Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art at the Peabody Essex Museum

Rebecca Belmore (born 1960), Anishinaabe; Fringe, 2008; Inkjet print on paper; 21 x 63 inches (53.3 x 160 cm); Collection of Catherine Sullivan-Kropa and William Kropa; © Rebecca Belmore, image courtesy Rebecca Belmore, photograph by Henri Robideau.

A terrific dialogue is currently unfolding in the galleries of the Peabody Essex Museum, with an exhibition that explores links between historic and contemporary Native American art. Featuring works drawn from worldwide collections, Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art, takes us on an unforgettable, celebratory journey that transcends boundaries and erases stereotypes along its path.

A concept in Native cultures, shapeshifting refers to the ability of humans changing into animals or supernatural beings and vice versa. In essence, it refers to the idea that creativity has always been part of Native cultures.

“…Native American art has always taken cultural knowledge and metaphors and refreshed them with new ideas and forms[1]” writes Curator Karen Kramer Russell in the exhibition catalog. In the past, “…museum exhibitions have focused largely on either historical or contemporary Native American art, but with very little mixing of the two.” Shapeshifting shatters the notion that all art created by Native Americans is either ethnographic or crafty in appearance.

Kent Monkman (born 1965), Cree; Théâtre de Cristal, 2007; Chandelier, plastic beads, acrylic string, cabouchons, simulated buffalo hide, and Super-8 film: Group of Seven Inches, 2005 (7:34 minutes), edition 1/3; 168 x 240 inches (diam. approx.) (426.7 x 609.6 cm); The Glenbow Museum, Alberta, Canada, purchased with funds from Historic Resource Fund, 2008, 2008.099.001; Courtesy Kent Monkman and Bruce Bailey Art Projects; © Kent Monkman, image courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery, photograph by Don Hall.

Kent Monkman (born 1965), Cree; Théâtre de Cristal, 2007; Chandelier, plastic beads, acrylic string, cabouchons, simulated buffalo hide, and Super-8 film: Group of Seven Inches, 2005 (7:34 minutes), edition 1/3; 168 x 240 inches (diam. approx.) (426.7 x 609.6 cm); The Glenbow Museum, Alberta, Canada, purchased with funds from Historic Resource Fund, 2008, 2008.099.001; Courtesy Kent Monkman and Bruce Bailey Art Projects; © Kent Monkman, image courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery, photograph by Don Hall.

Kent Monkman’s electrifying video installation Théâtre de Cristal opens the exhibition and sets the tone for the rest of the show. Referencing a tipi made of clear plastic beads lit by an elaborate chandelier, Monkman critiques and challenges “the dominant Euro-American ethnocentric construction of Native North America embedded in a global consciousness.[2]” Paul Chaat Smith, Curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian considers Théâtre de Cristal “a work from the future about people who aren’t supposed to have one.[3]The installation is brilliant and the accompanying text should not be missed (even if you are a White European male, and you’ll know what I mean by this if you see this exhibit).

Kent Monkman (born 1965), Cree; Théâtre de Cristal, 2007; Chandelier, plastic beads, acrylic string, cabouchons, simulated buffalo hide, and Super-8 film: Group of Seven Inches, 2005 (7:34 minutes), edition 1/3; 168 x 240 inches (diam. approx.) (426.7 x 609.6 cm); The Glenbow Museum, Alberta, Canada, purchased with funds from Historic Resource Fund, 2008, 2008.099.001; Courtesy Kent Monkman and Bruce Bailey Art Projects; © Kent Monkman, image courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery, photograph by Don Hall.

Organized thematically, many works in Shapeshifting rely on politics to convey a concept, while others explore identity, place, and cultural heritage.

Marie Watt’s Column Blanket Stories, evoke the blankets infested with smallpox and other diseases brought by Europeans and distributed to Natives across the Americas. Independent scholar Kara English notes that today, blankets are associated with beauty, honor and respect and that “these [blankets] prized items weave together an intergenerational continuum and are gifted at births, comings-of-age, graduations, marriages, naming and honoring.[4]

Marie Watt (born 1967), Seneca; Column (Blanket Stories), 2003; Wool blankets and cedar; 144 x 20 x 20 inches (365.8 x 50.8 x 50.8 cm); Collection of Deborah Green; © Marie Watt, image courtesy Marie Watt and PDX Contemporary Art.

Rebecca Belmore’s Fringe, a powerful and haunting photograph of a female figure references the abuse of Native women and of the land. Bob Haouzous’ Wheel of Fortune is a deliciously superb work featuring the face of Geronimo surrounded by descriptive words. This wonderful work is a call to Native people to stop hiding behind general stereotypes. And yes, the Wheel of Fortune spins just as it does in the television game.

Bob Haozous (born 1943), Chiricahua Apache; Wheel of Fortune, 2005; Steel and paint; 96 inches (diam.) (243.8 cm); Courtesy the artist; © Bob Haozous.

Shapeshifting is a provocative exhibition filled with complex ideas. It opened my eyes to a world of Native American art making not frequently discussed or exhibited outside non-Native art or anthropological museums. As far as the implications of an exhibition with many politically charged artworks, Karen Kramer Russell says “the intention is that people will have a broader and deeper understanding of Native art and culture.”

Shapeshifting captures the creative spirit and resilience of cultures that have long been repressed.  It’s a remarkable and fascinating exhibition that changed my perception of contemporary Native American art and its transformations through time. The works in this exhibition foster an enriching dialogue that should be nurtured and savored over multiple visits to the Peabody Essex Museum.

Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art is on view through April 29, 2012 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.


[1] Page 15, [2] Page 24, [3] Page 220, [4] Page 180

One on One: Exploring the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists

The best way to get to know a city or a neighborhood is by walking its streets. Earlier this summer, I set out to explore the area of Roxbury roughly bounded by Seaver Street, Walnut Avenue and Crawford Street. I headed down Walnut Avenue and walked around the grounds of Abbotsford (Oak Bend), one of the finest stone mansions in Boston.

Abbotsford, designed in 1872 by Alden Frink in the Gothic Revival style is home to a gem known as the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.  The grand mansion has served many purposes in the past which include a disciplinary school for boys in the Boston Public School system. It was purchased in 1976 by the National Center of Afro-American Artists and is now the largest independent black cultural arts institution in New England. Its collection exceeds 4,000 works of art which include well known artists such as Charles White, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence as well as living contemporary black artists from around the world.

John Wilson’s Eternal Presence (1987) greets viewers upon entering the museum. Wilson drew inspiration from various cultures including Ancient Olmec and Buddhist works to represent the African Diasporas dispersed throughout the world (also represented in the museum’s collection). Once inside, visitors can expect to experience “Aspelta – A Nubian King’s Burial Chamber” one of the museum’s most notable and delightful exhibitions.

Apart from looking at the art currently on display, my experience at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists also included a 45 minute long conversation with Ben Alleyne, a painter and sculptor who has been the caretaker of the mansion for more than twenty years. His monumental sculptures can be seen on the grounds of the museum.

For an off the beaten path museum experience in Boston, the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists is an excellent choice. The museum is easily accessible by public transportation. The MBTA Bus Routes #22 from Ashmont, Jackson Square or Ruggles Station and #29 from Jackson Square or Ruggles stop at Walnut Avenue. The museum is roughly a ten minute walk from the bus stop.

Review: Mark Bradford

Photo of Mark Bradford by Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy: theartnewspaper.com

When Nicholas Baume left his position as chief curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) in 2009 to join the Public Art Fund of New York City, the future of Boston’s contemporary art scene was questioned.  With Baume’s curatorial insight, the ICA organized the first major museum retrospective of artists Tara Donovan and Shepard Fairey, thereby breaking attendance records (and bringing in tons of dough) and shining a light on Boston’s contemporary art scene. Since Baume’s departure, the ICA has exhibited a retrospective of Roni Horn and Damian Ortega organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and Tate Modern in London respectively.  In its quest to continue breaking the blurred boundaries of the art world, the current exhibition at the ICA is the first museum survey of the Los Angeles born and based artist Mark Bradford.

Organized by The Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University, Mark Bradford (November 19 – March 13, 2011) is one of the most powerful exhibitions I have seen in recent memory. Bradford is known for his large scale abstract paintings which resemble dense political and physical maps. These paintings are created out of carefully selected found materials which include, but not limited to, weathered billboard paper, permanent weave end paper, newsprint, carbon paper, and wrapping paper. In spite of their abstract qualities, Bradford’s works are filled with subject matter and intense social commentaries.

Experiencing the works in the exhibition, the phrase “silence is golden” constantly came to mind. The moment one is confronted with a work of art, in particular one created by a contemporary artist, “silence is golden” does not apply. But as I stood in front of Bradford’s larger than life paintings, I wanted to find words that would help me explain the emotions I was feeling.  I was struck speechless by the intensity of the materials, colors and images and texts in Bradford’s works.

Untitled (Shoe), 2003. Billboard paper, acrylic gel medium, and additional mixed media. 30 x 31 1/2 inches. The Speyer Family Collection. Photo: Bruce M. White.

Among the works that still resonate with me are Untitled (Shoe) 2003, Scorched Earth, 2006 and Black Venus, 2005. In Untitled (Shoe), Bradford has taken a billboard advertisement for Reebok sneakers and peeled away the image of the shoe leaving only its outline.  With this piece, Bradford is making a commentary on black identity and sneaker culture, “I feel black male masculinity, especially in the last 10 or 15 or 20 years has been narrowed based on a kind of popular culture. Popular culture has determined that [as] black males, we exist in about two or three different models, the sports figure, the gangster figure, or the reverend.” Mark Bradford employs stereotypes to break away stereotypes.

Scorched Earth, 2006. Billboard paper, photomechanical reproductions, acrylic gel medium, carbon paper, acrylic paint, bleach, and additional mixed media on canvas. 94 1/2 x 118 inches. Collection of Dennis and Debra Scholl. Photo: Bruce M. White

In Scorched Earth, Bradford uses a dramatic and unforgettable red and black palette to reference the moment in history when in 1921 35 city blocks in Tulsa, Oklahoma were burned and destroyed in the riots resulting from the tensions between blacks and whites. In Black Venus, Bradford “examines class-race, and gender based economies that structure urban society in the United States.”

“”I was always supported in the domestic realm, and I was always strong about standing up for myself, but there were still struggles in my life. Reading about the postmodern condition made me realize it was about independence, about doing your own thing. And that’s a state of mind. It’s not an art work or a book. It’s a state of mind. Fluidity, juxtapositions, cultural borrowing- they’ve all been going on for centuries. The only authenticity there is what I put together.” – Mark Bradford

Black Venus, 2005 Detail. Mixed media collage, 130 x 196 inches. Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Image taken from Art21’s documentary on Mark Bradford as shown on PBS.

Mark Bradford at the ICA has the potential of igniting a rich dialogue on the urban landscape and race relations in America (in particular Boston, since the exhibition is currently in the city). His grid-like paintings resemble physical, political and topographic maps, allowing the viewer to imagine the rivers, mountains, lakes, elevations, boundaries or the ideological differences that divide and unite people. I loved this exhibition! I loved it because it is powerful and unabashed in exposing the economies of urban centers and their impact on people of color living in America today. I loved it because Mark Bradford is one of the few contemporary artists of color dealing with these questions through abstract art.

Will you go and see the exhibition, contemplate Bradford’s works in silence (go on a Friday night) and start a dialogue of your own?

The Urban Canvas – Exploring Boston’s Graffiti

Walking the streets of Boston and its environs, I often come across spaces, buildings or public art that continually renew my love for the city. The city for me resembles a Tubist, Futurist or Suprematist painting in that the more I stare at its composition, the more interesting things I see.

I love wandering around the dilapidated areas of a city, near abandoned buildings or underserved neighborhoods in search of beauty in unexpected places. These unexpected places are the canvas for artists like Banksy, Pixnit and even Shepard Fairey who use the ugly and empty walls of buildings (often abandoned or not in used) to bring messages of anti-war, political and societal corruption to the people.

Wandering the narrow and congested streets of Chinatown during my lunch break, I came upon a mural on the side of a building on Essex Street. The mural, executed on a white wall depicts a man dressed in black holding two rollers underneath his left arm, carrying a pail on one hand and a brush on the other. The feeling of hopelessness and resignation expressed in the figure’s face further heightens the message behind the graffiti. As a spectator, we are told to follow our dreams, yet we are also told that these dreams have been cancelled. Executed by Banksy, a pseudonym for an internationally known British Graffiti artist, this work in Chinatown led me on a trek across the alleys and streets of Boston and Cambridge in search of street art.

That same day in Chinatown, I came across two works done by Shepard Fairey whose recent retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston was a huge success in part due to the popularity of the ‘Obama Hope Portrait.’

After walking around Chinatown, I went back to the office and recalled that alley in Central Square, Cambridge which is a sanctuary for graffiti artists. The thought of writing an entry on street art in Metro Boston was born in this alley.

The following weekend I hopped on the outbound train to Cambridge armed with my camera in one hand and a water bottle in the other in search of more art. Approximately two blocks away from Graffiti Alley (or Pee Alley or Creep Alley as it is locally known), I ran into a mural of a little girl writing on an imaginary surface. My first instinct was to attribute this piece to Banksy, but I wasn’t convinced that it was because it looked to be unfinished. After visiting Banksy’s website, I was able to confirm that it is indeed a Banksy piece.

Walking through Graffiti Alley in Central Square is like walking inside a candy store (to me at least). The walls are covered in every color imaginable, from neon orange to black to pink and white. There are many recognizable artists represented in the alley including a major piece by Shepard Fairey.

After spending some time in Central Square, I headed to Harvard Square in search of a work executed by Shepard Fairey I had recalled seeing a while ago. After leisurely strolling around Harvard Square, I found it on Dunster Street and immediately photographed it. People wondered why I was photographing a women wearing a head garment shown with a rifle shooting a rose from its tip. This is one of the reasons I love Shepard Fairey.

Graffiti is one of the best ways to learn about ourselves for they are a sign of the times, often denouncing political corruption and social problems while posing questions of identity and culture to the public. Throughout my trek in search of graffiti in the City of Boston, I learned that the dreams of so many inhabitants of this country have been shut down or “cancelled” as it has been done in Arizona.  I also learned that our wish of living in world of peace and harmony remains alive and vibrant as expressed in the works of Shepard Fairey.

Boston Ink: Bringing the Tattoo Drama to Puritans

"Untitled (Vestido Montez)" by Dr. Lakra (a.k.a. Jeronimo Lopez Ramirez)The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles Purchased with funds provided by The Buddy Taub Foundation, Jill and Dennis Roach, Directors

You can’t deny the power of tattoos. The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston has dedicated an entire show to the art of the tattoo. Well, more specifically, the art of Dr. Lakra, a pseudonym for Jeronimo Lopez Ramirez, an artist and tattooist whose tattoo inspired art disguises the barely clothed bodies of figures taken out of photographs, advertisements, Japanese prints and even vintage pornographic magazines.

Remember back in high school, instead of paying attention in algebra or history class we doodled all over our books, drawing mustaches on every photograph of a person we came across? Most of the art in the Dr. Lakra exhibition recalls just that, doodles we all made in high school.

The art works in the show engulf the viewer with an almost disturbing, Freudian like embrace, capturing their attention and establishing a direct connection between tattoos and the image which they cover.

Images of eroticism and hyper sexuality are dispersed throughout show, to emphasize the fetishistic nature attached to tattoos.  Let’s face it, getting a tattoo is a liberating and exhilarating experience, it is a form of self expression which brings out the bad boy or girl in you.  Tattoos are badass. They make you want to bite your lips every time you see an attractive person on the street or at your gym with well executed tattoos adorning their sculpted bodies. And boy, are there bad ass girls in the Dr. Lakra exhibition? The objectification of women is undeniably present in this show which I found a bit unsettling, but Dr. Lakra also brings out the notion that tattoos act as band-aids which we use to cover our insecurities and improve our self-esteem.

The Dr. Lakra exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art could be the push the contemporary art scene in Boston needs to break away from the puritanical roots that have suffocated it for decades. If the exhibition inspires you to get a tattoo, kudos to the Institute of Contemporary Art for pushing the envelope and getting you to get other people to bite their lips when they see ink adorning your body.

Prelude to Changes

I’m like an anthropologist with the mind of an architectural historian. As a wannabe anthropologist, I unscrupulously stare at people strolling down the streets, selecting out the banal from the fresh (style wise I mean) and arriving at conclusions about their cultural backgrounds, profession and even interests simply by gazing at them. As an individual who looks at buildings as part of my work in preservation and as a student, I find myself sometimes in awe and others in disgust at the sight of a building or a landscape.

Trees, flowers, the weather, colors, music, and people have been inspiring me lately. I’ve decided that instead of writing about architecture and the arts in Boston, I will also explore other facets of Boston’s “culture,” namely its street style. I want to explore my anthropological side by highlighting every so often people I come across in my daily life who to me appear to have a story to tell through the clothes they wear.  People’s style, like buildings also tell a story.  So let the adventures begin!

Making a case for the ähts

As a student in the Boston Public School system, I felt deprived and envious of the things children in suburban schools enjoyed, especially in terms of the numerous fine arts classes.  As a student of Art History at Boston University and a professional working in the field of Historic Preservation, the career choices I have made speak to the detrimental effect the lack of exposure to the arts growing up have had on my life. My passion for breaking the boundaries and nurturing a dialog of multiculturalism in the arts and preservation has shaped me into a strong advocate for our cultural heritage.

As a personal and professional goal, I hope to aid in erasing the lines of demarcation that we has humans impose upon ourselves (and upon others). Whether physical, imaginary, social or even psychological, that theoretical red line suffocates the creative genius in all of us. Why must we restraint ourselves to doing only one thing, reaching out to a particular group of people, or working in a particular community and in the process excluding others? The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), founded in 1965 with the mission of bringing arts to all Americans has been pushing the boundaries that persist in the arts and culture.  

Not every citizen in America has access to the visual and performance arts and those that do most often possess a higher education and are politically savvy enough to make decisions that affect the needs of everyone in their community. Unfortunately, not everyone is this privileged and the lack of support for the NEA have also exposed its failures, in that marginalized people who live in the periphery of major urban centers or in cities where funding for the arts is lacking, have become battlegrounds for both critics  and supporters of the NEA. Because “a great country deserves great art,” I firmly believe that the NEA should not only remain an active organization, but its budget should not be cut. Many of the programs supported by the NEA are geared towards the education of every American citizen. These programs promote and foster a cultural exchange and understanding much needed in our society today and also inject millions of dollars into the local, state and national economies.

Artist for Humanity Building - South Boston

Fostering creativity in learning is at the top of the NEA’s mission. As a result of their initiatives in education, more and more children are being exposed to the arts in their schools and communities. At risk youth are nurtured in after school programs that promote confidence and self sufficiency through the arts. A local example of an organization supported by the NEA is the highly successful Artists for Humanity in South Boston, whose mission is to bridge the economic, racial and social divisions by providing underserved youth with the keys to self sufficiency through paid employment in the arts.

According to Safe and Smart: Making the After-School Hours Work for Kids, a research conducted by the U.S Department of Education shows that children who participate in after-school programs generally attain higher academic achievement, behave better in class, handle conflict more effectively and cooperate more with authority figures and with their peers than their counterparts who are not in after-school programs. The National Endowment for the Arts grants awards to state, federal and local non-profits who are making a difference in the life of many children through after school and summer programs in the arts.

In these historic times in our country, the role of the NEA matters today more than ever. The election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president has shed light on many issues of cultural identity, race and multiculturalism in the arts and in our society. A newly re-invigorated dialog on these issues has surfaced and I believe the NEA will be at the center of it in the following years.  In“A Ministry of Culture? Not in America,” published on February 23, 1995, Boston Globe journalist Jeff Jacoby calls for the abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts while ignoring the multicultural fabric of America. Jacoby argues that “the NEA isn’t the mainstay of art in America, the arts have flourished in America for 219 years, the NEA has existed for 30. Copley’s painting, Ive’s scores, Whitman’s poems, O’Neill’s plays, Melville’s novels, Saint Gaudens’ sculptures, Stieglitz photographs- the vast outpouring of art in the United States pre 1965 renders preposterous the notion that art would starve and shrivel without the NEA.”

Shaw Memorial, Boston Common - Augustus Saint Gaudens - Frame by Stanford White

What the author fails to mention is that photographer and champion of Modern Art Alfred Stieglitz grew up in a well to do family whose parents encouraged his artistic pursuits by giving him a monetary allowance, eliminating the need to earn a living by means other than photography. Jacoby also fails to mention that John Singleton Copley went on the Grand Tour, a pivotal moment in the life of some of the wealthiest citizens in our country or that Augustus Saint Gaudens was the son of a successful business owner who sent their son to study sculpture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, one of the world’s most prestigious institutions of architecture and the fine arts.  The most penetrating fact that Jacoby fails to mention when calling for the abolition of the NEA is that the artists he praises as having made it on their own without the help of organizations like the NEA are all White, Anglo-Saxon males. This commentary is problematic because it fails in many ways to acknowledge the ever important multicultural point of view in the art world.

In times of economic difficulties, those who are affected the most tend to be the economically disadvantage people in our society. Can we really afford to further denigrate our society, our values, and our cultural heritage more than we have already done so by abolishing an organization that has broken and has yet to break many boundaries in exchanging dialogues rich in multiculturalism? I beg to differ.

Difficult economic times call for drastic measures and our cultural heritage is the first one to suffer. Recently, President Obama unveiled this year’s fiscal budget and in a surprising blow to those in the field of historic preservation and the arts, the Save America’s Treasures, the nation’s only bricks-and-mortar grant program has been proposed for elimination. The National Endowment for the Arts is in itself the best economic stimulus package there is. According to a recent study released by the National Governors Association titled Arts & the Economy: Using Arts and Culture to Stimulate State Economic Development states, the arts and culture-related industries, provide direct economic benefits to states and communities by creating jobs, attracting investments, generating tax revenues, further stimulating local economies through tourism and consumer purchases.

To further argue for the retention of the NEA, according to research by Americans for the Arts, nonprofit arts organizations and their audiences generate $166.2 billion in economic activity every year, support 5.7 million jobs, and return nearly $30 billion in government revenue every year. Every $1 billion in spending by nonprofit arts and culture organizations and their audiences results in almost 70,000 full time jobs. Without the NEA, many of these small nonprofit arts organizations would be unable to stimulate the economy and create jobs. Much debate is currently going on about the future of the NEA. Its budget is $160 million a year, this means that the government spends an outstanding .51 cents per capita (I hope you can sense my sarcasm here)!

Priority for the arts in America? What priority?

Thank You Paul Goldberger!

Being a tour guide at Trinity Church has its many perks. However, becoming one is a grueling and arduous, but intellectually rewarding journey.  Trinity’s docent undergo a 10 week training course during which one is expected to master the art and architectural history of one of America’s most beloved buildings. Surrounded by H.H. Richardson’s massive Romanesque interior, John Lafarge’s awe inspiring murals, and some of the country’s finest stained glass windows, one of my life long dreams came true on Wednesday November 18, 2009.

Pulitzer Prize winning critic Paul Goldberger, former architectural critic for The New York Times and author of several books including On the Rise: Architecture and Design in a Post-Modern Age and the latest Why Architecture Matters elated (at least I was ecstatic) an audience over 100 people with a lecture titled Architecture, Spirituality and the Challenge of Modernism. Goldberger spoke of the sacred and how it relates to modern architecture and relied on Trinity Church several times  as an example of a building that is “fresh and vibrant [which] transcends our normal sense of time.”

According to Goldberger, architecture must express what is not material, that is, the idea of God. This must be achieved by using the physical to express the transcending. At Trinity Church, Richardson was able to create a work of art by inventing new ways for buildings to inspire and move us. It is a space where time loses its fleeting momentum and grounds each and every one of us who experience its seductive and sumptuous interior.  What architecture has done is to establish a connection between everyday life and the sacred.  Who are we to say that Saarinen’s 1954 Kresge Chapel at MIT, or Safdie’s Class of 1959 Chapel at Harvard Business School or Le Corbusier’s Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp are not sacred places? In the end, what makes a space sacred depends on who is feeling the experience. The same way we all experience a building, we can also be moved by it in different ways.

As to the challenges of modernism? Aesthetics have become indistinguishable from the sacred and as an example; Goldberger spoke of Kahn’s Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas as a model of how art institutions have become the emblems of cultural aspirations. These institutions have chosen to attract the beautiful rather than the divine (to illustrate this point, Goldberger questioned whether the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is considered a sacred place, to Mrs. Gardner it may have been, to others, it may just be another museum).

As a student and a professional, I have been delighted to meet and take classes with well respected scholars in the field of art and architectural history. Having attended this inspiring lecture by Paul Goldberger was not only a dream come true, but it gave me a reason to continue writing, learning and being a critic. Thank you Paul!

The Silent City on a Hill: The Beauty of Mount Auburn Cemetery

mount auburn 4In its most primitive and pristine condition, nature has  influenced the course of art and architecture throughout history. The ancient Egyptians looked to nature and incorporated papyrus leaves as decorative elements in columns. William Morris, leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement, paid homage to nature through his use of vegetal motifs in wallpaper, book covers, furniture and even stained glass.

mount auburn

Fall at Mount Auburn Cemetery

Could you picture yourself going to a cemetery for a walk just like you take a walk in the park in search of inspiration? Although some of my friends find it bizarre that I would go to a cemetery to relax, one can learn many lessons in art, architecture, history and horticulture. Mount Auburn Cemetery, founded in 1831 became the first designed “garden” cemetery in the United States. Designated a National Historic Landmark for possessing significant historical and cultural value for all Americans, Mount Auburn became the “picturesque” role model for other 19th century cemeteries across the country. These cemeteries became thriving institutions for the cultivation of the arts, especially sculpture. Before there were museums, people would go to a cemetery to look at the sculpture and learn about the arts.

Internationally renowned for its outstanding examples of sculpture and architecture, some of the greatest artists of the 19th and 20th centuries including Martin Milmore, Augustus Saint Gaudens, Sarah Wyman Whitman and others, have all left their impression on Mount Auburn Cemetery.

mount auburn 3Mount Auburn is beautiful throughout the year and with all the programming that takes place, there is always an excuse to visit this inspiring place.  Whenever I need to stimulate my senses, I take a walk through the silent paths of Mount Auburn Cemetery, often stopping to sketch, meditate or simply listen to the many birds that make of the cemetery their home. To learn more about Mount Auburn Cemetery, you can take a self guided tour any day of the year or read Silent City on a Hill: Picturesque Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery by Blanche M. G. Linden.