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Art Adventures in Wonder Washington, D.C.

Adventures always start with a journey. After a 3,000 mile, cross country, red-eye flight, I arrived in Washington D.C.  exactly 6 hours before the fancy shindig opening at the Renwick Gallery.

WP_20151110_037My first goal for the day was to see my own artwork on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Luce Art Center at the Smithsonian Museum of Art In this gigantic museum (right), I was searching for an area called the Luce Art Center.

The artwork on display in the Luce Art Center is shown on shelves to offer insight into the depth of the permanent collection in paintings, sculptures, folk art, and crafts.Harriete-Estel-Berman-Renwick-LuceFamous Selection from the series "The Deceiver and the Deceived" 

My metalwork was surrounded by the excellent company of other metalsmiths.

WP_20151110_012The acquisition number next to each object allows the viewer to look up information online. There were computers nearby if you wanted immediate access to information.  Information on my piece can be found at 1997.51.  A little first their webpage showed only the back image of my work, so maybe they couldn't tell the front from the back. I'll have to write to them and correct this mistake. 

FURTHER IRONY AND UPDATE: I wrote to the Smithsonian about the lack of a front image on the Luce Art Center website. They were very kind to write back and tried to correct the omission. It turns out the front image of "The Deceiver and The Deceived" is on the main website, but the artwork was photographed sideways. The wall piece should have been photographed with the word "famous" at the top. Usually, an artist wants their work photographed right side up, but since there is a keyhole on the back for hanging, I thought the photographer would have figured out the right way to photograph it. Oh well.

Smithsonia Art Museum building
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is amazing.  The building is a dazzling combination of ornament and decoration that I never tire of admiring. The variety of collections and exhibitions is extensive. I highly recommend this as an art destination of the highest priority. Entrance is free.

Curators at the best museums have an incredible skill for the juxtaposition of artwork. In the portrait gallery, "Shimomura Crossing the Delaware" by Richard Shimomura hung directly across from a portrait of Bill and Melinda Gates by Jon R. Friedman on a painted blue wall.  This conversation between two paintings was worthy of discussion, but I had no one to discuss this with at the time.
(I snuck these images for your review.) 
Shimomura Crossing the DelawareBill and Melinda Gates








The opening of "Wonder" at the Renwick Gallery
started at 7:30pm.  My amazing art adventure in Washington, D.C.  was a marathon day. 

live statueThis was a festive, celebratory event beyond the usual craft/art opening. This is the first time the Renwick was open after a major two year renovation.

The live woman "statue" (left) was in a central location near the decadent chocolate desserts.


busts at the Luce Art Center at the SmithsonianIt reminded me of the white busts I had seen earlier at the Luce Art Center (left) and the exhibition of Hiram Powers' The Greek Slave. 

Moving through the Wonder exhibition, each large room of the Renwick had a different installation by one artist. Everything was of a monumental scale which was truly wonder - ful.
Patrick Dougherty installation at the RenwickShindig by Patrick Dougherty

I loved each room and the artwork for different reasons.

Renwick wonder slider (5)Installation by Gabriel Dawe. Photo from Wonder Gallery Renwick  

The concept of craft and working with materials was expressed with radically different approaches by each artist/maker. This artwork looks like vibrating beams of light. It was far more intense than this photo reveals (from the Renwick website).  In person, at night, after a very long day, and drinking a strong vodka and orange juice far too quickly (for medicinal relief of thirst), the colored thread seemed to vibrate!!!!!!! 

Walking up the see more installations.Renwick-gallery-stairsStairs at the Renwick Gallery leading to the 2nd floor. 

This light sculpture Volume by Leo Villareal (below) hung high up over the stairwell.  


This light installation seemed the least hand made craft of all the rooms. The left photo was from the Renwick Gallery website by Ron Blunt.

WP_20151110_073The computer controlled lighting was dazzling like my rhinestone wallet, but it seemed a little glitzy without enough craft soul in this context. (Photo right taken at the opening with my phone.)  

Booker01_0 ANONYMOUS DONOR by Chakaia Booker Photo Ron Blunt

The tire sculpture by Chakaia Booker (above photo) had a demanding presence defining a completely different kind of implementation of hand made; it had a bold, gutsy, uncompromising strength. Made from radial tire detritus it invited the viewer to examine modern materials like tires that keep our society moving.

Now contrast the coarse and ugly tire material to a glass marbles installation by Maya Lin.  (below)Maya Lin installation at the Renwich Exhibition Wonder

I have seen many inspiring installations and artworks by Maya Lin, but for some unexplained reason, this room was not as successful. Perhaps it was too subtle in the excitement of the occasion.  A portrayal of cracked wall (?) seemed ironic considering the two year renovation of the historic building.

Another problem was that some barricade ropes prevented people from walking among the marbles glued to the floor (probably out of concern that a careless step might ruin the installation or risk their lives slipping). 



Move to another room...Donovan-detailThis installation by Tara Donovan is constructed from styrene index cards. I am still trying to decide what I think of this installation. The volume of new styrene plastic used to make these sculptures made me very uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that I could not appreciate  the visual impact.  I could not ignore the environmental impact of plastic, along with the production and disposal issues.

Saving the best for last. Two more rooms to mention...
Hand made "wallpaper" made entirely from insects. Even the red painted tint on the wall was made from crushed cochineal insects. 

Angus01_0In the Midnight Garden by Jennifer Angus  Photo by Ron Blunt from the Renwick Gallery Wonder website.

Angus-detailThe initial impression of a highly, decorated, hand made wall paper (perhaps consistent with the era of the building) was created from insects. I was told that the insects were farmed in Indonesia. Definitely, this room had a new definition for hand made.   




This installation by John Grade seemed the most "Wonder"ful of all. Grade01_0Middle Fork by John Grade Photos by Ron Blunt from the Renwick Gallery Wonder website.

An entire tree was recreated bit by bit into a gigantic installation that filled the room with awe. Each 1/4" rectangle of wood created a lattice resembling bark surface and tree silhouette. It was simultaneously powerful both close-up and far away.

Grade-detailMost of the photos in this post for the Wonder exhibition came from the Renwick website including the one to the left. At the exhibition, the tree filled the room so completely that I don't think an individual could look down the inside of the trunk like this....but it gives you a great idea of the scale of detail and form.

This was truly an example of the artist's vision combined with execution by hand to bring a grand inspiration to reality. Not everything can be fabricated by machine or created by computer. Sometimes it can only be hand made to create Wonder.

There was one more installation in WONDER by Janet Echelman that has no photo on the Renwick website. I can't say I know what to make of it.  At the opening, the ceiling installation didn't leave me with a strong first impression. I've seen her work at the San Francisco Airport as well and had a similar experience. She's been selected for such prestigious exhibitions as the Renwick and the S.F. airport, but these two installations seemed to be lacking. The airport installation suggests that some computer programmed lighting is supposed to be involved.  As is, the colored cord alone of these pieces look like scaled up versions of work by Ruth Asawa from 40 years ago. There is no surprise in how the materials themselves are used. The only wonder for me is why the work was selected, but tell me what you think.

Go the Washington, D.C. to see the show. Fill your heart and mind with inspiration on a grand and gutsy scale.

Go to see Wonder. 

This post was updated on December 11th, 2021.

Recycle, Repurpose and the Meaning of Materials - a short presentation

During the first nights of Hanukkah, I'd like to share this lecture that I gave at The Magnes Collection about four Hanukkah menorahs in their collection.

The goal is to share insights that anyone can use when viewing artwork in an exhibition, or working from the perspective as an artist or maker developing their own work.

The concept of "The Meaning of Materials" is an important consideration that will be explored further in future posts.


Watch Recycled, Repurpose and the Meaning of Materials directly on YouTube. You are welcome to share or embed this lecture. 



Abracadabra - What Is Said Will Be - I Create as I Speak
Museum Storage of the Collection at The Magnes Museum
Tzedakah Boxes at The Magnes Collection
Museums Save Ordinary as Extraordinary
The Magnes Museum Collection Cradles Extraordinary Objects and Textiles


"Recycle, Repurpose and the Meaning of Materials" Lecture


You're invited to my lecture at The Magnes Collection. Three of their menorahs (shown below) will be on display as discuss these objects along with some of my Judaica work within the framework of Recycle, Repurpose and the Meaning of Materials.  This lecture will be followed by a Q&A discussion with the audience. This event is free. 

Please join us for this lunch time event - Wednesday, October 29, 2014. The talk will begin at 12:00pm, noon and end around 12:40pm. Then there will be about 20 minutes for the audience to ask questions. 

The Magnes Collection: 
2121 Allston Way
Berkeley, CA 93704

One block from BART in downtown Berkeley.

Hanukkah-Menorah-Al Farrow-2008-35_1
Hanukkah Menorah by Al Farrow from Gun parts 2005

67-1-4-47_1Brass-Tray-Hanukkah copy
Repurposed brass tray used as Hanukkah lamp, Italy, 17th century


Crimped metal sheet Hanukkah lamp, USA, 1909

Repurposed Hanukkah lamp from tin and sheet metal, Morocco, 20th century

Here are some questions...what are yours?

What is the difference between recycled and repurposed materials when used in artwork?

Does the selection of certain materials imbue meaning in the finished work and how does this contribute to a viewer's perception of the object?

Related Posts:

Museum Storage of the Collection at The Magnes Museum

Tzedakah Boxes at The Magnes Collection

Museums Save Ordinary as Extraordinary

The Magnes Museum Collection Cradles Extraordinary Objects and Textiles

Tzedakah Boxes at The Magnes Collection


During my tour behind the scenes in the storage area of The Magnes, Curator, Dr. Francesco Sagnolo, opened a drawer containing Tzedakah boxes.  

Drawers in the storage area of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and CultureHow did he know that these small tin boxes would be my favorite objects of the day.

drawer of Tzedakah boxes at The Magnes CollectionThese tzedakah boxes 
are printed tin used to collect coins for charity. 

Once even a humble tin Tzedakah box enters a museum collection, it is documented and stored with reverence.  


Tzedakah boxes are often called "puske" boxes in Yiddish. The boxes have little value as an object, or materials, yet are very hard to find. They document a time and place when a penny, nickel or dime was collected for charity. Coins would add up to significant donations in another time.

While these are not religious objects, they often have sentimental value or even serve historical documentation.(Starting with the box on the far left in the above photo...)


This Tzedakah box from The Magnus Collection (above) shows an early map of what is now called Israel, Gaza, and Lebanon. This is an area we hear about every night in the news. The box carries historical perspective from about the 1920's before borders were designated by international negotiations and modern maps. It portrays a concept of Israel before it even existed as a nation. 

Sometimes Tzedakah boxes were for a specific organization -- kind of like a special savings account set up for donations.

This green tzedakah box (shown below) with Hebrew lettering says:
 "Tzedakah (alms) in memory of Rabbi Meir Baal Hachayim, Hungarian "kollel" [religious community study room], [...] Jerusalem". (Translation from Dr. Daniel Viragh)

The Tzedakah box
(shown below) is from Vienna, Austria. 


The coin slot opening at the top was equipped internally with linked chains to make more noise when the coins were placed in the box.  


Usually Tzedakah boxes were humble materials such as painted tin, brass or copper.  The cylindrical box (left- created 1801 - 1900) has a clasp and loop for a small lock. Even more than a century ago, it was necessary to keep honest people honest.

Humble objects and modest materials can communicate values and meaning beyond the intrinsic materials themselves. 

I had completely forgotten about the little blue tin Tzedakah box of my childhood until 1997 when vague memories of tin boxes surfaced for a new direction in my work... this is THE next post. 

PS. I will be lecturing at The Magnes Collection on Wednesday, October 29th for a short lunch time lecture and discusion. Please consider coming. Admission is free. 

Museums Save Ordinary as Extraordinary

Museums often collect the once ordinary that has become extraordinary and revealing. To imagine that something that would have been casually used everyday, never considered special or unique, perhaps even considered temporary or disposable, has survived 50 or 100 years or more is amazing. 

On this table in the background (at the top of the photo) the staff at The Magnes were laying out items for an upcoming exhibition.


These plates (in the photo below) connect to food. The plate above (left) says 'milk' and the plate below center says 'meat.' 


Labeled plates may seem odd to us since most people use different china patterns to remember which is the milk or meat plates to keep Kosher. The staff explained that these plates were from a restaurant where they didn't want to take a chance that the plates would be mixed up. But even more extraordinary, they actually had their original plastic wrap so that everyone would know they were clean.

Imagine plastic wrap lasting decades!

The Magnes even had old spice tins ready for the next exhibition.  While not valuable in the terms of a purchase price, a tin from Horowitz Margareten (a Kosher spice company) is almost impossible to find. 

I love spice tins....and have used them to construct some of my work.

Below is another utilitarian and pedestrian object from the past. Typewriter-Underwood-Manual-Hebrew-Yiddush

High tech in1923, but out dated since, this Underwood typewriter with lettering for Yiddush and Hebrew somehow avoided reclamation for scrap metal for 90 years. 


The typewriter is creatively used to display information in the exhibition at The Magnes Collection. 


In the above photo, Dr. Daniel Viragh, Post Doctoral Fellow at The Magnes, describes how he and his students searched the archives of The Magnes Collection at the Bancroft Library.

Hundreds of hours went into research of personal papers, letters and newspaper clippings from the 1940's and 50's. Ephemera that somehow survived 60+ years and now serves to offer insight in research. I wonder what will happen in the future when personal papers no longer exist, and everything is on the "old" computers hard drive, lost forever.

This is why museums like The Magnes Collection of Art and Culture provide such a valuable role.

Saving and collecting objects representing former times can become extraordinary if they have survived to share their history.  That is what The Magnes Collection is all about.

Your work could become part of a museum collection, especially if it represents something in our contemporary culture or captures a theme of our times. 

P.S. Tomorrow I will share some ordinary objects that had a significant impact on my work.

The Magnes Museum Collection Cradles Extraordinary Objects and Textiles

Aryn-Shelander-Harriete-Estel-Berman-at-the-MagnesRecently, I had the opportunity to see behind the scenes at the Magnes Collection with my daughter. 

The staff allowed us to see drawer after drawer of this extensive Judaica Collection.  One practice that I observed right away was that all objects, whether ordinary to extraordinary, are stored and cared for with superb diligence. 


In the above photo, a selection of shofars are housed together in one drawer. A shofar is a ram's horn blown to make a noise similar to a trumpet. It takes a great deal of experience and practice to make a sound. Consider it an ancient horn of the Maccabee's and tribal cultures.

I also noticed that the registrar always wears gloves before touching anything.

Fingerprints are terrible for all materials. Be sure to include gloves in your shipping boxes to prevent fingerprints just in case you are sending your work to an exhibition location lacking museum standards.


The photo above shows a painted wooden shofar box. This would be a very rare object as I think most shofars would have been carried in a pocket anticipating the occasion for its use at the High Holidays.


In these drawers every object has it's own niche so it can't move when the drawers are opened and closed.


Inventory numbers identify the object within the extensive documentation to establish provenance and preserve value.


This drawer shows a number of different Ester scrolls. These small fragile objects are stored rolled. "Since the Talmudic period, it has been customary to write the Book of Esther on parchment in the form of a scroll, and the rules governing its production and writing are basically the same as those for a traditional Torah scroll."  Click on the previous link if you are interested in more information and images of Ester Scrolls from the Magnes Collection.  


The registrar, Julie Franklin, decided what to show us next.  I am not sure how she decided this next revelation. Each drawer holds a historical textile.


Above we are looking at a well preserved textile in a drawer. Look at the arrangement of the embroidered Hebrew letters.

In the next photo I have turned the photo around for easier viewing to highlight two items. 


The characters with the little dashes above signify the year. The year 2014 correlates to the Jewish calendar year of 5774, so this takes some figuring to date the textile.

The other highlight is to notice how the letters get all squeezed together as they progress to the left (Hebrew reads right to left).  It seems that the embroidering craftsperson was not particularly good at planning.  After 100's of hours, she ran out of room. Imagine that!

Have you considered the investment that goes into protecting each one of these delicate textiles in a separate drawer?   Many of them are hundreds of years old and from different locations around the world.  The museum's investment in storage cabinets, building, space, insurance, registrars, and curators,  probably represents an investment equal or even exceeding the cost of the collected objects if you consider the years of storage.  

The full cost of acquisition of an object goes far beyond the actual purchase price. Think about that next time you wonder why museum's may or may not acquire your work.


Dr. Daniel Viragh was ready to interpret the Hebrew embroidered on the textiles. Many of them had their donors and history elaborately embroidered into the textile.


Reading Hebrew, Yiddush, Hungarian and a few other languages are among Daniel's many skills. In the textile above, the center section was cut from a much older textile, and then framed with newer fabric some 200 years ago. 

The textiles can be removed still flat from the drawer without touching them for further study.


Fragile textiles lay flat out in drawers to protect them from deteriorating in storage. Of course, the hems and edges are the first to fray. Sometimes the materials used to dye the textile eat away at the fabric centuries later. 


Metallic threads in the embroidery also cut the threads.

Fragile silks get brittle and crack which leads to the fabric breaking apart. This is another reason why the textiles are stored flat in drawers. The registrar mentioned that for display, many of these textiles would have to be restored in some way, but stored in a drawer it is available for study and research.  


Protected from insects this Russian wool felt (below) is very durable and would last undamaged for a very long time. I thought it was interesting to see the depiction of Corinthian columns and the folk art styling of the red embroidered flowers and foliage.  I interpret the lighting fixture in the center as an "eternal light" that usually hangs in front of the torah arc. As we viewed the various textiles we were discussing how the Jewish people adopted stylistic influences from the countries that they lived in over the eons.


Moving on....

I found the objects more interesting than the textiles.

P.S. If you want to see an extraordinary textile in a museum at the Jewish Museum Berlin watch the PBS special Part 3 Part 3 Story of the Jews. At about 12:07 minutes a torah arc cover obviously lying flat from its drawer in the museum archive is described as "a masterpiece of synagogue art made from Mendelson's wife own wedding dress."  Talk about reuse! The names of the husband and wife as the donors were parallel to each other in the embroidered dedication of the Torah arc cover.  The curator Michel Friedlander of the Jewish Museum Berlin and lecturer Simon Schama from the program identify the flowers and grass of the Berlin landscape. I recommend watching the entire series of five shows.

Museum Storage of the Collection at The Magnes Museum

The topic of how museum collections are stored has always fascinated me.  What do the museum professionals do with artwork and artifacts during the indefinite periods of time until the next exhibition? How do museum's protect their collections for the long term? 

After organizing the 2014 Professional Development Seminar "Collectors, Collection and YOU" with Brigitte Martin for the SNAG Conference, I was all the more curious for insights into how collectors and museums store their collections.

Fortunately, social networking recently fulfilled this dream as Dr. Daniel Viragh invited my daughter and me to view the collection and behind-the-scenes storage at The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, CA.   I immediately said "Yes, yes, yes."


Only a year or so ago, The Magnes moved into a newly renovated building in the heart of downton Berkeley.


The Magnes Collection is one of the largest collections of Judaica in the world. In fact, collecting and research is their primary focus. Now, as part of the University of California at Berkeley, they have a new home and renewed capabilities.

The new building houses most of the collection on site. The display areas are fascinating, of course, but to my special delight, the exhibition space includes built-in observation windows for visitors to view into the collection storage space (below). 


Those large beige steel monoliths in the background of the photo above, are enormous movable cabinets on rollers with adjustable shelves and drawers. Because the storage cabinets move, valuable space can be dedicated to storage, and only one walkway is open at a time.


Storage is serious business for a museum. They take this responsibility very seriously. The investment in the collection merits an investment in the storage equipment as well.  For example, all the steel cabinets were on tracks.  In these photos, look just behind the registrar's feet. Notice the track in the floor which enables these cabinets to slide across the floor. They can move to be closely packed yet open up a walkway and access space as needed into more drawers and cabinets.


At the push of a button, the registrar, Julie Franklin, moved an entire cabinet, and opened drawer after drawer for us to see the contents. (More about the items in the cabinets in a future post.)  

Curator, Dr. Francesco Sagnolo, opened a few more cabinets just to offer us a taste of the treasures contained within. 


The variety of mechanisms and devices to store the vast diversity of works in the collection was amazing. 


Of course, the entire room was climate controlled. It felt refreshingly cool and dry.


Inside the drawers were marvelous antiquities and historic objects, all protected for posterity.


Notice that each object is nestled in it's own protective cubby made from foam and cardboard so it can't move around.


Every item has an inventory/acquisition number which corresponds to The Magnes Collection Flickr album of the collection.  In this drawer the cups with multiple handles were for ritual hand washing. The multiple handles allow the user to switch hands.

Note the paper tags in the above photo. The registrar didn't even want the paper to touch the metal to avoid a reaction between the two materials. She would try to prop the paper tag on the edge of the cubby.


Some objects were stored on shelves to make them more accessible for viewing without opening a cabinet or drawer.


Every object on a shelf had a custom made foam core box so it could not move or fall over.

If the curator wanted to look more closely at some object, he could pick up the foam core support and padding without actually touching the object. 


Our special guide, Dr. Daniel Viragh, Post Doctoral Fellow at The Magnes, earned his doctorate in Jewish History from UC Berkeley. He could read the Hebrew for us on 100-200 year old textiles and provided very knowledgeable context for many objects.  

Tomorrow's post and for the next few days ....objects from The Magnes Collection, many more surprises and insights regarding the storage of museum collections.

P.S. -Post-ScriptI will be lecturing at The Magnes Collection on October 29, 2014 at noon.  Please come to this short lecture, and  participate in the intimate conversation.


Related Posts: 

Tzedakah Boxes at The Magnes Collection

The Magnes Museum Collection Cradles Extraordinary Objects and Textiles

Museums Save Ordinary as Extraordinary