Artists’ Archives in the South: An Unconference recordings now available

For everyone who missed out on the Unconference or its livestreams on March 11th, we have posted video captures on the program page here. Four of our five Facebook live videos uploaded correctly, but unfortunately the video for the Legacies session did not appear on Facebook as uploaded.

Many thanks to fellows Fannie Ouyang, Kelsey Moen, and Kim Henze for recording the Facebook videos, and to Aaron Brubaker at SILS for recording the videos.

Here is a sample from

Artists’ Archives in the South Unconference Update: TRAVEL GRANTS NOW AVAILABLE!

The ASA project is delighted to be able to offer small travel grants ($400) to a limited number of attendees of the unconference this Saturday! If you are coming from long-distance, please write ASAP to JJ Bauer at with a brief paragraph explaining why this event is of critical importance to you so that the ASA team may evaluate requests and allocate grants as equitably as possible. Because these grants were only approved in this last week before the unconference is taking place, we will need to reimburse participants after attending, so please include with your request the name of the possible payee as well as a mailing address where we can send a check later.

Artist as Subject, Artist as Actuality: Working with Alia El-Bermani

“I can’t even look at it, it’s so bad!” Holding the innocent sketch in my hand I have to laugh at her recoiling. It’s so relatable – that cringe when we look back at the earliest efforts of a passion that we have since progressed in. Yet as an archivist – my response is to pick it back up after she moves it aside, to examine it closer, to try and understand this sketch’s place in the narrative of  Alia El-Bermani. It has a place, it has meaning, it gives context, it is significant.

          Alia is the artist who I am working with this semester for my artist fellowship. A figurative painter, Alia’s work has been exhibited all over the U.S. and the MEAM in Barcelona recently acquired her piece Paper Wishes for their permanent collection.  Alia is also a teacher, at the college and workshop level, currently based out of her studio in Raleigh. She is a curator, her show SIGHT UNSEEN just opened last weekend at Abend Gallery in Denver. She is a champion for women artists, co-founder of the important blog Women Painting Women. She is a wife. She is a mother.

Clara Barton "mini-archive"
Sorting through teaching materials

She is very many things and to capture all of that in an archive seems impossible to me. In the past, archives have come to me as is. The materials as the creator left them (hopefully), and as I talked about in my previous post on Kimowan Metchewais, I come to know the artist through their materials. Now I have both. The materials are here in my hands, and the artist is sitting next to me – the stories and memories of the pieces pouring out so quickly I feel at a loss to capture them. The anxiety of missing something, of losing an important part of the narrative is always there when archiving, but I find it increases tenfold when working directly with the originator. When working with the archives of creators whose lives I came across only once they were gone, I was haunted by the many  questions I wished I could have asked them. Now, with the chance to ask those questions – I find myself overwhelmed by the richness of the answers.

          What a wonderful problem to have. It is thrilling to know that the system we are developing, the inventory we are creating, will actually work for Alia. Despite her protests to contrary, Alia is an organized person, and moreover she has a clear sense of her workflow and process.

Working with catalogs
Working with catalogs

For example, working on her catalogs last week was fairly straightforward: deciding to categorize them into solo shows, group shows, and shows she curated, with a copy of each easily accessible and the rest in storage, made sense to both of us. A few weeks ago she came across a “mini-archive,” a childhood project on ancestor Clara Barton. To my delight, she immediately saw the value in preserving it, and another piece of her narrative was added to the puzzle.  Right now we are still in the midst of detail work, the data-entry one piece at a time, and the big picture is still coming together.

Clara Barton “mini-archive”

Yet looking ahead to what this archive can accomplish once it is brought together is exciting. I was admittedly nervous going into this project – I had only known my creators as research subjects, slightly abstracted, always distanced in time and space. I never would have predicted that Alia would be the one teaching me. Working with her, artist as an actuality, not as subject, has me re-thinking, re-learning my role as archivist.

I will provide updates on my work with Alia as the internship progresses. In the meantime, the entire team is looking forward to our symposium this weekend. Be sure to catch the livestream if you can’t attend in person! All the video and materials from the day will also be made available afterwards through this site, and the fellows will recap through blog posts.

Registration for Artists’ Archives in the South: An Unconference Now Open

Registration is now open!

To register, follow this link:

Artists’ Archives in the South, an unconference-style symposium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on March 11, 2017, will create a focused and productive atmosphere for participants to discuss, work through, and explore the latest methods, tools, and issues related to the archiving of artists’ records. Convening archivists, artists, art historians, librarians, digital humanities specialists, museum specialists, and other practitioners and scholars interested in working with artists’ records in the South, the symposium aims to amplify and build on efforts established in Learning from Artists’ Archives, a program for developing practical strategies for all stakeholders to preserve artists’ archives in North Carolina.

The Learning from Artists’ Archives program, launched in 2014 and funded by an Institute of Museums and Library Services grant, supports six Fellows, dual degree students in Art History and Library/Information Science at UNC Chapel Hill. Providing a model for similar educational initiatives hosted in other locations around the country, the program empowers artists to develop best practices for personal and studio archiving via hands-on skill development workshops, while also engaging current and future arts information professionals in an ongoing conversation about the representation of artists’ records in our cultural institutions.

When: 9:30am – 4pm on March 11, 2017

Where: Pleasants Family Room in the Louis Round Wilson Library at UNC-Chapel Hill

Why: The unconference will amplify and build on efforts established in the Learning from Artists’ Archives program to develop practical strategies for artists, archivists, librarians, and curators to build, maintain, and use artists’ archives. In order to share lessons learned and methods honed in that program, as well as to ensure multidisciplinary input, we invite attendees to submit proposals for talk, work, make, and play sessions in all areas relating to artists’ archives.

Potential topic areas could include:

  • The future of artists’ archives
  • Creating your own “Archiving for Artists” workshop
  • Providing access to artists’ records
  • Using artists’ archives in exhibitions
  • Archive donation and legacy planning
  • How do artists use their own archives?
  • Some benefits of artists’ archives to art historians

How much: Registration is free but limited—we expect spaces to fill quickly.

What is an “unconference”?
An unconference is a participant-driven meeting in which the agenda is proposed and set by attendees at the outset. Interdisciplinary, interprofessional, and informal, the unconference eschews the lecture format of the traditional conference in order to foster collaborative discussion, making, and experimentation sessions among equally involved attendees. The ideal unconference is non-hierarchical, focused, and geared towards problem-solving. For more information, see the Wikipedia entry on unconferences.

Contact for more information: JJ Bauer,

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Thank you! JJ Bauer, Art, UNC-Chapel Hill

The Second Artists’ Studio Archives Workshop: New Lessons and New Challenges

Has it already been a year since our first Artist Studio Archives workshop? Believe it or not, our second workshop, held at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, has come and gone. The experience was different this time around because a team, we’ve learned so much in the past year. Through our experiences at institutional archives and the time spent working closely with individual artists, I think we’ve all gained greater insight into the complexities and intricacies surrounding artists’ studio archives. We’ve  attended conferences and discussed the project with professionals in varied fields, gathering valuable perspectives on the project and the workshops. All this new knowledge and deeper understanding was reflected in the content and format of our second workshop, presented to an entirely new set of artists, all with their own unique needs and interests.

Colin’s session on digital preservation. Photo: Erin Dickey

This year we added two new sessions to the program. “Copyright: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” dealt with issues of copyright and fair use. Elizabeth, Denise, and I discussed topics such as fair use and licensing. Elizabeth’s experience with how the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation handles the use of her art provided valuable insight into legal methods of legacy protection. Erin, Carol, and Fannie held a session titled “Optimizing Archives: Grants, Exhibitions, and Marketing.” This session was popular and well attended, addressing topics that everyone could benefit from.

During lunch, several of our archivists had been unable to make it due to the weather, so Colin joined the panel along with Denise, and Joyce Weaver, current archivist at the Mint. They addressed questions on topics such as how an artist might approach an institution and what happens to collections once they are accepted. Colin’s project with artist Cornelio Campos sparked a lot of interest as an example of how this relationship can be mutually beneficial.

Kim talks with artist Stacy Bottoms about his website. Photo: Erin Dickey

Another new addition to the workshop schedule this year was scheduled one-on-one discussions between the team and the artists. This proved as fruitful as we hoped. Because we cover a lot of information in a short amount of time in the breakout sessions it’s hard to fully address individual concerns. The one-on-one sessions allowed time to have those in-depth conversations. For example, artist Stacy C. Bottoms (website) talked with our resident preservation-of-social-media expert, Kim, about the best way to back up his website and blog. My conversation with artist Mi-Sook Hur (website) challenged me to think about a new problem. We were discussing the benefits of social media platforms for artists, (she mentioned the increased traffic her website received after an image of her work became popular Pinterest) and she noted that while she is intrigued by the possibilities, the time it would take to skillfully manage these types of self-promotion must be balanced with time spent with more traditional formats. She pointed out that museums often ask her to send images of her work on CD and simply directing them to her online portfolio or sending a digital file is not acceptable. She feels stuck between two worlds, wanting to spend her time on learning innovative ways to reach new audiences, but constrained by the traditional, perhaps outdated, practices of the museum world. While I didn’t have any easy answers for her, it started me thinking about the artists’ sometimes awkward position and what we could offer them.

Phil, Colin, and Elizabeth prepare for the artists to arrive. Photo: Kelsey Moen

There is much to mull over and still much to learn as we move toward the next step of the initiative. We’ll continue to work with our individual artists, present at various conferences and play with new ideas. These workshops have been successful enough that many other institutions and individuals have shown interest in hosting similar events for their local artists. The time we spend with both the information and artist communities bring us clarity of purpose, reveals the significance of this work, and encourages us to continue bringing energy and enthusiasm to this initiative.

Path of Least Resistance: Mirroring Organizational Patterns in Artists’ Archives

Prior to becoming 2nd year fellows of the Artists’ Archives initiative, our application of knowledge was largely general.  We led workshop sessions for groups of artists and presented at library conferences, but rarely did we provide in depth, tailored consultations with individual artists who had particular needs.  Starting this year, however, my class of fellows has filled that gap by digging into the second internship required by the initiative: consulting with a North Carolina artist to establish their studio archive.

Tailoring the artists’ archives knowledge to a specific artist’s needs has clarified my understanding of the power of organization on an artist’s practice.  It has also brought to the fore what is required of an artist-archivist team before even touching the materials to start the archive.  First, we have to get at the underlying psychology behind why and how someone naturally organizes.  For my artist, Durham letterpress artist Brian Allen, this meant digging down to (1) how he prioritises, categorises and uses his materials currently, (2) how he intends to use them in the future and (3) how he naturally arranges this materials.

Establishing existing priorities, categories and uses for studio materials is an essential first step for two main reasons, one being the archival principal of ‘original order’ and the other the long term viability of maintaining the archive.  Archivists prioritise keeping materials or a collection in original order where it makes sense for the collection’s internal logic and intended audience.  The principle of original order becomes particularly vital when an archive will be actively used by the original creator of the collection.  To drive the point home, here’s a more mundane example of the impact of original order on making a grouping of items searchable.  Have you ever had a family member or friend who decided to  ‘help’ you by reorganising your kitchen, closet or desk?  Remember how you couldn’t find anything for days (possibly weeks) after?  That’s because the priorities and categories they assigned to your materials didn’t align with yours or your patterns of use. In archival terms, they abandoned the original order – the internal logic – of your materials. Like with home organization, the usefulness of an archive only stretches as far as it is navigable from a user standpoint.  Understanding current use and workflows regarding studio materials allows archivists to replicate them as appropriate going forward.  That way the archive work for and with the artist for which it was constructed.

The appropriateness of maintaining original order is determined, in part, by intended future use of the materials, as well.  For Brian, his intended future use of his artistic production as a legacy collection for donation takes a backseat to just having it arranged now so that he’s aware of and can find all that he has and so that he can identify where projects overlap and relate.  However, his extensive reference library is another story.  Brian expressed an interest in having husband extensive catalogue updated, but not for his current, personal use.  Instead, he envisions his library as a community resource that would be just one aspect of opening his studio up to the community as a gallery and learning space.  These attitudes towards use of his studio materials and reference collection drive the decisions we made regarding arrangement and how much to alter or maintain his current arrangement, priorities and categories.

Determining natural organisation practices represents the final step in pre-action preparation for establishing a studio archive. As our physical storage handout outlines, most people fall into three categories: (1) piler, (2) filer and (3) spring cleaner (see image below).  Brian, like myself, tends to be a combination of piler and spring cleaner.  To make any organisational strategy functional in th long run, the structure needs to follow the path of least resistance.  As anyone with failed New Year’s resolutions can attest, maintaining new behaviours that don’t work with natural inclinations or ingrained patterns requires too much effort and too many habit alterations to be sustainable.  For Brian’s studio archive, this meant maintaining the categories he’d already assigned his materials, both consciously and unconsciously, in clear plastic boxes that allow him to see both the label and the contents.  The boxes are also highly portable and maintained on shelves that also move.  His space tends to fluctuate in purpose, so ensuring that his storage accommodated this was essential.  Even his oversized materials that require flat file storage are in units with casters and labelled according to their categorised contents.  By working with Brian’s natural inclinations and making maintaining the organisation at simple as possible, the hope is that maintenance will feel intuitive and thus not require Brian to employ someone to manage his materials after I finish up my work.


Meet artist Cornelio Campos and ASA former fellow Colin Post

The Durham County Library Main Library is holding a Meet the Artist event for Cornelio Campos on Sunday, October 30, 2016, from 3:00-5:00 pm. This Day of the Dead-themed event will feature Cornelio Campos, a prominent Mexican-American painter who has been active in the North Carolina arts community for over 15 years. In conversation with UNC doctoral student in Library Science, Colin Post, Campos will discuss his life and work as an artist and the process of building a personal archive to document his career. North Carolina Collection librarian Lynn Richardson will build on this conversation by discussing the importance of archives in capturing the vital history of Durham’s Hispanic community.

Artists’ Archives and Local History: Working with Connie Bostic in Western NC

In August, I started working on a semester-long studio archiving project with Connie Bostic, western NC-based painter, teacher, and woman-about-town. I first got to know Bostic in her role as a board member at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, where I worked before starting my graduate program at UNC-Chapel Hill. In the museum’s nomadic early days, Bostic’s Zone one contemporary gallery provided downtown exhibition space for the small nonprofit. Zone one, which closed in 2000, was also the first contemporary art gallery in downtown Asheville (known in its first incarnation as World Gallery).[1] This semester, my project includes inventorying the artworks and ephemera in Bostic’s studio, a renovated barn in the bucolic Fairview community outside of Asheville. I’m also doing a bit of detective work–hunting down and inventorying other works in private collections–as well as photographing a selection of the works.

from Bostic's "Mark of the Goddess" series
from Bostic’s “Mark of the Goddess” series

Before the start of this project, I digitized a set of Bostic’s clippings from early in her career. Prominent within the collection are materials pertaining to Bostic’s 1990 MFA thesis exhibition, a set of paintings in her Mark of the Goddess series combined with quotations about women from history’s “great men”. The paintings–abstract oil on paper works–were to be exhibited in the Walker Arts Center of the Asheville School from Aug. 8 – Sept. 10, 1990. Instead, the headmaster John Tyrer

called for them to be removed almost immediately, saying “Female genitalia have no place on the walls of a school building.”  Bostic’s work, intended to evoke reflection on the loss of women’s cultural heritage within history, was itself covered over and symbolically silenced, an absurdity that advocates of the exhibition’s censorship appeared to miss. The materials documenting this event include exhibition photographs, flyers and postcards, and newspaper clippings regarding the censorship and community protests and response.  As I think about the role of art and its reception within a community, I find these materials to present a compelling argument for inclusion of local artists’ archives within local repositories.

Photo from Bostic's archive depicting the covered wall of her MFA thesis exhibition
Photo from Bostic’s archive depicting the covered wall of her MFA thesis exhibition

Artists’ archives provide important insight not just into artists’ careers and artwork, but into histories of their communities–how they have shaped and been shaped by their homes. To explore this a bit more, my project also includes the collection of a limited set of oral histories in order to more fully document how her history and local history intertwine, as well as planning for possible institutional donation of some of her archival materials. As I’ve been exploring Bostic’s materials and hearing stories from her and the folks she’s worked with over the years, it has become clear to me that you cannot tell the history of the arts scene in Asheville, the revitalization of the downtown area, and the often fraught identity of places marketed as “arts destinations” without spotting Bostic as a key figure. Indeed, in a program series at Asheville’s Pack Library this summer, “Asheville in the 80’s,” Bostic discussed bringing works by Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring to Asheville, as well as the impact of other influential figures in the arts community.

Connie and I at the recent opening of her exhibition, "RED."
Connie and I at the recent opening of her exhibition, “RED.”

After the semester ends, I’ll post an update on my project with some lessons learned. Currently, the major quandary I face is, “How do I account for interaction?” Artists don’t work in a vacuum, and certainly not Connie. Friday mornings are a rush of activity in her studio, as Connie directs a circle of students while taking calls and answering questions and sharing gossip and preparing for the next exhibition (which opened recently as RED and is comprised mostly of large oil on canvas works demonstrating her career-long exploration of themes of womanhood and sexuality).[2] I’m finding that, in addition to her artwork and studio materials, that atmosphere is something I’d like to preserve.

And finally, the “Learning from Artists’ Archives” team has a big weekend coming up: This Saturday, October 8, we will be holding our second daylong Archiving for Artists workshop at the Mint Museum Randolph location in Charlotte, NC. This year, we’ve added sessions on intellectual property issues related to legacy planning, as well as optimizing studio archives to facilitate grantwriting, exhibition planning, and marketing. View our schedule here and stay tuned for future posts recapping the event.



[1] Bailey, Patricia. “The End of an Era.” The Mountain Express. December 20, 2000. Accessed October 2, 2016.\.

[2] “Flood Gallery Reopens at New Location with RED.” September 14, 2016. Accessed October 2, 2016.

From Oral History to Art History: Inside the Oral History Program at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art

Paul Ramirez Jonas with Josh T. Franco. Photo courtesy of Mary Savig.
Paul Ramirez Jonas with Josh T. Franco. Photo courtesy of Mary Savig.

“It’s something I wouldn’t give you, or I would double check,” artist Paul Ramirez Jonas said to Archives of American Art (AAA) Curator Josh T. Franco, referring to an item found in a box of studio materials recently donated to the Archives.


“Um, it’s already here, Paul,” Franco replied, as the crowd in AAA’s gallery within the Smithsonian American Art Museum laughed.

Examining donated archival materials is not something usually performed in front of a crowd, but this event—with the AAA’s current exhibition, “Finding Source Material in the Archives of American Art,” as a backdrop—encapsulated the process of archiving an artist’s materials, while also demonstrating the value of those materials in context. The curator examined the artist’s donated materials, observing organizational structure and how that box fit in with the rest of the artist’s collection. In once instance, Franco came across an empty but labeled folder in the box, joking, “This folder would have to go in another folder as an archival document.” The artist provided contextual details about individual items, recalling memories they evoked, telling the story behind a piece, and in some cases noting that a photo or a slide was the only remaining record of an artwork. Included in Ramirez Jonas’ materials are plans for kinetic sculptures either never completed or no longer functioning. Of those plans, Ramirez Jonas said, “The work can never be as good as the notes,” identifying the division between imagination and reality, intention and the completed work—one of the fulcrums along which archival work, art historical research, and artistic practice pivot.

This summer at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, I’ve been focusing on this pivot point as it appears in the processing of artists’ oral history interviews within the AAA’s Oral History Program. My colleague Kim Henze interned in Collections Processing at the AAA last summer–where she worked with physical materials like diaries, sketchbooks, and correspondence, my focus has been mostly on digital and digitized audio files, as well as their corresponding transcripts.

The program began in 1958, at a time when larger institutions were just beginning to incorporate oral history archiving in a systematic way. The Columbia Center for Oral History had begun just ten years earlier. In the AAA’s Oral History Program, staff contracts art historians, critics, and writers to interview working artists about their lives and careers, documenting not just individual works and voices, but also of specific moments within American art history. Through artists’ immediate description and living memory, the over 2200 oral histories build context and complication for researchers weaving art historical narratives.

The first interviews collected in the program are with artists who had participated in the 1913 Armory Show, widely considered to be the first significant exhibition of modern art in the U.S. Since the 1963 launch of the Oral History Program’s first large-scale collecting project, an oral history of the New Deal art programs, interviews have typically been collected under the auspices of specific initiatives, such as the Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and the Decorative Arts in America, which documents prominent craft artists; and Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, which examines the impact of the AIDS epidemic on the New York art world of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.[1]

The AAA records about 20-30 interviews a year, depending on collecting initiatives and funding. In 2010, the AAA received a Save America’s Treasures grant to digitize its remaining analog oral histories. In addition to my work with the Oral History Program this summer, part of my job has been to upload these digitized files to the AAA’s Digital Asset Management System.

At the same time, I’ve been researching the history of the program in order to create project pages for the AAA’s launch of its newly redesigned website. I’ve spent the majority of my time, however, moving bottlenecked interviews through the Oral History Program’s lengthy transcript review process.

Untranscribed and unindexed audio is not the most easily navigable format. Because of this, the AAA makes its oral history interviews more accessible to researchers by transcribing them. Alas, this transcription process presents another set of issues for the archivist. First, it’s very time consuming, as well as costly. The AAA transcribes its interviews through third party vendors, but these initial transcriptions must still be checked against the audio upon their return to the AAA, through a process called auditing. Second, the editing of these transcripts can pose questions of institutional policy, ethical practices, and archival theory. During the review and editing of the audited transcripts, artists’ individual preferences regarding their representation within the archive and archival documentation can sometimes collide.

Jennifer Snyder addresses an a GWU class on Oral History.
Jennifer Snyder addresses a GWU class on Oral History.

According to the Oral History Program’s currently established workflow, the AAA sends the audited transcript to the interviewer and interviewee (called “narrator”) for the correction of factual errors. The spoken word, however, is very different from the written word—occasionally artists want to make editorial changes or wholesale revisions to the transcription. As mediators within this process, the question that oral history archivists must ask themselves (and the question that has come up in many of my conversations this summer with Oral History Archivist Jennifer Snyder) is:  At what point is the transcript an existentially different record than the audio? This is a more important and potentially complex question than it appears to be at first glance.

Transcripts that differ markedly from the audio of oral history interviews can confuse researchers wishing to check the audio against its transcript, as well as institutions seeking audio excerpts of interviews for exhibitions and programs. These texts purport to be that which they are not, i.e. verbatim transcripts of a specific conversation that took place on a specific day. On the other hand, oral history archivists must balance the need for accurate transcripts with the wishes and intentions of the artists recorded. At the AAA, artists sign a “Consent & Gift” form for both the audio and the transcript at the time of the interview—occasionally the material is restricted, but often not. Despite unrestricted donation of this material, however, it is understandable that artists may wish to omit sensitive material, or alternately, material that they deem unimportant to the interview. The very accessibility that makes a transcript more navigable for researchers may be more access than an artist wishes to give. The AAA must balance the legal status of the interview and ease of accessibility for researchers with their ethical obligations to a living interview subject. This is especially true as more and more word-searchable transcripts are added and accessed online.

Within the AAA’s process, narrator and interviewer transcript reviews are received and input into separate electronic documents, those changes are accepted within a transcript, the document is archived physically and electronically, the catalogue record is updated, and the transcript is put online. The AAA currently has about half of its transcribed interviews online, with more going up every day.

The summer's tasks.
The summer’s tasks.

These complications in making an interview publicly accessible represent a microcosm of the issues artists and archivists face together. I’m ending my summer at the AAA with a stronger inclination that archivists must work with artists to clarify the control they can take in not just organizing their materials, but managing their legacies. This includes informing artists of their rights over their materials and options for restriction, making sure that what they have agreed to donate to a collection is what they actually want to donate, explaining how accessioning and processing work, and supplying scenarios for how their materials will be accessed and used–tasks made even more difficult when an archives is not the primary contact for an artist, such as when an interviewer or contractor without the same knowledge or commitment provides most of the information and facilitates the signing of any restriction forms for an oral history interview. I’m also leaving the AAA with a concrete understanding of the the very real and constant uncertainty that archivists work through in managing the materials of living artists, as well as the limitations that restrictions in time and resources pose.

For all these complications, though, the oral history represents a chance for the artist to respond to their art historical moment, and, perhaps more importantly, to how they may have already been narrativized by critics and historians. For instance, in a 1965 AAA oral history interview by Dorothy Seckler, Robert Rauschenberg responded to the contemporary critical reaction to his Black Paintings (1951-1953), saying:

“…they [critics] couldn’t see black as color or as pigment, but they immediately moved into associations and the associations were always of destroyed newspapers, of burned newspapers. And that began to bother me. Because I think that I’m never sure of what the impulse is psychologically. I don’t mess around with my subconscious. I mean I try to keep wide awake. And if I see in the superficial subconscious relationships that I’m familiar with, clichés of association, I change the picture…Very quickly a painting is turned into a facsimile of itself when one becomes so familiar with it that one recognizes it without looking at it…So if you do work with known quantities, making puns or dealing symbolically with your materials, I think you’re shortening the life of the work even before it’s had a chance to be exposed. I mean, it hasn’t had a life of its own. It’s already leading someone else’s life.”[2]

In this explanation, Rauschenberg militates against the attribution of intention, speaking to critics who might ascribe a subconscious meaning to his work.

In a different vein, Agnes Martin, in her 1989 interview, responded to the common labeling of her work as Minimalist, something she disagreed with on both practical and theoretical grounds, but chose not to protest. Of an early show in New York with nine other artists, she said:

“They were all Minimalists, and they asked me to show with them. But that was before the word was invented. And I liked all their work, so I showed with them. And then when they started calling them Minimalists they called me a Minimalist, too…Well, I let it go, but—I didn’t protest, but I consider myself an Abstract Expressionist.”[3]

And just this summer, in the course of the review process for the interview of Chicago painter Vera Klement, Klement objected to her interviewer’s characterization of her work as “abstract”, and requested a postscript be appended, clarifying:

“I spend much effort making the images…recognizable and believable as three-dimensional objects…They are icons from a common source, images that are in the collective consciousness, described by Aby Warburg as Urformen in the early 20th century. The unusual presentation of these objects doesn’t render my paintings ‘abstract’…”[4]

These clarifying voices are vital precisely because they can both complicate and sharpen overarching narratives, easy definitions, and overly obscure labels. This is the value of oral history—that people, when questioned, don’t always say what they are expected to say.

During the gallery event I described at the beginning of this post, the artist, the curator, the public, and the archival box were in one room. What a luxury! It was a rare, if limited chance to clarify issues that are often so muddled in archival work. What does a record represent, and what is its physical and meaningful relationship to other items within a specific location or collection? How does an artist represent her/himself, and how might s/he want to be represented? What should an archivist, a curator, or an art historian make of the daylight between the “does” and the “want”?

AAA collections storage.
A glimpse at AAA collections storage.

At the end of the session, Ramirez-Jonas, whose work often explores the relationships between the artist, artwork, and audience, responded with a metaphor to a question about when and why he began organizing his materials.[5] He said that he started early in his career and advises young artists to start now, because “Archiving is like brushing your teeth, you need to do a little every day, so you don’t get gum disease.” And what’s the archival equivalent of gum disease? Not just disorganization, but a loss of control over your own materials. Referring to studio archiving practices, Ramirez Jonas noted, “We don’t train artists to do this.” It’s true, and one of the cultural preservation issues that my colleagues and I are hoping to address in the “Learning from Artists Archives” Program.


[1] In an interesting piece of serendipitous archival trivia, Kim Henze, during her internship at the AAA in summer 2015, catalogued the first interview that would eventually start the oral history program, a 1956 interview with Atta Medora McMullin, wife of Alson Skinner Clark, donated as part of Clark’s papers. The interview is only existent now in a transcript. Seven years later, in 1963, the AAA began actively collecting oral histories.

[2] Rauschenberg, Robert. Interview with Dorothy Seckler. December 21, 1965. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[3] Martin, Agnes. Interview with Suzan Campbell. May 15, 1989. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[4] Klement, Vera. Interview with Lanny Silverman. June 12-14, 2015. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[5] Ramirez Jonas, Paul. “Statement.” Accessed on July 30, 2016.

A Thread of Smoke: One Artist’s Archive at the National Museum of the American Indian

Before I start, I want to direct you to Kim’s blog post from last summer where she gives an excellent overview of the work archivists do when they process an artist’s collection- a good introduction to the work I am doing here.

Polaroid Works; undated; Kimowan (Metchwais) McLain Collection, Box 1 Folder 16, National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.

Two silhouettes, the one on the left a familiar sight to my colleagues and friends at home in Chapel Hill, the one on the right an everyday sight for my current colleagues and friends here in DC. The Lucky Strike factory tower in Durham, NC and the Washington Monument on the National Mall, photographed by Kimowan (Metchewais) McLain, the artist whose archive I am working on this summer at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center. These two Polaroids, taped together and masked with black construction paper by the artist, are an introduction to a recurring theme in Kimowan’s archive, a motif I want to play off of and trace throughout the collection as way to highlight the unique beauty and challenges found in an artist’s archives .

A brief introduction to Kimowan, a significant figure in contemporary Native art: First Nations Cree born in 1963, he spent most of his childhood and early adulthood on the Cold Lake First Nations reservation in Alberta. His art career began as an illustrator, cartoonist and later editor for the magazine Windspeaker. At age 29, he was diagnosed with a rare type of brain tumor (oligodendroglioma) and given a life expectancy of 10 to 11 years. He went on to complete his B.F.A. at the University of Alberta in 1996, and his M.F.A. at the University of New Mexico in 1999. He then moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina  where he continued his career as an artist and also became a professor of Studio Art in the Art Department, UNC-Chapel Hill. While in Chapel Hill, he had solo exhibitions and participated in group exhibitions, including the well-received Loom (2005).  He passed away in 2011 at age 47 when the cancer returned. His wish was that his works and studio archives be gifted to the NMAI and they arrived here in 2015.

While processing his archive, I have come to know Kimowan well. Sifting through his life, following his trains of thought, the minutiae of his days; his character, vibrant personality, and sly sense of humor slowly emerged through the text and images. I struggled with finding a way to condense the beautiful complexity of this collection into one blog post, and decided to trace one of the themes I have found throughout his materials – his struggle with his smoking addiction. Several of the most impressive pieces now in the NMAI collection are from his series focused on the Lucky Strike factory and imagery:

Lucky Strike/Durham, c. 2001, Kimowan McLain, mixed media. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.
lucky strike logo
Lucky Strike/Green, c. 2001, Kimowan McLain, mixed media. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.


They are beautiful in their own right, but a look into his archive reveals the rich tapestry of thought and deliberation behind the creation of these paintings. I’ll begin with an excerpt from one of his sketchbooks: notebooks he filled with journal entries, sketches, grocery lists, loose photos, exhibition planning, and even a dead moth or two (taped in place). This entry from September 24, 1999 is Kimowan reflecting on the lawsuit just filed by the US Government against “Big Tobacco”, and his reaction to it:

“I’ve had the strangest reaction to this news. It has restored my fear – shaken my usual defense against my own smoking. […]There is a demon inside our bellies that eats smoke and steals life. God, what a beautiful creature it is. […]How black are my lungs? […] They were so defiant, they laughed at death; but they, like the Marlboro Man, will die too. Perhaps I will smoke in their honor. Cigarettes can be my death song, and I will laugh, fearlessly, as I sing. Then again, this could be just another item for my list (TOP TEN WAYS TO JUSTIFY MY SELF-DESTRUCTION). Shh. Not so loud.


We need a new hero for our myth. I suggest Marlboro Indian. Why not? We can work out the ramifications later. I wonder where I can get a cowboy hat? Maybe a machine that makes me breathe smoke, exhale fire like a dragon. I think, though, a cowboy hat will do the trick.”

Black Sketchbook; 2000-2001; Kimowan (Metchewais) McLain Collection, Box 21, National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.

He followed this inspiration through to a series of Polaroids shot in his studio:

Polaroid Works; undated; Kimowan (Metchewais) McLain Collection, Box 1 Folder 13, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.
Lucky Strike Factory; undated; Kimowan (Metchewais) McLain Collection; Box 7 Folder 18; National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

You can see the specific leaves he decided on as lungs, the choice he made not to include any of the images of himself in front of the actual factory, his decision to capture the process of removing his shirt (the camera trigger visible in his right hand) for the Marlboro Indian series.

These Polaroids were an integral part of his artistic practice, and lived, neatly arranged alphabetically in these handmade boxes, until I rehoused them into Mylar sleeves and acid-free folders.


How will I indicate this original housing in the finding aid? There are many other questions. One of the trickiest, thorniest problems comes from Kimowan’s place as an artist working in both analog and digital mediums. He had a carefully curated web presence:  a YouTube channel, a Twitter account, and website featuring images and blog entries, to name a few. Of these, only the YouTube channel and Twitter account are currently accessible. His electronic records, presumably the blog posts, the website, and more, are currently housed on an external hard drive the Archives and I are having trouble accessing. I know Kimowan wrote extensively and very personally in his blog, and it is frustrating to have that (large) piece of the story missing right now.

However, the story we do have is a compelling one. As art historians, Kim notes in her post, it is easy for us to see the many exhibits and research projects this material offers, and as archivists to see the value in making these accessible. The story behind the Lucky Strike images is only one of many in the collection; his turbulent, bitter relationship with his step-father (resulting in the installation piece Reburial: Wrathful Architecture), the inspiration he found in travel and in other’s works, the beginnings of his magnum opus Cold Lake, these are only some of the threads here in the materials, waiting to be teased out and added to the tapestry of his oeuvre.

Working with this collection has brought into focus for me the real urgency behind the work we are doing with the Learning From Artists’ Archives initiative. The workshop discussions and interactions with artists have taught me that many artists are actively thinking about their legacy. There are institutions like the NMAI who are interested in collecting the archives of these contemporary artists. How then can the complexities of material, content, and intention found in a studio archive be effectively transferred from the artist to the institution ? That’s the question, the one we have been working on since the beginning of this project, thinking through in these blog posts, and the one we will continue to explore together at our upcoming workshop, symposium, and for many of us fellows, beyond that into our professional careers. I hope this peek into one artist’s archives has served to emphasize the importance of this work, for all of us.