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Kevin Ammons: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast, the show that brings you the people and projects that are bringing innovation to preservation. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. Today we join Catherine Cooper as she speaks with David Rau and Matthew Marshall at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut. In this podcast they talk about the inception and design of Miss Florence’s Palette Trees and their new book highlighting the collection of over 200 artists’ palettes.
David Rau: Miss Florence’s Artist Trees came about in 2004. In 2002 we just had completed our new building, the Krieble Gallery, and it was really a state of the art, beautiful modern space. And we were still trying to figure out how we were going to incorporate Christmas into that space. Christmas has always been important here because our namesake, Florence Griswold, was born on Christmas Day in 1850. We’ve always had a tradition of going kind of above and beyond during the holidays, but with the new building, in that modern space, we really weren’t sure what the best fit was. I kind of took a page out of the tree that I always see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They bring out this beautiful Baroque Christmas tree every year and it becomes a thing that folks visit season after season. So I said, well, what can we do that would be something we could do over and over again but it wouldn’t get old.
And that’s when the spark came that, because we spent so much time here giving out paints, palettes… You know, we have en plein air Sundays where we give visitors a palette with squirts of paint on it, and we give the school children’s small palettes. We handle a lot of these medium sized palettes. And so that’s when the idea came to us that we would give them out to the artists that we’re familiar with in the area. Old Lyme is rich with creative painters. And we would give them a blank palette and ask them to paint on it in their signature style and then give it back to the museum as kind of a donation. And we would put them on these different trees year after year. So the first year we started with 50 and that filled up a nice tree, but we had a lot of other decorations to put it in between. It just kept going and going, and you know, now we have 212 and no one has asked us to stop yet, so there’s more coming.
Catherine Cooper: How do you select who paints a palette for Miss Griswold?
David Rau: You know, it’s a combination. The artists that were part of it originally, the first couple of years were pretty obvious because they’re folks that show in the area, live in the area, are involved in the museum in a creative way one way or another. So that list was pretty easy. But throughout the year, sometimes staff members have a friend, or they go to a gallery and they send me a link. People who see the trees…any artists that they know all of a sudden they think it’d be perfect for that. You know, we give out my card and they send me a letter or a link and I just ask to see some of their work, so I know the caliber that they’re at.
It’s a sliding scale and some of them are famous artists that would be difficult to gather or really thrilled to have. Others are just really friends of the museum that it’s just really nice to have an object by them on the tree. It’s not a juried thing, it’s kind of a gut feeling. But it’s also a yes, yes, good, kind of thing.
Catherine Cooper: And what guidelines do you give to them?
David Rau: I send them a letter saying, “Thank you so much for being willing to donate.” You know, their paintings are very valuable. You know, even though it’s a smallish size in the open market some of them could get a lot of money for those. So I always thank them for their time and enthusiasm way in advance. We ask that they paint on the palette that we give them or if they need a surrogate, keep this shape and the size for the most part the same.
So we have had a couple of ceramic artists that couldn’t make ceramics with the wooden palette, so they made ceramic versions of the palette where they match the size. And then we just say, because this kind of grows out of the history of artists coming to the Old Lyme art colony and painting on the doors and walls of Miss Florence’s house, that the palettes are kind of an extension of artists, living, contemporary artists, doing something for the museum and leaving it behind. So we ask them for maybe something that kind of represents them and their style, but also is appropriate to give Miss Florence as a gift. Some of them want to know if it has to be Christmas-y. And I say, “No, it is really open. It can be whatever you want as long as it’s kind of appropriate for Miss Florence and hang on a public tree.”
I mean, the very first year somebody asked me if they could do something pornographic and I said, “Well do you make pornographic art?” And they said, “No, I just wanted to know what the limits were,” and I’m like, “Well, don’t do that.” Something that’s appropriate for Miss Florence that’ll hang nicely on the tree.
Catherine Cooper: So you mentioned that the palettes are reminiscent of the panels in the dining room. Could you speak to that?
David Rau: Florence Griswold was a sea captain’s daughter. And so the Griswold house is an 1818 house that the captain bought for his young family and raised three daughters and one son. But when Miss Florence was 49 years old, she was alone in the world. The rest of her family had either passed on, or gone away. She was not married, and had no children. And so one of the only respectable things for her to do as a Victorian woman would be to run a boarding house out of her house.
But as luck would have it, in 1899 an artist from New York City, Henry Ward Ranger, stopped by, looking for a place to bring his fellow artists the following summer. And true to his word, in 1900 they showed up with a merry band of artists. They moved into her house and took over most of the public spaces, but they were wanting to make it look as much like an art colony house as they were experiencing in other places, Europe, and other places in the US. And so they asked her permission to paint on the doors of her house. And when the doors ran out, they painted on wooden panels that they installed in the dining room. And so from early on it was a museum, a house filled with objects and art to look at. And even though when Florence died and everything was sold off, all of her belongings, the doors and painted panels always stayed in situ.
So they really are the jewels of the crown. And then the palette just kind of updates that with contemporary artists who still want to participate with the museum in this kind of artistic and creative way that’s, you know, long lasting and ongoing.
We probably need to tell our [artists] in the future that some of the materials need to be long lasting because we’ve gotten some that are 3D with stuff that is a little ephemeral. So, I’ll have to remind them that we want it to last as long as possible so that their supplies should be as durable as possible. You know, some folks have ribbons attached to theirs and those are long-lasting, but another artist decided to use dried flowers. And so those, you know, although we handle everything as if it’s a museum object, those things after time will slowly deteriorate. It would be nice to have things that are going to last a little bit longer than dried flowers, but we’ll see what we can do, and try to keep it as the artist intended for as long as possible.
Another thing that’s interesting is a lot of the artists, because they make the palettes for the deadline, they haven’t had the time to varnish them the way they need to do to really make it last a long time. Several artists have asked us to hang it on the tree for one season, and then give it to them so they can varnish it, let it dry, and then it’s ready for the following season; some of these things mutate. We actually got one one year that was still wet; the paint was so thick that we had to handle it with care, because it was still wet; but we got it on the tree and then positioned and high enough that nobody would touch it so that the oil paint eventually will dry. It’s always an adventure.
Matthew Marshall: I think it was kind of a conceptual mountain scene. It was the peak of the mountain they had built up with layers of paint, the different shades of gray. And when they got to that white peak, the snowy peak, it was just pure wet oil paint.
David Rau: Several inches thick; it probably dried, not on the tree, but in the box in January, February, March, the following year. We think it’s dry now, though. It’s been several years.
Catherine Cooper: It can start creeping down the tree a little bit each year.
Matthew Marshall: Yeah, that one’s gotten a little lower each year.
David Rau: We tell people not to touch them anyway, but if they come out with a white finger…
Matthew Marshall: We know…
David Rau: They were busted.
Matthew Marshall: I think a lot of times when we go to hang, we look at the fragility of the palettes. I mean some of them are two-dimensional, strictly paint on a palette. And then we have the three-dimensional ones. The Guy Wolff pot palette is three dimensional, each pot is adhered to the palette separately. And then we have some made out of ceramic. We have some with these really lush ostrich feathers that just beg to be kind of pet. So we do try to keep that in mind, knowing that it’s an event that a lot of families come to and that we want to encourage young children to really spend time and to look and immerse themselves in these trees. But we also don’t want to taunt them with these little delectable three dimensional objects right at the base of the tree.
David Rau: Yeah, so it does play into it. It is a museum, though, and they could easily touch anything on the wall as well. So we have big signs reminding folks not to touch; and there’s enough staff wandering through that we do keep an eye on it. We’ll have four trees this season, we had three previously. But earlier years, where we had so many, we hung the palettes so high that we had to give out binoculars so that people could see them. Those we never worried about because those were very far away from where human hands could touch. But now we’re trying better to have them mostly all at eye level, where you look down or look up and you don’t have to strain your neck to see them. It’s a challenge, but it’s always a fun challenge.
Matthew Marshall: I think the sweet spot is around 70 palettes.
David Rau: So one year we went up to about 70 per tree and it was getting a little tight and we knew the next year to go to a whole other tree; it means then we’re going to go down to 40. Had to kind of do the math cause we didn’t want them to seem skimpy. They were very full last year, so I think with four this year and doing slightly larger additional ornaments, the trees should really be… Nothing will seem skimpy. It should seem like a beautiful presentation, but still room for next year and the year after.
Catherine Cooper: How do you theme them each year? Who gets to decide?
David Rau: We never like the trees to look the same. Very often before we decorate the trees, we put tables around each of the trees and Matt and I kind of decide on which types of palettes and subjects are going on each one, and then we just sort, but we come up with a new sub theme each year. Matt kind of comes up with the colorways and the themes and I think he has got some interesting ideas for this year.
Matthew Marshall: Definitely. It’s interesting for us. We have been doing this for so many years now, both David and I obviously have been here since the inception of the palette trees. We see these each year, but we look at them every year with fresh eyes. It’s kind of like Christmas morning when we’re unpacking them and it’s like, ”Oh my gosh, look at this.” It’s so exciting. And sometimes you—I mean, I hate to use the word you forget about a palette, but it’s one that might not have been in such a prominent location last year. And so you see it and you’re like, “Wow, gosh, I forgot that this one was here. Let’s really try to build something around this one.” So it gets to be organic, I think. You know, as we’re bringing them out, the themes almost find us where we’re like, oh there’s a group of palettes that look like artists’ palettes where they put the deliberate color wave on it, or there are a group of palettes with the Griswold house featured on it, or they’re ones that are strictly Christmas themed. And we’ll kind of group those together, and that’s how we kind of decide.
David Rau: And then the other challenge is when we hang them—because some are horizontal, some of them are vertical, some of them are in between—not wanting to set up any kind of a rhythm on the tree that looks like, you know, a stripe. We have to mix and match them so that they play visually nice on the tree. The Christmas trees are artificial, but the branches are never exactly where you need them to be. So there’s a lot of bending up and bending down because it’s almost like laying out paintings on a wall, but we’re laying out palette shaped paintings on a giant cone. By the time we walk away, we feel like they look beautiful and they look balanced. I don’t think it’s as effortless as it actually looks. We try our best not to let them see us sweat.
Catherine Cooper: And do you close the galleries down while you’re doing this?
Matthew Marshall: We do the setup of the actual bare tree on Monday when we’re closed to the public. So they’re pre-fluffed, they’re pre-lit. The tables are set up so that on Tuesday morning David and I come in bright eyed and bushy tailed and we say, all right, today is the day. We lay out the palettes and we are open to the public. We use this as an opportunity to educate the public as we’re decorating. A lot of times we’ll have folks that come in and say, “What are these? Are these for sale? Is this a fundraiser?” So-
David Rau: “Is this a Christmas Bazaar?”
Matthew Marshall: Yeah. No. So it’s a great opportunity for us to talk to visitors. We’re a little more quiet in November. Folks are waiting to visit until the Magic of Christmas officially opens. We usually do set up the week of Thanksgiving or the week just prior to. A lot of folks have so many other things on their plates that last thing that they’re thinking about doing is taking a leisurely stroll through the galleries. So we tend to not be too busy, so we’re able to really focus a lot. But we are open to the public in theory.
David Rau: But we put out a sign explaining what we’re doing and a lot of folks love seeing art or exhibitions being made. It’s almost like a behind the scenes. With the palettes on the tables, it doesn’t look like a construction site. It just looks like something exciting is happening and you can tell that people really kind of enjoy the special pre-look that they get. We ask those people to come back to see the magic when it’s done.
Catherine Cooper: Do you have people returning year after year?
Matthew Marshall: We really do see it become a tradition where multiple generations come in year after year and kind of share in what we call the Magic of Christmas. I can say, personally, there’s one family I can think of immediately, where I saw them come in when their children were toddlers and now they’re off to college. I’ve gotten to know this family through the tradition of them coming in and taking their Christmas card photo, and that feels so special to me. And it really kind of embodies the whole spirit of Christmas and the concept of the community coming together at an art museum in particular. It’s just, it’s wonderful to see that reaction.
David Rau: And that was kind of the impetus for the book because the same families come back every year and they try to remember which ones have they seen before, which ones are new. And because they’re so attached to these palettes and this tradition, they come out and say, “Has the museum ever thought about doing a book or doing some kind of publication, because we would buy one, because we just love this so much.” And you know, we realized early on, because it’s an ongoing growing collection, how do you do a book when it’s still growing? But we thought the 16th year was a good measure and also when we finally got over 200 palettes we thought, well we’ll at least do the first book. I’m not saying a series is coming, but at least the book is now officially done. But there are more palettes that are still being made, so it’s a moment in time.
Matthew Marshall: Each palette has its own page and just has the basic tombstone information underneath it. It has been met with great joy.
David Rau: They’re selling; they’re selling and they’re selling. I mean one of our challenges is that several of the artists, not requested by us, but they would paint on both sides. The palettes have two sides, a front and a back, and during the Christmas season we didn’t do anything special with those. We just hung one side facing out, and one side hiding in, which is kind of interesting because one of the panels up in our boarding house is double sided and the artists themselves turned the one to face the wall. And so there’s always at least one hidden. So, our hidden palettes make sense and we try our best to remember which one was facing out each year. With the book, those double sided ones got both of their sides pictured and shown. So, A) It’s good for their record keeping that the artist has both of their donations represented, but also during the show years when one side is facing and people are dying to know what the other side is, the book is a great opportunity for them.
Catherine Cooper: Did you re-photograph all of the palettes?
Matthew Marshall: We did. That was an intense couple of days, I must say. We hired a professional photographer who we work with quite frequently. Having to photograph 200 plus objects in matter of two days, each one requiring different lights set up, some of them having reflective surfaces, some being three dimensional, some being two dimensional, some being two sided. The photographer himself deserves an award because he put up with a lot those two days. It was well worth it, oh my goodness, when he started to send some of the images my way, just seeing the crispness, the clarity, it was amazing to know that we now have archival records of these palettes that are so true to life. That is just a great, you know, side effect of the book project. It just allows the palette project to live on forever and also we can use those photos in other manners other than just this, this book.
But there was a lot, a lot went into the actual design aspect of the book. And one thing that I love about it is the spiral bound binding because when we were designing it, we realized that if each palette was going to have its own page, we were going to have over 200 pages in this book, not including an index, not including a forward, not including the covers. So we knew it was going to be a thick book. Working for a museum, and we’re all about preservation, the last thing I wanted someone to do was buy a brand new book and have to break the binding so that on page 86 they could see their favorite palette. Having a spiral bound book, you’re able to lay it completely flat. It was a very conscious design decision to go with the spiral bound.
Catherine Cooper: So I do have to ask this because it’s completely unfair. Do you have a favorite palette or set of palettes that you look forward to opening every year?
David Rau: I’ll let Matt tell you, but first I have to say that both Matt and I are artists on the tree. That took a little soul searching, like, “is that appropriate?” So we can’t say those, if those are our favorites. We won’t mention our own palettes. But you’d love to say they’re like your children and you love all of them the same. What is amazing, though, is I do have some favorites and I have some of least favorites, but I’ve also had folks show me or point at something that I might not like as much and they’ll say, “Oh my gosh, that’s my favorite.” So I realize that it really is up to people’s personal opinion and some of the ones that you’d think “Really, I don’t know…” people say, “Oh my gosh, I look forward to seeing that one every year.” So, go figure.
Matthew Marshall: Definitely. If I had to choose, I would say some of my favorites are-
David Rau: Are you going to pick mine?
Matthew Marshall: I don’t know…The Christmas themed ones are always something special for me because being the designer that helps design the trees, I look at them as part of a Christmas display. So for me, personally, it’s linked directly to Christmas. And I love the angels in particular. I just think putting an angel on a tree is so quintessential New England Christmas, and that to me is always a special part. Bringing the angels out of the boxes and putting them on the tree. So, that’s something I look forward to every year.David Rau: If I had to pick one…early on there was a trompe-l’oeil palette that really fools your eye. It looks like an old palette made out of old wood with the paint on it and then some snowflakes cut out of paper and then hanging on them by thread. Well, the artist lives pretty far away and I didn’t want to burden them by having to come all the way to the museum, so I actually met the artist in a Home Depot parking lot one night halfway between the museum and their studio. And I was very gracious and thanked them, but I really thought I was looking at a crafty palette that he just cut out some snowflakes and stuck it on there. Cause in the light of the Home Depot it really looked like just a palette with some decoupage snowflakes. And it wasn’t until I got back to the museum in good light that I saw that every aspect of that, the paper snowflakes, and the thread, and even the ancient wood was all painted by him.
It’s really kind of a masterful piece. That one’s always been kind of near and dear because he didn’t hesitate to say yes when I asked if he would consider doing a palette for us. I think that just shows not only their eagerness to share their own work, but in their universe, the museum seems to be a very special place and they can acknowledge that by this kind of wonderful donation of a little bit of themselves.
Catherine Cooper: Thank you so much.
David Rau: Well, you’re also doing us a favor because we’re talking about the book, talking about the new palettes is getting us revved up for our 17th year of decorating Miss Florence’s palette trees.
Kevin Ammons: Thank you for listening to today’s show. If you would like more information, check out our podcast show notes at www.ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.