Novelist Finds Inspiration in Women’s History

In anticipation of an upcoming Arts & Letters Live event with author Kaitlyn Greenidge, I had the opportunity to chat with her recently about her new novel Libertie. Deemed one of the most-anticipated books of 2021 and the May pick for Roxane Gay’s Book Club, Libertie is a fictionalized account rooted in women’s history.

In the novel, Libertie Sampson, a young Black woman in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, feels confined by her mother’s stringent vision for her future. Libertie is to go to medical school and practice alongside her mother. However, the independent-minded protagonist finds herself being drawn more to the arts than science and longs for adventure.

Greenidge told me how she got the idea for the character while running the oral history program at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, which preserves one of the largest free Black communities in pre-Civil War America. There, Greenidge interviewed Ellen Holly, a TV soap actress who shared stories of her family heritage which included Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward (1847–1918), Brooklyn’s first Black woman physician, and the third Black physician in the U.S. Dr. Steward’s renown as a doctor and founder of medical clinics and her work for suffrage and civil rights were not the only thing that caught Greenidge’s attention. She learned from the oral history that Dr. Steward traveled to Haiti to rescue her daughter from a failed marriage. And thus the character of Libertie was born.

Like the historical figure on which she is based, Libertie follows her husband to Haiti. Greenidge found inspiration in Hattian art. “I loved the blending of history and current events into art, and how people use fine arts to document history,” she told me.

Renée Stout’s contemporary work is a visual idea and interpretation of self as a figure of empowerment. A mesh collar holds medicine bags while a stamp, dried flowers, and a picture of a young Black girl are placed in the glass-covered “medicine pouch” of the torso.

image: Renée Stout, Fetish #2, 1988, mixed media (plaster body cast), Dallas Museum of Art, Metropolitan Life Foundation Purchase Grant, 1989.27, ©Renée Stout, Washington, D.C

She also conducted meticulous research on a number of topics including homeopathy. In Greenidge’s novel several pivotal moments occur in Dr. Sampson’s (the fictional version of Dr. Steward) home garden, which flourishes with medicinal plants. John Gerad’s work (below) mirrors the bountiful uses of plants as medicine. Throughout the novel, Greenidge intertwines the lives of the characters and the purpose and magic of plants.

Artist unknown, Printed Page 1217 from “The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes” by John Gerard, 1633 (1st edition was 1597), woodcut with English text, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Mrs. A.E. Zonne, 1960.191

Dr. Steward’s passion for healing extended beyond the walls of the hospital into the social, intellectual and artistic health of her community as she fostered racial inclusion, women’s rights, and local art exhibits. “What’s interesting about the period of Reconstruction, is that you have Black people creating communities whole scale from scratch,” Greenidge told me, “and what was really striking to me was how revolutionary their ideas of care were.”

Greenidge described her fascination upon discovering that African American newspapers serving newly freed Black people dedicated half of their space to news and half as a literacy primer. The consideration demonstrated in this—a paper both for those who can and those who are still learning to read—struck Greenidge as genius.

“The novel is really looking at the politics of care, and how communities decide who is worthy or unworthy of care,” Greenidge explained.

Jacob Lawrence, The Visitors, 1959, tempera on gessoed panel, Dallas Museum of Art, General Acquisitions Fund, 1984.174, The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In Jacob Lawrence’s The Visitors, above, loved ones offer consolation to the bedridden. The theme of care, as seen here and in Greenidge’s novel, resonates today.

Cristina Carolina Echezarreta is the 2020-2021 McDermott intern for Adult Programs/Arts & Letters Live at the DMA.

Conserving Kahlo

The Dallas Museum of Art was given the opportunity to exhibit a collection of exceptional Frida Kahlo works. In preparation for their display on February 28, 2021, three of the paintings were studied in the paintings conservation studio, including Still Life with Parrot and Flag from 1951, Sun and Life from 1947, and Diego and Frida 1929–1944 from 1944. Using infrared photography, X-radiography, and microscopic examination, novel information was brought to light regarding each work.

Frida Kahlo, Diego and Frida 1929–1944, 1944, oil on Masonite with original painted shell frame, Private Collection, Courtesy Galería Arvil. © 2021 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Frida Kahlo, Sun and Life, 1947, oil on Masonite, Private Collection, Courtesy Galería Arvil. © 2021 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Frida Kahlo, Still Life with Parrot and Flag, 1951, oil on Masonite, Private Collection, Courtesy Galería Arvil. © 2021 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Infrared photography allows conservators to look through surface level paint to the underlying preparatory layers. X-radiography, on the other hand, allows us to visualize compositional changes made in paint. This type of imaging provided a fascinating perspective into Frida Kahlo’s working practice.

In Still Life with Parrot and Flag, an initial planning drawing done in both thin lines and wide ink strokes shows how Kahlo simplified compositional elements in the final painting, especially with regards to shifting the size and shape of the fruits. The most labored part of the underdrawing shows several adjustments made to the parrot’s wing and beak, and changes made to the adjacent mango. The blue lines overlayed onto the visible light photograph represent a tracing made from the IR photograph of the most prominent changes Kahlo made to this initial underdrawing. The underdrawing observed in each painting made clear that Kahlo had a strong vision for the overall composition of each work, regardless of the subtle changes made in the painting process.

Infrared photograph of Still Life with Parrot and Flag
Tracing of drawing lines overlaid onto visible light photograph

IR photography also revealed a small inscription on one of the shells attached to the frame on Diego and Frida. This inscription reads “Recuerdo de Veracruz” and was subsequently covered up by red paint, probably by Frida herself. Frames like this one would have likely been found in the tourist market of Veracruz; here, it is a special hidden detail giving us an intimate glimpse into the past life of the object.

An inscription on one of the shells on the right originally read “Recuerdo de Veracruz”

The X-ray taken of Sun and Life revealed an exciting evolution observed in the painting: although Kahlo’s basic composition was generally set from the underdrawing to the early painting phase, the details evolved significantly in later phases of painting. The plant pods surrounding the sun, for example, largely began closed but opened gradually during the painting process. Another interesting discovery was the fetus-like element directly behind the sun that emerged as Frida finalized the painting, in contrast to the X-ray that reveals a closed pod. The blue lines overlaid onto the visible light image of the painting represent a tracing made from the X-ray and indicate where compositional changes took place during the painting process.

X-radiograph of Sun and Life
Tracing compositional changes observed in x-radiograph

Kahlo’s brushwork is stunning, utilizing a vast array of application techniques and styles to create movement and texture in each work. In Still Life with Parrot and Flag, her use of small rapid, brushstrokes achieves a composition of intricately varied textures and color, while long, sinuous strokes are used predominantly in Sun and Life. Frida and Diego takes a more direct painting technique of highly textured paint applied in short, tiny strokes. It is interesting to note that in two of the paintings, impressions of Frida’s fingerprints are visible in the paint—a subtle hallmark that humanizes the work.

Varied painting techniques shown in close-ups of her works

Artist’s fingerprints in Frida and Diego
Same detail under 10x magnification
Artist’s fingerprints in Still Life with Parrot and Flag

It was a privilege to examine these great works together with Dr. Mark A. Castro and Dr. Agustín Arteaga. I hope you enjoy this special moment to see the works together.

Laura Eva Hartman is the Paintings Conservator at the DMA.

Panamanian Molas: Made For and By Women

This past December, the Kaleta A. Doolin Foundation donated the Reverend Isaac V. and Alicia C. Pérez Mola Collection to the DMA. The collection is composed of some 70 molas: hand-stitched textiles that form part of Guna women’s clothing in the Republic of Panama. The Guna occupy a territory called the Gunayala Comarca (Gunaland Province), formed by hundreds of tiny islands, as well as by the adjacent coastline. This attire was adapted from the ancient practice of women painting their bodies with complex geometric designs, later translated to textiles following the adoption of new fabrics and tools introduced by European settlers. Over the decades, molas have become the single most recognizable material element of Guna cultural identity.

Molas: Two aquatic birds (T44205.43); Terrestrial birds, fish, and mammal (T44205.46); Aquatic bird and fish with spiny dorsal fin (T44205.15), Guna people, Gunayala Comarca, Panama, mid-20th century, cotton, Dallas Museum of Art, The Isaac V. and Alicia C. Pérez Mola Collection, gift of The Kaleta A. Doolin Foundation; Man and woman wearing hats, mid-twentieth century, Guna people, Gunayala Comarca, Panama, cotton, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of The Dozier Foundation, DS.1990.303

The arts in Guna society are strictly gendered, with men engaged in basket weaving and public oratory, reciting poems and stories. Women, including men who identify as women, design and fabricate molas. The molas are created using a complex reverse appliqué process. Two or three pieces of fabric are first basted together and then a design is hand cut into the top layer, with multiple layers of colorful, contrasting fabrics and appliques then sewn between the top and bottom layers. This elaborate technique is intensive, typically taking a maker three to five weeks to complete the 15 by 17-inch textile.

Care is taken to match the thread to the cloth and layer the fabrics in a way that gives the impression of a seamless and uniform composition. Mola designs incorporate elements such as flowers, birds, animals, and mythical creatures, but geometric patterning remains a crucial element.

The mola has deep ties to Guna identity. In 1918 the Panamanian government began a campaign to subjugate and assimilate the Guna, which included banning traditional dress. The Guna resisted, and making and wearing molas became an act of political protest. In 1925 the two parties reached an agreement granting the Guna autonomy to govern their own affairs and sovereignty over their Indigenous identity and culture. To this day, Guna women still produce beautifully executed molas for their own use in clothing, as well as versions for tourist consumption.

Blouse incorporating National Liberal Party mola, Guna people, Gunayala Comarca, Panama, 1962, cotton, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Carolyn Williams Marks, Harriet Williams Peavy, and Suzanne Williams Nash, 2016.68.19

Reverend Isaac V. Pérez, his wife, Alicia, and their daughter, Elva, moved to Panama in 1953 when Reverend Isaac accepted employment with a denomination-affiliated organization. Among his responsibilities was working with local Guna to create a new church. On one of his first visits to the islands, he was gifted a mola as a gesture of friendship. Alicia and Elva were fascinated by the complex and unusual qualities of the design, heightened by its vibrant colors.

Mola: Ground cuckoo, Guna people, Gunayala Comarca, Panama, mid-20th century, cotton, Dallas Museum of Art, The Isaac V. and Alicia C. Pérez Mola Collection, gift of The Kaleta A. Doolin Foundation, T44205.25

The Pérezes remained in Panama for 22 years and amassed a stunning collection of molas. The family treasured them for their creativity, design, and imagery—but even more so as a reminder of the graciousness of the Guna people. Their collection joins 10 molas already stewarded by the DMA, and together they offer a testament to the creativity and resilience of the Guna people, and the critical role of women in preserving and adapting Guna culture.

Mola: Two terrestrial birds perched in trees, Guna people, Gunayala Comarca, Panama, mid-20th century, cotton, Dallas Museum of Art, The Isaac V. and Alicia C. Pérez Mola Collection, gift of The Kaleta A. Doolin Foundation, T44205.16

Dr. Mark A. Castro, The Jorge Baldor Curator of Latin American Art
Dr. Michelle Rich, The Ellen and Harry S. Parker III Assistant Curator of the Arts of the Americas
Alyssa Wood, Curatorial Assistant

Gertrude Stein and Juan Gris: A Close Connection

Photograph of Gertrude Stein in her salon, writing, 1920, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers. American Literature Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

This is the history of Juan Gris.
—Gertrude Stein[1]

After the Salon des Indépendants in 1920, Juan Gris wrote a letter to Gertrude Stein, putting an end to more than half a decade of silence between them:

I am greatly flattered by what you say about my contribution at the Indépendants, more especially as you have a great understanding of painting.[2]

Stein was an American novelist, born in 1874 into an affluent upper-middle-class Jewish family. She studied psychology and medicine before moving to Paris in 1904. There she became one of the foremost connoisseurs of modern art and an early champion of Cubism. She was especially close to Picasso, and it is likely that she met Gris sometime in 1910 through their mutual friend; however, she did not start collecting Gris’s work until 1914, when she bought the first painting from the artist’s gallerist, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.

Gertrude Stein was particularly interested in papier collé works by Gris.
Image: Juan Gris, The Lamp, 1914, pasted paper, gouache, and conté crayon on canvas, Private collection

Gris and Stein seem to have been on friendly terms up until World War I. She always tried to support her artists while at the same time adding works to her impressive collection. When the war broke out in August 1914, and Gris’s German gallerist had to leave France, the artist found himself without income. Upon Picasso’s appeal, Stein tried to help Gris out by setting up an opportunity for him to exhibit in New York in the gallery of Michael Brenner. Additionally, she and Brenner offered monetary support in exchange for works. Kahnweiler, who thought the war would be a short affair, prohibited this deal and Gris had to decline the offer. Stein broke off contact with the artist until her visit to the Salon in 1920.

Their friendship resumed, grew stronger, and became more intimate. Gris valued Stein’s feedback, and he trusted her taste in and opinions on art. They visited each other frequently and were known to engage in deep and intellectual conversations. She appreciated the artist especially for the exactitude of his Cubism and his intricate compositions. When Gris’s sales and self-esteem were low, Stein tirelessly promoted his work by sending journalists to his studio, publishing texts about him, and collecting his works. In 1926 they collaborated on a project, with Gris contributing four lithographs to Stein’s publication A Book Concluding with as a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story.

A sign of their close relationship, she was the only one to call him “Juan,” emphasizing his Spanish heritage, while he referred to himself as “Jean,” being enamored with everything French.

Most of Gris’s works in Stein’s collection are from the 1920s.
Image: Juan Gris, The Electric Lamp, 1925, oil on canvas, Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle. Gift of Louise and Michel Leiris, 1984. On deposit at Musée d’art moderne et contemporain de la Ville de Strasbourg since 1999

When Gris died in May 1927, Stein was heartbroken. Two months later, she published a personal epitaph in the magazine Transition. In her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein would later acknowledge Gris’s importance to Cubism by elevating him to the same level as Picasso, where in her eyes he belonged:

[T]he only real cubism is that of Picasso and Juan Gris. Picasso created it and Juan Gris permeated it with his clarity and exaltation.[3]

Christine Burger is the Research Assistant for European Art at the DMA.


[1] Gertrude Stein, The Life of Juan Gris: The Life and Death of Juan Gris, in: In Transition: A Paris Anthology: Writing and Art from Transition Magazine 1927-30. New York, 1990,195.
[2] Gris to Stein, February 2, 1920, letter XCI, in Douglas Cooper, trans. and ed., Letters of Juan Gris [1913-1927]. Collected by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, London, 1956, 76.
[3] Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, New York, 2020, 110.

Celebrating Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner in 1907 by Frederick Gutekunst (1831–1917)

This month the DMA celebrates the acclaimed African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937). Tanner’s intimate painting Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures is one of the cornerstones of our American collection. He rendered the lush, densely painted surface using a restricted palette predominated by shades of cool, luminous blue. The color became so synonymous with him that it earned the nickname “Tanner-blue.”

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures, 1908, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Deaccession Funds, 1986.9

The artist’s wife, Jessie Olssen, an American opera singer living in Paris when they met, and their young son, Jesse, often served as his models. Two existing photographs (figs. 1 & 2) confirm they posed for him as he considered different arrangements for the DMA’s painting, and one (fig. 1) was the template. That they posed for this painting makes it simultaneously a meditative religious scene and a tender family portrait.

Fig. 1: Jessie Olssen Tanner and Jesse Ossawa Tanner posing for Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures, not after 1910. Henry Ossawa Tanner papers, 1860s–1978. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Digital ID: 12359, public domain
Fig. 2: Jessie Olssen Tanner and Jesse Ossawa Tanner posing for Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures, not after 1910. Henry Ossawa Tanner papers, 1860s–1978. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Digital ID: 12360, public domain

Tanner seems to have been so enamored with the composition that three years later he rendered a similar version, Christ Learning to Read. He made slight changes to the poses of Christ and Mary and experimented with an impressionistic application of a high-keyed pastel color palette to render light. Further, the painting’s structural frame and inner arcing spandrel reflect the influence of buildings he most likely saw during his many trips to Morocco.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Christ Learning to Read, about 1911, oil on canvas, Des Moines Art Center Permanent Collections; Gift of the Des Moines Association of Fine Arts, 1941.16, photo credit: Rich Sanders, Des Moines

Tanner’s decision to be a religious painter was deeply rooted in his family background. His father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner (1835–1923), was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the artist’s childhood home was a well-known salon of Black culture in Philadelphia. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that his path to a successful career was filled with many obstacles. While he found studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with Thomas Eakins intellectually fulfilling, the extreme racism he experienced from classmates was intolerable. Acknowledging that he “could not fight prejudice and paint at the same time,” Tanner left Philadelphia, briefly set up a photography studio in Georgia, and eventually lived out his life in Paris as an American expatriate. The city was culturally, socially, and artistically welcoming, while also providing him with the freedom and camaraderie unavailable to him in his segregated homeland. In Paris, the shy, serious-minded artist flourished and prospered. After a trip to Palestine, Tanner turned his focus toward painting biblical scenes and rarely strayed from this theme for the rest of his life.

Both the Dallas and Des Moines paintings, along with the two photographs discussed here, are emblematic of Tanner’s devotion to his faith and career, and all of them serve as affectionate double portraits in tribute to his wife and son. The Dallas Museum of Art is proud to display Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures, which is a masterpiece by this admired and accomplished American artist, in our galleries. We are always honored to celebrate Tanner’s life, legacy, and contribution to the canon of American art, and we are most especially pleased to do so during Black History Month.

Martha MacLeod is the Senior Curatorial Administrator and Curatorial Assistant for Decorative Arts and Design, Latin American Art, and American Art at the DMA.

From the Page to the Painting: Literary Connections

Glenn Ligon, Untitled, 2002, coal dust, printing ink, oil stick, glue, acrylic paint, and gesso on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, TWO x TWO for AIDS and Art Fund, 2004.29, © 2002 Glenn Ligon

This work features the opening lines of James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “A Stranger in the Village.” The story traces Baldwin’s time in a Swiss village where the majority of residents had never encountered a person of African descent. 

As a fellow gay Black man, Glenn Ligon incorporated Baldwin’s words in hundreds of his works. (Learn more about the artist’s interpretation of this essay and his choice of materials here.)

Glittering coal dust glued to a black surface makes the words nearly impossible to decipher. Similarly, the author and artist share their experiences of being seen but not understood.

Gordon Parks, Emerging Man, Harlem, 1952, gelatin silver print, Dallas Museum of Art, anonymous gift via Charles Wylie to honor Catherine and Will Rose, 2007.62.2, © Estate of Gordon Parks

As a staff photographer for Life magazine, Gordon Parks created the photo-essay “A Man Becomes Invisible” in conjunction with the publication of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. Parks and Ellison were friends and shared an interest in raising the visibility of Black lives in postwar United States.

Ellison’s unnamed, Black protagonist lives in an underground room. He is protected from a racist society only by remaining invisible—hidden below ground.

Parks imagines Ellison’s protagonist warily emerging from his subterranean sanctuary, an event only hinted at in the book’s epilogue.

Lorna Simpson, Blue Turned Temporal, 2019, ink, watercolor, and screenprint on gessoed fiberglass, Dallas Museum of Art, TWO x TWO for AIDS and Art Fund, 2020.16, © Lorna Simpson. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: James Wang

This work was first shown in “Darkening,” a 2019 exhibition at Hauser & Wirth gallery in New York City. The exhibition opened with an excerpt from Robin Coste Lewis’s poem “Using Black to Paint Light: Walking Through a Matisse Exhibit, Thinking About the Arctic and Matthew Henson.”

The poem points to one of the many layers of meaning behind Lorna Simpson’s choice of subject. Matthew Henson was an African American explorer who made seven trips to the Arctic between 1891 and 1912.

The brilliant color of Blue Turned Temporal resonates with lines from Lewis’s poem that note the absence of white and whiteness in the frozen northern environment. “The unanticipated shock: so much believed to be white is actually—strikingly—blue.” (Read Lewis’s full poem.)

Emily Schiller is the Head of Interpretation at the DMA.

Thurmond Townsend: A Dallas Artist to Know

In early 1938, 26-year-old Thurmond Townsend was appraising his backyard and became intrigued by the now malleable mud, which had the consistency of clay. Though he had never tried modeling before, Townsend started working with the mud to create busts of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln from pictures. The two sculptures were going well… except for the ears. On his way home from work as a bus boy, Townsend stopped into the Dallas Art Institute and asked instructor Harry Lee Gibson how to sculpt ears.

Taking Gibson’s advice that he try modeling from life, Townsend created a bust of his wife Marie. He entered this sculpture in the 9th Annual Dallas Allied Arts Exhibition (March 20-April 17, 1938). The Dallas Art Association, now DMA, started holding juried exhibitions for artists residing in Dallas and Dallas County in 1928 and did so annually through 1964.

Townsend’s mud Marie Townsend was not only accepted to the exhibition’s Sculpture and Crafts section, but was awarded a $25 prize sponsored by Karl Hoblitzelle, a DMFA Board member. Townsend’s sculpture was the first work by a Black artist accepted to the Dallas Allied Arts exhibition. This was notable enough at the time that TIME magazine reported on Townsend and his sculpture in the April 4, 1938 issue.

“Art: Marie in Mud,” TIME, April 4, 1938

It should be stated that the eligibility rules in the exhibition prospectus did not limit entries by race and identification of race was not part of the information on the entry card required with each submission.

Entry Form for 9th Annual Dallas Allied Arts Exhibition

An interesting side note, the other sculpture award at the 1938 Allied Arts Exhibition went to Harry Lee Gibson, the Dallas Art Institute instructor who helped Townsend with his “ears” problem.

As the mud sculpture would crumble as it dried, Gibson made a plaster cast of the bust for the Townsends. The plaster cast would go on to be displayed at the Paul Laurence Dunbar branch of the Dallas Public Library.

The Dallas Morning News featured an image of Marie Townsend in its March 6, 1938 issue.

1938 continued to be a successful year for Townsend’s sculptures. His Self Portrait, a second mud sculpture, was selected for the juried Texas Section of the Golden Jubilee Exhibition for the 1938 State Fair of Texas. In her review of the DMFA State Fair exhibition, the Dallas Morning News’ Elisabeth Crocker calls Self Portrait “…amazing…” and goes on to describe the sculpture as an “…even more sensitively executed, life-size bust of himself” discounting any who thought his Allied Arts prize-winning Marie Townsend was a “flash in the pan.”

The Texas Section of the 1939 State Fair Art Exhibition was an invitational exhibition and Townsend was invited to submit a piece due to his selection for the 1938 Allied Arts exhibition. He submitted a sculpture titled Dog, that Crocker described as a “cunning dog’s head,” in her review of the show.

“Head of Dog,” Dallas Morning News, October 8, 1939

Townsend was awarded his second Allied Arts sculpture section win, a $25 prize sponsored by the Rush Company, for Girl Friend at the 12th Annual Allied Arts Exhibition in 1941.

The artist does not appear in any of the DMFA’s juried exhibitions after the early 1940s. The current location of the works mentioned here, or any other of his artworks is unknown. If you have any information on Townsend or his body of work, please let us know.

Thanks to former McDermott Intern Melinda Narro whose extensive research brought Thurmond Townsend’s story to our attention. Thanks also to Communications staff Jill Bernstein and Lillian Michel for additional research.

Hillary Bober is the Archivist at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Reflections with Chris Schanck

Ahead of Chris Schanck’s first major museum presentation, Curbed Vanity: A Contemporary Foil by Chris Schanck, we asked the artist a few questions about his formative years in Dallas, his artistic practice, and what he hopes visitors will reflect on when experiencing the exhibition. Read what he had to say and see Curbed Vanity, on view February 7 through August 29, 2021.

How was your high school experience at Booker T. formative for you as an artist?

“Good morning and welcome to Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, the most unique school in Dallas”—that’s how our principal, Dr. Watkins, addressed the student body over the PA system every morning; I can still hear the optimism in his voice. For a student like me, who often managed to find trouble, I am thankful for the patience and persistence that Dr. Watkins gave me—each day was a new day, a new chance. He gave me enough room to be creative and make mistakes, but he also helped me stay on the path.

Booker T. was the most critical educational experience of my life. My teachers offered me a sanctuary of stability and mentorship. Nancy Miller, Patsy Eldridge, Polly Disky, George Mosely, Charlotte Chambliss, Lolly Thompkins, Josephine Jones, and Sylvia Lincoln together gave me a strong fine arts foundation. 

My painting teacher, George Moseley, changed my life forever. Mr. Moseley is a great artist, an inspiring educator, and a trusted mentor. I, along with many of my peers, idealized him for the leadership he showed us in our youth. I know without a doubt that my life and career are forever indebted to him and those handful of teachers who helped me find the confidence to believe in myself.

What does having this show at the Dallas Museum of Art mean to you?

My high school was just down the street from the DMA and I visited countless times in those impressionable years. The Museum always had the familiar feeling of visiting a friend’s home; I felt welcomed and I knew my way around. At the same time, the DMA was my temple. It didn’t matter who I was in the Museum—everyone is equal before art.

The Museum was my gateway to art history. In one afternoon, I could visit with Aztec gods, Jackson Pollock, and Frida Kahlo—and I could start to see the connections and conversations between them all. I didn’t have a lot growing up, but the Museum and my high school gave me exactly what I needed. They showed me from a young age that art gives everything else meaning.

I’m grateful for the support of the Museum and the friends of the Museum. The DMA’s collection is the closest collection to my heart and to be a part of it is the greatest honor.

How does the transformation process of found objects into furniture inspire your artistic practice?

The found objects I work with have very disparate characteristics and I don’t have one specific method for grouping them. For each piece of work, I first build a simple structure and use that as an armature to explore the relationships between the objects and the material. The process of transforming the objects into form is driven by intuition and practical constraints. Many times, I’m following a hunch that two distinct things belong together, while other times I’m exploring rigid dimensional constraints between manufactured generic objects whose original intent is a mystery.

It feels like a collaborative effort between myself and the material—I have a notion of where to begin but the objects bring the project into focus.

William C. Codman, Martelé dressing table and stool, 1899, silver, glass, fabric, and ivory, Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., in honor of Dr. Charles L. Venable, 2000.356.a–b.McD

What was your first encounter with the DMA’s Martelé dressing table like?

Like encountering the sword Excalibur; its presence is magical in form and reflectivity—it’s a formidable piece of work to talk to.

What experience do you want visitors to take away from Curbed Vanity?

I’d like them to know that I find my corner of the world inspiring and beautiful in it’s everyday characteristics. I hope the work inspires viewers to enjoy the subtle and unconventional beauty in their own communities.

Connections Across Collections: Repurposed Materials

Making the old new by transforming discarded objects into works of art is an integral part of contemporary artist Chris Schanck’s practice, as seen in his dressing table featured in the upcoming Curbed Vanity exhibition and made of found materials from the neighborhood surrounding his Detroit studio. We asked DMA curators what other artworks and objects in our collection feature repurposed materials. From personal mementos to wild animal horns, find out about these objects and what they’re made of.

Perry Nichols, [The Desk Top of Jake Hamon], 1966, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, bequest of Carlos Nichols, 2017.37, © Perry Nichols

Sue Canterbury, The Pauline Gill Sullivan Curator of American Art 
“Dallas native Perry Nichols portrayed Jake Hamon by depicting objects and mementos that represented some of the sitter’s traits, hobbies, and interests. When the Hamons owned the painting, it hung over their mantle while the real-life items rested below.”

Ceremonial basket, California, Shasta basketweaver, 19th–20th century, Squaw grass and black mountain sedge, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Mrs. Eugene M. Solow, 1954.130.1

Dr. Michelle Rich, Ellen and Harry S. Parker III Assistant Curator of Arts of the Americas
“Foraging for grasses in nature is a form of producing art with found materials. The Shasta artist who wove this beautiful basket took the time to harvest the bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax) and black alpine sedge (Carex nigricans) from the wilds of Northern California.”

Helmet mask (komo), Mali and Côte d’Ivoire, Senufo sculptor, mid-20th century, wood, glass, animal horns, fiber, mirrors, iron, and other materials, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of David T. Owsley, 1997.24

Dr. Roslyn A. Walker, Senior Curator of the Arts of Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific and The Margaret McDermott Curator of African Art 
“Sharp horns, tusks, and zigzag teeth of wild animals; mirrors; cowrie shells; wine glasses; and sacred texts contribute to the fierce appearance and spiritual power of this helmet mask, as well as project the prominence of the Komo society member.”

Found and Foiled

Chris Schanck is a Dallas-native artist whose first museum commission and solo museum presentation Curbed Vanity: A Contemporary Foil by Chris Schanck debuts at the DMA this winter. Schanck creates artworks from industrial and discarded objects he collects from outside. The artist then coats the materials in aluminum foil and resin—a reference to the Dallas aluminum factory where, along with his father, Schanck worked when he was young. Take a behind-the-scenes look at his process of collecting materials, as well as progress shots of how he transforms these objects into new pieces of furniture.

Chris and his team in his Detroit neighborhood inspecting furniture left on the curbsides
Chris gathering materials from an old house near his home in Detroit
Chris and his team collecting discarded construction materials from an abandoned lot in his Detroit neighborhood
A collection of discarded objects and materials Chris found in his neighborhood
More discarded objects that Chris and his team found and cataloged back in the studio
Chris and his assistants in his Detroit studio building the maquette, or skeleton, for Curbed Vanity.

Curbed Vanity in progress:

Chris Schanck, American, born 1975
Curbed Vanity, 2020
Mixed media, aluminum foil, and resin.
T44152.1-2


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