The Detroit News Magazine, "Noguchi: He Sculpts the Landscape," April 15, 1979. / THF147950
Isamu Noguchi sculpted the landscape, just as stated in the title of this 1979 Detroit News article. Born in 1904 in Los Angeles, California, to an American mother and Japanese father, Noguchi spent his childhood in Japan and his adolescence in rural Indiana. He attended the Interlaken School in LaPorte, Indiana, under the mentorship of the school’s founder, Dr. Edward Rumely. The school emphasized both craft and industry—a tension Noguchi would work within all his life, sometimes moving towards handicrafts, and other times toward mass production and new technologies.
In his own words, Noguchi was “foremost a sculptor.” The material, size, and function might change, but the result was always sculpture. In Noguchi’s early years working as an artist, he designed product packaging and sculpted busts on commission to help to pay his living expenses. Later, he designed furniture and lighting, like the Noguchi Table for Herman Miller and the electrified sculptures known as his Akari lamps. He ventured more fully into mass production and industrialization with the striking design of the molded Bakelite Radio Nurse—the first baby monitor.
Noguchi was always interested in environmental and space-planning projects—it’s just that the environments and spaces evolved from rooms to stage sets to entire landscapes. He had aspired to complete a large-scale environmental project for a civic space for many years. In 1933, Noguchi submitted his first of such proposals: a design for “Play Mountain,” a pyramidal play landscape intended for the heart of Manhattan’s Central Park. That project—and many other proposed landscape projects—did not come to fruition.
But late in his career, Noguchi embarked on one of his largest environmental projects—a 10+ acre site in downtown Detroit. In Noguchi’s hands, the landscape became a large-scale sculpture in the form of a public plaza.
Detroit Free Press Article, "Park, Fountain to Rise at River," March 16, 1976. / THF147953
Detroit’s Philip A. Hart Plaza
Detroit had long been interested in a civic park in the center of the city and by the late 1890s, the Detroit River waterfront had been identified as a prime location for such a park. Numerous designs were submitted—and even agreed upon—in the 80+ years between these early discussions and the completion of Hart Plaza (notably iterations designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen of Cranbrook fame). Buildings were razed and space was made along the riverfront. Civic-minded buildings, meant to surround the park, were constructed, but the park itself languished. As politics and priorities shifted, so did the fate of the park. In the early 1970s, the park’s completion again became a priority, mostly due to a bequest of two million dollars by Anna Thomson Dodge for the completion of a fountain dedicated to the Dodge family. A committee was created to select an artist to complete the fountain, and the committee chose Isamu Noguchi’s proposal in 1971. Noguchi ended up with the commission to design not only the fountain, but the entire plaza.
Today, Noguchi’s design for the park still plays with the interaction between positive and negative space. Although the use of concrete is liberal, the plaza exudes a feeling of softness and flexibility alongside its strength. Noguchi designed Hart Plaza as a sculpture, a place where people could interact bodily with art. Below, we’ll explore a few of the key elements of the plaza.
The Detroit News Magazine, "Noguchi, He Sculpts the Landscape," April 15, 1979. / THF626513, detail
Horace E. Dodge & Son Memorial Fountain
At Hart Plaza’s center, both figurately and literally, resides Noguchi’s now-acclaimed fountain. A modern futuristic abstraction of a fountain, it looks nothing like the traditional fountains found in most public parks and plazas the world over. In his presentation to the selection committee, Noguchi explained: “The great fountain, projected to be the most significant of modern times, will rise from the plateau of primal space. It will be an engine for water, plainly associating its spectacle to its source of energy, an engine so deeply a part of Detroit. It will recall and commemorate the dream that has produced the automobile, the airplane, and now the rocket, a machine become a poem.”
The “cloud creating, computer-operated” Dodge Fountain comprises a stainless-steel torus, or donut shape, hoisted 30 feet into the air that features 80 continually changing jet and light shows. A 120-foot-wide basin with a 7-foot-high granite pool creates the base of the fountain. Noguchi’s long-time collaborator, architect Shoji Sadao, was instrumental in ensuring the fountain’s successful completion and operation.
The Pylon, a 120-foot-tall tower, stands to greet the public at the city-side entrance to the park. Constructed of aluminum plating on stainless steel, the tower gently twists upwards, spiraling into the sky, as 120 lights illuminate the tower from its base. Noguchi explained that it symbolized “the spiral of life; the double helix upon which all life is based.” This was a fitting welcome for a park which Noguchi said would be “a people’s park, not a monument.”
Imprints and Extrusions
Detroit’s leaders commissioned the park with numerous purposes in mind, but one of them took precedence in discussions—events and festivals, especially cultural and music festivals. Festivals need seating, and a stage. Noguchi provided multiple spaces for such purposes. A large amphitheater, a recessed oval pushed into the ground as if imprinted into the land, could transform into an ice-skating rink in the winter. A pyramidal form that extrudes from the northeast section of the plaza provided more seating. Ingeniously, the pyramid also hides some of the mechanical equipment in a functional, graceful solution. In a change-order request by Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, Noguchi expanded the area underneath the plaza to incorporate space for offices, kiosks, a restaurant, and more. Noguchi’s concrete landscape on the river seems to push and pull at the earth, creating a finely balanced public space for Detroiters to enjoy.
Detroit Free Press Article, "Park, Fountain to Rise at River," March 16, 1976. / THF147954
When Hart Plaza was dedicated on April 20, 1979, it completed a nearly century-old desire by Detroit’s leaders to have a civic plaza on the Detroit River. It also marked complete one of Noguchi’s most expansive projects and a decades-long desire to transform such a landscape. Detroit’s Hart Plaza serves as one of Noguchi’s crown jewels, showcasing his ability to sculpt on all levels—from small busts to the land at large.
Poster, "Together, We Are Power," 2020 / THF626365
In honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, The Henry Ford would like to share our recent acquisition of two posters. Designed by artist Mer Young for the Amplifier Foundation in partnership with Nia Tero and IllumiNative, these graphics were created in support of a land stewardship campaign and timed to drive participation of the Native American vote during the 2020 presidential election.
Mer Young (Hidalgo Otomi and Mescalero-Chiricahau Apache) is an artist focusing on narratives that “inspire, celebrate and elevate repressed indigenous, first nations and native cultures and women of color” as well as issues related to immigration rights, equality, and the Black Lives Matter movement. These posters use digital collage techniques and were designed to be activated with augmented reality.
In 1992, Indigenous Peoples’ Day was officially adopted in Berkeley, California, as an alternative to Columbus Day. Cities across the country have since adopted the holiday, including several in Michigan. This counter-celebration addresses the controversy over the “discovery” of the Americas by Christopher Columbus—and the suffering of First Peoples under the violence of European colonization and settlement that followed. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a way to express solidarity and acknowledge this history while celebrating Native American history, culture, and communities.
In March of 1938, Zenith Radio Corporation introduced a remarkable product—an elegant listening device, priced at $19.95, designed to allow parents to monitor their children after bedtime. The equipment and its setup could not have been simpler: The transmitter, called a “Guardian Ear,” could be placed close to the child’s crib or bed; the receiver, called the “Radio Nurse,” would be set close to wherever the parents happened to be spending their time. Both components would be plugged into electrical outlets, with the house wiring acting as the carrier for the transmitted sound.
The idea for the Radio Nurse originated with Zenith’s charismatic president, Eugene F. McDonald, Jr. Like all parents, McDonald was concerned about his baby daughter’s safety—especially in the wake of the kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s young son. As a result, McDonald experimented with an ad hoc system of microphones and receivers that allowed him to keep an ear out for his daughter’s well-being. Satisfied with the system’s workability, he handed it off to his engineers to create something more reliable and marketable. The finished product, however, was much more than a marriage of concerned fatherhood, ingenuity, and engineering; the presence of another creative mind—that of Isamu Noguchi—resulted in an industrial design classic. (Discover more Noguchi-related artifacts in our Digital Collections here.)
Instructions for Zenith’s Radio Nurse baby monitor depicted how the transmitter and receiver might be used in the home. / THF128154
Noguchi was responsible for the styling of the system’s most visible, and audible, component—the Radio Nurse receiver. Minimally, he had to create a vessel to house and protect a loudspeaker and its associated vacuum tubes, but actually his task was much more challenging: He had to find a way to soften a potentially intrusive high tech component’s presence in a variety of domestic settings.
His solution, remarkably, was both literal and paradoxical: He created a faceless bust, molded in Bakelite, fronted by a grille, and backed by the suggestion of a cap—an impassive abstract form that managed to capture the essence of a benign yet no-nonsense nurse. Shimmering in a gray area where the abstract and figurative appear to meet, it strikes a vaguely surrealist note—it wouldn’t be out of place in an image by Giorgio de Chirico or Man Ray. A touch of whimsy is incorporated: Adjusting the concealed volume control wheel amounts to a kind of tickle under the unit’s chin, subtly undermining the effect of the stern Kendo mask–like visage. Still, with its human-yet-mechanical features, the Radio Nurse remains slightly sinister and finally inscrutable.
Zenith’s 1938 Radio Nurse was made from molded phenol-formaldehyde resin, more commonly known as Bakelite, the first totally synthetic plastic. / THF188679
But was it neutral enough to sit close at hand without, in silence, striking its own discordant note? Its poor sales might suggest otherwise, although apparently it was a technical problem, broadcasts transmitting beyond the confines of a house’s own wiring, that gave customers cause for complaint. Alarming as the Radio Nurse might be when finally provoked into uttering one of Junior’s broadcasts, the possibility that some unknown voice might start to speak through that blank grille would surely have made the unit’s presence somewhat suspenseful.
Marc Greuther is Vice President of Historical Resources and Chief Curator at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series and was published in the September-December 2007 issue of The Henry Ford Living History Magazine.
This Rookwood Pottery vase from our collection, on view in the Art Pottery of the 20th Century exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, can tell us an unexpected story about women’s work and craft in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
During the late 19th century, ladies of high social standing in America were encouraged to broaden their interests beyond their homes. One of the most acceptable ways to do this was by taking up decorative china painting. Over time, these privileged women created associations with classes in china painting for women of all economic backgrounds. Probably the most important of these women was socialite Maria Longworth Nichols of Cincinnati, Ohio, who went beyond the accepted norm and established her own pottery that she called Rookwood.
Beginning in 1880, Nichols hired talented young women—who would not have opportunities elsewhere—as well as men to create innovative ceramic wares in this novel commercial venture. At Rookwood, pioneering glazes and imagery made the Cincinnati-based company famous from coast to coast. One of the most significant innovations at Rookwood was its introduction of the “vellum” glaze in 1904. This signature glaze, seen on the vase at the top of this post, features a light-colored background where pictorial landscapes and flowers could appear almost like a painting.
Even before the development of the “vellum” glaze, competitors noticed Rookwood’s innovations and lured away some of their best potters and decorators. Also, over time, artists left Rookwood and started their own companies. They adopted Rookwood’s distinctive techniques, spreading the look of what was called “Art Pottery” around the United States. So, by the early decades of the 20th century, the pastime of ladies’ china painting evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry. Although Art Pottery flourished in the early 20th century, the arrival of the Great Depression and World War II all but extinguished Americans’ interest in decorative ceramics for the home.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
Cleaning artifacts is an everyday occurrence here at The Henry Ford’s conservation department, as anyone who has ever looked into the windows of the lab at the back of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation knows. Still, it is not every day that stored paintings can be brought into the lab in view of guests to have detailed cleaning and preservation work done. Thanks to Susan and Henry Fradkin, with additional funds from The American Folk Art Society, that is changing this summer, as we address some of the folk art paintings from our sizeable collection.
The first painting to be selected for this project was an oil painting dating from the 1830s–1840s. The artist is unknown, but an inscription on the back of the painting notes that this is a portrait of “Sarah ... at age 4.” This painting was very dirty and yellowed with age. The paint layers were also unstable with some losses in the background. “Sarah” had been conserved in the late 1960s but needed more attention.
After examining the painting, the first steps in the conservation plan were to remove it from its frame and take the canvas off its stretcher, due to distortions from a previous wax-lining.
Removing the staples to take the painting off the stretcher.
Several areas of the painting had flaking and paint losses. To safely move forward with the rest of the conservation, it was necessary to consolidate those areas to ensure no further loss of paint. This was done by removing some of the excess wax on the reverse used to line the painting to a supporting piece of fabric. Wax-lining of paintings was previously used to preserve paintings, but is no longer the accepted technique due to the tendency of the wax to physically change the properties of the paint layers. Therefore, the wax on the back of the canvas was heated and carefully scraped off. These bits of wax were then reheated and placed into areas on the painted side of the canvas that had unstable paint layers.
Once the flaking paint was resecured, it was time to start cleaning. Over time, the natural resin varnish on the paint surface had yellowed, which is common with paintings. To reveal the original paint colors, the varnish layer was removed. To better understand what material is being removed from the surface, ultraviolet (UV) light is useful.
UV light to aid in cleaning.
With the use of UV light, varnish has a fluorescence that is different than the matte appearance of the original paint. The UV light tells conservators how thick a layer of varnish is and when we have successfully removed the varnish and exposed the original paint. UV light also shows distinctions between the original paint used by the artist and paint that was applied later, which appears black. In this case, we found that an area of the dress had been previously fixed after the canvas had torn.
Detail shot showing varnish removed from half of the painting.
Detail shot of varnish and dirt removal from the floor.
After testing several small areas with various cleaning solvents, we chose the best one for cleaning this painting. During cleaning, the details of the floor popped out, along with “Sarah” appearing much brighter. As the varnish was removed, it also revealed more areas of paint loss that would need inpainting. Before inpainting, we added fills to several areas where there was paint and gesso loss to create an even level when the new paint was applied.
Before and after adding fills to the areas of paint loss.
With the level fills in place, the painting could be re-stretched onto the stretcher before inpainting. Due to short tacking edges on the original canvas and wax-lining, we added new fabric with an adhesive film on all four edges. This process is called strip lining and the use of this extra material (we used sail cloth) helped strengthen the canvas during the re-stretching process.
Sail cloth added to edges of original canvas.
After adding the sail cloth, the material was wrapped around the stretcher, pulled taut with pliers, and heated to stay in place. After securing it to the back of the stretcher, extra sail cloth was cut away.
Re-stretching the canvas.
Canvas is re-stretched and extra sail cloth removed.
Over time, paint canvas stretches and tightens on its stretcher as humidity levels change. Some paintings can become too loose, and with the weight of an extra piece of fabric and excess wax, this painting was beginning to sag. Re-stretching the canvas helps to evenly disperse the tension of the canvas to the stretcher.
With the canvas re-stretched, it was time to inpaint. This is the process of adding new paint to areas that have previously lost paint. Paint colors are carefully mixed to match the existing paint.
Getting set up to inpaint.
Once the inpainting was dry, a new coat of varnish was brush-applied. New varnishes have been created that will filter out harmful UV rays, create a barrier layer to protect the paint from dust that can scratch the surface over time, and should no longer yellow with age. After letting the varnish cure, the last thing to do was return the painting to its frame, which had also been cleaned and inpainted.
The completed painting after conservation.
What’s next? Because of philanthropic support from Susan and Henry Fradkin and The American Folk Art Society, we can continue conservation work on another painting. Here is a sneak peek at an 1850s oil painting attributed to Fredrick E. Cohen: “King Strang and His Harem on Beaver Island.” If you are visiting the museum this summer, stop by the back of the museum and peek into the conservation lab to see its progress.
On what would have been Larry Kramer's 86th birthday, we look at the history of the iconic Silence = Death poster and the pioneering ACT UP organization—the political action group that Kramer catalyzed. Four decades into the AIDS crisis, and during this year's Pride Month celebrations, The Henry Ford recognizes the tireless advocates who have fought and continue to fight, refusing to stay silent, for equitable treatment for those in the LGBTQ+ community.
On July 3, 1981, the New York Times published an article that would send shockwaves through the LGBTQ+ community across the country. Headlined “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” the article, which appeared not on the first page, but on page A20, reported the death of eight individuals, and that the cause of the outbreak was unknown. For LGBTQ+ individuals living in the affected areas, the article was more a confirmation of their fears than new information. And for many heterosexual people, it sparked trepidation and deepened discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Other smaller publications had published articles in the months preceding July 1981, and Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, from the U.S. Center for Disease Control (now known as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), documented early cases of the epidemic in June. In the gay community, friends and loved ones were getting sick and many were dying. The alarm bell had been rung.
The Silence = Death Collective designed this poster prior to the formation of the ACT UP organization, but transferred ownership to ACT UP in 1987. / THF179775
Silence = Death
The Silence = Death poster has come to symbolize the early fight against the AIDS epidemic. It was borne of deep grief and an unrelenting desire for action. One evening in late 1985, after the loss of his partner from AIDS in November 1984, Avram Finkelstein met with Jorge Socarras and Oliver Johnston in a New York City diner to catch up. Although the AIDS epidemic was a constant, tumultuous undercurrent in the gay community in the mid-1980s, the topic was often coded or avoided. That night, Finkelstein recalls, AIDS was all the men discussed, which he found “exhilarating after so many years of secrecy.” They decided to form a collective, each agreeing to bring one additional person to their next meeting. Chris Lione, Charles Kreloff, and Brian Howard joined. These six men met regularly to discuss the epidemic’s impact on their lives—and to process, rage, mourn, and, eventually, strategize. Finkelstein illustrates these meetings in his book After Silence: A History of AIDS through Its Images: “There were animated conversations, always, and there was often hilarity. We were almost never mean, but we frequently fought. There was shouting, there was fist pounding, and occasionally tears…. Fear may have been the canvas for our conversations. But anger was definitely the paint.”
These conversations turned to action. Each of the men had an artistic background—the group was comprised of art directors, graphic designers, and a musician. They decided to create a political poster, hoping to inspire action from the community’s fear. According to Finkelstein, “the poster needed to simultaneously address two distinctly different audiences, with a bifurcated goal: to stimulate political organizing in the lesbian and gay community, and to simultaneously imply to anyone outside the community that we were already fully mobilized.” The group spent six months designing the poster—debating everything from the background color to the text before deploying the poster all over Manhattan by March of 1987.
The poster’s central graphic element is a pink triangle. It references and reclaims the pink triangle patches on concentration camp uniforms that homosexual men were forced to wear by the Nazi regime during World War II (lesbian women were given a black triangle). The pink triangles subjected the men to added brutality. The poster’s triangle is inverted, however, from the one used during the Holocaust. This was initially a mistake. Chris Lione had recently been to the Dachau concentration camp and recalled that the pink triangle he saw on exhibit pointed upward. However, the collective embraced the accident once it was discovered, reasoning that the inverted triangle was “superimposing an activist stance by borrowing the ‘power’ intonations of the upwards triangle in New Age spirituality.” The expansive black background created a meditative negative space that further emphasized the bright pink triangle and the white text below.
The tagline for the poster—“SILENCE = DEATH”—was quickly developed. It also soon became the name of the men’s group: the Silence = Death Collective. The equation references the deafening silence of the public and government-at-large—the New York Times didn’t give the AIDS crisis front-page coverage until 1983; President Ronald Reagan’s administration made light of the epidemic in its early years (the administration’s press secretary jokingly referred to the epidemic as the “gay plague” in 1982); and President Reagan didn’t address the AIDS epidemic publicly until September of 1985. The tagline also targeted the LGBTQ+ community, whose uncomfortable silence came at ultimate risk. Without discussion, education, and action about the AIDS crisis, many more people would die. By the end of 1987, over 47,000 people had already died of AIDS. Silence—quite literally—equaled death.
Artist and activist Keith Haring designed this poster, titled “IGNORANCE = FEAR, SILENCE = DEATH Fight AIDS ACT UP,” in 1989 for the ACT UP organization. It utilizes the “Silence = Death” tagline and the inverted pink triangle symbol initially created by the Silence=Death Collective. / THF179776
The Formation of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power)
At almost the same time that the Silence = Death Collective’s poster began appearing around Manhattan, playwright and activist Larry Kramer gave a legendary lecture at New York’s Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center on March 10, 1987. Kramer famously began this speech by telling the crowd that half of them would be dead within the year (due to the AIDS epidemic). He repeatedly asked the crowd “What are you going to do about it!?!” Kramer’s rage and urgency pushed the crowd towards actionable steps to combat the AIDS crisis. Within days, a group met that would become the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—or ACT UP. Around 300 people attended that first meeting, including some of the members of the Silence = Death Collective.
ACT UP quickly mobilized and became the political action group that many in the LGBTQ+ community—including the Silence = Death Collective—had envisioned. ACT UP was (and still is) “committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” On March 24, 1987, just two weeks after Larry Kramer’s lecture, the group held its first “action” when it protested pharmaceutical price-gouging of AIDS medication on Wall Street. Kramer had published an op-ed in the New York Times the day before, titled “The FDA’s Callous Response to AIDS,” which helped contextualize ACT UP’s protest in the media. ACT UP and its many chapters, subcommittees, and affinity groups kept pressure on the government for its inaction in the AIDS epidemic by frequently staging creative acts of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest.
Over the last four decades, AIDS has taken the lives of men, women, and children, without regard to sexual orientation or race. However, the LGBTQ+ community has suffered the bulk of misinformation and discrimination related to the disease and done the difficult work to push direct action to end the AIDS crisis. The work of activists like the Silence = Death Collective, the members of ACT UP, and many others made treatment available to more people and curbed the spread of the disease. ACT UP broadened its mission to the eradication of AIDS at the global level and remains an active organization.
As we approach the Memorial Day holiday, when our thoughts turn toward lost loved ones and friends, it is insightful to consider how Americans of the past memorialized their loved ones.
Americans always treasured the memory of the dearly departed, but during the era just after American independence, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, elaborate and artistic memorials were the norm. Scholars debate the reasons. Many believe that with the death of America’s most revered founding father, George Washington, in 1799, a fashion developed for creating and displaying memorial pictures in the home. Other scholars argue that the death of Washington coincided with the height of the Neoclassical, or Federal style in America. During the period after the Revolution, Americans saw themselves as latter-day Greeks and Romans. After all, they argued, the United States was the first democracy since ancient times. So, they used depictions of leaders like George Washington, along with imagery derived from antiquity.
Watercolor Painting, Memorial for George Washington, by Mehetabel Wingate, 1800-1810 / THF6971
This wonderful memorial painting of George Washington was drawn in pencil and ink and painted in watercolors by a woman in Haverhill, Massachusetts, named Mehetabel Wingate. Born in 1772, Mehetabel was likely trained in painting as part of her education at an academy for genteel young ladies, much like a “finishing school” for young ladies in the 20th century. She also would have been tutored in the needle arts. The concept was to teach proper young ladies the arts as part of an appreciation for the “finer things” in life. This would prepare them for a suitable marriage and help them take their place in refined society.
In the academies, young women were taught to copy from artistic models for their work. In this case, Mehetabel Wingate copied a print engraved by Enoch G. Grindley titled in Latin “Pater Patrae” (“Father of the Country”) and printed in 1800, just after Washington’s death in 1799. Undoubtedly, she saw the print and was skilled enough to copy it in color. The image of the soldier weeping in front of the massive monument to Washington is impressive. Also impressive are the angels or cherubs holding garlands, and women dressed up as classical goddesses, grieving. One of the goddesses holds a portrait of Washington. Of course, the inscriptions tout many of Washington’s accomplishments. Mehetabel Wingate was a talented artist and ambitious in undertaking a composition as complicated as this one.
Watercolor Painting, Memorial for Mehetabel Bradley Wingate, by her daughter Mehetabel Wingate, 1796 / THF237513
Fortunately, The Henry Ford owns two additional works made by Mehetabel Wingate (1772–1846). From these, we can learn a bit about her life and her family. This remarkably preserved watercolor painting memorializes her mother, also named Mehetabel, who died of consumption (tuberculosis) in 1796. Young Mehetabel, who would have been 24 in 1796, is shown mourning in front of a grave marker, which is inscribed. Although it is simplified, she wears a fashionable dress in the most current style. Around her is an idealized landscape, which includes a willow tree, or “weeping” willow, on the left, which symbolized sadness. On the right is a pine tree, which symbolized everlasting life. In the background is a group of buildings, perhaps symbolizing the town, including the church, which represented faith and hope. These are standard images seen in many, if not most, American memorial pictures. Mehetabel Wingate undoubtedly learned these conventions in the young girls’ academy in her hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts.
Women in Classical Dress, 1790-1810, by Mehetabel Wingate / THF152522
The painting, above, while not a memorial painting, shows us how young ladies in the academies learned how to paint. Mehetabel seems to be practicing poses and angles, as the young ladies dressed as classical goddesses reach out to each other. It likely pre-dates both works previously shown and may have been done as a classroom exercise. As such, it is a remarkable survival.
In memory of Freeman Bartlett Jr. who died in Calcutta November the 1st 1817, aged 19 years, by Eliza T. Reed, about 1818 / THF14816
This example, painted later than Mehetabel Wingate’s work, shows the same conventions: a grieving female in front of a tomb with an inscription about the dearly departed—in this case, a young man who died at the tender age of 19 in far-off Calcutta. We also see the idealized landscape with the “weeping” willow tree and the church in the background.
Memorial Painting for Elijah and Lucy White, unknown artist, circa 1826 / THF120259
The painting above, done a few years later, shows some of the variations possible in memorial pictures. Unlike the previous examples, painted on paper, this was painted on expensive, white silk. It commemorates two people, Elijah and Lucy White, presumably husband and wife, who both died in their sixties. We see the same imagery here as before, although the trees, other than the “weeping” willows, are so abstract as to be difficult to identify.
Memorial Painting for Sarah Burgat, J. Preble, 1826 / THF305542
The example above represents a regional approach to memorial paintings. German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the late 1700s and early 1800s brought an interesting, stylized approach to their memorial paintings that have come to be known as “Fraktur.” The urn that would be seen on top of the monument in the previous examples now takes center stage, and is surrounded by symmetrically arranged birds. What we are seeing here is a combination of New England imagery, such as the urn, with Pennsylvania German imagery, such as the stylized birds. We know that this work was made in a town called Paris, as the artist, J. Preble, signed it in front of her name. There are two possible locations for Paris—one in Stark County, Ohio, and the other in Kentucky. Both had sizeable German immigrant populations in the 1820s. As America was settled and people moved west in the early 19th century, cultural practices melded and merged.
By the 1840s and 1850s, the concept of the memorial painting came to be viewed as old-fashioned. The invention of photography revolutionized the way folks could save representations of loved ones and friends. By the middle of the 19th century, these paintings were viewed as relics from the past. But in the early 20th century, collectors like Henry Ford recognized the historic and artistic value of these works and began to collect them. As a uniquely American art, they provide insight into the values of Americans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Detroit native Frederick Birkhill can recount numerous memories of his time at The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village as a child. He can remember riding his bike through the village, taking in all that its history and grounds offered. Truly enamored with Liberty Craftworks, he spent most of his time there, observing the artisans perfecting their crafts.
During one school field trip, his class observed employee Neils Carlson giving a glassblowing demonstration. From five feet away, the students watched Carlson pull and shape a hot, glowing blob into a graceful swan. This was the exact moment that Birkhill fell in love with glassmaking and knew he wanted to learn everything about it. After the demonstration, he bought one of the glass swans for his mother and studied it whenever he could.
Frederick as a child with a camera, circa 1959. / Photo by Dr. F. Ross Birkhill, courtesy Frederick Birkhill
Few people can pinpoint the place where they found their passion. Frederick Birkhill can. Anyone who comes to The Henry Ford can find something that excites them and sparks their future passions. That single experience in the Glass Shop stuck with Birkhill and led him on a path to a very successful career as an artist. Because of Neils Carlson, Birkhill's thirst for knowledge took off, leading him to study in England, elsewhere in Europe, and at what is now the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
In the early years of his career, Birkhill was an employee of Greenfield Village and worked in the Tintype Studio. During his tenure, he was able to study and learn about glassblowing, stained glass, photography, daguerreotypes, and tintypes from various artisans around Liberty Craftworks and metro Detroit. At the time, The Henry Ford was one of the only places in the United States where one could learn about tintype photography and other specialized crafts. Birkhill created some of his first daguerreotype photos of scenes at The Henry Ford. One of those early daguerreotypes of Greenfield Village's Farris Windmill was later acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
"The Windmill at Greenfield Village, 1972,” daguerreotype created by Frederick Birkhill, in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History / Photo courtesy Frederick Birkhill
In addition to learning about different media during his time working in the village, Birkhill was able to use his skills and artistry to teach an array of subjects at The Henry Ford, including classes he developed on the history of glass and stained glass.
Birkhill also collaborated with David Grant Maul, another former employee. Birkhill acquired a special tool from Maul that allowed him to hold hot glass so he could effectively complete flame-worked glass objects. This tool was the catalyst for a successful career in flame-worked glass and furnace glass. Our Glass Shop includes a furnace that allowed Birkhill to learn both specialties.
Frederick Birkhill flameworking in his studio. / Photo by Henry Leutwyler, courtesy Frederick Birkhill
Now, after several decades as a glass artist, an artist's monograph, Glassworks: The Art of Frederick Birkhill, has been published by The Artist Book Foundation. An extensive colorplate section includes the lavish photography of Henry Leutwyler, showcasing Birkhill's work in complex detail as well as his artistic mastery of glass. A copy now resides in The Henry Ford's Benson Ford Research Center. We are honored to have Frederick and his wife, Jeannie, as friends of The Henry Ford.
Touring the current exhibit Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection gives me pause and allows me time to reflect on a career spent in craft. As an artist working at a world-class museum, I am afforded a unique opportunity to explore these connections in a variety of ways. Craft, to me, at its core is about connections, whether through the physical touch of an object, the experience of making, or our basic human desire to create. They not only signify our fundamental needs and speak to functionality, but they can also serve to illustrate our thoughts and ideas.
Crafts and human beings have been inextricably tied for eons. Ceramics and textiles are ancient, reaching back to the dawn of civilization. For example, the art of glassblowing dates to 50 BC, starting with the Phoenicians in Mesopotamia. Because of this lineage, I find a deep personal connection to materials and processes. Each has its own language to decode and understand, and therefore, a unique resonance for me. When making work, I look to what materials seem most appropriate—steel speaks a different language than wood, and glass than ceramics, each eliciting a different response from the viewer. The relationship to each material is also directly related to the creative process. I find that these bonds stem not only from the solitude of practice but also from how materials interact when placed together. I am often surprised how similar they all are—like romance languages stemming from Latin, they seem to have a singular focus at their core.
This connectivity has transformed our digital world. For centuries, craft has lived in the guild system of master and apprentice, and this long-standing arrangement has created a path for generations to pass on the skills and traditions of each artist. Today in America, this tradition has primarily been assigned to universities, which are now tasked with the distillation of information from lengthy apprenticeships (glassmaking was a seven-year appointment) to a few short years. However, as a former college faculty member, I witnessed student skills develop rapidly in this digital age. The level of sophistication and awareness that students arrive with is far more advanced than previously, given the rise of social media. Digital communication has shortened the learning curve for young artists in understanding their craft. When viewed as a resource, certain pitfalls of making and unique techniques can be shared and recognized through social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube. No longer are artists islands unto themselves, but part of a global community where information and understanding are at their fingertips. But make no mistake, there is no shortcut for honing skills. Craft will always demand the prolonged communication that an artist has with their chosen medium.
Occasionally, my role at the museum requires me to create exact reproductions for use in programming and I relish the chance to search through the collection with our curators discovering hidden treasures. The opportunity to study artifacts from hundreds of years ago is one I am truly grateful to have. Here, in front of me, are the movements and expressions of each artist left crystallized for me to examine. I think of all the craftspeople that came before me, how their movements transcend time, and their work on display for me to experience in my own way. The craft hasn’t changed, the actions of the artist are still the same—it is the unspoken language of craft, the secret language that makers speak.
Joshua Wojick is Crafts and Trades Program Manager at The Henry Ford. You can see Joshua, along with Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable, walk you through a live demo in Greenfield Village’s Glass Shop on our Facebook page here.
For decades, Sir John Bennett's shop—with its figures of mythological giants Gog and Magog—has intrigued and enthralled Greenfield Village's visitors. Prior to 1930, the jewelry and clock shop was a popular presence many thousands of miles away in London, where its animated giants chimed the quarter-hours above the busy thoroughfare of Cheapside.
While London and Dearborn would seem to have little in common, Gog and Magog—if they could talk, as well as chime—might disagree. Exposure to the weather has been a continuous element in their over 125 years of timekeeping in both England and America. Climate has taken its toll on the figures. So, during the winter of 2005–2006, The Henry Ford undertook an extensive restoration of the Sir John Bennett figures.
This was not the first time that the figures, or "jacks," as they are known in the world of clocks, had been given a thorough restoration. When Henry Ford originally brought them to the United States in 1931, he had them repaired and repainted. A second restoration and repainting took place in the 1970s.
Pre-restoration deterioration on the feet of one of the carved wooden figures.
The 2005–2006 restoration, in addition to reversing damage and safeguarding Gog and Magog for future generations, also offered an opportunity to attempt to determine what the wooden figures originally looked like. Deeply carved recesses were carefully excavated in order to discover clues to the original color scheme. Conservators also studied a similar set of Gog and Magog figures in London's Guildhall; a set in Melbourne, Australia; and many historical prints and illustrations to compare our paint analysis with other known examples.
One finding was that the giants' chain mail had, at some point, been painted the color of their clothing. The chain mail is now painted to look like metal rather than cloth. Areas of the giants' armor were found to have traces of gold leaf in the recesses. Also, successive paint layers and weathering had obscured a number of decorative elements in the giants' armor. Previous restorations had used gold-colored paint on the armor, which eventually oxidized and turned brown. In 2005–2006, all the decorative armor components were coated with gold leaf.
The figures themselves were in poor structural condition, with many breaks and numerous large cracks. With a view to preserving as much of the original figures as possible, the decision was made to inject a deep penetrating resin into the porous wood, rather than cut out and replace damaged sections.
Newly restored Gog and Magog await their return to the Sir John Bennett shop.
Of course, Gog and Magog are not the only figures in the facade of the building—Father Time and a Muse are also in attendance to assist in the job of chiming. Made of plaster rather than wood, these figures were given structural repairs and then gilded with 1,400 sheets of gold leaf. During the repair work on the Muse, decorative elements were discovered on the harp under layers of paint and filler. The decoration was carefully restored, and can be seen on the front vertical post of the harp. A maker's name, "Brogiotti," was also revealed during the restoration.
Finally, the internal mechanisms for all four figures were repaired, and additional lubrication points were added to help minimize future wear.
Father Time and the Muse show off their new coats of gold leaf.
The clock mechanism was in need of a complete overhaul. Many of the bronze bearings—separate components fitted into the clock movement's large cast iron frame—had become worn and needed to be "re-bushed" to bring the mechanism back to its original operating specifications. During cleaning, conservators discovered that all of the cast iron framing was originally painted a blue-green with white pin striping. All of this original paint was carefully cleaned and preserved.
Conservator Malcolm Collum reassembles the restored Sir John Bennett clock movement.
During the 1931 reconstruction of the building and clock in Greenfield Village, a number of components were replaced. Cleaning the mechanism helped us gain a better understanding of the extent of Henry Ford's restoration: the modern steel components lack the dark graining found in the original wrought iron pieces. These dark lines are called "slag inclusions," remnants of a glass-like material that gets worked into the iron during the smelting and production processes.
Gog and Magog receive the most attention from visitors—understandably, given their size, character, and animation—but higher up, fully exposed to everything the Michigan climate has to offer, is one of the most vivid elements of Sir John Bennett's shop: the dragon weathervane. The dragon—made of hammered copper and detailed with sharp claws, taut bat-like wings and a fiery tongue—is a quiet masterpiece of design, craftsmanship, and balance. Its swept-back wings and extended tail are designed to catch even the slightest breeze; its head is weighted with lead in order to balance the body and allow for free pivoting.
The dragon weathervane is readied for removal from its perch.
When the dragon was removed from its perch in late 2005, it was found to be in stable condition. Structural repairs were followed by a thorough cleaning to remove corrosion and degraded metallic paint. Finally, rather than simply repaint the dragon, we returned it to its original splendor with a coat of gold leaf.
Dragon weathervane during gilding.
Repaired and resplendent, silhouetted against a Dearborn rather than a London sky, the dragon once again watches over the visitors who gather to watch Gog and Magog.
Malcolm Collum is former Conservator at The Henry Ford and Marc Greuther is Chief Curator and Vice President, Historical Resources, at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series in May 2006.