A branch of the Smithsonian museum devoted to American craft, The Renwick Gallery near Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, with its cocoa stone and brick edifice and motto over the door—“Dedicated to Art”—is a treat no matter what’s going on inside it. Now a rare treat can be seen there: “Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color.”

Thomas Day's Furniture Shop in Milton, North Carolina

Thomas Day’s Furniture Shop in Milton, North Carolina

Thomas Day owned and operated a thriving furniture and architectural elements shop in Milton, NC, selling to wealthy plantation owners and other prominent patrons before the Civil War. This show features 36 pieces of meticulously made furniture

As you enter, you’re greeted by a charming hat stand (better known in 1857 as a “hall tree”) with wavy spokes radiating from its round mirror, like a precursor to the mid-twentieth century sunburst clock.

Turn to the left and you’ll see reproduced a document with the embellished signatures of the good citizens of Milton—a “Petition to the Assembly” of the State to allow Day’s wife, Aquilla Wilson Day, to move from Virginia to North Carolina to live with him. We learn that, after the slave rebellions in Virginia (1800) and South Carolina (1822)—among other harsh restrictions—free people of color could not move into the state, nor could they leave for more than 90 days. This chilling document, while it shows the willingness of the North Carolinians to bend the rules, represents more than a little enlightened self-interest. Day’s distinctive style (graceful lines and undulating forms) made his furniture desirable for many reasons, not the least of which that it could be had for half the cost of comparable pieces made in Philadelphia or New York.


Newel, Thomas Day

Newel, Thomas Day

After reading that petition you see the furniture through an altogether different lens, its reverberations following you throughout the show. How appalling the situation he was in, yet, how diplomatic, how much a master salesman, as well as the master craftsman, he must have been. We read further that he and his wife were welcomed into the Presbyterian Church for which he designed simple pine pews, a template for which is seen here. He sat, not with the slaves or free blacks, but with the white parishioners. More reverberations. What must he have felt? What a story!

Day’s style, influenced by the “Grecian” revival in design and architecture in the South during the 1800s, is characterized by classical pillars and scrolls. While he used John Hall’s Cabinet Makers’ Assistant, a bible of American style, he adapted Hall’s templates to make them his own.

Blanket Chest, Thomas Day, 1845-50

Blanket Chest, Thomas Day, 1845-50

As is so often the case, I’m most drawn to the simpler designs, among them an oval dining table (traditional style, 1855) in walnut and yellow pine. The table has four leaves with a fifth ingeniously stashed in a sort of sling under the table top.

An elegant sleigh bed (French style, 1855), made in 1840 of maple and yellow pine, is covered by a pieced and appliqued quilt by Molly Parsons Pratt. You can’t help but think about all the goings on in this bed—births, deaths, the gamut—as you look at the gently curved footboard and imagine all the generations who woke to this enfolding shape.

The outstanding piece of this show is a walnut and yellow pine blanket chest in the “neat and plain” style, 1845-50. Mixing German-American construction techniques, dovetail joints are reinforced at the top corners with a pin. Curvy cutouts and spurs frame the negative space at the feet.

A graceful lounge in the Grecian style, 1844-45 (walnut and yellow pine)—inspired by the designs of Englishmen, the two Georges Sheraton and Smith—has a straight back and “ogee curves,” a wonderful new name for an “S” curve.


Open Pillar Bureau, Thomas Day, 1855

Open Pillar Bureau, Thomas Day, 1855

Among the dressers, my favorite is an open-pillar bureau, Grecian style, made in 1855 of mahogany, yellow pine and poplar. It’s very simple but for the mirror attachments which, when framing your reflected face, look for all the world like the split tails of the Starbuck’s logo mermaid.

A charming crib (walnut and yellow pine, 1848) in the Windsor style is topped by a pinwheel quilt cut and pieced in 1840 and completed in 1849 by Caroline Miller. After nine years in the making, I’m glad Caroline got the credit. Next to the crib is an adorable child’s commode.

Crib, Windsor Style, Thomas Day, 1848

Crib, Windsor Style, Thomas Day, 1848

Rockers, a pair of sweet French style side chairs, an imposing and dignified sideboard, lovely side tables, more dressers and lounges—all are in superb condition and glow as if shining a light into the dark past.

Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color will be on view until July 28, 2013.





"Jessica Wickham, A Portrait, by Bo Gehring

“Jessica Wickham, A Portrait, by Bo Gehring

Each year I look forward to the National Portrait Gallery’s Annual exhibition of the winners of the Outwin Boochever Award. Named for the dedicated docent who endowed this competition, the award encourages contemporary American portraiture. Entries include self-portraits, likenesses of relatives, friends or strangers— the only caveat is that the artist must have had direct contact with the person shown in the work. This year, out of 3,000 entries, 48 works in a wide variety of media were selected by the expert jury.

The portentous strains of Arvo Part’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten,” sets a somber, but tender tone for the entire exhibition. The music accompanies Bo Gehring’s first prize winner. Projected on a large wall, this HD video (2010) was made by mounting an industrial camera just inches above the subject. Timed to coincide with the length of the piece of music, the camera slowly travels up the length of her body to reveal the subject (Jessica Wickham, a woodworker from Beacon, NY), in a mesmerizing sweep. The intimate glimpse we have of this woman, so ordinary in her well-worn clothes, with her banged-up fingernail, her tousled hair, is a monumental revelation. http://vimeo.com/62003620


"General's Daughter,"  by Carole Feuerman

“General’s Daughter,”
by Carole Feuerman

The rapt face and lush torso of “General’s Daughter” (2011) looks edible, a gorgeous chocolate confection in her green swimming cap and pink bathing suit top. Made of oil on resin, she has just emerged, like Venus, from the pool, the water glistening on her skin, her eyes closed in rapture. The artist, Carole Feuerman, says she sought to capture that “special moment when [her friend’s daughter] . . . changed from a young girl” to a young woman.

"Life Raft,"  by Katie O'Hagan

“Life Raft,”
by Katie O’Hagan

In “Life Raft,” (2011) a self-portrait, we see Katie O’Hagan painting the raft under her as she looks over her shoulder at some looming threat. Her emerging raft (some of the structure is still not finished) floats precariously on steely waters that merge at the horizon with a roiling sky. In the accompanying notes, O’Hagan says this piece represents “a period of great upheaval in her life,” but one that resulted into a positive plunge into creating more “personal” paintings.

A commended photograph, “For Delia,” made in 2010 by Heidi Fancher, is a powerful reimagining of a

"For Delia," by  Heidi Fancher

“For Delia,” by
Heidi Fancher

likeness of a slave photographed by Joseph Zealy in 1850 in South Carolina, attempting to show, in some pseudo-scientific manner, that Africans were inferior to Europeans. Here, the artist reestablishes Delia’s “beauty and humanity.” Her head and torso appear to emerge out of darkness, a swamp, perhaps. With her haunted eyes, and beautifully shaped head, her body appears to be coated in wax, like a ceremonial object to be worshipped.

"100 Pounds of Rice," by Saeri Kiritani

“100 Pounds of Rice,”
by Saeri Kiritani

Standing in the middle of the gallery is “100 Pounds of Rice,” by Saeri Kiritani. Made in 2010 of rice, Elmer’s glue, and wood and metal sticks, this charming sculptural self-portrait was made when the artist thought, “I am mostly made of rice!” She stands, rising modestly out of a mound of rice, holding out her cupped hands as if to receive more, or offer us some, her eyes wonderfully alive, as if appealing to us to look and understand.



"Buffalo Milk Yogurt," by Jennifer Livonian

“Buffalo Milk Yogurt,”
by Jennifer Livonian

Perhaps my favorite entry is “Buffalo Milk Yogurt,” Jennifer Livonian’s 2010 digital video animation. Watercolor cutouts come alive to portray Corey Fogel, an artist and musician living in Los Angeles. Both hilarious and moving, the piece follows Corey as he, depressed, moves through his day to wind up suffering a breakdown in the Bread and Circus organic supermarket after witnessing a nude woman practicing yoga in front of a display of “Lunch Lady Gourds.” Corey’s amiable  music accompanies this beguiling piece.

Take a look: http://newsdesk.si.edu/mobile/photos?id=5647

The show will be up until February 23, 2014. If you go, I know you’ll come away touched by each of the 48 extraordinary people you’ll meet here.


Before there was Photoshop . . . yes, you could manipulate photography in many fascinating ways, as the show, “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, so brilliantly shows.

"'Woman with Umbrella in the Rain," by Kusakabe Kimbei

“‘Woman with Umbrella in the Rain,” by Kusakabe Kimbei

You begin your mystery tour with charming tinted daguerreotypes, photomontages of Civil War generals which include the ones who showed up late for the photo shoot, and a series of landscapes in which a sky roiling with clouds is superimposed over the blank whiteness that a camera’s exposure created back in the day. A charming chromolithograph from the 1870s shows a Japanese woman, bent against the wind, her parasol shielding her from the slanting rain, like the Japanese woodcuts that inspired Van Gogh’s “Bridge in Rain after Hiroshige.” Kusakabe Kimbei scratched the “rain” on the negative, the greenery in the foreground is a studio prop, and the flaps of the kimono are held up by wires so they appear to be flying in the wind. Edward Steichen’s “The Pond at Moonrise,” 1904, may not even have been shot in real moonlight, but rather “mock moonlight” created by underexposure or blue tinting. Still – it’s lovely, like the glazes and motifs on Rookwood pottery.

Things really get interesting in the gallery devoted to the Surrealist Movement, started in 1924 in Paris. Herbert Bayer created “The Lonely Metropolitan,”1932, in which disembodied hands, embellished with eyes, float mysteriously before a city scape. Eyes were a big thing, literally, with these photographers; in Maurice Tabard’s “Room with Eye,” the eye covers one wall, looking serenely at the radiator across the room. A famous image, “Cat + 1, made in 1932, shows Wanda Wulz’s face superimposed on that of the family cat. In “The Masks Grow to Us,” (1947), Clarence John Laughlin, an aspiring writer, photographed a young woman with a partial mask affixed to her face. The effect, as

"Dream Number One: Electrical Appliance for the Home," by Grete Stern

“Dream Number One: Electrical Appliance for the Home,” by Grete Stern

the artist would want us to see, is that “the girl herself has grown harder and more superficial.” Bauhaus-trained Grete Stern made fabulist images to illustrate a 1948 series on “how psychoanalysis will help you” for a popular Argentinian magazine aimed at working class readers. Each photograph illustrated a dream, often sent in by readers. In “Dream #1,” a woman with upraised arms is the base of a lamp, a man’s huge hand at her feet is about to flip the switch to turn the lamp on. Hmmmmm. Well, sometimes a lamp is just a lamp. Angus McBean’s 1949 “Christmas Card” shows the artist himself, a sly bearded imp, photographing a giant nude torso, a la Giorgio di Chirico.

The “Novelties and Amusements” gallery is full of some of my favorite fakery: A dirigible moored to the Empire State Building; “Tell Tale” postcards showing enormous ears of corn on flatbed train cars, giant fish swallowing helpless men, and huge light bulbs, captioned, “Does the Camera Lie?” Ghosts walk through walls in stereoscopes mounted in the center of the room. My favorite: “The Partial Dematerialization of the Medium Marguerite Beuttinger,” 1920, by an unknown photographer.

Things turn grimmer in “Politics and Persuasion,” where the manipulation of photography is a powerful propaganda tool for Stalin and Frank Galton’s composite portraiture chillingly supports the theory of eugenics. Weegee’s (Arthur Felig), “Draft Johnson,” 1968, shows Lyndon Johnson’s nose growing to Pinocchio proportion. Barbara Morgan’s unsettling “Hearst over the People,” 1939, is a giant William Randolph Hearst-faced octopus floating over a crowd. We also see Chairman Mao’s retouched and idealized portrait from 1964, and a group portrait of Hitler and friends in which Goebbels has been edited out of the picture to quell rumors that he’d been having an affair with the film maker, Leni Riefenstahl.

"Tree," by Jerry Uelsmann

“Tree,” by Jerry Uelsmann

“Protoshop,” the last gallery, features a 1967 Richard Avedon creation – Audrey Hepburn’s lovely face atop absurdly elongated necks, five of them, make a fetching many-headed hydra. Edward Blumenthal’s “The Doe Eye,” 1950, graced the cover of Vogue Magazine and Jerry Uelsmann’s 1969 tree, roots and all, is suspended over an island, its reflection an abstract blimp worthy of the surrealists. Martha Rosler’s 1967 “Red Stripe Kitchen” strikes the viewer as a perfectly normal ‘60s-era kitchen, until you realize the figures bending before the red stripe are not painters, but American soldiers plucked from the battlefield in Vietnam.

These intriguing images—200 of them—will be on view until May 6, 2013.


"Monna Vanna," by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“Monna Vanna,”
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I’m not a fan of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, despite the sisterhood I feel with the Titian-haired gals he painted so lovingly. Too much languor, treacley sentiment, overwrought “classicism,” and way too much billowing hair! Thousands disagree, maybe millions, and they’re flocking to the National Gallery of Art’s “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848 – 1900.” If you’re a fan, it’s bound to please. I went for the “design” part.

First, I hit the companion exhibit, “Pre-Raphealites and the Book.” Founded in 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (among them, Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt) longed to create a new style of painting inspired by art that came before Raphael, but, stuck in England, they had to imagine late medieval and early Renaissance works. To help them along, they sought engravings, such as the book exhibited here, “Pitture a Fresco del Campo Santo di Pisa, Florence,” 1812.

The connection between words and visual images fascinated the Brotherhood. Dante Gabriel himself wrote poetry, as did William Morris, who founded Kelmscott Press. Morris and Eirikur Magnusson translated and published “Volsunga Saga,” 1870. As he was finishing up his “The Earthly Paradise,” (a copy of which is shown here), Morris became enamored with Icelandic lore, perhaps to take his mind off his disintegrating marriage to Jane Burden, who had become entangled with Rossetti. Also seen are Morris’ Celtic-inspired initial letters for “The Tale of Beowulf,” 1895.

“Goblin Market and other Poems,” by Christina Rossetti, has a frontispiece and title page by Dante Gabriel, who pulled strings to get his sister’s work published by Macmillan & Co in 1862 when it was hard for a woman to see her work in print.

William Morris joined the British Socialist movement in the 1880s and several of his tracts are here: “Art and Socialism,” 1884, “Monopoly, or, How Labour is Robbed,” 1890. Morris’s distaste for mass production opened his eyes to the harsh realities of the working classes of the day.

"Ophelia," by John Everett Millais

by John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia,” 1851, drew me to the main exhibit. Like sea grass in the water, Ophelia’s hair fans out around her transported face as her body floats, covered in flowers, down a lush-banked stream. The riot of growth frames her stillness, her hands in a Buddha benediction.

Once there, I enjoyed breezing through the jewel-colored rooms, each with a theme (“Origins,” “History,” “Literature”) My favorite room was “Beauty,” where another Millais painting of “Sophie Gray,” 1857, struck me as fresh and contemporary. This room is also juicy with gossip. We see a photograph of Rossetti’s housekeeper, muse, and lover, Fanny Cornforth (whatever happened to Jane Burden?) near his painting, “Bocca Baciata, which the notes helpfully translate as “Kissed Mouth.” Indeed. Fanny, natch, possesses a mass of untamed red tresses. Nearby is Frederick Sandys’ chalk drawing, “Proud Maisie,” (1870), a young woman fiercely biting a lock of her hair, possibly a visual echo of Rosetti’s Delia, (“Return of Tibullus to Delia”) who also chews on her hair. Three Julia Cameron photographs add to the room’s charm.

Finally! I’m in the room of stuff that I’d come to see in the first place. It’s a bit disappointing—I’d hoped for more, but what’s here is fine. Arthurian legend adorns a tooled nail-studded leather chair (1856-7) by Rossetti and Morris. A screen covered in “Heroines,” was designed my William Morris and embroidered by Elizabeth Burden in 1860. “The Strawberry Thief,” a printed textile is pure Morris: birds in a profusion of strawberry plants (1883). A pine cabinet, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum, shows stylized “Backgammon Players.” Ceramic tiles depicting the story of “Cinder Maid,” (1862), designed by Morris and painted by Lucy Falkner, are from the Huntingon Library and Gardens. “Peacock and Dragon, “ a wool tapestry

"Cray," textile design by William Morris

“Cray,” textile design by
William Morris

that Morris used in his own home is hung by “Cray,” an undulating floral textile meant to mimic the tributary of the Thames. Morris insisted on traditional, natural dyes and required 34 hand-painted wood blocks to create this vivid cranberry, pink, and green cotton piece.

In the last room, we’re brought to earth by Edward Burne-Jones’ spooky “The Rock of Doom” and “The Doom Fulfilled,” perhaps to prepare us for emerging directly into the Pre-Raphealite gift shop. What would our dear old Socialist William Morris have made of that?