In the current issue of the Art Institute’s Member Magazine, the “Insider’s Look” section spotlights Sarah Alvarez and Robin Schnur, two directors from our Department of Museum Education. Sarah and Robin specialize in outreach to students, teachers, and teens. Here is a continuation of our discussion in the January/February issue:
What was the first museum you visited and when did you know that you wanted to work in museums?
SA: I visited museums from a very early age and I knew I wanted to work in museum education as soon as I visited the JFK Memorial Library in Boston while I was in college. It was such a formative experience for me. The objects on display engaged my curiosity for culture and history in a way that textbooks had never been able to do. I began to realize that working in a museum could be a way to marry my love of art and my love of learning.
RS: Museums have been a part of my experience for as long as I can remember. My family often visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, and all the thrilling exhibitions and collections we visited when I was a child have merged together into one wonderfully rich memory. I didn’t know I could actually work in a museum until my senior year in high school when I took an internship at the Mystic Seaport Museum, just down the road from our house. For whatever reason, the head curator allowed me to write the labels for an exhibition about 19th-century whaling ship keels, to curate an exhibition of photographs of America’s Cup race winners, and to plan a show of needlepoint seascapes. It was all weird stuff, but what an empowering experience! I was 18 and the things I created were actually up and on view for the general public. Partly as a result of my own experiences, I feel strongly about creating opportunities for teens to engage in the life of the Art Institute. This is how aspirations are sparked and careers begin.
What is the most challenging aspect of engaging teachers and students through art?
SA: I can speak best to the experience of engaging teachers. The greatest challenge is that no one teacher is exactly the same as the next. It’s very common in our culture to make sweeping generalizations about teachers, but they are all individuals coming from different school contexts and with different motivations. As for engaging them through art, it can be particularly challenging for teachers who don’t really have a sense of the role that art can have across the curriculum—in science, math, or other subjects outside of art itself. A powerful and well-facilitated experience in our galleries is often the best way to break through that challenge.
RS: It’s challenging to figure out what is most interesting and relevant to a group of students who may come from vastly different places and experiences. When school groups arrive at the museum on the morning of their tour, we have only received limited information ahead of time about who the students are, what they’re studying, and what interests them. We have to ask ourselves how we can best use the one or two hours they’re here, making the experience relevant to their classroom studies and meaningful on a personal level. Our ongoing education program for docents, the volunteer educators who facilitate experiences for students in grades 1-12, prepares them not only to know about and be able to interpret the encyclopedic collection of the museum, but also to structure experiences in which students are encouraged to bring their own ideas, knowledge, and opinions into the conversation. Creating a space for an open dialogue about art with students you’ve just met, while at the same time taking into account the curricular needs of their teacher, and also sharing gallery space with other docents and their groups is a challenge, but it is a challenge that we enthusiastically undertake and satisfyingly meet daily here at the Art Institute.
Look for more in-depth interviews in upcoming issues of the Member Magazine. For a mobile-friendly reading experience, download the Member Magazine to your iPad today!
When you enter into the exhibition Ethel Stein: Master Weaver you are faced with a sea of blue—indigo blue to be precise. The midnight hue has been used for centuries in textiles across the world from Japan to West Africa to Central and South America. In these complex weavings, Stein dyed threads of varying intensities so that when woven she could build subtle abstractions out of different hues of blue. One of the lovely additions to the exhibition is a video highlighting her working process of both dying and weaving. And dying with indigo is a magical thing—it actually transforms before your eyes. So, inspired by Stein’s use of indigo and in what may be one of the last opportunities before it gets too cold to work outside, I mixed up a vat of indigo dye.
When dying with indigo, the color oxidizes, meaning that it reaches its final color as it is exposed to air. From the dye bath, it emerges a yellow-green. But within minutes it turns a rich blue (the photo shows the same skein of wool yarn over a five-minute period). Rinse and repeat and you get a more intense blue each time, which is what makes Stein’s Indigo 23 and other weavings so lyrical. The repeated introduction to the dye and rate at which the natural cotton fiber “took” the dye makes for slight undulations of color in the individual threads that make up the complex weaving. Stein, however, isn’t just dipping yarn in a vat but using a resist-technique developed in Indonesia called ikat wherein parts of the threads are prevented from being dyed. We see a similar process in Japan called shibori or in Nigeria where the Yoruba use grassy raffia to tie, stitch, and bind fabric before it is dipped in the dye vat to create intricate patterns, as seen here in this detail from a woman’s wrapper in the Art Institute’s textile collection.
Indigo is a plant that for centuries was primarily grown in India—the name indigo means “from India” in Greek—and can be used as a pigment, dye, and was even long-held as having medicinal qualities. One of the earliest recipes is from a Babylonian tablet dated 2,700 years old. In Renaissance Europe, indigo was a sought-after commodity that was associated with the coffee and spices imported from the East. Most people would know the characteristic navy hue from the blue of their denim jeans.
The beauty of Stein’s works unfolds as your eyes follow her threads, the gradual coming and going of color and pattern, and the blended textures resulting from her refined weaving processes. You don’t have to be a weaver to appreciate that which can only be made by hand. And since the exhibition has been extended to January 4, 2015, you’ll have plenty of time to look closer.
—Terah Walkup, Research Associate, Department of Ancient and Byzantine Art
Ethel Stein. Indigo 23, 1988. Gift of Ethel Stein.
Woman’s Wrapper (Adire Eleso), Yoruba Nigeria, mid-20th century. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Jeffrey Hammer.
Looking to interact with art? Like to play with puppets? Do we have a show for you! Opening December 6 in the Ryan Education Center, Puppets! is an experimental collaboration between the Departments of Education and Prints and Drawings. There is no entry fee, and no limits to your creativity. Puppets! lets visitors of all ages get their hands on whimsical renditions of art from across the museum collection, which we’ve transformed into shadow and hand puppets. They can use them to tell their own stories. The deeply weird creatures that populate the Belgian symbolist James Ensor’s Temptation of Saint Anthony take pride of place (tapeworms, anyone?) during a major exhibition on the artist and his enormous Art Institute drawing appearing concurrently in Regenstein Hall.
In fact, when we held a Creator Party in August to make the puppets for our show, we gave our willing volunteers (staff members, artists, actual puppeteers, and several children) details from Ensor’s amazingly dark and detailed drawing as inspiration. Here’s this tapeworm puppet in process. Simply composed of a papier mâché head, acrylic paint, and a cardboard tube, all that remains to add is the soft, movable body for maximum maneuverability and storytelling prowess. Others started with knee socks, or were cut out of posterboard with x-acto knives, and accented with glue guns. Some of the puppets that were made that day can already be seen in cases in Classroom 5, but visitors won’t be able to perform with them until the show opens.
Another of our tapeworm puppets recently appeared in action, dancing madly away inside the famous Chicago Puppet Bike while we were filming part of the video for the exhibition space. Ensor’s crazy creatures didn’t seem all that out of place in this context, surprisingly enough. You’ll have to come see Puppets! for the video, but be sure to expect the unexpected.
In addition to the hand puppets we’ve developed several shadow puppets by lasercutting designs taken from other works in the collection. Look for a separate blog post about that process next month. The shadow stage will be large enough that puppeteers can use their own bodies as part of the shadow play as well. Start practicing your shadow rabbits coming out of hats now!
Visitors will even be able to make their own puppets in the library and maker space across the hallway from the exhibition. The experimental gallery, where Puppets! will be seen recently housed a do-it-yourself installation exploring the idea of still-life painting. The dextrous can use their drawing skills to copy the still lives they construct out of plastic fruit, vases, and other items, while the camera-savvy can upload photographs of their ephemeral creations to a hashtag which populates an ever-changing monitor display in the space. Puppets! will do something similar, by collecting short Instagram videos, a selection of which will appear on a screen nearby.
If all this low- and high-tech puppetry sounds intriguing, come for the puppets, and stay for the movies. We’ll be hosting a screening of Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal in Fullerton on the evening on January 15, and a slate of related contemporary short films appropriate for teens and adults on select Friday afternoons from January to April in the Ryan Education Center. And you never know when the Puppet Bike might be putting in a live appearance!
—Suzanne Karr Schmidt, Assistant Curator, Department of Prints and Drawings
Painted in 1396, this Spanish retable and frontal, collectively known as the Ayala Altarpiece, are among the oldest paintings in the museum’s collection. The monumental pair of works, depicting the life of Christ and the Virgin, is impressive for its visual beauty, historical importance, and sheer size (the large retable measures 99 3/4” high x 263 ¾” wide). It was commissioned in 1396 by Pedro Lopez de Ayala and his wife, Leonor de Guzman, for the Ayala family funeral chapel in the Castile region of northern Spain. An educated man of many achievements, Pedro Lopez de Ayala (1322-1407) was chancellor of Castile, a chronicler of his times, and a poet. The altarpiece remained in the family chapel for over five hundred years until financial considerations led to its sale in 1913. Chicago industrialist Charles Deering, an avid collector of Spanish art, bought the artwork and displayed it in his mansion in Sitges, Spain. Shortly thereafter, Deering died and his daughters donated the altarpiece and many additional artworks to the Art Institute in 1928. Since then, it has graced the walls of the museum and it didn’t take long for this awe-inspiring piece to become a favorite among visitors and staff alike.
To make way for the Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art, the altarpiece was taken off view several years ago and put in storage. Now, in preparation for a new installation of Medieval and Renaissance art, scheduled to open in March 2017, the altarpiece is undergoing a comprehensive conservation treatment that will address both structural and aesthetic issues. The main challenge of the treatment is the removal of a thick, tan overpaint applied to mask paint loss in the cream-colored background.
The overpaint was liberally, but unevenly, applied in several restoration campaigns prior to arriving at the Art Institute and it covers almost all the background of the retable. As you can see in the above detail from the Pentecost episode, small spots of the much brighter and lighter original cream paint are visible through the tan overpaint. Little effort was made to match the overpaint to the original paint color and the restoration paint is much darker and warmer in color. The effect is a dramatic darkening of the tonality of the artwork and a decrease in the brilliance of the jewel-like tones used in the composition.
It is not known when the overpaint was first applied, but the majority of it may have been added to “spruce up” the painting before its sale in 1913. Analysis of the various paint layers by the museum’s Conservation Science Department confirmed the binder of the original paint layer is egg tempera while the overpaint is oil-based. This was good news for conservation, as the use of different media allowed us to devise a cleaning solution that solubilizes the oil paint without affecting the underlying original tempera paint.
With a successful system in hand, treatment is progressing full force on the altarpiece. The dramatic improvement gained by removing the dark overpaint is clearly visible in the photograph above. Without the dark, muted overpaint, tonal harmony is restored and the brilliance of the original paint is once again allowed to shine.
Stay tuned for updates as the artwork continues its amazing transformation.
—Julie A. Simek, Paintings Conservator
Image Credits: Retable and Frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin (Ayala Altarpiece), 1396. Gift of Charles Deering.
Details from Retable and Frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin (Ayala Altarpiece) showing multiple applications of overpaint.
Detail from Retable and Frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin (Ayala Altarpiece) showing overpaint partially removed from the background.
I have many roles in my stewardship of the Thorne Miniature Rooms. Research is one of the largest areas, encompassing everything from the locations Mrs. Thorne replicated to the history and practice of miniature-making to Mrs. Narcissa Thorne herself. One avenue that has sparked my interest lately was Mrs. Thorne’s collaborations with a well-known metal craft artist, Marie Zimmermann… leading me to a long overdue visit to the Thorne Family crypt.
Mrs. James Ward Thorne, creator of our beloved Thorne Miniature Rooms, was a serious patron of the arts. Not only did she collect wonderful miniature works but she had an impressive collection and library of decorative arts—most of which she donated to the Art Institute’s Ryerson and Burnham Libraries—and a collection of early American street photography, also donated to the museum. You could say she lived a life full of art; you could also say she died by it too…
Art filled Mrs.Thorne’s life so she took it upon herself to be well versed in historic as well as contemporary artisans. Marie Zimmermann was one of these artists. A member of the prestigious Arts Club in New York City, she was considered one of the greatest craftspersons in America. Mrs. Thorne commissioned her to create the ironwork for the miniature room E-29: English Roman Catholic Church in the Gothic Style and Zimmermann was commissioned to design and create the Thorne Family Memorial gates for the family crypt.
As it is the time of year many celebrate the dead I thought it a wonderful time to honor two amazing women artists by visiting Mrs. Thorne’s resting site as well as seeing the gorgeous metalwork of Mrs. Zimmermann. This pilgrimage led me to Rosehill Cemetery on the far north side of Chicago, where not only lies the Thorne crypt, but also those of John G. Shedd, Richard Warren Sears and many other Chicago notables. The Roeshill Cemetery Mausoleum, designed by Sidney Lovell, dates back to the Victorian era and has many beautiful stained glass windows set in marble, but—and this might be a personal bias—the gates for the Thorne Family crypt are truly the stars. Mrs. Thorne’s impeccable taste and Zimmermann’s stunning skills come together for a gracious end to the life of one of the grand dames of Chicago.
—Lindsay Mican Morgan, Department Technician, Thorne Rooms