A Denison University art professor, Joy Sperling, curated a delightful show at the Gund Gallery at Kenyon College. Tchotchke: Mass-Produced Sentimental Objects in Contemporary Art is a group show of contemporary artists who have taken the mass-produced, the kitsch, from low-brow junk to high-brow sculpture.

Dr. Sperling took her Denison classes to see the show and I know three artists’ works really resonated with the students because they all wanted to do research projects on them.

Yoko Inoue is a Japanese-born artist whose work instantly smacks of criticism on consumerism. On closer look, you begin to also consider religion, politics, and the global economy. Inoue talked at Kenyon and the presentation was written up in the college newspaper.

detail from Mandala Flea Market Mutants: Pop Protocol and Seven Transformations of Good Luck National Defense Cats, 2012
This is a detail of Inoue’s wall of ceramic masks. I wasn’t familiar with all of the images, but many seemed to reflect cartoon characters. They are child-sized.
Mummified Bunny, 2012 by Inoue

Another favorite of the students was another ceramic artist, Beth Katleman. I was unfamiliar with her work before this exhibit and I’m completely thrilled to learn of her! Katelman’s work is about gender, excess, and innocence. I immediately thought of Henry Darger‘s Vivian Girls fighting the calvary. This is certainly because of the imagery in Katleman’s ceramics but also because of the noticeable attention to detail.

detail from Katleman's Girls at War, 2012
detail from Katleman’s Girls at War, 2012
detail from Katleman’s Girls at War, 2012
detail from Katleman’s Girls at War, 2012

Lastly, students were introduced to an old favorite of mine, Betye Saar. Saar’s work is clearly about race, but through the lens of consumerism. She uses black collectibles – caricatures of African Americans produced as cheap, ugly humor objects for a white audience – to speak about race, gender, and history. Her objects are at once obvious, but become so layered that you spend time in awe at the complexity.

Saar’s Rhythem & Blues, 2010
Saar’s Weight of Time, 2013

The show is well-executed in selection of artists and arrangement of the work. Each work is distinct yet works in narrative with other objects in the rooms. It’s a show where you can move from the gallery’s front to back, then back to the front and suddenly turn around to head back again. I’m glad I had a chance to see it and to know that students were introduced to so many great artists.




fiber: sculpture 1960 – present

This past weekend I went to the Wexner Center for the Arts to see Fiber: Sculpture 1960-present.

As an undergraduate I focused my art major in fibers, mainly surface design and weaving. Then, as a graduate student, I majored in fibers and textiles. To this day, the loom is the most amazing tool I’ve ever encountered. It’s simply constructed and its parts are obvious, yet it helps us create one of the most complex of man-made materials, cloth. Warping a loom requires extreme attention to detail while weaving can become trance-like; it’s easy to be absent, only able to hear the melody of the shuttle and reed moving in time to your own internal rhythm.

The Wexner press release states “there has long been a bias against compositions involving fiber” – domesticity, gender, and the exhausting polarity of art and craft. To see such works in major exhibition spaces, first at the ICA/Boston and now the Wexner does help validate these artists – mostly women and many non-American.

The exhibition is divided into five sections: Architecture (sculptural or site-specific), The Grid (reference to warp and weft), Gravity (materiality, soft and fluid), Feminism (both in process and context), and Color (with and without). The big names are here: Magdalena Abakanowicz, Sheila Hicks, Lenore Tawney, and the like. My favorite work was one with which I am well familiar and have never experienced: Beryl Korot’s 1970s work Text and Commentary.

Video from Art21’s profile of Beryl Korot because you just have to hear the threads and the loom!

A newer work I really enjoyed was Ernesto Neto’s SoundWay (2012). I wanted to walk through it and hear the sounds of the small bells and seed pods attached to its base. Neto suggests in his statement that he wants viewers “to caress, manipulate, enter, or wear” his work. Yet there was no indication in the Center that this was permissible. Like many museums and galleries, I was confronted by security guards at each turn and heard a few times “please don’t touch the artwork” (directed at others, of course).

from the Columbus Underground's exhibition review - see everyone hovering near, not in Neto's work? Also, great article on the show!
from the Columbus Underground’s exhibition review – see everyone hovering near, not in, Neto’s work there on the left? Also, great article on the show!

Perhaps this is part of why fibers has never become mainstream. Mainstream relies on prominent venues with an old school approach to art appreciation – you learn the piece with only your eyes and perhaps sound. Fibers is tactile, emotive, and performative. You can’t stand and stare at fibers. This is why Korot’s work is still transformative after all these years. She provides the viewer with the process (through patterns, notations, and video) and the product.

The show’s catalogue is really beautiful. It includes even more work than is in the exhibition and profiles both historically significant and contemporary fiber artists. It’s a must-have for an art library collection. Also check out Jeff Regensburger’s review of the show on the Columbus Underground – glad we have a new convert to the world of fibers!



In collaboration with my institution’s Center for Women and Gender Action, my library partially funded bringing filmmaker Russell Sheaffer to campus for class visits and an open screening of his film Masculinity/Femininity.

Russell is an Indiana University PhD student and filmmaker. His 2014 film Masculinity/Femininity was an official selection at Inside Out, the LGBT Film Festival. Shot entirely on Super 8 film, Russell asked filmmakers, theorists, and artists to create performative works that examine normative ideas surrounding gender and sexuality. Included in the film are responses from prominent queer scholars and artists such as Jack Halberstam (a visiting scholar to Denison last year), Barbara Hammer, Carolee Schneemann, Susan Stryker, and Sophia Wallace.

Russell’s visit was an overwhelming success. The director of the Center for Women and Gender Action had her student workers promote the event and guide Russell around campus between his three classes – one on exploring masculinity, one on the history of cinema, and the last covering queer theory. About 30 students and faculty had round-table conversation over dinner with Russell before heading to the screening. There were well over 100 students and faculty at the screening and about 20 students remained afterward for a talkback with the filmmaker.

The inspiration for the film, Russell said, began when he questioned how to visualize what queer theory does in writing. He wanted something else (dare I say something more?) from the queer theorists and film scholars he was reading. Like a classic anthology of theoretical essays, Russell’s film moves from one artist scholar to the next. While most of the scholars had about five minutes of screen time, some felt like they went on forever and others you wish could have continued performing for hours (much like reading queer theory).

Using 8mm film is analogous to the conversations about gender norms. It’s laborious; he can only get about 2 and a half minutes of footage per reel, IF the film even captures the shot. This means there are continuous visual interruptions and the image is granular, unclear. As an artist and former art teacher, I welcomed hearing another artist encourage students to consider medium and how it pertains to context. The content of Masculinity/Femininity is experimental and unpredictable. The medium is too.

Russell was an excellent speaker. He had immediate rapport with the students; he is funny, intelligent, and, most importantly, radical. I think his film may have made some students (and faculty) uncomfortable while it simultaneously assured and encouraged others. Also, he has great hair.

This was a tremendous opportunity for the library to collaborate across departments. A film screening and discussion focused on breaking gender norms exemplifies research as a conversation, not just a classroom lecture. It brings complicated and controversial issues to campus through a safe and welcoming venue. As the liaison to all the relevant academic programs, it was important that I was involved in this conversation. It repositioned the liaison librarian in a collaborative role as organizer, activist, and networking agent.

more student work in the library

For the last month of the semester, a ceramics class is displaying their wares in the library. They are all soup tureens with matching bowls and saucers. Students were inspired to create these objects from readings from

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honoré

Functional Pottery: Form and Aesthetic in Pots of Purpose

Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens at Wintherur

The faculty member says each student had to create a set of objects that would enhance a meal based on a family recipe or tradition.  She wanted the students to consider how eating habits have changed and how this could affect the objects associated with eating.

When the pieces were finished, the students and guests sat down to a dinner of soups and bread served on their masterpieces.

Child’s playset for acorn soup!
detail of the set for chicken soup
a colleague brought in this adorable book from her childhood collection
for one of my favorite meals, tomato soup and grilled cheese
to accompany matzo ball soup
vegetable soup


kathleen montgomery at the mattress factory

Kathleen Montgomery is an artist in residence at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. Her sculpture and installations in Body Memory Architecture are sensual and quiet. Many of the wood and found object sculptures suggest heads or torsos. The canvas forms are filled with mud from her own garden. The work is subtle and suggestive without being boring.

Though the materials – wood, mud, string – imply a primitive or tribal influence, I think more about the feminine and the earthly.

You can see works from a few of the other residents on my Instagram or Tumblr pages.

montgomery1 montgomery2 montgomery4 montgomery3 montgomery6 montgomery5


student art in the library

A theatre professor developed a very creative project for her Acting I class. Students select a character from a play and, through research and inventiveness, develop a full biography of the person. Usually students write the biography; the past few semesters the professor has allowed them to respond through artwork.

The professor used our artists’ books from Special Collections to inspire the students to think differently about writing and presenting a character bio. Here are some of the interpretations from last semester’s students.

Boy Gets Girl by Rebecca Gilman

According to the student’s statement, the play is about stalking. The main character is Edward, a magazine editor, who is divorced yet always thinking about his ex-wife. The student wrote letters from Edward to the ex, Claudia, that verge on stalking. However, as Edward grows, he realizes how is letters may be perceived. In the end we learn he never sent the letters.

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

The student of this project said, “Trying to describe the story of Septimus…through an essay seemed unjust and partial.” Instead, he created a mixed CD with 12 songs. Each song represents moments in Septimus’ life.

Brainpeople by Jose Rivera
Brainpeople by Jose Rivera

This work is based on the character Rosemary who has multiple personalities.

The Unwanted by Walter Wykes
The Unwanted by Walter Wykes

This is the psychiatric file of Dan. He’s trying to initiate a relationship but the suicide of his girlfriend weighs on his consciousness.

Ballad of Yachiyo by Philip Kan Gotanda
Ballad of Yachiyo by Philip Kan Gotanda

Based on real life events in Gotanda’s family, the play is about young Yachiyo falling in love with her older relative, Okusan. This artist book is the diary of Yachiyo.

The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman
The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman

Based on life and death of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was the victim of a homophobic hate crime in 1998. This collage is covered in a black veil to represent mourning.

Doubt by John Patrick Shanley
Doubt by John Patrick Shanley

Throughout the play, we are never sure if Father Flynn is guilty of pedophila. Here, the student created a hidden compartment in a book. In it, Flynn has kept mementos from a high school basketball team, children’s drawings, and more. Viewing the work, we are still left in doubt.

seward johnson

Seward Johnson is a New Jersey native known for his life-like and life-size sculptures. Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey has a retrospective of his work through September. I recently attended the (very crowded) exhibition.

Johnson, an heir to his grandfather’s medical company, Johnson & Johnson, started his art career as painter. If the quality of his painted trays in the retrospective are any indication, he was terrible. However, his first cast sculpture won an award and Johnson, now in his 80s, hasn’t looked back.

Johnson started Grounds for Sculpture with the construction of the foundry, Johnson Atelier, in 1974. In a recent interview, Johnson described it as “an art school that would service the needs of people who were not academically proficient in the arts.” The grounds now permanently exhibits works by local and international artists including Magdalena Abakanowicz, Peter Voulkos, and Kiki Smith.

Many criticize Johnson’s sculptures as “kitsch.” I’d call it that too, but without negativity. Johnson has created artwork that welcomes those uninitiated into The Art World to enjoy art. You can get up close to the work, touch it, take selfies with it. The imagery is vaguely familiar – Impressionist paintings, mythology, and everyday moments cast in bronze.

The work is amusing – a gigantic Marilyn Monroe with her skirt aflutter – but it’s also alarmingly confrontational. Turn a corner and see a father and son fishing; I can’t recall the last time I saw a real parent and child quietly bonding. Tucked into the trees is Johnson’s interpretation of Manet’s Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe. As visitors crouch next to the nude woman and well-dressed men, it suddenly becomes very silent and serious. In contrast, you can hear children shouting with laughter and Halloween fright at The Three Fates (a boy peering into the cauldron asks, “is that an eyeball?”).

Below are some highlights from the retrospective. I’ll be posting more on my Tumblr, Nostalgia for Mud.

Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe
Unconditional Surrender
Unconditional Surrender
one of Johnson's painted trays showing George Segal's sculpture
one of Johnson’s painted trays showing George Segal’s sculpture
The Awakening
The Awakening
Double Take
Double Take

student art in the library

This spring, studio art professor Ron Abram (Tyler School of Art alumn and all-round cool dude) taught a course on portraits. For one project, he brought the class into the library to view the president’s portraits. Our President’s Room (which houses the scores), has a formal painting of each president. Ron asked students to choose a Denison president, research the person and the school during his/her term, and create a new portrait.

Students were able to view the president’s papers in our archives, which often included handwritten documents and photographs. Many students returned to the archives after the initial visit to spend more time examining the papers. As usual, when students get into an archive or special collection, they don’t want to leave!

Unfortunately, I was attending ARLIS/NA when this exhibit was installed and missed the reception. Luckily, the artwork will be staying in the President’s Room throughout the summer. I’m sure it will be a big attraction during Alumni Weekend in June!

Here are some of the works (some weird angles to account for horrible overhead lighting with the works under glass):

John Pratt

John Pratt (1831 – 1837) by Jason Gonzalez

Pratt was Denison’s first president. Jason writes that Pratt was a hard worker, helping his family on the farm at a very early age. But, because he loved to learn, Pratt stayed up late teaching himself math. In 1814 he was baptized and became very religious. At Denison he taught Greek and Latin as well as preached.


Samson Talbot (1863-1873) by Hollie Davis

Hollie says she chose “a president whose place in history perpetuated the disempowerment of people like me.” In her research, Hollie could not find evidence to place Talbot on one side or the other of the slavery issue. So, she portrays both free African Americans (on the left) and the colorless picking cotton with Talbot front and center.








Galusha Anderson (1887 – 1889) by Miaja St. Martin

Anderson served the shortest presidential term; he resigned after two years. Miaja says that “Anderson was against slavery and was passionate in his opinion that African Americans should be allowed an education in the north as free people.” According to Miaja, Denison University was a stop on the Underground Railroad and this is why she uses quilting in her portrait.


Emory Hunt (1901-1912) by Adam Rice

Adam notes that Hunt is credited with building Cleveland Hall, which is now Bryant Arts Center. He also “turned the school away from PhD programs towards the idea of an undergraduate liberal arts college.” Adam’s work notes the physical changes Hunt created on campus, but “the goal of the work is to drive curiosity” about the president.


Avery Shaw (1927-1940) by Kristie King

Henry Henson
Henry Henson
Isabelle Smock
Isabelle Smock

Kristie chose to research Shaw because he was president when her great-grandparents, Henry Henson (1929) and Isabelle Smock (1928) were students. Kristie actually found a photo of her great-grandfather in the archives! Kristie says the project allowed her to reflect on her personal legacy at Denison (she just graduated) and reconnect with her family’s history.


Good2Robert Good (1976-1983) by Janie Hall

During his term, Good was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He hid his illness until the cancer forced him to resign and he died soon after. Janie represents Good through white cloth that “encases the ragged, diseased plastic sewn underneath.” The whole piece (not seen here) is over six feet, the height of Good.


Michele Myers (1989-1998) by Melissa Weinsz

Myers has been Denison’s only female president and she is still highly admired on campus. Melissa says Myers had dual citizenship, the US and France, and was bilingual. Her presidency was about “the promotion of racial and ethnic diversity on campus.” There was some tension during her term, with students protesting both racial inequality on campus and questioning the tenure procedures. Myers focused on “cutting the discrimination and division” on campus and made greek life non-residential.


Dale Knobel (1998 – 2013) by Jasmine Hwang

Jasmine interviewed Knobel by phone. During the conversation, Knobel said he wanted the portrait to suggest “how he contributed to the diversity of the campus and the improvement of campus facilities.” In this sculpture, each piece has information about Knobel’s presidency. The pieces can be re-formed to create various architectural shapes.


Adam Weinberg (2013 – present) by Katie Smith

Because Weinberg is our current president, he doesn’t yet have a formal portrait in the President’s Room of the library. Katie spoke with Weinberg and he told her that “one of his most important goals for his presidency was to create a better sense of community and school spirit on Denison’s campus.” Because of this, Katie wanted his portrait to reflect the community. The mirrored part of the portrait is surrounded by chalk paint so viewers can add their own reflections to the work.