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Paper + People is a blog about the Smith College Museum of Art’s collection of over 18,000 prints, drawings, and photographs. Here you will find a diverse array of posts written by museum staff, students, scholars, and other paper enthusiasts about anything pertaining to the collection.

Any works you see featured here are available to view by appointment.

  • Wednesday, July 3, 2013

    Walton Ford and a Trip to Wingate Studios

    Guest blogger Emma Casey is a Smith College student, class of 2015, majoring in Spanish. She is the 2013-2015 STRIDE Scholar in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

    This past spring, my advanced printmaking class took a field trip to Peter Pettengill’s professional intaglio workshop and publisher, Wingate Studio in southwestern New Hampshire (pictured above). Pettengill, Wingate’s founder and master printmaker, was trained at Crown Point Press in San Francisco from 1979 through 1985, at which point he opened Wingate. He gave us a tour of his studio and showed us works by various artists made prints at Wingate over the past few years.

    The work of contemporary American artist Walton Ford drew my attention. Ford works in the style of 19th century naturalist artists, namely ornithologist John James Audubon, to create naturalistic illustrations, paintings, and prints of avifauna (birds). From afar, Ford’s works appear strictly observational, but upon closer scrutiny, many levels of narrative and socio-historical critique become evident. Each avifauna subject is depicted life-sized, and is often accompanied by text. Ford’s backgrounds have a sketchy, less defined quality, and stain-like splotches appear on the borders in a faux antique style. 

    Walton Ford. American, born 1960. Condemned,2004-2007. Etching and aquatint printed in color on paper. Gift of Walton Ford through the Smith College Print Workshop. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2007:6

    The ambition of his prints is remarkable. The hours involved in etching six tightly-registered copper intaglio plates for each print shows in the precision and skill of his works. Ford’s beautifully executed prints and watercolors critique human actions and history. Drawing from colonialism, industrialization and environmentalism, Ford questions the effects of these phenomena on the animal world through both serious and joking imagery.

    Ford’s Condemned,a print in the SCMA collection, depicts an extinct Carolina Parakeet. By the 1880s, the birds’ numbers suffered at the hands of farmers who considered them an agricultural pest. Flocks plagued orchards, destroying fruit in search of seeds. The American Ornithologists Union declared the Parakeet extinct in 1939. Ford has memorialized the small bird, including its scientific name. Condemnedincorporates a quote from the American serial killer Carl Panzram (1891-1930), who wrote to capital punishment protesters while on death row in 1929, “I wish that you all had one neck and that I had my hands on it.” Ford appropriates this quote, which is prominently scrawled above the Carolina Parakeet. It is ambiguous whether these words are the voice of a farmer or one of the birds; as each is ruining the other’s life, but with different consequences of varying severity.


  • Thursday, June 20, 2013

    Vija Celmins: Always on the Surface

    Vija Celmins. American, born 1939. Untitled [Waves],1970. Lithograph printed in two grays on Rives BFK paper. Purchased. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1976:8-1.

    Since the 1960s, Vija Celmins has been depicting the sprawling surfaces of the ocean, moon, desert floor, and night sky in remarkable detail. Her earliest works include a series of seemingly identical ocean surface images, including her 1970 lithograph Untitled [Waves]. This work is also one of Celmins’ earliest attempts at printmaking and has been called “one of the finest and scarcest American prints of the 1970s.”

    In Untitled [Waves],Celmins renders the water with no visible depth, horizon lines, or other perspectival elements. While this is not a typical picturesque image of the ocean, the careful rendering is utterly captivating. Its mesmerizing hyperrealism draws the viewer into this shallow space and allows the eye to wander indefinitely. Despite Celmins’ obsessive repetition of the same ocean surface image in many different works from this period, she attests that for her water has no personal or symbolic significance: “It really went into a kind of rigorous building, and letting the material be the material. Letting the image be more and more like an armature. In some of these, the image is almost nothing.”

    By Celmins’ own assertion, her work is first and foremost an exploration of the process of creating images and the physical properties of the medium with which she is working. In her ocean series, the works seem almost identical at first glance but are actually subtly individualized. For each work, Celmins uses just one drawing implement for the whole image; a soft 3B pencil, a hard 8H pencil, or a lithographic crayon (as in Untitled [Waves]) create different tonal qualities and marks in each of her works.

                                                          Detail of Untitled [Waves].

    Drawing from a photograph of an ocean surface rather than by direct observation, Celmins distances herself from her original object of study. Working exclusively from her own photographs, an amorphous substance like water is distilled into sculptural forms of life and shadow, both allowing her to focus on the tonal possibilities of the medium and rendering the works devoid of symbolism, narrative, and specific context. By negating specificity in her images, Celmins explores the physical process of making a drawing or print. Celmins states: “I don’t think of the ‘ocean image’ as an image or something I’m interested in. I think of it as a way of identifying a piece of work that I can always return to… to work on…to perfect… to make ‘real’…” She uses water not as a subject in its own right but merely as a means of exploring the physical creative process – as a form to describe from a cool, unaffected distance.


  • Thursday, June 13, 2013

    Curiouser and Curiouser

    Guest blogger Janna Singer-Baefsky is a Smith College student, class of 2015, with a major in Art History and concentration in Museum Studies. She is a Student Assistant in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

    …when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it…” - Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland(1865).

    Joe McHugh. American, 20th Century. The White Rabbit in Wonderland,ca. before 1968. Lithograph printed in color on paper. Purchased. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2011:38-83.

    The story of Alice in Wonderlandbegan as a tale to pass the time on a long boat ride one lazy summer afternoon in 1862. English author, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, pen-name Lewis Carroll, recounted the adventure to Oxford University Vice-Chancellor Henry Liddell’s three daughters – one of whom, Alice, insisted he write it down for her. In late November 1864, he handed her the finished copy as an early Christmas present and by 1865 it had been published. The book, an international best-seller among adults and children alike has imagery, symbolism, and quotations that pervade every aspect of popular culture.

    Readers of all ages developed theories to explain and understand the nonsensical conversations, whimsical scenery, and Alice’s perpetual dreamlike state. One likens her journey to an acid trip, and no piece of art better captures this idea than Joe McHugh’s psychedelic poster The White Rabbit in Wonderland,on view until September 15, 2013 in Summer of Love: Psychedelic Posters from SCMA.Printed before 1968, during a peak year in the use of mind-expanding narcotics, the poster features contrasting neon colors layered over one another and photographs of iconic Alice in Wonderland imagery. One does not need any drugs to feel the full effect of his hallucinogenic style.

                                             Detail of Joe McHugh's The White Rabbit in Wonderland.

    The photographs depict some of the most recognizable imagery from the story – the bottle labeled “DRINK ME,” the mushroom Alice eats to change size, a deck of cards scattered over a checkerboard floor, and a white rabbit. The rabbit (which looks suspiciously like my own…) stands on its hind feet in the center against an open black square suggesting the rabbit hole itself or the door that Alice falls through when she cries a flood of tears. The photographs alone form a collage of familiar iconography and there is little that is psychedelic about them. It is the overlapping neon colors and shapes that begin on the rabbit’s face and spiral out that create the hypnotic scene. The longer you stare, the more details become apparent. At the top, undulating green letters become clear and separate from the squiggly background shapes. The words form KEEP YOUR HEAD, perhaps as a tribute to the Queen of Hearts or the classic song by Jefferson Airplane, and arch over the central scene. The cork of the DRINK ME bottle is actually a mushroom. The turtle-like shape on the far left is a knight, who perhaps escaped from the chess board at the bottom.

                                               Detail of Joe McHugh's The White Rabbit in Wonderland.

    At first glance, the poster is overwhelmingly full of colors and images. As the eyes adjust to the brilliant shades of hot pink, lime green, orange, blue, purple, and red a narrative becomes clear. The rabbit is what prompts Alice’s adventure and similarly, his central placement pulls us in. The iconic pictures surrounding him in a circular fashion takes us on a journey throughout Wonderland and eventually spiral back into that endless black square. Like Alice, it is easy to become lost for several hours in a work this detailed and complex. The longer you stare at such an intricately kaleidoscopic piece you could begin to think you’ve gone mad. But, as Lewis Carroll himself once wrote: “I’ll tell you a secret. The best people are.”