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Spotlight on the Collection

November 2012: The Ascetic Sakyamuni

The Ascetic Sakyamuni. Chinese, Yuan dynasty, about 1300. Wood, fabric, lacquer, and pigment. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William M. Spencer III, 1979.316.

The Ascetic Sakyamuni. Chinese, Yuan dynasty, about 1300. Wood, fabric, lacquer, and pigment. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William M. Spencer III, 1979.316.

The Ascetic Sakyamuni, Chinese

Buddhist practitioners strive for nirvana, or enlightenment, when they no longer yearn for earthly temptations or desires. For Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha and the religion’s most important teacher, this moment came after six years of extreme asceticism, or self-denial. Shortly before his enlightenment, the Buddha finally accepted a meager meal out of physical weakness due to starvation.

Artists depict Sakyamuni in different ways. Sculptures vary in size, materials, and appearance based on the artist’s own culture. Representations like the Ascetic Sakyamuni come from China’s Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). This dynasty’s Mongol rulers supported Buddhism as the state religion in order both to gain the Chinese population’s allegiance as well as to encourage the growth of the arts.

The Ascetic Sakyamuni has features of Southeast Asian peoples. Sakyamuni’s shoulders appear to sink in, provide a visual reference to his starvation. Buddhist artists from other regions of Asia often exaggerated this effect. Possibly, artists also sought to emphasize Sakyamuni’s temperance or to highlight the human suffering that consumed much of his road to nirvana.

Yuan artists emphasized the Buddha’s contemplative nature and devotion to Buddhist ideals. His enlightenment opened the door for his followers to achieve nirvana in their turn.

—Leta Woller, education – visitor engagement intern 2012-2013

Join the conversation!

How far are you willing to go for something you believe in? Sakyamuni came to the brink of starvation in his search for enlightenment. Many people claim that they would risk anything for their family and friends. Do you believe strongly enough about something to say the same? Is there a point at which you should value belief over your own life?

Take a look at these works at the BMA and beyond, and join the conversation!

Saint Bartholomew, Pietro Perugino

Charles Moore’s Photography of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham

“Columbine Students Seek Answers in Their Faith,” The New York Times, June 6, 1999

Spotlight on the Collection

October 2012: Three for Five

Three for Five. John George Brown, 1890. Oil on canvas. Collection of The Art Fund, Inc., at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Ireland, AFI1.1980.

Three for Five. John George Brown, 1890. Oil on canvas. Collection of The Art Fund, Inc., at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Ireland, AFI1.1980.

Three for Five, John George Brown, 1890

Child labor was common in large urban areas in the second half of the 19th century. Parents often forced their children to work out of necessity to support the family.

Street urchins interested John George Brown and other 19th-century artists. The boy in Brown’s Three for Five tries to make a living on the streets; however, he is well groomed and clean, contradicting the viewer’s natural assumption that he is poor. Indeed, the reality of children that worked on the street was much bleaker than Brown suggested.

Realism predominated the art world across much of Europe at the time Brown painted Three for Five. Realist painters captured people and places “true to life.” Why then, when realism was at its height, did Brown gloss over one of the darker sides of society?

One reason may be as old as time itself: money. Potential buyers of Three for Five may not have found an overly realistic portrayal of the plight of street children an acceptable image to display in their homes. Brown’s tidy child would have better suited their idea of “reality.”

Many street children – if they were not immigrants themselves – likely had immigrant parents, and the promise of a better life probably drew them to the United States in the first place. Images of starving, unkempt children did not fit into an idealized vision of America as a land of opportunity.

Born into a working class family, Brown had firsthand experience as an urban child laborer. The Durham, England native spent his late childhood and early adulthood as an apprentice in a glass factory in Newcastle, England and later in New York City. Like many thousands of children in mid 19th-century Europe and America, he left home to work at the height of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, he once claimed “I do not paint poor boys solely because the public likes such pictures and pays me for them, but because I love the boys myself, for I, too, was once a poor lad like them.”

Click here to learn more about Three for Five.

Join the conversation!

Brown’s “reality” of street children may seem strange in the 21st century. Why have raw images of disaster and destitution become socially acceptable, especially in terms of art, film, photojournalism, and video games? Has our society become desensitized to subjects that used to be “off limits”?

Take a look at these works at the BMA and beyond, and join the conversation!

Untitled, Zwelethu Mthethwa

As Seen on TV, Kerry James Marshall

The Barricade, George Bellows

“Garbage Slum,” Jason Rosenbaum, National Geographic

“Child Labor Banned in India,” Sherwin Crasto, National Geographic

Taliban, Luc Delahaye, Chrysler Museum of Art

“Moammar Gadhafi Confirmed Dead: Pictures of Gadhafi’s Body,” International Business Times (Canada edition), October 20, 2011

“It’s Perverse, But It’s Also Pretend,” The New York Times, June 27, 2011

Event Spotlight

Mignon Arrington and Thomas Lunsford

arrington lunsford featureAugust 4, 2012

Mignon Arrington, of Birmingham, and Thomas Lunsford, of Raleigh, North Carolina celebrated their wedding with a reception at the Museum on August 4, 2012.  Mignon and Thomas met while attending the University of North Carolina.  They were introduced by a mutual friend, Samantha, who turned out to be one of Mignon’s bridesmaids, while Samantha’s husband, Graham Terhune, photographed the evening.  The Museum was decorated with beautiful flowers and décor by Lagniappe Designs.   Guests dined on delicious food from A Social Affair, and enjoyed cake from Sweet Magnolia.   Mignon, Thomas, and all of their guests danced the night away with music from The Flashbacks.  At the end of the night, Mignon and Thomas made their way through University of North Carolina shakers as they left the reception.  The couple honeymooned in San Francisco and Sonoma, California and now resides in Birmingham.  We wish Mignon and Thomas a lifetime of happiness!

Caring for Art

Following Our Paper Trail: Caring for the Museum’s Works on Paper Collection

In 1957, Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Wells bequeathed to a young Birmingham Museum of Art an important collection of 53 works on paper. From American masters such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Taylor Arms to Old Masters such as Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt van Rijn, it provided a core collection to build on and it set the bar very high for future acquisitions. The works on paper collection now constitutes about 17% of the collection, and that number is actively growing.

What is a work on paper? The category is very broad. A work on paper might be a print such as a lithograph or an engraving, a drawing, or even a collage made up of multiple pieces of paper. Whatever it’s called, a work on paper is generally made of two components. First, the paper, usually referred to as the “support,” whose primary component is probably cellulose. On top of the paper may be a layer of sizing, or other fillers, used to control the properties of the paper. Applied on top of any sizing is the “media” such as ink (whether applied by hand or mechanically), pigments, graphite, and a whole host of other traditional and modern surface applications.

Prior to the mid-19th century, paper was generally created using cotton or linen fibers, and while the process was labor intensive and expensive, it produced a surprisingly strong and durable product, dubbed “rag” paper. After the mid-19th century, the quality of paper declined as technological advances produced methods for extracting the fibers from the wood. While paper was made inexpensive and abundant, it was also rendered unstable and quick to deteriorate. This type of paper, referred to as “pulp,” becomes acidic, stains easily, and can be very brittle. Because the Museum collection includes works made on both “rag” and “pulp” paper, we work hard to provide optimum conditions for this fragile but important collection.

Caring for works on paper requires careful handling, optimum storage conditions, and strict limitations to light exposure. The works are stored in acid-free (aka archival) mats, and when in storage a sheet of acid-free tissue is inserted between the work of art and the window mat for an additional layer of protection. Attaching a work of art to a mat is usually accomplished with either archival photo corners or, most likely, a Japanese paper hinge carefully adhered with an archival paste. If possible, we store the work of art flat, unframed, in either an archival storage cabinet, or in specialized containers called Solander boxes. Careful handling is always in order, usually wearing nitrile or cotton gloves. Most often we frame our works on paper in a simple walnut stock and protect the work of art from ultraviolet exposure by using Plexiglas glazed with a UV filter. Exposure to light creates irreversible fading; therefore, we strictly limit display of works on paper to three months or less. Afterward, the work is allowed to rest in complete darkness until it is again placed on display. The environment is a critical component to the long-term care of works on paper, so we make certain to provide enough moisture to prevent desiccation of the paper fibers, but not too much moisture, as mold may form. We strive for a range of 45-55% relative humidity, allowing for a very slight seasonal fluctuation. We are frequently asked how to apply our museum standards for home use. Here are somebasics:

1. Control exposure to light. Hang works of art in areas away from windows and strong light, perhaps in a central hallway.

2. When framing, ask your framer to use archival mat board, and insist that all plys are acid free, not just the upper layer. Attach an acid-free backing board, too, for additional support. Ask the framer to use UV-filtering Plexiglas. If you are framing a pastel or charcoal, glass is preferred to prevent static electricity.

3. When storing works on paper, always store them on the primary living floor, not the attic or the basement.

4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if in doubt, seek out professional advice. Archival supplies may be purchased from a variety of suppliers such as Gaylord at www. gaylord.com or University Products at www. universityproducts.com.

Recent Acquisitions

Museum Acquires Four Videos by Young African-American Artists

Heartaches and ToothachesThe Museum recently acquired four new works of contemporary video art, gifts of Birmingham collectors Jack and Rebecca Drake. The videos were created by Kalup Linzy, Kambui Olujimi, Dave McKenzie and Jefferson Pinder, all African American artists born after 1970. These are important additions to the Museum’s growing collection of video art by four exciting young “artists to watch.”

Recent Acquisitions

Limewood Sculpture Enters the Museum’s Collection

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A rare and important work has entered the Museum’s collection. The Murder of King Edward the Martyr at Corfe Castle is one of just three sculptures known by the artist Robert Carpenter (1752-1829), who was born in London, but by 1798 had moved to Bath. The subject dates to 978, when King Edward’s jealous stepmother had him killed so that her own son could ascend to the throne. As the king approaches the walled gate of Corfe Castle on horseback and leans to accept a drink, the assassin appears with a knife.

The scene is exquisitely carved from limewood (also known as linden wood). This soft wood allowed Carpenter to minutely render the scene in great detail. The artist beautifully framed the figural tableau in a shadow box, and signed and dated it on the back. Also on the back is an inscription with thename of Carpenter’s two daughters, identifying the work as a “gift of their beloved father.”

Beginning in early September, The Murder of King Edward the Martyr at Corfe Castle will be on display in the English Gallery.

Recent Acquisitions

A Giant Discovery of Miniature Proportions

1955.56_01_p01In early February, Philadelphia miniatures expert and dealer Elle Shushan, a contributor to the catalogue for the popular exhibition The Look of Love, visited the BMA. Curator of American Art Graham Boettcher invited Shushan into collection storage to examine the Museum’s small and little-studied collection of American portrait miniatures. Opening the drawer of a storage cabinet, a portrait of a woman in early-19th-century attire caught Shushan’s eye. Although the piece was housed in a damaged 20th-century frame beneath a badly yellowed plastic cover, Shushan immediately recognized it to be the work of Edward Malbone (1777-1807), the foremost American miniaturist of the late-18th and early-19th centuries. An old typewritten label affixed to the back of the frame supported Shushan’s attribution and identified the sitter as Mary Hooper Shaw Fleming of North Carolina.

How did this important miniature enter the Museum’s permanent collection and how had it escaped notice for nearly 60 years? Research conducted by Associate Registrar Mary Villadsen revealed that the miniature was given to the Museum in 1955 by Mrs. Valentine J. Nesbit, in memory of Birmingham miniaturist Caroline Couper Stiles Lovell (1862-1947). According to correspondence with the Museum, the miniature was a gift from Lovell to Mrs. Nesbit’s mother. Nesbit mistakenly believed it to be Lovell’s work. Although the miniature was accepted by the Museum’s Acquisition Committee on December 5, 1955, at that time—for reasons unknown—it was not considered part of the permanent collection, and therefore never assigned an acquisition number.

Additional research by Boettcher revealed that Lovell was a lateral descendant of Malbone, and that her family’s estate in Cartersville, Georgia, was named Malbone in his honor. Lovell possessed a number of Malbone’s original miniatures, one of which she lent to an exhibition of his work at the National Gallery of Art in 1929. It was also discovered that a nearly identical miniature can be found in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.

The sitter Mary Hooper (1779/1780-1831)—later Mrs. James Shaw and Mrs. Alexander Fleming—was the niece of William Hooper (1742-1790), a North Carolina signer of the Declaration of Independence. After an appropriate frame is acquired, the miniature will go on display in the Museum’s Styslinger Gallery of American Art.

Giving News

Donor Profile: Dr. Erica Liebelt

Instead of throwing a lavish soiree in honor of her 50th birthday, Museum patron and supporter Dr. Erica Liebelt opted to celebrate the Birmingham Museum of Art and her love for children with the establishment of a new endowment to support student field trips to the Museum. Thanks to her philanthropic spirit, students from Birmingham City Schools will soon have the proper transportation to shuttle them back and forth to theMuseum on field trips free of charge.

“With school funding being cut for arts and music programs I felt this was a way to contribute a tiny piece of the puzzle to enriching a child’s life,” she says. “When I found out there was a problem getting students to the Museum, I knew I had to help. So instead of making my 50th birthday a milestone for me, I wanted to make it a milestone for other people, especially children.”

A pediatrician and avid BMA volunteer and ambassador, Dr. Liebelt saw the need for more art education during speaking engagements at local Birmingham schools where she’d talk about upcoming Museum exhibitions. “I remember going out to the schools and seeing the need and thirst for knowledge these students had about art.”

Her own thirst for art developed as a child growing up in Texas during Sunday outings to local museums with her mother. Although she eventually pursued a career in medicine, she cultivated her own artistic nature by reading art books and taking art history classes while an undergraduate. Today she extends her support to the art community through her affiliation with the BMA’s European Art Society, the support group for members particularly interested in European art. She has contributed financially to a variety of BMA projects over the years, including a significant recent purchase of art reference materials.

It’s this generosity of spirit and enthusiasm for both the arts and children’s issues that has led to another accolade for Dr. Liebelt. She was recently named “Art Patron of the Year” by the Arts and Lectures Club of Shelby County for her contribution to the BMA bus fund. “I was shocked and honored,” she says. “But being a pediatrician I am committed to advocating for the well being of children not only from a health standpoint but a general standpoint,” she says. “I love interacting with children. I think that their curiosity, magical thinking, and ability to laugh, despite their illness, is something that motivates me a lot.”

Caring for Art

Protecting Our Material Assets

Some of the most fragile objects in the Museum collection are made of fabric. Our textiles range from delicate silk brocades to hardy raffia piles, collected from all over the world, and ranging in date from 1100 AD to today. Unfortunately, natural fiber textiles are in a state of deterioration literally from the moment of their creation. In order to make these works of art available for the enjoyment of future generations, the Museum carefully controls how they’re displayed and stored.

What actually causes a textile to deteriorate? Poor handling, storage, and display play an important role. A hostile and fluctuating environment accelerates the inevitable degradation of the fibers, but it also contributes to the formation of mold and invites pests, particularly the very damaging clothes moth.

The Museum collection contains hundreds of quilts, rugs and other flat textiles. When a textile arrives at the museum, we perform a physical assessment to determine if it’s stable, or if outside treatment is required. Sometimes the object is compromised and requires the services of a professional textile conservator, even for something as simple as cleaning, since we know that during the cleaning process the dyes can run and permanently damage the object.

If deemed to be in sound condition, the object is prepared for storage. Flat textiles, such as quilts, rugs, and runners, are rolled, never folded, as folds will stress the fabric and inevitably cause creases and breaks. As a general rule, the textile should be rolled “right side out”, so as to reduce stress on layers and minimize possible wrinkling on any dimensional component such as trapunto, beading, or thick pile. We leave several inches of exposed tube on each side for ease of handling, and fully interleave the entire textile with acid-free tissue.

The final step is to cover the rolled textile with a protective covering, secure the cover with cotton twill ties, and attach an identification photo to the tube end. The tube is then threaded with a dowel and suspended in a custom-designed textile storage cabinet. The storage environment is maintained at a constant 68 degrees and 50% relative humidity, with this humidity range high enough to avoid desiccation of the fabrics but low enough to avoid formation of mold. Occasionally a flat textile will incorporate some type of paint treatment, and since rolling might cause the paint surface to delaminate from the substrate, these textiles are ideal candidates for a flat type of storage and should not be rolled.

Many of these practices can be adapted to caring for your family heirlooms. Acid free rolling tubes and interleaving tissues are available for purchase from www.universityproducts.com or www.gaylord.com. A low-cost substitution for an acid-free tube would be a rigid carpeting tube or a new construction Sonotube, covered with a high quality polyethylene, then wrapped with a pre-washed 100% cotton bed sheet or pre-washed muslin. Instead of a tube, some collectors opt instead to make a “snake” from tightly rolled pre-washed bed sheets.

When preparing your personal collection for storage, first make sure the textile is stable and appropriate to roll. Before handling the textile make certain your hands are freshly washed and devoid of lotions or jewelry. Carefully roll the textile around the tube or “snake”, using the principles briefly described above, making sure to roll straight and not crease the fabric, all the while interleaving with acid-free tissue or a pre-washed bed sheet.

Now, protect the object from dust by rolling the exterior with one final bed sheet or muslin, tuck the ends inside the tube ends, and secure all with several loose ribbons of cotton twill tape. If you opted for a fabric “snake” as your central support, the ends can be gathered and secured with the twill.

Next, consider where you will store the textile, since humidity in a typical home fluctuates according to season and time of day. A good rule of thumb is to always store the textile where you live. In other words, never store the textile in the attic or the basement, opting instead for storage on the home’s main floor, perhaps under the bed or on a designated shelf in the bedroom closet.

Remember, too, that light is an enemy of textiles, so whether in storage or on display, be sure to control or eliminate exposure to both natural and artificial light. By applying these simple concepts you’ll preserve Grandma’s quilt for future generations. In the next newsletter we’ll discuss how the Museum cares for its works on paper and how you might apply those principles to caring for your collection, too.