Introducing: Our Carolina Seminar

Digital Preservation Issues for Artists’ Materials

This seminar is a series of meetings bringing together experts in Digital Preservation, Artists’ Archives, Art History and Art to discuss and propose guidelines for the digital preservation of artists’ materials that can be utilized by artists, archivists, museum professionals, special collections libraries and historians to provide better access to documentation of artists’ processes and works.

Our first meeting will feature Nigerian digital photographer Uche Okpa-Iroha. Okpa-Iroha is founder/director of photography platforms The Nlele Institute (TNI) and Lagos OPEN RANGE. He is also the curator of GT Bank ART 635 Gallery. Our discussion will focus on the practical concerns of preservation, namely storage, budget, rights issues, and accessibility. Moving beyond the practical to the more theoretical, we will discuss photography as both an archival and documentary practice, and how these topics relate to Okpa-Iroha’s work as artist, director, and curator.

This first meeting is not open the public, but we welcome suggestions and thoughts for our future meetings. Please contact JJ Bauer at

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.

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.

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.


Presenting the Project and Summer Plans

As we wrap up the school year, I wanted to update you all on our experiences at the various professional conferences we have been presenting at throughout the year; while also exploring the topic of the wider impact we see this project having. I also want to point out some important dates on the horizon and let you know what to expect from the summer blog posts.

SNCA conference

(L-R) Elizabeth, fellow panelist Wickliffe Shreve, and I at the SNCA conference Photo credit: Valerie Szwaya

The Art Libraries Society of North America Southeast Chapter (ARLIS/SE) held their annual conference this past November in Atlanta Georgia. Elizabeth, Erin, and I attended and gave a presentation on the Learning from Artists’ Archives initiative. We gave an overview of the entire project but we focused mainly on the first workshop. We received a very positive response and the audience was full of questions, both logistical/practical and theoretical. In March, Kim and JJ attended the annual ARLIS and VRA joint national conference. Kim gave a poster presentation focused on empowering artists and outreach through artists’ archives. She also received positive responses, and several people told her how helpful they had found the workbook to be. Also in March, Elizabeth presented a little closer to home at the LAUNCH-CH conference here in Chapel Hill. Speaking to a more general audience of librarians, she enjoyed the challenge of tailoring her presentation to an audience largely unfamiliar with initiatives of this type. Most recently Elizabeth and I presented at the Society of North Carolina Archivists/ South Carolina Archivists (SNCA) annual conference as part of a panel focused on archives- community outreach and engagement (moderated by our own Denise Anthony!). Next on the agenda is Colin at the Personal Digital Archiving conference in Ann Arbor, coming up this week. He will be focusing on the digital preservation and storage sessions of the workshop. For the fall, Fannie is going to present on best practices for archiving fiber art at the Textile Society of America Symposium in Savannah, GA.  Carol, JJ, and Erin are also planning a panel for the College Arts Association Conference, February 2017 in New York. We will keep the PUBLIC EVENTS page on this site updated, so keep an eye out for a presentation near you.

It has been a valuable experience I think for all of us, to frame the project in these varied ways for different audiences, focusing sometimes on the entire project, sometimes on specific elements. For example, Erin, Elizabeth, and I found thinking about Artists’

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Kim’s poster for ARLIS/NA

Archives as an outreach endeavor and how it was impacting the local artist community, really gave us a chance to come up with creative solutions and innovative ideas for the upcoming workshop. We have also been so excited to get such positive responses at our presentations – archivists volunteering themselves to be part of the workshop lunch panel, art librarians considering similar initiatives for their institutions, and most notably hearing people’s reactions to the workbook. One archivist from SNCA was thrilled to be able to tell us in person how helpful the workbook had been to her son as he moved his studio across the country and began to build a studio archive. Don’t forget the workbook is available for download here on the site.

This summer, the four first years will be interning at various institutions and keeping everyone informed on our work via posts on this blog. Look forward to Elizabeth’s post soon from the Georgia O’Keefe Research Center in Santa Fe, NM. Next month, Fannie will be updating from the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University. Erin and I will both be in D.C. at the Smithsonian, Erin will be interning at the Archives of American Art, and I will be in the archives of the National Museum of the American Indian. We are all looking forward to these exciting opportunities and to sharing with you what we are learning.

Keep in mind these upcoming dates- October 8th for the second ASA workshop at the Mint Museum Randolph Center in Charlotte, NC. Registration for this will open mid-June. Also, March 11th for the un-conference at Wilson Library UNC, in Chapel Hill. More information to follow on both of these events, so stay tuned, and we look forward to seeing you!

A few final thoughts on the 1st ASA Workshop before we move on…

Reviewing the workshop as a team, we have begun the discussion of what worked well, what didn’t, and what all of this means for next year’s workshop. Before the artists left the NCMA we asked them to fill out a quick survey on how they felt the day went. Their feedback provides much helpful insight.


Artwork Inventories session
photo credit Fannie Ouyang

Several artists observe that participating in the workshop positively impacts their self-image – one artist is pleased to find “Wow, people in the field really care about my work” and another feels the workshop “may be the most important event I have attended as an artist.” In analyzing the recorded responses, Erin and Colin find that 96% of participants feel that the workshop as a whole “exceeded expectations.” In the responses and in personal interactions, the artists are overwhelmingly positive about the experience and many express thanks for all of the hard work that went into making this day happen. Gratifying and encouraging news for the team to hear, particularly as we begin to plan the next workshop. As requested, many artists also provided constructive criticism which we hope will lead to improvements for next year.


Archivists Panel at lunch, pictured: Chaitra Powell, UNC Southern Historical Collection
photo credit Fannie Ouyang

Several participants noted the diverse range of artists present at the workshop: Elizabeth and Erin have introduced some of the artists in previous posts – we have painters, sculptors, photographers, mixed media and fiber artists, and all at different stages in their artistic careers – from just starting out to well-established. Diversity is a stated project goal and something key to its success. It also means we have a wide range in the technological comfort-level of the participants which proves challenging, particularly in the breakout sessions focused on areas where (as Kim noted) we cannot offer standardized best practices, simply because they do not yet exist. For example, one young artist I talked with had first heard about the workshop through Twitter (#artiststudioarchives) and attended the “Web and Social Media” session led by Kim to learn how to manage her online presence – to define the fuzzy line between her professional/artist persona and her personal life, a truly complex and perplexing issue we all face.


Digital Preservation session
photo credit Fannie Ouyang

 Another artist expresses dismay after the “Digital Preservation” session because he assumes we asked him to digitize his entire collection of analog materials, a hugely daunting task. His confusion underscores the need clarifying terms like “born-digital” and the difference between preservation and conservation. Several artists note this same overarching issue in their responses – it’s difficult to make every breakout session applicable and helpful for every attendee because their needs are so varied. We’re already discussing are several ways to address this issue for the next workshop. For example, the “Artwork Inventories” session was attended by 72% of the participants and all of those who attended found it “very applicable,” while the “Archiving Performance Art” session was only attended by one artist (although others did express interest, they ultimately chose other sessions to attend.) This gives us ideas for next year’s sessions – possibly making “Inventories” an introductory session available to all attendees, and adjusting other topics to better meet the attending artists’ specific needs. We have much to consider and synthesize for next year, but in the meantime we are also focused on:


Fellow Erin Dickey with artist Grace Li Wang
photo credit Fannie Ouyang


Another stated goal of the Learning from Artist’s archives project is the hope that it can serve as a model for other institutions to follow. To that end, many of us will present numerous aspects of the project at various professional conferences. In fact, this weekend, three of the first year fellows – Elizabeth, Erin, and I, are excited to present the first ASA workshop at the ARLIS/SE chapter conference in Atlanta. Kim and Heather hope to present at the annual ARLIS/NA conference (Kim with a poster presentation, Heather with a panel) in Seattle this coming March. Meanwhile Colin is considering presenting his current work with Cornelio Campos at the Personal Digital Archiving conference, Ann Arbor in May. (Keep an eye out for his next blog post on this same topic!) We will post in the Public Presentations section of this site as schedules are confirmed. Please also note that many of the handouts from the ASA workshop are now available in “Resources.” The Workbook effort also continues, stay tuned for updates!