Archive for July, 2011

New Faces Don the Walls of the Rotunda Galleries

Portraits by one of America’s earliest-known painters of African descent will adorn gallery walls when the newest exhibition, In Search of Julien Hudson: Free Artist of Color in Pre–Civil War New Orleans, opens this month. Portraiture plays a major role in art history and is a significant part of the Gibbes permanent collection; the portrait paintings in this exhibition by Julien Hudson and his New Orleans counterparts illuminate a fascinating era in New Orleans cultural history.

Many of the portraits in the exhibition portray the free men and women of color who were part of the early Creole population of New Orleans. This community took shape in the eighteenth century, first under French, and later Spanish, rule. Julien Hudson (1811–44)—himself a free person of color—was the son of a mixed race granddaughter of a former slave and a British merchant.

Prior to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the free people of color, or gens de couleur libres were considered a third caste, placed socially between the enslaved and the free white populations. They were afforded many of the same rights that whites enjoyed; they could own property, marry legally, enter contracts, and work in many industries. However, where they lived and traveled was restricted, and free women of color were required to wear a tignon or head scarf to indicate their status (see Portrait of Besty). After the city became part of the United States, the freedoms enjoyed by New Orleans free people of color slowly began to erode, and after the Civil War, their standing as a separate class from other people of African heritage was nullified.

Organized by The Historic New Orleans Collection and Worcester Art Museum, In Search of Julien Hudson: Free Artist of Color in Pre–Civil War New Orleans opens July 22, 2011, and is accompanied by an excellent catalog with essays by William Keyes Rudolf and Patricia Brady.

Sara Arnold, Curator of Collections, Gibbes Museum of Art

Curatorial Perspective: The Creative Spirit

The Gibbes staff members are making preparations for the opening of our next Main Gallery exhibition The Creative Spirit: Vernacular Art from the Gadsden Arts Center Permanent Collection. Logistical planning has gone on for months, but now the real hands-on work begins. There are crates to unpack, walls to patch and paint, condition reports to write, and Godzilla to install. That’s right, Godzilla is coming to the Gibbes. Don’t worry, he won’t eat the museum, but he does stand an impressive seven feet tall.

An installation of vernacular art (also called self-taught, outsider, or folk art) will be a nice change of pace for the summer season. I love vernacular art because it is stripped of any pretense. It is art made out of an intense desire to create. Many of the artists included in this exhibition are motivated by very personal reasons—be it their religious beliefs, a personal tragedy, or simply a desire to express themselves in a tangible way. Much of the art in the exhibition is raw and a bit rough around the edges, but sincere nonetheless.

One of the most moving stories is that of Lonnie Holley. In 1979, two of Holley’s nieces died tragically in a house fire. Overcome by grief and unable to afford tombstones for their graves, Holley found discarded sandstone at a nearby foundry and carved the tombstones himself. He found comfort in the act of creating, and so began his career as an artist. Holley continued to carve sandstone sculptures and later branched out to mixed-media sculpture and eventually painting. His work attests to the great power of art as a means of personal expression.

The Creative Spirit opens to the public on Friday, July 22. Join me on August 12 or September 9 at 1pm for a gallery talk and tour of the exhibition (free with museum admission).

Pam Wall, Curator of Exhibitions, Gibbes Museum of Art

It’s a Small World After All

This past April, my husband Bob and I enjoyed a stopover in Prague, Czech Republic, prior to boarding our Viking River Cruise along the Danube. In the hotel lobby introductions were being made among the passengers and we met Nancy and Tom from Connecticut, who asked where we lived. When we announced we lived in Charleston, they became quite animated and told us how much they loved visiting our fair city and that they had been several times. They visited the Gibbes Museum of Art during their last visit in October 2010, and recalled touring an exhibit entitled Face Lift with “the most wonderful docent!”

Mrs. Johnson (Estelle), 1972

I told them that I worked as a docent at the Gibbes, and agreed that Face Lift was a really excellent exhibition. At that moment Nancy looked at me and said, “I think you were our docent!!!” Oh my gosh, my goodness, how startling!!! In the middle of Prague, the Gibbes had made a connection for us. Nancy jumped up and gave me a great big hug. When I asked her if I made her pose, hand on hip with a great deal of ‘tude in front of the portrait of Mrs. Estelle Johnson, she shrieked “Yes, you did!” And that is how we became friends and laughed together for the rest of the trip—agreeing that yes indeed, it is a small world.

—Susan Wallen, Gibbes Museum Docent

Susan Wallen

Susan Wallen is a docent at the Gibbes Museum of Art.

Docent-led tours are offered free with admission at the Gibbes Museum of Art every Friday at 2:30pm.

A version of this story was published in Charleston Currents on May 26, 2011.