Sincerely Yours: How Artists Research with Alma Eikerman

Alma Eikerman, IU Archives image no. P0059062

I recently had the opportunity to reprocess correspondence in the increasingly popular Alma Eikerman papers (C621) for better researcher access. The series contains slices of the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts’ life, including letters home from her extensive travels, thoughtful communications with former students, discussions with fellow IU faculty, and more. Eikerman’s correspondence shows her independent spirit, wit, and artistic and pedagogical philosophies.

Recently, I’ve been experiencing some summer blues—it is always difficult for me to not feel vegetative in the hot months between school years. In my dreary state, I came across a 1984 letter from Eikerman to Metalsmith editor Sara Bodine that mentioned the Metropolitan Museum of Art—something that piqued my interest. As I continued to read, I could almost hear Alma laughing at my intellectual lethargy. Her passion is evident:

“My life has been made most rewarding by following my interests. My research started when I was in college, it followed no plan, except that of my interests, and continues today. I have been a world traveler, and research of many different areas of metal objects has certainly added to the pleasure and my knowledge. I acquired a strong feeling that a professor of metal should also know as much as possible about the history of metal. Well, that means, knowing almost all of world history.”

Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April, 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington
Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Her honest account of following her research interests struck a chord with me. As practicing artists may know, however, it can be overwhelming to know where to start research. Alma includes helpful—and non-intimidating—advice for Metalsmith readers:

“For a beginner it is fun to start with a historical object that fascinates you. Gather a number of library books about the area of your interest. Fortify yourself with good maps of the area and begin to make sketches of all the important pieces in a given field. Sketches help you see and seek out the details.”

This is why research in the visual arts interests me so much. Artists are able to use their technical skills of creation to understand research material in a unique way. Being able to actually draw one’s research subjects is a powerful way to connect with learning. She continues to emphasize the importance of looking as an active verb in research, writing:

“Learn where the pieces were made or found-and in which museum they are located…This kind of study research can start in the museum nearest to you—or it can simply start from book study. Libraries are full of wonderful books, with good reproductions.”

As someone whose most vivid childhood memories include parent-dictated art museum trips and the pages of the Time-Life Library of Art books, I second Alma’s affections. For artists, visual research (or looking) is just as important as text-based research.

Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April, 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April, 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington
Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Even so, Alma’s powers of textual description make this letter so fun. Following her advice, which she wrote to serve as an introduction to a piece in Metalsmith, Alma describes three pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that she wants to include with her magazine piece. There are no accompanying slides for these, so in order to identify them a reader has to do a bit of searching. Amazingly, just entering her description of each piece + “Metropolitan Museum of Art” into a search engine immediately retrieved the three pieces. Now that is some powerful descriptive skill!
The three pieces are: a pair of gold armbands with two tritons from Hellenistic Greece, a 4th century silver head of a Sasanian king, and a gold and stone necklace from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom. Looking at these pieces, it is easy to understand Alma’s perspective on art history. Although she was a mid-twentieth century artist, she was able to pull from eons of history to inform her research and work. For anyone feeling stuck on an artistic or research project this summer, take Alma’s advice and trust your instincts—follow your interests. The way forward may not always be clear, but there is a path.

Feeling inspired? Get more motivation by contacting an archivist to check out this collection.

Missed it by that much – The Folklore Institute Ventriloquism Project

The archive of an unfunded project is a strange thing to behold. It recounts a set of best-laid plans that never quite came to fruition. Proposals and correspondence describe the viability of an enterprise, and organizers explain themselves with eloquently written prose and carefully curated documentation. In the present, we review these files knowing the inevitable outcome. Although many people worked hard trying to bring their idea to life, it did not succeed in the way it was envisioned.

A case in point here is the Ventriloquism Project, a proposed collaboration of the Indiana University Folklore Institute and Radio and Television Services. For much of 1988, a small but committed core of researchers sought funding for a documentary that would have explored the contemporary practice of ventriloquism in the United States.

In the end, the project was not of interest to the many sources who received an appeal for funding. The Folk Arts Media sector of the National Endowment for the Arts said no. The Walt Disney Company’s educational films division said no. Jim Henson said no through a personal assistant, who explained that ventriloquism is not the same thing as puppetry (or in this case, Muppetry), which forms the basis of “Jim’s interest and experience.”

Ventriloquism ad
A page in the 1984-85 catalog from One Way Street, a Colorado-based puppetry and ventriloquism resource center

Notwithstanding, those who supported the Ventriloquism Project—folklorists Gail Matthews, Inta Carpenter, and Sandra Dolby, as well as filmmakers John Bishop and John Winninger—produced a significant body of work in their attempts to acquire funding. University Archives and Records Management makes this material available now. The archive of the Ventriloquism Project comprises a rich review of ventriloquial art in the United States in the twentieth century. The files included here could serve as a springboard for anyone researching ventriloquism, whether for a documentary, journalistic article, or academic publication.

At issue in many of these papers is the nature of ventriloquism as a folk art. Researchers argued that its decline in popularity in the early twentieth century marked a transition from popular culture to folklore. Their interpretation of this process is nicely summarized in a proposal to the NEA. They write: “The lay person may think that ventriloquism died out with the arrival of television, when in fact, it merely faded from popular media visibility. Over the years, ventriloquists have constituted a small but solid and growing community of interest.”

The archive’s ephemera provide extensive evidence of this community as it existed in the late 1980s. Gathered materials include advertising literature from Vent Haven, a ventriloquism museum in Kentucky; and correspondence with One Way Street, a puppetry and ventriloquism resource center in Colorado. Additional pamphlets, letters, and business cards from a variety of sources suggest the breadth of the proposed project. Had it gone forward, film crews would have captured footage in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and elsewhere.

The documentary was not meant to be, however, and the Ventriloquism Project was shelved until further notice. That notice is now, as it were. The preparatory work that researchers did has been made public after a dark age of about 25 years. Interested parties are invited to view this archive, which, even though it was not funded, provides a valuable resource for aficionados of ventriloquism.

To view this material, and to access the finding aid that indexes it, visit http://libraries.iub.edu/archives, or call (812) 855-1127.

 

David Roland Smith

David Smith working on Sitting Printer, 1954. Photograph by the artist, taken at his workshop in Bolton Landing, New York.

I recently had the opportunity to delve a little deeper and learn about a famous sculptor who taught at Indiana University for the academic year of 1954-1955.  David Roland Smith came to I.U. to temporarily replace full-time Professor of Sculpture Robert Laurent who was on sabbatical serving as an artist-in-residence at the American Academy in Room and at the same time conceptualizing the early designs for IU’s Showalter Fountain.  In May 1954, Henry Hope, Director of the School of Fine Arts, confirmed the arrival of Smith and welcomed him to I.U.  During spring 1954 and fall of 1955 Smith taught multiple classes including First Year Sculpture I & II, Second Year Sculpture I & II, and a Graduate Sculpture course. Shortly after arriving in Bloomington, Smith rushed off to Venice, Italy as the United States delegate to the International Conference on Plastic Arts.  His sculptures were also included in the International Biennial Exhibition of Art which preceded the conference in Venice. 

Indiana Daily Student, September 28, 1954 - Smith travels to Italy for International Art conference

Now you may be wondering who is this Smith guy and how did he achieve this level of success?  Smith began his training at the Cleveland Art School while still in high school.  After graduation he studied at Ohio University for a year and quickly moved to Notre Dame University, where he would only stay for a short time. During summer breaks he spent his time working at the Studebaker automobile factory in South Bend, Indiana where he began honing his skills as a riveter as well as soldering and spot-welding.

David Smith, Construction in Rectangles, 1955, steel painted, 78 x 10 7/8 x 10 1/2 inches. Private collection. Created while Smith was at I.U.

By 1927 Smith ventured off to Washington, D.C. and then New York City where he met Dorothy Dehner, a young painter studying at the Art Students League (ASL). By December of that year they were married. From 1927-1932 Smith studied at the ASL under many artists including the American realist painter John Sloan, drawing instructor Kimon Nicolaides and Czech modernist painter Jan Matulka.

After more traveling and a variety of jobs, Smith and Dehner finally bought a fixer-upper in upstate NY where they would spend the next decade.  Along the way Smith continued to travel, meet more artists, and became very interested in combining constructed forms and paintings.  Smith continued to blossom as an artist by expanding and using a wide array of mediums including: wood, wire, stone, aluminum rods, soldered materials and – my favorite – “found” materials, all the while slowly building his art studio which became known as Terminal Iron Works.  By the time Smith arrived at I.U. in 1954 he had already produced a multitude of pieces and participated in a wide array of exhibits.

Indiana Daily Student, September 28, 1954 - Midwestern Art Conference held at I.U., October 28-30, 1954

Although Smith was only at I.U. for a brief time he continued to create art work and even participated in the Midwestern College Art Conference held at I.U. in October 1954.  Smith exhibited 13 sculptures and his 15 “medals for dishonor” at the conference.  His medals were cast before World War II and depict the horrors of war.  He said he got the idea for the “medals” from German war medallions that were used for propaganda during the war.  Check the medals out for yourself here.

After his time was up at I.U. he continued to travel the world and create, up until his tragic death in 1965.  To learn more about David Smith and his art work check out the David Smith Estate.

"David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy," installation view of exhibition, at Whitney Museum of American Art until January 8, 2011. Left to right: Tanktotem VII, 1960, Construction in Rectangles, and Circle IV, 1962 (all: painted steel). Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson

To see more of David Smith’s work in person you can visit the exhibition David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy, currently on view at the Whitney Musuem of American Art through January 8, 2012.

"David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy," installation view of exhibition, at Whitney Museum of American Art until January 8, 2012. Left to right: Cubi XXI, 1964, anc Cubi I, 1963 (both stainless steel). Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson.