Archive for August, 2012

Back to School: Art Appreciation at the Gibbes

Museum Educators at the Gibbes Museum

Museum Educators Elise Detterbeck, Pat Burgess, Martha Criscuolo, Barbie Kratovil, and Mary Droge.

Once the school buses have parked, their exuberant passengers spill out onto Meeting Street and over the steps of the museum. We, their guides, are the first face of the Gibbes, and set the tone for their ensuing adventure. After negotiating 45–50 rambunctious students into 2 or 3 somewhat orderly lines, we’re ready to start the journey through our galleries. For most, it’s the first time they’ve been to the Gibbes, and therein lies the challenge. If this is to be successful—and hopefully spark an interest that may not be kindled were it not for this opportunity—how do you grab their imagination? How do you intertwine South Carolina and Charleston history, with its art and artists, in a memorable way in just 45 minutes?!

The collection is presented in chronological order, so usually we split groups: one starting with the earliest eighteenth century works; one in the nineteenth century; and one in the modern and contemporary galleries. It’s always so interesting to hear the children’s comments as they march along, gazing left and right down the hall of portraits; weaving around that dazzling silver soup tureen; entering the large room with the huge reclining figure of a woman in green; veering left, and finally heading up the stairs. Once settled in front of our first object, the fun begins when I ask the students questions to elicit their ideas about what they’re looking at.

Museum Educator Elise Detterbeck and students in the galleries.

Museum Educator Elise Detterbeck and students in the galleries.

Together we start a dialogue. Why is it important to actually see works of art up close and personal; to look at the brush strokes and notice how the paint or watercolor is applied, lines drawn, and shapes created? I ask the group to notice the subject’s face and hands: are they realistic or abstract? And what about the landscapes: do they appear detailed or impressionistic? We compare and contrast the different techniques. The hope is to instill in these young onlookers an appreciation for the everyday beauty of life. This visit may start the journey for some, who will discover a creative outlet to express themselves. For others, the experience may heighten their awareness of the artistry in one’s surroundings.

As funding for the arts nationwide has diminished, it is more and more difficult for schools to take field trips like these to museums. So this fall, some of the museum educators at the Gibbes will be heading out into surrounding South Carolina schools to take the museum on the road with the “Eye Spy” program, generously sponsored by the C. Louis Meyer Foundation. Each of us will be assigned to a different elementary school, where we’ll visit the third-grade art class once a month during the school year, ending with a visit to the museum. The concept is to familiarize students with art elements, techniques, and mediums by studying works of art from both the Gibbes collection and those of other museums. The hope is that multiple sessions with the same group of students will re-enforce and encourage an interest in art; and as I alluded to before, engender an appreciation of the artistry in everyday life. Sharing great works of art with young learners is both the joy, and the challenge, that makes what we do at the Gibbes so never-endingly rewarding.

Barbie Kratovil, Museum Educator, Gibbes Board Member, and guest blogger

From the Archives: Artist Sketchbooks

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith sketchbook, ca. 1920s

Cover of Alice Ravenel Huger Smith's sketchbook, ca. 1920s.

An artist’s sketchbook can offer intimate glimpses into his or her creative process. These graphic experiments and doodles reveal interesting aspects of an artist’s training, travels, and sources of inspiration. Currently three artists’ sketchbooks are on view in the Gibbes galleries alongside their finished works including those of Charles Fraser (1782–1860), Prentiss Taylor (1907–1991), and Mary Whyte (b.1953; sketchbook on loan with the exhibition Mary Whyte: Working South). Sketchbooks are as varied as the artists who create them and the Gibbes Archives is fortunate to have a broad selection representing key artists in the permanent collection.

A View of the Church in Saint Andrew's Parish, from untitled sketchbook, 1796–1805, by Charles Fraser (American, 1782–1860)

A View of the Church in Saint Andrew's Parish, from untitled sketchbook, 1796–1805, by Charles Fraser

The Gibbes owns several of Charles Fraser’s sketchbooks. Known primarily for his compelling miniature portraits these sketchbooks—begun when Fraser was just fourteen years old—are mostly comprised of watercolor or pen and ink landscape sketches depicting the plantation homes of friends and family, and rural parish churches.

Joseph Jackson sketchbook, ca. 1847, by Joseph Jackson (American, 1796–1850)

Sketches of sitters, ca. 1847, by Joseph Jackson (American, 1796–1850)

A bound scrapbook, in which miniature painter Joseph Jackson (1796–1850) collected sketches of his sitters, provides important information about Jackson’s working methods. Some sketches appear as the initial sketch in pencil and concentrate primarily on the facial features. Others, on cards and occasionally on ivory, are more fully worked up. Jackson may have used this latter group to entice prospective clients, as he stated in an announcement in the Courier, “. . . he will be happy to exhibit specimens of his painting, to those Ladies and Gentlemen who may favor him with their calls. Miniature likenesses highly finished on ivory of the smallest sizes, suitable for lockets, breast pins, etc.”

Henry Benbridge sketchbook, ca. 1765–1769, by Henry Benbridge (American, 1743–1812)

A page from a sketchbook, ca. 1765–1769, by Henry Benbridge (American, 1743–1812)

The drawings found in Henry Benbridge’s (1743–1812) sketchbook were made between 1765 and 1769 while the artist traveled through Italy. They reveal his interest in antiquity and depict images he took from antique cameos, vases, statuary, and architecture. Meanwhile, Prentiss Taylor’s sketchbook contains numerous pencil drawings he made during his first trip to Charleston in 1933. He later claimed in a letter, “I arrived on the Clyde-Mallory Line Steamer about the end of May 1933… I was lent the Pink House on Chalmers Street & I was able to stay until Labor Day. I spent most of my time sketching, up one side of the street & down the other.” Many of the sketches seen in his book are reflected in his final lithographs.

Magnolia Leaves from an Alice Ravenel Huger Smith sketchbook, ca. 1920s, by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith (1876–1958)

Magnolia Leaves from an Alice Ravenel Huger Smith sketchbook, ca. 1920s

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith (1876–1958) kept numerous sketchbooks that she carried on long walks through the countryside to record different topics and locations. She closely studied all aspects of nature from leaves and grasses to birds in flight, and made drawings of each from various perspectives.

Gallery View of Mary Whyte: Working South

A gallery view of Whyte's tools and sketchbooks on display in Mary Whyte: Working South.

For art historians these sketchbooks are a window to an artist’s inspirations and processes. I am personally fascinated by the artist’s notes to themselves that accompany many of the drawings, as well as their steadfast focus on capturing certain elements of a subject through repeated sketching attempts. Sketching is integral to an artist’s development and I love walking through our galleries seeing young artists with their own sketchbooks finding inspiration in the paintings on view. Do you carry a sketchbook or journal to capture ideas or occurrences in your day-to-day life?

Sara Arnold, curator of collections, Gibbes Museum of Art