Behind the Blanton: Stephanie Ruse, Collections and Exhibitions Assistant

Stephanie Ruse is the Collections and Exhibitions Assistant at the Blanton. In our latest installment of Behind the Blanton, a series where we profile different Blanton staff members, we sat down with Stephanie to learn a little bit about what she does here at the museum.


What does a typical workday look like for you?

Stephanie: As the Collections & Exhibitions Assistant, I help with caring for the objects in the Blanton collection and planning for upcoming exhibitions. On any given day, I might be adding records for new acquisitions to our collections database, formatting wall labels for the next exhibition, writing to artists for permission to publish their artworks, or making travel arrangements for a courier accompanying a work of art that the Blanton is borrowing from another museum.

If you had to pick a favorite exhibition you’ve helped with while working at the Blanton, what would it be?

I would have to pick Through the Eyes of Texas: Masterworks from Alumni Collections (Spring 2013) for the range and quality of the almost 200 artworks in the show. It was very challenging to organize an exhibition of that scale, but so worth it to see such outstanding artworks (including ancient Mayan vessels, Renaissance and Impressionist paintings, and massive contemporary installations) all in one place. The generosity of the UT Austin alumni lenders and the collective efforts of the Blanton staff made for a very special exhibition.

Young Woman Holding a Wine Flask

Giacomo Ceruti, called Il Pitocchetto, Young Peasant Woman Holding a Wine Flask, circa 1737-38, Oil on canvas, The Suida-Manning Collection

What’s a piece that always draws your attention in the Blanton’s collection?

I often stop to look at Il Pitocchetto’s Young Peasant Woman Holding a Wine Flask, circa 1737–38. I love that the artist gave this unnamed peasant girl such dignity and distinction. The details in her ring, necklace, and patched dress contribute to her individuality and make me wonder about what her life and personality were like.

Favorite thing to do in Austin on a summer day?

I like to either embrace the heat at one of Austin’s great swimming pools (Deep Eddy is a favorite) or escape the heat and enjoy a movie and a cold drink at the Alamo Drafthouse.

Thank you to Stephanie for taking time out of her busy day to talk with us about her work here at the Blanton.

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Shopping with a Conscience

As the holiday season approaches, we often take the opportunity to both indulge in some well-earned treats and gifts, but also to give back to those less fortunate. Whether that means donating to a children’s holiday gift drive, serving at a local shelter, or shopping for socially and economically conscious presents for your loved ones, there are a variety of ways to give back during the holidays.


That’s why the Blanton Museum Shop has partnered with fair trade organization, Ona Mission, to organize a Fair Trade Holiday Trunk Show. Before jumping in to all of the awesome reasons for shopping for fair trade products (and giving a sneak preview of what to expect!), here are the basics:

What: Fair Trade Holiday Trunk Show
Where: Blanton Museum Shop, MLK at Congress
When: TODAY! Thursday, November 19 from 11am – 8pm

1Now let’s back up a step and take a look at what “fair trade” really means. According to the Fair Trade Federation, “fair trade is an approach to business and to development based on dialogue, transparency, and respect that seeks to create greater equity in the international trading system. Fair trade supports farmers and craftspeople in developing countries who are socially and economically marginalized. These producers often face steep hurdles in finding markets and customers for their goods.” So essentially, by shopping fair trade, you can be assured that the items you purchase are made with materials that were manufactured and acquired fairly, by companies that do not exploit foreign or domestic laborers. Pretty cool, right?

2Let’s take it a step further. If you shop the Blanton Museum Shop’s Fair Trade Holiday Trunk Show, not only can you be positive that all of your purchases are fair trade, but many of the featured vendors also take additional steps to give back to the communities with whom they work. For example, Papillon Haiti provides job training to help employees learn to create new items out of recycled goods, while She Has Hope rescues and rehabilitates human trafficking survivors in Nepal.

Now that you know your purchasing power will be used for good, here’s a sneak peek of featured vendors and what they will have to offer today: 

Liz Alig: Fair Trade clothing and accessories

Liz Alig was created with the hope of providing consumers with fair trade clothing that is both ethical and fashionable.

Papillon Haiti: Jewelry, metalworks, wall hangings, Christmas ornaments and nativities

Papillon Haiti provides hope to the people of Haiti through the dignity of jobs, training them to create something new out of recycled materials and natural resources that might otherwise seem unusable.

Haiti Design Co-op: Leather goods, jewelry, totes, keychains, stuffed animals, etc.

Haiti Design Co-op is a socially conscious artisan cooperative based in Port Au Prince, Haiti. It is dedicated to business development, skill training, job creation, and fostering a positive and uplofting work environment for its local artisans.

She Has Hope: Jewelry, Totes, Stuffed animals, keychains

She Has Hope rescues and rehabilitates human trafficking survivors in Nepal with the goal of restoring them to a life full of hope.

Peace Gospel: Jewelry, accessories, Nativities

Peace Gospel is empowering sustainable, native-led, mercy-based programs in Asia and Africa by caring for orphans, child trafficking victims, at-risk women and destitute children of the slums.

Emi B Bad: Hand-crafted jewelry

All things vintage, all things different, all things fun! Emi B Bad is run by a local artisan out of Tomball, TX.

I don’t know about you, but to me this looks like a one-stop holiday shopping experience! See you at the trunk show!

Tessa Krieger-Carlisle is the PR and Marketing Manager at the Blanton Museum of Art. She holds a BA in the History of Art from UC Berkeley and an MA in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

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Love and the Brain

This is the final week to see the exhibition, Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm on view through Sunday, November 15. For this blog post, we asked Dr. Juan Dominguez in the Psychology Department at the University of Texas at Austin to share a little bit about his class’s visit to the exhibition.

The topic of love and mating has been of great interest throughout human history. Yet, only recently have the brain sciences provided great insight into the biology of this most important behavior. This Signature Course in the Neuroscience Department—Love, Mating and the Brain, UGS 302—helps students explore the neuroscience of love and mating.

Why are these things important to us and how does our brain make them happen? Emotions that are involved with love and mating are often preceded by the integration of sensory information. For example, seeing a loved one or feeling the caress of someone close to you are things that elicit emotional responses. The brain is responsible for integrating this information and then facilitating an appropriate emotion.

For this class students need to understand brain mechanisms responsible for this integration. In lieu of the sight of a loved one or the caress of someone close to them, they experienced this through viewing art. In visiting Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm for the first time they were naïve to the experience. It was important that they write down as much about their initial experience as possible, and then link the experience with the neural mechanisms involved in the regulation of that experience. In their writing assignment we expected them to both describe the emotions elicited by the sight of their favorite drawing and also describe the neuroscience behind that experience—providing the students with a new perspectives into both art and science. The students were also asked to submit one question that they would like to ask to Natalie Frank, who generously answered their questions. You will find excerpts from their essays and a few of the questions below.

Student excerpts

Natalie Frank

Natalie Frank, The Ungrateful Son, 2011-2014, Gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, Courtesy of the artist.

Upon viewing the Ungrateful Son drawing by Natalie Frank, it was clear that she employs both vibrant colors and specific mark making to reflect the story related to the piece, and her tactics stimulate a variety of emotions. As I examined the drawing, I found myself feeling an overwhelming amount of sympathy for the subject of the piece. The person was clearly exhibiting signs of discomfort, which was evident in the contortion of his facial features. His eyes glimmer with tears, and the slope of his mouth made me experience sadness on his behalf. The reaction I experienced is due, in part, to the way the human visual system receives and translates stimulus that comes from a person’s physical surroundings.

Natalie Frank

Natalie Frank, Snow White V, 2011-2014, Gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, Lent by Elizabeth Sackler

After a visit to the Blanton Museum of Art and viewing Natalie Frank’s paintings of  Grimm fairy tales, I came upon a scene of Snow White’s evil stepmom as a skeleton in a room full of weird objects. When I first saw this work, I felt a sensation of fear. The skeleton is a stimulus, causing me to interpret the image as scary or terrifying. I experienced fear and tunnel vision.

Natalie Frank

Natalie Frank, Rapunzel I, 2011-2014, Gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of the Houston Endowment, Inc., in honor of Melissa Jones, 2014

The work that particularly caught my eye and evoked the strongest emotional response was Rapunzel I. I experienced a plethora of emotions. The first emotion that I experienced was a feeling of disturbedness. Likely, this emotion was experienced in my right cerebral hemisphere, because this is where emotional states of stimuli are interpreted in normal people’s brains. I then felt perplexed. I was confused by parts of the drawing. Following a sense of perplexity, I began to like and take interest in parts of the picture. This sense of interest typically occurs when the viewer understands the piece of art that they are viewing, and the artwork fits into their knowledge and expectation, but still provides a new experience.

Natalie Frank

Natalie Frank, Rapunzel II, 2011-2014, Gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of the Houston Endowment, Inc., in honor of Melissa Jones, 2014

Preceding the trip to the Blanton, I had already heard the tale of Rapunzel many times before, so I had an understanding of Rapunzel’s setting prior to reading the original Grimm tale. Her bright eyes reflect the amber sun and I can’t help but to feel for her. I felt empathy for Rapunzel trapped helplessly while her eyes screamed for the world beyond. Empathy is a rather complex emotion that is entirely a social emotion rather than a survival emotion. How did this emotion come about at all? The answer is actually very simple, empathy trumps rules of survival.  We rely more on what we feel than what we think when solving moral dilemmas and consequently allowing emotions like empathy to be given high status.


Dear Ms. Frank,

My question to you is regarding your style of painting. I noticed that you had a very elaborate and colorful way of expressing the images, but the messages and stories behind each painting are very dark and twisted. I was curious as to why you decided to express these images in such an opposite manner than how most people would display them, and why you decided to use these bright colors and painting style?

This is a wonderful question and a big consideration of my palette and such a bright and high-keyed one, was the chance to foil the darkness of the tales. The stories felt hallucinatory in many ways, surreal, otherworldly, and I wanted to portray this feeling through color.

How did you decide to take from the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales for your inspiration, and what inspired you to make your pictures even more gory and disturbing than the stories already were?

Paula Rego, a friend and artist I much admire suggested I look at the unsanitized versions of the tales, which aren’t widely known. They struck me immediately: their humor, the beauty of the language of the stories and the many wonderful roles for men and especially for women in the tales. I don’t think of my drawings as disturbing or gory but realize others do! Truly, I drew from the stories and my imagination.

What was your intention or purpose of portraying Hansel and Gretel in such a gruesome way? What are the themes?

They push the witch into the oven. Granted, the witch was fattening Hansel in order to kill him, but to my mind, no one in this story behaved well. I wanted to show both sides of the characters’ depravity: it wasn’t just the witch who displayed poor human character.

Did the original Brothers Grimm tale, Rapunzel, seem flat in emotional depth when you first read it? If so, does Rapunzel II speak for her internal conflict in ways not portrayed in the original tale?

Yes! Exactly! Many of the heroines (also Snow White) felt flat. I wanted to try to embody them and tell the stories from their perspectives and explore or interject some humanity into these representations of women.

Why do all of your paintings include eyes that aren’t even attached to bodies? Are they supposed to represent the concept that someone is always watching the characters’ actions?

Yes! The reader, the viewer and the characters, themselves. It’s a way to link all of the actors involved and also make the figures feel somewhat human.

Who is an artist that your style/technique is inspired from?

So many! I love the color of Tiepolo, the drawing of Degas, the sensitivity and brutality of Velazquez and the assertion of self of Käthe Kollwitz. I’ve been fortunate to be able to see a lot of art in museums and churches and it all informs my hand. These artists are constantly in my thoughts.

What is your favorite fairy tale?

The Ungrateful Son. It has it all!

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On Technology and the Museum of the 21st Century

Over the weekend, I found myself chewing over Holland Cotter’s excellent NYT article “Toward a Museum of the 21st Century” and thinking about some of the open-ended questions it asks. If you haven’t read the article yet, I highly recommend it. It’s rare, and wonderful, to see someone take on the idea of a museum in this way. Cotter asks the hard question: is the museum ready for the 21st Century? Spoiler: it isn’t.


But why not? I think it has to do with the curious way that museums define innovation. Evolution in museums is a slow, deliberate process. As an example, two relatively recent innovations in museum practice (the emergence of education as a key component of museum programming, and the integration of conservation into collections stewardship) took most of the 20th Century to be realized. It’s hard to imagine a museum that moves this deliberately becoming the “structurally porous and perpetually in progress” place that Cotter hopes for; what he wants is essentially a new way of thinking about the museum’s business model.

Which sounds great, except that museums don’t do “business model innovation” very well. We’re good at integrating emerging ideas into what we already do, but we’re not good at assessing whether what we already do is actually what people want. This is nowhere more evident than with the clumsy way so many museums attempt to address visitor needs with technology. When our patrons started asking for blogs and websites and mobiles and stuff, museums did what they always do: waited around, hoping that the demand would go away, and then finally acted, creating brawny Digital Media departments that would make the blogs and websites and mobiles that everyone demanded.

Blanton VisitorThe problem is that we didn’t define that demand correctly. We thought that our visitors were asking for technology, but what they really wanted was a different way of interacting with the museum altogether. I’m reminded of Witness Voices, the website we created for Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, which we’d hoped would be a way for visitors to ask questions and express thoughts related to the show. Turns out, almost no one used the website for that purpose, but lots of people used the pen-and-paper notebooks we left out in the lounge to do that. The technology we provided to encourage an interaction mostly didn’t work, but that didn’t mean the need for the interaction wasn’t still there.

Paraphrasing Arthur C. Clarke: to a museum, any sufficiently advanced idea is often indistinguishable from technology. Our visitors didn’t want blogs, they wanted us to be “structurally porous and perpetually in progress.” We’re misinterpreting that desire as a demand for more capital-T Technology: websites, mobile apps, interactive kiosks. But this is wrong; the tech itself is incidental to the solution. And what this means is that we’re not innovating in the way we need to be to survive. Instead, we’re just making a bunch of flashy junk.

Koven is the Director of Digital Adaptation at the Blanton Museum of Art. His focus is on the adoption of digital values throughout the museum. He has opinions about things, and overuses quotation marks. Tweets at @5easypieces.

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European Paintings Get a Check-Up

Every painting in the Blanton’s collection has a history. Before it found its way to Austin, it might have made a centuries-long trek across the globe, through various owners and situations. Today, it has a good home in a clean, well-lit place where admirers can visit it. But what has this painting been through? And does it need help?


From left to right: Kristin Holder, Jeongho Park, Francesca Consagra, and Jennifer Paulson examine a painting.

The stewards of the Blanton’s collection, its curators, have undertaken a project to give one group of these works — the European Paintings collection — a check-up. They want to diagnose any problems the works have today and learn as much about their past as possible.

The Blanton holds over 300 European paintings, mainly from the Italian Renaissance and Baroque eras. Most are from the Suida-Manning Collection. It includes, amongst others, masterworks by Parmigianino, Veronese, and Rubens.

I chatted with one of the Blanton’s curatorial staff about what prompted this check-up of the European paintings, Kristin Holder. Holder not only runs the study room and storage areas for the print and drawing department but she also worked as a paintings’ technician at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

“Most of the collection had been in private hands before coming to the Blanton,” said Holder says. “The more that we know about the objects, the more that we can explain them to our audience.”

In addition, the more that’s known about the works’ physical conditions, the better the museum can interpret them, care for them, and preserve them for future generations.

turning painting

Jennifer Paulson and Kristin Holder carefully turn a painting over

In June, a curatorial team of Senior Curator Francesca Consagra, Research Associate Jeongho Park along with Holder and preparator Jennifer Paulson, began their project to study about 130 works from the European collection. This group of paintings includes works currently on view, as well as some in storage. The team is surveying about four paintings per week, Holder says, and the project will continue through next December.

The team works through a multi-step process with each painting.

First, they lay the painting flat on a table. Holder examines the front of the canvas, looking for cracking, paint loss, scraping, or other types of damage, including any problems caused by the frame. She also looks for evidence that the painting may have been cut down and re-stretched from its original configuration.

UV light

A painting is examined under UV light

Looking at the work under ultraviolet light, Holder can detect old restorations like fixed cracks or filled-in areas of paint loss. UV light also reveals how thick the varnish is atop the painting.

Throughout their investigation, Paulson makes notes and Holder takes photos to document any areas of the painting that are in need of attention.

Once this initial exam is complete, they remove the painting from its frame and examine the back.

Francesca Consagra and Kristin Holder looking at a painting taken out of its frame

Francesca Consagra and Kristin Holder looking at a painting taken out of its frame

The back of a painting often holds a bonanza of information about its history. Holder and Park look for things like collector’s marks, inventory marks, auction stickers, exhibition stickers, and panel-maker stamps (for works painted on wood panels). Paintings can also have customs stamps on the back, showing when they left specific countries. Sometimes framers also tag pictures, giving a clue to when and where it was framed. What’s more, the back of a painting can reveal whether someone has relined the picture using new canvas.

As Holder examines the back of the picture, Paulson takes a careful look at the empty frame.

“In a sense, the frame is its own object, independent of the painting,” she says. “The frame is often made at a later date than the painting or originally made for another work and reused.”

Paulson notes the frame’s physical condition. Has it been cut down from a larger size to fit its current painting? She also checks its structural integrity. Is it doing its job and supporting the work well?

Park meanwhile looks carefully at the paintings for the artists’ characteristic styles and iconography. He also studies the painted additions and restorations so that he can better understand what the original painting might have looked like.

Senior Curator Francesca Consagra is called in when something of interest turns up. She says. “I get very excited about new discoveries.”

Holder agrees. “Francesca — she’s all about the story” behind the works of art, and how they make a narrative. And learning more about the stories behind all of their paintings will help the Blanton share them better with audiences.

“The more information that we have, the more the collection is more accessible to the public,” Holder says. “A small change … can bring a work to life.”

Rebecca Johnson is the editor of the University’s StarDate magazine, and a volunteer blogger for the Blanton.


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B scene: Bossa Nova

Join us this Friday October 23rd for B Scene Bossa Nova, our after hours art party, to celebrate the opening of Moderno: Design for Modern Living in Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela, 1940-1978. This new exhibition showcases how design deeply transformed the domestic landscape in Latin American during a period marked by major stylistic developments in art and architecture. B scene: Bossa Nova celebrates the cultural and social aspects of the exhibition through the culture of Bossa Nova.

B scene bossa nova

So what is Bossa Nova all about?

The phrase literally translates to “new trend” in Portuguese and references the fusion of samba and jazz into a single genre that became widely popularized in the 1950’s and 60’s. Notable names in the early world of Bossa Nova include Joao Gilberto, Carlos Lyra, Ronaldo Boscoli, Vinicius de Moraes, Tom Jobim and Nara Leao. More than just “The Girl from Ipanema,” Bossa Nova music provided a soundtrack for Brazilian life that reflected love and beauty as well as political notions.

Perhaps the spirit of Bossa Nova can best be exemplified through music and dance. Come let the sultry sounds of Brazilian singer and songwriter Paula Maya entice your ears and then try your own hand (well, foot) at Samba lessons with Go Dance! DJ Michael Crockett, host of KUT-FM Austin’s Horizontes, Music of Latin America, will also be with us to share his in-depth knowledge of the music of the time. A celebration of Brazilian culture would not be complete without a surprise visit from Austin Samba!

audreyNot sure what to wear? Mid-century attire was both classic and stylish, polished yet glam. Think Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly and her on-screen romance with Brazillian Jose da Silva Pereira in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. B Scene is the perfect excuse to show off your more glamorous side, so channel your inner Audrey or Carmen and come dressed to impress! Be sure to get your photo taken in our mid-century modern photo booth provide by SUM Booth.

ModernoDon’t forget to take advantage of our docent lead tours of Moderno starting at 6:30pm, 7:00pm, & 7:30pm. As a special treat, tours of Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm will also be given at 7:00pm and 7:30pm. Come see Natalie Frank’s work before it leaves us on November 15. Tickets are limited for all tours so we recommend arriving early!

Inspired by Alexander Calder’s evocative mobile creations that have become iconic symbols of mid century design, guests are invited to try their own hand at mobile making in an interactive art activity on the loggia. Calder credited as the originator of the mobile, hosted two highly successful exhibitions in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janiero in 1948.

Complete your immersive experience by sipping on Caipirinha’s, the national cocktail of Brazil while enjoying some traditional Brazilian street faire provided by our friends at Boteco ATX.

If you’re a Blanton Member, you know you get the VIP treatment! After you’ve breezed through the doors without having to pay the $12 admission, picture yourself draped on comfy seating in our exclusive Member Lounge, sipping on a cocktail from a private cash bar, and enjoying complimentary mmmpanadas as sizzling samba rhythms float through the air. Not a member? We recommend joining as one! If not, however, $12 tickets are available online or at the door!

Special thanks to our sponsors, RBC Wealth Management and Tribeza.

Lily Alpern is a native Austinite and graduate of the University of Texas where she studied Art History and now works in the Special Events Department at the Blanton.

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Romance on a Reel

Museum galleries are natural incubators for romance. After all, when you have nymphs and satyrs gamboling through Renaissance paintings in one wing, and heart-wrenching emotions radiating from the Abstract Expressionists in another, how can you resist falling in love?

It worked for Annie Nguyen and her boyfriend Daniel, who came to the Blanton on their first date two years ago and have been coming back ever since.

The couple met through the Vietnamese Student Association, Annie says, when both were just starting out at the University of Texas at Austin.

Annie and Daniel at the Blanton

Annie and Daniel at the Blanton

“We didn’t talk until the organization was having its end-of-the-year field day competition,” she recalls. “After a couple hours into intense field game events in the hot sun, Daniel and I ended up sitting out on the bench. (I felt like I was going to pass out, while Daniel had sprained his ankle. Typical us.)”

“Though we hardly knew each other, Daniel was kind enough to hobble on one leg to his car to kindly grab me some Advil, and I thought it was the sweetest thing.”

They didn’t really get to know each other for a few more years, though, when she says they “became the best of friends.”

Daniel picked the Blanton for their first date, Annie says. “I think Daniel knew I loved art and wanted to impress me.”

It was 2013 and they visited the Lifelike exhibition, which featured works from the 1960s through today showing how dozens of artists, from Andy Warhol to Chuck Close to Ai Weiwei, approached Realism in art.

Annie and Daniel on their first date to see Lifelike

Annie and Daniel on their first date to see Lifelike

“We had a blast,” Annie recalls. The couple decided to try to see every new exhibit thereafter.

“Daniel is a big fan of the In the Company of Cats and Dogs exhibition, and I absolutely loved James Drake’s Brain Trash,” Annie says.

But in all of the Blanton, the couple’s favorite painting is Sternenfall, she says, noting that they always make time to see it when their visit. The 1998 work by German artist Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945) tranlates to “Falling Stars.” Romance, indeed.

Another activity they do on each visit is head to the museum’s eLounge after they finish exploring the museum. This is a relaxing space where visitors can research the museum’s collection through books and computers, or just take a break on the comfy furniture.

When visiting the eLounge, Annie and Daniel liked to look through a Viewmaster there. The plastic toy was left over from the Blanton’s 2014 “Curiosity Welcome” marketing campaign, in which Viewmasters were distributed around the city for unsuspecting Austinites to find and explore. (Finders were encouraged to play with the Viewmasters and share them, and also to take photos of themselves using the Viewmasters to post to social media.)

On each visit to the eLounge, Annie says, “we made it an unintentional habit to always look through it together. It’s a fun, nostalgic novelty.”

And not long ago, the plastic novelty led Annie to a surprise idea for their second anniversary.

“I was looking through our photos for some kind of inspiration for a gift, and I found some images of us at the Blanton looking through the Viewmaster,” she says.

Annie's custom reel for Daniel

Annie’s custom reel for Daniel

She remembered Image 3D, a company that makes custom photo reels for Viewmaster. “So I quickly rediscovered the company, signed up for an account, uploaded all of the photos, and a bought a view finder and reel for Daniel. It was perfect.” She had loaded the reel with photos of the two of them.

Next, Annie had to lure Daniel back to the Blanton.

“I snuck the Viewmaster into my purse, and after our round about the museum, before we entered that back room, I told Daniel to wait outside as I attempted to set up the Viewmaster. He entered shortly and was pleasantly surprised to see two view masters, and I quickly urged him to look at the one I made.”

Annie shared their experience on Instagram. “For the last two years Daniel has been taking me on dates to my favorite place — the Blanton,” she wrote. “And every visit we have this little tradition where we take turns looking through the Viewmaster at the same photo reel that’s always there. But this time, Daniel discovered a new Viewmaster and reel. And he was pretty surprised.”

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 presetLater, she shared this secret with us: “He won’t admit it, but I am pretty sure it made him tear up after he flipped through the reel.”

Happy anniversary, Annie and Daniel! We look forward to seeing you at the Blanton on your next date.

Rebecca Johnson is the editor of McDonald Observatory’s StarDate magazine at The University of Texas at Austin, and a guest blogger for the Blanton.

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Modern Living: At Home with the Future

The Blanton’s new exhibition, Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940-1978, opens this Sunday. We asked Florencia Bazzano, Curatorial Research Associate in Latin American Art, to share her experience of working on the show.

Quinta Perla House interior

Living room of the Quinta Perla house with a chair by Miguel Arroyo and three BKF chairs produced by Tienda Gato, with the Mendoza-Guardia’s Dalmatian, 1954. Photo by Sara Guardia de Mendoza. Courtesy of Centro de Estudios de Archivos Audiovisuales y Artísticos and the Mendoza-Guardia Family.

Two of the images that spoke to me directly as I began to work on Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940-1978, were first, a view of a private home, rather relaxed in appearance; and second, a formal living room set, standing a bit forlorn in the huge lobby of a government building.

The first image shows the interior of Quinta Perla, the home that designer Miguel Arroyo owned in the Caracas suburb of San Antonio de los Altos in northern Venezuela. When I first saw this black and white photograph I thought, “this living room reminds me of my graduate student days.” It has that quality of modernity, informality, and coolness that would be attractive to an audience that is still young but educated enough to begin thinking about furniture styles.

The bright interior of Quinta Perla reflects the tropical light coming from an unseen large window to the right designed by Arroyo and his friend, the artist Alejandro Otero. The broad floor tiles, also light in tone, must be wonderfully cold to the touch during the long Caribbean summers. The furniture is a blend of smart design in simple lines, and suitable materials for the warm weather. The wood slats of the Butaca Pampatar (Pampatar Chair), the well-known design by Arroyo that appears on the left, allow the air to pass through for extra comfort.

The other three metal chairs with bright, breathable fabrics, are examples of the Butterfly Chair or BKF, named after the initials of the last names of the designers—Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan and Jorge Ferrari Hardoy—who created this chair in Argentina in 1938. Hugely popular and inexpensive, BKF became as ubiquitous a presence throughout the region as an Ikea sofa in the United States. As in my old students days, the back wall is taken over by a large bookcase, an uncomplicated geometric grid, bursting with books and papers and decorated with luscious ferns and creeper plants.

Moderno explores a moment in Latin American history when modern art, already accepted as an artistic language, entered the private home and turned it into a site for creative experimentation. The artists and designers involved in this grand experiment were young and the style they pursued also appealed to the young. These days, modern furniture has become so globally accepted that many of these pieces would look at home in our homes.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, most large-scale architectural projects in Latin America involved the design of modern furniture. One of the best-known examples is Brasília, the  federal capital of Brazil. Oscar Niemeyer, the project’s leading architect along with urban designer Lucio Costa, commissioned furniture for the administrative buildings from Sérgio Rodrigues, Joaquim Tenreiro, Sérgio Bernardes, and Bernardo Figueiredo.

Roberto Stuckert Filho

Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR

While learning about this more official aspect of Brazilian design, I found a fascinating photograph of a living room furniture set designed by Sérgio Rodrigues for the lobby of the Palácio do Planalto (Planalto Palace), where the country’s president has his or her office. Rodrigues’s Poltronas Vronka or Vronka Chairs are made of local jacarandá wood and beautifully upholstered in warm yellow fabric. The formal set, including lounge chairs and ottomans, is arranged around a glass-topped coffee table over a rectangular carpet.

What is most dramatic about this image is the contrast between the intimate scale of this stylish living room, and the empty vastness of the surrounding lobby, with its slick marble floors and dramatically rising ramp.

Designers like Rodrigues attempted to create a bridge between human scale and the vast scale of these buildings so full of hope for the future. The recently elected Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek had promised “50 years of progress in 5.” Brasília, with its monumental vistas and futuristic architecture, rose at that moment of relative political and economic stability when modern styles and economic modernization were seen as inter-related paths to progress. Historical realities would show otherwise, yet the optimism of the moment is reflected in the modern lines of the furniture that both echo the sweeping lines of the architectural design and anchor the Planalto Palace to the human presence in its midst.

Modern furniture and architecture in Latin America, as in many other places, attempted to bring broader sectors of society into a new way of living. These two photographs show two different moments of that project, going from the private home as a site of experimentation for the emerging new modern styles, to the ultimate institutionalization of modernism in the centers of political and cultural and power.

Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940-1978 opens October 11 at the Blanton.

Florencia Bazzano, PhD, has recently joined the Blanton Art Museum as Curatorial Research Associate for Latin American Art. Previously she worked at the Cantor Art Museum at Stanford and at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. A graduate of UT Austin and the University of New Mexico, she taught Latin American art for many years.

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Behind the Blanton: Meredith Word, Graphic Designer

If you’ve seen Blanton ads in the Austin Chronicle or Statesman, or maybe a billboard on I-35 or South Lamar, then you’ve seen the work of graphic designer Meredith Word. In our latest installment of Behind the Blanton, a series where we profile different staff members, we sat down with Meredith to learn a little bit about her graphic design process and role at the Blanton.


How did you originally get into the graphic design field? What drew you to it?

Meredith: I have always loved design and typography, but for some reason it didn’t occur to me as a career option. I enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin as a Liberal Arts major and after two years realized I wasn’t where I wanted to be. So I took a year off, during which I spent a few months traveling through Europe, and after that I knew I wanted to pursue a career in art. I enrolled in Studio Art and soon after one of my professors told me about UT’s design program—which was relatively new—and thought it would be a great fit. And it was!

1What does your graphic design process look like?

Once I have a sense of the project I dive into research. If I’m developing an identity for an exhibition I research the artist(s) and relevant history, typography, etc. Then I start sketching. Every once in awhile I can visualize exactly what the design should look like as soon as I get started. But usually I produce a LOT of rejects before developing three or four good options. Those are circulated to relevant departments for review, followed by a few rounds of revisions and fine-tuning before the design is finalized.

Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly, High Yellow, 1960, oil on canvas, Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991

What’s a piece of artwork at the Blanton that you can’t stop looking at?

I vividly remember field trips to UT to see the Blanton’s collection when I was young, and Ellsworth Kelly’s High Yellow always mesmerized me. I found it so serene and hypnotic. I’m still drawn to the vivid colors and graphic simplicity.

How does living in Austin influence your work?

Austin is such a creative city and I am surrounded by so many talented people who inspire me daily: my husband is a landscape designer, my sister is an interior designer, my best friend is a designer/photographer/illustrator, just to name a few. This forces me to constantly challenge myself to create work that is thoughtful and hopefully successful.

Thank you to Meredith for sitting down and chatting with us about her graphic design work and process. Now next time you see a gorgeous image for the Blanton, you’ll know to thank Meredith for it.

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The Art of Fashion

Works of art can move us, enlighten us, spark imagination, and serve as a source of inspiration for many ideas—even for fashion. Fashion? Yep! Many of you know Hilary Elrod as the voice behind our Membership Department. When not at work, Hilary is an up and coming blogger in the Austin fashion scene, which is why we asked her to put together outfits that were inspired by and respond to the art hanging on the walls of the Blanton.

Hilary Stacked WatersWhen I was approached to put together outfits inspired by the art at the Blanton, the first work I immediately thought of was Teresita Fernández’s Stacked Waters. I always love when visitors discover that the amazing blue walls of our atrium actually comprise an art installation—so many people walk around admiring it without knowing the artist designed this site-specific piece to fill the empty walls of the Blanton’s atrium.

It would seem like an obvious choice to pull together some sort of cool-colored outfit to play off the beautiful blue color of the tiles. However, my favorite part of this piece is how gleaming and reflective it is—you can see your reflection shimmering back at you when you stand next to the wall. (Pro tip: this makes for a great photo!) Inspired by the wall’s reflective quality, I decided to choose a shiny, metallic clutch paired with a simple pink dress. The bright pop of pink holds its own against the blue wall, and I also liked how the high-low hem of the dress complements the ombre-type feel of Stacked Waters as it gets lighter as the wall gets higher. To finish the outfit, I picked out a pair of leopard-print heels to bring a subtle layer of pattern that mimics the swirls inside each acrylic tile of the installation.

Outfit details:

Dress: Old Navy
Shoes: Charlotte Russe
Purse: Rebecca Minkoff

Hilary Regina BogatFor my next outfit, I ventured into the Modern and Contemporary galleries and was immediately taken by this colorful work by Regina Bogat, Cord Painting 14. Even before reading the wall label, it was clear that this artwork was created during the 70s!

Since the 70’s are making a comeback this fall, a few weeks ago I bought a pair of bell bottoms—my first pair since the 8th grade! No self-respecting psychedelic outfit would be complete without flared jeans, but I brought the bell-bottoms into the modern day with a suede, pointy toe pump. I love that Bogat used yarn to create a fringe on the painting, calling into question whether the work is a painting or more sculptural. In the fashion world, fringe is everywhere right now, so I had no trouble finding a fringe hobo bag that perfectly mimicked the hanging threads. In a serendipitous twist of fate, I only noticed after posing for these photos that each piece of yarn is tied off in a knot, while each piece of fringe on the bag is finished off with a metal stud: another great example of how art and fashion draw inspiration from each other! I finished off this look with a dark, floral blouse that provides a nice contrast of textures and stand out in front of the strips of the yarn.

Outfit details:

Top: Gibson
Pants: Genetic Denim
Bag: Deux Lux
Heels: Franco Sarto

Hilary PassageFor my final outfit, I drew inspiration from one of the most striking (and largest!) works in the Blanton’s collection: Paul Villinski’s Passage. This soaring airplane is created from recycled and repurposed materials, just like the way you can mix and match different items of clothing to create a completely new look.

Enveloping the plane are 1,000 delicate black butterflies (again, all created out of recycled materials). When perusing my closet for the perfect top to complement the dainty butterflies, I was immediately drawn to lace. It’s a delicate material that feels weightless, and has a similar interplay of light and shadow as the butterflies perched on the plane’s wings. To reinforce this connection, I also picked out a pair of black laced-up heels to accentuate how the butterflies are interlaced throughout the wooden structure of the frame. Tying everything together is a pair of jogger pants, which lends a “broken-up” or unfinished look that mimics the skeleton of the plane. This all black outfit allows an interplay of material and skin, keeping it from feeling too monochrome.

Outfit details:

Top: Francescas
Pants: Harlowe and Graham
Bag: Kelly Wynne
Shoes: DSW

The next time you’re planning to visit the Blanton, why not take a moment, think of your favorite work of art, and design an outfit inspired by it? The pairing of art and fashion is a natural one, and you might just discover connections between the art on the walls and the clothes on your body that you hadn’t realized before.

By day, Hilary Elrod is the Membership Associate at the Blanton Museum of Art with a Bachelors degree in Anthropology and Minor in Art History from the University of Texas at Austin. By night, she is an Austin fashion and lifestyle blogger.

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“Battle”-ing the Importance of Casts

Throughout our lives we are constantly reminded of the importance of original work—students are taught from grade school that plagiarism is a serious offense, and are always encouraged to come up with unique ideas. So what happens when an original piece of work is so important and so compelling that copies end up in a museum? I asked five members of the Blanton staff across five different departments to tell me in five (read: six) words or less what they think of the museum’s collection of plaster copies of famous Greek and Roman sculptures, also known as the Battle Casts:

“Footnotes from history”
–  Dalia Azim, Special Assistant and Editor, Director’s Office


“3-D printouts before 3-D printers”
–  Adam Bennett, Manager of Public Programs


“Sculptures that aren’t quite sculptures”
–  Alie Cline, Digital Content Strategist


“…Because classical antiquity had universal authority”
–  Jeongho Park, Curatorial Research Associate, Prints and Drawings and European Paintings


“Great resource for art students”
–  Meredith Sutton, Registrar

Battle CastsSo what are these things which, depending on who you ask, can be likened either to the highest ideal of classical art or to a 3-D printout?

The Battle Casts are a collection of about 70 life-size replicas of marble or bronze sculptures from Ancient Greece and Rome, currently housed in the Schweitzer Gallery on the second floor of the Blanton Museum. Purchased by Professor William J. Battle (1870-1955) between 1894 and 1923, the casts were acquired to expose students to the artistic and literary accomplishments of the ancient world. As replicas of classical prototypes, they also serve as ideal models for students in life-drawing classes, much as they did at famous art academies of centuries past.

The majority of the works were cast in the late 19th century by August Gerber in Cologne Germany, and by the Caproni Brothers in Boston. Professor Battle chose these skilled artisans because they produced the most authentic casts of the time period. Almost every museum and university participated in collecting plaster casts during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so quality was crucial. However, during the 1930s and 1940s, casts became unpopular and fell out of favor. Many museums and universities either destroyed their plasters, or gave them away (see here, here, and here), and the practice of creating these works by hand was lost.

Battle CastsDuring this time, the Battle cast collection shrank from approximately 100 pieces to about 70, and the remaining casts were dispersed in basements and storage areas around UT. The plasters were unearthed in 1977 by UT professor of Art History, Dr. Caroline Houser, who assembled a team from the classics, art history, and art departments to make a decision about how to proceed. Along with then-UT President, Lorene Rogers, Dr. Houser called on Arthur Beale, the head of conservation at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, to make a judgment about their worth. Beale concluded that they were important enough that they not only could be restored, but that they should be restored. Thus began the long process of restoration, resulting in multiple homes for the casts and continued conservation efforts, eventually landing the collection at the Blanton Museum.

So what can be said about the casts today? It can be surprising, and sometimes even disappointing, to visit a museum in hopes of seeing original works of art, only to find yourself confronted by a series of copies. Some believe that the Battle Casts leave something to be wanted – perhaps a certain sense of “aura,” which the famous philosopher, Walter Benjamin, believed was gradually lost in each new copy of a piece of art. But once a plaster cast is created, does it not take on a life of its own, and in turn acquire something of an “aura?” And further, in this time of turmoil, when the safety of ancient originals is in question, can we attribute new importance to the Battle Casts?

Instagram postAside from their individual histories, which saw them lost and forgotten, then re-discovered and given new life, the Battle Casts also share a common history with other plaster casts and with their marble and bronze originals, both those surviving and those that have been destroyed. The Battle Casts represent a traditional (if now outdated) ideal of classical beauty: the belief that ancient Greek and Roman sculpture was the singular source of artistic creation, making them pillars not only of classical antiquity, but also of the tradition of academic art and thought. Although being in the presence of the casts is not quite the same as being in the presence of the ancient originals, it can still be impressive to stand before emperors, gods, and ancient philosophers – especially when you consider the millions before you who have also stood in front of sculptural renderings of these same objects, whether copies or originals, for thousands of years.

So next time you ask yourself why plaster copies adorn the halls of an art museum, you must also consider what you believe to be the purpose of a museum: Is it to educate? To display original artwork and exhibitions? To aid in conservation and restoration? To preserve the history of art? All of the above?

That’s a discussion for another time…but if I had to pick my words to describe the casts, they would be this: “Essential to the History of Art.”

Tessa Krieger-Carlisle is the PR and Marketing Manager at the Blanton Museum of Art. She holds a BA in the History of Art from UC Berkeley and an MA in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

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Listening to Everything All the Time: The Music of Pauline Oliveros

What are you listening to right now? Doom metal? Beethoven’s Fifth? Afro-Cuban hip-hop? Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” on repeat?

There’s no single right answer to this question, but there is a wrong answer: if you tell us that you’re listening to “nothing,” then you’re not doing deep listening. There’s sound all around us, from the bass tones wafting from the air conditioning vents to the creaking floorboards from the toddler birthday party upstairs, from the cacophony of car horns on South Congress, to the crunching granite under your sneakers on the Hike and Bike Trail.


Houston-born composer Pauline Oliveros has been one of the most influential figures from the last 50 years in contemporary music. The idea of “deep listening” is central to her work as an artist. As we anticipate the world premiere of a new piece written by Pauline Oliveros, to be presented at the Blanton during SoundSpace on September 13, here’s an overview of the composer and her importance to contemporary art and music:

Who is Pauline Oliveros? One of the most influential figures in contemporary music and art, she’s primarily known as a composer but is the rare musician who’s just as likely to be profiled in Yoga Journal or Artforum as in Pitchfork or The Wire. You’ll find her compositions performed in concert halls and on recorded anthologies, but you’ll also find her teaching, writing, and interacting with a wide range of collaborators from any discipline you can imagine. She’s shared the stage with Cecil Taylor and DJ Spooky but also with karate instructors and entomologists.

She’s also notable for her committed political stances on feminism (see her provocative New York Times editorial from 1970, “And Don’t Call Them ‘Lady’ Composers”) and environmentalism, and for her prolific writings as well as her long career teaching at Mills College and Oberlin College.


What is “deep listening”? Oliveros has described deep listening as “the seemingly impossible task of listening to everything all the time.” As a young composer of electronic music in the 1950s, Oliveros discovered that the act of recording found sounds (via a tape recorder placed on the sill of an open window) focuses our attention on the ordinary sounds during our everyday lives that we’ve missed because we weren’t paying attention. Deep listening, similar to other forms of mindfulness, seeks to make us more closely aware of our environment. It draws on traditions of meditation used for physical, cognitive, and emotional benefits, but it also ties those traditions to creativity, collaboration, and experimentation. Deep listening can be calming but it can also help you to think more creatively.

Where can I hear this? On September 13, we’re producing a program in our award-winning series SoundSpace that explores deep listening. We’ve assembled a large cast of Oliveros’s collaborators and students, performing classic pieces as well as a new, world premiere piece written by Oliveros specifically for SoundSpace, with the whole program culminating in a massive site-specific piece that will fill the entire museum with sound. Several of these pieces are interactive, allowing audience members to participate in the sonic experience.

Turning the Blanton into a 124,000 square foot chamber of sound fits into the tradition of past Oliveros performances in unique spaces—the album of the Deep Listening Band was recorded inside a massive cistern near Seattle. She’s also written compositions that are not only site-specific but time-specific: for instance, her pieces written for accordion, clarinet, and live singing cicadas, performed outdoors. It’s only possible to recreate this piece while the periodical cicadas are active, which happens only once every 17 years.


Okay, but how can I hear this on my phone right now? Well, of course you can visit Oliveros’s website, bandcamp page, etc., but you can also hear her influence all over experimental and pop music of the last 50 years: Brian Eno’s site-specific compositions in the 70s, the droning cello of Arthur Russell in the 80s, 90s British IDM like Autechre and Boards of Canada, doom bands from the 00s like Sunn O))) and Earth, and contemporary ambient artists Grouper and Actress. These musicians are very diverse, but all share an interest in developing their compositions through tone clusters held for extended periods of time, in which the development of the entire piece relies upon the listener’s close attention to how notes, chords, pitches, and tempos mutate and shift.

A simpler pop song might repeat the same chords—Taylor Swift’s ”Bad Blood‘s” F/C/G/A minor—so that you’ve figured out the entire 3-minute song in the first 10 seconds. The deep listening approach, by contrast, is more about giving the listener a sonic palette that develops and envelops, repaying focused attention over the duration of the piece.

I’m not a musician—can I practice deep listening if I can’t read music or play an instrument? Yes! There are a number of text-based deep listening pieces that you can perform at home.

Here’s one you can use to warm up for the participatory pieces at the Blanton this month or simply to cultivate mindfulness and creative engagement with your environment. It’s titled Urban and Country Meditations:

Urban Meditation

Listen to a roadway–eyes closed–distinguish size shape make of car by sound–also speed and health of engine.

Country Meditation

Sit by the trees–what kind of tree makes what kind of sound?

Make sure to drop the Blanton this Sunday, September 13 from 2-4pm to experience SoundSpace: Deep Listening.

Adam Bennett organizes the music, film, and lecture series at the museum in his role as the Blanton’s manager of public programs. He also writes about arts and culture and practices law in Austin.

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Are you a UT student who hasn’t visited the Blanton? Read this.

It’s the advice always given to incoming freshmen: college is the time to try new things and challenge yourself. Luckily for students at the University of Texas at Austin, that something new might be right around the corner on campus.

Blanton galleryDespite being on campus and free for those with a UT ID, many students have never been to the Blanton Museum of Art. Why not escape the Texas heat before the semester starts? The museum is located on campus behind the PCL, across the street from Jester dormitories, and is a great place to visit when you aren’t in class or want to take a break from all things school related. I think that some students are a little afraid of visiting an art museum because they don’t know what to expect. But take it from a currently enrolled college student who loves the Blanton: you can visit without fear and have plenty of fun.

What should I wear to the Blanton?

The words “art museum” may conjure up images of fancily dressed ladies and gentlemen strolling through galleries, peering at paintings while whispering their interpretations of artworks to each other. Showing up to any event or place underdressed or overdressed is a nightmare no one wants to go through. To help fellow college students avoid the attire nightmare, remember that the Blanton is a museum open to people of all ages and walks of life. Art might be fancy, but you don’t have to dress like an Italian fashion icon to view art from the Italian Renaissance: Birkenstocks and Nike shorts are just fine. As long as you’re comfortable in what you have on and it’s an appropriate outfit for going out around town, you’re on your way to a successful trip to the museum!

What should I bring to the Blanton?

Besides yourself, I recommend bringing an open-mind and willingness to experience something novel—you never know what you might find.

I like bringing a small notebook and a pencil (no pens allowed!) with me because it could come in handy. If you stumble upon a work that you really like, check out the name and write it down. If you’re artistically inclined, you might want to take some time to create a sketch. There are benches inside the gallery spaces for visitors to gaze at works, take a break from walking, or give themselves a minute to sketch.

Blanton galleriesI’d also recommend bringing a friend (or a few friends) to see what the Blanton has to offer. I believe that beautiful things are even more beautiful when shared with people you care about and enjoy being with. But for those who like to fly solo, there is absolutely nothing wrong with going to the Blanton by yourself.

Don’t forget to bring your phone! If you think you can’t take a #hookem selfie or make your roommate get a snap of you in front of fruit paintings, think again—the Blanton allows photography and loves when visitors share their experiences at the museum on Instagram. Just don’t forget to tag #BlantonMuseum in your caption!

What if I don’t know anything about art?

Don’t worry about it! Art isn’t created for just experts, so you can still enjoy the exhibitions even if you don’t have a background in art history. You probably aren’t the only person in there that doesn’t know a thing about art.

But if you do feel uncomfortable with the idea of touring the gallery yourself, find a friend to come with you or visit during a drop-in tour so you have a guide through the gallery.

AirplaneWhat kind of art does the Blanton have?

The Blanton’s permanent collection holds over 17,000 works and is made up of a wide range of genres. The museum has something to offer everyone and you’re bound to find something you love. You can see works by well-known artists, such as Warhol’s portrait of Farrah Fawcett, as well as intriguing and stimulating art by artists that you may have never heard of, like Jorge Eielson’s Quipus 58 B.

The Blanton also has rotating exhibitions throughout the year, so there is always a new presentation to enjoy. The museum strives to bring its visitors visually-arresting and thought-provoking art all year long. This summer, for example, the Blanton has Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World (#OllerATX) and Natalie Frank: Brothers Grimm (#NatalieFrank). You can always find information regarding current (and past) exhibitions and the museum’s permanent collection on the Blanton’s website.

What other things are there to do or see in the museum?

SnapchatThe Blanton has a variety of events that go on every month. The museum offers workshops and hosts events like SoundSpace (there’s a large number of UT students planning on attending September’s SoundSpace) and Yoga in the Galleries. Most of the events hosted by the Blanton are free to the public or are included with museum admission, which is free for UT students. You can keep yourself always up-to-date on the latest Blanton news and events by following the museum on Instagram and/or liking the Blanton Facebook page. This is one social media savvy museum so make sure to also find the Blanton on Tumblr, Snapchat, and Twitter!

How do I know if I’m doing the “visiting an art museum” thing correctly?

There’s no real way of gauging whether or not you’ve met some standard for a museum visit, because there isn’t one. There’s no right or wrong way to visit a museum. Did you find something cool? Did you learn something new? Did you have fun? Asking yourself questions like those might help answer whether or not you visited the museum like you are “supposed to.” Museums and the art they hold can be a source of inspiration, an invitation to see the world in a new way, and can even provide a way for you to learn more about other people or cultures. You can experience and take from your trip to the Blanton (or any art museum) what you want, but at the end of the day, have fun and enjoy your time with the art.

Next time you find yourself with nothing to do on a weekday or weekend, consider a trip to the Blanton Museum of Art instead of binge-watching Netflix. You never know what you might discover if you step outside your comfort zone and try something new.

Jenny Zheng is a third-year marketing major in the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin set to graduate in the fall of 2016. She had the opportunity to work as the PR and marketing intern at the Blanton Museum of Art this summer and enjoys writing in her free time.

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Behind the Blanton: Koven Smith, Director of Digital Adaptation

kjs museumnextYou may have seen him around on our blog, but Koven Smith is actually the Blanton’s Director of Digital Adaptation. In our latest installment of Behind the Blanton, a series profiling different Blanton staff members, we sat down with Koven to learn a little bit about what he does in and outside of the museum.

You’ve previously worked at the Denver Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, among other places. Is there something that sets the Blanton apart from other museums you’ve worked at?

Koven: The sense of purpose among the staff here is particularly strong–from the beginning I could feel a strong motivation among everyone on staff to do something really special and wonderful with this museum. The fact that (relatively speaking) we’re still a fairly young museum also motivates everyone. The possibilities are wide open.

convertWhat prompted you to found Drinking About Museums in 2011?

Drinking About Museums started as a low-key meetup for people who work in museums. When I first moved to Denver, I used to have regular lunches with Kate Livingston, who was then at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and we’d have these wide-ranging conversations about museum futures and strategy and whatever. At some point we figured that it would be a good idea to invite other Denver museum people to be a part of these conversations, and one meetup at the Cheeky Monk later, Drinking About Museums was born. I thought up the name while watching an episode of “Doctor Who.”

After we did our first one in Denver, Ed Rodley, an old colleague/friend of mine from Boston called up and asked if he could steal–he probably said “use”–the name for a meetup they already had going. At that point it had never occurred to me that this would be replicable anywhere else, so I was like, “oh yeah, sure!” Once the Boston crew did it, Drinking About Museums started popping up everywhere. I just saw that there was one in Italy, which to my knowledge is the first one in that country. They’re in Russia now, South America—I think the only continent that there hasn’t been one, to my knowledge, is Antarctica. Turns out people who work in museums like to talk about museums while they drink beer.

How does your background in music fit into what you do here at the museum, if it does at all?

It kind of does. My background in music is actually as a composer–that was what I studied at Berklee. I suppose that when a project is going really well at the Blanton, it feels very similar to the process of composing or rehearsing a large group of musicians. I’m constantly scoping in and out to figure out what needs to be adjusted to make something work, or how to change direction on a large project so that it has the impact we hoped it would. When a project is going well, it feels like a great rehearsal when every musician is at the top of his or her game, and everybody’s on the same page. So it’s more of a conceptual similarity than something more direct.

What’s your favorite part about your job at the Blanton?

I love when I’m able to see a new way of looking at a problem. Museums by nature are pretty tradition-bound and generally speaking are not always willing or capable of addressing a problem in a different way. One of the things that appeals to me about the Blanton is that there’s a real willingness to do that. So the part that I love is saying “Oh, let’s take this thing that most people take for granted and let’s pull it apart and look at it in a very different way and see if that enables us to come up with a solution that makes more sense for us.”

I’m happiest when I feel like I’m able to do something that enables [the Blanton] to move faster or get ahead of the field. For instance, we’re starting to look at different ways of delivering text information in gallery spaces and researching how information density affects visitor experience. The willingness among the Blanton’s staff to look at issues in new ways means that we might be able to find a better (or at least more deliberate) way of doing this that could be useful for other museums as well. It’s really cool.

The best part about living in Austin is…?

I love 91.7 KOOP. I love Deep Eddy. I love that I can come to the Blanton on a Saturday afternoon and see Line Upon Line Percussion play, and then see some Nancarrow player-piano pieces performed “live.” I love that even grocery stores here have bands playing. That’s just amazing to me. I love that Black Star Co-Op is a short bike ride from my house. Austin is just filled to the brim with wonderful things.

Extra big thank you to Koven for taking time out of his busy day to chat with us. You can also visit him online.

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Up Close and Personal with Artworks on Paper

Prints and DrawingsYou spot it down the hallway, past the plaster casts. You wonder what kinds of artworks abound behind the two glass doors. You approach and read the lettering over the entrance: “The Julia Matthews Wilkinson Center for Prints and Drawings,” and the H-E-B Study Room. Great! You are pumped to see some prints and drawings. You open the door, step inside, and…where are they?

This is the Wilkinson Center, which contains curatorial offices, a small library, and a study room for, yes, prints and drawings. Occasionally these works of art will be displayed in special exhibitions, but most of the time, the museum keeps them in storage. Why wouldn’t curators want to keep these works on display all year round? Because they need special protection.

“These works are like textiles,” says Kristin Holder, the Print Room Manager at the Blanton, “They are very vulnerable to light, humidity, and temperature.”

studyroom3Light hardens the fibers in the paper and makes the artwork more vulnerable to breakage, deterioration, and discoloration. Therefore, museums must provide special treatment for prints and drawings, keeping them in a cool, dark place for storage.

But what’s the point of art if it just sits in boxes, never to be seen by a human eye? We agree, so the print study room was born to solve that problem. The Wilkinson Center offers free art-viewing appointments in the H-E-B Study Room to any member of the public.

“We have one of the most active study rooms in the country, with about 2,500 visitors a year,” says Francesca Consagra, the Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, and European Paintings. “This is extraordinary, especially since our visitors are divided almost equally between university and non-university audiences.”

studyroom4Kristin manages appointments in the print room and serves as the facilitator between visitors and the collection. Visitors contact her, tell her what they’re interested in seeing, and she pulls works from storage based on the information provided. Some visitors come with a particular work or artist in mind, but others may simply be interested in seeing artworks related to a certain topic. For example, a recent visitor was researching human rights and sought a cover image for his book, and another group of visitors, a class in the nursing program at the University of Texas, were researching HIV.

Kristin says that professors often visit the center with their students to provide visual aides for understanding.

“Professors want to get students to read an object like they would read a book,” Kristin says. “You can tell a whole story around one image.”

Though UT students are the most frequent guests in the print room—they made up 44% of all the room’s visitors in 2014—our fastest-growing group is K-12 students and teachers from Austin. 23% of visitors last year were K-12 students, and 9% were involved in K-12 teacher training.

Study RoomKristin says that classes in the print room often give students an opportunity to have a voice and chance to express themselves thanks to the ability to interact closely with the works of art.

Other visitors to the print room include scholars, artists, art students, museum professionals from outside institutions, and individuals with an interest in certain artists, works, or topics.

“Our full-time staff is comprised of two artists and two historians,” Francesca says, “And we all love looking at wonderful and meaningful works of art with anyone who wants to learn and to think creatively in an intimate setting.”

If you’re interested in viewing artwork in the study room, please email Kristin Holder at or give her a call at 512-471-9208.

Jeana Bertoldi is the assistant to the senior curator of prints and drawings, and European paintings at the Blanton Museum of Art. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and a bachelor’s in English with a minor in photography from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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A Peek into the Blanton Café

IMG_2740As a new employee at the Blanton, I am naturally interested in nearby places to eat. What better place to start than at the Blanton Café? Located just across the plaza from the museum in the Edgar A. Smith building, the café offers visitors a peaceful place to enjoy delicious food like flatbread pizzas, soups, salads, signature desserts, a variety of “grab and go” items, and, of course, your daily dose of caffeine.

I sat down with the Blanton Café’s chef manager, Jeanna Lewis, to talk about her experience working at the café and to hear about its signature (and secret!) menu, which offers fresh and healthy food with a variety of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free options.

Jeanna started working at the café two years ago after owning her own corporate catering company for 13 years and loves being affiliated with the Blanton and UT. She is inspired by the students and patrons who regularly come through the café: “I know a lot of people by name— we like to treat them like family,” Jeanna says. She is also influenced by the Blanton’s summer family programs such as WorkLab, Storytime Tours, and Deeper Dives, which she says have inspired her to add more “grab and go” items to the café menu, including dry cereal, goldfish, and cheese bento boxes for children, while her chef’s salads are a favorite for parents.IMG_2747The Blanton Café also offers off-menu specials for the museum’s Third Thursdays: a glass of wine and a slice of pizza for $5 (substitute beer for $6) – and the Midday Music Series: coffee and a cookie for $2.50 plus tax. Jeanna says that both specials have become increasingly popular—the Third Thursday special created a line out the door for a solid three hours last month, so get in early! Aside from the wallet-friendly special prices, Jeanna thinks the wine that the café features is a huge draw. The café currently offers two wines, the Lechuza granacha, a red blend from Spain, and the La Fiera pinot grigio, a classic white from Italy. Jeanna also teased the promise of a delicious rosé, coming soon.

Also popular are the breakfast tacos (which often sell out by 10AM, despite breakfast being scheduled through 11AM) as well as the Tomato & Avocado Grilled Cheese and the Grilled Portobello Stack, both of which can be made gluten free using “Udi’s Bread” or served over greens for a healthier option. Offering healthy and fresh food is a priority for Jeanna, who reminisces fondly on the café’s stint serving Fredericksburg peaches last month, which she says sold extremely quickly.

IMG_2754If you’re feeling a bit snacky or need to satisfy a sweet tooth, though, Jeanna has you covered. The Blanton Café secretly offers some of the best fries in Austin, and while they’re not on the menu, you can see them perfectly perched on a dish next to a sandwich once you’re in line at the café. Let me tell you: they are a perfect mixture of crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Jeanna also suggests their newest cookie, the “Royale,” which boasts chocolate, macadamia nuts, pecans, and coconut, and is baked in house, along with the rest of their cookies.

Above all, though, Jeanna has created a fun and lively environment. She tells me that her “awesome girls,” some of whom have worked at the Blanton Café for five or six years, help contribute to this atmosphere through their hard work and love for what they do. I will definitely be frequenting the Blanton Café and certainly will be on the lookout to try all of Jeanna’s new creations!

IMG_2772The Blanton Café is open Mon-Fri 8am-4pm, Saturday & Sunday 12pm-4pm (grab and go items only). A limited menu is served after 2pm on weekdays and on the weekends. The Café is open until 9pm on Third Thursday evenings and during B Scene. For the full menu, visit our website.

Tessa Krieger-Carlisle is the PR and Marketing Manager at the Blanton Museum of Art. She holds a BA in the History of Art from UC Berkeley and an MA in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

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Hitting the Road to Find Impressionism in Texas (But Not Texas Impressionism)

One Friday in February, I set out on a five-hour drive from Austin through the Piney Woods of far East Texas to a small, nearly forgotten town called San Augustine. I was headed there on a mission (though unrelated to the mission this town is best known for). I was looking for paintings by S. Seymour Thomas, a little-known but remarkably successful artist who happened to be one of the few Texans to study art in Paris in the 1880s and ’90s. My search had brought me to a historic house in Thomas’s hometown, where a collection of his work is now housed.

Thomas Studio

Detail of S. Seymour Thomas’s Studio in Paris, 1891. Photo by Beth Shook.

The Blanton’s special exhibition Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World, organized by the Brooklyn Museum, presents a broad view of the Caribbean basin. Rather than chopping up this region by language or political history, the exhibition juxtaposes images depicting Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Venezuela, St. Thomas, Dominica, the Bahamas, and Cuba, among other Caribbean locales. The basin extends into the Gulf of Mexico and as far west as the Gulf Coast—a region that during the colonial period became commercially and culturally bound both to the Caribbean islands and to the imperial powers across the Atlantic.

A map of the Caribbean sets the scene in the first gallery of Impressionism and the Caribbean.

A map of the Caribbean sets the scene in the first gallery of Impressionism and the Caribbean.

Because the exhibition was to debut here in Austin, curators and educators from the Blanton and the Brooklyn Museum hatched a plan to highlight this local connection by seeking out 19th-century artists who had both a Texas connection and transatlantic careers. We first selected two works by Julius Stockfleth, a German-born Galveston painter who depicted that city with naturalistic detail during its heyday. But we were still interested in including an artist from the region who had engaged with French Realism or Impressionism, and thus followed a similar career trajectory to that of Francisco Oller, the focus of the exhibition.

Julian Onderdonk

A Cloudy Day, Bluebonnets Near San Antonio, Texas, 1918, by Julian Onderdonk, the major proponent of Texas Impressionism. Two decades too late for our exhibition.

As it turned out, finding artists who fit the bill was no easy task. In the 1860s, when painters in Paris were beginning to break away from the official academy by exploring avant-garde strategies, the newly annexed state of Texas was still being settled—not exactly the ideal atmosphere for a thriving modern art scene. On top of that, I quickly discovered the importance of distinguishing between Impressionists from Texas and participants in “Texas Impressionism.” Impressionism was slow to take off in the United States. In Texas, it was only in the first quarter of the 20th century that artists began to represent the effects of light and atmosphere in a manner that can be described as Impressionist. This regional movement reached its height between 1927 and 1929, when the Texas Wildflower Competitive Exhibitions were established to encourage depictions of the local landscape. This was, however, outside of the chronological range of our project.

I reached repeated dead ends until a colleague in Galveston pointed me to S. Seymour Thomas. The artist fit the bill: After training in Texas and at the Art Students League in New York, in 1888 Thomas set off for Paris, where he enrolled the Académie Julian, an art school popular among American expats. Not only did his time in Paris overlap with Oller’s—indeed they may have both exhibited work at the Paris Salon exhibition of 1895—Thomas’s work from the period demonstrates a clear awareness of Impressionist brushstroke and coloring.

Impressionism and the Caribbean detail

Installation view of Paris by Gaslight, 1890s, and Texas Landscape, 1897, both by S. Seymour Thomas. Photo by Milli Apelgren.

Hence my road trip. In San Augustine I found the two paintings I’d had my eye on: one a street scene from Paris, the other a wintry Texas landscape far removed from the fields of wildflowers that would comprise the bulk of Texas’s regional Impressionism.

While not as luminous or painterly as the works by French masters like Pissarro and Monet that are included in the exhibition, Thomas’s paintings from the 1890s evince his exposure to radical developments in technique and subject matter. And while, like Oller, Thomas never identified as an Impressionist, his career encapsulates the promise that transatlantic travel held for artists of the 19th century.

Beth Shook is the Blanton’s Curatorial Associate for Latin American Art and managing curator for Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World.


Edwards, Katie Robinson. Midcentury Modern Art in Texas. Austin, TX: The University of Texas Press, 2014.

Pinckney, Pauline A. Painting in Texas: The Nineteenth Century. Austin, TX: The University of Texas Press, 1967.

Texas Impressionism: Branding with Brushstroke and Color, 1885-1935. Exh. cat. Canyon, TX: Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, 2012.

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Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary through an Audio Guide

Our Lady of Pomata

Unidentified artist, Cuzco, Peru, Our Lady of the Rosary of Pomata, late 17th or 18th century, oil on canvas, The Marilynn and Carl Thoma Collection, 2003.04.

A new rotation of miraculous paintings have gone on view at the Blanton as the second installment of the long-running exhibition, Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary: Colonial Painting from South America. Originating from colonial-era South America and selected from the collection of Marilynn and Carl Thoma, the works are a window into a European tradition transformed by indigenous Andean artists. Each painting depicts a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary.  By copying the original statue, there was a belief that the painting was imbued with the same miraculous powers as the statue.

Museum educators help visitors understand first, why paintings were made of these statues, and second, why the Andean region became such an important center for these works. As the Museum Educator for University Audiences, Siobhan McCusker scours the intellectual resources of the diverse campus in order to find the perfect collaborators for the audio guide. As the lead for Digital Interpretation, Mary Myers creates a guide that transforms the substantial contextual information into a narrative that all visitors can understand. The timeline below captures Mary’s process through the months it takes an audio guide to unfold.


Since each exhibition at the Blanton is unique, we approach new installations with eyes wide open to various modes of interpretation. Wall labels are a traditional way of sharing information with museum visitors, but ever-evolving digital tools means new possibilities for digital interpretation. After considering and discussing varied multimedia approaches to interpretation, we decided to create an audio guide featuring voices of faculty and students from the university. As the participants are identified, they are given a checklist of paintings included in the exhibition so they may choose which work they would like to discuss. After a bit of jockeying, four excited academics each select a painting to speak about.


Recording participants for the audio guide is the first of many steps towards creating a cell phone audio tour. As participants confirm their schedules, I transform the Blanton’s auditorium into a recording studio. The session is an intimate and intellectual exchange between audio guide participants and museum educators. Though we encourage each participant to prepare a script, the sessions often veer into deeper investigations of the complex themes within each painting. All the while, I monitor the microphones and recording device for good audio levels and competing background noise. The speaker reads through the script multiple times throughout the session, ensuring that I will have a variety of tonal options when approaching the audio edit. As the session unfolds, participants begin to relax, and the read becomes more animated. As their scripted material peaks our curiosity, we try to tease out more detailed explanations, and their passion for the subject lights up the room.

Auditorium setup


One of my favorite parts of creating an audio guide is unearthing information that reaches far beyond what is offered on a wall label. Each participant brings their research efforts to life, and entries become personal expressions. However, with prolific content comes prolific edits. Though participants are asked to craft a script, the recording session often yields exciting unscripted content as well. Multiple takes of the script transition into more off-the-cuff research and anecdotes from the participant, and I consider all the recorded material when approaching my edits. I compare the numerous reads of the script alongside the unscripted content for the most compelling material from the session. Often, I am looking for moments when participants say something particularly illuminating or unique, listening for phrases that engage me as I hope they will engage a visitor. This hybrid edit expands on the speaker’s research, capitalizes on the fluidity of the recording session, and creatively combines the two into one piece of content.

Susan Deans Smith, Associate Professor in the Department of History, speaks about Our Lady of Pomata on the audio guide.


The complex stories behind the miraculous statue paintings, the religious characters represented within, and the motivations of their indigenous Andean creators can be difficult to grasp, so I rely on fresh ears to measure success. Making research come to life for visitors in language they can understand within a two minute sound byte is a constant challenge, so sharing creative edits with staff and soliciting feedback is a crucial step in creating a well-received audio guide. The edits make their way around the Education and Curatorial staff, and everyone is struck by the excitement evident in each entry. As historical research is exposed and religious folklore unveiled, our curiosity begs to hear Marilynn Thoma who, along with her husband Carl, amassed the impressive collection of Spanish Colonial art. What drew them to collect these paintings? Why is she so invested in researching their origins? What inspires her to share her collection with our audience? Since Marilynn is based in Chicago, we decide to approach her about doing a record session over the phone. She agrees, and we schedule the session for early July.


The fiery red walls that served as the backdrop for the first installment of Virgin Mary paintings are replaced by a fresh coat of cool blue as the Odom gallery is transformed for the next year of viewing.   The paintings arrive and we get to witness them in-person for the first time. After only seeing digital images of the paintings on a screen, I am surprised by many new observations. The scale of some works is surprising: larger than anticipated. The detail of flowers and faces are exponentially more intense than any image file can express. That same week, we get a chance to speak with Marilynn Thoma and authentically share in her excitement for the objects and all the research they have inspired. I put her phone recording session through its paces and all audio guide edits are finalized just in time for the exhibition’s opening weekend. I load the edited audio files onto the Guide By Cell platform and we listen to each stop in front of its corresponding painting for the first time.

Installation view

Installation view of Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary

Only about two minutes of the recorded material will make it into the final audio guide edit, but the rest of the audio content will have a life beyond the cell phone tour that visitors find in the galleries. The Education Department is interested in making as much of the captured content available to gallery teachers and docents who will be leading tours through the museum. Future researchers will also have the benefit of accessing the extended audio files to help further their own knowledge of associated topics.

Special thanks to our Audio Guide participants:

Susan Deans Smith
Associate Professor in the Department of History

Alexandra Madsen
Master’s Student in the Department of Art History

Jorge Canizares Esguerra
Professor in the Department of History

Juan Carlos DeOrellana
Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History

Marilynn Thoma
Chicago-based collector of Spanish Colonial Paintings and member of the Blanton’s National Leadership Board

Mary Myers is the Blanton’s Media Coordinator and leads Digital Interpretation for the Education Department.

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Behind the Blanton: Cory Conner, Chief of Security

In order to avoid a dramatic art heist here at the Blanton, we have recently hired a new Chief of Security, Cory Conner. In our latest installment of Behind the Blanton, a series where we profile different Blanton staff members, we sat down with Cory to learn a little bit about what he does and how he protects the art in the Blanton’s collection on a day-to-day basis.

Prior to joining the Blanton, you worked at NBC Universal as the Director of Loss Prevention and Security Liaison. How is protecting art different than working for an entertainment company? Are there any similarities? 

Cory: This is a great question. I think the largest difference I’ve noticed with protecting art is the split second of time in which a visitor could damage or vandalize a specific piece of work even though a Gallery Assistant might be in the same room. With an entertainment company if you need to guard a specific piece of property, it’s typically locked down and out of sight until it’s needed. However, I think there a re a lot of similarities between the two  in terms of the way property protection is handled. For example, the amount of overall video surveillance is directly proportionate to the size and scope of the entity security is observing and recording, and the amount of staff is typically proportionate to the amount of area that security is responsible for patrolling and securing.

What does a typical day of work look like for you?

Luckily, no two days have been the same so far, or typical! Some of things I do go throughout the day are checking on and trying to resolve any alarm issues from the previous day, prepping for the amazing team of Gallery Assistants’ meetings in the morning, coordinating access into the galleries usually before hours, attending planning meetings for upcoming exhibitions, communicating with my awesome team of Security Supervisors about any ongoing issues or concerns, researching museum security trends and benchmarks, and tweaking current policies and procedures, and finally…trying to learn something new about art every day.

What is something people would be surprised to learn goes into protecting artworks? What’s been the most challenging aspect of your job?

Personally, I think people would be surprised to learn about the sheer amount of time and resources devoted to the movement, placement, staffing, and consideration that is all combined into how best to protect artworks and ensure they are preserved for future generations. The most challenging aspect of my job has been to learn the cultural property protection role and the realization that objects in the museum are all vulnerable to vandalism and theft at any given moment. I can’t remember where I read this quote, but it really puts things in perspective for me, “saving art means saving context”.

What’s the weirdest/most unique/interesting interaction you’ve had with a visitor in the galleries?

I laugh each time I remember this, and the interaction just happened at the most recent B scene. I was walking through the new Impressionist exhibition downstairs, when I was approached by a gentleman that questioningly asked me, “None of these paintings are for sale, right?” After a startled moment on my behalf, I assured him that they were not.

How has it been adjusting to life in Austin? What’s your favorite part about the city, and what are some things you enjoy doing while not at work?

I’m actually from the Austin area, but I’m glad to be back residing here after almost thirteen years in California. There are so many parts of the city that I enjoy, it’s hard to pick just one! Some of the things I enjoy while not at work are the outdoor activities Austin has to offer, following soccer globally since I’m a huge fan, trying to keep up with the multiple books I seem to read at the same time, and spending time with my family and friends here in town.

Philip Evergood

Philip Evergood, Dance Marathon, 1934, oil on canvas, Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991.

If you had to pick a favorite artwork in the museum, what would it be?

By far, my favorite artwork here in the museum is Dance Marathon by Philip Evergood. I think since I grew up reading comics as a kid, the visual appeal for me is the way it’s structured with the small, almost hidden details you can look for, as well as the vibrant color scheme.

We appreciate Cory taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to us! If you see him around the museum or in the galleries, be sure to thank him for protecting the art entrusted to the Blanton’s care.

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Not Your Average Princess: Humanity and Complexity in Natalie Frank’s depictions of The Tales of the Brothers Grimm

On December 21, 1937, Walt Disney studios released their first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The movie, based on the story by the Brothers Grimm, grossed nearly $8 million during its initial release (just over $132 million by today’s standards). Nearly 80 years since this resounding success, Disney has continued to mine historical fairy tales, twisting them into something almost unrecognizable for family audiences. I don’t mean to be unkind; I love Disney films and grew up with my favorite characters literally painted on my bedroom walls. I, like most people who grew up with Disney, never knew the original tales, and as a child, I would not have been prepared for the unhappy endings or the titillating details of the original stories.

Yet to blame only Disney studios for the sanitization of these stories would be unfair: the Grimm Brothers started to make them more “kid friendly” over the course of forty years. The original stories are filled with dynamic and interesting characters, complex relationships, and true human suffering. Modern day soap operas could only dream of this much intensity. Luckily for avid fairy tale lovers like me, Natalie Frank, the New York-based, Austin native, has created 75 gouache and chalk pastel drawings that illuminate the beauty, complexity and humanity of these original stories. On July 11, the Blanton Museum of Art will open the exhibition Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm, showcasing 36 drawings from the series. As the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin writes, “These are Grimms’ fairy tales before the PC censors got ahold of them.”

Natalie Frank

Rapunzel II, 2010-2014, gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of the Houston Endowment, Inc., in honor of Melissa Jones, 2014.

These are not illustrations, but rather, Frank’s feminist interpretations of the stories. She is interested in the multifaceted and complex women she admires in the stories. According to Frank, “I always look for images of feminine beauty that are atypical and complicated because that is how I saw their roles, and a lot of the roles of women in these stories.”[1]

In Frank’s drawing, Rapunzel II, we see an older woman’s face coming out of a tower window. Her bushy hair and eyebrows, ruddy cheeks, and large nose make her an unlikely candidate for the starring role. But, according to Frank, she wanted to depict a woman who has been held in captivity: a woman who had been used by the only people she had ever known and literally given away for vegetables by her true parents. Her story is intricate and complex, and so is she.

In the original 1812 version of the story, a husband and wife had been wishing for a child for many years. At the request of his pregnant wife—who is wasting away due to her desire to eat rapunzel (the lettuce)—her husband jumps the fence and steals it from the fairy’s garden. When confronted by the fairy, the man explains the situation and the fairy agrees to give the couple as much lettuce as they like in exchange for the child. In fear, the man agrees.[2] (In later revisions, the fairy is a sorceress and she threatens them with more than just the withholding of veggies.)

The child Rapunzel “grew to be the most beautiful child under the sun.” Ironically, this beauty is the cause of her cruel imprisonment. She grew up completely isolated and never knew anyone aside from the fairy she called Mother Gothel. When Rapunzel meets the prince, there is no mention of love. In the 1812 telling, “Rapunzel was terribly afraid, but soon, the young prince pleased her so much that she agreed to see him every day and pulled him up into her tower. Thus, for a while they had a merry time and enjoyed each other’s company.”[3]

(In later revisions, the Grimm brothers added moralizing overtones, thoughtful contemplation of love, a marriage proposal and a plan for escape.)

Rapunzel gives away that she is having nightly rendezvous with the prince when she asks Mother Gothel why her “clothes are becoming too tight.”[4] She is unaware of her own changing body and the consequences of her evening soirées and her naïveté gives away her pregnancy. The fairy, the only mother and woman Rapunzel has ever known, “banished Rapunzel to a desolate land, where she had to live in great misery. In the course of time she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl.”[5] (In later revisions, the brothers change the focus away from the pregnancy (although she still has twins) to make Rapunzel more foolish rather than just tragically naïve. The golden haired vixen asks the sorceress why she is so much heavier than the prince, resulting in her banishment.)

Natalie Frank

Rapunzel III, 2010-2014, gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Promised gift of Brent Hasty and Stephen Mills.

Frank’s final depiction in this series, Rapunzel III, shows Rapunzel and her prince reunited. The couple embrace and her tears clear the eyes of her blinded lover. The prince has a squirrel tale, because, according to Frank, he is most like an animal since he has been wandering in the desert. The twins are upside down, indicating their “wretchedness.” Rapunzel has become more beautiful through the course of her suffering and she is the one comforting the prince. Behind the couple, the kingdom is in the background, maybe signaling the hopeful future they will have together.

What makes these original stories distinctive from the ones Disney has disseminated is not the beauty and magic of true love, but the humanness and suffering that makes personal growth and transformation possible. Frank’s drawings celebrate that suffering and highlight the emotion and physical transformations endemic to human life. By focusing on the gritty, the not so shiny and the moments of sadness, Frank makes our own sufferings a little more bearable and the moments of compassion that much sweeter.

Amethyst Beaver is a curatorial assistant in modern and contemporary art at the Blanton.

[1] Natalie Frank in conversation with the author, April 20, 2015.

[2] Jack Zipes, trans. & ed., The Complete First Edition, The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 37-38.

[3] Ibid., 39.

[4] Ibid.,39.

[5] Ibid., 39.

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Enabling comments for an exhibition: Witness Voices

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 10.46.23 AMOne of my primary roles as the Director of Digital Adaptation here at the Blanton Museum of Art is determining exactly what the Blanton’s online “products” should be. Aside from simply making sure that visitors know how to get to the Museum and what they’ll see when they arrive, what’s the point of the Blanton’s website? Is it to provide content? Context? Conversation? Pretty pictures? Links to our Facebook page? And in all cases, who are we trying to reach? People who visit us in person? People who only interact with us online? People who retweet us? People who don’t retweet us?

Witness Voices, a website developed in conjunction with the exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights In the Sixties, helped us dig into a few of these questions. By the time the exhibition closed, we had a website that was serving a different function from that which we’d originally intended, but which I think will have a more significant impact on the way the Blanton approaches online experiences over the long term.

Why “Witness Voices”?

One of the first questions we had to address in the lead-up to the opening of Witness was what hashtag we would use to promote the exhibition. After quite a bit of discussion, we finally decided on #witnessvoices. The reason for choosing this instead of something more obvious like #witness60s or #witnessblanton was that we wanted to encourage visitors to voice their opinions on the exhibition itself as well as on themes related to the show. (See Alie Cline’s recent post on hashtags for more on how we make these sorts of decisions at the Blanton.) Because we have works related to these themes in the Blanton’s permanent collection, we felt that this hashtag might have a useful life beyond the run of the show itself.

The thought that went into #witnessvoices (The Hashtag) informed the development of Witness Voices (The Website). As we worked through our goals for the show, it increasingly seemed that a traditional online exhibition, with images of the works from the show and text about each work, would be the wrong approach. An online exhibition could not possibly communicate the power of these works when experienced in person, nor could it really take proper advantage of the social power of the Web. We decided ultimately that this site should be able to stand on its own as a “hub” of communication amongst visitors to the show and those interested in the show’s themes.

A conversation that became an archive

Our initial thinking was that, given the themes and subject matter of the show, that we could use Witness Voices to encourage visitors to converse with one another, and share memories and opinions. With limited time to develop and market the site, we did not imagine that most of this conversation would actually take place on Witness Voices. Instead, we set up an automated routine to re-post any posts on social media that used the #witnessvoices hashtag on to Witness Voices itself. Once those posts appeared on the site, others would then be able to comment and respond.

This approach mostly didn’t work out as we’d hoped. While we found that visitors were consistently posting to social media platforms about the show, they weren’t really interacting with one another. The “conversation” we’d hoped for wasn’t happening, and our efforts to provoke it mostly fell flat. However, the fact that these non-conversations were all showing up on Witness Voices gave them a somewhat different power than we’d originally imagined—we weren’t capturing conversation, but we were capturing visitor responses to the show and, effectively, making those responses part of the exhibition archive. Anyone from the future willing to dismount from his or her jetpack long enough would be able to see how visitors had responded to the show in real time. In a sense, it was as if we had “enabled commenting” for Witness. While this wasn’t our original intention, it ended up working well, and helped us to better understand how our audiences actually respond to the content of our exhibitions, even if that response wasn’t quite what we’d originally thought it would be.

This structure also allowed us to take advantage of the fact that the curator of the Blanton’s installation of the show, Evan Garza, is active on Twitter and Instagram, and was happy to have his perspectives appear on the site as well. This meant that we were able to capture wonderful moments throughout the show’s run, as when Jack Whitten came to UT for conversation with the show’s original curator, Kellie Jones. We recorded the lecture and posted the audio, but Evan also posted a great photo of himself and Jack to Instagram, which also became part of the archive. As the show wore on, we also added in pictures from the Blanton’s Worklab Satellites, as well as thoughtful essays by UT students. These voices merged with those of visitors, in effect making us all commenters.

What does it all mean?

Look at this. It’s worthless – ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless.

–Famous evil archaeologist René Belloq

While we didn’t really see much of the kind of “conversation” we’d expected, it was wonderful that we were able to capture so much rich response to the show in a way that can be preserved (and referenced) over the long term. It was almost as if we’d managed to turn the exhibition into a YouTube video with comments enabled. And as with a YouTube video, some of the comments people posted were insightful, and some were superficial, as it should be. But all have value as part of the exhibition’s history. Years from now, these responses may become part of the ongoing scholarship and history of these objects.

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Let’s talk #hashtags.

What’s in a #hashtag? That which we call a #rose by any other name would smell as sweet…

Hashtags are one of the most confusing aspects of social media to explain to non-internet addicts. They’re one of those things that once you notice them, you start seeing the little rascals popping up everywhere: on billboards, on your TV screen while your favorite show is playing (I’m looking at you, ABC Family), or littered in your aesthetically-conscious friend’s Instagram feed.

So what do hashtags actually do? What’s their point? Why do you see them on our title walls when you walk into an exhibition at the Blanton?

Hashtags first appeared in the late 80s in online internet chat rooms, but their widespread use is largely thanks to Twitter. Originally created as a way to group together posts about the same topic, users started putting the # sign in front of words or phrases to turn them into clickable links that made finding information easier. Want to know what’s going on in Austin, Texas? Search the #Austin hashtag. Looking for fashion bloggers on Instagram? Search—appropriately—#fashionblogger. Over time, hashtags gained popularity on Twitter as a way to share news and breaking updates; for example, news stations, weathermen, and reporters shared news about the flooding in Austin using #ATXfloods. Hashtags are also used more colloquially to provide context or express emotions that wouldn’t be readily apparent. For example:

If you’ve been a longtime visitor to the Blanton—or just oddly interested in the design of our title walls—then you might have noticed that about a year ago, we started including hashtags on the entrance walls to our exhibitions. A little backstory: after I began working at the Blanton and ramping up our social media profiles, I noticed that  visitors who posted about our shows would often make up their own hashtags to include in posts. For example, we had people tagging, #blantonmuseumofart, #blanton, #bma #blantonmuseumaustin, or a variety of other combinations to show that they had been at the museum. This made it hard for me to monitor what people were posting about us since there was no consistency. Now we have a dedicated hashtag (#blantonmuseum) that I include on all of our Instagram posts so visitors know which hashtag to use. Although people still like to come up with creative ways to tag us, consistent promotion and use of the “official” hashtag has led to wide adoption by most social-media savvy people who visit the museum.

So, back to the title walls of exhibitions: why don’t they have our general #blantonmuseum hashtag on them? Wouldn’t that be better for consistency, you ask? I will concede that yes, it would, but I’m more interested in how people react to a specific show, since we have a variety of different exhibitions that rotate throughout the seasons, while the art on view from our collection doesn’t change as often. That means that for every show, I work with other members on the PR & Marketing team to develop an exhibition-specific hashtag that will appear on the title wall, the corresponding brochures, and any web or print ads about the show (space permitting).

While you think it’d be easy to come up with a hashtag for each show, this process is often, for lack of a better word, #rough.

Brain Trash hashtag

Ideally, I like to have a hashtag that is pulled from the title of the show, as we did for #BrainTrash, our 2014 exhibition on artist James Drake. Having the hashtag overlap with the title of the show means that if people miss seeing the hashtag on the exhibition wall, there’s a solid chance that they’ll include the correct one anyway—we want to make it as easy as possible for people to use the right hashtag. The more the hashtag deviates from the title of the exhibition, the less intuitive it is for people to use or guess. This means that the Blanton’s social media channels need to be even more attentive to sharing and promoting the hashtag we want people to adopt.

So, step 1 in hashtag design for exhibitions: try to make it relate as closely as possible to the title of the show. Step 2 is where things get more challenging: the hashtag needs to be short, ideally 12 characters or under. On platforms like Twitter, where the character count in each post is restricted, having a short hashtag means users are able to fit more of the important stuff (like what they thought about the show!) in the body of their tweet.

In the case of Impressionism and the Caribbean, where all the words in the title are long, #FranciscoOllerAndHisTransatlanticWorld would take up half the space needed to share a reaction to the show. So, we needed to find a way to cut down the title to a more manageable hashtag. #FranciscoOller wouldn’t work, because when you read it as the all lowercase #franciscooller, a strange man by the name of Francis Cooller appears. #ImpressionismCaribbean wouldn’t work, because honestly, who can successfully spell either of those without spell check? Not me.


After a lot of deliberation, we finally settled on #OllerATX. This hashtag met all our criteria in that it was short and easy to spell. We also thought it was important to include some part of Oller’s name in the hashtag, since the show focuses on his life and work. We also wanted to highlight that this presentation of the show was unique to Austin and the state of Texas, since the exhibition includes a selection of works from artists using Impressionism to depict the Gulf Coast. Thus….#OllerATX was born! Because it’s not an intuitive hashtag, the Blanton’s social media channels have been using it on every tweet, Instagram, or Facebook post relating to the exhibition. Blanton staff, like the show’s managing curator Beth Shook, also help put the word out that this is the hashtag we want visitors to use.

So, the next time you’re walking into the galleries, stop for a moment and study the title wall. Find the exhibition hashtag, and for the love of all things holy, please use the one we’ve listed instead of making up your own! And remember: every time a visitor uses the correct hashtag for a show, a social media manager gets her #wings.

Alie Cline is the Digital Content Strategist at the Blanton and holds BAs in Art History and English from the University of Texas at Austin. You can find her online as the voice behind all the Blanton’s social media profiles, or on Twitter at @aliecline.

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B scene: Bon Voyage – Paris to San Juan

15-06-bscene-bon-voyageThis Friday from 6 – 10 p.m., B scene, our quarterly art party, will be a reflection of the time and transatlantic travels of Puerto Rican artist Francisco Oller, the focus of our new exhibition Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World. The event will evoke the ambiance of romantic travel at the end of the nineteenth century, and will transport you to the Caribbean.

Oller was the most prominent Caribbean painter of the 19th century and was deeply influenced by his sojourns to Europe from his home in San Juan. With each trip, Oller returned to Puerto Rico to share developments in early European modernism—including elements of Realism and Impressionism. He applied these to local subjects to revolutionize the school of painting in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean region. The exhibition features masterworks by Oller and those of his friends, mentors, and influences: Paul Cézanne, Gustave Courbet, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and many more. Guided tours of this beautiful exhibition will begin at 6:30, 7 & 7:30pm. Pick up your tour tickets early—they go fast!

Music will be one way we hope to capture the spirit of Oller’s homeland. Michael Crockett,  Austin’s foremost authority on international and Latin American music and host of the radio programs Horizontes and Global Grooves (airing Sunday evenings from 7:00-10pm on KUTX 90.9 and 2 – 6pm on KUT3, respectively), will DJ the event. Crockett is well versed in the different cultures of the Caribbean, and we look forward to hearing the rhythms that he has to share.


La Moña Loca

Salsa music and dance has origins in musical genres such as traditional Puerto Rican bomba. Bomba music is all about the connection between musicians and dancers. To help recreate this connection we will be featuring the 11-piece salsa orchestra, La Moña Loca. Well-known in Austin for their dance-oriented repertoire, this ensemble specializes in the Caribbean styles of salsa, timba, cha-cha, merengue, cumbia, etcetera. And if you need some guidance to master these tricky rhythms, Go Dance will be at B scene once again with lessons and demonstrations at 7pm and 8:50pm.

Consider coming hungry if you would like to experience what makes Tamale Addiction so fabulously addictive! With pork tomatillo, chicken mole, bean and goat cheese, spinach and caramelized onion, and more, there’s something for everyone—including vegetarian and vegan options.

JuJu Juice creates handcrafted and cold pressed juices, smoothies, cleanses, nutmilks, superfood bowls, shots and more; with local, organic fruits and veggies for eating healthy, delicious and clean in Austin, Texas. They will be on hand in the member lounge with free samples of signature smoothies and agua frescas!

Isla Bonita Coffee is a company founded by devout coffee lovers and experts from Puerto Rico. They deliver the highest end coffee available to Austin, Texas. The first 30 people to sign up for a new membership at B scene will receive a complementary bag of Isla Bonita Coffee!

As a special art activity, we’ll be channeling the transatlantic culture. Upstairs on the mezzanine guests are invited to create unique vintage-style travel postcards and envelopes to send an old fashioned note to someone special! For a more contemporary communication experience, be sure to visit Le Photo Booth to strike some crazy poses and print or digitally download your photos. Remember to use the hash tags #blantonmuseum & #bscene!

cindi roseBlanton members will enjoy an exclusive outdoor member lounge with complementary silhouette portraiture by world-renowned silhouette artist Cindi Harwood Rose, who will demonstrate the fine art of silhouette portraiture—just as it would have been done in the lifetime of Francisco Oller. Officially documented as the world’s fastest silhouette artist, the beauty and accuracy of her work is also unsurpassed.

Not sure what to wear? We’ll be dressed in breezy fabrics and tropical pastels inspired by Oller’s canvases. We can’t wait to see your outfit!

Francisco Oller was passionate about his Puerto Rican heritage and showcased his love of his homeland in his works. At B scene: Bon Voyage – Paris to San Juan, we hope to transport you back in time to experiencing the beauty and culture of Puerto Rico as well. See you Friday!

FREE for members / $12 GA. Tickets are available online or at the door.

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In Honor of “Impressionism and the Caribbean,” a Pop Quiz

The Blanton’s new special exhibition Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World offers seemingly infinite possibilities for comparative study. The exhibition includes over 80 paintings that that depict life in more than a dozen countries in Europe and the Americas from the 18th to the early 20th century. Artists from different continents mix and match techniques and styles, depicting the same places in vastly different ways.

So, digital content strategist Alie Cline and I thought, why not make it interesting? Test your visual acuity and art historical chops with this Oller-inspired pop quiz:

1. Which of these 19th-century Caribbean landscapes was painted by a foreign artist, and which was painted by a Caribbean-born artist?

Throughout the colonial period, European and North American artists were drawn to the sun-drenched coasts and lush plant life of Caribbean locales. They traveled throughout the region, painting Romantic, exoticized landscapes devoid of any signs of social turbulence or conflict. In the book that accompanies the exhibition, co-curator Edward J. Sullivan describes paintings of this genre as “landscapes of desire,” idyllic panoramas designed to seduce European and U.S. audiences and encourage foreign investment in the region. Meanwhile, many artists based in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rican painter Francisco Oller, focused their attention on the everyday realities of life in their respective countries and colonies—from local people and landmarks to the ever-present shadow of slavery.

Solution: The idyllic coastal landscape at right, bathed in warm colors and overflowing with tropical foliage, is Jamaica (1871) by Frederic Edwin Church, a celebrated 19th-century American painter and member of the Hudson River School. Sublime elements such as the mountains looming in the background were characteristic of this group’s treatment of nature. The image at left is Francisco Oller’s Hacienda La Fortuna (1885). It depicts a Puerto Rican sugar plantation a decade after the abolition of slavery, including the buildings that made up the complex and the Afro-Puerto Rican workers who comprised its labor force. Oller was known for his sensitive treatment of local subjects, and his work has since come to represent Puerto Rican identity in a time of rapid change.

Left: Francisco Oller.Hacienda La Fortuna, 1885. Oil on canvas, 26 x 40 in. (66 x 101.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Lilla Brown in memory of her husband John W. Brown, by exchange. Brooklyn Museum photograph. Right: Frederic Edwin Church. Jamaica, 1871. Oil on canvas, 14 1/2 x 24 1/4 in. (36.8 x 61.6 cm). Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, Gift of E. Hart Fenn in memory of his mother, Mrs. Frances Talcott Fenn.

2. Which of these turn-of-the-century harbor scenes depicts the Texas Gulf Coast?

In Impressionism and the Caribbean, the Caribbean region is defined broadly. It encompasses islands colonized by Spain, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark, as well as bordering mainland countries, like Mexico, the United States, and Venezuela. It extends all the way to the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, which, like the Caribbean Sea, was home to several important commercial ports during the 19th century. These included Galveston, Texas, an immigration hub and a leading port for the export of cotton and wheat—and eventually the import of raw sugar from Cuba.

Solution: Don’t be fooled by the abundance of livestock and wagons in the image at left. If you guessed that the painting on the right depicted Texas, you were correct! German-born painter Julius Stockfleth painted Galveston Wharf Scene in 1885, describing with great detail the city’s bustling harbor. The painting on the left is a never-before-exhibited work by the Catalan painter Manuel Cuyàs Agulló called The Disembarkation of American Troops in Ponce, July 27, 1898 (1898). Copied from a photograph, it depicts the arrival of American naval forces in the Puerto Rican city of Ponce during the Spanish-American War. That war would result in Spain’s ceding of Puerto Rico to the United States by the end of that year.

Left: Manuel Cuyàs Agulló, American Landing in Ponce, 1898, 1898. Oil on canvas, 23 1/2 x 38 3/4 in. (59.7 x 98.4 cm), Gift of José and Mary Jane Fernández, Museo de Arte de Ponce. The Luis A. Ferré Foundation, Inc. Right: Julius Stockfleth, Galveston Wharf Scene, 1885, oil on canvas, Courtesy of Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

3. What artistic modes or styles influenced each of Oller’s paintings below?

It was Oller’s three sojourns in Paris that most influenced his mature visual vocabulary. There, between 1858 and 1895, the artist worked alongside and under the tutelage of some of the great masters of the early European avant-garde: Gustave Courbet, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Claude Monet, to name a few. He embraced the relatively new practice of painting en plein air or outdoors, which he would harness in depictions of specific locales in both France and Puerto Rico.

Solution: While Oller often painted in a hybrid style, melding elements of what he had learned abroad with local mood, the painting on the left likely relates to the artist’s early experience with the French Realist painters, such as Courbet and Jean-François Millet. The Realists monumentalized the rural and urban laborer, depicting ordinary people as protagonists in socially conscious—and at the time radical—scenes. Oller painted The School of Master Rafael Cordero between 1890 and 1892. In it, he memorializes Rafael Cordero, a self-taught son of freed slaves who went on to open the first school in Puerto Rico for children of all races and social standings.

The image at right, Landscape with Royal Palm (ca. 1897), on the other hand, is undeniably Impressionist-influenced. Here Oller employed short, dot-like brushstrokes and juxtaposed varying shades of green to represent the light-dappled foliage of the palma real, a national icon in his native Puerto Rico. He made the painting soon after his final trip to Paris, where he found inspiration in the late Impressionist experiments of Monet.

Left: Francisco Oller. The School of Master Rafael Cordero, 1890-92. Oil on canvas, 39 x 63 in. (103 x 160 cm). Ateneo Puertorriqueño, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Right: Francisco Oller. Landscape with Royal Palm, circa 1897. Oil on canvas, 18 3/8 x 13 3/4 in. (46.7 x 34.9 cm). Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Stop by the Blanton to see these paintings and more, on view now through Sept. 6.

Beth Shook is the Blanton’s Curatorial Associate for Latin American art and managing curator for Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World.

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Music for Meatyard

The Blanton’s award-winning music series, SoundSpace, returns this Sunday with its latest installment, SoundSpace: Musical Outsiders. This program features several new works of music that have been written in response to the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, whose works are currently on view in Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Adam Bennett, the Blanton’s manager of public programs, spoke with the composer of one of these new works, the Houston-based bassist Damon Smith, about his piece “Music for Meatyard.”

Adam: You’ve written a really interesting description of this new piece you’re going to do at SoundSpace that references Meatyard but also William Carlos Williams and Sigmar Polke. Where did you get the idea to combine those three artists into your music?

Ralph Eugene Meatyard Motion-‐‐Sound #28, ca. 1970Gelatin silver print, 6.75 x 6.75 in. Photography Collection, Harry Ransom Center © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Motion-‐‐Sound #28, ca. 1970, Gelatin silver print, 6.75 x 6.75 in., Photography Collection, Harry Ransom Center, © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

Damon: I have one of Polke’s artist books, this big book of lithographs called Daphne that features all these xeroxed machine works. I work at an arts supply warehouse so I have access to a Xerox machine, and having the materials is sort of one of the first steps, I guess! I’ve used it to make my own graphic scores before.

When I looked at [Meatyard’s] sound motion studies I actually thought there was a little bit of a similarity to what Polke was doing with the Xerox machine. The sound motion studies are pretty flat—some trees are moving and that’s it—and so I thought the Xerox machine could add some disruption to that, to sort of isolate the movement.

I also liked this idea of this blue-collar intellectual guy who worked as an optician, you know, and had such an interest in concrete poetry—which is fairly well-known now but not really back then in that time period. I thought that was kind of an interesting aspect of Meatyard: it put him in a different class of awareness compared to the accepted photographers around him who might not have known about concrete poetry. So the idea then was just to turn Meatyard’s favorite Williams poem [Paterson] into a concrete poem by tearing it up and dropping it onto the Xerox machine.

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 3.08.42 PM

Music for Meatyard, Damon Smith

Adam: I love in the description when you say that you tore up the poem and “dropped the bits on the copy machine, carefully making sure the text was facing down but without moving the pieces.” So you’re creating an element of chance by dropping them but you are careful about where you drop them!

Damon: Yeah, I wasn’t like Hans Arp where I was hardcore about their position. If they moved a little bit in the flipping-over process, I didn’t care that much.

One other connection to Meatyard is that we’re going to do some free improvisations. The idea behind that is that Meatyard is really like when you meet a grizzled old free improvisor! There are a couple of musicians that I wouldn’t necessarily name their names—they might get insulted, you know— but they’ll have a house full of books and they are super well-read and they might not have gone to college but they have a wealth of knowledge about all kinds of music and literature and film and art. And instead of thinking of them as outsiders, they sort of took the route to a Ph.D. that takes 40 years to get, always out digging and researching. So I think that the whole life of an improvisor sort of mirrors the way Meatyard was doing things. In the same way, free improvisation is not 100% accepted academically. It’s getting there but there is still a preference for notated material.

Adam: Do you remember the first time that you saw or read about Meatyard?

Damon: Oh man. I had one of those Phaidon books with the history of photography that I used to keep in my bathroom in the 90s. And I actually thought about his position as this sort of a super accepted artist but who also had that outsider tag. And then I immediately thought of trying to do a duo with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten. I actually don’t have a degree in bass, but I studied with a lot of super academic classical bass players and stuff like that and got a fairly formal education and my approach to the instrument is actually super formal. Whereas Ingebrigt has a degree in bass and then plays way more like a hardcore self-taught American jazz player. But it’s a choice that he makes and I just immediately thought of that combination as being super interesting.

Damon Smith

Damon Smith

Adam: How do you think about this notion of the “outsider” being applied to Meatyard?

Damon: I think that it’s weird to think of Meatyard as an outsider at the same time that someone like Bjork has a major museum show. If you read about Meatyard, he talks about how he wants every photo to be perfect. He references these great photographers that he knows and the history of photography. He knows all the contemporary photographers of his time. He already knows all this great modern jazz and he’s friends with all these great writers like Guy Davenport. So I think artists like Forrest Bess and Meatyard are a lot more—those people were hardcore artists. And Bjork is too, but she’s still part of the corporate structure—as much as I like her music, and I think she is really good, I know people who have worked with her, she is still part of corporate pop music. Her whole reasons for doing things aren’t in line with Forrest Bess or Meatyard or Rauschenberg or even someone like Titian.

This SoundSpace brings up the idea of what an outsider audience is, and also the relationship between the art world and popular music. You’ve got the Bjork show and the young kids doing rock’n’roll karaoke at their openings and that sort of stuff and that kind of unhealthy obsession with pop music. The establishment is now corporate culture and corporate pop music and not the universities or the museums. Those museums are sort of our frontlines of defense to protect intelligent ideas.  I think that it’s important that Texas has all these great institutions that are doing this, like the Blanton and the Menil and MFA-Houston and CAM. It’s an interesting place to do this sort of work.
SoundSpace: Musical Outsiders is this Sunday, June 14, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Blanton.

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