ripples, dips and mounds in echoes of the land beneath the trees that inspired the installation.

The dawn redwoods (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) of the installation aren’t the same species as the coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) of California and Oregon. But they are members of the sequoioideae subfamily and were named for their resemblance to the coast redwoods. Dawn redwoods were once believed to be extinct, but a forester stumbled on a forgotten grove in Southwest China. They are now popular ornamental trees planted around the world.

Finch gleaned information about the canopy height, location of individual trees and the topography of an area around the real Lost Man Creek Trail in Redwood National Park from data collected by NASA. "The [Brooklyn] site was gridded out so we had a kind of formula for planting each of the trees," he says. Each planted sapling represents a full-sized counterpart. Blocks of a lightweight material called geofoam underlie the elevation changes in the installation. A drip irrigation system that switches on every half hour snakes though the soil and keeps the saplings well watered.

The living nature of the installation means that it will change with the seasons. "These are dawn redwoods and they are deciduous. They will lose their leaves this fall and then they'll come through again in the spring," Finch says. The winter experience will be more skeletal, as if the redwood forest had burned.

When the exhibition closes in the spring of 2018, the redwood saplings will all find new homes.

The spring's growth spurt will present an additional challenge for the installation. Since these are saplings, they will grow enthusiastically. A major trim will be needed to cut them back to scale with the California forest. "It becomes a little bit of a massive bonsai project," Finch says.

Finch's inspiration for the project stems from his abiding fascination with landscapes. He says that other attempts to capture a landscape, by disciplines that range from 19th century landscape painting to landscape design, inform his approach to much of his work. He has measured changing patterns of sunlight in Emily Dickinson's garden with a light meter, then recreated those values with fluorescent tubes wrapped in gel filters. For an installation at the High Line in New York City, Finch photographed the surface of the Hudson River as it runs west of the park. He then created panes of glass in the exact color pulled from a pixel in each of those photos. This kind of deconstruction of landscapes is one way to really focus on natural phenomena.

"Because ["Lost Man Creek"] is miniature and a model, it has a connection to the tradition of landscape painting," he says.

A landscape artist is not a photographer. The brush of a painter can capture something fleeting about the way that light and color play over leaves or hills. But painters can also choose to depict a kind of perfect landscape that never really existed. The Hudson River School, a name that refers to a group of New York City-based landscape painters that sprung up in the mid 19th century, is known for this type of idealized depiction. The painters, including Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Cole, were captivated by the “untamed” nature of America’s landscapes. Of course, their notions of the wilderness and the ideal West ignored the long presence of Native Americans in the landscapes they painted. The school’s work also helped fuel the American preservation movement that gave rise to the national park system.

It is this intermingling of politics, social movements and art that inspires Finch. "Landscapes are interesting to me on an art level and also a socioeconomic level—what they meant at the time," he says. Even though redwood trees have significance in the history of environmental movements, Finch’s purpose with “Lost Man Creek” is more about finding a different way to capture landscapes. "My attachment to the idea was really to create a living landscape," he says. “A landscape I found intriguing.”

Finch hopes the 1:100th-scale forest inspires some of the appreciation and majesty that the real thing provokes. He says he hopes visitors feel “on some sort of level, a tiny micro-wonder of what you feel like when you are in a redwood forest.”

Spencer Finch’s “Lost Man Creek” is on display at MetroTech Commons, between Jay Street and Flatbush Avenue at Myrtle Avenue in downtown Brooklyn. The installation runs through March 11, 2018.

Mary Vaux Walcott’s Wild Flowers

Smithsonian Institution Archives

'Mary With a hint of spring finally in the air, my thoughts turn to the sights, sounds and smells of trees in bloom and birds nesting. I look forward to a beautiful day in May when I can walk through a nearby nature preserve and see delicate blossoms hiding among the leaf litter.  These wild flowers have not been bred to last in a vase; they appear and disappear quickly, attracting insect pollinators and fading away when that task is done.  What does it take to paint a wild flower that blooms for a single day in a deep forest?  For Mary Morris Vaux (1860-1940), a young Quaker woman who accompanied her family fossil hunting in the Rockies most summers, you pull out your paint box to sketch and paint with water colors for 17 hours to capture the shape, movement, and colors of the delicate petals and leaves.  Back at camp, comfortably ensconced on a tree stump, she would produce a more final version.  She also became quite skilled at photographing them as reference for her art work.

Mary Vaux Walcott, holding wild flowers in Canadian Rockies, c. 1920s, Record Unit 95 - Photograph Collection, 1850s - , Smithsonian Institution Archives, neg. no. 2004-22992.Mary Morris Vaux was born into a well-to-do Quaker family in Philadelphia and attended the Friends School.  She planned to enroll in Bryn Mawr College, but when her mother died, she stayed home to care for her father and brothers, as was expected of 19th century young women.  The family spent vacations in Canadian Rockies, so her father could pursue his amateur interest in geology.  Mary brought her sketching pads and watercolors so she could capture the beautiful wild flowers she found along the trails. Botany and drawing were considered very appropriate avocations for educated young women, although most sat in their gardens rather than scale peaks and cross glaciers.  Mary was far more adventurous – in 1913, she climbed Mount Robson, the highest peak in the British Columbia Rockies.  Mount Mary Vaux, some 10,881 feet high, was named in her honor.  Despite those adventures, her life was fairly circumscribed, centered around family and church.

Mary Vaux and Charles Doolittle Walcott, c. 1910s, Record Unit 7004 - Charles D. Walcott Collection, 1851-1940 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives, neg. no. SIA2014-00556.Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), watercolor on paper by Mary Vaux Walcott, 1916, Smithsonian American Art Museum, object number 1970.355.706.That same year as she scaled Mount Robson, she embarked upon quite a different adventure.  She told her father she planned to marry a paleontologist they had met in the Rockies. Her father rejected the notion summarily and refused to attend the wedding. He was very fond of his 53 year old unmarried daughter, who had cared for him lovingly since her mother died. He also did not much care for the fellow she intended to marry – Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850-1927) paleontologist and Secretary of the Smithsonian.  He regarded Walcott as something of a gold-digger and he was not a Quaker.  At 64 years, Walcott had been widowed twice and had four children.  Walcott's family was no happier about the wedding. His daughter Helen had cared for her father and brothers after her mother died and did not want an interloper taking her place.

Mary Vaux Walcott: A Selection of Her Wildflowers of North America, 2015 edition, Smithsonian Institution Press.Despite the negative response of their families, Mary and Charles married and shared many happy years, based on their mutual love of natural history exploration.  Mary Walcott quickly became part of the Smithsonian family and the Quaker community in Washington.  In the 1920s, when her husband launched a fund-raising campaign, Mary Walcott found a way to contribute.  She published a five volume set of her drawings of North American wild flowers, between 1925 and 1928, with proceeds going to the Smithsonian's endowment.  Her beautiful and accurate drawings have been displayed in exhibits and republished several times since then.  In 2014, the Smithsonian Institution Press with Smithsonian Institution Libraries reprinted a selection of them in a single volume.  It is nice to know that I can browse through them in the chill of winter and look forward to that sunny spring day when they will reappear at a pond's edge or in a mountain glen.

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10 Must-Do Experiences in Australia’s Northern Territory

Smithsonian Magazine

Sunset lingers on the still waters of the Yellow Water Billabong as an evening cruise glides past water lilies slowly closing their vibrant blooms for the night. Gazing out at this tranquil view, you can almost forget how just a few days before, standing on the bow of a similar boat on the Adelaide River, you watched with heart-pounding glee as a 20-foot crocodile launched itself vertically out of the water.

Australia’s Northern Territory, a 520,902 square mile area spanning the tropical shores of the north to the arid desert of the country's Red Center, packs beauty and adventure into every turn. Waterfalls tumble into crystal plunge pools, wallabies dart through monsoon forests and star trails glimmer over Aboriginal rock art sites dating back up to 50,000 years.

On the coast, open-air markets take over Darwin’s beaches and indigenous guides teach visitors Aboriginal art on the Tiwi Islands.

With so much to see, you need a few places to start. Here are ten experiences you can't miss:

See Ancient Aboriginal Rock Art at Ubirr and Nourlangie

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kakadu National Park is home to more than 5,000 recorded Aboriginal art sites. Two of the most famous are Ubirr and Nourlangie, ancient shelters that contain rock paintings dating back 50,000 years. A one-mile path takes visitors through Nourlangie, and a steep climb to Gunwarddehwardde lookout offers incredible views over the Kakadu and neighboring Arnhem Land escarpment. Here a rock painting depicts the Lightning Man, an ancestral spirit heralding the monsoon season (which typically runs November to March). Like Nourlangie, Ubirr boasts breathtaking views over the Nadab floodplain. Look out for unique birdlife and native wildlife across the floodplain.

Cruise the Yellow Water Billabong

The Yellow Water billabong is one of Kakadu's best-known landmarks. Located in the heart of the national park, the billabong flows through the region's majestic wetlands, reflecting picture-perfect sunsets in the calm waters. Pink and white water lilies dot its surface, and paperbark forests, pandanus and fresh water mangroves line its shores. Cruises operate daily and are a fantastic way to discover the billabong's remarkable flora and fauna. From the deck of your boat, spot crocodiles, wild horses, buffalo and other wildlife.

Explore the Waterfalls of Litchfield National Park

A short, 90-minute drive from Darwin, Litchfield National Park is a favorite for locals. Free to enter, it is home to crystal clear waterfalls and swimming pools. Don’t miss Buley Rockhole, Wangi Falls and Florence Falls. From Buley Rockhole, take the two-mile Florence Creek Walk through the monsoon rainforest and spot a range of wildlife, from unique bird species such as kingfishers and fairy-wrens, to bandicoots (small terrestrial marsupials).

Cool off in the plunge pool beneath Florence Falls, or enjoy panoramic views from the viewing platform above. Farther afield, Wangi Falls is one of the park's most popular attractions, featuring waterfalls and a post-card perfect swimming hole.

Embark on a Jumping Croc Cruise

The Australian saltwater crocodile is one of the most magnificent species on the continent. A protected species, today an estimated 150,000 inhabit Northern Australia. The world's largest living reptiles, Australian salties can grow to be more than 20 feet in length.

On the one-hour Jumping Crocodile Cruise, cruise down the Adelaide River and see the massive territorial crocs jump vertically out of the water at close range. Their size and raw power will thrill and amaze you.

Dive With Crocodiles at Crocosaurus Cove

For a bigger adrenaline rush, get even closer to Australia's iconic crocs at Darwin's Crocosaurus Cove. Peer into their underwater environment through aquarium walls, or dare to dive with them in the Cage of Death experience. Australia’s only crocodile dive, the Cage of Death takes up to two visitors into an enclosure for 15 minutes. Regular feeding by caretakers ensures that the massive reptiles are active. Watch out for those tails!

Wander the Mindil Beach Sunset Market

Fresh flavors from across Asia and Australia mix with local arts and crafts in a balmy, tropical setting at Darwin's Mindil Beach Sunset Market. Held every Thursday and Sunday evenings in the dry season months between May and October, this vibrant market is something of a Darwin institution. Locals start arriving at dusk, armed with tables, chairs and rugs, and settle on the beach or grass to watch the sun sink in a blaze of color.

Cruise Darwin Harbor

Larger than Sydney Harbor, Darwin Harbor supports a diverse range of marine ecosystems and is a vital transport hub for northern Australia. Cruise its sparkling blue waters surrounded by scenic mangroves aboard the schooner Tumlaren or multi-level catamaran Charles Darwin for a slice of the Northern Territory's Top End lifestyle. Watching sunset over the city from your intimate vantage point on the sea will take your breath away.

See World-Famous Tiwi Island Art 

Comprising Bathurst and Melville Islands, with a population of around 2,500, the Tiwi Islands are only 50 miles north of Darwin, accessible via the 2.5-hour SeaLink ferry service. The Tiwi people are known internationally for their unique style of art which includes carvings and bright textile designs. Prized by collectors, many Tiwi artists have exhibited around the world. A Tiwi Art Tour introduces visitors to the islands' rich culture.

Discover Indigenous Culture at Top Didj

This two-hour experience led by indigenous artists from the Katherine region and Central Australia immerses you in authentic Aboriginal culture. Try your hand at dot painting, building fire with sticks or spear and boomerang throwing, and even feed a baby wallaby. You can also browse a local art gallery featuring didgeridoos, Aboriginal artwork, boomerangs, weavings, clap sticks, carvings and souvenirs.

Paddle Through Katherine Gorge

The Outback meets the tropics in Katherine, a region home to the world-renowned Katherine Gorge. A series of 13 gorges carved through ancient sandstone by the Katherine River, the Gorge is a paddler's dream come true. Push off from the river bank, fasten your life jacket, and embark on an unforgettable journey past waterfalls, Aboriginal rock art sites and wildlife. Regular cruises also run through the Gorge. Helicopters leaving from near the visitor center offer stunning aerial views of the gorge system and Arnhem Land plateau.

Discover more of the Northern Territory's Top End.

These Engaging, Immersive Works Erase the Line Between Art and Audience

Smithsonian Magazine

For many, the word “art” conjures thoughts of haughtiness and stuffy galleries, of ornate salons and elites hobnobbing over cocktails. The stereotypical museum experience, though less accurate than it used to be, puts art on display at a remove, as the product of some walled-off portion of society to which the hoi polloi have no access. This year’s By the People art festival in Washington, D.C., which began on June 15 and will continue through June 23, completely overturns this notion of art in its celebration of participatory works with strong ties to the communities and cultures of everyday people.

Launched last year by the nonprofit Halcyon, which seeks to support civic-minded artists and social entrepreneurs, By the People showcases art emblematic of the democratic ideals of America and the nation’s frequent struggles to live up to them. It is a festival rooted in lived experience, human interaction and history, and it is unfolding this week and coming weekend across D.C., including the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building and Union Market. In keeping with its mission, the festival is free to attend.

On opening weekend, Smithsonian spoke with several of the artists whose wide-ranging work is on exhibit at the Arts and Industries Building, located on the National Mall. Here’s what they had to say on their featured pieces and their approach to By the People’s core themes:

Martha Jackson Jarvis, Adaptation

Adaptation examines the ways in which both art and history are shaped and reshaped over time. (Chris Ferenzi)

Virginia-born sculptor Martha Jackson Jarvis has long been known for her thoughtful mixed-media evocations of black and indigenous communities and the spaces they inhabit. At By the People 2019, Jarvis is exhibiting a piece called Adaptation, which centers on an assortment of large, abstractly painted rectangular blocks laid out across a wide stretch of floor—some in direct contact with it, some held aloft with lean metal scaffolding. Overhead, primary-source historical texts printed on semitransparent cotton descend from a vaulted ceiling like stately ghosts.

Jarvis explains that her piece was inspired by the life story of a distant great-grandfather named Luke Valentine, a freeman who was living in Virginia when the Revolutionary War broke out and who ventured north as a militiaman to do battle with the British. When he was older, Valentine was called into court to demonstrate that he had in fact participated in the war. “He got signatures from two of the generals he served under proving that he deserved his pension,” Jarvis says. She found Valentine’s “personal involvement with the urgency of his time” moving and transcendent; the documents featured in the exhibit pertain directly to Valentine’s assertion of his identity.

Each face of the blocks, meanwhile, depicts a different stage in the process of an ambitious painting project by Jarvis herself. She wanted Adaptation to offer a kind of behind-the-scenes look at the long journey of creating an artistic product. Just as each step of her process contributed to a grand, cohesive artwork, so too did each individual living in any given historical moment—like Luke Valentine—contribute to grand changes in their societies. Above all, Jarvis hopes her piece is an empowering reminder of our ability as individuals to contribute to the ever-evolving landscape of history. “We all have an extraordinary power in the process of what happens,” she says.

Ada Pinkston, More than a number

With More than a number, Ada Pinkston set out to do the seemingly possible: memorialize 272 little-known historical figures in an intimate way. (Chris Ferenzi)

Complementary to Jarvis’s meditation on time and influence is young mixed-media artist Ada Pinkston’s take on time and memory, More than a number. Rather than focus on a well-documented single individual, Pinkston chose instead to pay homage to a collection of lives overlooked by conventional history: the 272 enslaved laborers sold in 1838 by Georgetown University’s Jesuit president to keep his school afloat.

More than a number consists of a collection of disparately proportioned boxy white blocks painted with forking blue streaks suggestive of tree branches. The quantity and closeness of the blocks taken together with the interconnectivity of their branch imagery and the simple elegance of Pinkston’s painting captures well the concept of 272 unique human souls bound together in a moment yet shunted from the history books and rendered anonymous.

These visuals are accompanied by audio recordings of living descendants of the enslaved men and women in question that continually play in the space the exhibit occupies. These recordings breathe life into the unknown 272 and give what could be a tragic piece a surprising triumphant quality. Pinkston hopes it spurs visitors to consider the histories of their own families and reflect on the gaps in the historical record in which meaningful people lived out their lives.

“How do we honor the lives of people we don’t know a lot about?” asks Pinkston. “I want people to consider moments like these with more reverence.”

Rania Hassan, Paths 7

Fiber artist Rania Hassan finds beauty in the coincidence of disparate people occupying the same moment in space and time together. (Courtesy of the artist)

Where Pinkston draws on arboreal imagery to suggest connection across time and space, fiber and wood artist Rania Hassan invokes strands of thread. When you knit something, she notes, “the whole structure is from a single line of thread. To me that’s really inspiring, because my work is about connection and how we’re all interconnected.” Threads can also be interwoven, of course, like the stories of people moving through places and moments together. These thoughts inform much of Hassan’s work.

Hassan’s featured piece at By the People this year is Paths 7, part of a series examining the threads we follow as we make decisions throughout our lives—decisions which we often come to regret. Paths 7, a repudiation of this regret, takes the form of a strikingly symmetrical pile of gold leaf situated just beneath the tip of a drop spindle pendulum. It’s a clean, beautiful image that suggests serenity and perfection. Hassan sees it as a cosmic “You Are Here” sign.

Hassan explains that the wondrous quality of the piece arose from her own wonder at the fact that everyone who would be seeing it at the festival would have arrived at the exact same place and moment in Washington, D.C. despite having followed completely unique paths in their lives up until then. She finds a kind of reassuring solidarity in that—the inevitable confluences of all our respective strands through time. “All of your stories are colliding at the same time,” she says. “This is where you’re meant to be. Everything you’ve done has brought you right here.”

Jonathan Rosen, Walking on Clouds

Jonathan Rosen's Walking on Clouds encourages gallery-goers to come face-to-face with their dreams. (Chris Ferenzi)

Jonathan Rosen abruptly pivoted from a career in advertising to the life of an artist, so he, too, spends a lot of his time thinking about the paths not taken. In particular, he is fascinated by dreams and saddened at the ways in which life’s constraints so often lead us to abandon them.

“A lot of times we’re told by our bosses, by our parents, by religion, by society that we’re not allowed to have dreams, or that dreaming is wrong,” Rosen says. “And so, we start to forget our dreams, we start to ignore them. Life moves on and we get older, and then we let them go.” He wants his art to be a wake-up call to all who experience it. “I’m here to say: Follow your dreams!”

Rosen’s By the People installation, Walking on Clouds, is elegant in its simplicity. It consists of a series of mirrors each bearing enticing openings to sentences: “I am…” or “I could be…” or “I see…” Beneath these starters, nouns and adjectives flash by electronically at a blistering pace: “a flower,” “an asshole,” “sparkling,” “royalty,” hundreds more. When you snap a selfie with one of the mirrors, that flurry is replaced by a single, random phrase, which suddenly takes on great personal significance, having been singled out and immortalized alongside your own image thanks to the precise push of your thumb. “I am a firework.” “I see ghosts.” “I could be radiant.”

Rosen’s mission with this piece is to get people thinking about what is possible in their lives, to jar them out of complacency and link them spontaneously with a dream. He believes that in order for dreams to become reality they must first be articulated, and Walking on Clouds articulates dreams you may not even have realized you held. “If I’d never said I wanted to be an artist,” Rosen says, “this wouldn’t exist. We need to say it out loud for it to be true.”

Stevie Famulari, Engage Urban Greening

Engage Urban Greening is a joyous call to action that exhorts participants to welcome nature into their lives. (Chris Ferenzi)

Where Walking on Clouds sets out to get you thinking about yourself and what you are capable of, Stevie Famulari and her By the People project Engage Urban Greening are all about the communities and natural wonders surrounding our individual selves.

At the heart of the exhibit is a field of colorful paper flowers sloping down a staircase, each fashioned from a special sort of construction paper that contains seeds and will eventually be planted and watered to yield wildflowers. Like the plant life it celebrates, Engage Urban Greening is itself ever growing as visitors to the gallery fashion their own origami creations and take them home to plant, water and raise.

Famulari, whose art first started to take on an environmental character as she completed her master’s in landscape architecture, sees the Engage project as a novel spin on the By the People theme of “marginalized communities.” To her, plant life in urban settings is the epitome of a marginalized community—one which deserves to be welcomed into neighborhoods.

Just as she believes we are all capable of making a positive impact on our environment, Famulari is also a passionate advocate of the idea that anyone can create art if they put in the effort. “Everybody’s style should not be judged as ‘better’ or ‘worse,’” she says. “Their art has value because it’s their perspective.”

See this art for yourself at the Arts and Industries Building before the June 23 conclusion of the By the People festival. The full rundown of By the People events and locations is available here.

Stunning, Surreal Concepts Cast a Spell on the Fairy Tales Architecture Competition

Smithsonian Magazine

For millennia, the fairy tale's unique ability to communicate important lessons through the telling of fantastical tales has held audiences in rapture. Now, the architectural community has turned to the tried-and-tested narrative form to provoke new innovations and interest in architecture through the Fairy Tales competition. 

Entering its fourth year, the competition was first imagined up in 2013 by architectural thought-leader Blank Space in partnership with the National Building Museum. By its very nature, the competition treats architects as worldbuilders. To participate, entrants must submit original artwork and complementary fiction that re-images the world we live. Themes range from the deeply personal to the largest societal and environmental issues of the day.

For this year's competition, a jury of more than 20 leading architects, designers and storytellers came together to decide on four winners, in addition to 10 honorable mentions. They announced the honorees at a live event at the National Building Museum hosted by NPR's Lauren Ober on Monday night. 

French architects Ariane Merle d’Aubigné and Jean Maleyrat weren't able to attend in person, but the duo won third place for their submission “Up Above." Their entry dreams up a way for refugees to escape the horrors of the world by taking to the skies. In their world, those looking to leave oppression and inequality behind can live in the clouds—specifically in shelters balanced on thin stilts high above city skylines.

Image by Ariane Merle d’Aubigné & Jean Maleyrat. (original image)

Image by Ariane Merle d’Aubigné & Jean Maleyrat. (original image)

Image by Ariane Merle d’Aubigné & Jean Maleyrat. (original image)

Image by Ariane Merle d’Aubigné & Jean Maleyrat. (original image)

Image by Ariane Merle d’Aubigné & Jean Maleyrat. (original image)

Chicago architect Terrence Hector earned second place for his world that granted architecture sentience by means of a slow-moving species of concrete and metal. Offering a new meaning to the notion of walking cities, Hector's entry, “City Walkers” or “The Possibility of a Forgotten Domestication and Biological Industry" pays tribute to the work of iconic director Hayao Miyazaki, especially Howl's Moving Castle (2004), as well as themes of anthropomorphizing buildings in architectural history.

Image by Terrence Hector. (original image)

Image by Terrence Hector. (original image)

Image by Terrence Hector. (original image)

Image by Terrence Hector. (original image)

Image by Terrence Hector. (original image)

The competition also awarded a special prize this year to architects Maria Syed and Adriana Davis. Their entry, “Playing House,"  explores how a split-personality can manifest literally through architecture, and it was the highest-scoring submission by members of the American Institute of Architecture Students. 

Image by Maria Syed and Adriana Davis. (original image)

Image by Maria Syed and Adriana Davis. (original image)

Image by Maria Syed and Adriana Davis. (original image)

Image by Maria Syed and Adriana Davis. (original image)

But the night went to Ukrainian architect Mykhailo "Misha" Ponomarenko who took first for his entry, "Last Day."  Ponomarenko's work playfully imagines what would happen if science fiction-like structures were inexplicably woven into ordinary landscapes. His out-of-this-world insertions into normal scenes aren't just stunning—they also offer commentary on how machines reshape their environments.

Smithsonian.com caught up with Ponomarenko to talk to him more about his work and how he sees fantasy informing today's architecture. 

Who are your biggest influences?

When I studied in school it was American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. I learned a lot from his works—I read all his books; I was really addicted. All his principles and ideas still apply today. I have a lot of feelings about him but not too many words.

But right now, I’m really influenced by the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, and also landscape in general. I was walking all day in Washington today looking at the landscapes. It’s so beautiful here, especially around the [National Museum of the American Indian]. The authentic marshes, and the rock work, and even the ducks in the lake in the pond—it looks so real in the middle of this metropolis. I was deeply impressed. That natural wildness so affects the landscape. It was inspiring.

Talk to me about Bjarke Ingels. What about his work makes an impression on you?

How he works with problems, and how he solves problems in architectural ways. His building is very pragmatic and very rational, and I’m also very rational and pragmatic, so this is why I love him a lot. I’m very interested to understand what he does. With each of his projects he creates a series of 3-D diagrams where he explains step-by-step how he came up with his shapes. After you see the diagrams, it feels like the building came naturally. It was meant to be here; it was part of the environment; it was a response to conditions of this environment and to the conditions of this place in general. And, it solves problems—not only for people going to use the building, but also people going to walk around it. His rationality is deeply inspiring.

Image by Mykhailo Ponomarenko. (original image)

Image by Mykhailo Ponomarenko. (original image)

Image by Mykhailo Ponomarenko. (original image)

Image by Mykhailo Ponomarenko. (original image)

Image by Mykhailo Ponomarenko. (original image)

It’s so interesting to move from ideas of pragmatism and rationality to talking about a fairy tale competition. When I think of fairy tales, I think of irrational concepts. Did you set out to apply pragmatism and rationality to "Last Day"?

I didn’t think too much about pragmatism. I was thinking about contrast between nature and manmade; rational and irrational; regular and irregular; horizontal and vertical. You take a real landscape and then you add something unreal. But not a big jump, just a dash of unreal. A little bit bizarre, a little bit strange, a little bit unreal. Then you put people in the forefront of your landscape who just live in this space.

They interact with this space and they act absolutely normally, like this is the way it’s supposed to be. And it’s like: “Wow, this looks interesting.” You’re seeing something absolutely unreal and impractical, but everyone acts as though it’s normal. The contrast between nature and manmade is the most interesting and beautiful part of our existence.

Working with these ideas, how did you come up with the specific story you wanted to tell for this competition?

I generally am inspired by landscape paintings. Also, the Swedish artist Simon Stalenhag, he has the same idea. I copied this idea from him. He painted real landscapes, suburban landscapes, villages, then he puts something really weird there— some robot or dinosaur, strange structure or machines and people play around it. It looks very utopian or dystopian. It also feels very nostalgic. Every time I look at his paintings it feels like I’ve seen it before. Maybe because of my Soviet past.

I was born in the Soviet Union when it was still a union. Then it broke up like it is, but we still have Soviet heritage. So you can see similar culture or places and it’s something similar. It awoke some weird feelings, like melancholic and nostalgic. I really like these feelings and I thought, wow, I want to do something similar but keep it not as negative. Some of his paintings look a little bit negative, like a rusty structure falling apart. I wanted to do something positive—why should it all be negative when I could do something more optimistic? I also wanted to work with landscape and to interact with landscape. It’s like you see this landscape and you have this feeling inside to share, it’s like a burst of energy and I was like wow, I want to do something with this, and so I just start to sketch. There was something in there that was really unpractical and unpragmatical.

By doing this kind of intervention you can find some interesting ideas which could be implemented in the real world. Something really interesting could show up [in the shapes you create] and allow you to see the space from a different perspective and give you more thoughts and feelings about this landscape.

What fairy tales would you say inspired you growing up?

I’ve always been deeply inspired by science fiction. I love Star Wars. I grew up with Star Wars. It was my favorite series. When I was a teenager I was reading a lot of science fiction books about planets and about the universe, all this stuff. This is deeply inspiring, and I really want to work on other ideas that tie together real landscape and science fiction and science and architecture and see what pulls together.

What do you want readers to take away from your work?

I want to evoke some feelings about our planet, and about landscapes and about our influence on these landscapes. What we can do with them, and what we actually are doing. I believe we can do way better than what we are doing now.

Anything else you’d like to add?

People: you need to recycle garbage, and make our planet cleaner, and read more science fiction.

Hurry In! These Smithsonian Exhibitions Won’t Be Here Much Longer

Smithsonian Magazine

This gold and pearl hair ornament from the days of China’s Qing Dynasty shows the symbolic significance of the phoenix in Chinese culture. Come see an exhibit at the Sackler Gallery showcasing materials from the creation of Chinese artist Xu Bing’s Phoenix Project, on display until September 2.

As the weather heats up, some of the Smithsonian’s exhibits are preparing to cool down. To make way for future shows, a dozen current ones at various museums will close their doors by summer’s end, so don’t miss a chance to see some of these historic, unique, beautiful, innovative and thought-provoking exhibits. Here is a list of all exhibits closing before September 15.

Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color

Thomas Day was black man living in North Carolina before the Civil War. An expert cabinetmaker with his own business and more success than many white plantation owners, he was a freedman whose craftmanship earned him both respect and brisk sales. His style was classified as “exuberant” and was adapted from the French Antique tradition. Step back in time to the Victorian South and view Day’s ornate cabinetry work on display. Ends July 28. Renwick Gallery.

Black Box: DEMOCRACIA

The Madrid-based artist group DEMOCRACIA created a video featuring the art of movement in a socio-political context. The film features practitioners of “parkour,” a kind of urban street sport with virtually no rules or equipment and where participants move quickly and efficiently through space by running, jumping, swinging, rolling, climbing and flipping. The actors are filmed practicing parkour in a Madrid cemetery, providing a spooky backdrop for their amazing acrobatics and interspersed with symbols of the working class, internationalism, anarchy, secret societies and revolution that pop up throughout the film. Ends August 4. Hirshhorn Museum.

Arts of Japan: Edo Aviary and Poetic License: Making Old Words New

The Edo period (1603-1868) marked a peaceful and stable time in Japan, but in the world of art, culture and literature, it was a prolific era. These companion exhibitions showcase great works of the Edo period that depict natural beauty as well as challenge the old social order. “Edo Aviary” features paintings of birds during that period, which reflected a shift toward natural history and science and away from religious and spiritual influence in art. “Poetic License: Making Old Words New” showcases works demonstrating how the domain of art and literature transitioned from wealthy aristocrats to one more inclusive of artisans and merchants. Ends August 4. Freer Gallery.

Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture

This exhibit, held at the American Indian Museum’s Gustav Heye Center in New York City, explores the significant contributions of Native Americans to contemporary music. From Jimi Hendrix (he’s part Cherokee) to Russell “Big Chief” Moore of the Gila River Indian Community to Rita Coolidge, a Cherokee, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree, Native Americans have had a hand in creating and influencing popular jazz, rock, folk, blues and country music. Don’t miss your chance to see the influence of Native Americans in mainstream music and pop culture. Ends August 11. American Indian Museum in New York.

Nam June Paik: Global Visionary

The exhibition featuring works by the innovative Korean-American artist Nam June Paik, whose bright television screens and various electronic devices helped to bring modern art into the technological age during the 1960s, features 67 pieces of artwork and 140 other items from the artist’s archives. Ends August 11. American Art Museum.

Hand-held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books

Come to the Sackler Gallery and learn about the Japanese precursor to today’s electronic mass media: the woodblock-printed books of the Edo period. The books brought art and literature to the masses in compact and entertaining volumes that circulated Japan, passed around much like today’s Internet memes. The mixing of art with mass consumption helped to bridge the gap between the upper and lower classes in Japan, a characteristic of the progression during the Edo period. The exhibit features books in a variety of genres, from the action-packed to the tranquil, including sketches from Manga, not related to the Japanese art phenomenon of today, by the famous woodblock printer Hokusai. Ends August 11. Sackler Gallery.

Portraiture Now: Drawing on the Edge

In this seventh installation of the “Portraiture Now” series, view contemporary portraits by artists Mequitta Ahuja, Mary Borgman, Adam Chapman, Ben Durham, Till Freiwald and Rob Matthews, each exploring different ways to create such personal works of art. From charcoal drawings and acrylic paints to video and computer technology, these artists use their own style in preserving a face and bringing it alive for viewers. Ends August 18. National Portrait Gallery.

I Want the Wide American Earth: As Asian Pacific American Story

Celebrate Asian Pacific American history at the American History Museum and view posters depicting Asian American history in the United States ranging from the pre-Columbian years to the present day. The exhibit explores the role of Asian Americans in this country, from Filipino fishing villages in New Orleans in the 1760s to Asian-American involvement in the Civil War and later in the Civil Rights Movement. The name of the exhibit comes from the famed Filipino American poet Carlos Bulosan, who wrote, “Before the brave, before the proud builders and workers, / I say I want the wide American earth / For all the free . . .” Ends August 25. American History Museum.

A Will of Their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic

This exhibit features a collection of eight portraits of influential women in American history, but you may not know all their names. They came long before the Women’s Rights Movement and questioned their status in a newly freed America by fighting for equal rights and career opportunities. Come see the portraits of these forward-thinking pioneers—Judith Sargent Murray, Abigail Smith Adams, Elizabeth Seton and Phillis Wheatley. Ends September 2. National Portrait Gallery.

Nine Deaths, Two Births: Xu Bing’s Phoenix Project

Take a peek into the creative world of Chinese artist Xu Bing in this exhibition showcasing materials Bing used to create his massive sculpture Phoenix Project, which all came from construction sites in Beijing. The two-part installation, weighing 12 tons and extending nearly 100 feet long, features the traditional Chinese symbol of the phoenix, but the construction materials add a more modern message about Chinese economic development. While Phoenix Project resides at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the Sackler’s companion exhibition displays drawings, scale models and reconfigured construction fragments. Ends September 2. Sackler Gallery.

Whistler’s Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London

Stroll through the London of the 1800s in this exhibit featuring works by painter James McNeill Whistler, who lived in and documented the transformation of the Chelsea neighborhood. Whistler witnessed the destruction of historic, decaying buildings that made way for mansions and a new riverbank, followed by a wave of the elite. With artistic domination of the neighborhood throughout the transition, Whistler documented an important part of London’s history. The exhibit features small etchings and watercolor and oil paintings of scenes in Chelsea during the 1880s. Ends September 8. Freer Gallery.

Over, Under, Next: Experiments in Mixed Media, 1913 to the Present

From Picasso to Man Ray to present-day sculptor Doris Salcedo, many of the most innovative and prolific modern artists have set aside paint brush and canvas to embrace mixed media. View works by artists from all over the world during the last century and see the evolution of the collage and assemblage throughout the years. Featured in this exhibit is a tiny Joseph Stella collage made with scraps of paper and Ann Hamilton’s room-sized installation made of newsprint, beeswax tablets and snails, among other things. Ends September 8. Hirshhorn Museum.

This charcoal portrait of Merwin (Merf) Shaw by Mary Borgman hangs in the National Portrait Gallery as part of the “Portraiture Now: Drawing on Edge” series. The exhibit features portraits created by artists using a variety of media to explore the different ways to create the personal works of art. Image courtesy of Mary Borgman

How an Exquisitely Designed Cart for Homeless People Inspired a Wave of Artists’ Activism

Smithsonian Magazine

One day in the late 1980s, a homeless man in a red cap walked through a park in New York City, pushing a strange, wheeled object. The thing looked like a cross between a shopping cart and a rocket ship, with an arc of safety-orange fabric stretched over the top. The man paused to pick up a discarded beer can and tossed it in the cart’s basket.

A camera followed him, and a small crowd gathered as the man parked the vehicle and began to demonstrate its functions. He tugged on one end, and the object expanded to three times its original length. He pulled at another spot, and a retractable seat slid out. “It’s like a mobile home,” he said. The cart had a storage area for personal belongings, a washbasin that doubled as support for a table, a bin to hold cans and bottles, and, beneath its orange roof, just enough space for a desperate homeless man to sleep.

The cart’s creator, Krzysztof Wodiczko, was not on camera that day. He is a Polish-born artist who in the late 1980s began making several of these houses-on-wheels, which he called Homeless Vehicles. One of them, Homeless Vehicle, Variant 5, from 1988-1989, is now among the collections of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Wodiczko, who had begun his career as an industrial designer, spent hours consulting with homeless people who collected bottles and cans for a living, asking about their needs and seeking feedback on his designs. By presenting an idea of emergency housing both elegant and disturbing, he hoped to raise awareness of the homeless and their concerns. The Homeless Vehicles helped launch a renewed interest in social activism among artists, an interest that can be seen today in forms that range from the neighborhood development projects of Rick Lowe to Yoko Ono’s Twitter feed. “The question is,” Wodiczko said in a recent interview, “What can we do as artists to be useful in our work?”

Born in Warsaw in 1943, Wodiczko lived in Communist Poland until moving to Canada in the 1970s and later to the U.S. Arriving in New York in the 1980s, the artist was shocked by a “catastrophic situation”: tens of thousands of people living without homes in that wealthy city. The can and bottle collectors stood out, pushing shopping carts wherever they went. Though they were dismissed by the public “much as every other homeless person, faceless, seemingly using stolen consumer equipment,” he says, he saw them as working people doing tough jobs that benefited the city, day and night, for very little money in return. In the Homeless Vehicles, he tried to “create a legitimate vehicle for collecting bottles and cans, so these people will be recognized as legitimate members of the urban community.”

It one sense Homeless Vehicle is exquisitely functional, almost charming in the way it squeezes so many useful features into one neat, rolling package. Artists have created functional objects forever, usually for the wealthiest stratum of society, whether ancient Chinese incense burners or opulent Art Deco doors. Some artists, in the Bauhaus of the 1920s, for example, designed mass-produced goods for a broader public. But it was something new, says Stéphane Aquin, chief curator of the Hirshhorn, for an artist to create a beautifully functional tool for the poorest of the poor. “It was designed for the use of those who need it the most,” he says.

Looked at another way, though, Homeless Vehicle isn’t functional at all. As either a real home or a long-term solution to the shortage of affordable housing, it’s absurdly, even horribly, inadequate. Wodiczko says he didn’t intend for the vehicles to be mass-produced, and he didn‘t give away even the few that were made (partly because he feared they would be so desirable that people would get hurt fighting over them).

Instead, Homeless Vehicle can be understood as a critique of economic inequality. Among the places where one of the artworks was photographed was in front of Trump Tower. Aquin sees the absurdity of the vehicle as Wodiczko’s metaphor for “the absurdity…of the extreme capitalist society of the late 1980s: the trickle-down economics of the Reagan years, the rise of Trump Tower, a dramatic rise in homelessness in New York City.” Even with all its homey amenities, Homeless Vehicle looks a lot like a missile. One of its intended functions was as a weapon of social disruption.

Homeless Vehicle in New York City by Krzysztof Wodiczko, 1988-1989 (Hirshhorn © Krzysztof Wodiczko; Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York)

They may not have known it, but the people in the park gawking at it were part of the artwork, too. Wodiczko says that the vehicles were addressing two different emergencies: a need to make homeless people’s existence a little less harsh, and an equally urgent need to give this mostly ignored group of people a chance to be heard, to “speak of their lives to nonhomeless people.” In this sense, he says, the can and bottle collectors who worked with him turned out to be performers. As they wheeled his strange vehicles around the city, they attracted questions from passersby, which led sometimes to friendly conversations between homeless people and their neighbors or, sometimes, to outrage (“We can’t have 100,000 vehicles like this!”). Either way, the discussion was part of the point. It was, Wodiczko says, “on one hand, emergency help; on the other hand, a situation for thinking.”

Looking back on it as a piece of art history, Aquin says that Homeless Vehicle “raised awareness in the art world about social issues” and about the ways artists could apply their creativity to solving social problems.

If Wodiczko’s social activism was unusual among artists in the 1980s, in the decades since it has rippled into many parts of the art world. Nato Thompson, artistic director of the cultural organization Philadelphia Contemporary and author of Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-First Century, has seen a significant rise in what he calls “socially engaged art” in the last decade or so, of “artists interested in using their skills to better their communities.“ He adds, “Even the conversation of community as a part of art has grown tremendously. It’s not only artists, but there are more institutions supporting it, and more foundations.”

Wodiczko’s work has continued to give marginalized people—from immigrants to abused women to military veterans—a platform to speak publicly, now often in large-scale audio and video projections. (Ewa Harabasz)

Activism has influenced a range of art made since the Homeless Vehicles’ era. Aquin sees their humor and absurdism as an older sibling of “ludicrously satirical” work like the Yes Men’s Survivaball from the early 2000s, a bloblike suit supposed to protect the wearer from climate change. Wodiczko’s own work has continued to give marginalized people—from immigrants to abused women to military veterans—a platform to speak publicly, now often in large-scale audio and video projections. (His 1988 projection Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. was recently restaged at the museum.) Meanwhile, as Thompson points out, other artists have gone on to address problems of homelessness and affordable housing, such as Michael Rakowitz with paraSITE, a series of inflatable plastic shelters, or Rick Lowe and Project Row Houses, an artists’ urban renewal project in Houston.

The Danish artists’ group Superflex has focused on functional art addressing social issues, from a series of projects with biofuels in the 1990s to a recent work exhibiting and then donating medical equipment for a hospital in Syria. Mark Beasley, curator of media and performance art at the Hirshhorn, says the group continually grapples with the question of “how you create an active space for discussion”—in much the same way that Wodiczko hoped to provoke that discussion in a public park.

Thirty years after Homeless Vehicle, the Internet and social media have become natural places for public discussion. “Artists are very adept and very promiscuous in taking to new media,” Beasley says, as “another platform for discussion or dispersion of ideas.”

An 18th-century artist might have used history painting to comment on events, he says, but “rather than 10 people clustered around a painting,” an artist on social media can reach millions in a matter of seconds. “Artists are engaging in that in the same way that any corporate brand is engaging in that.” Beasley says that since much of Yoko Ono’s work is text-based, for example, it is a natural fit for social media. Jenny Holzer’s aphorisms, he says, are a form of discussion, whether they’re projected onto the side of a building or posted on Twitter.

The discussion continues. Thompson says he hasn’t seen a dramatic change in artists’ work since the election of Donald Trump as president, but it may be coming. “The arts take a while to recalibrate themselves,” he says. “The shift to dealing with the new political atmosphere I don’t think has happened yet.” At the moment, he says “we don’t have a large protest movement going on in serial way,” with regularly repeated protests like those around the Vietnam War, AIDS or civil rights, which often galvanized political art in the past.

For now, Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicles tell us something about what art can accomplish, and what it can’t. Innovative as they were, the vehicles didn’t shift public opinion enough to replace homes-on-wheels with real housing for those in need. More than half a million people were homeless in the U.S. on a single night last year. And so Homeless Vehicle, Variant 5 serves to remind us, Aquin says, “that solutions still need to be found.”

Homeless Vehicle, Variant 5 is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden as part of the exhibition “Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s” through May 13.

This Man Claims He Has the World’s Largest Collection of Toy Dinosaurs, and He Loves Them All

Smithsonian Magazine

Randy Knol doesn't know how many toy dinosaurs he has.

It is hard to tell exactly. They aren't all in one place. Most of them are in the basement and the attic. Stacked in boxes, bags and giant Rubbermaid containers. A few have strayed into the kitchen, which is supposed to be off-limits. Bags of the latest arrivals are spread out on the coffee table. More are spread out on the deck behind his house. A tiny rubber triceratops peeks out from under the couch. I didn't go into the bathroom.

Little white brontosauruses from the 1950s with their tails dragging on the ground. A waist-high, anatomically correct sauropod with life-like wrinkles. A Jurassic Park-branded hadrosaurus, still in the original box. Literal six packs of velociraptors. Think of any toy dinosaur from your childhood; Knol has it.

Some of the dinosaurs also leave his collection. Knol teaches summer classes for Smithsonian Associates on building dinosaur dioramas; he supplies the dinos and the kids take those home. He's got the credentials for the job. He's a columnist with the popular magazine Prehistoric Times, dedicated to dinosaur enthusiasts and he is a member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. (His day job is with the U.S. Census Bureau.) 

The massive collection began when Knol was a child in the 1960s. “My grandfather gave me a 'Flintstones' playset for Christmas,” he says of the popular television series featuring Fred Flintsone and his pet dinosaur. Both the toys and Knol's appetite for knowledge have increased ever since.

A fascination for collecting dinosaurs began for Randy Knol in the 1960s when his father gave him a toy play set of the popular prehistoric Flintstones family. (Jackson Landers)

Today, Knol possesses what he thinks is the world's largest collection of toy dinosaurs. How large? “Probably about five or six thousand,” Knol guessed. “I knew a couple of collectors who had more but they're all dead now. I saw their collections show up on eBay. That's how you know they've left the world.”

“My wife accuses me of being a hoarder,” says Knol as he sorts through a cardboard box filled with hundreds of figures that his students had jumbled together. “That's ok, I don't mind. They're not supposed to be in the kitchen any more. I used to have a diorama in the top of the kitchen but periodically dinosaurs would fall on top of her while she was cooking and she didn't like that.”

Knol's family may have a little extra patience with his hobby because of the higher purpose associated with it.

Knol says toy dinosaurs educate children about paleontology and other fields of science when they are well-made. Usually they aren't, which perpetuates a 70-year-old feedback loop of misinformation.

“Most [toy dinosaurs] were driven by popular art” when they first appeared on the market in the 1950s, Knol says. “In the United States, the most influential piece of art at the time was by a man named Zallinger who did the Yale Peabody mural. And if you look at it, most of these figures were directly copied from the mural.”

Rudolph Zallinger's 110-foot-long mural The Age of Reptiles was groundbreaking when it was completed in 1947. It was the first major work of art depicting recreations of what dinosaurs might have looked like when they were alive. A close-up of the mural ran on the cover of Life magazine in 1953 and the artwork quickly became the gold standard for what dinosaurs really looked like. Toymakers cribbed designs from Zallinger's work, as did editors and illustrators of educational books for adults and children.

The problem was that Zallinger's mural was painted at a time when scientists didn't really know very much about dinosaurs or the world that they lived in.

“When I was a kid, plate tectonics did not exist [as a scientific field],” Knol says. “The idea that at the end of the Mesozoic, a comet or giant asteroid hit, that was controversial. The idea that dinosaurs are ancestral to birds, nobody had believed that. Birds were supposed to just be some kind of cousin.”

In 1947, nobody knew that most theropod dinosaurs (these were the ones that mostly walked around on two feet rather than all four) probably had feathers. They were thought of as slow-moving, monochromatic, tail-dragging, cold-blooded lizards.

Today, scientists generally agree that these ideas were wrong. The imagined T. Rex of the 1940s resembles the reconstructed T. Rex of today about as much as a domestic cow resembles a bison. All the same parts are technically present, but the final effect is very different.

Despite decades of new research, more toys continue to be made from the old molds. Educational books for children continue to be illustrated with images based on those toys and past artwork, including Zallinger's mural (which is still prominently featured at the Yale Peabody Museum). And then the images in the books drive demand for the flawed toys. A few companies are trying to make more accurate models but the market has resisted them.

Knol's collection boxes become a stage to display some of the toy dinos they hold. (Jackson Landers)

“I was talking to the Safari Company, who've I've known for years,” says Knol. “They were very progressive. They put out a brand new T. Rex that didn't drag its tail or anything. Retailers insisted that they keep the old one because it still sold better. And because what is in all the childrens books? They don't have feathers, they don't have their tails up the air! The kids want things that look like the books that their parents are giving them to read.”

Knol carefully chooses the toys used for his diorama classes. He specially orders models that represent up-to-date science (the kids will paint them in colors according to their own imagination, though). While playing with models is fun, accurate science is at the heart of the entire program. Kids learn about geology, climatology, ecology, biomechanics and botany along the way.

“We visit the [United States] Botanic Garden every year with the kids. One of the things we teach the kids is the difference between spores and seeds. We teach the differences between gymnospores and flowering plants. One of the big issues with using plants in dinosaur dioramas was that you couldn't use grasses because they didn't exist. Well, it turns out that they did.”

The classes are offered as part of a summer camp offered annually by Smithsonian Associates. Exposure to good science at Smithsonian's camps seems to be paying long-term dividends, according to Brigitte Blachere, program manager at the organization. “Some of these kids have come back as college students and done internships with certain scientists,” she says.

Campers discover the flora and fauna of the prehistoric world and create a diorama board that depicts a landscape of the Mesozoic era. (Smithsonian Associates)

“Smithsonian has been presenting summer camps for about 45 years now,” says Blachere. “Randy has been a big part of that at least for the last 15 years.”

The Smithsonian Associates Summer Camp program offers one and two week programs geared towards specific interests. Other Associates programs include courses focused on gardening, modern art, robots and diorama classes focused on famous conflicts such as the Battle of the Somme and the Mexican-American War.

The military diorama classes were what brought Knol and his incredible dinosaur collection to Smithsonian in the first place.

“My son was taking a class for the military stuff,” says Knol, “and I was talking to the guy who did the dioramas. I said that I do dioramas, too, but I mostly do dinosaur stuff. He said we desperately want a dinosaur diorama class. . .and that was over ten years ago and I've been doing it ever since.”

Knol lined up six examples of T. Rex figures for comparison. “This isn't something you should really teach with, but it still seems to sell pretty well,” he says as he holds an upright, featherless, green T. Rex that looks like something out of the 1933 version of King Kong. Several others had a bird-like posture but their feet were oversized (to help the toy stand up). Only two have feathers and sinewy, hawk-like legs. One of these lies twisted and dead on the ground with chunks of flesh torn away to reveal bones and intestines within.

Truly realistic toy dinosaurs are hard to find and often expensive. The two most accurate of the T. Rexes, both made by Collecta, retail for around $30. Highly collectable discontinued models, such as Knol's prized diplodocus, sculpted by Dan LoRusso and made in 1994 by Battat for the Boston Museum of Science, can fetch up to $600 on eBay. Quality and scientific accuracy are highly valued by the community of adult collectors, if less so by parents buying toys for their children.

Even the dinosaurs carried by the gift shops at some museums are usually suspect. “It's all trash,” Knol says. “They are low-end... My favorite was the triceratops that only had one horn.”

“Science is really important,” says Knol. “Getting people interested, especially young people interested in science is important. …there's almost no branch of science that I can't teach while showing kids stuff with dinosaurs. Everything from plate tectonics to why asteroids hit the earth and what the solar system looks like. When we're looking for creative ways to teach kids, let's do it through gamification and introduce these things while having fun rather than doing these death-by-Power-Point lectures that turn everyone off.”

There is something to be learned even from the inaccurate toy dinosaurs with their dragging tails and reptilian postures, according to Knol.

“Science is not just measuring factoids; it's really the whole process of 'we had this information and we thought this, and now we have this other piece of information, so now we think these other things.' ...there's a lot of science ignorance today. Dinosaurs are a nice way of making people literate about science.”

Knol hopes that his life's work will not suffer the same fate as the previous records for the world's largest collection. He would like to see it displayed in a museum, but there is currently no institution prepared to display over 5,000 toy dinosaurs.

“My son has promised to bury it with me but my daughter and my wife will put it all on eBay.”

The emergence of modernism in early 20th century American advertising: Lucian Bernhard and his REM Cough Syrup advertisements

National Museum of American History

What does it take for an advertisement to capture the attention of a potential consumer?

It takes aesthetically pleasing simplicity, vibrant colors, and a straightforward message—according to Lucian Bernhard.

A photograph of a poster rolled out on a table. Two women in blue appear to hurry through rain under a blue umbrella. The word "REM" is surrounded by an orange circle in the upper righthand corner. There is an orange ribbon at the bottom that says "Fast relief for coughs due to colds"

German-born artist Lucian Bernhard (1883–1972) worked prolifically in both German and American advertising. Although a prominent graphic designer, he also worked in other mediums including painting, typeface design, and interior design. Straightforwardness, color, and simplicity defined his artistic mode. Here is a look at the style and the career of the man that helped bring modernism to American advertising.

Bernhard pioneered modern artistic techniques and made a name for himself as an innovative and progressive commercial artist. He is known as the innovator of two new types of poster art, Sachplakatand PlakatstilSachplakat artwork emphasizes a bold lettering design paired with a simple central image and bold, nuanced hues. Plakatstil is visually similar to Sachplakat but can include more complex imagery beside the brand name. The images in both methods are typically deconstructed and simplistic.

A pencil and watercolor sketch depicting a bottle of REM cough syrup

Both of these techniques rejected Art Nouveau in that they intended to diverge from past artistic modes in order to emulate the modern, fast-paced, industrial world. Art Nouveau preferred flowing lines and harmony with nature; Modernism embraced the new urbanism and fought to attract the viewer's eye amidst a barrage of advertising posters. In order to achieve this goal, commercial artists of these styles utilized simplicity and color, which revolutionized advertisements and changed the landscape of commercial art.

In the 1920s, Bernhard immigrated to New York City and carried Sachplakat and Plakatstil with him to begin his prolific career in American commercial art. Continuing his focus on color and simplicity, he created various types of advertisement art for many firms, notably REM cough syrup.

A poster for REM cough syrup. Three men in grey bend over with their hands on their hats, appearing to struggle through the rain. It says "for coughs" in the upper righthand corner and "REM" on the right side in white with an orange background

The museum's Archives Center possesses a collection of Lucian Bernhard materials including REM advertising sketches, prints, lithographs, and oversize posters. The sketch and posters all adhere to the artist's use of color, featuring bold, distinctive shades that attract the eye with their intensity and contrast. Bernhard utilizes only a few different colors, but his posters command the attention of the urban viewer with their eye-catching shades and combinations in the busy advertisement space.

A graphic, black and white illustration of a stylized man in a top hat and cane pointing to the word "REM" in the sky. It appears to be storming, as trees are blown sideways. It says "Cough?" in the upper lefthand corner

Bernhard's works, large and small, follow the Sachplakat and Plakatstil mode in that they feature curved lines with sharp, angular corners. They also depict simple and highly deconstructed figures, such as the shaded men illustrated in the lithograph. The small print also follows this idea by depicting a man via geometric blocks. Lucian Bernhard utilized abstraction to create his advertisements in a more modern aesthetic, and succeeded in his efforts to more quickly disseminate information in a rapid urban environment.

If you are interested in viewing these materialsmake an appointment with the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History. Please email archivescenter@si.edu or call 202-633-3270.

Holly Nelson completed an internship at the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History. She is also a History major at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Author(s): 
intern Holly Nelson
Posted Date: 
Monday, November 28, 2016 - 08:00
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Landscape Through a Car Window, Darkly

Smithsonian Magazine

In Autolandscape, Colorado (1971), the shadow of Elaine Mayes’ car echoes the curvature of a hill in the distance. Image courtesy of American Art Museum

By happy coincidence, the new American Art exhibition, “Landscapes in Passing,” is located down the hall from an 1868 painting by Albert Bierstadt—a lush, majestic panorama of the untouched American wilderness, and what most people have in mind when they hear the word “landscape.”

“Landscapes in Passing” brings together the work of three artists who challenged this canonical view in the 1970s. Inspired by the interstate highway system, photographers Elaine Mayes, Steve Fitch and Robbert Flick dared to look past the overweening grandeur of landscapes past, to explore the transient, auto-mediated way we see nature in the present.

The earliest series in the exhibition, Elaine Mayes’ Autolandscapes (1971), captures the view from a car window. Mayes drove from California to Massachusetts, snapping a photograph every time the landscape changed. From a moving car, the road, horizon line and variations of terrain are abstracted to bands of black, white and gray. “She wanted to capture her experience of moving through the space and how the landscape changes from urban to rural to somewhere in between,” says curator Lisa Hostetler. In the gallery, the series is displayed sequentially and unfolds like a zoetrope, with a strong horizontal through-line conveying speed and motion.

Steve Fitch’s Diesels and Dinosaurs (1976) focuses exclusively on the American West. The photographs narrate a collision between the prehistoric and the modern, the mythic and the mass-produced: A kitschy dinosaur sculpture looms over a gas station. An ersatz tipi advertises low motel rates. A neon sign glows like a beacon of salvation in the night. For Hostetler, the images reflect Fitch’s background in anthropology. “There’s a sense of studying people,” she says. “It makes me think, ‘What is this alien place where they build dinosaur sculptures and put them in the middle of nowhere?’” Seen through this new iconography, the West is a site of continuous activity and a habitat for frontiersmen and freak shows alike.

Steve Fitch’s Gas station, Highway 40, Jensen, Utah (1971) depicts the American West as an eclectic, alien environment. Image courtesy of American Art Museum

In Robbert Flick’s Sequential Views (1980), the process of making the landscape is as significant as the landscape itself. Flick, influenced by 1970s conceptual art, planned walking routes on a map and set out with rules to govern his photography, clicking the shutter at particular geographic or temporal intervals. To create SV009/80, Marina del Ray, 180 Degree Views, for example, Flick looked one way, took a picture, looked the opposite way, took a picture, moved forward, took a picture and so on. Each piece in Sequential Views contains 100 individual photographs assembled in a 10 by 10 grid using the analog graphic design process called stripping. In Marina del Ray, Flick arranged the photographs into alternating columns of beach and buildings, visualizing the camera’s movement back and forth.

Robbert Flick created SV009/80, Marina del Ray, 180 Degree Views (1980) by taking pictures on either side of the road at regular intervals. Image courtesy of American Art Museum

According to Hostetler, this method reveals two principal things about our perception of landscape: 1) that it is often mediated by the automobile and the glimpses we catch in transit; and 2) that it is telegraphic, leaping from one spot to the next. Think about driving: you see a sign in front of you, you get closer to it, you pass it—and your gaze shifts to the next block. The brain fuses these glimpses into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Flick deconstructs this phenomenon in each photographic array, implicating the viewer in the creation of landscape.

All three artists approached landscape with, if not realism, a new frankness. They acknowledged that tract houses, drive-ins, motels and other roadside attractions were part of the American story—and that the concept of “landscape” is itself fraught with ambiguity. Landscape can mean a sublime and spectacular Bierstadt, but it can also mean nature, the environment generally or something more abstract. Asked to define the term, Hostetler hesitates. “That’s a hard question because I think of as a genre of art,” she says. “But I also think of looking out at our surroundings. I guess when you’re looking at it, it becomes a landscape. The second you take it in as an image, it’s a landscape.”

Elaine Mayes, Steve Fitch and Robbert Flick will discuss their work at a panel discussion on September 12, 2013, at 7:00PM.

New Study Suggests Leonardo da Vinci Had A.D.H.D.

Smithsonian Magazine

Despite his global fame, Leonardo da Vinci’s reputation as an artist is based on just 20 paintings still known to exist. While a few works have been lost or possibly destroyed over the centuries, there’s another reason we have so few genuine works by the master: the Italian artist was notorious for beginning and never completing artworks. He toiled on plans for the Sforza Horse, intended to be the largest cast bronze sculpture ever, off and on for 12 years before abandoning it. A commissioned mural of the Battle of Anghiari was plastered over when the master painter failed to complete the work. Some researchers even believe the Mona Lisa is unfinished, something mentioned by Leonardo’s first biographer.

Looking at the scant details of his life and his penchant to procrastinate and abandon artworks, two neuroscientists have presented a possible reason for Leonardo’s behavior in the journal Brain. They suggest that the artist may have had Attention Deficit and Hyperactive Disorder (A.D.H.D.).

“While impossible to make a postmortem diagnosis for someone who lived 500 years ago, I am confident that A.D.H.D. is the most convincing and scientifically plausible hypothesis to explain Leonardo’s difficulty in finishing his works,” co-author Marco Catani of King’s College London says in a press release. “Historical records show Leonardo spent excessive time planning projects but lacked perseverance. A.D.H.D. could explain aspects of Leonardo's temperament and his strange mercurial genius.”

In the paper, the researchers report that while Leonardo dedicated “excessive” time to planning out his ideas, his perseverance waned when it came to executing them. “Leonardo’s chronic struggle to distill his extraordinary creativity into concrete results and deliver on commitments was proverbial in his lifetime and present since early childhood,” they write.

In fact, in a biography of famous sculptors and painters, the first to include information about Leonardo, Giorgio Vasari writes an almost textbook definition of A.D.H.D.:

“in learning and in the rudiments of letters he would have made great proficiency, if he had not been so variable and unstable, for he set himself to learn many things, and then, after having begun them, abandoned them.”

When Leonardo was older and began apprenticing in the workshop of painter Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence, his inability to execute became more apparent. There, he received his first commissions, and though he planned the works extensively, he ultimately walked away from them. In 1478, he received his first commission as a solo painter for an altarpiece in the Chapel of San Bernardo. Despite taking an advance of 25 florins, Leonardo did not deliver.

This may explain why Leonardo stayed in Verrochio’s workshop until the relatively advanced age of 26 while other painters set off on their own. When he left the atelier, it wasn’t as a painter, but as a musician working for the Duke of Milan.

When the Duke of Milan finally let Leonardo go after 20 years of service, the artist wrote in his diary that he had never finished any of the many projects the Duke had commissioned from him. Even the pope got on his case; after working for the Vatican for three years he was dismissed by Pope Leo X who exclaimed, “Alas! this man will never do anything, for he begins by thinking of the end of the work, before the beginning.”

Novelist and contemporary Matteo Bandello, who observed Leonardo during the time he worked on The Last Supper, provides one of the few glimpses we have of these work habits:

“I have also seen him, as the caprice or whim took him, set out at midday, […] from the Corte Vecchio, where he was at work on the clay model of the great horse, and go straight to the Grazie and there mount on the scaffolding and take up his brush and give one or two touches to one of the figures and suddenly give up and go away again”

Besides these biographical tidbits, Emily Dixon at CNN reports there are other signs of A.D.H.D. Leonardo is known to have worked continuously through the night, alternating cycles of short naps and waking. He was also left-handed and some research indicates he may have been dyslexic, both of which are associated with A.D.H.D. At age 65, Leonardo suffered a left-hemisphere stroke, yet his language centers were left in tact. That indicates that the right hemisphere of his brain contained the language centers of his brain, a condition found in less than 5 percent of the population and prevalent in children with A.D.H.D. and other neurodevelopmental conditions.

While this study may feel like a slam dunk diagnosis, Jacinta Bowler at ScienceAlert cautions that these type of postmortem diagnoses are alway problematic. That's because, in many cases, medical professionals don't have the skills to properly critique or place into context historical documents and may interpret things incorrectly. And anecdotes, short biographies and diary entries are no substitute for a direct examination.

Graeme Fairchild of the department of psychology at the University of Bath tells Dixon at CNN that diagnosing Leonardo with A.D.H.D. could be a positive. It shows that “people with A.D.H.D. can still be incredibly talented and productive, even though they might have symptoms or behaviors that lead to impairment such as restlessness, poor organizational skills, forgetfulness and inability to finish things they start,” he says.

It also highlights the fact that the disorder affects adults too, not just children as some think. “For many people, A.D.H.D. is a lifelong condition rather than something they grow out of, and it certainly sounds like Leonardo da Vinci had major problems in many of these areas throughout his life,” says Fairchild.

Leonardo recognized his difficulties with time and project management and sometimes teamed up with other people to get things done. But he also beat himself up for what he saw as his lack of discipline. Even at the end of his life, he regretted his failures and reportedly said “that he had offended God and mankind in not having worked at his art as he should have done.”

Catani tells Kate Kelland at Reuters that Leonardo could serve as the poster child for A.D.H.D., which in the public mind is often associated with low IQ or misbehaving children. He says there are many successful people with the problem, and they can be even more successful if they learn how to manage or treat the disorder.

“Leonardo considered himself as someone who had failed in life - which is incredible,” he says. “I hope (this case) shows that A.D.H.D. is not linked to low IQ or lack of creativity, but rather the difficulty of capitalizing on natural talents.”

In fact, recent research indicates that adults with A.D.H.D. are often more creative than those without, giving them a leg up in certain fields.

The emergence of modernism in early 20th century American advertising: Lucian Bernhard and his REM Cough Syrup advertisements

National Museum of American History

What does it take for an advertisement to capture the attention of a potential consumer?

It takes aesthetically pleasing simplicity, vibrant colors, and a straightforward message—according to Lucian Bernhard.

A photograph of a poster rolled out on a table. Two women in blue appear to hurry through rain under a blue umbrella. The word "REM" is surrounded by an orange circle in the upper righthand corner. There is an orange ribbon at the bottom that says "Fast relief for coughs due to colds"

German-born artist Lucian Bernhard (1883–1972) worked prolifically in both German and American advertising. Although a prominent graphic designer, he also worked in other mediums including painting, typeface design, and interior design. Straightforwardness, color, and simplicity defined his artistic mode. Here is a look at the style and the career of the man that helped bring modernism to American advertising.

Bernhard pioneered modern artistic techniques and made a name for himself as an innovative and progressive commercial artist. He is known as the innovator of two new types of poster art, Sachplakatand PlakatstilSachplakat artwork emphasizes a bold lettering design paired with a simple central image and bold, nuanced hues. Plakatstil is visually similar to Sachplakat but can include more complex imagery beside the brand name. The images in both methods are typically deconstructed and simplistic.

A pencil and watercolor sketch depicting a bottle of REM cough syrup

Both of these techniques rejected Art Nouveau in that they intended to diverge from past artistic modes in order to emulate the modern, fast-paced, industrial world. Art Nouveau preferred flowing lines and harmony with nature; Modernism embraced the new urbanism and fought to attract the viewer's eye amidst a barrage of advertising posters. In order to achieve this goal, commercial artists of these styles utilized simplicity and color, which revolutionized advertisements and changed the landscape of commercial art.

In the 1920s, Bernhard immigrated to New York City and carried Sachplakat and Plakatstil with him to begin his prolific career in American commercial art. Continuing his focus on color and simplicity, he created various types of advertisement art for many firms, notably REM cough syrup.

A poster for REM cough syrup. Three men in grey bend over with their hands on their hats, appearing to struggle through the rain. It says "for coughs" in the upper righthand corner and "REM" on the right side in white with an orange background

The museum's Archives Center possesses a collection of Lucian Bernhard materials including REM advertising sketches, prints, lithographs, and oversize posters. The sketch and posters all adhere to the artist's use of color, featuring bold, distinctive shades that attract the eye with their intensity and contrast. Bernhard utilizes only a few different colors, but his posters command the attention of the urban viewer with their eye-catching shades and combinations in the busy advertisement space.

A graphic, black and white illustration of a stylized man in a top hat and cane pointing to the word "REM" in the sky. It appears to be storming, as trees are blown sideways. It says "Cough?" in the upper lefthand corner

Bernhard's works, large and small, follow the Sachplakat and Plakatstil mode in that they feature curved lines with sharp, angular corners. They also depict simple and highly deconstructed figures, such as the shaded men illustrated in the lithograph. The small print also follows this idea by depicting a man via geometric blocks. Lucian Bernhard utilized abstraction to create his advertisements in a more modern aesthetic, and succeeded in his efforts to more quickly disseminate information in a rapid urban environment.

If you are interested in viewing these materialsmake an appointment with the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History. Please email archivescenter@si.edu or call 202-633-3270.

Holly Nelson completed an internship at the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History. She is also a History major at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Author(s): 
intern Holly Nelson
Posted Date: 
Monday, November 28, 2016 - 08:00
OSayCanYouSee?d=qj6IDK7rITs OSayCanYouSee?d=7Q72WNTAKBA OSayCanYouSee?i=7sH7n_Mvc8E:C5801RFx-mU:V_sGLiPBpWU OSayCanYouSee?i=7sH7n_Mvc8E:C5801RFx-mU:gIN9vFwOqvQ OSayCanYouSee?d=yIl2AUoC8zA

See the Inner Anatomy of Barbie, Mario and Mickey Mouse—Bones, Guts and All

Smithsonian Magazine

Oftentimes, when parents first see Jason Freeny's sculptures that reveal the inner anatomy of cherished childhood toys, they get a little worried that their children will be disturbed. Most kids, though, have a rather different reaction.

"Kids aren't scared by them. They're fascinated," says Freeny, the New York-based artist who's hand-sculpted hundreds of these inner anatomies, built into commercially-available toys, over the last seven years. "I believe that being frightened by inner anatomy is a learned thing. It's something that's taught to kids by society, rather than something that's innate."

Freeny himself responds to supposedly morbid anatomical features—like, say, a Lego's intestines, or Mario's lungs—the same way kids generally do. "I love anatomy," he says. "As an artist, I've always been a big fan of drawing organic shapes, because of their complex detail."

Freeny, who now creates the sculptures and other art full-time, documenting their creation on his Facebook page, began working on the project in 2007 on the side, while he still worked his day job as a designer at a tech startup. It began when, while digitally illustrating a balloon animal, he decided to try his hand at drawing its inner anatomy. "I started by drawing its skeleton system, and I was just fascinated by the completely grotesque skeletal system that its shape was dictating to me," he says.

After illustrating the innards of several other characters (including a gummy bear), his startup closed, and he was laid off. Eventually, he moved from his 600-square-foot Manhattan apartment to Long Island—where he had enough space in the garage to do some sculpting—and embarked on his first 3D anatomy project. "I started cutting into a little Dunny toy, and decided to give it a clay skeleton anatomy," Freeny says. "That's when it all really took off."

In the years since, Freeny has anatomically-supplemented dozens of different characters from video games, movies and even brand advertisements. For each sculpture, he begins by buying a high-quality toy ("If it's a crappy toy to begin with, the sculpture is going to end up looking crappy too," he says), then cuts away a portion of it. Using clay, he sculpts the character's bones and a few internal organs, then paints them what he imagines to be realistic colors. Working on several pieces at a time, he completes about four or five per month, and sells the hand-built sculptures on his website along with his other artworks. 

Hypothesizing the proportion of each character's innards is the trickiest part. "It's like a reverse forensics project," Freeny says. "The exterior shape dictates what the skeleton looks like."

He generally uses scientific illustrations to make the sculptures as accurate as possible. However, because the characters themselves are fictional, that's sometimes impossible. "Mickey Mouse, for example, is a mouse, but he walks upright, like a person," he says. "So his body, like many characters, ends up being more of a version of a human skeleton, distorted to fit inside the character. It's a balancing act."

One of Freeny's current projects—Sid, the sloth from Ice Age—has proven to be particularly difficult. "His body's just very extreme, and cartoony," he says. "At first, I was approaching him as a human, and it just wasn't working, so I used some sloth anatomy proportions. Almost the entire length of their bodies are ribcage, which solved a lot of anatomical problems for me."

Initially, Freeny was unsure what reactions his unconventional work would garner, but they've been overwhelmingly positive. In some cases, he's even gotten praise from the creators and manufacturers of the characters (although he's also had a couple of corporate legal teams tell him to stop making the sculptures, alleging intellectual property infringement).

Although he recognizes the value of his sculptures as tools for scientific education—and has seen his own kids learn from the dozens of pieces lying around his workshop—his original intention was never to teach anyone anatomy. "I just love exploring these characters, and seeing what they look like inside," Freeny says. "I want to see the grotesque, weird anatomies that these toys dictate."

Explore Taiwan’s Unique Themed Restaurant Culture

Smithsonian Magazine

At the Star Tower Restaurant in Taipei, guests are doing more than just eating in a rotating restaurant with great views of the city. They’re also learning about the central core of the building—a giant incinerator for the garbage dump below, and the restaurant sits at the top of the smokestack.

But this is far from the most unusual restaurant in Taiwan. Restaurateurs in the country have a penchant for picking a unique theme and carrying it out through the entire restaurant, food and decorations included.

“Some restaurants transfer the serious atmosphere of particular places like the toilet, hospital, and aircraft cabin into a fun and totally different mood,” Katherine Cheng, a spokesperson for the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, told Smithsonian.com. “And this arouses people's curiosity to visit. People go to these novel restaurants not only for exploring a new thing but also to connect with their friends and the whole society.”

Although some of the best have come and gone—like DS Music Restaurant (themed like a hospital) and A380 Sky Kitchen (themed like the inside of a jetliner)—these six are open now for that completely unique dining experience.

Modern Toilet, Taipei

This restaurant chain launched in 2004, inspired by one of the owners’ experience sitting on the toilet and reading a manga, Dr. Slump. Ice cream came first—a big pile of chocolate served in a squat toilet bowl—but the concept has grown to include more than a dozen full-service restaurants.

Every seat in Modern Toilet is a non-working toilet. All the food—dishes like “poop meatballs” and “stuffed brown sugar poop pancake”—comes in toilet- or urinal-shaped dinnerware, drinks are served in toilet-shaped cups, and glass tables are placed atop washtubs.

Rilakkuma Café, Taipei

One of the newest theme restaurants in Taipei, this one caters to an adorable stuffed bear named Rilakkuma. His little face dons framed photos on the walls, tiny cakes, rice molds, pudding, bread bowls and more.

One thing to note before going: Yelpers say there’s a cover charge that equals the purchase of one drink—so no matter what you buy, if you haven’t ordered a drink, you’ve not met the minimum.

Five Dime Driftwood Restaurant, Taipei

This restaurant is a trip into one woman’s imagination, where diners are greeted by two giant aboriginal figures made from driftwood and eat immersed in artistic creations. It’s like walking into a painting and staying for a while.

Artist Hsieh Li-shiang conceived the idea while walking on the beach. She saw a piece of driftwood next to a sand dollar and used that scene as inspiration for the name and interior. Everywhere you turn, there’s another artsy architectural element—from tables made of driftwood to giant indoor landscapes with trees and a pond.

See-Join Puppet Theater Restaurant, Taipei

Hand puppets are a traditional type of entertainment in Taiwan, and See-Join celebrates that in every aspect. Puppets displayed on shelves surround the dining area, artwork featuring the puppets can be found at many tables, and interactive shows are ongoing at the puppetry theater in the restaurant. You can even test out the puppets yourself, but be careful—some of them are fire-breathers.

During dinner, either enjoy the show and the scenery, or take lessons how to properly use the puppets. Portions are big, so you’ll have plenty of time to play.

Hello Kitty Kitchen and Dining, Taipei

Cue the heart-eyed emoji; everything at this restaurant will cause cuteness-induced swooning. Hello Kitty makes an appearance on everything—from dishes to shaped cakes to her face perfectly toasted onto a piece of bread. And Hello Kitty herself is there too, walking around and interacting with customers.

The restaurant’s interior design echoes the food’s cuteness. All the booths are pink (matching the walls, chairs and light fixtures) and shaped like the bow atop Hello Kitty’s head.

Carton King, Taichung

Not every restaurant is as up-front as Carton King—the website declares that “the food may not be fantastic, and it can be a little pricey”—but food isn’t necessarily the main focus here. At Carton King, everything in the restaurant is made of corrugated cardboard. Diners sit on cardboard chairs and eat out of cardboard bowls on cardboard tables. Drinks are served in cardboard cups.

And if you’re worried about the strength of furniture made from mere cardboard, fear not. The restaurant routinely brings out the 220-pound chef to test the furniture—and a waitress sits on his lap for extra weight.

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