Handmade Meaning exhibit a great success

The gallery's opening wall juxtaposed an assemblage by Sauk City artist Mary Dickey with a hair wreath on loan from the Mayville Historical Society.

I served as one of several curators for the exhibition Handmade Meaning: The Value of Craft in Victorian and Contemporary Culture, which closed this past weekend. This exhibit was an exciting opportunity to bring to new audiences some of the amazing fancywork treasures tucked away in collections around the state. It was also a fascinating chance to see these historic handicrafts in a new light by showing them alongside contemporary works of art in a highly modern, sleek space–the James Watrous Gallery in Madison’s Overture Center.

Like a 19th century friendship quilt, the exhibit was the work of many hands. It began with a seminar class led by Ann Smart Martin, my former advisor in the Department of Art History at UW-Madison, which she co-taught with me and Martha Glowacki, director of the James Watrous Gallery. The seminar students prepared a preliminary object list, researched the makers and drafted exhibit labels. Several continued working with me, Martha, and Ann to see the project through, particularly Andrea Miller, Andrea Truitt, Becca Keyel, Susan Bostian Young, and Breanna Norton. Other important contributors were curator and filmmaker Faythe Levine (of Handmade Nation fame), who recommended many of the contemporary artists included in the show; and scholar/curator Jody Clowes, who, in her role as Exhibitions Manager for the Watrous Gallery, coordinated the numerous loans and helped write and edit text panels and labels.

A wreath made of seeds and other natural materials, from the Dodge County Historical Society, alongside Milwaukee artist Kim Weiss's "Rat King," featuring screen-printed rats layered directly on the gallery wall.

The nineteenth- and early twentieth-century works included in the show were loaned by historical societies and museums across Wisconsin. Many of these objects have never been exhibited outside their local communities. The lenders included:

Brown County Historical Society, Green Bay
Chippewa Valley Museum, Eau Claire
Dodge County Historical Society, Beaver Dam
Marathon County Historical Society, Wausau
Mayville Historical Society
Milwaukee County Historical Society
Mt. Horeb Area Historical Society
Oconto County Historical Society
Oneida Nation Museum
Rock County Historical Society, Janesville
Anita Gurda
Bonnie and James Ziolecki

All ten of the museums and historical societies on this list are participants in the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database project, and nearly all of the historic works included in the show can also be found online in the database. When I first started the database project more than four years ago, my focus was on the major categories of decorative arts I’d studied in graduate school: furniture, pottery, and metalwork. But as I explored the collections of local historic sites and museums all over the state, I discovered a plethora of other fascinating handcrafted objects—hand-painted porcelain teacups, finely-crafted lace doilies, and intricate framed wreaths made from feathers, seeds, yarn, wax, and even human hair. Each of these delicate works had been handed down in a Wisconsin family for generations before the decision was made to donate the object to a local institution. Often, the women behind these works of art were identified only as “Mrs. John Smith” or perhaps “grandmother of the donor.” In many cases, this handiwork has become the only record that remained of these women’s lives.

The exhibit and related events are chronicled on the Handmade Meaning blog. The blog also documents the progress of the Community Embroidery Project, a participatory component of the exhibit that explicitly connects Victorian-era women’s fancywork with the current D.I.Y./indie craft movement by asking local crafters to put their own spin on a traditional craft–redwork embroidery. The article “Interior life in the public eye: ‘Handmade Meaning’ explores the domestic arts,” by Lindsay Christians of 77 Square, provided a nice overview of the show.

–Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer

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Visit to Marshfield and Pittsville

I’ve worked on this project for more than four years and added over 1,000 artifacts to the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database, but it seems like I’ve still only scratched the surface of Wisconsin’s material past. I’m always happily surprised when I discover artifacts from a maker or manufacturer I haven’t documented before.

One of these happy occurrences came in Lake Geneva last fall at the annual statewide Local History and Historic Preservation Conference. Kim Krueger of the North Wood County Historical Society in Marshfield approached me after my presentation about Wisconsin Heritage Online. She was looking for a conservator who could help preserve a catalog from a local manufacturer. I couldn’t help much with the conservation question, but my ears perked up when I heard more about the catalog–it was from the Upham Manufacturing Company, a furniture producer in Marshfield around the turn of the 20th century. But the catalog wasn’t the only artifact from the company in the Society’s collections, Kim said. Their house museum, the Upham Mansion, still contains many of its original furnishings, including a large number of pieces made in the factory established by William Henry Upham.

I made plans to visit the Upham Mansion as soon as I could. At some point during the back-and-forth of planning emails, another serendipitous connection came up. A volunteer at the Upham Mansion, Chris Buchanan, is also the president of the Pittsville Area Historical Society, less than 20 miles south of Marshfield. Pittsville was once home to the Wisconsin Ceramics Corporation, better known as Pittsville Pottery, and the local historical society had recently received a donation of more than 100 works from the pottery assembled by a local collector. Did I want to add the pottery to the database too? Of course I did!

After spending two days in central Wisconsin last week, I now have lots of photos to process and should have the Upham furniture and Pittsville pottery–plus several other interesting artifacts–added to the database in the next several weeks.

–Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer

Now online: Langlade County Historical Society

Pillow sham made for Edward Drab, who served in the CCC at Elcho, Wisconsin in 1933. Embroidered slogan reads: "When we finish our part a new day will dawn." Property of Langlade County Historical Society.

The twelve artifacts I recently added to the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database from the Langlade County Historical Society in Antigo are an eclectic bunch that reveals the broad and deep histories we can discover from objects.

A group of beaded bandolier bags recently donated to the Society by a local collector does not have a specific Wisconsin provenance, but the bags’ designs and motifs show that they were made by Menominee, Ojibwe, and Ho-Chunk tribes in the Great Lakes region in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Crafting these highly-prized elements of formal dress regalia required a substantial investment of time, materials, and skill. An exhibition of Great Lakes bandolier bags is on view at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison through February 26.

A hand-knit vest and an embroidered pillow sham (above) an Antigo woman made for her brother when he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 illustrates the pride many Americans felt when they had the opportunity to go back to work with New Deal programs like the CCC. Company 657, also known as Camp Elcho, was one of 76 CCC camps organized in Wisconsin in the 1930s. Camp workers undertook a number of public works projects including constructing roads and fire breaks, installating telephone lines, planting trees, and fighting forest fires.

Chest of drawers attributed to Francois Bernard, Appleton, 1853-1865. Property of Langlade County Historical Society.

The furniture in the Society’s collections reflects the two primary streams of furniture production in 19th- and early 20th-century Wisconsin: factory production and small-shop handcraft. A veneered chest of drawers attributed to the Antigo Furniture Co. and a rocking chair from the Crocker Chair Co. represent the maunfactured furniture turned out by numerous Wisconsin producers. Falling on the handcrafted side is a chest of drawers said to have been made by Francois Bernard, a cabinetmaker who left France for Appleton, Wisconsin in 1853.

Postcard depicting Deleglise cabin, Antigo, ca. 1930. Wisconsin Historical Society WHi-28359

This chest also tells an interesting story of the movement of people and objects over time. Its original owners were Francis Deleglise and his wife Mary Bor, who likely acquired the chest when they married and moved to Appleton in 1856. In 1877, Francis Deleglise surveyed and planned the city of Antigo, bringing his family there from Appleton in 1878. Family history states that the chest served as the altar for the first Catholic mass celebrated in Antigo, which was conducted in the Deleglise cabin in 1880. The chest still furnishes the cabin, which was moved from its original site to the grounds of what is now the Langlade County Historical Society in 1913.

I first got to know Langlade County Historical Society president Joe Hermolin more than a year ago when he partnered with Wisconsin Heritage Online (WHO) to digitize photographs in the Society’s archives produced by A. J. Kingsbury, a professional photographer who worked in the Antigo area in the 1910s and 20s. Some of Kingsbury’s most compelling photos depict Menominee and Ojibwe people in northeast Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Last winter, Joe and I worked with the Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums class at UW-Madison’s School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS) to research and catalog these images, some of which are now available online. We’re planning to work with the class again this semester to continue to investigate this important collection.

–Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer.

Now online: Vilas Historical Museum

Chest of drawers, Carl Eliason, Sayner, 1920. Vilas Historical Museum.

This summer I spent some time in Wisconsin’s northwoods, including a visit to the Vilas Historical Museum in Sayner. Instantly recognizable by the huge figures of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox out in front, the museum houses a vast and impressive collection of local artifacts. Eight examples of local handicrafts from the museum’s collections are now online in the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database.

Sayner was home to Carl Eliason,  credited with inventing the world’s first snowmobile, the “Eliason Motor Toboggan,” patented in 1927.  In addition to his early snowmobile prototypes, the museum’s collections include a group of rustic furniture made by Eliason at the age of 21.

Other artifacts reflect the importance of the lumber and tourism industries in the northwoods, including folk art carvings made by men in local logging camps and summer camps in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Sign welcoming visitors to the Vilas Historical Museum.

–Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer

“Finest in the Western Country” exhibit now online

I can hardly believe it, but it was just over 2 years ago that the exhibit “The Finest in the Western Country: Wisconsin Decorative Arts 1820-1900” opened at the Milwaukee Art Museum. This exhibit, sponsored by the Chipstone Foundation, was a unique opportunity to bring together over 40 important examples of Wisconsin decorative arts from collections across the state.

To explore the virtual exhibit, visit Chipstone’s online gallery and click on the exhibit’s title image (or take the time to browse the archive of other exhibits Chipstone has presented at the Milwaukee Art Museum). To navigate the Wisconsin decorative arts exhibit, click on the black arrows near the upper left to move forward or back through the show.

The original exhibit and its online counterpart featured furniture, stoneware, earthenware, art pottery, metalwork, beadwork, finger weaving, needlework samplers, coverlets and quilts on loan from private collectors and museums throughout Wisconsin. Participating institutions included:

Chippewa Valley Museum
Douglas County Historical Society
Elmbrook Historical Society
Kenosha Public Museum
Milwaukee Art Museum
Milwaukee County Historical Society
Mineral Point Historical Society
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Neville Public Museum of Brown County
Pendarvis Historic Site
Villa Louis Historic Site
Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum
Wisconsin Historical Museum

–Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer

New blog!

I’ve started blogging at a second venue: http://handmademeaning.wordpress.com

This blog is connected to the upcoming exhibition Handmade Meaning: The Value of Craft in Victorian and Contemporary Culture, opening at the James Watrous Gallery in Madison on December 17, 2010. Both the exhibit and the blog bring together late 19th and early 20th c. examples of Wisconsin women’s craft work (embroidery, lace, china painting, etc.) with works by 21st c. Wisconsin artists who use traditional craft techniques and materials to explore contemporary issues of gender identity and to push the boundaries of the historic definition of craft. These two worlds are not as far apart as they might first appear.

For those of you hoping for more Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database news, check back here again in the coming weeks. I have some exciting site visits scheduled and should be adding more artifacts soon.

–Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer

Database featured in new book on digitization

I contributed a chapter about the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database project to the new book Digitization in the Real World: Lessons Learned from Small and Medium-Sized Digitization Projects, just released by the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO). My contribution, titled “Local People, Local Objects, Local History” describes the genesis of the project as a collaboration between the Chipstone Foundation and the Wisconsin Historical Society. I focus on the specifics of how the digital collection was created–photography standards, metadata fields, etc.–and examine the challenges of bringing together digitally a wide range of collections from across Wisconsin.

My chapter is one of 34 case studies of successful efforts to digitize cultural heritage materials throughout the country. Other contributions come from Columbia, Yale, the American Museum of Natural History, and other leading libraries, museums and archives. The book was edited by Jason Kucsma, emerging technologies manager at METRO and Kwong Bor Ng, associate professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at Queens College, CUNY.

The book is available here as an e-book download or a print version. It will also be available from Amazon beginning in September. In addition, METRO will post chapter excerpts and pdf downloads over the next year on the DITRW blog.

UPDATE: My chapter is now available as a free pdf download via the Digitization in the Real World blog.

–Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer.