How Visions Connected with Voices: An Interview with Arnold Schwartzman

Arnold Schwartzman, Master’s Series 2012. Quote: Susan Sontag. Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA.

Arnold Schwartzman, Master’s Series 2012. Quote: Susan Sontag. Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA.

Arnold Schwartzman is the creative director of the Voices & Visions poster exhibition, in which compelling Jewish texts are graphically visualized by contemporary designers. The program was initiated and produced by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in West Springfield, Massachusetts, and we at the Skirball Cultural Center are excited to be the first institution to show this engaging poster series. In curating this exhibition for our Ruby Gallery I had the chance to meet and talk to Arnold Schwartzman about this project.

Arnold, you have two functions in the Voices & Visions exhibition: you are the creative director and you also designed a poster. Let’s talk about the poster first. You chose the quote by Susan Sontag, “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech,” and came up with a simple, yet complex image of silent speech. How did you find the visual language for it? And why did you choose this quote?
As the creative director of the Voices & Visions project I had the advantage of being able to choose the pick of the crop of quotations prior to offering them to the other artists. I decided to select the Susan Sontag quotation as I realized that there are many ways to visually interpret speech. The challenge was which direction I should take, other than displaying a zipped-up mouth!

I have always been intrigued by sign language of one sort or another. I was once invited to design a poster for the revitalization of the city of Naples, Italy, in which I incorporated an engraving of the Neapolitan hand gesture for ”beauty.” On another occasion I designed the cover of the house magazine of a television network. I created the magazine’s name in nautical flag semaphore, a nod to the company general manager’s naval background. Or for the opening title sequence to my documentary on World War ll, Liberation, I spelt out the letter V for Victory in Morse code. I recall, as a child during the war, seeing the dot-dot-dot-dash painted on many of London’s street walls and air raid shelters.

After finally arriving at my concept, my next step was to decide on the technique and medium. At first I contemplated drawing the hands realistically, or perhaps in a more decorative style, then serendipity stepped in during a visit to my local art store—I finally found the answer when I noticed a display of wooden articulated hands. “Bingo, I’ve got it!”

How did your collaboration with the Grinspoon Foundation actually come about?
My wife, Isolde, who is my collaborating partner, and I had the opportunity to meet with philanthropist Harold Grinspoon and Madeline Calabrese, the campaign’s project manager, in New York City in March 2011. But my involvement with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation began earlier with a telephone call from venerated graphic designer and educator Louis Danziger. He was one of the artists who visually interpreted well-known quotations for the landmark advertising campaign Great Ideas of Western Man that was produced by the Container Corporation of America (CCA) between 1950 and the 1970s. Harold Grinspoon’s idea was to take the CCA concept and translate it to a Jewish perspective by selecting significant quotations by Jewish luminaries throughout history, each representing a Jewish value, and have them interpreted by Jewish artists. And it was Danziger who asked if I was interested in the project as he wished to recommend me as creative director.

Our first task was to come up with a name and logotype for the project. I finally proposed the name Voices & Visions as it not only expressed the coming together of the two entities of words and images, parallel to this I discovered that by strategically placing the two Vs together they form a Star of David.

Indeed, that is a wonderful “coming together.” Could you talk a bit more about the process, about the making of Voices & Visions?
Certainly. A team of scholars chose the quotations, after which copyright clearance was obtained prior to sending invitations to the prospective participants. With the knowledge of the unique styles of each of these artists, we carefully chose quotations that we thought would stimulate their style and thinking. This approach produced unexpected results—some predictable, some surprising.

In June 2012 Isolde and I spent a week in Springfield, Massachusetts, supervising the print check on the large run of the eighteen V&V posters, printed in several formats. After a period of eighteen months we now find it most gratifying to see the fruits of our labor so beautifully displayed at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Isolde and Arnold Schwartzman in front of Arnold’s Visions & Values poster. Photo by Doris Berger.

Isolde and Arnold Schwartzman in front of Arnold’s Voices & Visions poster. Photo by Doris Berger.

Actually, the title Voices & Visions makes me think of the Skirball’s permanent exhibition called Visions and Values, for which you created an amazing audiovisual kaleidoscope of Jewish contributions to humanity as well as graphic decade panels of notable events. Both of those works feature a multi-perspectives approach­­, and so does Voices & Visions. Continue reading

Share

Abraham Lincoln: A Living Myth Comes to Life

Abraham Lincoln’s personal portfolio, 1861. Lincoln’s cabinet members had matching leather portfolios with their names stamped in gilt. Lincoln’s was saved from souvenir hunters on the night of his death by his son Robert. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Abraham Lincoln’s personal portfolio, 1861. Lincoln’s cabinet members had matching leather portfolios with their names stamped in gilt. Lincoln’s was saved from souvenir hunters on the night of his death by his son Robert. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

 

Skirball Registrar, Cynthia Tovar holds Abraham Lincoln’s portfolio. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Skirball Registrar, Cynthia Tovar holds Abraham Lincoln’s portfolio. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

I have worked in museums for close to twenty years and have visited them all over the world for longer than that. I have personally handled ancient pottery, figurines, weapons, furniture, and art objects—everything from Egyptian funerary relics to Civil War uniforms. While I won’t deny that I consider being able to have a hands-on relationship with these objects an extraordinary benefit of my career, I have to say that I am rarely “touched back” by them. However, when our registrars called me to let me know they were unpacking Abraham Lincoln’s valise for our “Lincoln Spotlight” exhibit, I knew this time was going to be different.

A task of our Museum registrars is the inspection and assessment of each object as it comes into our care (and as it leaves as well). Then we have to figure out the best way to display the object while protecting it from any further damage. On the surface there was nothing spectacular about Lincoln’s valise—it’s made of old leather that is quite worn and somewhat brittle and it lacks any decorative quality; it’s a utilitarian object meant to carry papers and books. Even having Lincoln’s name stamped on the front is not that interesting in and of itself. However, knowing that it most likely once carried the Emancipation Proclamation made it worth having here as part of the exhibit. At least that’s what I was thinking as I rode the elevator down to our Collections area to take a look.

page 1 of Positive Photostat of handwritten Emancipation Proclamation on four leaves, signed by Lincoln. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

Page 1 of Positive Photostat of handwritten Emancipation Proclamation on four leaves, signed by Lincoln. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

 

 

 

What I wasn’t prepared for was how deeply moved I was as I watched the portfolio be unwrapped. In that instant, Abraham Lincoln became a real human being to me, rather than a “living myth.”

The Man Behind the Myth

My earliest recollection of the personage of Lincoln was the penny in my loafers—that face on the coin that fit into my shoe. Of course, my impression of him changed somewhat once school started and I learned that he had been my president.

Not long afterwards, my hometown of Safety Harbor, Florida, held a beard-growing contest. Continue reading

Share

Protest Poster or Valentine?

Decades of Dissent installation shot. Photo by Christina Williams.

“Dear Erin” began a letter I received almost one month after the opening of Decades of Dissent: Democracy in Action: 1960–1980. The letter continued, “You can imagine my surprise and amusement on finding my Gay-In poster reproduced in the Los Angeles Times. Produced 42 years ago, the poster had minimal exposure or impact. Today, it serves as a reminder of the time when gay people were beginning their journey to full equality.”

The letter was from Bruce Reifel, who had created one of my favorite posters in Decades of Dissent. With affectionate couples set against a bright background, Gay-In announced a gathering of gays and lesbians in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park in 1970. The event, organized by the Gay Liberation Front, was revolutionary. During a time when gays were expected to confine their social activities to private spaces, they asserted their right to inhabit public space.

Gay-In, Bruce Reifel, Silkscreen, 1970, Los Angeles, California

I had learned these things about the Gay-In poster in the process of curating Decades of Dissent. What I had missed, however, was the fact that Bruce had made it. The label I had written for the poster attributed the piece to the Gay Liberation Front. When Bruce’s letter arrived, the historian in me was extremely excited. Not only would I have a chance to correct my error, but I would likely deepen my knowledge of an object and the story behind it in the process. Continue reading

Share

Schoolhouse Rock Turns the Big 4-0

This Schoolhouse Rock film “Preamble” makes viewing the Constitution in Creating the United States
that much more meaningful and fun.

The suite of exhibitions and programs we’re currently presenting at the Skirball under the thematic umbrella Democracy Matters has gotten me thinking about the way I learned some of the fundamentals of American history and government as a kid in the 1970s.

Growing up in San Diego, I was light years away from Washington D.C. and all those historic sites of colonial wars and document signings—and from the key museums and libraries that house the most noteworthy foundational documents. Instead I learned the basics of American history primarily from a series of short animated music videos that aired as interstitial programs on ABC: Schoolhouse Rock (which turns forty today according to the Washington Post and NPR)!

Come now, all you forty-somethings out there. Didn’t many of you, too, learn the Preamble to the Constitution from a Schoolhouse Rock film with an unbelievably catchy tune sung by Lynn Ahrens… Continue reading

Share

Two Benjamins

Military uniform (jacket, epaulets, waistcoat, breeches, tricorn hat, and wig) and leather satchel of Jonathan Bancroft of Massachusetts, 1777-ca. 1789. From the collection of Dr. Gary Milan

Military uniform (jacket, epaulets, waistcoat, breeches, tricorn hat, and wig) and leather satchel of Jonathan Bancroft of Massachusetts, 1777-ca. 1789. From the collection of Dr. Gary Milan.

The day I planned to bring my eleven-year-old son, Benjamin, to Creating the United States, I called my dad. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, just a few towns over from where the shot heard ‘round the world rang out (this is how Schoolhouse Rocks memorialized that event, remember?) and only a short trip from where Paul Revere rode his famous ride. Dad, who grew up in Lexington, MA, is a man who has always been surrounded by—and fascinated with—history.

In fact, it was my dad whom I thought most about when I first walked through Creating the United States. I looked closely at the old documents, the artifacts, and the photographs, and took a journey through the American Revolution. As I stood in front of the uniform of a Continental Army officer (which also caught the eye of The Family Savvy, in this enthusiastic write-up), I thought of Dad and the stories he told about Revolutionary War muskets that our family once housed as part of a collection.

A historical artifact from my family’s own American story: Danforth Maxcy's canteen.

A historical artifact from my family’s own American story: Danforth Maxcy's canteen.

The old satchel displayed alongside the uniform reminded me of things that men carried to war, like the Civil War−era canteen that still sits in my parents’ living room. It once belonged to Danforth Maxcy (my great-great-great-great-uncle), who was injured at the Battle of Gettysburg and died on the train ride back home to Maine. He was twenty-one. Continue reading

Share

Book Recommendations from a Historian in a Happy Place

I am armed and ready with great recommendations for your holiday reading list!

A copy of the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution in progress. A continental soldier’s uniform. An eighteenth-century tea box. Buttons from Lincoln’s campaign.

These items may sound boring to some, but when I heard they were going to be here at the Skirball, on view in the exhibition Creating the United States, I jumped for joy. I love history! I spent five years in graduate school, while working full time, to complete my degree in history. I am an American generalist, a California specialist, a women’s movement enthusiast, a Cold War culture buff, and an archivist. I view history not as a chore, a list of dates and names, but as the story of people. Technologies develop, ideologies ebb and flow, personalities change, but human needs and passions are universal. Knowing about these people and their struggles and successes is a great way to learn about yourself and the world around you. Thousands of voices from the centuries make up a chorus of stories waiting to be heard, and many historians are giving those voices value in the endless array of books available to the general public.

Choosing the exhibition-related books to sell at Audrey’s Museum Store is typically a job for our Operations Manager, Susan, but I was delighted to help her review titles as we prepared for Creating the United States and the companion “Democracy Matters” exhibitions, Decades of Dissent, Free to be U.S., and Lincoln Spotlight. Selecting books relies on the old adage of judging a book by its cover. Is it interesting enough to catch someone’s attention? Is it too scholarly for a casual reader? Is it a good price? Over the course of three months, we reviewed hundreds of books to compile our final book list of more than 100 titles for adults and children. Each book somehow relates thematically with the exhibitions specifically or broadly reflects the Skirball mission. To make this bibliography a little less daunting, here are six choices to get you in the spirit of Creating the United States.

1) If the early republic and the Founding Fathers seem out of touch, hopefully a good book in conjunction with a visit to the exhibition will help. Founding Foodies by Dave DeWitt ($16.99) makes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin more approachable. DeWitt presents the agrarian practices of these gentlemen, something in which they had great pride. I especially like the brewing recipes from Mount Vernon and Monticello because my husband is a master brewer. Written in short sections with wit and insight, this is a great book for an epicurean. Continue reading

Share

Making a Case (or Three) for Creating the United States

From the outset of planning for Creating the United States, the Museum team and our design partner, Fred Fisher and Partners, hoped to take a non-traditional approach to designing an exhibition of documents and objects usually displayed in small cases high off the ground. Due to the fragile nature of most of these items, we knew that light levels would have to be kept low. This low light combined with the need to lay the rare documents and objects back at an angle (positioning them upright would damage them) could potentially make it difficult for viewers to read or even see them clearly.

Our approach was to get the viewer as close as possible to the objects as we could and to create a color palette that would allow the eye to take in as much available light as possible by making the background “disappear.”

Initial concept design drawings by “FFP,” Fred Fisher and Partners. The cases are shallow so that visitors can get as close as possible to them without having to bend over a case.

Initial concept design drawings by “FFP,” Fred Fisher and Partners. The cases are shallow so that visitors can get as close as possible to them without having to bend over a case.

Once the case structure was decided upon, the (somewhat daunting) task of laying out the locations of each object began. Each object was color coded by lender, type (original, copy, or facsimile); light level required; and hierarchy.

Layout schematic.

Layout schematic.

Schematics are printed and placed into position in the casework.

Schematics are printed and placed into position in the casework.

 

Adjustments are made for a wide variety of reasons: curatorial narrative changes; matting and framing decisions; lighting requirements; and more.

Adjustments are made for a wide variety of reasons: curatorial narrative changes; matting and framing decisions; lighting requirements; and more.

Casework plans are drawn up… and sent to be fabricated.

Casework plans are drawn up… and sent to be fabricated.

Steel case armatures are delivered.

Steel case armatures are delivered.

As always, we start with an empty space. Remember that this is the same gallery where we installed Houdini: Art and Magic, Women Hold Up Half the Sky, and many other exhibitions.

As always, we start with an empty space. Remember that this is the same gallery where we installed Houdini: Art and Magic, Women Hold Up Half the Sky, and many other exhibitions.

Wooden cleats are installed to hold the steel armatures.

Wooden cleats are installed to hold the steel armatures.

While the cases are being constructed, our team builds the various pedestals and mounts for books and three-dimensional objects.

While the cases are being constructed, our team builds the various pedestals and mounts for books and three-dimensional objects.

The mounts are placed in the case.

More diagrams.

Placeholder objects help keep it organized.

Continue reading

Share

Rough Draft

Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, June–July 1776 (detail). Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, June–July 1776 (detail). Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Visiting Mount Vernon, Virginia, recently, I had a good look at George Washington. His original terra-cotta likeness, by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, is on display there. Washington was looking down at me. (He was six foot three.)

Our usual image of the father of our country is conjured from the dollar bill or the stiffly posed portraits of his day. But this likeness is different. It dates from 1785, when Houdon followed Washington around for weeks, waiting for the moment that would capture the great man’s character. It came when Washington was negotiating the price of a horse. The seller apparently asked too much. Washington’s expression, as captured by Houdon, is priceless: imperious, dubious, somewhere between high and mighty—and so lifelike that, standing there beneath his gaze, I was glad I wasn’t the one selling the horse. Not even the King of England could stand up to George Washington.

Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co.The British Surrendering Their Arms to Gen. Washington After Their Defeat at York Town in Virginia October 1781 (detail). Philadelphia: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., January 28, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co.The British Surrendering Their Arms to Gen. Washington After Their Defeat at York Town in Virginia October 1781 (detail). Philadelphia: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., January 28, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

To capture the living person before he became an icon—this is just what the Library of Congress exhibition now at the Skirball, Creating the United States, sets out to do. Visitors are invited to witness the founding of the nation as it happened, before it was set in stone. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were once rough drafts, with cross-outs and add-ons you can still see. Before they were ratified, they had to be debated;  before they were proposed, they had to be composed. Continue reading

Share

What’s a Shofar? Ask Marcus Jonas.

Shofar and Case, Maker: Marcus Jonas. Oakland, California, ca. 1870s. Wood and ram’s horn. From the collection of the Skirball Cultural Center. Photograph by John Reed Forsman.

What’s a shofar? It’s a ram’s horn that is hollowed out (through a pretty messy process) and polished. In Jewish tradition, it is blown during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. Some interpret the shofar’s blast as a call to reflect, a call to repent, a call to listen to the voice of one’s own conscience, a call to do good deeds, or a call to express prayer with breath.

When I take high school students through the Holidays gallery of our core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, we make sure to stop at the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur case. Inside is this shofar and case (pictured above), which like many objects throughout the gallery tell a fascinating story. Continue reading

Share

New Films Added to the Jewish Homegrown History Mix

Just nine days until Jewish Homegrown History closes! And now’s a great time to come back or see the exhibition for the first time. Three recently remixed and newly added films are now on view, thanks to The Labyrinth Project team that created the installation. These new home movies came to Labyrinth’s attention through contacts made at our Home Movie Day at the Skirball in the spring.

Here’s a quick rundown and a few screengrabs of the new films:

FAMILY SECRETS: EVADING HISTORICAL TRAUMA
Peter Vanlaw did not discover that he and his German émigré family were Jewish until he had a heart attack in his fifties. His story is driven by unsolved mysteries concerning his grandmother’s suicide, his mother’s mental breakdown, and his father’s repeated attempts to escape family history. Combining melodrama and historical trauma, this story supports scholar Michele Citron’s claim that “home movies were powerful and necessary fictions that allowed us to see and explore truths that could only be looked at obliquely.” Edited by Daniel Bydlowski.

 In 1929, Peter Vanlaw’s parents, Kurt Weinlaub and Lilly Rayfish, were newlyweds enjoying their prosperity at the Winston apartments in Hollywood, but then came the Stock Market Crash that seriously rocked their world.

In 1929, Peter Vanlaw’s parents, Kurt Weinlaub and Lilly Rayfish, were newlyweds enjoying their prosperity at the Winston apartments in Hollywood, but then came the Stock Market Crash that seriously rocked their world.

Continue reading

Share