Visiting the Cooper Hewitt, Part 1
One morning I arrive at work to find a cartload of framed art pulled from the library’s closed stacks for the Brushes with History: Imagination and Innovation in Art Education History conference and exhibit – select pieces from the Dow and Ziegfeld collections loaded up for loan to Macy Gallery. As I compile the inventory, I discover a curious painting in the mix — one not meant for delivery….
Months later, I begin to connect the dots, starting with the watercolor by Teruko Arichi, a Japanese girl who at the age of twelve paints, “A Beauty Parlour”, circa 1950-1960. This work, splashed with color, depicts a beautician in radiant white tending a client, while another woman, also in western dress, sits under the hairdryer reading a magazine. I spot the reflection of the hairdresser in the mirror and notice lots of art — or at least abstract pictures of models with stylish cuts — on the walls of the salon. In the lower left hand corner, there is a sepia photograph of the young artist sporting a windswept bob and buttoned sweater, butterflies embroidered on each side.
The painting’s historical context is post Makurazaki Typhoon (1945) atomic bomb (1946) — created when Hiroshima was rebuilding and reinventing itself as the “City of Peace”. It’s not surprising that beauty parlors proliferated as a way to provide service, pamper women, boost jobs, and strengthen the economy. Significantly, this work is part of the Angiola Churchill collection at the Gottesman Libraries; the first female full-time professor of art, now Professor Emeritus at NYU’s Department of Art and Art Professions, Steinhardt School of Education, Churchill wrote her Teachers College dissertation on Painting for the Pre-Adolescent: A Guide Book for the Prospective Teacher. She was especially interested in the “difficult period of art education, grades five, six, seven, and ages roughly 10 through 13” and sought to channel tween/teen energies and interests through art.
How apropos that I am called to chaperone Troop 3265 of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, ages 12 -13, on a trip to see Beauty: The Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, on display through August 21, 2016! It’s a sparkling early March day, and a dozen girls flit up Madison Ave, passing fancy boutiques on their way to the newly re-designed museum, now a part of the Smithsonian.
The triennial exhibit poses the key question, “Why Beauty Now?”, and explores the process and interpretation of beauty, immersive and multisensory. It shows experimental prototypes and interactive games, fashion ensembles and architectural interventions; it includes clothing, architecture, and display pieces created with technology or other mediums — acrylic, beads, plastic, 3D printed glass, metal, fabric, and much more. The focus is aesthetic innovation, with more than 250 breathtaking works by 63 amazing designers from around the globe.
Before we tour, we spend time playing on the interactive, drawing tables for Pixar: The Design of Story. We make buildings, tables, chairs, hats, and free drawings which turn three dimensional and flip around at our fingertips, as we read about history of Pixar animation.
Queena, our tour-guide and workshop leader, is an architect and painter. She tells animated stories behind the art, and teases out our interpretation of select works. We walk through a few rooms, stopping to discuss the Afreaks series of whimsical beaded creatures made by the Haas Brothers and Sisters; Jenny Sabin’s Poly thread knitted textile pavilion; Gareth Pugh’s recycled black straw clothing; Neri Oxman’s wearable glass organs (note Otaared) for sustainable, galactic living, as well as her lovely light vessels; and Tuomas Markunpoika’s metal shell cabinet, made in memory of his grandmother. We can’t help but admire the gorgeous ball gown-skirt by Giambattista Valli – a pure waterfall of red and pink tulle flowing down from a pajama top. All works are indeed designed with astonishing form and surprising function!
When Queena asks how we define “identity”, girlish hands wave in ready response: cultural background, heritage, where we live, go to school, what we like to do, how we spend our time. She then tasks the scouts to design a prototype for wearable clothing using studio material: foil, felt, plastic, sticky foam, straws, caps, pipe cleaners, markers, ribbon. Project Runway, it feels like, with just 45 minutes in which the girls create the best clothes ever. The theme is open, but governed by attention to function, aesthetics, and identity.
The scouts collaborate well in small groups, as laughter trickles like golden treacle from the table nearest me; three girls, including my daughter, are busily sketching designs for a very unique article of clothing — one specially designed for the street-smart fashionista.
Here is our gallery for Designing Identity:
We experience beauty, as we collectively explore art in its many forms to create our own lovely, purposeful pieces. At the end of the workshop I am gifted a family pass for a complementary visit to the museum. Connecting art and education in several ways, I suspect that Teruko Arichi’s painting is meant to have found its way to my desk, for I am pondering the different forms of interactive engagement and already planning my next trip, where the Immersion Room, Process Lab, and Pen await!