Marathoners, police chases, bats. . . and the Croton Aqueduct

I can’t believe it’s been exactly a year since I uploaded this audio! Last spring, my second semester preservation studio developed an interpretive plan for the Croton Waterworks, a complex system of historic infrastructure that winds from rural towns north of New York City down into the heart of Manhattan. Our team of twelve researched and documented hundreds of structures, studied existing legal protections and threats, and worked with the many stakeholders along the aqueduct’s path to design signage and collaborate on a comprehensive plan for conveying the often-ignored system’s history and significance to varied audiences.

The Croton Waterworks’ century-and-a-half and forty-one miles have left a trail of not only structures but also stories. Of the many pleasures I experienced in working on the project, my favorite was the privilege to hear and record longtime Westchester residents as they reminisced and discussed their personal views of the aqueduct’s significance. Remnants of the system’s conclusion in Manhattan are quiet: fragments of the Murray Hill Reservoir lie generally unvisited in the New York Public Library, and it is easy to walk past a Croton gatehouse and, without knowing its significance, perceive it as simply one more handsome structure fading into the crowded city’s built landscape. For residents of Westchester County, where the system originates, the aqueduct has a louder presence. We knew that our interpretation would be incomplete without consulting residents, so I took the train up to Westchester to conduct mini-oral histories in Croton and Ossining, two towns where the Waterworks are integrated into everyday life.

One of my gracious subjects was Captain Scott Craven of the Ossining Police Force, who shared his memories of growing up alongside the aqueduct and explained how the police make use of the Croton structures in unexpected ways. My afternoon ended with a tour of the police station, a chat with the Chief of Police and other officers about their own memories of the Aqueduct, and even an escort back to the train station (which I’m pleased to say has been my only experience in a police car). I left Westchester assured that preservation is not only about buildings; it is also very much about people.

I’ll post more Croton oral history clips in the coming weeks; for now, enjoy the tales of Captain Scott!

Learn more about the Aqueduct and our project, and check out the finished product.

“I would not be a biographer for all the tea in China.”

In progress (with chianti)

Bound (and determined)

Tomorrow, I don my preservationist armor and go to the defense of my master’s thesis, that tome which has kept me constant company — and often, kept me from this blog — over the past seven months. Currently titled “Concealed Certainty and Undeniable Conjecture: Placing Marginalized Heritage,” it explores the challenges of interpreting sites related to under-documented community heritage. I suppose I could publish it here as a series of thirty 1000-word posts…but instead, I’ll settle for sharing my epigraph, which in fact isn’t settling at all. This paragraph opens Mary Oliver’s essay “Steepletop,” featured in her collection Blue Pastures. As a young aspiring poet in 1953, Mary wrote to Norma Millay to ask if she could visit Steepletop, the home of the late poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Norma’s sister and Mary’s literary idol. Norma’s consent resulted in a friendship between the two women. Mary lived at Steepletop off and on for seven years—including the period of her schooling at Vassar, Vincent’s alma mater—and helped Norma to organize her sister’s papers. In this essay, Mary directly addresses her experience sorting through the stored papers and stories Norma shared with her: stories that I long to hear, because Steepletop happens to be one of the five case study sites in my thesis. I’ll admit, I grew a bit teary when I came across these lines; as many day-long coffee dates as my thesis and I had shared, I knew that I had reached the heart of it when I read Mary Oliver’s words.

“Biographers, of all writers, have need of prayers, and answered prayers. The graceful angles and sinuations of clean prose may finally be chiseled from the language, but what of the material itself? How can the biographer know when enough is known, and known with sufficient certainty? What about secrets, what about errors, what about the small black holes where there is nothing at all? What about the wranglings among minor characters, the withholding of facts for thoughtful and not-so-thoughtful reasons—or their mishandling—and this not even in the present but in the past, hidden in letters, in remembered conversations, in reams of papers? And what about the waywardness of life itself—the proclivity toward randomness—the sudden meaningless uplift of wind that tosses out one sheet of paper and keeps another? What about the moment that speaks worlds, as the saying goes, but in the middle of the night, and into deaf ears, and so is never heard, or heard of? I would not be a biographer for all the tea in China.”

Mary Oliver walking in the graveyard at Steepletop. Photo by Helen Atwan, http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2008/05/on-the-road-wit.html

Mary Oliver, “Steepletop,” Blue Pastures, (Orlando: Harcourt Books, 1991): 73-74.

Sandstorms and birthdays

Soon after the fall that would eventually end her life, my grandma thought of sandstorms in Australia. She spoke of this phenomenon and this place that she had never seen in her ninety years with an urgency and fixation that we could not explain. During my days visiting a Texas hospital, though I did not know they would be my last with her, I scribbled down her words — because she so often recorded mine in her journal when we spoke on the phone, and because she had always spoken in truths, and I knew this riddle must be no different: “Are you familiar with the sandstorms in Australia? They come to take the land, infiltrate everything. I’ve been fighting them all my life. Now the sand has filled my house. Go check on it.”

I would see her house once more, staying there to attend her funeral two months later, and all was still. There was no sand. But now that house, with its grey-blue carpet and its ceiling glitter — like stars, I had always thought, or was it silver-coated sand — belongs to someone else, and I think I know what she meant. As I described when I began this blog in her honor, Grandma had archived her own history, and so mine, too, keeping daily records of her travels and phone calls and meals, of the thank-you notes she received after gift-giving, of the origin of every thimble and china dish in her collections. In our last days together, she was telling me why she lived this way, as if by means of that timeless metaphor, the sands of time: it was time that came to take the land, time she had been fighting, time she feared had finally filled her house. Her crewelwork and photos on the walls, the smell of caramel and cherry and buttermilk pies, the files and boxes of clippings, photos, letters, lists, all of it has been deconstructed now, deaccessioned among her family. We couldn’t save her house from the sandstorms, but they haven’t won.

My grandma, Vera B. Stallcup Taylor, and her beloved sister, Beth Stallcup Young. Grandma loved this photograph that hung in a convex oval frame on her bedroom wall.

Today, on what would have been Grandma’s ninety-second birthday, my sister and I will fool the hourglass, share memories of her, play her favorite card games, fight sandstorms. And eat pie; there will always be pie.

 

From museum to stage: Alice Austen’s larky life

courtesy of Sundog Theatre

House museums, the root form of the historic preservation movement in the US, seem often to face questions regarding continued relevance in an ever-evolving field. But for me, house museums have always been a favorite way of engaging with history, and played a significant role in my becoming a preservationist. Since moving to New York, one example I’ve become fond of is Clear Comfort, the home and studio of Alice Austen (1866-1952), who has been called “the earliest American woman of importance in photography.” The house on Staten Island (a c.1700 Dutch farmhouse remodeled as a Gothic Revival cottage) is now a museum under the Historic House Trust.

It’s also the setting of a new musical: Sundog Theatre‘s original production, If You Could See: The Alice Austen Story. I was fortunate to sit in the front row for the musical’s Manhattan opening this week, and it was surreal to watch a house and story I’ve researched and written about, transformed to song and stage. The show spans decades and interweaves the stories of young Alice, living what she called the “larky life” with partner Gertrude Tate at Clear Comfort, and Alice in her late 80s, discovered in a poor farm by Oliver Jensen of LIFE Magazine, who sought permission to print her photographs. Alice’s life, love, and work play out against a backdrop of the arrival of immigrants in New York, the rise of industrialization, and the stock market crash, which ultimately tore Alice and Gertrude from Clear Comfort. Provided by the house museum, the show’s physical backdrop is a series of Alice’s photographs projected on a screen. While I tend to resist the use of digital images in theatre productions, in this case it was one of my favorite elements of the show; the archival photographs bring the house to the stage, and are especially poignant when juxtaposed with the actors’ restagings, little tableaux vivants of Alice’s friends alongside her own own visions of them.

Clear Comfort

The house museum has been criticized in the past (including, admittedly, by me) for its arguably outdated interpretation of Alice’s life, but its story has increasingly emerged to light, and If You Could See represents a renewal of much-deserved appreciation for Alice as a groundbreaking woman and artist. After the show, I overheard audience members expressing eagerness to visit or revisit Clear Comfort. The house museum musical seems to me to be a pretty promising new genre!

As Sundog Theatre says, “Alice’s world is remarkably similar to ours, making If You Could See a musical for our time – celebrating a significant artist and true American iconoclast.” Catch the final performances of If You Could See at Manhattan’s Five Angels Theatre this weekend, and visit Clear Comfort on Staten Island, the actual stage set of a remarkable larky life.

Tenement Museum: Telling the many stories of a 5-story building

the Tenement Museum, courtesy of ahistoryofnewyork.com

97 Orchard Street may not have been a model tenement, but its current incarnation as the Tenement Museum serves as a model of responding to challenges in interpretation. First, it has devised a clever solution to the question of encouraging repeat visitors to a historic site, and simultaneously broadening the diversity of that audience. The museum offers eight different guided tours that appeal to a variety of interests, including five tours that explore the building’s physical stories through the lens of historic residents’ life stories, and three walking tours of the neighborhood that set the tenement itself into wider contexts. Using the floors of 97 Orchard as microcosms of the building’s history, and by extension the history of the tenement form in New York City, the five building tours, one hour each, rely largely on visitors’ imagination and sense of empathy to animate the rooms. In one case that is specifically advertised for families, the “Confino Family Living History Program,” a costumed interpreter assists with this animation, demonstrating the museum’s plan of appealing to different audiences through strategic interpretative methods.

As an indecisive person, I was a bit overwhelmed upon first visiting the museum’s website. Which of the tour options would provide me with the best sense of the tenement’s history? After poking around reviews and travel forums to gauge the tours’ popularity, I chose “Getting By.” This tour, which took place on the second floor of the building, visited the restored apartments of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family in the 1870s and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family in the 1930s. While I was initially disappointed that my experience of the building would be limited to one level, and a bit skeptical that an hour-long tour could sustain interest while restricted to two small apartments, I was ultimately impressed with the scope of the experience and saw the benefits of offering multiple tours.

The reason that one floor was sufficient material for an hour was that the interpreter used each apartment as the setting for telling the story of a family who actually lived there, and then generating a discussion of the family’s conditions in relation to a modern context. She interwove the historical accounts with questions designed to help the audience observe certain characteristics of the apartments and to connect with the families, not only by occupying the space they once inhabited but also by considering the emotions and thought processes that might have accompanied certain events in the history. These questions ranged from “What does the word ‘tenement’ make you think of?” to “What would you do if you were Natalie Gumpertz and your husband disappeared?,” from “How does the 1930s apartment look different from the 1870s apartment?” to “How did your own ancestors get by in the Depression?”

Throughout the tour, the interpreter was clear about what facts the museum did and did not know, even passing around the documents that were the basis for the museum’s research. She encouraged visitors to fill in the gaps between these facts with their own conjectures and experiences, as opposed to fabricating a narrative undifferentiated from fact. It was unclear whether the furnishings and objects in the apartments were original artifacts (although the guide later clarified that many were), and these objects were often not identified or interpreted. The goal of the tour was not to experience individual elements of the apartments, which again were quite small, but to experience each space as a whole. The few objects with which visitors interacted—turning the light switch to experience the hallway in historically-accurate darkness, passing around a sad iron to feel its weight—were used to produce the effect of simulation and help visitors to better relate, even at a corporeal level, to the families whose stories they were hearing.

the Baldizzi kitchen, courtesy of the Tenement Museum

This sense of connection reached a climax when the interpreter paused before leaving the Baldizzi apartment to play for us a bit of oral history from the Baldizzi daughter Josephine, now an older woman. As we stood in the kitchen, Josephine described concrete memories of how her family used that space, while the interpreter subtly directed our attention to the objects to which Josephine was referring—Linit Starch, a gas heater, a set of Chinese checkers. Through these multiple means of interaction, interweaving documented facts, visitor-driven speculation, object-based simulation, oral history, and personal reflection, the Tenement Museum has addressed the challenges of engaging visitors, appealing to universal themes and to both emotions and intellects, and guiding visitors to discover their own sense of the significance of this historic place. In the end, the visitors from Texas, California, Australia, and the native New Yorkers on the tour with me could all relate to the families who had lived in the tenement. The comments that I heard afterward multiple times were “great research” and “great story;” I think that both were key to the Tenement Museum’s interpretation plan.

Joel Sternfeld on photographing the High Line

The High Line, an elevated rail line reincarnated as a park, is a new mecca for historic preservation in New York City, and one of my favorite places on the planet. Climbing up the stairs in the rain felt tonight, as it does every time I visit the park, like ascending to a secret dimension threaded through the top of the city, both suspended in time and crystallizing time’s passage. Joel Sternfeld created a similar effect through his photography of the park before its transformation, an assignment the Friends of the High Line gave him in 2000. Tonight he spoke about the images he captured of the wildflowers and weeds that had claimed the rails after the last train passed through in 1980 (notoriously lugging frozen turkeys). These photos helped to seed the movement that rescued the High Line from demolition.

These days, the High Line is rarely empty, but Sternfeld had the place to himself as he pursued the perfect images to tell the High Line’s story. “It was my own private park for one year,” he said, because “the money shot takes time.” He photographed on days when the sky was “neutral, so that if there were any beauty in the picture, it couldn’t be attributed to my ability as a photographer, or to the day: it was emanating from the High Line itself.” He recalled one day in particular when it seemed to be his personal utopia: “There was no place else on earth that I would rather be…it was exquisite.”

After the High Line’s metamorphosis, Sternfeld felt disoriented in the place he had come to know so intimately; he compared the impression to losing a limb: “Every now and then, I feel a little bit of phantom pain for the old High Line.” In a sense, though, this is a sweet sort of pain that any visitor to the High Line can experience to a degree; the ghost of the High Line’s past life remains in the park by invitation. Sternfeld came to see the power of the rail line’s new form, especially as the product of a passionate group of people overcoming opposition, as well as for its link to his interest in environmental conservation. “The great value of the High Line now is as a symbol,” he said. “This is hope symbolized.” He stressed the importance of completing the park; Section 2 opened in June, but Section 3’s development is pending. “I don’t know which is harder: to solve global warming or to get something done in New York City,” he said, “but I hope that we’ll all join in this fight to truly save the High Line.”

Next week, my architectural photography class is making an excursion to the park. It will probably be a lifetime before I get anything approaching a “money shot,” but I think I will benefit from remembering Sternfeld’s approach: translating the insistent history of the place, but first quietly letting the High Line speak for itself.

Ezra Pound and sensor soldering

Yesterday (for five hours), my classmates and I sat in a sprawling circle in our presentation gallery and introduced our nascent master’s theses to the faculty. Topics veered around the room from house museum interpretation to dolomitic limestone, from analyzing historic building forms to designing additions. My sense of preservation’s interdisciplinary inclusiveness is so often renewed in this program. After all, good old James Marston Fitch said that “preservationists must also be generalists. That is, they must see their own special area of expertise as being only one strand in a larger fabric, the warp and woof of which consist of many other coequal and coexistent specialties.”

The experience that has most memorably illustrated this point for me, in an almost absurd way, came during a course that I took in my first semester, “Interactive Environments + Preservation.” Taught by new media leads from the innovative design firm Rockwell Group, the class explored the technologies that create interactive architectural environments, the use of sensors in spatial storytelling, and how interactive interventions might facilitate preservation. One of the first class meetings was held at Rockwell Group’s offices. Gathered in a lab lined with material samples, at a table next to a model of the set for the 2010 Oscar telecast, we gave brief presentations on why we had chosen specific spaces for which we would develop hypothetical interventions. (I had chosen my subway station.) We then discussed the basics of sensor technology and began to construct our first prototypes. Only in a field as interdisciplinary as preservation would I find myself giving a spiel on Ezra Pound and learning how to solder electronics within the span of an hour.

Here is how I started my presentation:

As an English major who enjoys finding ways to prove the relevance of my degree, I’d actually like to begin with a poem by Ezra Pound. Don’t worry, it’s only two lines.

In a station of the metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd ;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

This poem was Pound’s attempt to capture an epiphany he experienced at the instant of this “apparition” in a Parisian metro station, and it is hailed as the prime example of the Imagist movement of poetry with which he has come to be identified. The main goal of Imagism is to capture and precisely render the sensations of a moment. Pound himself said, “In a poem of this sort, one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.” He defined an image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” One of the tenets of Imagism is that “concentration is of the very essence of poetry,” so followers of this movement were attempting to concentrate the essence of an entire sensory experience into a single, succinct, intensified, usually visual image. I believe that this aim of making the abstract concrete, making the invisible visible, recording the experience at the moment of transformation from outward to inward as Pound described, is exactly what we talk about in considering how interactive environment technologies capture the friction between the physical and the virtual, and record and amplify an ephemeral sensory experience in the moment…

(What are these interactive environment technologies of which I was speaking? Check out the Interaction Lab at Rockwell Group.)

Graffiti: when preservation’s foe becomes its focus (Part 2)

One of the primary issues at hand is the differentiation that some art critics have drawn between graffiti and street art. Cedar Lewisohn, who wrote for Tate Modern one of the few available scholarly books on “street art,” first separates “graffiti,” by which he means “any form of unofficial, unsanctioned application of a medium onto a surface,” from “graffiti writing,” by which he refers to “the movement most closely associated with hip hop culture…whose central concern is the ‘tag’ or signature of the author.” “Street art,” while a sub-genre of graffiti writing, is more focused on using graffiti imagery, not strictly tags, to “[interact] with the audience on the street.” Graffiti writers and taggers tend not to want their work to be viewed as art; its purpose instead is to serve as a secret language among them, and to “[destroy] or [deface] cities…making ugly places even uglier.” They tend to look down upon “street artists” for their appeal to the masses. Some art theorists do not as readily acknowledge the differentiation between non-artistic “graffiti writing” and “street art.” They believe that graffiti writing, which they identify as “a practiced skill to which the artists or ‘writers’ devote their lives, perfecting a certain style of letter formation,” falls under the definition of art. There are theorists who view that “art should be infinitely impractical” and that “graffiti has no real purpose, other than its own existence,” and therefore qualifies as art. While this particular position seems flawed, as most graffiti writing actually does have significant purpose within the culture of graffiti writers, the implication that a line between graffiti and street art might be less clear than suggested by critics such as Lewisohn is useful. It is a line unacknowledged by many state authorities, including Hackney Council, Transport for London, and the members of SWAAG. Unlike the aforementioned art theorists, however, these authorities choose to regard street art at the same level as graffiti, but regard both as simply illegal vandalism.

http://www.banksy.co.uk

A potential solution to the problem of whether or not councils should remove Banksy’s work might be to formalize the differentiation between graffiti writing, which does not appeal to the public (and indeed, is not intended to), and street art, including works such as Banksy’s that address a wider audience. But again, the divide between writing and street art is not always clear. If the state were to remain firmly against graffiti writing and declare “street art” legal, it would be taking on a significant responsibility as art critic, asserting its authority to decide what is graffiti and what is art. State officials surely lack the art theory and history background to make such a decision in full confidence. At the same time, it is impossible for state authority to escape the role of art critic. Even by denying that they are art critics, denying the responsibility of differentiation between graffiti and street art, like Hackney Council and TfL, they are still making a statement about art, saying that it falls within the confines of the law, even if public opinion supports the art. Islington Council played the art critic by deciding to protect Banksy works, deeming them art because popular opinion said so. By letting the public choose directly whether or not to keep Banksy’s work, Bristol City Council was affirming that art transcends the law. Bristol’s interpretation of its inevitable role as art critic seems to be the most appropriate reaction to the issues of legality raised by the graffiti movement. The Council admitted that it, and not the law, had the authority to judge Banksy’s work, and it invited the public to directly influence its judgment and have a say in the art it gets to see. A lack of public involvement is exactly what Banksy has said is wrong in the Art World: “These galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires. The public never has any real say in what art they see.”

The Art World has not readily accepted graffiti as a legitimate art form, largely due to its intrinsic illegality. Graffiti’s gradual entry into the realm of the art gallery began with the work of a few photographers, most notably Gyula Halász, known as Brassaï. His documentation of Parisian graffiti in the 1930s predated by decades the spread of graffiti as a popular movement, and the success of his photographs paved the way for later photographers like New York’s Henry Chalfant. It can be said that photography of graffiti was accepted by the Art World before graffiti itself was ever recognized as a legitimate art, and photographers’ work contributed to the popularity of graffiti by encouraging the public to look differently at the graffiti on their streets. Photographic documentation is important to many graffiti artists because of the ephemeral nature of their work. Banksy himself has released books containing photographs of his art, and his former art dealer, Steve Lazarides, began as a professional photographer who took pictures of Banksy’s graffiti and gained his confidence. Banksy’s immense popularity, stemming largely from the clever social criticism contained in his work and the media hype surrounding his anonymity, brought graffiti into the limelight. Lazarides began selling Banksy originals and exhibiting the work of other graffiti artists in his own gallery in Soho, an operation which has since expanded.

Soon, it was not only small, Banksy-approved galleries displaying graffiti as art. In May 2008, London’s Tate Modern invited six international graffiti artists to participate in an exhibition called “Street Art” by painting on the museum’s brick façade. Banksy’s work was noticeably absent; it was suggested that he was not interested in participating in the Tate’s official, Nissan-sponsored project. “Street Art” demonstrated that questions remain regarding the extent to which the art establishment has come to understand graffiti. As art critic Ben Lewis pointed out, “Even the location of the exhibition is clever: by putting the artwork on the outside of the Tate, the museum appears to be respecting the street in Street Art. At the same stroke, it’s a cunning way of avoiding the big issue of whether the work really is art in the same sense as the stuff inside.”

Reference to graffiti’s struggle for wider acceptance as an art form should not imply that all graffiti artists are aiming to have their work finally be that “stuff inside” the Tate Modern. On the contrary, Banksy’s popularity is problematic in that it has caused tension between the art industry’s interest in his profitability within the system and his own desire to remain outside of it. He is, in a sense, caught between two worlds—that of the art establishment’s critics, some of whom dismiss his artistic skill as “reasonably competent, not brilliant” and his subject matter as “agitpop…protest art with a smile on its face,” and that of the graffiti artists, some of whom think “his message is naïve” and view him as a sell-out for allowing his art to be sold for great sums of money, including to the “Hollywood glitterati.” Simultaneously, the evident marketability of Banksy’s work can be seen as a benefit to both sides: Marc Schiller of the Wooster Collective credited Banksy with having ‘create[d] a market for an entire category of art that until now has not been recognized at the level that it is now being recognized at.” One irony in this situation is that artworks such as Banksy’s, by means of their location on the street, are intended to belong to everyone. People who buy his work at auctions are essentially paying thousands of pounds for what already belonged to them, and everyone, for free, exhibiting a capitalist desire for individual ownership.

Another irony is that Banksy continues to use his artwork to criticize the very establishment that is now embracing his work. After one of his pieces was sold at auction for £100,000 in 2007, he posted a new drawing on his website. It depicted an auctioneer selling a canvas that bore a message making plain Banksy’s feelings about his own marketability: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.” In 2005, he attracted media attention by “infiltrating” four museums and art galleries in New York, surreptitiously hanging his own work on their walls. When he did the same in the British Museum, displaying a “chunk of ‘rock art’ depicting a stone age hunter with a shopping trolley, together with the caption crediting it to “Banksyus Maximus,'” the museum took eight days to notice, and ended up adding the work to its permanent collection. Banksy may not be successfully conveying the criticism of the art establishment he intends if such activities as the 2005 “infiltration” are accepted by museums and lauded by the media as publicity stunts.

Ultimately, his commercial success is dependent on that establishment. It has been pointed out that “history is littered with anti-establishment figures that end up embracing the establishment they rail against, particularly as they grow in popularity.” For example, Banksy’s position is reminiscent of the ironic tension between William Morris’s socialist beliefs and the fact that his hand-crafted art intended for the wider public was expensive to produce and, thus, available only to the wealthy. Banksy’s place in art history is difficult to predict; perhaps one day he will reveal his identity and succumb to the spoils of his fame. But for now, he seems to be entertained by his Art World success while remaining separate from and critical of it, having “[hijacked] the established system of art exhibition… drawing attention to its shortcomings.” In the words of art critic Walter Januszczak, “His chief achievement, and I believe it to be a mammoth one, was finding a way to operate so successfully outside the art world.” In doing so, Banksy has said, he hopes to “show that money hasn’t crushed the humanity out of everything.”

Tesserae and talking walls

I have a number of favorite places in the Washington, DC, area— the first, naturally, being my family’s home. Not far down on the list is the monumental National Building Museum, where this past weekend I went to see Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière. (The exhibit is up through January 2, 2012; see it for yourself!) Meière was a noted figure in the Art Deco movement who collaborated with architects and craftsmen to create painted murals, wool tapestries, marble floors, and especially glass and marble mosaics. From her initial pencil sketches, full-size studies (“cartoons”), and models that were featured in the exhibit arise, as advertised, several narratives: first, that of Meière’s own life. After studying at an Academy of the Sacred Heart (like me!) in New York, and later in San Francisco, Chicago, and Florence, she worked as a mapmaker and architectural drafts-woman for the navy during World War I. She then made a career of integrating art into built spaces and was the first woman elected to the New York City Arts Commission, as well as the first to receive the Fine Arts Medal from the American Institute of Architects. She served on the boards of various organizations, including the Municipal Art Society, as Vice President of the Architectural League of New York, and as President of the National Society of Mural Painters.

Nebraska State Capitol Ceiling, by Dave Parker, Wikimedia Commons

Acclaimed for the almost exclusively narrative nature of her work, Meière combined material innovation with an affinity (one I would like to call “writerly”) for portraying symbol and story. Her first architectural commission, for the National Academy of Sciences in 1924, was to interpret scientific concepts as imagery, painted over Guastavino’s Akoustolith tile to resemble glazed ceramic. Soon afterward, she completed the work that would endure as her personal favorite: scenes inspired by Hartley Burr Alexander’s iconography, ceramic tile surrounded by Akoustolith in the Nebraska State Capitol. She went on to study and illustrate a wide range of subject matter, from a dome’s worth of apostles and six-winged seraphim, drawn with tiny glass tesserae in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, to her painted mural for Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition, with three vignettes celebrating women’s progress from 1833 to 1933. Perhaps most well-known are her iconic roundels on the facade of Radio City Music Hall, which used a new process for exterior mixed metals to depict drama, dance, and song. With paint, metal, and bits of glass, Meière made storytellers of ceilings and walls.

Ultimately, “Walls Speak” refers to, and itself is part of, an overarching preservation narrative, one that pieces together and perpetuates Meière’s life story and the stories contained in her work. The museum walls speak, too—of the need for such history to be valued and maintained. For her last commission, she proposed a series of vignettes for wall niches in the National Cathedral; rejected in favor of a more abstract design, they survive through her saved drawings. Her final commercial commission in 1960, a year before her death, told the legend of Hercules through marble mosaic at Prudential Plaza. The work, irreparably harmed during a 1996 remodeling, now endures through photographs and cartoons. Likewise, Meière’s sculpture on the exterior of the RKO Theater, which showed “talkies” as part of Rockefeller Center, had been destroyed with the building in 1954; her drawings, however, preserve its memory. The exhibit describes her large-scale works for the New York World’s Fair, which now exist only as models: “At the close of the 1939 Fair, all of the art work was destroyed. This did not disturb Meière, who believed that the fun was in creating the objects, whether or not they endured.” (Her attitude sounds rather similar to that of a certain gum-wad painter we know, doesn’t it?) With all due respect to Meière’s beliefs, I will admit to being disturbed, but simultaneously relieved that the narrative art of Hildreth Meière will persist, with some assistance from the narrative art of preservation.