This lecture was part of the Divine Disorder Conference on the Conservation of Outsider Folk art that was organized and hosted by NCPTT. The conference was held February 15-16, 2012 on the campus of Northwestern University in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
Virtual Conservation of Folk and Outsider Art Environments
The presentation will address the issue of conserving documents pertaining to folk and outsider environmental sites, which by their natures are ephemeral. While conservators are concerned with preserving original works, many outdoor visionary environments cannot be rescued by conservation and preservation treatments or applications. Since the 1970s, I have been interested in the life stories as well as the works of artists who have worked outside the mainstream of fine art. Over the years, especially since the 1980s, I have photographed and video recorded folk and outsider artists and their works. In addition, I have worked alongside colleagues who have dedicated many years of their lives to documenting folk and outsider art and environments. One such individual was James Smith Pierce (1930-2010), whose photographs were widely used in John Beardsley’s book, Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists (Abbeville Press, 1995). Following Dr. Pierce’s passing, the University of North Dakota Art Collections acquired a large collection of photographic documents related to folk and outsider art that he had taken during the period of the 1970s and 1980s. This invaluable collection of photographic materials includes many super-8 films, Kodak Ektachrome color slides, and stereoscopic slides that were taken in the mid-1970s of folk art environments, some of which no longer exist and others that were seriously altered through restorations. Having this photographic collection, which consists of thousands of documents, poses many problems involving the preservation of the documents themselves—as well as offering possibilities for conservation of existing sites because the photographic images provide information about the way environments appeared about 35 years ago. The paper will discuss the scope of this collection and issues involving the longevity of photographic and digital documents, and how these documents might assist conservators in their work.
Church: We’re going to start back this evening’s final grouping of talks with Arthur Jones. Arthur is the Chair of the Department of Art and Design at the University of North Dakota. We talked quite a bit last night so I’m going to actually read this part. He began his career in the 1970′s at the University of Kentucky. He became interested in folk and outsider art and organized exhibitions for regional museums, authored catalogs, was in the papers, and served with the Association of Kentucky’s Appalachian Center. In the nineties he became Department Chair at Radford [ ? ] as a class a large exhibition on folk and outsider art and most recently now at North Dakota [ ? ].
Jones: Thank you. The presentation is titled Virtual Conservation of Folk and Outsider Art Environments. First, I want to extend a special thanks to my former graduate student Sean Kruenstad, for his assistance with researching the James Smith Pierce Collection of photographic and audio documents on folk and outsider art, as well as for providing technical support in preparing the digital format of this presentation.
The presentation addresses the issue of preserving and conserving documents pertaining to folk and outsider visionary environments, the latter of which by their nature is often ephemeral. While conservatories are concerned with documenting, preserving, and restoring original works, many outdoor visionary environments cannot be fully rescued by conservation and preservation treatments or applications.
Since the 1970′s I have been interested in the life stories as well as the works of artists who have worked outside the mainstream in the fine art. Over the years, especially since the 1980′s, I have photographed and video recorded folk and outside artists and their works. In addition, I have worked alongside colleagues who dedicated many years of their lives to documenting folk and outsider art. One such individual was James Smith Pierce, whose photographs were widely used in John Beardsley’s book, Gardens of Revelation, Environments by Visionary Artists. On the front page of that book, it cites him as the principal photographer. Most of Pierce’s involvement as a collector and researcher of folk and outsider art took place while he was an art history professor at the University of Kentucky. Following Dr. Pierce’s passing, the University of North Dakota acquired a large collection of his photographic and audio documents dating from the 1970′s and 1980′s.
About seven months before his death, Dr. Pierce agreed to participate in telephone discussions with five graduate students who were enrolled in my course on folk and outsider art during the fall semester of 2009. Pierce, who lived in Belfast, Maine, held weekly discussions over speaker phone with my graduate students in Grand Forks, North Dakota. In a sense, these weekly meetings became Professor Pierce’s last seminar class. All of the class discussions were audio recorded and documented by pencast. These recorded sessions while lasting from about 20 minutes to over an hour, depending on how he felt each session, often addressed Pierce’s collection of photographic and audio documents that are now the property of the University of North Dakota.
This invaluable collection of documentary materials includes among other things, super 8 films, kodachrome and ectochrome color slides, and stereoscopic color slides that were taken in the mid-1970′s about the visionary folkart environments, some of which no longer exist and others that their significantly altered through time.
This presentation will discuss the scope of the Pierce collection and issues involving the longevity of photographic, audio, and digitally preserved documents, as well as how these documents might assist conservators in their work.
Pierce was very active as a photographer and spent a great deal of time viewing the world through his camera’s lens. He was a keen observer and approached people and environment sites almost like a journalist. He photographed, filmed , and interacted with artists on a very human level. Among Pierce’s photographic documents are nearly 10,000 carefully boxed color slides, many pertaining to folk and outsider art. In addition, there are about 20,000 loose slides that have not yet been organized.
The Pierce collection also contains approximately four hundred stereoscopic slides, of which about 200 relate to folk art environments. There are also 134 super 8 reels that contain about 6700 hundred feet of film, about three hours of the super 8 films are devoted to folk art. Dating from the 1970′s, these films cover a wide range of visionary environments. Among them S.P. Dinsmoor’s, The Cabin Home and Garden of Eden, Mrs. Polk’s Museum, Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village, Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden, Driftwood Charlie’s World of Lost Art, [ ? ] Thunder’s Monument, Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park, and numerous other well known and lesser known sites.
Completing the collection of documents are about 66 hours of aging audio recordings that contain Pierce’s [ ? ] notes as he observed sites, as well as voices of artists who created visionary environments, which I’ll play you one right now [plays audio]. Before continuing my discussion of issues pertaining to the Pierce collection, I would like to present a visual overview consisting of selected segments from some of the super 8 films and color slides, which are overdubbed with the voice of James Smith Pierce, explaining the importance of his documents to my students in 2009, [plays audio].
What is the potential for the Pierce collection of documents. First, the documents may be used to visually restore sites that have often been altered through time or destroyed. Pierce strongly believed in the importance of preserving his documents, which he felt were in a sense, possessed with a living spirit of artists who made the environments. He also felt that when an environment deteriorated or vanished, all that remains of the artists spirit might be his visual and audio records.
When speaking about the KOLA Foundation’s restoration of Herman Rusch’s Prairie Museum and Garden in Wisconsin, Pierce said, “Without the artist’s living presence in his gardens, much is lost and the site is not complete because at least half of the experience is lost.” When discussing Grandma Prisbrey, Pierce remarked that without her personality, the Bottle Village in California which was badly damaged by an earthquake after his photographs were taken, is a “pathetic [ ? ].” [plays audio].
Pierce’s thoughts about the importance of the artist’s living presence reminds me of an experience I had a few decades ago when I visited S.P. Dinsmoor’s The Cabin Home and the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas. While there, I purchased a reprint of Dinsmoor’s book about his environment and read it as I journeyed through the site. Reading the book while observing the environment seemed almost like having Dinsmoor there with me. On one page, the elderly Dinsmoor discussed one of the cement trees he had created and how it would be affected over time by vegetation he had planted. “Say that tree will be a beauty” he said, ” I want to see it in about ten or fifteen years from now. I may be in the mausoleum. If I am, some dark night I will slip out and take a look at it or some other people will see it, which will be just the same.”
Reading these words further personalized my experience because I, as among some of the people, became the surrogate for the living embodiment of Dinsmoor. On the other hand, Pierce’s comments about the importance of the artists living presence, might be extended at the Garden of Eden to include the artist’s dead presence, creepy as that may sound. Indeed, paying one dollar to have a face to face encounter with Dinsmoor, who had already been dead for over forty years when I saw him, further personalized my experience. Looking at Dinsmoor’s dead face through the window of his coffin and experiencing his living thoughts by reading his book, added an important dimension to my experience at the Garden of Eden.
Without this dimension, my encounter with the environment would have been much less powerful. Since visiting Dinsmoor’s environment decades ago, the site as well as the artist’s remains have been deteriorating. To remedy this problem, the property was acquired last year by the KOLA Foundation, an organization specializing in the preservation and restoration of folk architecture and art environments. So there is hope for the site as well as for the future of Dinsmoor’s remains. Recalling my experience at Dinsmoor’s environment a few years ago helps me to better understand Pierce’s thoughts about the importance of the artist’s presence and also how slides, films, and audio tapes might help to restore this factor after artists are long gone.
Pierce viewed each environment on a very human level in which the artist’s infusion of personality is immensely important. His photographic records and audio recordings of conversations with artists contribute greatly to what survives of the creative spirit of artists within their creative environments.
There are several challenges ahead in regard to the preservation and conservation of the Pierce collection. These include problems with the old technology involving aging slide film and audio tapes which are well past their prime and are gradually deteriorating. During the last few years of his life, while struggling with terminal illness, Pierce made efforts to digitize his slide images but he also realized the pitfalls of the new technology and the false hope it suggests to many people who believe that it offers eternalness. Whereas many manuscripts, handwritten on parchment during the middle ages survive today, electronic information recorded only a decade ago might be more difficult to access. With this thought in mind, Pierce made initial attempts to both digitize film images and print them on archival paper. Being terminally ill and financially constrained, he made little progress in his preservation efforts.
Since the University of North Dakota acquired the Pierce collection, we are making serious efforts to carry on the preservation project he envisioned. As we proceed however, we realize that the course involved with the new technology is significant with sizable investments needing to be made about every three to five years, and when I say sizable, I’m thinking in terms of University budget considerations, not the rest of the world. The rapid acceleration of changes in the new technology will likely make it necessary to upgrade even more often in the future, requiring purchases of new computers and software at an ever increasing frequency.
Although the preservation and conservation of the Pierce collection may prove to be time consuming and costly, the photographic and audio recordings are invaluable as historic documents that provide time travel for viewing earlier states of visionary environments. While thousands of photographic and audio documents pose immediate problems involving their care and preservation, they also offer long term potential for conservation and preservation of the sites they document. The photographic images reveal details about how the environments appeared several decades ago that can be useful when restoring sites.
The University of North Dakota Art Collections plans to organize a traveling exhibition based on the materials in the Pierce collection. On display will be photographic panels, video montages based on selected slides with segments of super 8 films and audio clips, stereoscopic slides, and interactive computer components. Here is an example of a montage incorporating selected slide images and an audio recording of Howard Finster in his environment about 1978.
By combining film and slide images including stereoscopic ones, along with segments of artists voices on audio recordings, lost or altered environments may be revitalized as virtual restorations. Slides from different vantage points and panning shots in film will offer viewers a chance to take virtual journeys through synthetic environments based on how they appeared decades ago. We hope that such an exhibition will raise public awareness of the importance of historic preservation for visionary environments, as well as the photographic and audio documents that may contribute to their longevity, and I’m just adding a quick postscript to this, many objects that were previously located within environments documented by Dr. Pierce through photography and film, have been removed and are now in museums or private collections.
So I have a couple of images of works that were photographed by Pierce as they now appear in a collector’s home. You’ll see for example, a work by Mary Tillman Smith, which is over here and now I’m moving it to a wall over there. So this is how it appears now and this is how it appeared in his photograph from 1986. Here’s another example of a 1986 image from the environment of Mary Tillman Smith. Everything considered, the Pierce collection is a vital resource that needs to be preserved. Thank you.
Arthur Jones, Chair, Department of Art and Design, University of North Dakota
Arthur Jones was born and raised in Queens, New York, completed his PhD in art history at Case-Western Reserve University. Jones professional career began in the 1970s at the University of Kentucky, where he became interested in folk and outsider art and organized exhibitions for regional museums, authored catalogs, presented papers at professional conferences, and served as an Associate of UK’s Appalachian Center. In the 1990s, Jones became a department chair at Radford University, where he offered a class and organized a large exhibition on folk and outsider art. More recently, at the University of North Dakota, he was appointed by the University President to serve as Director of UND Art Collections, where he has acquired a large collection of photographic and film documents—many of which are records of outdoor visionary folk environments that were formerly in the possession of Dr. James Smith Pierce of Belfast, Maine. Jones is now in the process of researching and conserving these materials.