Today we started a new semester at school, which is one of my favorite times of the whole year. I was worried I wouldn’t have the energy - it’s the middle of the week, a rainy Tuesday in January. But you know what? I made some extra coffee, and got hit with my usual bombardment of student questions, and got right into my favorite part of teaching.
The beginning of the semester is often the time I get to see my students’ fears and art insecurities up close. “Ms. S, I can’t draw.” or “I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’m scared to start.”
The good news: almost everybody in the WORLD has felt this way at some point or other. Leonardo da Vinci burned his own notebooks because he thought his work was crap. (Yes, that sound you hear softly in the background is art historians everywhere weeping.)
The second bit of good news: there are things you can do to get past that. There is literally no bad news here, I am the coffee-fueled optimism fairy today.
So much of the time, people are afraid to begin because they’re “not ready.” I’d like to disabuse you of that notion immediately - nobody is ever ready. If you are an electric ball of nerves (or at least pleasantly uncertain) about your new undertaking or project, you are for sure pursuing the right thing.
If you have never tried the thing you are about to undertake - cool! So what? Start today.
If you have already tried the thing and haven’t gotten very far? Cool! So what? Continue today. It is never too early or too late to pursue a thing.
Sometimes people get intimidated by thinking, oh gosh I have to find some huge thing I’m wildly passionate about and just throw myself at it?! I mean, sure. If you have something like that, yes do that, that’s awesome. But if there’s something that interests you, that’s stoking your curiosity that you’ve always wanted to try - that’s a great thing, too.
Do you want to play the bass? Learn to cook French food? Crochet tiny sweaters for penguins who have been in oil spills? (this is a thing, and it’s adorable. Look up pictures.) Do you want to learn to draw, or sculpt, or code, or animate?
Let yourself be a beginner, or an intermediate, or wherever you are in your process, and just START.
2. Measure your achievement by what you have completed and the work you have done, not by some nebulous standard of “good.”
Pick your new project. Do you want to draw noses? Draw a full page in your sketchbook of noses every day. 30 of them, 10 of them, it doesn’t matter. Fill up the page.
Make 10 new wall hangings, crochet 10 hats. Doesn’t matter! Whatever your thing is. Do the first 4 suck? Doesn’t matter.
By DOING, you learn. Take your brain with you as you go, but do not expect your learning curve to be flawless and exponential. As long as you are creating, you are moving forward.
3. Start a new sketchbook. Don’t show it to anyone. Or show it to everyone.
Maybe your goal is to draw a page in your sketchbook every day, or three pages a week. Wherever you are, whatever your craft, a sketchbook is a great idea. It can be for writing, for ideas, for watercolor pages, color swatches, composition planning - whatever!
Maybe it’s just for you! There’s something kind of exhilarating about keeping a secret that’s close to your heart like that - making secret art. Or post it on every social media platform available! Whatever! The fact that you’re starting a thing (whatever your stage in your journey, be you art school grad or noob illustrator apprentice), is awesome. Run with it.
Neither option is nobler. Keep your art close, or shout it out. Both are expressions of self, and so frigging what. Think of all the dumb things people say every day on Twitter. Your art is hardly a ripple in the pond, be it good or bad.
4. Be realistic with yourself.
You are not going to paint photorealistic oil paintings on your first try. Oil painting is hard, and maybe you’re not great at getting ears down with volume yet. THAT’S OK. Set reasonable goals - maybe this week you practice getting the form down. Next week can be oil techniques, then brush techniques, then color, and so on and so on.
In the same vein, don’t get overconfident! Every single person on this planet has something to learn - if you are finding yourself getting stuck in a routine, try changing it up. Find a mentor, ask somebody to review your work, or maybe try something outside your comfort zone. If you’re into digital 2D animation, try a ceramics class. Change things up and keep an open mind - you can take something from you everywhere you go.
Once you have been working on your craft, don’t forget the most important part of producing work - FINISH. A lot of times it’s super hard to part with your creations. They are our babies, right? And we can’t let them go. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve obsessed over a background detail of a painting, or a particular sentence in something I’m writing… THAT USUALLY DOESN’T MATTER VERY MUCH.
My thesis advisor in grad school (a wise and marvelous woman who should be canonized for the patience she showed me) one told me “a finished thesis is better than a perfect thesis.”
If perfection is your standard, you will never be done. I don’t want to be the person to break this to you - but perfection is unattainable. You can spend forever and ever obsessing over tiny details, ways you could get better, etc. Your art simply can’t be perfect. But it can be pretty DAMN good, and that’s worth striving for. But in order to be pretty damn good, you have to finish the thing.
6. Be committed to continuing, no matter how many times you get it wrong.
Failure isn’t a thing. And it doesn’t interest me.
You have to be willing to truly and spectacularly belly flop at a thing, and then keep doing it.
The question shouldn’t be “what am I good at?” Your question should be “what am I willing to be really, embarrassingly bad at, and keep doing?”
You made a thing that wasn’t perfect? Congratulations, welcome to the human race. You made forty things that truly sucked, and then kept making? Congratulations, you’re an artist.
Recommended reading: This book on creativity + fear. It's definitely touchy feely, but fun.
Circular ending #1: putting the new Alexander Hamilton graphic novel right at the entrance to the Jefferson Library.
Yes, I think I'm hilarious.
The end of August was awesome. It was a gorgeous blur of "OH MY GOODNESS I FORGOT I NEED TO FINISH THAT BOOK," madly trying to squeeze in those last conversations, that trip to that vineyard, running back home real quick for a wedding, and tying up the last loose ends.
Graphic novel progress: I have 6 uninked pages, layouts for about 30 more pages, and enough research to float me for like 6 or 7 books, should I decide to write them. I have an exact starting point, date and year for the actual story, which starts after the first 36 pages or so of exposition/ intro/ getting situated. I'm thinking I'd like to gather all of this into a sample for sending out, which might be my goal for before Thanksgiving or so. We'll see how that goes.
I have a giant reading list, a hell of a good idea where I'm going, and plans to stay productive even once the school year starts. One awesome lady asked me how my plans to continue looked, and if I had any distractions coming up. All I could do was laugh. "Well, my school year starts next week, and I'm getting married in under six months!" Blank stare. I do tend to take on a couple of things at once, I guess! No better way to get more than one thing done.
This month was phenomenal in so many ways. I got to learn about archaeology, curatorial work, 18th century fashion, the do's and don'ts of representation, this sorta important family's genealogy, French cuisine, and historic ceramics. I got to visit coffee shops, vineyards, and this one particular comic book shop Telegraph that I will miss A LOT (but will actually save me lots of money because I won't be going there once a week and dropping $40-$50.. oops?)
Left: Magical comic book candyland, pic from their website, on the Downtown Mall right next to Mudhouse Coffee.
Right: Athena illustration by Chris Danger, about to be hanging in my living room (I have to pick up a frame first)
Left: a nice little spot to curl up with a book. Right: Goodnight Moon, Wahoo edition
So what do I take away from my month away from my real life? Comic books, a reading list, several thousand lessons on race in the contemporary U.S. I think it was a hard month to be in Charlottesville, probably much more difficult for people who weren't there as tourists. I get to go back to my New York bubble, where most people do not drive around with Confederate flags on their cars. Just because their bigotry is less trumpeted doesn't mean it doesn't exist. But I think the debate about what these Confederate monuments really stand for, and what we want to memorialize and commemorate, is something we have to keep talking about. As Joe Biden puts it - "we are living through a battle for the soul of this nation."
Left: some people on Twitter have pretty good suggestions.
Right: an empty pedestal in Baltimore. This is a screen grab from the Atlantic, but it says "A pedestal in Baltimore that until this week held a statue of the former Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert B. Taney, author of the Dred Scott decision." dated August 19, 2017
People have lots of opinions about what our history and heritage mean. People are angry. People are claiming that you're erasing history and their heritage specifically if you take down Civil War monuments, and other monuments to oppressive, flawed, historically significant men. I disagree. I think an empty pedestal starts a much harder conversation. "Mommy, why isn't there a statue up there?" is a really great question to have to answer. There is more work to do in Charlottesville, and across this entire country. I think it starts with people saying hate has no place here, take it all down, and let's re-examine the way we tell our history, and exactly WHOSE history we glorify.
Left: The 7s hung a sign on the Rotunda that reads "Our mission, therefore, is to confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with the outstretched hand of generosity. Racism can, will, and must be defeated." This is a quote from Kofi Annan.
Right: School of Architecture - HATE HAS NO PLACE HERE, hung near the floor of a studio review space, where it is most visible to passers by
Somehow in the middle of all of this craziness, the world spins madly on. Despite the news cycle, people get married, people have babies, and life continues. Two of my favorite people got married in Brooklyn during the last weekend of my fellowship. I drove like a crazy person back up to New York, and had an absolutely wonderful time. We decided to recreate a photo from Prom 2008, and it might be my favorite thing ever. We weren't sure why I was so pissed in the first picture, but I think we nailed it.
The end of this month was beautiful, weather wise and life wise. It started to cool off, which reminds me that school starts next week and that this teacher needs to get her act together. People I care about started the next phase of their life together. I reached some really important conclusions for my graphic novel. And I got to have a really gratifying set of drinks with a professor who guided me through some impossible times with my thesis.
When I first saw her, she said she loved seeing me without my walker. That honestly feels like a lifetime ago, but I hope I never forget the way that felt. More than the physical difficulty, the limitation and dark raincloudiness I embodied on a daily basis. I coudn't have imagined how different life would be. I love seeing me without that walker, too.
This picture was taken in March of 2015. It still makes me cry. I used to carry all kinds of things in that basket, and have walker races across the courtyard with my best friend. Man, we got some looks for those. In March of 2017, I got engaged, snuggled some kittens, and taught some high school kids some stuff. I was disappointed because I only ran about 20 miles the whole month, and not very quickly. That may have been my only disappointment that month.
We joked back and forth for about two hours, and I told her that in high school I had been a very lazy student. She told me smart but lazy is her least favorite kind of kid in the classroom, because what a waste! I joked I might not be out of that phase yet, and she got super serious and stopped me, telling me I might be the hardest working student she's ever had. That's a nice feeling.
She told me she had liked the person she met two years ago, but me today is a different person than the person she knew. It's funny what a new hip and getting your shit together can do for your world view. But yes, I feel different to me, too.
I came home to two furry babies, a best friend I think is pretty cute, and a BEACH. It's hard to imagine that the month of August wasn't some crazy beach nap dream, but I have a whole new stack of books on my coffee table, so it must be real.
So, cheers to a beautiful September, and so long, sweet summer.
This has been a hard couple of weeks to be in Charlottesville, and studying slavery. White supremacists descended on a city I love and killed a woman. Many were injured. One of my friend was too worried for her safety to return to her own home that night, because of the people parading directly in front of it. I am sad, I am ashamed, but mostly I am angry, and determined that as a country, we do better. It seems I'm in good company.
I gave my project presentation last week, and it mostly just made clear to me that I have only just scratched the surface of what I've laid out for myself. A graphic novel history, depicting the lives of the enslaved people on Thomas Jefferson's plantation. Material culture and object history, represented graphically, attempting to get as close as possible to something like that truth. Oh, ok. What coffee-fueled bender made that sound simple?
I keep wondering, who am I? They could certainly find more accomplished historians, or illustrators. But none of them have stepped up, so here I am. And it's become increasingly clear to me what the epilogue needs to be. I could not leave Cville this month and not acknowledge - our country is still figuring out what the legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism is going to be. And there are a lot of good people fighting like hell to make sure that's in the past - hopefully that's the direction we're headed.
There was a really thoughtful piece in the Guardian you should check out. They had the privilege to interview a brilliant friend of mine. Read it here:
Presentation slides. Isaac Granger Jefferson, left, in an 1847ish daguerrotype, and a much later photo of Peter Fossett.
Youtube video of my process - digital painting in Photoshop with layers.
A couple of us went to the memorial service for Heather Heyer to stand guard, because we were told the white supremacists were planning to protest it. It was scary, not knowing who had what intentions, going in with my northern assumption that every angry southerner would be carrying a gun. I saw a few. It turned out fine, my friend even got to shake Tim Kane's hand, but my heart was heavy that day, and will be for a while. The town of Charlottesville has been very vocal about saying "not in my town" and "this is not the city I love," but I've heard a few people say that the black experience of Charlottesville can be very different. Some people could totally believe the riot and aftermath happened here. I wish I had words of wisdom, I would hope that we have come farther than that, but apparently not. I wish I had something to share other than my profound sadness.
After my presentation I got truly phenomenal feedback about resources, people to speak to, things to go see. One lady even joked with me that I had laid out about 12 books for myself. Hurt me worse! One of the best resources I've encountered has been my ever growing book list. (Starting to add these in slowly on Goodreads if you want to take a look - my name is listed there as Kathy Schnurr!). There is so much to learn. Maybe reading and protesting and getting educated can be a good start to an active resistance to the news cycle these past few weeks.
My project has become more and more important to me intellectually - if I can try to help high school aged kids understand the lives of enslaved people just a little bit better, maybe that's a good start. Engage with these difficult questions - how do we reconcile a vision of Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father with Thomas Jefferson, slave owner?
You can't, of course. You can sit with the conflict, and stay uncomfortable.
Jefferson was a brilliant thinker, a truly impressive writer, and his intellectual legacy and celebration of education is something I proudly took part in. However, he owned over 600 human beings in his lifetime. He enslaved four of his own children. He does not get a pass for being "a man of his time." He was one of the largest slaveowners in the colony, and then state, of Virginia. Jefferson thought he was on a great civilizing mission, but eventually lost his interest in trying to abolish slavery. He was content to try to ameliorate its conditions, all the while doing the mental pretzel work of ignoring the complete violation of human dignity and personal autonomy he was imposing on hundreds of souls. If I can try to present these problems and this giant divide without completely demonizing our third president, I will consider it a great personal victory. That's a lot to ask from a glorified comic book, but I'll see what I can do.
Last week, a great new graphic novel on the life of Alexander Hamilton came out. It tries to address different aspects of his life than Lin Manuel Miranda does, and so far I love it. Further review once I finish. It's written by Jonathan Hennessy, the same guy who wrote the Gettysburg Address graphic novel, this time working with a different illustrator. (Unrelated: he also wrote a graphic novel history of beer, and one of the history of video games. I do think he and I could be best friends.)
Selfishly: hey look! There's a market for this kind of thing!
I gleefully brought my new toy in to show the people up the hill, trained historians, all brilliant in their own regard. They thought it was so funny, and were kind of delighted to see it. One woman has studied the history of costumes (and theater design, and all that loveliness), and she was completely irritated by the fashion in the book. "This waist coast is mid 19th century! But this is supposed to be from the Revolution!" She seemed to be getting more worked up every time she turned the page. My eyes got wider and happier, and I'm meeting with her later today to try to avoid some of those mistakes.
Yesterday, I got to go visit the archaeology lab. Cool on so many fronts, but I think any place you can walk in the front door, announce you know nothing, and have them be excited to teach you? Pretty cool in my book. (Hey get it - in my book!)
Toothbrush heads, shoe buckles, and functional buckles from the excavated sites on Mulberry Row + the field houses
So what are my goals from all of this? Somebody had asked me last week, and the word I lingered on was engagement. [Everything is about being engaged to me lately - I just had my first wedding stress dream last night. More about this later, of course.] I'd like my kids to engage with the hard questions, the conflicting ideas, and maybe understand that these are more three dimensional people and ideas than they had given thought to before. High school kids are smarter than anybody gives them credit for, they can handle it.
I think that has shifted somewhat. I want you to open up the book and see somebody sitting with a cup of coffee, a book on their table, maybe some mismatched creamware, and a vegetable garden next to their cabin. I want whoever ends up reading this to open up the book and just see PEOPLE, and some of their stories. And some of their stories exist, in letters and documents and their own accounts. People who had marbles, and buckles, and toothbrushes, and work days that were too long, and had their autonomy completely taken away from them. I think if you look at the artifacts of somebody's life, and get to look at the spaces where they lived, you understand the way they lived a little better. Room Raiders, 18th-19th century edition. It remains, of course, just a story, but I'll do the best I can do sneak some truth in there.
Page 3-4, possibly. Text not finalized yet, so I left it out.
I am wrapping up my second week at Monticello. I am much more comfortable here, it feels much more real at this point - for example, I even slept in until 7 this morning. How very un-Jeffersonian, the sun was up before I was.
This week has been humbling and mind-blowing in the most phenomenal ways, and it is clear to me that I have much, much more work to do.
Monday and Tuesday were rainy, so I got to close myself up in the library and do some good reading. I got some more storyboarding done, and some good primary resources.
Pages 6-7, possibly, again without text.
Tuesday was a really moving day - one of the other fellows gave his forum talk on the oral history project Getting Word. I can't help but feel lucky that all of these things are happening at the same time I'm here. Several of the other descendants came to the project, one guy I met last week, Calvin (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite people,) and his grandson, an artist immediately identifiable by his Basquiat t-shirt. After Andrew recounted the research and project he's been working on, which was wonderful, he asked one older lady (75ish?) what her experience has been, and what this descendants project means to her. "Everything." She said simply, and as she began to elaborate, there was a single tear rolling down her cheek. She had told Cinder [the woman who started the project] that she was related to the Gillettes, and Cinder began to list off her family members one by one. The history of the enslaved community at Monticello hasn't been something the foundation always celebrated, and it really wasn't until the late 1990s that this started to be recognized and gain momentum. So, long past due, but gratifying, and so important.
Andrew reminded us that the importance of Getting Word and its impact on the future really can't be quantified, particularly during a week when the "Alt-Right" is holding a rally in Charlottesville. He stressed the importance of reunion, recovery, and resistance, saying that the intrinsic human value of people who lived here is immeasurable - and their artistry and love was reflected in some of the faces (and Basquiat tshirts) of people sitting at the table with us.
I wish I had a better word than profound.
Wednesday I spent about an hour chatting with the lovely Niya Bates, who answered every question I had (and THEN some) on the lives of the enslaved people at Monticello. I also have about 30 new books to read. A story I can't get out of my head - there was a particularly skilled young enslaved craftsman, James, son to Critta Hemings. Some time between 1801 and 1805 he was too sick to go to work at the nailery, and the overseer Gabriel Lilly whipped him three times that day, so badly he nearly died. Lilly was known for his brutality and violence, but Jefferson once said it was impossible to find "a man who fulfills my purposes better." That man (and I do hesitate to use that word) stayed at Monticello after this event (and certainly others like it) until his required salary became too high. That day I did not want to hear another word about the noble founding father Thomas Jefferson.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," Jefferson wrote. "That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
And yet, he had the second largest holdings of enslaved people of any Virginian during his lifetime. This was not normal. Plantations where more than 100 people at a time were kept enslaved was NOT common. I have no resolution here, words of wisdom or conclusion. Just have to sit with it.
Something that really amazed me this week was the account of Isaac Granger Jefferson. He was an enslaved tradesman on the plantation who worked as a blacksmith and tinsmith. He did an interview in 1847 that was dictated and kept. There's also a daguerrotype of him from this time (maybe one of the oldest remaining images of an enslaved person?), but you can read the whole account here:
Yesterday I got to meet with somebody in curatorial up at TJ's house before it opened, go poke at things and get references for my panels. Here are some images from outside (because I can't share the others!)
The most important part of the whole trip was a sign on the wall in the reconstructed Hemings cabin (there were quite a few Hemingses enslaved at Monticello). "NOT SO BAD?" It reads. Lest you forget, even for a moment. GOOD. Don't.
I got to meet with another curator who talked to me about how they choose objects, great places for me to look at their collections and other 18th century furniture, and the acute problem of representation that I've set up for myself. How do you depict someone when you don't know what they looked like? What is the best way to do that respectfully? She mentioned how Montpelier and Mount Vernon address the issue of representing people whose faces we do not have records of - one by depicting them from the neck down, just bodies. Another is by showing silhouettes of a person. Identity politics and representation could NOT matter more, particularly with such an important subject matter. I agreed it's something I am honestly not sure how to handle yet.
Every inch of my skin crawls at the idea of not giving the enslaved people faces. I mean, this is a graphic novel, it will be a cartoon. Giving them the wrong face must surely be better than denying them their humanity or literally beheading them. These people had enough of their autonomy stripped from them, they should get to have faces. I think I will keep struggling with this. And here I thought I was going to have trouble finding proper furniture and fashion references.
Aside from some of the heaviness of this week, there have been absolutely delightful social excursions. We went to Kings Family Vineyard, and to go see sunset at Carter Mountain Orchard. It's been a beautiful and enlightening week, and I think that's all I could ask for.
Off to do more drawing, then. Apparently one of the fellows they had here last month was a chief curator at the Frick. What am I doing here? Oh goodness, back to the library.
On Thursday afternoon, we got to get on a tour of Monticello. I had been a couple of times during grad school, but they've done a TON with the restorations, and it was really cool to get to see the progress they've made. They have a lot more curated rooms, and a lot more in terms of the history of slavery on the plantation (including a full app called Slavery at Monticello).
Thing that may end up being trouble for me - you aren't allowed to take photos inside. There are probably insane numbers of sources for images, though, so I'll see what I can do for now. I also found a fabulous book with HABS drawings of it, so I think I'll be just fine.
They took us around, and a fellow Fellow and I got to go upstairs and look at all the new rooms. The question I keep coming back to - how do you curate a space when you're not actually sure what was REALLY there? I think you just do the best you can and pick some cool stuff to teach people things, but be as transparent as possible about that process.
I am beginning to realize quite what a problem I've set up for myself - illustrating a graphic novel history. While on a tour, the docent mentioned that they had recently restored the dining room to a bright bright yellow, because paint analysis showed that it was that specific hue in 1815. I raised my hand, "Do they know what color it was before 1815?" And nope, this particular guide didn't. And nothing has been published on it yet. So my 1809 dining room scene will have to sit tight for a bit (at least the coloring phase!!). Trying to breathe through my nose.
I also want to be careful I'm not taking the curated layouts of the rooms to be gospel - this is the talented curatorial staff's best interpretation. But it seems like a long, question-filled conversation with them and whoever works on restoration (and paint!) might be in order. (What's better than watching paint dry? Talking about paint that dried like 200 years ago!)
I ran into one of the other fellows in the kitchen at Kenwood, Andrew who invited me to go with him to Poplar Forest the next morning. He and his cousin Calvin were going, he told me. Cool!
So the next morning I met them both and we drove the 70ish miles down to TJ's secluded retreat house. [We were told it was very specifically NOT a summer house, bc TJ went 3-4 times a year. This was a smaller place, still Palladian and fabulous, where he went to "be alone," when all of the activity at Monticello got to be too much for him. His version of "alone" meant he was still accompanied by at least 10 enslaved people, and greeted by several dozen more enslaved people that lived on that estate.]
Both people I had the pleasure of accompanying on this trip are wildly intelligent, and working on Getting Word, Monticello's oral history project that looks at the descendants of their enslaved population. They both also happen to be descendants.
We got a private tour with the director of Collections and somebody else very important (whose title I have since forgotten, oops?) that were super knowledgable and excited that we were visiting. I keep thinking I'm going to wake up, but.. they were just as excited to have us as I was to be there.
Andrew and Calvin know SO much about the genealogy it's astounding. And I think I was profoundly lucky to get to go with them, getting delightfully biting commentary along with 12 pages worth of notes of information. I'm learning a lot. Much like Neo in the Matrix, plugged in, coming up for air and saying, "Go again."
Burwell Colbert was an enslaved worker who worked as Jefferson's personal servant, and the only worker in the nailery "absolutely exempted from the whip." According to Calvin, he was also Jefferson's nephew. There is an illustration / artist's rendering of him in the cellar at Poplar Forest that Calvin said wasn't correct. Why? Because Burwell would most likely not have been very dark skinned in appearance, as the son of Randolph Jefferson (TJ's brother). However, he would have worn probably fine clothing that would have stayed clean, as he worked in the house.
Representation is hard. Several renderings of Mulberry Row and others of plantation life at Monticello don't take heritage into account- like those of Sally Hemings and her descendants, for example. Sally's grandmother was African, her grandfather was an English Captain. Her mother was Elizabeth Hemings, her father was John Wayles, a Virginia planter and slave trader. Her children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson, and were 7/8 white and 1/8 African by descent. Calvin said a big problem he has with the representations he's seen is that those things aren't necessarily taken into account, and most of the time people are depicted with the wrong skin tones.
Madison and Eston Hemings, sons of Sally and Thomas Jefferson, were enslaved at Monticello until 1826 when they were freed in TJ's will. They spent a lot of time at Poplar Forest, doing carpentry and woodworking with John Hemmings, who was by all accounts an unbelievable craftsman. Most of what he built there was destroyed in a fire later in the 19th century, but they have recreations of tables and things that are absolutely phenomenal.
Poplar Forest is more of a raw space than Monticello, many of the rooms are empty, and they show the restoration process and everything as they go, with open beams and half-plastered walls to show how things would have been constructed. It was really cool to get to see two places SO different in terms of restoration and curated works.
They have a copy of a letter written by Harriet, an enslaved cook there. She wrote to TJ when he wasn't feeling well and wasn't going to make a scheduled visit there. She wrote that she hoped he felt better, quoted the bible and a hymnal psalm, and signed the letter Adieu. She had beautiful handwriting. I learned that a number of the enslaved people there and at Monticello were literate.
I got to see this on the same day I read about the White House putting forth legislation to investigate discrimination against white people getting into college. Sometimes I wonder if this 5'4 body can contain all the rage I get from reading the news these days.
Modern reconstruction showing dimensions of slave quarters at Poplar Forest
When I got back to the library, I discovered two more gems. 1) a delightful little gazebo to read in and 2) the Sources of Patriarchal Rage. Oh good, I'd been wondering where that came from.
This morning I went to the Downtown Mall to work at coffee shop for a while, and stopped at the coolest. freaking. comic. book. store. ever. I reserved my copy of the Alexander Hamilton graphic novel coming out on Tuesday, and bought one on Robert Moses (LOL). The woman behind the counter was awesome, and I'm starting to think a life fueled by comic books and coffee is just the thing for me. I also discovered this book - where was THIS when I was in grad school? Hah.
After that I went to Grounds to go look at things. I didn't take into account that the libraries wouldn't be open when I got there - because their summer session just ended! So I walked around a bit anyway, visiting all my old haunts. I think I'll head back Monday to go work from one of the libraries.
I am thinking my next step is starting to put all of this together. Keep reading, keep visiting, keep learning, but also start drawing. Let's see what I can come up with.
Here are two bits of art so far.
So now - off to work. I'm of the personal philosophy - the messier the hair, the more productive you can be. And so, without further ado, off to work.
I left New York on Tuesday, spent the night in Baltimore with my lovely roommate from grad school (and her amazing pup), and arrived at Monticello Wednesday morning. For the first time in my life, I was early! I got to stop at Shenandoah Joe's for coffee, which was fabulous.
I rolled up to the front of the place singing Hamilton at the top of my lungs, and I imagined somewhere that Jefferson was flipping me off from beyond the grave. New York had arrived.
"I am not throwing away my shot. Ay yo, I'm just like my country - I'm young, scrappy, and hungry,
and I'm not throwing away my shot." -Alexander Hamilton by way of Lin Manuel Miranda
I arrived at the International Center for Jefferson Studies, and met with some of the friendliest human beings on the planet. They told me how excited they were to have me, how cool they thought my project was (please forgive my weeping), and then apologized for their enthusiasm. I think I must have been dumb struck by how cool this all was, because never before in my life has anybody apologized to ME for THEIR enthusiasm. Not even one time.
Then they showed me to my COTTAGE. I get a cottage. I could throw something and hit the ICJS, no joke. I don't feel inclined to, but I think the frame of reference is important.
I also get an office in the library, which I think may be among the coolest things that has ever happened in my life. By this point, I had had more coffee than was probably a good idea, and my bones were vibrating, and I got to see the inside of a gorgeous building that I get to basically live in for the next month. So I set up my computer and my drawing tablet, and yeah, it was off to a good start.
Then we got a tour of the library and its resources.
With my fellow's badge, I can be in the library from 7 AM - 9 PM, when it's only open to the public from 9 - 5. ACCESS TO AN EMPTY LIBRARY? OH, OK. This day is already amazing, but there's the tiniest part of me that keeps assuming I'll wake up in a few minutes.
The library gatekeeper is funny, and she showed me where the children's books and graphic novel - type books are. She said some of them are awesome, some of them are ... less awesome. They don't get a lot of historians writing these kinds of things, so she thought my project was great. Again, I could have hugged her right there, but we'd just met so I settled for an awkward too-grateful smile. This made me wonder a lot about audience for my project. Children's book wasn't a goal, but I think having visual references looking at some of the same material could be very helpful. So I checked it out.
I was not disappointed. Among other highlights, they had little Beanie baby style stuffed Jefferson and Adams? Hilarious.
I picked up a couple of books and got to work. (IN MY OFFICE.)
One that I gravitated towards immediately was Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything by Maira Kalman. It has these beautifully expressive illustrations, great vibrant colors, and I was super intrigued. And then I started reading it.
A little more than halfway through, the book gets to slavery on the plantation at Monticello. For a kids book, this is really important, but also should be approached delicately, I think.
The photographed page reads "Jefferson would visit the kitchen each week and wind the grandfather clock. He probably said a few kind words to the cooks. / In the fancy dining room, they had the best of everything. Even vanilla ice cream!! And so many kinds of pudding - apple, bread, huckleberry, lemon, macaroni, orange, plum, quince and tapioca pudding, all produced by the endless labor of slaves. Jefferson may have been a kind master, but it was still a horror."
I think my forehead will have visible abs by the end of this month, with the workout my eyebrows are getting.
So the book is sort of taking a roundabout approach to touring the house (almost), and then... a few kind words to the cook while making people work endlessly makes TJ a kind master. Because there was pudding! And ice cream! While I was kind of fascinated to think of the food they would have been eating in the early 19th century in rural Virginia, my entire face hurts. The rest of the book followed suit.
I read through the rest of it with equal parts horror and fascination before coming across the last page. And I think this is really important:
"If you want to understand this country and its people and what it means to be optimistic and complex and tragic and wrong and courageous, you need to go to Monticello."
I sat there for a minute. Yes. Yes to this. And so here I am, and here I go.
I got to have my Lizzie McGuire moment at the Trevi Fountain.
Rome is an absolutely amazing city, and I wish we could have spent two weeks there instead of just about two days.
On our first day, we did a walking tour (in very hot heat), went to the Vatican (which was almost too packed to get to really SEE anything), and then ran to the Pantheon.
Everywhere you turn in Rome, there is something amazing and historical. We saw the column of Trajan and the Spanish steps (there I am in my blistering hot, Vatican-appropriate outfit).
The Spanish steps
While Florence felt kind of like the city revolves almost completely around its Renaissance history (or maybe just the things we focused on?), Rome felt like, yeah, our history is there, and we're going to do our thing anyway. Rome was absolutely awesome, and a bunch of the kids even said they felt like this was the first city they felt like they could live in.
After our walking tour, we went to the Vatican. I knew there was amazing art to see, and I had learned a lot about the construction of St. Peter's, but I didn't know a lot of the specifics on what was inside the Vatican museum itself. (Other than the Sistine Chapel - but you're not allowed to take pictures in there, and so I didn't. Cooler to experience and breathe anyway. Me and several hundred strangers. How strange).
The sphere in the center of the courtyard at the Vatican Museum is an artist's tribute to the victims of September 11th
Every square inch of the Vatican is encrusted in beautiful, priceless works of art. It's a little overwhelming - where do you look!?
THEN we got to go into St. Peter's. I spent some time in college learning about this building, but I was 100% unprepared for how mind-bogglingly BIG this building is. Every inch of it is beautiful, a glorious, GIANT building that could bring you to your knees. I can't explain how powerful it was to just STAND in that building. The only thing I could think when I walked in - this is a church worth breaking a Church for, honestly.
St. Peter was buried on the site (apparently the Obelisk out front was there when he was crucified and buried), and under Constantine the first church was built on the site in the 4th century CE. In the 15th century it was in huge disrepair, so they began to try to repair, then decided to rebuild. There were many, many designs and redesigns. They had trouble with the dome for a while, but it got worked out. Every important architect or sculptor in the Renaissance and early Baroque periods worked on the building. Michelangelo, Bernini, Raphael, Bramante, Giacomo della Porta, Giuliano da Sangallo, were all involved. It's called the greatest church in all of Christendom - I haven't seen all of them, but I'm pretty inclined to agree.
We had gotten to see some of the hand-drawn plans for this building just the day before, which was fabulously cool. My favorite part was the lines down the center of the nave telling how big other cathedrals in the world were compared to St. Peter's, and showing how thoroughly it dwarfs every one of them.
Each of those letters is 9 feet tall. Somebody told me once that the bronze elements in the Pantheon (like the oculus) were melted down to make this Baldacchino. Not sure if it was said in jest or meant as fact, and now I can't remember where I heard it. Regardless, here's a giant bronze Baldacchino over St. Peter's tomb.
We took a break after our very hot, crowded tour of the Vatican, and went to grab some dinner at a pizza place nearby.
Apparently going into the Pantheon hadn't been part of the tour, and I expressed some disappointment to our tour guide. During dinner she came up to me and mentions that the last entrance at the Pantheon is at 7:15, and the place closes at 7:30. If we finish up dinner by 7, we can make it.
It's 7:05, and we're waiting for some kids outside the restaurant. One of my students pulls up the directions on Google Maps, and we literally sprinted through the streets of Rome, trying to make it in time, kids and one of my teacher friends running the whole way. This was maybe the hardest I laughed on the entire trip.
We got there with time to spare (we were told later it maybe wasn't 100% necessary for us to run), but both my teacher friend and I both cried when we walked in to the Pantheon, so... I'll keep my enthusiasm going til it fails me.
We made it with just a few minutes to spare, ("OUTSIDE PICTURES LATER!") and stayed until they closed the building down around us. We got to watch them close the giant doors, and it was one of the coolest experiences I have ever had in my life.
1) each of my kittens falling asleep on me for the first time
2) when J proposed to me
3) being at the Pantheon
I should work on the order but MAN this was cool.
10 second building run down:
The best preserved ancient Roman building left standing. It was completed in around 125 CE, but the inscription is from an earlier temple on the site, so that was confusing for a while. It's very architecturally important because of its geometry and its construction (there have been many, many writings on this, but very long story very short - it's amazing, go read about it). This was the largest spanning concrete dome until the Houston Astrodome, no joke. It was reconsecrated as a Christian church during the Middle Ages, lots of Christian sculptures added, and Raphael was buried here. The building was super important, studied and imitated very very often (including at Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia!).
The next morning, we got to see the Coliseum and the Roman Forum before leaving for Pompeii. It still boggles my mind how we were able to see and do so much in such a short amount of time. Amazing.
Also, the history of the Coliseum is maybe my favorite architectural history story ever, and writing it out would simply not do it justice. Ask me about it sometime in person, for real. I took over the tour bus microphone before getting to the site and started Schnurr Time with "Once upon a time, there was a guy named Nero who nobody liked." It gets way better from there.
Another instance of me having no idea how close together these important sites actually ARE -
the Arch of Constantine + The Coliseum.
Working field method: hug more things
The Arch of Constantine from the other side, with the Roman forum entrance in the back.
Next we went to the Roman Forum. This was again, much much cooler than I could have imagined it would be. I wish I had about 600 more hours of reading on ancient architecture and urbanism under my belt, but even just getting to walk through the streets and look at the ruins of building foundations (with some more recognizable monuments!) was just spectacular. One of the coolest parts - it's still an active excavation site! We passed some archaeologists at work, and I tried to convey my respect and admiration by not bothering them with my questions or fangirling, but.. not sure how those telepathic transmissions went.
The Arch of Titus, depicting the sacking of Jerusalem.
Rome was incredible, and I can't wait to go back. In the meantime, I want to read every single ancient architecture book I can get my hands on. This feeling got even stronger when we got to Pompeii.
Next stop: Pompeii!
After delicious gelato, the group met back up to go walk to our fresco demonstration and workshop. Summer heat in Italy is no joke, and I think we all were probably ready for a nap before a painting class, but I am so, so glad we went.
Making a tiny fresco on a wooden backing, ft. the most satisfyingly cold can of Coke I have ever consumed. (Side note: one of my teacher friends tried to order an iced coffee in Italian, and we had a translator, and the entire concept of caffe freddo, si con ghiaccio, was completely alien to the woman. She had no idea what we were talking about. SO strange!)
We did some more walking and exploring before dinner, and then on to the hotel before bed.
One of my favorite, completely unexpected parts of Florence was the street art. The city has tons of winding, narrow alleys, and do not enter one way streets everywhere, and people take advantage of that in hilarious, creative, and completely bizarre ways.
The next morning we were up early to get on line at the Accademia. This was one of the only places we couldn't get reservations ahead of time, so we left the hotel at 7:45 to go wait. I think we came at the height of tourist season, because this day was the most crowded in Florence.
In the interest of complete honesty, I wasn't sure the David was going to blow me away. I had seen so many photos of it, and the reproduction in front of the Palazzo Vecchio just the day before. I figured I knew what it was all about, and that it would be cool to see, but that it was just another stop in our day. I have never been so pleased to be proven wrong.
Michelangelo's unfinished sculptures flank the sides of the room leading to David, and these were honestly just as cool as seeing the masterpiece. Getting to see him actually pull the figure from a block of rough stone is pretty unfathomable. This was so unexpected, and so, so cool. Almost makes you think you could do it, you now? Reminds me of Elton John - "If I was a sculptor, but, then again, no." And I am certainly no sculptor. (One time in college, we had to reinterpret a classical sculpture, and I turned a reclining Venus into a sexy cartoon pinup badger. I'll leave my sculpture experience - or lack thereof - at that.)
And then the room opens up, and this is what you see.
My advice: go early! This was at about 8:20 AM, and the doors had JUST opened.
The statue stands at around 17 feet tall. His hands and feet are way too big, because apparently David was supposed to go on top of a church, and this was supposed to be for perspective. But alas, he was too naked and too popular, and he was instead plopped outside the Palazzo Vecchio, right in the piazza, for several centuries. Our awesome tour guide the day before had told us that his glare was said to be looking either towards Rome, Florence's rival, or looking down the powerful Medici family themselves. Ah, art history and political symbolism.
The replica outside the Palazzo Vecchio (and right next to the Uffizi Gallery!)
We had a short break where we went over to San Lorenzo. I was dying to get inside, but was improperly dressed. We hadn't been anticipating this break time, or visiting churches, so my shoulders and knees weren't covered. They are apparently pretty serious about this rule. We instead snuck a peek at the courtyard and Michelangelo's stairway next door to San Lorenzo in the Laurentian Library. (The picture of the staircase isn't mine because we were just peeking in and I didn't get to grab one, but here's something from Google for reference anyway.)
Next stop: we got to go INSIDE the Duomo Cathedral, Santa Maria della Fiore. I wound up buying some scarves in the piazza outside, and wrapping myself up. Not my best fashion moment, but it was 100% worth it.
A model of the cathedral inside the cathedral
My scarf-wrapped self, and some candles lit for loved ones.
It was so, so cool to see these frescoes from different levels, and so difficult to imagine that just the day before,
I was walking on those little pathways above and below the round windows.
It also warmed my heart that we got to see Brunelleschi's tomb. It's in the catacombs of the church, which are pretty cool, but by this point in the trip my standard for cool was a little bit distorted from its usual scale. You have to walk through the gift shop to get to it, which will never not make me laugh. I don't know if I'll ever get used to the idea of gift shops in churches, but this one was hilarious. This amazing architect will be forever monumentalized, right next to the postcards & souvenir pencils.
After getting to go into the nave of the Cathedral, something extremely important happened.
I had the best. pizza. of. my. entire. life. Celiac or no. It was simply the best pizza of all time. The crust - perfection. The sauce - unbelievable. The cheese - delightful. If I were a poet, I would write sonnets. If I could compose things, there would be a symphony. My life has found meaning, and it is in THIS. PARTICULAR. PIZZA.
Mister Pizza is DIRECTLY across the street from the Cathedral. At risk of under selling, it was very, very good.
I ate this beautiful pizza, all of it, walking through the streets of Florence on the way to the Uffizi gallery. I'd just like to bask in that sentence for a little while... Ok I'm good.
We went to go wait on line for our group reservation at the Uffizi, and we stood under the staff entrance overhang (because air conditioning). As we left to head to the entrance, I stopped to take a picture of a sign, and the coolest thing in the world happened.
I ran into one of my professors from the University of Virginia! My Renaissance Architecture professor Cammy Brothers was walking in the staff entrance, in the middle of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. We hadn't seen each other in the two years since my graduation, but I had taken several of her classes, and been her research assistant during my grad school days. (I had helped her work on some of the foot notes for one of her impending books on Renaissance art! Not that fun!) We chatted for a bit, and it occurred to me that people always SAY it's a small world, but... sometimes it really is.
After wandering through the Uffizi, I found one of her books in their book store. It was like 60 euro, so I didn't buy it there, but look how cool! I kept telling my students - she LITERALLY wrote the book on Michelangelo. (The new one, where she doesn't think Mannerism is a thing.)
The Uffizi itself was magnificent. It's everything you want it to be, but cooler.
It's hard to pick a favorite, but one of my favorite parts was an exhibit on Giuliano da Sangallo's architectural drawings (the actual real ones that he actually drew) in the mid-15th century. (This was one of the moments where being 25 and not having been to Europe before really hit me. This was a knees-shaking, is this really happening moment for me - and wouldn't be the last of those.)
Giuliano da Sangallo's drawings for a Medici palazzo on Via Laura (left) and Bramante's drawings for St. Peter's (right)
Giuliano da Sangallo's floor plan of St. Peter's, the Vatican (left) and elevation for the Borgia tower at the Vatican (right)
Giuliano da Sangallo was a really important Renaissance architect and sculptor. He did a lot of work for the Medici family, villas and things like that, as well as a couple of buildings for Popes Julius II and Leo X. He was sort of the successor of Alberti and Brunelleschi, and was said to be a big influence on the ninja turtle artists Rafael, Leonardo, and several da Sangallos down the line. Bramante was an architect during the same period (high Renaissance, 1500s), who worked mostly in Rome. His biggest project (size wise and importance wise) was St. Peter's.
I wish I could keep taking classes forever, and learning about all of these things. This was such an amazing experience, to get to go here and see these works, and think these thinks. I don't know if I have words to explain it.
The building itself is amazing. It was started by Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century for Cosimo de Medici, and the spaces you walk through are sometimes just as incredible as the art on the walls.
Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation and the unfinished Adoration of the Magi were outrageously cool. Titian's Venus of Urbino, and Botticelli's Birth of Venus were flooring (and much bigger than I expected, honestly).
It seems a little silly to take off-center photos of these paintings when every art history textbook ever has better reproductions (taken at better angles!). But the color in the Birth of Venus wasn't what I had expected, and it just made me happy to have my own photos of them. Like that famous picture that went around a while ago of everybody taking selfies with the Mona Lisa instead of, I don't know, looking at it? I guess we are all guilty of that.
This last day in Florence was amazing in so many ways, but mostly it just made me realize I have so much more to learn. I hope at some point I will take more classes, learn more things, and spend some more time turning all this over in my mind. It sort of made me wonder why I bothered majoring in modernism. Maybe there's a baby Renaissance scholar somewhere in the back of my head. I spent my bus ride nap to Rome contemplating alternate master's theses on Florentine urbanism, or castles in Renaissance Spain.
Being a teacher has been the coolest hybrid profession in the world - Thing Explainer, cheerleader, artist, comic book maker, video game analyst, 3D model maker, Photoshop guru. Maybe it's time for me to figure out how to fit architectural historian back into that mix.
Next stop: Rome!