Have you ever looked at a work of art and wished you could ask the artist how they made it? For our conservators, speaking to artists about their works is an important part of their jobs. Conservators want to know exactly what an artwork is made of and how it was constructed before cleaning or treating it. While a variety of high-tech tools can be used to determine the makeup of an artwork, there's nothing better than talking to the person who created it!
When readying contemporary artist Renée Stout's mixed media installation The Colonel's Cabinet for display in African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond, objects conservator Hugh Shockey met with Stout to learn more about the piece. "I specifically wanted to talk to Renée about this work because it's so complex. It's made up of multiple components, many of which she constructed out of different materials, or found and altered in some way," he said. I was lucky enough to be a fly on the wall during their conversation, and I've excerpted some of the discussion below. Visit our blog for the full conversation about how Renée Stout created this fascinating artwork!
Hugh: Renée, can you tell me a little bit about the objects in The Colonel's Cabinet?
Renée: I often use both found objects and objects I've constructed specifically to look like they've been found. The objects in this particular piece are used to tell the story of a fictional persona I created, Colonel Frank, and are made to look as though he collected them. He was a traveler, who went out in the world and found these and brought them back to a cabinet of curiosities. He could sit in the chair, which is actually an old ironing board that I reconstructed into a chair, and reminisce about his travels. When I made the map for the cabinet door I was imagining fictitious places and I made up the islands you see on the map, except for the bottom one, which is a map of Africa upside-down. I was creating places where Colonel Frank would have traveled, and some of the objects in the cabinet would have come from those islands. Many of the objects are inspired by what I would have seen in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History when I was a child in Pittsburgh. And they are influenced by my later ideas on spirituality, travel, and identity, and by different cultures from around the world.
Hugh: I've noticed that you're a master of taking an object and making it look like something else entirely! When dealing with found materials, do you typically modify items to suit a narrative that you already have in mind, or do you leave objects the way you found them and let them inspire a story?
Renée: Both, actually. Sometimes I come across an object, in an antique store for example, and all of a sudden I have an idea for a narrative for that piece. Sometimes I have a story I want to tell and will create something or modify an object specifically for it. Other times I'll start making something and the narrative comes as I'm working. For example, on the top shelf, there's a little urn-that's just the way I found it. I didn't alter it in any way. But then there are other objects like the two photographs, the one of the civil war soldier and the one of Frederick Douglass. Those aren't actually old photographs. To create something like those I often use photos from magazine articles, for instance, that I then age, and put into old daguerreotype frames to make them look like old, found photographs.
See the rest of the conversation and learn about other conservation projects for this exhibition on our blog, Eye Level.
African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond runs through September 3, 2012. Check out the exhibition installation shots on Flickr.
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