Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Charles James at the Met

There's a spectacular exhibition about the designer Charles James at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I went to see it with my mother-in-law, daughter and niece and we all loved it.  The exhibition is divided between two galleries on two separate floors -- not ideal and a bit hard to find -- but that's a small detraction from an otherwise superbly executed exhibition.

James began his career as a milliner in Chicago and hats from his earlier days were on display.  It was said that he would mold the hats on his more courageous clients heads to ensure a personalized fit, with a brim that perfectly suited their face.

In the late 1940s and 50s, James made seemingly innumerable gowns, cocktail dresses, and elegant coats.  He was a master at sculpting and draping cloth in fascinating and compelling ways.  His patterning and construction technique was so unique that he kept muslin forms so others could learn from his designs.

As lovely as the muslins are, see how the patterns translated when used with finer materials:

(The lighting in most of the exhibition is very low; I altered the exposure so you might see more, but these colors aren't true.  The red is much deeper and richer.)

Part of the focus of the exhibition was to help viewers understand, to the extent a layperson can, the way the pattern pieces were sewn together.  All of the gowns in one of the galleries had a small camera-like light before it which highlighted sections of the dress.  Next to it, these sections simultaneously appeared on a flat screen.  The pieces were then animated so we could watch a virtual construction of the dress, from skirt to bodice.  It was fascinating.

Many of James' gowns have names, such as the Butterfly Dress and the Tree Dress.  I couldn't take notes in the darkness of the rooms so sadly, I can't share them with you accurately.  But suffice to say they added an element of delightful whimsy to the elegance.

Here is a storyboard of sketches and articles, gathered together for a planned autobiography (1958-64).  I'm in awe of the fluid lines of James' sketches and I found it fascinating to read who wore these works of art.

Though made more than a half century ago, the style of the dresses have withstood the test of time.  I can imagine this dress appearing in today's fashion magazines or on the red carpet.

Fashion students were sketching, staring, and taking notes in abundance in the smaller, brighter gallery. Though not a student nor someone who sews clothes, I too was looking closely and examining the garments as much as I could.  I was amazed at how James took predominantly geometrically shape pattern pieces and, with well placed seams, fashioned soft drapes and gorgeous lines. If time allows, I would like to go see this again so I can absorb a bit more.  I hope you'll find the opportunity to go see this fabulous exhibition, too.

Thursday, July 17, 2014


My "lazy days of summer" have been jammed packed with activities: a week at my youngest's national dance competition, hosting my in-laws for a weeklong visit from the Midwest, and docent-ing. Yes, I know that docent-ing isn't technically a word, but I believe it should be.  In my experience, the act of being a docent is a verb.

Let me explain....

STEP 1: When I began my inquiries into being a docent for the Katonah Museum of Art, the head of the Education Department made it clear that being a docent was akin to taking a new art-related college course every few months in preparation for each new exhibition.  Practically, what does that mean?  It means that three to four weeks before an opening, all the docents attend several hours of lectures/presentations to familiarize us with the artwork in the upcoming exhibition, along with all the interesting factoids, personal stories, and tidbits that are all fodder for interesting and accurate tours.  For the current exhibition at the Museum, Iceland: Artists Respond to Place, we also had group lessons on the correct pronunciation of the Icelandic artists' names.

Detail of "Untitled" by Eggert Petursson, included in the current exhibition

STEP 2:  I have to learn this material, inside and out.  There is typically at least one single-spaced page of information on each artist and their artwork.  Some artwork is more familiar: Jasper Johns prints didn't require a huge learning curve because I was already knew bits about his career and recognized his work.  Nothing was familiar about the Icelandic artists.  (I did learn that one of the artists in the KMA exhibition, Olafur Eliasson was also responsible for the 2008 installations called "New York City Waterfalls", a Public Arts Fund project.)   Other than this reference, all the material was new to me.

New York City Waterfalls, Olafur Eliasson; photo credit, New York Times
NOT part of the current KMA exhibition

I have to prepare a tour.  It's one thing to be able to spew facts about artwork.  It's a completely different thing to be able to present the information in conjunction with the artwork, not sound like a robot AND do it all in 40 minutes. This preparation starts with a lot of thinking and then requires walking through the exhibition (nothing beats seeing it in person) and really contemplating the work, anticipating what is unique about each piece, and finding ways to present the work in an interesting and engaging way.  To facilitate this, the Museum always has a seasoned docent give a "first look" tour to the rest of the group.  Attending an advance tour has multiple benefits: anticipating questions, understanding pace -- it's harder to do than you'd think -- and establishing a flow between the artwork.  More thinking follows.

Once I feel ready, I have to give a one-on-one practice tour to the head of the education department.  This is the time I am evaluated so the Museum can determine if I'm ready to be in front of the public on their behalf.  I'm evaluated on a slew of criteria ranging from eye contact to my transitions between artwork and my overall thesis.  This evaluation is necessary to ensure that we are ready to be engaging experts and very public faces of the museum.

I give tours.  I'm pleased to report that I've passed my evaluation and have been approved to guide tours for the Iceland exhibition.  This exhibition is open through the end of September, at which point I'll have already started the process again in preparation for the next exhibition.

So what do you think?  Should docenting should be a word?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

From "notes for an oration at Braintree"

This 4th of July weekend, it seems apropos to quote from one of our founding fathers, John Adams.  These thoughts on government are taken from pages of his journal, notes he made for an oration which he never gave.

Government is nothing more than the combined force of society, or the united power of the multitude, for the peace, order, safety, good and happiness of the people.... There is no king or queen bee distinguished from all others, by size or figure or beauty and variety of colors, in the human hive.  no man has yet produced any revelation form heaven in his favor, any divine communication to govern his fellow men.  Nature throws us all into the world equal and alike...

The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people.  As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved....

Ambition is on of the more ungovernable passions of the human heart.  The love of power is insatiable and uncontrollable....

There is danger from all men.  The only maxim of free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.

John Adams, David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, 2001, pp. 69-70