In May 2020, the James Renwick Alliance was able to learn more about Mary and her projects with our first digital Coffee & Craft Conversation. The program was recorded and is featured below, along with an abbreviated transcription of the Q&A.
"I really appreciated Mary Savig's statement that the artist is always the source & her curatorial wish to actually put the tone of an artist's voice and speaking into the display of exhibitions to add another layer." - Meena Satnarain, FIBER ARTIST
Jaimianne Jacobin (JJ): Your first major position and the one you left to join the Renwick Gallery was at the Smithsonian American Art archives. I'm hoping you can tell us a little bit about your experience there because you were working with a lot of intimate records and personal letters and I'm wondering how was your experience there and how that's going to inform your work as a curator at the Renwick?
Mary Savig (MS): I came from The Archives of American Art to the Renwick Gallery and in a lot of ways they are similar institutions because they both have National collecting programs. I think that is a key point. In both of the positions it's been really important for me to recognize the cultural and symbolic value of the institution and the power that we have in shaping and reshaping these narratives about national art and how craft can fit into that. Very broadly what I bring from the archives is this very haphazard bird's-eye view of American art. The position really made me a generalist because over the course of a week or over a given project I would dig into letters by the portrait painter John Singer Sargent or the radical writings of AfriCOBRA founder Jeff Donaldson or the research files of one of my favorite jewelers, Mary Ann Scherr. So, it really brought me through, across time and space in a lot of different ways, to American art. To me, the process of archival research is really comparable to a classic piece of craft and I think the method is as critical as the message. A letter, a photograph. Here you see Toshiko Takaezu at the wheel in the photographs from The Archive. A thrown pot, a wood turned bowl or a weaving. These are all primary texts to me. In the most immediate texts, we can really feel the presence of the artist's hand and from there we can begin to make meaning; Or in an ideal scenario, begin to ask ourselves more questions or go down a new line of inquiry and I think I may be over-romanticizing objects in Archives right now because I’ve been so physically disconnected from them for a while and only able to see them on my screen (because of quarantine). Basically if I'm looking at the document or an artwork I always go back to the original source. This is what I've learned from the archives and that means really going back to the artist. The artist is always the source. That's definitely the thread that I brought with me to my work at the Renwick. I like to start with an artist. I like to consider what the work means to their life story and then think about how they contribute to a national discourse and how to share that story and make it accessible to the broader public.
JJ: That's interesting and we'll be talking a little bit about your exhibition that you helped with later on at the Kohler and I think that is very interesting because I think there's some overlap. So, correct me if I'm wrong but you were working at The Archives, as you were getting your doctorate, while you were managing a newborn?
MS: Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend it. I had a lot of support. I started at the archives in 2008 and I had my Masters in art history and wanted to go back and pursue my Ph. D. My supervisor Liza Kirwin, who is currently the interim director of The Archives, is so supportive. She really encouraged me to go back. I couldn’t have done it without support from leadership. Having a newborn while you’re trying to finish your dissertation is, for me it worked out. I was able to do a lot of writing during my maternity leave. Before I was writing a lot in the morning and at night and that was the first time I actually had a few hours of uninterrupted time because newborns do sleep a lot, or I was lucky and had one that slept a lot during the day but he was up all night. So I'd been working at The Archives for a few years and decided to go back and this was in 2010 and Liza really encouraged me to look at craft and at that time the archives was in the midst of the Nanette Laitman project to document the field of American studio craft. So we were doing all of these interviews with people. And I do just want to give a shout out to two really great interviews that are up. So Paul Smith was interviewed by Lloyd Herman in 2010 and then Lloyd Herman interviewed Paul Smith and I think they're great interviews because they also showed the role of curators in establishing the field in the 1960s and 1970s. American studies for me was my intellectual helm at the University of Maryland. I chose American studies and not art history because American Studies was more interdisciplinary with an emphasis on the formation of identity and difference in American culture and then also material culture studies so that's part of the intersection I think of those two fields is where craft really lies. So that was really helpful for me to create an interdisciplinary foundation.
JJ: Can I interrupt? I want people to know [about the Nanette Laitman interviews] because it's such an amazing resource and it's so fascinating. I'd like to think people have more time in quarantine, which I'm very quickly realizing that is far from the truth, but if you do have more time and even if you don't, it's worth staying up late to listen to some of the interviews because they're absolutely fabulous. I know I've listened to a number of them. You can learn everything from an important person’s favorite cake to where they really begin their journey as an artist in the craft field.
MS: I was able to conduct a few [interviews] as part of the program which was really helpful for learning how to understand someone’s life story which I did try to bring to my doctoral research. The dissertation “Stitches as Seeds: Crafting New Natures”, it's been interesting to look back on this because I defended it about a year ago and it kind of makes you cringe going back to it. It was such a big part of my life and I had a really really wonderful committee that gave me so much to think about that I feel like going back has been interesting. The project at its heart was really thinking about fiber as a tool for thinking about and really feeling these entangled constructs of Nature and identity. So I was asking these questions “what is nature?” and “who decides what is natural?” Each chapter focuses on an immersive and fantastical representation of nature. So the top-right is Allyson Mitchell's Ladies Sasquatch installation. Then it's Aaron McIntosh's Invasive Queer Kudzu project. And then Margaret and Christine Wertheim’s Crochet Coral Reef and this is an image of the coral reef when it was installed at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. These are contemporary projects and I actually tried to make this a historical project so each chapter I juxtapose these works with historical genres of landscape art, natural science and natural history illustrations, and then of course the social history of women’s work. Because I had a job that was at The Archives and it was really, it had this institutional voice in all of my writing and my exhibitions, I was trying to be a little bit more risk-taking and experimental with the dissertation. I structured each chapter to emulate the making of a patchwork quilt so I tried to really stitch together multiple sources including collage paintings, public sculpture performance, and poetry around these primary artworks to create a patchwork quilt of sorts, of these network of things, which I hope brought really unexpected context in juxtaposition to the work. I think it's a method I'm still exploring. It's a little complicated and I'd be happy to talk about it more. It's definitely this idea of nature as something that has continued to inform how I'm thinking about Renwick's collections and the legacies of nature in the American studio craft.
JJ: After you wrote your dissertation you then have done a couple of books. One of the fun ones I think is "Artful Cats: Discoveries from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art" and when we originally met, we were at the Haystack Conference and basically you gave an entire talk about why the Archives are so important but you also, in actuality, were just talking about cats. And I think that using humor is something that you do very often. For people who don't know Mary, if you get a chance to meet her in person, she's just a very warm person and using humor is something that you do very often. I think of it as a tool for accessibility. I'm wondering how that is going to come across at the Renwick gallery or if it does at all?
MS: Well Jaimianne, I'm very excited to announce that my next project at the Renwick will be Crafty Dogs! No, I'm sorry. I'm actually not very funny as you can tell. The book about cats was not really my idea. My wonderful colleagues Rhoko Uneo and Susan Cary, they were really encouraging me for years to organize this exhibition. I'm a dog person so I'd always roll my eyes at them because cats are not cool and then sure enough we really began uncovering these really interesting stories in the archives. Here is Beatrice Wood throwing a pot in front of one of her minx cats. She had two and her journals are really great because they tell all of these, you know she's like going on about her life and then she’ll mention like, “one of the minx’s went missing” and then a couple days later she’ll mention that he came back. And we were just really thinking about how cats are not an interval part of American art. Although cat's probably think they are important. It's really about accessibility and trying to surface the value of primary source materials in American art history and culture. For a lot of people, if we ask them what is a primary source, they think of the US Constitution or founding documents. But really, these kinds of primary sources are from our everyday life and they breathed life into the historical record. So really, the book contains a lot of anecdotes that researchers tend to uncover as they're working on their projects that they can't really include in their final text because those stories about cats, they’re silly and they're often besides the point but you know, it's not me being silly, it’s the artist. And I'm just trying to shine a light on that to, I think, bring more humanity to what they're doing. And we see that. We all know artists and we all see that. So that’s what we’re trying to do with these projects, to show that, to really dismantle that myth that artists are these solitary creatures, toiling away in their studios. So don't worry long time fans and supporters of the Renwick, I'm not going to write knock knock jokes on the labels. What's really important to me is just teasing out the effective power of the piece, it's emotion in the presence of an artist. Sometimes that is humorous and you can augment that. Sometimes it’s really heart-breaking. there's this whole range of emotions that we can bring out and that's why we go to see art, that’s why we go to see museums. So I’m just there to try to tease that out for viewers and provide more context.
JJ: I think the key word that you just said, which is very interesting, is “humanizing”. The idea of humanizing artists leads into the next question really well because I've been wondering how you're doing as someone new to the Renwick Gallery and then having to go into quarantine?
MS: So, I started in January. In a lot of ways it was a super easy transition because I've been at the Smithsonian for more than a decade. So I know the forms, I know the bureaucracy and just had to move my office down the street. A lot of my colleagues that I worked with at SAAM [Smithsonian American Art Museum] and the Renwick, the American Museum, for many years so it was just being able to be, you know in meetings with them in the different way, so a lot of that transition was really easy.
JJ: I think the idea that we're having a conversation with you today and this is humanizing your background and we're getting to know you as a person but also your work in making things accessible by humanizing artists. And, during this pandemic, I mean, we're all coming, this is my living room. We’re all coming very candidly from all over the country to be together. I I think that's an important thread that's kind of coming up and will continue to come up in some of the other questions for you. We’re happy to hear it’s an easy transition for you.
MS: That part was easy, yes, in January. And then I should say another colleague joined us, Anya Montiel. She is the curator of Native American women's art and craft. Her time is split between the Renwick and the American Indian Museum. So Nora Atkinson is our supervisor and Anya, Nora, and I really have so much in common. We bring a lot of different perspectives to our meetings and we have really productive meetings. I think we're a really great, effective, supportive team. Of course all of this has its challenges with online but I think we are really trying to think through what that means for the Renwick and that’s been, there's so much anxiety around museums and I'm not going to say we aren’t anxious but yeah there's also a lot of very energizing aspects to working with such a great team at the Renwick.
JJ: I did actually forget to mention that. Maybe you can tell people a little bit more about the other new curator that joined your team. So what are some of the projects? Do you know some of the projects that she's working on? And maybe you can remind all of us when she started.
MS: She just started in mid-February. We were only in the office for about a month before we all had to leave. Anya brings extensive expertise in the history of the relationship of Native American art, especially in relationships between the federal government and Native Arts communities. She's advising and contributing really wonderful ideas for potential acquisitions, exhibition ideas. It’s just great to have three curators who are all working on Renwick projects. And that also allows for more collaboration, I hope, between the American Indian Museum and the American Art Museum - Renwick. [Their Preston Singletary exhibit is] opening this fall and right now is “Hearts of Our People”. We were able to extend that through August. It was supposed to close in May, I think. Maybe June. I don't know what time is anymore! But we were able to extend it so we're hoping we'll be able to get some people into the gallery to see it before it closes because it's really a remarkable exhibition. I didn’t work on it. It was already done when I started and I just think it's a fantastic project. The curatorial team of where it originated at the Minneapolis Institute of Art did such an amazing job and I hope it serves as a model for a lot of projects moving forward.
JJ: The exhibition that I mentioned very briefly earlier, “Ephemeral and Eternal: The Archive of Lenore Tawney”. I saw it at the Kohler Arts Center, but I believe it's traveling? That's an interesting exhibition where it's craft-meets-archives. Can you tell us a little bit about that project and maybe where it’s going and your work on that?
MS: Sure. I just had to open it up with this postcard of a cat collage that was the cover of the Cat book that was made by Lenore Tawney. Tawney was really clever in her mail or correspondence. It’s really quite funny. So everything does come back to cats. Here are just a few exhibition views. This part of the exhibition was curated by Karen Patterson and this is why it was at the Kohler. Tawney was really an environment builder. This was just her studio. You can see she just collected and sourced things. There’s a great Toshiko pot by the chairs. All of her collections were displayed throughout her studio and the Kohler did an amazing job of recreating this. And here, just some gorgeous photos. Just looking at these makes me really want to go see art again. So I just really want to thank Karen Patterson and Kathleen Mangan, the director of the Lenore Tawney Foundation. They started this project and they were the ones who really realize that Tawney’s archive was more than just footnotes, that the creation of her archive was as intentional as the creation of her artworks. So they brought me onto the project to talk about that. And I also want to thank Glenn Adamson because he wrote the biography that's in the book and it is so scrupulous that I had no choice but to write about the more idiosyncratic and goofy and poetic parts of her studio practice that surfaced in her archives. This is the main project which is thinking about her life's work and her studio. And I was really fortunate to curate this part about her archives and also write some essays for the book. So my exhibition and the catalog essays explore the correspondence journals, artist quotes, and snapshots that detail key moments in her career, as well as her everyday life and some of her really close friendships. Her archives were truly inextricable from the other facets of her studio environment. Her library of books, her works in progress, her various arrangements and assortments of rocks, feathers, eggs, animal skeletons, and lots of buttons. As Tawney collected, she really commingled and crafted these works together. These are some examples of collages of her mail art collages. When she would send something like this, you could really imagine Tawney sitting at her desk, feathering this duck nest. Like she was feathering it from her own studio, which was also very nest-like. So you can really imagine her working between projects and going from, you know, one of these small scale collages to something larger scale. And I just wanted to, if you missed seeing art [because of the lock-down], I think you should buy the catalog. It's an award-winning catalog. To Karen [Patterson] and Glenn [Adamson] and Kathleen [Mangan]'s credit, it has a lot of fiber. People know it's really hard to photograph fiber art. This book does a tremendous job of showing the exquisite details and textures of Tawney’s work. So I think to fulfill your museum needs right now. I think you should order this book. I don't get anything from it so I'm just trying to promote the beautiful and very smart book. And that was a great project to work on.
JJ: So that opened at the Kohler Museum in Sheboygan. For anyone who hasn’t been to that museum, it is a very, very large space. So how is that working? Are parts of it traveling but not the entire exhibition, I assume?
MS: I don't think parts are traveling right now. I don’t know if it’s traveling. I think the studio will eventually be permanently set up permanently at the Kohler’s art preserve. So the studio is staying at the Kohler. That was set up temporarily at the museum, along with chronology of some of her major beautiful artwork. Another gallery was dedicated just to one of her clouds, which is “Cloud Labyrinth”. Just truly one of the most amazing art experiences I've ever had because it was a massive work. And then I had my companion show and then Shannon Stratton curated a show, “Every Thread Has a Speech”, a show that highlights the legacies of Lenore Tawney and contemporary fiber practices.
JJ: An expedition that you're working on now is the “Subversive, Skilled, Sublime: Fiber Art by Women” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how the exhibition came about? I'm not sure when the last time the Smithsonian did an all-fiber show and this is all from the collection.
MS: Yeah, these are all permanent collection. I think the last time was in the 90s and that was Ken Trapp’s “High Fiber”. They’ve done a few quilting shows too. This is a fall exhibition from the permanent collection. I started the project two years ago when I was at The Archives because we were thinking about, I was just working on my dissertation so my co-curator, Virginia Mecklenburg, was interested in just talking about fiber histories with me and then we were talking about how archives resources can really inform and add depth to the artwork. So I started working on it with her and Laura Augustine at the museum about 2 years ago. They all are drawn from our holdings. This exhibition is organized by the Smithsonian's American Women's History Initiative which is a multi-year project that's really meant to draw out a lot of different exhibitions and catalogs and research and symposia on women's history and contributions to all aspects of American history, culture, science. The checklist is huge, it’s about 34 works and it ranges from Adela Akers, Emma Amos, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Lia Cook, Olga de Amaral, Consuelo Jiménez Underwood, Sheila Hicks, Carolyn Mazloomi, Faith Ringgold, Miriam Schapiro, Joyce Scott, Judith Scott, Kay Sekimachi, Marguerite Zorach, just to name a few. It’s a really, really diverse checklist. All of these women mastered then subverted the everyday material of fiber through the 20th century. The earliest work is a Marguerite Zorach spread that was from the 19-teens and the latest work, I think it's one of Joyce Scotts from the 90s. So all of these artists drew on their personal experiences particularly their vantage points as women to transform humble thread into resonant and intricate artworks that expanded the contours of American art in many ways. The artworks on view are as diverse as the women that made them. The artists express themselves, we’ll be showing some quilts, woven tapestry and rugs, beaded and embroidered ornamentation, twisted and bound sculpture, and multi-media assemblages. And overall we really want to deepen the exhibition artwork with the artist narrative. I always go back to the artist with first-hand insight into their world through sketches, photographs, correspondence, and excerpts from oral history interviews. So we'll have archival material in one section and then we’re also creating a podcast and you can walk through [the exhibit] and hear the artist themselves talking about the importance of fiber to their practice. The challenge with this is how do you organize all of these collections that are drawing on a lot of different ecosystems of knowledge and put them in a coherent manner. So we did not do this chronologically; rather we organized them into several themes that really emphasize conversations between works and then also an artist's own words. So the categories include the profound influence of feminine and domestic life. I’ll show another really flashy piece. This is the wonderful massive work by Miriam Schapiro. I think all of you will just be so dazzled by it in person. So another category is of course, feminist strategies for subverting the marginalization of fiber handicraft; knowledge of traditional and ancient techniques, whether that learned through o travel or from family member to family member; and harmonies of nature and metaphor. All of these categories illuminate how artists invited moments of reflection and contemplation, stitch by stitch, loop by loop, and we just really wanted to create a very experiential feeling in the galleries.
JJ: We had a question in the chat box - is this exhibition going to have a catalog?
MS: No, unfortunately it’s not going to have a catalog. The timeline just didn’t permit it. But we will have a podcast that's been funded by the American Women’s History Initiative and that's a really great way for us to, again, surface the artists voice directly into the viewer's space. So you'll be able to hear from the artist, you’ll be able to hear the tone of their voice in a way that's really powerful, and we're also creating a website working with Archives of American Art so you'll be able to sort of unpack the layers of a lot of these works.
JJ: So I guess what other projects do you have coming up? This is a really exciting one. Do you know what the schedule will be now that we're in quarantine? Has it changed, has it pushed, or are you just waiting to hear?
MS: So this exhibition won't open until next year and it will open over at the American Art Museum, not at the Renwick Gallery but I don't have the details on when it'll open. That’s still very much in flux at the museum, so I don't want to give out information that could change. But feel free to email me if you have any questions about the exhibition. So coming up next is the 50th anniversary of the Renwick. It opened to the public in 1972. The 50th is the golden anniversary so I wanted to just show off this beautiful necklace, this golden necklace by Mary Lee Hu that's going on loan to the Crystal Bridges craft show, which is also delayed. I mean, this is something we can't delay because an anniversary is an anniversary so in 2022, we’ll open this anniversary celebration. This is the project I've really been tasked to put together in close collaboration with Nora [Atkinson] and Anya [Montiel]. We started with one idea in January and I think the response to COVID-19 has really changed our direction. We’re trying to recalibrate that now. We’re really trying to understand what the 50th means in this present moment and how we can use craft to help people think through that. So we’re still planning on representing our collecting plan, which is 1. focused on 20th century studio craft, so we will have a retrospective of sorts that will consider the legacies of the Renwick in shaping craft histories, and also, but the museum itself was founded as a contemporary museum so we definitely want to bring in those moments of contemporary practice and really highlight new acquisitions. With that in mind in response to COVID-19, what we're really trying to do is reflect on this moment and how the Renwick, as a relatively stable institution because of our federal backing, can support the anxious craft field at this time. So we're really trying to support living artists in this project. We really want to be able to. Of course we always have these priorities to fill gaps in our collections or build on our strengths of the twentieth century but I think in response to this present moment, we really want to be able to support artists who are, you know, at really critical junctures right now. So we’ll try to do that with that with acquisitions and with programs as much as we can and, you know, I do think that idea really brings the Renwick full circle, back to 1972, when it opened as a space dedicated to contemporary craft and what that could tell us about ourselves today. So it’s very vague. We don’t have a thesis because we’re in the throes of this right now. So we're like everybody else. We’re trying to document what's happening in the field right now. There's almost this craftivist moment with people making masks which, again, ties to a lot of stories we’re telling in the fiber exhibition about unpaid women's labor. So we're trying to think about documenting that as well as just how people are making sourdough starters at home and doing all of these other things to cope with not being able to be out in the world safely. So we’re working through that and it’s been energizing to see how supportive the craft community has been. I think, especially for everyone showing up here today, I think a lot of us have been really bolstered by that and I think the craft community is really strong and supportive and so we're hoping to be able to contribute to that. I really wanted to thank the James Renwick Alliance for also being so supportive over the years. This Mary Lee Hu piece came from the Renwick Alliance. We look forward to continuing the relationship and continuing to build on these legacies of craft and the contemporary.
JJ: Thanks, Mary!
To hear the audience questions and the full dialog, please watch the JRA Coffee & Conversation above.