Elizabeth Essner on Curating "Graffiti & Ornament"

Artists help us to understand our changing world, so to bring their contemporary dialogues into a space steeped in history allows for new present-tense conversations to emerge. 
Curator Elizabeth Essner with the artists of  Graffiti & Ornament , Roberto Lugo (left) and Leo Tecosky (right).

Curator Elizabeth Essner with the artists of Graffiti & Ornament, Roberto Lugo (left) and Leo Tecosky (right).

Did the 19th century inscription carved into the south porch of the mansion influence the curation of this show?

Absolutely. This was actually the starting point for Graffiti & Ornament. Although it’s only perhaps 5 inches tall, this little carved inscription on the south portico is essentially 19th century graffiti.
 
The carved letters are hard to eek out but we believe it says J. Haslet, Nov 1876. It was discovered during a restoration of the structure in 2016. There was a time when this would have been cleaned up, painted over and erased. But instead it was preserved. This piece of ‘graffiti’ has so much to say about the life of this house, the life of this person, for whom no other information has yet been found. It also speaks to the perpetual impulse for mark making and leaving one’s mark.
 
This historical graffiti is especially resonant in the context of the Woodland's cemetery grounds where the house is surrounded by carved names and dates of people whose lives are remembered. It is a tangible reminder that history is made up of individual lives. Some are made visible, carved into stone, so to speak, and then there are others whose names and whose histories deserve more light shined on them. For me, this little piece of historical graffiti bridged questions around whose history we tell, and whose history we preserve. 

It also just so happens that graffiti is central to Philadelphia history. In the mid-1960s, a Philadelphian, Darryl McCray, who went by the name "Cornbread,” was the originator of what we have come to think of as modern graffiti today.

19th century inscription carved into the woodwork of the Woodlands mansion’s south porch.

19th century inscription carved into the woodwork of the Woodlands mansion’s south porch.

Why does showing contemporary art in a historic house matter?

The past, while fixed, isn’t static. It’s constantly being re-interpreted in the context of the present -- our understanding of the past shifts as culture shifts. Artists help us to understand our changing world, so to bring their contemporary dialogues into a space steeped in history allows for new present-tense conversations to emerge. 

Elizabeth Essner speaking at the opening reception for  Graffiti & Ornament .

Elizabeth Essner speaking at the opening reception for Graffiti & Ornament.

What was your selection process in choosing these artists?

When I saw the 19th century historical graffiti on the south portico of the Hamilton Mansion, I knew I wanted to work with Roberto Lugo and Leo Tecosky. Lugo works in ceramics and Tecosky works in glass, and both of them, in very different ways, reposition history. They each combine traditional decorative arts with graffiti and hip hop culture, thinking through how they intersect and how they diverge.  Thanks to the generosity of the Knight Foundation, we were able to commission new work from each of these artists that responds directly to the history of The Woodlands.  

Curator Elizabeth Essner with the artists of  Graffiti & Ornament , Roberto Lugo (left) and Leo Tecosky (right).

Curator Elizabeth Essner with the artists of Graffiti & Ornament, Roberto Lugo (left) and Leo Tecosky (right).

Was there a reason you wanted to exhibit three-dimensional art in this particular space?

I’ve often said that Graffiti & Ornament is a three-way conversation between these artists and The Woodlands. Because Lugo and Tecosky have both made work in response to the layered history of The Woodlands as an 18th century mansion and a 19th century rural cemetery, there is a remarkable visual conversation at work. 

Interview by Zoë Browne. Photographs by Ryan Collerd.

CityLab Article "The New Art Galleries: Urban Cemeteries"

In Allison C. Meier’s recent article “The New Art Galleries: Urban Cemeteries,” she describes the effect of place on the installations within Graffiti & Ornament:

“These pieces could be installed in a white-walled gallery, but having them in a cemetery, with tombstones visible outside the windows, makes the artists’ statements on remembrance particularly powerful. Exhibitions like this one can also elevate narratives that were marginalized or banished from cemeteries that historically reserved the grandest memorials for white, wealthy families.”

Read the full article here: Urban Cemeteries

Meier’s article included this photograph of Leo Tecosky’s installation viewed through a window, reflecting the surrounding cemetery at The Woodlands. Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Meier’s article included this photograph of Leo Tecosky’s installation viewed through a window, reflecting the surrounding cemetery at The Woodlands. Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Interview with Diane Richardson, executive director of Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion

We reflect on Victoriana Reimagined, our 2018 exhibition at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, by speaking with the site’s director, and find out what they are up to next.

Diane

Why is it important that the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion is preserved as a historic site, and what do you hope the public gets out of engaging with the mansion?

Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion is Philadelphia’s only authentically restored Victorian house museum, so it’s the only place in the city of Philadelphia where visitors can walk up the historic sidewalks, to the front door, and finally inside to discover day-to-day life in 19th century Philadelphia. There are other important Victorian institutions— the Athenaeum, the Wagner Museum, City Hall— but the Mansion is the only place that represents life of the the rising middle class life in 19th century Philadelphia. We seek to entertain while educating.

What do you feel is the most powerful and effective way of communicating history through historic spaces? 

We highlight all aspects of 19 th -century life – literature, theatre, crafts, day-to-day life, architecture and decorative arts. We bring history to life with site-specific theatre productions, hands-on workshops, tours of the Mansion’s magnificent interior spaces, and seasonal special events.t. In 2018, we introduced a very popular Victorian book club a.k.a. “Literary Parlor.” We seek to bring history to life!


In what ways did the Past Present Projects exhibition Victoriana Reimagined activate certain features of the mansion to tell its history?

Talia Greene, Untangling the Fox and the Grapes, 2018 [Photo: Jaime Alvarez]

Jacintha Clark, Parlour Porcelain (detail), 2018 [Photo: Jaime Alvarez]

Each of the three artists chose one item in the collection as the inspiration for their 21st century artwork, thus highlighting each of those collection items. For example, Talia Greene chose as her inspiration the gasolier, the gas lighting chandelier in the dining room. The Cornelius Company manufactured the circa 1860s chandelier in Philadelphia with motifs depicting Aesop’s Fable “The Fox and the Grapes.” Talia achieved a modern theme by creating cascading paper art display that looked like gold metal, where the foxes are climbing over each other to get to the grapes, as we do— always fighting to get to the top in modern society. Her installation highlighted the Cornelius chandelier thus drawing attention to this important collection item.

 Jacinta Clark chose our c.1860 Stieff square grand piano, manufactured in Baltimore, as her inspiration. She did a lot of studying and she created sheet music out of porcelain that represented songs that they would have played on that piano in 1860 in the Maxwell household. To cap off the year, we had a special musical event where we had a pianist, a flutist, and a soloist who sang 19th century music. As the pianist introduced each song, he was able to tell the audience about the composer and the importance of the song. It was quite wonderful and it really brought a new dimension to the museum.


What events do you have coming up at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion?
 

In the end of March, the Mansion is presenting the first in a series of three plays by Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray staring Josh Hitchens followed by The Importance of Being Earnest opening in May. Capping off our year of Oscar Wilde is Salome in September.

We are also developing a new interpretive tour to educate guests about the lives of African Americans in the 19th century in Philadelphia. Initially we entitled the tour Emancipation and Industrialization, but research revealed that 19th century factory owners discriminated against African Americans in favor of the Irish, German, and Swedish immigrants who wanted those jobs. However, we found that many 19th century Phialdelphia African Americans were prominent caterers, artists, musicians, and doctors. W.E.B. Dubois’s book, The Philadelphia Negro, proved invaluable. The University of Pennsylvania hired DuBois, an African American man educated at Harvard, to do a sociological survey of African Americans in Philadelphia called The Philadelphia Negro. The history of 19th century African Americans in Germantown, and in Philadelphia as a whole, is important. The Mansion is premiering this new interpretive tour in February 2020 for Black History Month.

-Interview by Zoë Browne

Interview with Jacintha Clark

My job has been to examine time in objects, suspend them in their present state or remove the effects of time. It allows me to question what we value, want to hold onto for the future and are willing to let go. By translating these historical references into contemporary porcelain objects, a new layer of questions can be asked.

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