Wellness Kit Activity: Celebrating Kin with Whitfield Lovell

Over the past year, The Phillips Collection has distributed over 2,000 Wellness Kits to families near our campus at THEARC (1801 Mississippi Ave SE). These kits contain masks, hand sanitizer, toys, and all the art supplies you need to complete an included activity. Now we want to do the same activities with you! You can assemble your own Wellness Kit activity by purchasing the supplies and following the instructions below.

For this project, you will need:

Whitfield Lovell, Kin XXXV (Glory in the Flower), 2011, Conté on paper, vintage clock radio, 30 x 22 3/4 x 5 3/4 in., The Phillips Collection, The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions, 2013

Look Closely:

The importance of home, family, ancestry feeds my work entirely. African Americans were generally not aware of who their ancestors were, since slaves were sold from plantation to plantation and families were split up. Any time I pick up one of these old vintage photographs, I have the feeling that this could be one of my ancestors.”—Whitfield Lovell

Look closely at the man in this work of art. Who do you think he is? What might he be thinking? How could he be feeling? Whitfield Lovell drew this face by hand. He studies old photographs and carefully draws every detail. Notice the clock radio below the drawing. How might the clock be connected to the portrait?

Inspired by old, anonymous photos, Whitfield Lovell created the Kin series. Kin means a family member or relative. Even though Lovell does not know the people he draws, he imagines a kinship with them. This kinship makes him want to spend time with them, creating detailed portraits. He envisions their full life, choosing objects that represent their complex identity. By celebrating these people in art, he makes them important and makes sure they will no longer be forgotten.

Celebrating Kin:

Inspired by Whitfield Lovell, we will create art that celebrates people who are important to us. Lovell uses three-dimensional frames, or “shadow boxes,” to display his drawings and found objects together as one work of art. In this activity, we will be creating a three-dimensional object and a house-like structure that will serve as a frame for our object. We can decorate our paper “frame” with drawings that celebrate our special person.

Sculpt Your Object:

  • Before you begin, decide who you will represent in your art. Why is this person important to you?
  • Next, think of an object that relates to this person. What does this object tell us about this person? Does the object connect to a memory you have of this person?
  • Sculpt your object using Model Magic.
  • You can add color to your sculpture using markers.
  • Model Magic hardens when you leave it out to dry. If you want to create your sculpture during the Sunday workshop, do not open your Model Magic ahead of time.

Fold Your Paper “Frame”:

  • Find your cardstock paper.
  • Follow the diagram from the National Museum of Women in the Arts to create the “frame” for your sculpture.
  • Stand your frame up so that it looks like a house.

Create Your Portrait:

  • Decide where to create your portrait on the frame. Think about how you will display the frame with the sculpture.
  • The portrait can be as realistic or abstract as you want. Whitfield Lovell’s portrait is realistic; it looks like a photograph. An abstract portrait uses symbols and colors to represent how a person makes you feel.
  • Use markers or any other art supplies you have.
  • Get creative! You can decorate any and all sides of the frame.
  • Display your frame and sculpture together.

Portrait of Frida Kahlo with birds and roses.

Portrait of artist’s mother with abstract sculpture inspired by nature walks.

Reflections on the Struggle: Rashad Robinson

Rashad Robinson (@rashadrobinson), President of Color of Change and spokesperson for Voting While Black, reflects on Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series. Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle is on view through September 19, 2021.

Jacob Lawrence, Panel 21, Listen, Father! The Americans have not yet defeated us by land; neither are we sure they have done so by water—we therefore wish to remain here and fight our enemy…—Tecumseh to the British, Tippecanoe, 1811, Egg tempera on hardboard, 16 x 12 in.; From Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56, Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Jacob Lawrence’s bold vision on display in The American Struggle is the kind of art we need for this time in our country’s history. As our movements are seeking to retell the story of America more honestly and through a broader diversity of perspectives, the narratives depicted in his works of art play a pivotal role in helping educate people from diverse demographic backgrounds. I’ve been an avid fan of Lawrence’s work for decades because of how he counters this past by painting an inclusive depiction of the collective “American Struggle.” Lawrence is able to convey the lives, stories, and experiences of America’s forgotten forefathers in addition to a variety of our nation’s underrepresented episodes. Given the current climate, it’s now more important than ever that The American Struggle is on display. The notions of slavery, exploited labor, racism, and white supremacy are often swept under the rug while we are continuously force-fed this hyper-unrealistic portrayal of our nation’s tumultuous and troubled past through paintings that ultimately amount to propaganda. Ultimately, Lawrence’s exhibit is a quintessential form of American art—one that actively seeks to shy away from the status quo in the pursuit of a more comprehensive, accurate, and human depiction of the ever-growing American ethos and journey today.

—Rashad Robinson, Executive Director, Color of Change

Exploring the Shape of Knowledge with Degas’s Dancers at the Barre

2020-21 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Chloe Eastwood on Edgar Degas’s Dancers at the Barre, and exploring the relative merit of specialist and non-specialist interpretation.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Dancers at the Barre, early 1880s-c. 1900, Oil on canvas, 51 ¼ x 38 ½ in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1944

I have appreciated this series of paintings by Edgar Degas since I was a very little girl who dreamed of a glamorous life on the stage. But when I first saw it, I didn’t recognize the figures as ballet dancers. It seemed to me that their costumes were too modest, their skirts too long, their petticoats too heavy. I couldn’t have put it so concisely, but the overall effect was that they didn’t seem to me to be like the dancers I admired on the stage. This classical dance has changed so much in 150 years that it is almost unrecognizable today. The dancers’ postures were much more relaxed: in some images, tummies protrude and the dancers’ arms aren’t held as high or as precisely as modern dancers’. It’s only by the title that I eventually put the pieces together that these dancers were the ancestors of contemporary ballet.

Another important distinction is that this is not a performance. Degas captures beauty in the fleeting practice that was never intended for display. Rather than performing well-practiced perfection, the dancers are seen resting, arriving at the studio, stretching, and rehearsing. This distinction between practice and performance is further emphasized by the perspective of the painting. In so many of these pictures, the viewer is placed at the side of the studio, looking on, as if they know not to get too close to the business side of the dance. What sort of person, then, is the viewer cast as? Perhaps they are the child who snuck in after their lessons to watch the professionals practice before their performance that night. Perhaps this is where they spend every afternoon after school, drawn to the grace and power of the dancers, but feeling that they must sneak to steal glimpses? Perhaps they linger there because their older sister or cousin is a performer, needing to stay close by but unable to go any closer. The choice to capture dancers’ practice, a show without the show, is mirrored in the choice to have the audience gaze upon a barrier of space and time and canvas which separates themselves from the performers.   


While working on this post on Dancers at the Barre, I mentioned the project to a colleague, whose made a displeased noise, prompting me to ask what was so distasteful about the art or the artist. She explained that so much of the scholarly conversation was about Degas himself, even though he had only gotten access to his subjects by the exploitation of teen and preteen girl dancers, and she was tired of hearing praise for such a mediocre person. She then asked me what I found so interesting about the work. I, without much of a background in modern art, had not known this, and replied that the painting made me think about the professional evolution of classical dance and about perspective. At this point, we moved beyond the specific work of art and began to ponder the relative utility of a historiographical conversation. Does it limit what can be said about a work, or does it offer something more?  

Years ago, in a historiography class at American University, one of my fellow grad students asked, “What might happen if primary sources were given to a non-specialist to interpret?” He proposed that the non-specialist who has read no theory or prior literature on the topic wouldn’t be limited by the confines of the conversation. They would carry with them no preconceived notions of how the pieces went together or what they meant. There would be no conceptual limitations on what they might think. Yet, surely the reverse is just as true. One might also be limited by lack of expertise. It would be all too easy to retread covered ground, to miss things that would be obvious to an expert, and for each individual to have to find for themselves what was true and worth knowing from scratch. Human beings are successful not because we are brilliant on our own, but because we share knowledge. Rather than limiting what might be said, “the conversation,” as it were, is a vehicle for building on others’ knowledge in a slow, studied, and nuanced way. How can one build upon knowledge which one doesn’t understand?   

While it is essential that we contribute to and refine the work of those who have written before, all fields need fresh ideas and regular assessment as to whether we’re asking the right questions, and if not, a change in paradigm. Yet, even a change in paradigm requires deep knowledge of the conversation’s history. If historiography can be defined by a series of questions proposed and answered, then it becomes essential to know where the conversation has been if one is to avoid well-tread ground and threadbare arguments. One must have thorough knowledge of what does and doesn’t work, and the arguments which hold up to scrutiny and the ones which don’t, if one is to start a fresh conversation on the same topic. My article was based in no such research—what then, if any, was its merit?