The Warmth of Other Suns: Ellis Island

It is estimated that more than 100 million Americans—or roughly 40 percent of the US population—are descended from the 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island during the years of its operation, from 1892 to 1954. Through photographs by Lewis Hine and Augustus Sherman, as well as archival photos, the exhibition The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement shares images from this important period in American history.

Lewis Hine, Photographic documents of social conditions, Photography Collection, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Lewis Hine, Slavic Mother and Child at Ellis Island (from Photographic documents of social conditions), 1905, Photography Collection, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Lewis Hine, Italian Mother and Child, Ellis Island, 1905

Lewis Hine, Italian Mother and Child, Ellis Island (from Photographic documents of social conditions), 1905, Photography Collection, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Lewis Hine (b. 1874, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, USA; d.1940, Dobbs Ferry, New York, USA) was a science teacher at New York’s Ethical Culture School in the early 1900s when he was given a camera and assigned the role of school photographer. Hine first visited Ellis Island on a commission from the school, and he returned regularly between 1904 and 1909, amassing over 200 photographs of families arriving and awaiting processing. Recognizing the power of such images to generate social change, Hine eventually pursued a career as a social photographer, capturing the conditions of Lower East Side tenements and urban factories. Hine’s works on view, as well as the other archival photographs, depict mainly European immigrants, who made up a large part of the mass movement of people entering through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. Hine thought of himself foremost as a documentarian, and he carefully captioned each photograph with where it was shot and the subject’s country of origin. Hine died in poverty with little recognition, but many of his photographs were instrumental in reforming labor laws and many others survive as lasting documents of the early-20th century immigrant experience in the United States.

Augustus Sherman, Italian Woman (from Ellis Island Series), n.d. Modern prints, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Augustus Sherman, Guadeloupean woman (from Ellis Island Series), 1911, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Augustus Sherman, Guadeloupean woman (from Ellis Island Series), 1911, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Augustus Sherman, Russian Cossacks (from Ellis Island Series), 1906, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Augustus Sherman, Russian Cossacks (from Ellis Island Series), 1906, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Augustus Sherman (b. 1865, Lynn Township, Pennsylvania, USA; d. 1925, New York City, USA) worked as a clerk at Ellis Island from 1892 to 1925, witnessing generations of immigrants arriving from Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, and in 1905, he began photographing individuals and families, encouraging his subjects to wear their traditional folk dress. While Sherman’s aim in making his portraits was to generate sympathy for the US government’s immigration agencies, his photos were sometimes used, unattributed, in anti-immigration publications rallying against so-called “aliens.” Sherman, however, distinguished his sitters as individuals, and his photographs are captioned with details, often including names, origins, and occupations. In the photographs exhibited, he captures two Italian women whose traditional dress is remarkable, in part because veils—which today might be associated with Islam—were a common feature among Italian peasants, and even today maintain an iconographic status among Christians. With their distinctive attire, these women serve as reminders of how cultural or religious otherness is perceived in different places and in various historical moments.

Ellis Island photos, Archival images, Private collection

Ellis Island photos, Archival images, Private collection

Ellis Island photos, Archival images, Private collection

Ellis Island photos, Archival images, Private collection

Ellis Island photos, Archival images, Private collection

Come see these images and many more by Hine and Sherman in The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement, on view through September 22, 2019.

The Phillips Collects: Gee’s Bend Quilts

The Phillips Collection has recently acquired five Gee’s Bend Quilts from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, created by African American female quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Dedicated to promoting African American artists and traditions from the southern United States, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation has a large collection of works by the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, a remote, historically black community in Alabama. Dating back to the early 20th century, the women of Gee’s Bend have created hundreds of quilts; their uniqueness resulting from geographical isolation and cultural continuity as generations of women developed visual conversations through this artistic process. The quilts, created from recycled clothing and fabrics, feature varying patterns including abstraction, concentric squares, and geometric shapes, and include several levels of symbolism—a visual language that complements the Phillips’s collection of American modernism and broadens our understanding of modern art. The works represented by Souls Grown Deep Foundation reveal the complex history and culture of the African American South, and we are honored to have these stories be part of our growing permanent collection.

The five quilts acquired by the museum were created by Mary Lee Bendolph (b. 1935), Aolar Mosley (1912-1999) , Arlonzia Pettway (1923-2008), Malissia Pettway (1914-1997), and Lucy T. Pettway (1921-2004). Three other institutions have also recently acquired pieces from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation: the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.

Souls Grown Deep explains some of the significance of the materials and patterns of the quilts:

Arlonzia Pettway, Lazy Gals, c. 1975, Corduroy, 89 x 81 in., The Phillips Collection, Museum purchase, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2019, Photo credit Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

In 1972, the Freedom Quilting Bee, a sewing cooperative based in Alberta, Alabama, near Gee’s Bend, secured a contract with Sears, Roebuck to produce corduroy pillow covers. Made of a wide‐wale cotton corduroy, the covers came in a variety of colors including “gold,” “avocado leaf,” “tangerine,” and “cherry red.” Production of the Sears pillow covers left little room for personal creativity, as labor at the Freedom Quilting Bee was divided to maximize daily output. Yet despite the standardized and repetitive process involved in producing the pillow covers, the availability of corduroy, a fabric seldom used before by the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers, stimulated a profound creative response. Leftover lengths and scraps of corduroy were taken home by workers at the Bee. Given to friends and family or bundled for sale within the community, the scraps were then transformed from standardized remnants into vibrant and individualized works of art.

Aolar Mosely, Blocks, c. 1955, Cotton, 75 x 83 in., The Phillips Collection, Museum purchase, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2019, Photo credit Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

Aolar Mosely lost most of her own quilts in a fire in 1984. One of the few to survive is of the most basic and poignant sort, composed of random but more or less rectangular blocks.

Malissia Pettway, Housetop, c. 1960, Cotton, synthetics, corduroy, 81 x 81 in., The Phillips Collection, Museum purchase, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2019. Photo credit Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

Along County Road 29, many women refer to any quilt dominated by concentric squares as a “Housetop,” which reigns as the area’s most favored “pattern.” Its all‐around simplicity hosts many experiments in formal reduction and, at the same time, offers a compositional flexibility unchallenged by other multipiece patterns. The “Housetop,” from the composite block down to its constituent pieces, echoes the right angles of the quilt’s borders, initiating visual exchanges between the work’s edges and what is inside. Traditional African American “call and response,” a ritual technique of music and religious worship, is intrinsic to the target‐like push and pull among elements. The feedback effects have mesmerized and inspired generations of Gee’s Bend quiltmakers. Conceived broadly, the “Housetop” is an attitude, an approach toward form and construction. It begins with a medallion of solid cloth, or one of an endless number of pieced motifs, to anchor the quilt. After that, “Housetops” share the technique of joining rectangular strips of cloth so that the end of a strip’s long side connects to one short side of a neighboring strip, eventually forming a kind of frame surrounding the central patch; increasingly larger frames or borders are added until a block is declared complete.

All the World Is in Our United States

As the Phillips honors World Refugee Day and celebrates the opening of The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement, we reflect on founder Duncan Phillips’s vision for his museum and his belief in the ability of art to demonstrate our shared humanity. In his essay for the exhibition The American Paintings of The Phillips Collection (April 9–May 30, 1944) at the Phillips Memorial Gallery (as the museum was called then), he wrote about the global language of art and specifically the unique history of American art—we hope that our visitors this summer experience this global connection in our galleries. 

Here is an excerpt from his 1944 essay:

“I believe fervently that art is international, a universal means of expression extending across boundaries and overcoming the barriers of trade, race, and language. There has never seemed to be a time when our Gallery was willing to devote all of its unfortunately limited space to either American or European paintings. We have always had loan exhibitions and we have always had rooms in which the pictures have been grouped according to instructive contrasts or affinities without specific reference to national labels. We have felt that the distinctions in our painters both of the past and of the present, gain in significance by being mingled and compared with what is best in the painters of other lands.”

The Phillips Collection Main Gallery, 1940s

The Phillips Collection Main Gallery, 1940s

“It is a fact too little known that the bulk of our Collection consists of American paintings. Now and again it may be wise to review what we are assembling. But it is a special event, this exhibition. Our American paintings will hang on the walls of all our galleries and give some idea of the scope of our interests and the character of our choices….”

“American art is only attaining to its maturity in being as free and hospitable as America itself. This has become increasingly true since the start of the second world war in Europe. Celebrities of our Collection (Eugene Berman for instance) who had entered it a few years ago as Europeans have since become American citizens. Recently naturalized Americans from Russia, Hungary, Roumania, and Spain are included in the present exhibition. Now more than ever before American art means international art and the studios of our Cosmopolis can help us in the necessary task of growing world-minds for our manifest destiny. In our country there is bound to be a fusion of various sensitivities, a unification of differences. We can afford to blur the clean cut edge of our creative colloquialisms for the compensating benefit of shedding some of our provincial self satisfactions. Our art, like our national aim, can point the way to a new world of neighborly citizen states in which unity in variety and interdependence are taken for granted.”

In order to highlight the important role of immigrants in the US, the Phillips briefly removed artworks by immigrants from the galleries, including Willem de Kooning’s Asheville (1948), demonstrating the gaps that would exist in American art without them. De Kooning immigrated to the US from the Netherlands in 1926 and became a citizen in 1962. Photo: Miguel Perez

In May 2019, in order to highlight the important role of immigrants in the US, the Phillips briefly removed artworks by immigrants from the galleries, including Willem de Kooning’s Asheville (1948), demonstrating the gaps that would exist in American art without them. De Kooning immigrated to the US from the Netherlands in 1926 and became a citizen in 1962. Photo: Miguel Perez

“In this brief word of introduction there is no need to write even a condensed opinion on the state of American painting today. Nor is this the place for an outline history of the changes in our reactions to influences form older cultures. Suffice it to say that instead of the exaggerated humility as to our standing as artists which prevailed more or less from 1870 to 1930 (and especially perhaps in the Nineteen-twenties when we were discovering the distinction of our brilliant French contemporaries) and instead of the widespread reaction in the Thirties, which its aggressive chauvinism which propagated the “American Scene,” instead of these opposite extremes of adolescent nationalism in art we are now assimilating world wide aesthetic ideas regarding them as our heritage. All the world contributes to our spiritual and creative resources since all the world is contained in our United States. Realism, romanticism, classicism, impressionism, expressionism, and various phases of abstract constructivism, we have practitioners of all these points of departure and these ancient seeing habits.”

“In the Phillips Memorial Gallery we propose to continue selecting what we consider good examples of the recurring manifestations of art’s perennial many-mindedness….Art, in its most essential social function, would endure as the expression of The Individual and of his kindred spirits.”

The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement is on view through September 22.