Phillips at Home: Crafting Community Stories

Hello from Donna Jonte, your Phillips at Home host. Thanks for spending time with me and works of art from The Phillips Collection, slowing down to look, think, wonder, and respond creatively.

We have practiced a thinking routine called See-Think-Wonder with a still life, a landscape, and a cityscape. Now, using the same mindful-looking technique, let’s explore stories in Allan Rohan Crite’s Parade on Hammond Street and Luca Buvoli’s Picture: Present.

Materials Needed:

Time: 30-45 minutes

Ages: 4+

Allan Rohan Crite, Parade on Hammond Street, 1935, Oil on canvas board, 18 x 24 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1942

Ready to explore? I wonder what the parade is celebrating, don’t you?

(STEP 1) Observe

Find a comfortable place to sit where you and your family members can see Crite’s painting on the screen. Take a deep breath in and exhale slowly.

With your family, look carefully at the image for at least 30 seconds. Let your eyes travel slowly from side to side, top to bottom. Notice what is in the background, middle-ground, and foreground. Notice what takes up the most space in the composition. Notice if there is empty space. Notice the colors, shapes, and lines.

What did you see? Where did your eye go first? Next? How does the artist lead you through the painting? What colors stand out to you? Lines? Shapes?

What do you think about what you see?

What is happening in the street? What is happening on the sidewalk? What is happening in the windows of the red brick row houses? Where is the sky?

What do you notice about the people in the neighborhood? Does one person especially interest you?

Do you notice the child who is about to step into the street? How does the artist make sure that we can see the children clearly? Why might he have done that?

What might the weather be like?

What is the mood of this painting? What do you see that makes you say that?

How does the painting make you feel?

Does this painting remind you of a place that you have visited with your family?

What do you wonder about this place, the artist, and his process?

What might the marching band’s music sound like? It makes me think of the Treme Bass Band from New Orleans. Do you think it matches the mood in this painting?

Thank you for sharing your observations and ideas about Parade on Hammond Street with your family.


(STEP 2) Get to know the artist

Allan Rohan Crite (born North Plainfield, NY, 1910; died Boston, Massachusetts, 2007) loved this neighborhood in Boston called Roxbury, where he lived most of his 97 years, carrying his sketchbook everywhere. Describing himself as “an artist-reporter, recording what I saw, “ he stated: “I made these drawings . . . simply to show Black people as . . . human beings that had their loves and their distresses, their joys and happiness and sorrows—just plain, ordinary people. So I made all these different street scenes with the horse carts, the vegetable man, the fish man; or people gossiping, children playing in the streets or the playground—all of these sort of homely things.” (Read his full Smithsonian Archives of American Art oral history interview)

In 1998, in an interview with the Harvard Extension School Alumni Bulletin, he said: “I am a storyteller of the drama of man. This is my small contribution—to tell the African American experience—in a local sense, of the neighborhood, and, in a larger sense, of its part in the total human experience.”

Crite was not only a painter, draftsman, and printmaker, but also an author, librarian, and publisher. He had a day job, too! For 30 years he worked as an illustrator for the Boston Naval Shipyard. Filled with curiosity, he never stopped learning. At an early age his mother encouraged him to draw and paint, and he took art classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Massachusetts School of Art, and Boston University. Later he focused on history and the natural sciences, earning a Bachelor of Arts from Harvard University and an honorary doctorate from Suffolk University in Boston. That is a lot of education! Does Allan Rohan Crite inspire you to become an “artist-reporter”?


(STEP 3) Extend the story

Are you ready to extend the story we found in Parade on Hammond Street? But first, let’s look at a more fantastical story by another artist—Luca Buvoli.

New York-based artist Luca Buvoli (born Brescia, Italy, 1963) invented a story based on artwork in The Phillips Collection, just like we are doing now. When Buvoli was a child he loved to read comic books and create his own. Guess what? As an adult he still does! He made a series of artworks as part of the Phillipss Digital Intersections contemporary art projects. Picture: Present is the most recent episode from the artist’s Astrodoubt and The Quarantine Chronicles series that features tragicomic visual narratives commenting on the covid-19 health and social crisis. The 12 scenes, which were unveiled on the Phillips’s website from July 20–August 7, will be available on the website through December 1, 2020.

Like Crite, Buvoli is trying to capture the human experience in his illustrations:

Buvoli said: “Through Astrodoubt, and particularly in this opportunity to interact with the Phillips’s collection, I have enjoyed the pleasure of experimenting and playing with time travel, compositions, words and images, and stream of consciousness. I developed these stories to be used as a tool of amusement, reflection, and relief during the pandemic.” Where else do you think Astrodoubt has traveled?

Thinking about Picture: Present, let’s turn back to Parade on Hammond Street. If you stepped into the picture:

  1. Who will you be? A member of the marching band? The child in the middle of the sidewalk, wanting to step into the street to join the marching band? A person in a window looking down at the parade? Maybe you are not a person but a bird perched on a roof or flying in the blue triangle of sky! A musical instrument, perhaps the glockenspiel? One of the row houses that has sheltered many families?
  2. What do you think happened just before this scene?
  3. What might happen next, when the parade moves down the street? As a character in the story, what will you do next?

Your story can be funny, silly, happy, sad, dreamy, realistic, or fantastical—whatever you wish! You are the storyteller.


(
STEP 4) Create an accordion book

Let’s fold one piece of paper into an accordion book for your story. Here are instructions from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, a museum in DC that has an impressive collection of artist’s books in its library. An accordion book opens and closes like the musical instrument. Do you think that is a good choice for a book about a marching band in a parade?

When you finish your story, don’t forget to write the title and the author’s name (that’s you!) on the cover.

By Carina, age 8, in response to Parade on Hammond Street

By Carina Araujo, age 8, Music and Dance, two-sided accordion book in response to Parade on Hammond Street. Carina’s story shows that “there is music and dance everywhere.”

Thank you for celebrating community and exploring Allan Rohan Crite’s Parade on Hammond Street. Please share your books with us! Email photos to: djonte@phillipscollection.org

 

That Long Distance Call: Renée Stout and the Blues

Director of Music Jeremy Ney on Renée Stout and the blues. Visit our InstagramFacebook, and Twitter August 10-30 to learn more about the intersections of art and music.

“How can you capture a wail in an artwork, which is basically a silent thing?”[1] This was a question posed by artist Renée Stout in an interview from 1994 with art historian Marla C. Berns. The wail Stout refers to is the vocal and guitar sound of bluesman Robert Johnson, who was the inspiration for Stout’s 1995 installation project Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads. In the blues folklore, Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for becoming a virtuoso blues guitarist. Johnson’s short life (he died in 1938 at the age of 27) is full of such legends and metaphysical encounters, and his raw, soulful blues is captured on only a handful of recordings taken at the end of his life when he was a traveling musician performing in and around the Mississippi delta in the late 1930s, enduring—like so many others—the extreme trauma of segregation.

What is it about the sound of a musician like Robert Johnson that Renée Stout seeks to “capture” in “silent” art objects like paintings or sculptures? This kind of synthesis is not a question of semiotic transference between one material domain (the aural) to another (the visual), but is more about a sense of shared emotional territory, a question of affect, feeling, and mood. Music is often thought to possess the most direct and emotive effect on our senses; music is visceral, it can transform the way we feel. This is what Robert Johnson’s music does, it speaks of pain, suffering, and hardship, but also joy, hope, and creative spirit. Renée Stout describes how, “When I first listened to Robert Johnson’s music it really hit me because it was clear this man was in pain and needed to sing about it. I’ve heard other blues singers I like just as much, but his music hit me differently. It made me want to see what it was that he saw…I just have this need to ‘illustrate,’ as best I can, the music of a man that I’ve become so fascinated with.”[2]

Thinking through music—both in the way that it “hits” us and the historical associations that underline its social meaning—can help reveal rich conceptual depths in the work of an artist like Renée Stout. Stout’s visual explorations of the “blues aesthetic”[3] (a term coined by art historian Richard Powell), are inextricably linked to her parallel interest in African history and the diasporic traditions that have shaped the musical, social, and spiritual origins of the blues as the “first completely personalized form of African American music.”[4] Two works recently acquired by the Phillips exhibit Stout’s ability to recall elements of African culture, spirituality, and mysticism, and set them in dialogue with the African American experience, generating contemporary objects that are suffused with what theorist Paul Gilroy has called “diasporic intimacy.”[5]

The 2015 mixed media sculpture Elegba (Spirt of the Crossroads) invokes the complex trickster deity of West African Yoruba culture. Elegba (or Eshu or Èsú in other African cultures) is god of the crossroads, a spiritual location where an individual must confront difficult decisions in life. The crossroads metaphor simultaneously signals a site of danger or opportunity, and in West African culture Elegba was believed to hold the spiritual potential to effect change. Through ritual and divination, where music, dance, religion, and spirituality where united in an indivisible network of social practices, the Elegba deity could be drawn upon by humans to influence events in their lives and in the world. The Elegba deity features prominently in Stout’s explorations of the legend of Robert Johnson.

Renée Stout, Elegba (Spirit of the Crossroads), 2015–19 Mixed media, 39 x 17 x 13 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of the artist and Hemphill Gallery, 2019

Renée Stout, Mannish Boy Arrives (for Muddy Waters), 2017, Acrylic and latex on wood panel, 16 x 20 x 1 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Director’s Discretionary Fund, 2018

But the powerful Elegba symbol also appears elsewhere. In Stout’s 2017 painting Mannish Boy Arrives (for Muddy Waters), the shape of the Elegba sculpture seems to manifest itself with a bright orange light that appears to signal a path forward, perhaps indicating a choice to make at the crossroads. In the song Mannish Boy,” bluesman Muddy Waters sings, “I’m a hoochie-coochie man,” invoking a veiled double meaning: the sexually provocative 19th-century dance and the hoodoo spiritual traditions that connected enslaved Africans of the Mississippi Delta (the birthplace of both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters) to their ancestral homeland. The “diasporic intimacy” of these traditions, as scholar George Lipsitz has observed, allowed “displaced Africans in the American South to keep alive memories of the continent they came from through a wide range of covert practices.”[6] Stout’s deployment of the Elegba icon in Mannish Boy Arrives (for Muddy Waters) is similarly covert and coded, and the image of the crossroads serves a blues-tinged metaphysics, an imagined transitional and transcultural site where African ancestry and African American experience meet. Renée Stout’s sculptures and paintings thus perform the cultural memory of the blues, conjuring a space in which an acoustic past resonates in the visual present. Far from being “silent” objects, they vibrate with sonic potential, calling out to us to look, listen, and respond.

Adapted from the forthcoming catalogue Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century (D Giles, 2021), published on the occasion of The Phillips Collection centennial.

 

[1] Quoted in in Marla C. Berns, Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads: A Project by Renée Stout (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press), 38.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Richard Powell in “Introduction: The Hearing Eye,” in The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art, ed. Graham Lock and David Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 4.

[4] Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 221.

[5] Paul Gilroy, Ain’t No Black in The Union Jack (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 156.

[6] George Lipsitz, “Diasporic Intimacy in the Art of Renée Stout,” in Marla C. Berns, Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads: A Project by Renée Stout (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press), 10.

Meet Our Summer Interns: Sarah, Xiran, Jamie, Kelly

Our summer interns introduce themselves and share what they have been working on over the past few weeks. Fall internship applications are now open through Friday, August 21!

Sarah Hoffman, Kenyon College

“I just graduated from Kenyon College in May. Because of the pandemic, I am working remotely from my home in Lexington, Kentucky. On the one hand, the shift to remote was disappointing because it meant that I wouldn’t get to spend my time in the physical museum space and connect with my colleagues in person. On the other hand, I think that our internship coordinator, Levon Williams, and others involved in running the program have done a fantastic job adapting the program to our current circumstances. Everyone at the Phillips is very supportive and generous with their time, so even though I’m multiple states away from most of the people at the Phillips, I still feel very involved. My project as the Marketing and Communications Intern is rewriting the history section of the website, so I’ve been doing lots of research on the collection, the Phillips family, and how the museum has changed over time. I’m also compiling a historical timeline of significant exhibitions, events, and developments to go along with the history. I also pitch events to publications, work on press kits, create social content, help with the website redesign process, and do other related tasks. I think this internship strikes a good balance between developing skills related to your particular department, the art museum field, and professional skills in general.”

 

Xiran Lu, Indiana University

“I’m from China and a current graduate student at Indiana University in Arts Administration program. My favorite artist is American land artist Robert Smithson. His famous artwork is Spiral Jetty, which is a landscape artwork done on a salt lake in Utah in 1970. For a long time after its completion, this work disappeared due to the rising water level. But in recent years, as the water level dropped again, Spiral Jetty has reappeared. And its appearance also has some changes. It makes me feel like although landscape art is something we can never collect; they always can remind us to think through whether art must really be immortal. I was learning graphic design and design history when I was in China. After I graduated, I gradually found out that I prefer dynamic research with actual working and practice. The internship at The Phillips Collection can fully utilize my knowledge and experience, and at the same time allow me to keep going on my own research. This summer, I am working as the Visitor Experience intern on the redevelopment of our volunteer program, which includes virtual meetings with volunteers, potential virtual roles for volunteers, volunteer surveys, and data collection. At the same time, the project for the DEAI department that I am working on is a research report regarding the talented and influential women in The Phillips Collection. ”

 

Jamie Carkenord, College of William & Mary

I am a junior at the College of William & Mary studying American History. Originally, I am from Farmville, Virginia. When I have visited DC earlier in my life, I was always excited to explore the National Gallery of Art. My internship at The Phillips Collection is giving me the chance to focus on its complex curatorial strategy and the unique strengths of a smaller museum. This summer, I am working within the Public Programming department and Art & Wellness. Because all of the events at the Phillips must be carried out virtually due to social distancing guidelines, I am assisting the Phillips staff in hosting Zoom events for adults, families, and artists. Over the coming weeks, I will be working to develop a family program featuring women artists in the collection. After my internship, I will continue my studies at William & Mary and seek out opportunities to further my interests in art, public history, and education”

 

Kelly Palmer, Coppin State University

“My name is Kelly Palmer and I am from Washington, DC. I recently graduated from Coppin State University majoring in Urban Arts and minoring in Nonprofit Leadership and Youth Development. My favorite museum is the Botanical Gardens in DC. I love everything about plants, nature, and gardening so I find great joy in an entire building devoted to exotic plants and their history. I plan to learn more about the plants native to DC in the near future. I decided to intern at The Phillips Collection this summer because I wanted more experience working in positions related to arts administration and management. This summer, I have been working with the DEAI department. I have been tasked with continuing The Phillips Collection Intern & Fellow Catalogue, and showcasing the cohort of interns from Summer 2020. Since I have recently graduated from Coppin State University, I am excited to begin working hands on with those in need. There is a need in almost every space, and I am aiming to serve my community in any way necessary.”