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Photos: Barbara Haddock Taylor.
After Baltimore artist Juliet Ames started decorating salt boxes with images associated with Baltimore, others joined in.

What do think of when you see a headline with the phrase “salt boxes.” I was a bit slow, first picturing the boxes of table salt used in old-time kitchens, then New England’s saltbox architecture.

Turns out it referred to the clunky plywood containers for the de-icing salt used on sidewalks and streets.

In an article at the Baltimore Sun, we learn, “The artist Juliet Ames has always loved salt boxes because she has always loved snow. She says she looks forward to the day every fall when the boxes appear on street corners because she thinks ‘it means that a snow day could be around the corner.’

“She’d always wanted to decorate one, especially the boxes that lacked even the stenciled words ‘salt box.’

“ ‘They looked sad,’ she said. ‘A naked salt box needs a dress.’

“Fearful of getting into trouble for damaging city property, she restrained herself — until the day in mid-December when she found herself contemplating a criminally unadorned salt box in Hampden [a Baltimore neighborhood]. Snow was in the forecast.

“ ‘I knew it had to be this box,’ she said. ‘That night, I Tweeted the picture of the decorated box out … and said, “Somebody vandalized the salt box.” ‘

“The next day, she received an email from the city’s Department of Transportation.

“ ‘We told her that we loved the salt boxes and that we looked forward to seeing more as long as they have a salt theme or highlight something special in the surrounding neighborhood,’ said German Vigil, communications manager for the DOT. Ames didn’t need more encouragement. …

“In the past two months, more than 100 of the decorated salt boxes have appeared around Baltimore, including more than 25 adorned by Ames herself.”

You can see a great collection of photos at the Sun, but here are a few descriptions.

The Sun says, “Literary icon Edgar Allan Poe stares out moodily from the front of a salt box across the street from the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Central Branch. And yes, that’s a raven perched atop his head — a nod to the Bard of Baltimore’s most famous poem and its cryptically croaking bird.

‘I was trying to subtly work in a reference to “nevermore,” Ames said, ‘because there is never more salt. A lot of the boxes have been empty this year.’

The newspaper’s caption for the photo below explains, “Adjacent to the Baltimore School for the Arts is one of its most famous alumni. His hat on backwards, quizzical eyes hooded, mouth open as if preparing to speak is none other than Salt Pac Shakur. (Salt Shaker, get it?) Tupac Shakur studied acting at the high school in the 1980s, where, according to his former teachers, the soon-to-be-renowned rapper had a special gift for performing Shakespeare.”

Among the photos you can see online is one of the “I Love the Morton Salt Girl,” whose slogan you doubtless remember: “When it rains, it pours.” Ames told the Sun, “I have a tattoo of the Morton Salt Girl on my leg that I got five or six years ago. I like her imagery, I love to cook, and we always had canisters of Morton salt when I was growing up.”

One box features jazz great Cab Calloway “looking over his shoulder and warbling a version of his trademark ‘hi-de-ho.’ Ames said, “I first learned about Cab Calloway from a Janet Jackson video in the 1990s. My mom was so excited. She told me, ‘Oh, he’s from Baltimore!’ Even though Cab technically wasn’t technically born here, we like to claim him.”

Two of the other themes shown were particularly interesting to me: local favorite Old Bay seasoning and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The seasoning is for the famed blue-claw crabs associated with Baltimore. Ames said, “That’s the only salt box where I painted the actual lid instead of decorating a yellow plywood panel that attaches to the front of the box. I was painting the lid bright red while people were passing by, and no one questioned what I was doing.”

But why is Minnesota native “F. Salt Fitzgerald” connected to Baltimore? Apparently, he wrote his 1934 novel Tender Is the Night while he was living there. “I decided to have him recline while drinking a martini,” Ames said.

I’ve lost count of the cities that claim Fitzgerald.

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Photo: Angelika Porst.
New examinations of John the Baptist wall paintings in Augsburg cathedral date them to more than 1,000 years ago
. Above, a decorative detail of the frescoes in the southern transept, which were only revealed in the 1930s.

A word to the wise for artists who hope their work will still be enjoyed in 1,000 years: try frescoes. The Oxford dictionary describes a fresco as “a painting done rapidly in watercolor on wet plaster on a wall or ceiling, so that the colors penetrate the plaster and become fixed as it dries.”

So even though watercolor is transient, plaster holds it.

Catherine Hickley reports at the Art Newspaper, “A series of frescoes showing the life and death of John the Baptist in the cathedral of the Bavarian city of Augsburg have been recently dated to the first decade of the 11th century, ranking them among the oldest wall paintings in a medieval church north of the Alps.

“The frescoes, located high in the southern transept of the church, were whitewashed over and forgotten until the 1930s, when they were uncovered. But it was not until conservation work began on the roof structure in 2009 that they could be proven to date back to the construction of the cathedral more than 1,000 years ago.

Dendrochronological tests revealed that wood in the masonry dated from AD1000, contradicting the previously held dating of the cathedral to around AD1065. The new dating ‘fits with what we know about a massive destruction in 994,’ says Birgit Neuhäuser, a spokeswoman for the Bavarian State Office for Heritage Protection.

“ ‘The oldest frescoes are the first layer above the masonry, and are therefore part of the original decor of the church,’ Neuhäuser says. ‘We can assume that in the case of an important Episcopal church, the frescoes would have been painted soon after the construction, so soon after AD1000.’

“In artistic style, the frescoes bear a strong resemblance to the tenth-century wall paintings at the Church of St George on the island of Reichenau on Lake Constance, near Germany’s border with Switzerland. The island owes its Unesco World Heritage status [read about a World Heritage site I visited, here] in part to the frescoes. Apart from the Reichenau church frescoes, the Augsburg paintings are the biggest preserved frescoes of their era in the German-speaking countries, says Mathias Pfeil, the head of the Bavarian State Office for Heritage Protection. …

“Given the height of the frescoes in the church, there is no need for special conservation measures in the long term, according to Neuhäuser. ‘They are not under any particular stress’ from the humidity or heat generated by visitors’ traffic, she says. ‘After cleaning and conservation, they are in a stable and sustainable condition.’

“The team plans to examine the roof area and the northern transept of the church for further fresco remnants. The research and conservation work is financed by the Beate and Hans Peter Autenrieth Foundation, the Siegfried and Elfriede Denzel Foundation and the Augsburg diocese.” More at the Art Newspaper, here.

Have you ever seen any frescoes? I saw Leonardo da Vinci’s frequently restored Last Supper in Milan when I was a teen. I really liked doing a research project about the frescoes of Giotto in high school although I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen any Giottos except in pictures. Below, I’ve added a nice dragon fresco from the Cloisters. (I wrote about my 2019 visit there in this post.)

Twelfth Century Spanish fresco at the Met Cloisters in New York City.

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Photo: @JasonThorne_RPP on Twitter
Seattle artist Stacy Milrany has come up with a new twist on the Little Free Library concept: Take some art, leave some art.

You know about the Little Free Library movement (e.g., here and at Fake Flamenco, here). And you know about the miniature art gallery that blossomed in Boston at the start of the pandemic (here). But did you know about the Little Free Art Library in Seattle? You may be interested to see how the idea evolved from something the artist had done for her mother. Cathy Free at the Washington Post has the story.

“Stacy Milrany probably runs the only art gallery in the country where visitors are encouraged to walk away with the art. And as far as she knows, her Little Free Art Gallery in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood is likely the only museum where all of the works will fit neatly in a pocket.

“Milrany’s miniature gallery, which opened for public view on Dec. 13, sits five feet off the ground inside a white wooden box in front of her house. The head curator and painter said she based her idea on the popular Little Free Libraries in neighborhoods coast to coast.

‘The idea is pretty simple — anyone is welcome to leave a piece, take a piece or just have a look around and enjoy what’s inside,’ said Milrany, a painter who runs a small, appointment-only gallery featuring her works. …

“Milrany gave her wee museum a contemporary design [and] installed a tiny bench and small plastic people who, she said, appear to be reflecting on the art. The bench and people are part of the permanent collection and not for the taking. …

“Said Milrany, ‘Just the surprise of seeing what people put in there has made this super fun for me.’ So far, she has seen works featuring bulldogs, masked heroes and a chicken farmer, as well as intricate collages and painted seashells.

“It was March 2019 when she first started creating miniature art pieces. … Milrany’s mother had just been diagnosed with cancer and was about to begin chemotherapy treatment in Portland, Ore., about 2½ hours away from her home.

“ ‘I decided if I couldn’t be with her every day she was going through treatment, I could offer a little piece of something via UPS every single day — something made by a human hand to add some brightness to those dark days,’ she said.

“Friends and gallery visitors offered to help when they learned what Milrany was doing for her mother, and together they created 140 pieces of mixed-media pieces of art measuring 4-by-6 inches each. Her mother, who is now healthy, said the daily deliveries helped her to get through the most difficult time of her life, Milrany said.

“When the pandemic took hold in Seattle last year, she decided to expand her idea and paint 500 more small artworks and send them to people who were isolated because of the virus. She called her project ‘Dose of Art.’

“ ‘I put a notice on Instagram and people started asking me to mail them to people who were in nursing homes or their moms or dads who were home alone,’ Milrany said. …

“Then last month, Milrany came up with the idea for her Little Free Art Gallery.

“A carpenter friend helped her build an 18-by-15-inch cedar display case, paint it white and install it on a post out front, along with a sign:

“ ‘Welcome to the smallest free-est art gallery in the world. Have a look around! If you’d like to take a piece, please leave another piece in its place for the next art-lover who comes around.’ …

“ ‘In three days, 10 pieces had come and gone,’ Milrany said. She was a bit saddened, however, to discover that one of her plastic miniature gallery figures — a character she named Chef — had gone missing.

“Milrany posted a sign asking for the return of her ‘4.7 inch chef and arts patron’ — and a week later, an anonymous donor mailed her an entire new set of whimsical plastic people to place inside the museum. …

“Many of the people who tuck artwork inside her gallery are Seattle-area artists, delighted to find a new venue for their work.

“Artist A. McLean Emenegger created a piece that features her grandfather as a young man, enjoying some time with a friend. ‘It’s a nod to joyful abandon,’ said Emenegger, 53, who added beeswax, sewing thread and bits of turquoise and coral to an old family photo for her contribution. … She said, ‘There’s something charming and reassuring about the Little Free Library concept. And translating that into an art exchange is genius.’

“Burton Holt, an artist who primarily creates works with found objects, donated a piece he’d made from colorful rubber bands. ‘The gallery is a real shot in the arm for the neighborhood in these difficult times,’ said Holt, 80, a retired ship captain.”

More at the Washington Post, here. Follow Milrany on Instagram @stacy_milrany_art.

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Photo: Nobu Koch/ Sealaska Heritage
Haida artist Sgwaayaans TJ Young paints the cedar house post he created called “Waasguu (Seawolf) hunting two killerwhales.”

It makes me happy when people are proud of their culture, especially people who have long felt marginalized. Today in Alaska, increasing numbers of indigenous residents are embracing their history and art.

Jennifer Nalewicki writes at the Smithsonian, “A community-wide effort began in Juneau in late 2017, when Sealaska Heritage Institute, a private nonprofit that promotes cultural diversity through the arts and public services, announced its plans to make ‘Juneau the Northwest Coast arts capital of the world.’ They’d meet this goal through the promotion and support of several Indigenous cultures that are strongly interwoven into the fabric of the region, and whose works exemplify this artistic style.

“By definition, Northwest Coast art is recognizable by its usage of ‘formline designs,’ according to The Canadian Encyclopedia, or ‘the continuous, flowing, curvilinear lines that turn, swell and diminish in a prescribed manner.’ The term was coined by art historian and author Bill Holm in his 1965 book Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. Indigenous artists, particularly the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples, … apply this style of art in everything from drawings and paintings to sculptures and weavings. …

“A closer look at Juneau reveals a city populated by art museums, galleries, murals and statues promoting the artistic endeavors of local artists. Public art can be seen all over the city, from the Old Witch totem pole created by Haida carver Dwight Wallace in 1880 that creeps up the side of the State Office Building to the ‘Raven Discovering Mankind in a Clam Shell’ mural by painter Bill Ray, Jr. located on the side of the City Municipal Building. …

“One of the first steps Sealaska Heritage took to reach its goal occurred in 2015, when it opened phase one of its Sealaska Heritage Arts Campus. … Once complete, the 6,000-square-foot campus will [comprise] both indoor and outdoor spaces that are designed for artists to create different mediums of Northwest Coast art, both on a small and ‘monumental scale,’ the latter of which will include totem poles and canoes. …

Photo: Nobu Koch/ Sealaska Heritage
Ravenstail and Chilkat weaver Lily Hope works on a Chilkat robe.

“Lily Hope, a Juneau native known for her colorful and intricate weavings that have been on display at the Alaska State Museum, Portland Art Museum and the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, is hopeful that Juneau’s Indigenous art scene will get the recognition that it deserves. As a member of the Tlingit people, she has been weaving since she was 14 years old, when her late mother taught her the craft.

“Now 40, Hope continues their legacy by weaving arm bands, face masks and jewelry using techniques she mastered while working alongside her mother for many years. Hope also serves as the president and co-founder of Spirit Uprising, a nonprofit ‘dedicated to preserving the integrity of Ravenstail and Chilkat weaving.’ …

“ ‘Our focus is on art forms that were starting to become extinct,’ [Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage,] says. ‘We want Northwest Coast art to be recognizable and to be everywhere. We’re working with our local congressional district to try to get it to become a designated national treasure. … We want art everywhere in our community, from street signs around Juneau to pieces on street corners. When people visit Juneau, we want them to be excited about our art.’ “

More at the Smithsonian, here.

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Photo: Hog Island Audubon
Rosalie Haizlett at work during her artist residency at an Audubon camp in Maine.

January is a time of year that gardeners turn to seed catalogs and travelers start to make plans. This year many travelers are remaking plans for adventures they had to cancel last year. Maybe it will be safer now. Who knows?

There’s a kind of vacation I particularly like reading about — artists’ retreats — and this one in Maine is intriguing because it combines a love of birds with an artistic pursuit. The three 2020 artists, whose residencies were canceled, have been invited back for 2021, and I desperately hope for all of us — especially those of us who haven’t felt able to take risks this year — that the world will be safe enough for a bit more fun and satisfaction by then.

Hog Island Audubon alumna Lindsay McNamara writes, “Nestled along the Gulf of Maine and Muscongus Bay, lies a forested island in a small Maine fishing town. Hog Island is rich in history and has also been instrumental in the environmental education movement in the US. Since 1936, residential sessions at Hog Island Audubon Camp have been led by some of the most respected naturalists and environmental educators in the nation, inspiring scores of scientists, school and university educators, and conservation leaders.

“In 2014, Audubon added artists to that list. The Artist-in-Residence (AiR) program brings artists across disciplines and subject matter from all over the world to enjoy hands-on nature discovery in a creative, rustic retreat setting.

“Over the last six years, nearly 20 artists have joined the Hog Island family. I had the honor of asking these talented folks about their experiences on the Island.

“As bird nerds, it is no surprise that our conversations began with talks of favorite birds on and off the Island. Tom Schaefer, author of Nature’s People: The Hog Island Story from Mabel Loomis Todd to Audubon and 2014 AiR, … explained, ‘As far as birds are concerned, it’s hard not to be impressed with the Atlantic Puffins, but I’d have to say the Osprey I scared up while hiking the perimeter of the Island was my favorite. In 1981, Osprey were still making their comeback. Pretty exciting bird for my life list.’

“Other favorite Hog Island birds included … Roseate and Arctic Terns, Winter Wren, Bald Eagle, Hermit Thrush, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Common Loon. 2019 AiR and watercolor painter Rosalie Haizlett explained, ‘My favorite bird on the island was the Common Loon, because I could hear its wails so clearly from my little cabin in the evenings. The sound was simultaneously melancholy and calming and while at first it gave me an eerie feeling, I soon grew accustomed to it and enjoyed it.’

“Chats quickly shifted to favorite birds in general. … 2017 AiR and painter Michael Boardman joked, “As an artist I should say ‘the bird that sits still long enough to sketch,’ but it’s really a Snowy Owl.’

“2015 AiR, program coordinator, and printmaker, Sherrie York said … ‘As an artist, I am particularly drawn to birds with a strong graphic character. I often joke that Harlequin Ducks, with their bold and bright plumage, must have evolved just to inspire printmakers. …

“ ‘As a group, the birds that inspire me most are those that have some sort of direct relationship with water: seabirds, shorebirds, and waterfowl. I grew up and lived most of my life in Colorado, in the arid interior of the United States. A couple of years ago I moved to Maine, and now live about 20 minutes from Hog Island. Both places are strongly tied to water but the relationships are very different. Whatever our human relationships to water might be, water birds can connect us and help us understand the challenges and needs of our particular region.’ …

“Many artists spoke of an elevated sense of place. Mr. Schaefer elaborated, ‘Hog Island is three-hundred-plus undeveloped acres in one of the most beautiful summer destinations on the planet. Mecca for hikers, climbers, birders, sailors, artists — vacationers of many different feathers.’ …

“ ‘That cabin, that island, and the world that envelops it gave me the room that I needed to think about some of the themes I’m obsessed with: birds, how we should think about them, what they mean in our lives, and what we mean in theirs,’ explained 2018 AiR and author Mark Hedden.

“2015 AiR and playwright Rebecca Gilman shared, ‘One night, I was startled awake by the weirdest, loudest sound. … It took me a while, but I eventually figured out there were seals out in the water, barking. I grew up in Alabama and I live in Wisconsin, so that was a first for me.’

“Ms. Haizlett explained … ‘I would often see students of all ages sketching in the woods or on the beach, and it made my heart happy to see people connecting with the natural world through the arts, which is how I also learn most effectively. I was invited to teach several nature illustration workshops while I was there, and those art and nature parties where some of my favorite experiences at Hog Island.’

“Oil painter and 2019 AiR Ralph Grady James shared his fondest memories: ‘First, I loved hearing the loons calling on the water while sitting on the cabin porch as the sun set. I also loved seeing the lobster boats tending their traps. It is not often in these days having that much peace and quiet away from others especially surrounded by the beauty in that place.’ …

“Paper artist and 2018 AiR Ingrid Erickson shared, ‘One of my fondest memories of Hog Island is of sitting on the porch in the evening, as the sky turned inky and filled with stars after my last solo walk on the beach. The night sky over Hog Island on a clear night is probably the least light polluted view of the night sky I’ve had in some time.’ …

” ‘My time on Hog Island,’ [Ms. Haizlett concluded], ‘was a beautiful confirmation to me that I’m on the right path.’ ”

More at Hog Island Audubon, here.

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Photo: Robert W. Hart / Dallas News contributor
Ron Olsen, who launched the rock art trail, holds one of the hundreds of painted rocks at Parr Park in Grapevine, Texas.

People like to paint rocks. It’s an art that’s simultaneously permanent and impermanent. In New Shoreham, for example, the beloved Painted Rock is like a mural or community bulletin board (there’s a real bulletin board, too, online). I’ve blogged about it often, including in 2015, here.

In the summer, you need to photograph your artwork quickly because the rock gets painted over faster than you can say Jack Robinson. But an archaeologist would find all the layers still underneath, and the rock itself has probably been there since the last Ice Age.

Similarly, there are small, smooth rocks people paint for sale, for charity, or for gifts. In a May post I wrote about local kids painting rocks during the pandemic and raising money for medical workers.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post has a story on another pandemic-inspired rock project, one featuring thousands of painted rocks from around the country.

Cathy Free reports, “Chris Penny figures that his mail carrier must have spectacular biceps by now.

“Most every day for the past seven months, when the carrier arrives at Penny’s home in Grapevine, Tex., he unloads a few heavy bins and hauls them one by one up the driveway to Penny’s front porch.

“The boxes are filled with packages containing painted rocks, most of them intricate works of art, handmade and mailed from people all over the country. Since the beginning of the pandemic, people have been sending them to Penny so that he and his family can place them along the Parr Park Rock Art Trail — a mile-long public walking path that has become a wonderland of more than 4,000 art rocks. …

‘These aren’t just any rocks — they’re works of art,’ said Penny, 44. …

“The rocks — painted to resemble everything from the Beatles to Mickey Mouse to a face mask — started arriving at Penny’s house ever since he bought a bunch on eBay after noticing a dozen painted rocks scattered along a nature trail in Parr Park. Penny said he knew right away that he wanted to flood the trail with them and make it a destination.

“Penny learned that the colorful rocks he’d stumbled upon were painted by [Grapevine photographer and RV dealer] Ron Olsen and his three grown children in March, after Olsen returned from a trip to Iceland and discovered that Grapevine, a city of around 46,000 people, had practically become a ghost town due to the nationwide coronavirus shutdown. …

“Soon, he and Penny decided to join forces to transform the trail into an artsy attraction for anyone in Grapevine and beyond who wanted to escape the stress of covid-19 for a while.

“ ‘We wanted to make it a getaway for people and give parents something safe to do outdoors with their children,’ said Olsen, 62. …

“Penny, who runs the nonprofit Broken Crayon, focused on helping women and children living in poverty in the United States and Ghana, said the project has provided his family with something fun and positive to do close to home during the pandemic.

“In the early days in March, after he’d painted several dozen rocks with his daughters and bought dozens more online, Penny posted on Facebook, asking anyone who would like to contribute to the project to mail him their rocks and he’d pay for the shipping. …

“Penny said he’s contributed almost $10,000 of his own money for shipping costs (rocks are heavy), although many people now pay to ship their rock masterpieces on their own. …

“All along the nature trail, visitors will now find painted owls, unicorns, tigers and humpback whales, along with the emblems of favorite sports teams, salutes to fallen soldiers and paintings of beloved cartoon characters and classic cars. Somebody even mailed Penny a giant tic-tac-toe board. …

“Penny’s favorite part of the project is that every rock tells a story. ‘Some people have painted rocks in memory of family members who have died, and others have painted memories of high school, like a favorite teacher or a favorite song,’ he said. ‘One woman painted a rock to honor her daughter because she’s serving with the military in Afghanistan and she misses her.’ …

“Whether a rock is painted by a professional artist or a 2-year-old doesn’t matter, Penny said. ‘When it comes down to it, there’s really no such thing as a bad rock,’ he said.”

Check out photos of some beautiful rocks at the Washington Post, here.

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Along the Minuteman Bikeway, one finds a variety of art exhibits that stay up about a year.

There are some really good bike paths in my neck of the woods, although they don’t all connect yet because some property owners fear them. But where they do exist, they give delight to all kinds of people, not just bikers. In many sections, artists have put up temporary displays, which add to the delight.

As I showed, here, the Bruce Freeman Trail currently has imaginatively painted doors by Umbrella Arts Center artists.

And when Cate McQuaid reported in the Boston Globe about crocheted plastic-bag art in the Arlington section of the Minuteman Trail, I knew I had to check it out. Three good things at once: a pretty walk, art, and volunteers fighting to end plastic litter!

While hunting the location of “Persistence: A Community Response to Pervasive Plastic,” I also got to see the Colony installation, which was scheduled to come down. It consisted of castle-like architecture that invited visitors to add their own little elements — for example, Fisher-Price “Sesame Street” figures.

About the crocheted creations, McQuaid wrote, “Plastic persists, breaking down into microplastics, which fish eat — and if we eat fish, we also eat plastic. But there’s another reason ‘Persistence: A Community Response to Pervasive Plastic,’ an installation by Michelle Lougee along the Minuteman Bikeway, got its title.

“ ‘It’s also the persistence it took everyone to get through this time, and who helped our project persist,’ said organizer Cecily Miller, public art curator for the Arlington Commission of Arts & Culture.

“The project kicked off late last year, with rosy hopes of community crafters coming together to crochet plastic bags. Lougee would turn the components they made into sculptures of aquatic microorganisms and suspend them from trees along the Bikeway overlooking Spy Pond. Workshops and meetups kept the momentum going. Miller says more than 100 people were collecting plastic, flattening, and folding it into plastic yarn, and doing the needlework. Then came the fog of COVID-19.

“ ‘Do the plastic bags hold the virus? Can we quarantine them? Nobody really knew the answers,’ Miller said.

“Miller and Lougee forged ahead with plastic the sculptor had in storage. The social element of the project came to a halt. They posted online resources for volunteers at home. …

“ ‘We had people who did more than they would have done without the pandemic,’ Lougee said. ‘Some people were happy to have this to focus on.’ “

They persisted. The display will be up through Halloween of next year. See www.artsarlington.org/artist-in-residence. And read more from Cate McQuaid at the Globe, here.

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Photo: Damien Finch et al
Mud-wasp “nests go hard and mineralise over time,” reports the BBC. “(1) Dating nest material on top of the paintings gives a minimum age only.” (2) Removing the nest allows researchers to ascertain the maximum age.

Prehistoric cave paintings, it seems, still have secrets for the enterprising to unravel. Researchers, with the active support of the local Aboriginal community, recently learned that calcified wasp nests could help determine when some of those paintings were created.

Jonathan Amos reported at the BBC, “When the veteran telecoms engineer Damien Finch went on a three-week bush walk in Australia’s Kimberley region, he became enthralled with its rock art. On his return home, he tried to find out more about these enigmatic aboriginal paintings and engravings.

” ‘I couldn’t believe how little was known about them; we didn’t even know how old they were,’ Damien said. ‘It seemed disrespectful that scientists hadn’t studied this stuff more; it was downplaying the importance of the culture,’ he told BBC News.

“Now, 10 years on and in his 60s, Damien is putting that right. He’s approaching the end of his doctoral research on the topic, and in [a February issue of] Science Advances journal, has published his own efforts to age the Kimberley’s so-called Gwion figures.

“These feature finely painted human forms, often in elaborate ceremonial dress and carrying spears and boomerangs. It was thought they were painted some 16,000 years ago, but the University of Melbourne investigator has been able to show the likely age is [about] 12,000 years ago.

“Dating rock art is really hard. Aboriginal artists use iron oxide pigments (ochre) which contain no organic material and are therefore resistant to any radiocarbon analysis.

“Damien has got around this by studying instead the scraps of organic matter stuck on top of and underneath the paintings. And for this, he’s working with wasps. In particular, the ones that build nests out of mud. …

“When the female wasp gathers her mud supplies she inevitably picks up fragments of charcoal from the Kimberley’s fire-prone landscape. And this charcoal can be radiocarbon dated. … Material that smothers pigment gives a minimum age; underlying material provides a maximum age.

“A distribution of dates from many locations enables an estimate to be made for when the Gwion style was in vogue. …

“The paintings [Damien] and his team have been working on are, of course, sites of immense cultural significance. All the sampling was guided and approved by representatives from the traditional owners of the artwork.

‘We couldn’t have done what we did without their active support and encouragement,’ ‘Damien told BBC News.

“He’s hopeful the mud-wasp dating technique can now be used at more locations right across the north of Australia, and perhaps at other rock art locations in the Americas and Europe.”

More at the BBC, here.

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Photo: Purple
Jean-Philippe Delhomme, an artist, was hired by the Musée d’Orsay to bring humor to promotion on the museum’s Instagram account.

Back in January, Lanre Bakare wrote at the Guardian about an artist that the Musée d’Orsay in Paris hired to make weekly contributions to its Instagram account. Naturally I wondered how Covid-19 had affected this effort. Answer: Not at all.

Bakare wrote, “One of France’s most celebrated and august art institutions has taken a novel approach to embracing technology while breathing new life into its collection – by installing an Instagram artist-in-residence who imagines the social media accounts of famous artists from history.

“The Paris museum Musée d’Orsay has invited the illustrator Jean-Philippe Delhomme to take over its Instagram account every Monday during 2020. On the account he will post a different drawing each week, depicting an artist as a contemporary social media user. …

“The Orsay president, Laurence des Cars, told Le Figaro that the purpose of the project was to bring more visibility to its artists from centuries ago. ‘The aim [of the residency] is to bring these artists of the second half of the 19th century closer by enrolling them in today’s interactions.’ …

“The idea was not to ‘desecrate works’ but to draw attention to a particular moment in an artist’s biography, and through ‘contemporary commentaries, fictitious or not, to evoke the adhesions or antagonisms aroused.’

“Delhomme released a book last year called Artists’ Instagrams: The Never Seen Instagrams of the Greatest Artists, in which he depicted the social media accounts of Jackson Pollock, Frida Kahlo and Paul Gauguin. ‘If Instagram had existed a century ago, there would be no art criticism today,’ he told the Guardian at the time. ‘Only thumbs-ups and emojis.’ …

“He wanted to focus on artists who were famous to the ‘point of creating mythologies around themselves. … That’s what was fun about it. They’re the gods of art. It’s like doing the Instagram of Mount Olympus. Artists want to be seen – even the most serious ones. Why wouldn’t they show off like everyone else?’ …

“Orsay was widely praised last year for its ground-breaking exhibition Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse, which displayed French masterpieces but renamed them in honour of the black subjects in the pictures but absent from the narratives.”

More at the Guardian.

There’s also a nice interview with Delhomme at ArtNews.

ARTNEWS: “Since you do a weekly post, do you plan out in advance which works to tackle?

DELHOMME: “No, no, no — I don’t plan ahead of time. At the beginning of this collaboration, I took walks in the museum with Sylvie Patry, the museum’s head of collections and conservation. It was wonderful.

“I started looking at the paintings in a much more intimate way. Obviously I can’t go back there for a while, but I have my own memories and I’m reading biographies of artists, trying to deepen my knowledge of nineteenth–century art history.

“I’m reading Michael Fried on Manet. Thinking of the current lockdown situation, one of the posts I did was on Henri Fantin-Latour’s ‘La Liseuse’ [‘The Reader,’ 1861] — and of course it speaks to us today: we’re in our rooms, we can’t go out. It’s a challenge to be absorbed by at-home activities.”

If you’re on Instagram, check out @Jean-Philippe Delhomme and @museeorsay.

Art: Jean-Philippe Delhomme
Delhomme knows that artists must adapt to changing media tastes, like using Instagram to promote their work. What if the Greats had to do that? he asks.

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Image: Teachers Pay Teachers.
Why we doodle.

I keep a list of potential posts, but since the pandemic, many of them feel out of date. There’s one, for example, that I’ll put up when things return to normal, but if I tell you now about a rug market in Morocco run by women, how do I know that it’s currently operating?

Fortunately, there are some topics that work for both normal times and times of isolation. Today we consider what the act of making art can do for the brain.

“A lot of my free time is spent doodling,” writes Malaka Gharib. “I’m a journalist on NPR’s science desk by day. But all the time in between, I am an artist — specifically, a cartoonist. I draw in between tasks. I sketch at the coffee shop before work. And I like challenging myself to complete a zine — a little magazine — on my 20-minute bus commute.

“I do these things partly because it’s fun and entertaining. But I suspect there’s something deeper going on. Because when I create, I feel like it clears my head. It helps me make sense of my emotions. And somehow it makes me feel calmer and more relaxed.

“That made me wonder: What is going on in my brain when I draw? Why does it feel so nice? … It turns out there’s a lot happening in our minds and bodies when we make art.

” ‘Creativity in and of itself is important for remaining healthy, remaining connected to yourself and connected to the world,’ says Christianne Strang, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Alabama Birmingham and the former president of the American Art Therapy Association. …

” ‘Anything that engages your creative mind — the ability to make connections between unrelated things and imagine new ways to communicate — is good for you,’ says Girija Kaimal. She is a professor at Drexel University and a researcher in art therapy, leading art sessions with members of the military suffering from traumatic brain injury and caregivers of cancer patients. But she’s a big believer that art is for everybody — and no matter what your skill level, it’s something you should try to do on a regular basis. Here’s why. …

“Art’s ability to flex our imaginations may be one of the reasons why we’ve been making art since we were cave-dwellers, says Kaimal. It might serve an evolutionary purpose. She has a theory that art-making helps us navigate problems that might arise in the future. …

Her theory builds off of an idea developed in the last few years — that our brain is a predictive machine. The brain uses ‘information to make predictions about we might do next — and more importantly what we need to do next to survive and thrive. …

” ‘So what our brain is doing every day, every moment, consciously and unconsciously, is trying to imagine what is going to come and preparing yourself to face that. … This act of imagination is actually an act of survival,’ she says. ‘It is preparing us to imagine possibilities and hopefully survive those possibilities.’ …

“For a lot of people, making art can be nerve-wracking. What are you going to make? What kind of materials should you use? What if you can’t execute it? What if it … sucks?

“Studies show that despite those fears, ‘engaging in any sort of visual expression results in the reward pathway in the brain being activated,’ says Kaimal. ‘Which means that you feel good and it’s perceived as a pleasurable experience.’

“She and a team of researchers discovered this in a 2017 paper published in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy. They measured blood flow to the brain’s reward center, the medial prefrontal cortex, in 26 participants as they completed three art activities: coloring in a mandala, doodling and drawing freely on a blank sheet of paper. …

“Although the research in the field of art therapy is emerging, there’s evidence that making art can lower stress and anxiety. In a 2016 paper in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, Kaimal and a group of researchers measured cortisol levels of 39 healthy adults. Cortisol is a hormone that helps the body respond to stress.

“They found that 45 minutes of creating art in a studio setting with an art therapist significantly lowered cortisol levels.

The paper also showed that there were no differences in health outcomes between people who identify as experienced artists and people who don’t. So that means that no matter your skill level, you’ll be able to feel all the good things that come with making art. …

“Ultimately, says Kaimal, making art should induce what the scientific community calls ‘flow’ — the wonderful thing that happens when you’re in the zone. ‘It’s that sense of losing yourself, losing all awareness. You’re so in the moment and fully present that you forget all sense of time and space,’ she says.

“And what’s happening in your brain when you’re in flow state? ‘It activates several networks including relaxed reflective state, focused attention to task and sense of pleasure,’ she says. …

“A number of studies have shown that coloring inside a shape — specifically a pre-drawn geometric mandala design — is more effective in boosting mood than coloring on a blank paper or even coloring inside a square shape. And one 2012 study published in Journal of the American Art Therapy Association showed that coloring inside a mandala reduces anxiety to a greater degree compared to coloring in a plaid design or a plain sheet of paper.

“Strang says there’s no one medium or art activity that’s ‘better’ than another. ‘Some days you want to may go home and paint. Other days you might want to sketch,’ she says.”

More at NPR, here.

The NPR reporter in today’s post wrote this book.

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Photo: Cité Internationale des Arts
Emmanuel Sogbadji is one of the African artists whose work is shown at the new Togo museum, Palais de Lomé.        

Sometimes when I’ve been volunteering in ESL classes, I’ve caught the echo of African colonialism from languages that students try out on me because I don’t understand their native tongue. Somali and Eritrean students may know a little Italian, countries like Uganda and Zimbabwe speak English, people from such countries as Mali, Togo, and Congo know French.

Although multilingualism can be helpful in refugee language classes, I can’t help thinking the students wouldn’t have had to be refugees in the first place if the colonial powers hadn’t plundered Africa. I suppose that down the road, when the US starts welcoming refugees again, we’ll be getting people from Burkina Faso who know a little Chinese.

Anyway, because I had an English student from Togo who spoke French, I was not surprised to learn from today’s feature that Togo’s new national museum has French connections and a French name, Palais de Lomé.

Rebecca Anne Proctor writes at Frieze, “Festive scenes unfolded in Lomé’s botanical park in late November [2019], as drummers and colourfully clad moko jumbies, or stilt walkers, entertained guests – including President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé and artist Kehinde Wiley – at the inauguration of the Palais de Lomé, Togo’s first major contemporary art museum and the only entirely state-funded arts institution in Africa.

“This is a remarkable achievement for one of the world’s poorest countries, where almost 70 percent of the rural population lives below the global poverty line, according to a 2015 World Bank report. The new museum is also an unexpected signal of cultural openness by the historically repressive Togolese government. …

“The museum is housed in the colonial Governor’s Palace, constructed in 1905, which served as a base for the Togolese state after the country gained its independence from France in 1960. For the past 20 years, however, it sat empty, until an extensive restoration project – costing [$3.6 million] – was completed in November 2019.

“Occupying the palace’s stately banquet halls and residential quarters, the new institution is large enough to accommodate five simultaneous exhibitions and abuts an 11-hectare garden, displaying works by Togolese sculptors such as Amouzou Amouzou-Glikpa and Sadikou Oukpedjo – another first in West Africa.

” ‘Three Borders’, the most contemporary of these shows, delves openly into the turbulent history of the region. In Togolese artist Emmanuel Sogbadji’s painting ‘The Intercessor’ (2006), a tall, semi-abstract figure holds a long knife. Flanked by two men, he appears defiant in the face of an interrogation. …

“As Claude Grunitzky, a New York-based Togolese editor, told me: ‘Many creatives and artists have begun to return to Togo as “repats”, […] leading interesting projects and ventures in the creative industries.’

” ‘The Palais de Lomé is a newborn child, one we have been awaiting in Togo for so long,’ added Clay Apenouvon, one of the country’s most prominent artists, who protested against the junta in his youth before relocating to Paris in 1992. Apenouvon is setting up a second studio in Lomé, where he now spends several months of the year. Not all are so optimistic, however: a Togolese artist, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear for his safety, told me that the Palais ‘will just be for the state. It won’t help the people.’ …

“The museum’s current comprehensive public funding model distinguishes it from comparable institutions on the continent. … Half of the Palais de Lomé’s government funding is set to expire at the end of its first year, however, so [Sonia Lawson, the Palais de Lomé’s inaugural director, a former luxury goods executive for L’Oréal and LVMH,] intends to form a board of donors of African descent, who she hopes will acquire new works from the continent and its diaspora for the museum’s collection.

“As a state-backed initiative, the Palais de Lomé resembles public arts institutions in the Gulf region – such as the National Museum of Qatar, opened in 2019, and the soon-to-be-completed Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi – which aim to boost cultural capital and foster local arts communities while improving the public image of governments viewed as repressive.

“It remains to be seen whether Lomé’s newest museum will spur substantive change or merely serve a propagandistic function, but the signs thus far seem promising. With ‘Three Borders’, Togo is not only looking outwards – to its neighbours and the international art world – but reflecting inwards on its own difficult history. ”

More here.

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Photo: Nelson Atkins Museum of Art
Staff wondered what kinds of art these Humboldt penguins from the Kansas City Zoo would gravitate toward when given leave to wander in a museum.  

You’ve probably seen as many invitations as I have to tour closed art museums online, and maybe you’ve already accepted an offer. I myself needed the extra nudge of touring a museum in the company of penguins.

Sarah Rose Sharp writes at Hyperallergic, “As reported by Time, three art-savvy Humboldt penguins from the Kansas City Zoo were given leave to wander a couple of the galleries at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art earlier in May.

“A video produced by the museum shows the little fellas wandering the marble floors and pausing to look at Impressionist and Baroque master paintings in galleries that were carefully checked to ensure the safety of both the works of art and their avian visitors.

“ ‘We’re so happy to welcome our colleagues from the zoo,’ said Nelson Atkins Executive Director Julián Zugazagoitia, in the video, ‘and they’ve brought special friends, and actually, we’re seeing how they’re reacting to art.’ ” More.

Back at Time, Tara Law wrote that Zugazagoitia thought the penguins “would be most interested in the works by Claude Monet, because they are ‘soothing’ and resemble water. However, the waddling visitors seemed to be most engaged with the Baroque works, including those by Caravaggio. …

“ ‘They stop, and look and wonder. … It really brought us joy, and I think it brings the community together when the love of animals and the empathy we feel for them is also reinforced by the love that we feel for art.’ …

“Although the museum has not yet announced a reopening date, Zugazagoitia says it has been working to keep its community engaged, including by migrating its festival celebrations online.” More at Time.

I sure do like people who have ideas. Although the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland insisted, “‘Tis love, ’tis love that makes the world go ’round,” I can’t help thinking that inventiveness, playful and otherwise, is pretty important, too.

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Photo: Immersive van Gogh exhibit
The co-producer of the van Gogh drive-through exhibition in Toronto says, “It will be almost as if the car is floating through the paintings.”

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. This story reminds me of friends who refuse to take no for an answer. Somehow they figure out how to make a thing happen no matter the obstacles.

Zulekha Nathoo reports for CBC News, “An upcoming digital art exhibit featuring the work of Vincent van Gogh is planning to open next month in Toronto, but you’ll need a car to get in.

“The large-scale exhibition, which was initially supposed to begin May 1 but couldn’t open as a result of the pandemic, will temporarily operate as a drive-in starting June 18 to adhere to current COVID-19 physical distancing and health guidelines.

“The exhibit’s producers said after a year of working on the original plan and purchasing the rights to more than 400 pieces from different museums, they didn’t want to give up on the project. ….

“Said co-producer Svetlana Dvoretsky, ‘People have to see the light at the end of the tunnel and also the light during this situation.’

“Art lovers will drive into the 4,000 square foot downtown industrial space and will stay inside their vehicles. … The drive-in, the first of its kind in a post-pandemic era, will allow 14 vehicles per time slot. Visitors will park, turn off their engines and watch a 35-minute show while remaining inside their cars.

” ‘The lights go down and the projection begins,’ said co-producer Corey Ross. ‘It will be almost as if the car is floating through the paintings.’

“The exhibit includes some of the Dutch painter’s most well-known masterpieces, including ‘Starry Night,’ ‘Sunflowers’ and many self-portraits. It also attempts to chronicle the famed artist’s tragic demise through the works.

” ‘It’s not that you just walk in and see the display of his paintings. That, you can see in a museum,’ said Dvoretsky.

‘What our artists have done with this exhibit is they take you inside the painting … They’re trying to show us their version of how the story is born in the mind of the genius.’

“The Gogh by Car exhibit is an interim alternative to the walk-through van Gogh exhibit at the same location, which has been postponed until at least July due to COVID-19 restrictions. But the producers say the ‘test drive’ could continue beyond its currently scheduled 11-day preview if public gatherings are still limited over the summer. …

“The installation has been designed by the creators of the successful Paris-based digital art project Atelier des Lumières, which received more than two million visitors before the global shutdown.”

More at the CBC, here. The exhibit is not free, but the cost covers both the drive-through for two and a future walk-through.

To learn more about van Gogh, check out this wonderful, quasi-animated film called Loving Vincent. Here’s the trailer.

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Photo: Simone Saunders
Thanks to the pandemic and the Long Distance Art series, Canadian artist Simone Saunders is making connections with artists around the world.

The other day, I was talking to a friend about activities that were started only because of coronavirus self-distancing but were perhaps enough fun to keep doing in the future.

I like the FaceTime meetings that my husband and I have managed to do a couple times with our grown children when the grandchildren were otherwise occupied. The conversations were funny.

My friend mentioned an art lecture that would previously have had a dozen local students but is now online and attracting hundreds of international participants. She also spoke of a Zoom call with nieces and nephews around the country, marveling, “We’ve never all been together at the same time before!”

On the theme of helpful pandemic discoveries, here’s a report by Bianca Hillier at Public Radio International’s the World about an art collaboration that also might last beyond the pandemic.

“Speaking a dream or a goal into existence has little evidence proving its effectiveness. But for Nick Green, creator of the Social Distancing Festival, the practice has worked.

“ ‘My dream is to hear the story of two artists that have met through my site and collaborate on some really profound piece of art,’ Green told the World in March. His site aggregates content from artists whose performances have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. ‘And they live across the world and never would have met, otherwise.’

“Weeks later, Green’s dream came to fruition.

“ ‘It’s quite poetic that we’re speaking again, given the last words in our last interview of what my big dream was — to have this become more of a collaborative project,’ Green told the World more recently. ‘And now, there have been some new projects happening that are really, really exciting.’ …

Long Distance Art, which launched this week, is an international, multidisciplinary collaborative art series that emerged from the Social Distancing Festival. Artists can contact Green and inquire about collaborating with another artist they’ve seen on the site, or have Green pair them with another artist of his choosing. …

“ ‘For online art, I’ve become a matchmaker,’ he joked. … Green’s matchmaking magic has recently connected a team of Canadian musicians with a dancer in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Barbara Johnston, a member of the Toronto-based composing team alongside Anika Johnson and Suzy Wilde, was contacted by Green and immediately thought the idea was ‘the most exciting thing possible in the world.’ Once paired with Tanzanian dancer Tadhi Alawi, Johnston’s team got to work. …

“Johnston said. ‘We just wrote an email about what we felt the song was about, how we thought the themes could be expanded upon, how certain aspects of what’s going on in the world can relate to what this song is about. And he wrote us back this beautiful email the next day. And we just began sharing emails back and forth, talking about our process, talking about the song and the movement to the song.’

“The final product of the collaboration is a video showing Alawi dancing to ‘Wild Heart,’ a song composed by Johnston and her team. It’s a partnership unlike any Johnston’s been a part of, she said, but one she wants to explore more. …

“ ‘It’s just amazing how quickly we connected as collaborators without ever having met, and with being, you know, literally a world apart. … All I want to do now is try to find ways to connect with people. And I feel that this is an opportunity to see beyond the barriers that exist and have existed, because we’re in unknown land now. We’re just trusting in the process.’ …

“Other collaborations in the Long Distance Art series’ unveiling include work between Calgary, Canada-based visual artist Simone Elizabeth Saunders and Tekikki Walker, a Cleveland, Ohio based multimedia designer. Painter Liza Merkalova, based in Adelaide, Australia, also teamed up with New York musician Charlie Rauh. …

“As venue doors remain closed, laptop computers remain open. Green said his aspirations for the Social Distancing Festival and the Long Distance Art series aren’t canceled — but they need funds to sustain themselves.

“ ‘A dream of mine is that there might be someone or an organization out there who sees that this is the artistic embodiment of connecting people across the world and global conversations about humanity and lived experiences,’ Green said. ‘And they might say, “Hey, you know, that aligns really well with what we, as an organization, are doing. Why don’t we put some money into this?” …

” ‘Why stop now?’ ”

More at PRI, here.

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Photo: Vasnetsov Brothers Art Museum
In Soviet times, avant-garde art such as Ilya Mashkov‘s Landscape (1911) were hidden in the provinces for fear of censorship and persecution. Recently the authenticity of a cache uncovered in a small history museum was verified.

I can never resist a story about antiquities that have just been unearthed or long-lost art that has been found. Rediscoveries give me hope that other losses may be retrieved. Even intangibles such as, say, nationwide respect for science, concern for the marginalized, friendly collaboration, kindness.

Today I want to tell you about exceptional art once labeled “degenerate” that was recently authenticated. Surprisingly, in the first five years after the Bolshevik Revolution, the works were considered OK and were part of a traveling show. It was only later that they fell out of favor.

Sophia Kishkovsky reports at the Art Newspaper, “A leading Russian avant-garde expert says he has identified dozens of works by artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova languishing in an obscure history museum in the Kirov region, [500 miles] from Moscow.

“Andrey Sarabyanov says he was ‘astounded’ at what he found in the basement store of the Yaransk Museum of Local Lore, in a town of fewer than 16,000 people. Discoveries included three watercolours by Kandinsky, a gouache by Stepanova and a ‘completely unknown’ work by Rodchenko from 1915 — a painting on cardboard that is now being restored.

“Sarabyanov, the editor of a Russian avant-garde encyclopaedia that will be published in English in 2022, believes the works were abruptly abandoned after featuring in an early Soviet travelling exhibition in 1921. …

“Sarabyanov learned of Yaransk’s hidden treasures from a local cultural official, Anna Shakina, during a 2017 visit to the regional capital, Kirov, where the Vasnetsov Brothers Art Museum holds a rich avant-garde collection. Shakina’s 2008 dissertation research had unearthed the catalogue of the 1921 exhibition, for which the early Bolshevik government transported more than 350 works by 20th-century artists around the region by horse-drawn cart.

“According to records, 85 of the works remained in Yaransk. Around half were transferred to Kirov in the 1960s for restoration and hidden in storage due to censorship from the Soviet authorities, which had long since banned avant-garde art. They are now openly displayed as part of the Vasnetsov Brothers Art Museum’s collection. Sarabyanov knew those pieces from visits in the late Soviet era and in 2015, when he was preparing a Moscow exhibition of forgotten avant-garde art from provincial museums.

“Together with Shakina — now the Kirov museum’s director — and Natalia Murray, a lecturer at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, Sarabyanov plans to reconstruct the 1921 exhibition at the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg, reuniting the works divided between Kirov and Yaransk. The show is currently scheduled to open in September. The whereabouts of the 250-plus other works are still unknown but alternative pieces will be lent by the Slobodskoy Museum and Exhibition Center.” More here.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Married Soviet avant-garde artists Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova are pictured here in the 1920s.

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