Open Studio with Jared Bowen

S9 E17 | FULL EPISODE

Robert Frank, Elizabeth James-Perry, and more

“Robert Frank: The Americans” exhibit at the Addison Gallery of American Art, Wampanoag artist, and scientist Elizabeth James-Perry’s new exhibit, “Ripples. Through a Wampanoag Lens,” at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, plus another look at artist Jacob Lawrence’s panel series, “Struggle,” and the discovery of a recently found piece. Then a Nevada company that creates historic shoes.

AIRED: November 05, 2020 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio,

WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture

from around the region and the nation.

I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,

America the beautiful and unvarnished.

>> He wants to

validate the people who are on the margins

and sort of take the veil off the hypocrisy of the...

what the country says it is and what it really is.

>> BOWEN: Then Wampanoag artist Elizabeth James Perry

forever tied to the ocean.

>> Wampum is very addictive.

The shell is so intriguing.

Each shell is unique-- no two shells are the same.

And so it's kind of, um... a surprise when you're opening

the shells and you see a new pattern.

>> BOWEN: We have all that and a surprise twist in a story

we brought you on artist Jacob Lawrence.

That's now onOpen Studio.

>> BOWEN: First up, this has been a year,

let alone an intense election week,

in which we've been taking a hard look at America.

In the 1950s, photographer Robert Frank did the same--

for better and for worse.

This is the America of the 1950s--

champagne chatter,

warm nights at the drive-in,

and Hollywood poise and glamor.

This is also 1950s America--

a divide on the streets of South Carolina,

political fervor and labor traced beneath fingernails.

This is photographer Robert Frank's America.

>> He wanted to document a civilization.

>> BOWEN: Armed with a Guggenheim fellowship,

the Swiss photographer drove 10,000 miles

throughout his adopted country in 1955 and '56--

taking some 27,000 photographs

and whittling them down to a series of 83.

He considered it a poem, says curator Alison Kemmerer.

>> It's not documentary photography.

It's not a declaration of America is this

or America is that.

It's this idea of this kind of rhythm stanza.

You hit a flag, you kind of pause, reset,

think about where you've been and then continue the journey.

>> BOWEN: Frank published the series,

titledThe Americans, as a photobook.

First in France and then in the United States in 1959.

The Addison Gallery of American Art is one of

only four museums to own the entire series.

It's presented in the same sequence here as in the book.

>> This is a fourth of July picnic in New York.

Equality, freedom, opportunity,

uh... children in white dresses,

that sort of innocent, buoyant energy.

>> BOWEN: However... >> However...

>> BOWEN: There's a big "but" looming here.

>> Yes, and I would say there's a clue, too.

The flag itself is transparent,

it's kind of like we're seeing through that symbol

to see something a little deeper, perhaps,

what is behind the veil.

So the next image takes us to New Orleans,

a trolley car-- the racism, the segregation.

>> BOWEN: A little bit later on, the series grows

seemingly menacing in the intent faces of two hitchhikers

Frank picked up in Idaho

Then we're back on the street as a car, in all its energy,

races past a group whose racing days are over.

Maybe the same for the car in the following photograph.

And then life itself in the next.

>> In the early '50s things had changed.

So there's escalating Cold War,

the dawn of the civil rights movement, McCarthyism,

the Korean War.

There was just an underlying anxiety, suspicion,

and negativity.

>> BOWEN: Which Frank toyed with.

In this photograph of a young Kim Novak,

we're not actually drawn to the Hollywood actress.

>> It's less about the starlet than it is about

all the gawkers surrounding her.

And, you know, it's a very subtle but powerful comment

(laughing): on our celebrity worship

and the value we place on fame and glamor.

>> BOWEN: Frank developed a mistrust, even an anger,

toward the ruling class.

Especially as he made his way through the segregated South.

>> He was arrested several times on the trip.

He's... he was not yet a citizen.

So he was a foreigner, he was Jewish,

he was held overnight in jail.

He wants to validate the people who are on the margins.

>> BOWEN: The photographer returned again and again

to symbols of America--

lunch counters, cowboys, and jukeboxes.

But as you've likely figured out by now,

he captures them all with twinges

of Hopper-esque loneliness.

In fact, the painter Edward Hopper was an influence.

>> There was no prescribed, "I am going to do this."

It's more "I am going to travel, look, see, feel

and see what I learn."

>> BOWEN: And did he stay an observer or did he interact?

>> He did not interact.

There's actually a great image that he cites

as one of his favorite of an African American couple

in San Francisco.

And they're lying down having a picnic

and they're turning around because they notice him.

And it's obviously expressions of suspicion.

He loved the way the Black couple contrasted

against the very white city.

>> BOWEN: WhenThe Americans was published here, critics pounced.

At a time when Ansel Adams defined photography

with well-lit, crisp images,

Frank tended toward the blurred,

the grainy, and the provocative.

>> People did not like that.

(both laugh)

But at the same time, that style,

and that exposure or... of truth

influenced a generation of photographers, writers,

artists... and viewers.

>> BOWEN: Who can still look at The Americans

and sometimes see them stare right back.

Next, a new exhibition

at the New Bedford Whaling Museum features the Wampum work

of artist and scientist Elizabeth James-Perry.

A member of the Wampanoag tribe, she approaches her pieces

with the power of ancestry, history, and the sea

all at her fingertips.

Elizabeth James-Perry,

thank you for being with us.

>> Thank you for having me.

>> BOWEN: Well, I have so many questions about all of you

that you bring to your work

from your family history,

who you are as an artist, a marine biologist.

But... but talk me through what comes into play

when you're making your pieces.

>> Sure.

So when I'm practicing my art, I start with the quahog shells,

and I kind of sort them by size and thickness

and I guess age to some degree.

And I look at the deeper purple part of the shell

for cues to what kind of designs might come out of the shell

really nicely.

Sometimes it's really beautiful, kind of stellar designs

in the purple.

Sometimes there is an image that almost suggests

a fisherman casting his net or a nice, you know, rich bear.

It's a nice northern symbol.

So I just look at those, and scrutinize them,

and wait for some inspiration.

And once in a while, I have

a beautiful, beautiful shell

and I won't have an immediate need for it.

So I'll just put it aside, knowing it's a special piece,

and I'll just wait for

the proper inspiration.

>> BOWEN: How do you find your shells?

Where do you find your shells?

>> Sure, so I'm located right in

Massachusetts, in the South Coast area

and that's where I get my quahog shells.

I also get them occasionally on Martha's Vineyard

near my home community of Aquinnah on Martha's Vineyard,

I should say.

>> BOWEN: And how... has it changed?

And I understand this is you look at climate,

you look at the seas again,

going back to your marine biology background.

Have you noticed the shells change in what turns up now

and how many turn up now?

>> There's a lot of fishing pressure, of course, on quahogs

in this region.

So as a result, when I work with shell,

I'm actually working with shells that are, on average,

smaller and younger than those that my ancestors used.

>> BOWEN: How did you learn your process?

I understand that it gets passed down--

or in your case anyway-- it's been passed down

from woman to woman in your family.

>> Actually, so it's a little bit more flexible than that.

You know, I think my entire family, I should credit them all

with being very creative and really influential.

I grew up watching my mother practice scrimshaw.

And so there's a strong background in jewelry.

Wampum wasn't really as commonly produced when I was very young,

but there were still some community members

who were working with wampum.

And then I think, you know, gradually, as we continued

to use it and others began to really appreciate its value

and its unique appearance--

that purple and white shell is so striking and unique.

I think we just had more of a market and a niche,

and we had more opportunities increasingly to share culture

along with the beautiful shell jewelry and along with

the other cultural arts that we practice.

And so it's just been something, I think, that's been more so

steadily growing and more and more,

I think tribal members are practicing it now.

>> BOWEN: Did all of those factors come into play with you

or what drove you to decide to... to really be an artist?

(soft chuckle)

>> I think what drove me to focus on wampum arts

was that I was also going through a phase

of really immersing myself into

17th century Wampanoag history and culture.

And wampum is such a huge part of those times,

still very, very common.

And it was common for leadership to be adorned with belts.

There's also leadership pendants.

If you're made for it, I guess, wampum is very addictive.

The shell is so intriguing.

Each shell is unique.

No two shells are the same.

And so it's kind of a surprise when you're opening the shells

and you see a new pattern, new striations, new colors,

and you get inspiration that way.

It just keeps me going.

>> BOWEN: As you talk about and you think about your history,

is this an especially poignant moment for you?

I know this does play into why the Whaling Museum

has your exhibition now.

And this one we're where we're commemorating

the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the pilgrims here,

which, of course, came of great consequence.

What does that mean for you in this moment?

>> Sure.

It was really meaningful for me

when the New Bedford Whaling Museum approached me.

Dr. Akeia de Barros Gomes approached me to potentially

do an exhibit around the time of the 2020 exhibits.

It seemed really timely.

It was something of great personal importance because,

of course, I have so many generations of Wampanoag whalers

in my family and so much of a strong association

with Gay Head and New Bedford whaling history,

and Nantucket history as well through other lines.

It was just really special.

It was really unique.

It was very close to my heart.

I was really pleased to be able to be there

representing my family.

I think it's important to have those opportunities.

I think that for, for me and for my community,

it represents a chance to show that we're still here,

that we still care, that we still have a connection

with our homelands and home waters,

and are still using some of the same traditional

creative expression that were

important to our ancestors as well.

So there's a nice cultural continuity.

>> BOWEN: And finally, I just want to ask about

one piece in particular.

You walk into this, the gallery, and it just blazes off the wall.

It's the leadership medallion.

Tell me about that piece.

>> Sure.

So the, the... the leadership medallion is a piece that

is referred to a lot as the Wampum Star.

The symbol itself is actually a four directional symbol

that there is white that picks out that four directional symbol

or star or sun symbol.

And it has to do with our beliefs in the qualities

of a good leader and our expectations

about what a good leader is.

And among those properties is the ability to be

really patient, be really consistent,

to stay involved and engaged and to stay present

and to be there to support your people, no matter what,

through thick or thin.

And they could have, um,

you know, not stay true to their people.

But when I look at their behavior,

they... they sacrificed everything for us,

they went through unbelievable hardships and met terrible ends.

And I can't imagine I'm smiling, but it's like hard to process,

really, on camera.

They went through... they, they gave up everything,

including their lives, so that we could be here today.

Um... and it's humbling.

It's really amazing.

It's very admirable.

And it's not hero worshiping.

It's the reality of how they carried themselves.

And that's a challenge to live up to

but I think it's a worthy challenge.

>> BOWEN: Well, as I say, of all of your wonderful pieces,

it just drew my eye,

I think it came through... in what you've created.

Elizabeth James-Perry, thank you so much

for being with us today.

>> Thank you.

>> BOWEN: It's time now for Arts This Week.

And we're talking about a revolution.

>> ♪ Ave maria

>> BOWEN: Sunday marks the anniversary

of Andrea Bocelli's "Sacred Arias."

Released in 1999, it's become the world's best-selling

classical album by a single artist.

Monday, safety becomes a symbol of self-expression.

See Los Angeles painter Richard Nielson's portraits

of mask-wearers in "This is Not a Gag" at Mass MoCA.

See the work of one of history's

greatest Post-Impressionist artists, Wednesday.

The Museum of Fine Arts presents Cézanne: In and Out of Time.

April 19, 1775,

the first shots of the American Revolution were fired

during the battle at Concord's North Bridge.

Thursday, relive history in the Concord Museum's

three newest galleries.

The Wadsworth Atheneum presents an exhibition series that

places singular masterpieces in the spotlight.

Friday, see Chaim Gross' sculpture,I Love My Baby,

up close and personal.

We have a very happy update for you now.

Earlier this year we brought you a story

about an exhibition of Jacob Lawrence's

1950s series calledStruggle.

Five of the original 30 works in that project had been missing.

But, after the show moved from the Peabody Essex Museum

to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York,

one of the missing pieces turned up.

You see it here.

It features the uprising of Massachusetts farmers

during the American Revolution.

To celebrate the discovery,

we're revisiting our original story.

Over two years, Lawrence painted a series of 30 panels,

from Patrick Henry'sstruggle

to reconcile the co-existence of liberty and slavery

to the harrowing push for westward expansion.

Here at the Peabody Essex Museum,

these panels are together for the first time

in more than 60 years.

>> We have assembled, and tracked, and researched,

and investigated.

It's been a little bit like being a detective.

>> BOWEN: Austen Barron Bailly is one of the show's curators.

Six years in the making,

the exhibition features most of the original works.

>> There are panels that remain completely unlocated.

And those are either in private hands or lost.

>> BOWEN: The whereabouts of five paintings is unknown,

although the hunt is on.

This one, Panel 19, turned up at a New York auction

as Bailly was working on the show.

That must have been ridiculously exciting.

>> It was incredibly exciting.

These are the accidents of history

that have informed this show,

that even informed Lawrence's work.

>> BOWEN: A darling of the modern art world,

Lawrence was 37 when he beganStruggle.

By the time he put paint to canvas,

Lawrence had spent more than five years

researching American history,

combing through historical records

and teasing out quotations that would serve as his prompt.

>> He looked for the voices of founding fathers.

He looked for these actions that people took in the struggle

to build our democracy.

And he offers it up as a way

through these incredible paintings to draw you in.

>> BOWEN: Lawrence's take on history is an intimate one.

Where Paul Revere gave us the Boston Massacre

in full-blown battle,

Lawrence delivered us straight to its first victim.

Where Emmanuel Leutze gave us

a valiant George Washington crossing the Delaware,

Lawrence delivers despair.

>> Cold, suffering, choppy weather,

hints of blood.

Robed men trying to stay warm.

Hands-- emphasizing these hands trying to row across,

silently, steadfastly.

>> BOWEN: Each panel is relatively small,

just 12 by 16 inches,

and Lawrence routinely wrote notes about his process

on the backs of the works, all as it related toStruggle.

Despite Lawrence's wishes

to keep the series together at an institution,

the paintings were ultimately sold off in the late 1950s.

But Lawrence later considered the work a turning point,

where he found a way to depict humanity.

>> And he offers it up as a way

through these incredible paintings to draw you in,

and examine, and think about your proximity to those stories

and your relationship to them.

>> I think about someone like Jacob at a time where

artists like him had very little opportunity.

to experience themselves as an artist.

I'm sure it came with a lot of challenges and obstacles

beyond his ability to create what he created.

>> BOWEN: A widely exhibited artist himself, Derrick Adams

says Lawrence, who died in 2000, has influenced his career

more than any other painter.

The exhibition closes with an installation

Adams created after sifting through Lawrence's archives.

It's an imaginary studio, filled with photographs

never before shown publicly.

The chair is Lawrence's,

oriented, it seems, for quiet contemplation,

and facing a ladder,

perhaps lifting Lawrence out of struggle.

>> You know, the ladder, I think, has to do

with just the idea of the plight,

his career,

the plight of humanity.

Jacob, you know, starting from this very familiar place

of being seated, and thinking,

and then that part of kind of ascending.

He's no longer with us.

But there's things that kind of

give us a bigger picture of who Jacob was.

>> BOWEN: Which is of an artist defined, in part, by struggle.

Next, we visit the modern day designers

getting to the heart and soul of vintage shoes.

>> American Duchess is a small company

that makes new old shoes.

We take a really old design,

something you see in a painting or in a museum

and we make it work

for modern wear and comfort expectations.

Everything from the 18th century, 19th century

and 1920s, '30s, and '40s as well.

American Duchess started as

my personal blog on historic costuming.

I liked to make things,

I used to make those things for myself

and wear them to an event, a picnic or a dance,

it's just what I did for fun.

And I thought, I'll blog about my experiences

so that other people who have no idea how to make a wig,

or how to do this dress, can learn from my mistakes

and it's always been about

sharing my mistakes and learning that way.

You don't want to put all this time and effort

and sometimes a lot of money into your beautiful dress

and then have no shoes to wear with it

because it crushes the illusion.

>> When you're creating these gowns,

they are art pieces.

And if you don't have the right shoes, it just kills it.

And when you take those photos of yourself

or someone's taking photos of you and you look at those later,

you want to be able to say,

"I look like I walked out of a portrait."

>> You're not gonna achieve that with tennis shoes

under your dress.

Believe me, I've seen it.

Historic shoes are not like shoes today,

they have strange closures, they have specific toe shapes,

or lack of toe boxes...

you know, they're very, very different,

so nobody was really making

that kind of thing and I said, "Well, okay maybe

I'll have a go and make some shoes," not by hand,

we couldn't make enough of them to make a living doing that.

So I found a manufacturer

and we developed a prototype,

I put it on the internet

and did a pre-order, did a crowdfunding campaign.

And it funded overnight.

Overnight we had enough money to do the production run

and it was like "Oh my God," I woke up in the morning like,

"Oh, oh this is a thing, okay,

I'm gonna do this, this is what I'm gonna do."

Our first design was Georgiana,

named after the Duchess of Devonshire.

It was made out of dyeable satin, it was our first go,

people were excited about it,

I was excited about it and it worked.

We just kept producing, like, the next one,

the next one, the next one.

A typical 18th century shoe, the most characteristic

hallmark that you might see on those

are latchets with buckles.

So this is the way that 18th century shoes closed,

you have these two straps.

You put one strap through here,

you stick the prongs through the other one,

you can make them as tight as you want,

you can keep tightening them.

And it makes your shoes look very pretty.

Historical accuracy

is very, very, very important.

>> So the basic process starts with looking at

original shoes, whether it's through photographs...

>> It's brainstorming, so we just

kind of all get together and go,

"What sounds cool, what have we not made before,

what are the trends in the community?"

A lot of it is research,

looking at old magazine ads,

catalogs...

original shoes in our collections.

>> I've gone to a number of different museums

and studied things hands on so that way

I have an understanding of how they're constructed

and what goes into the internals of them

and things of that nature.

All of that research gets done gradually

as we find inspiration,

say we need a boot for this time period

and we go and find lots of different examples

and pick what ones really speak to us,

what we think would translate well to a modern design.

And from there, we do a lot of sketches, a lot of ideations,

and then actually come up with the formal line drawing

and we put little tiny details of the sole,

should be this many millimeters,

this eyelet should be this many millimeters wide.

All the little tiny details in there so that way

the first sample that we get back

is as close as we can get to right.

>> There is nobody who knows about historic shoes

and how to make them better than Nicole Rudolph.

>> When I was at Colonial Williamsburg,

I ended up learning how to do

women's shoemaking in the proper 18th century style all by hand,

no machines, all hand-stitched and assembled.

We're based here in Reno, and this is where

we do all of the design, all the marketing

and advertising happens here as well.

We also pack, ship, and do logistics out of here

so there's a great big warehouse attached

to this little tiny office.

We do everything except the actual manufacture

of our footwear.

95% of the world's shoes are made in Houjie.

It is in South China.

There are millions of people in Houjie

and it's a city that is built for shoe production.

Factories, components, markets, leather producers,

just everything you need.

So that's where we also manufacture our shoes.

The people that we work with there are amazing.

We produce fantastic shoes in China

because I get on a plane and I go over there

and I make sure our quality processes are in place

and that our materials are good

and that our relationship with our manufacturer is good.

>> They really are unto themselves

a sculptural, interesting piece of artwork

and they should stand on their own

before you even put them on your feet.

And then to add that in, to add the whole costume

and to add the clothes, the dresses, everything,

it just ends up completing the whole thing.

>> There are so many people in the world

that are into historic costuming

or they're movie costumers or stage costumers,

that's a whole market I never even thought about

when we started, I was just making shoes for people like me.

It's about helping other members of the costuming community

be their best selves in the 18th century or the 19th century

to make their most beautiful dress

and impression or character.

We want to create a fun environment

to help people have a good time playing dress up.

>> BOWEN: And that is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.

Next week,

for artist Stephanie Cole, a lifetime of collecting

leads to a cathedral of memories.

Plus New Repertory Theatre leader Michael Bobbitt

on ridding theater of racism.

Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.

Thanks for joining us.

As always, you can visit us online at GBH.org/OpenStudio.

And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter

@OpenStudioGBH.

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