by Paula Birnbaum, Academic Director
To continue our conversations with USF faculty and staff, we sat down with Glori Simmons, the new Director of USF’s Thacher Gallery in the Gleeson Library-Geschke Center. We discussed her vision for the Gallery as well as her thoughts about the current exhibition, In Nature’s Temple: Early California Art and Ecology.
Q. Congratulations! You were recently appointed Director of Thacher Gallery. Can you tell us a little bit about your vision for the Gallery?
I’m excited to move into this new role after having worked with the founding director, Fr. Thomas Lucas, for over 15 years. The gallery’s exhibition calendar is nearly set for the next two to three years, so my focus as director is on programming around these shows. I’m especially interested in exploring what it means to be an art gallery in a liberal arts University. My goal is that every undergraduate student encounters the gallery as part of their academic experience at least once in their first year. I want students from every discipline to leave the University with fond memories of the gallery and a long-term interest in art of all kinds. I want students to be aware of the many ways in which art plays a role in their lives, and to have some skills, beyond gut reaction, to enjoy it.
This semester I’m working with the Rhetoric and Language team to create a teacher resource that will outline ways to use the gallery to develop visual literacy and specific themes (such as environmentalism). My hope is that in several years, we’ll have a resource that is useful for most, if not all, of the Core disciplines.
We’ve also begun more regular programming for all of the exhibits, including “Thacher Thursdays,” which include weekly tours and an event on the second Thursday of the month, when any group from campus can propose a one hour “pop-up” exhibit. This semester’s themes include: animal habitat sculptures by the summer sculpture class, a nature walk with the USF Wellness program and a broadside exchange between English and MFA in Writing classes and a Design class. I’m open to ideas for more programs!
All of this augments our ongoing work with students majoring in the arts, architecture and the new Museum Studies program.
Q. Your own graduate degree is in Poetry and you were a Stegner fellow at Stanford University. How do your literary interests play out in your work in the Gallery and vice versa?
Writing and editing plays a big role in our exhibits. As a writer, I most enjoy the revision and editing process, so I work hard on the exhibition didactics. Since I don’t approach art with an art history background, I often push for more explanation about process and history from curators. Over the years, Tom Lucas and I have expanded the educational materials for exhibits, such as informational boards and educational tours for school-aged kids.
I, of course, love to host literary activities, such as poetry readings, linked with the visual arts. Right now, we have three poetry classes as well as faculty and staff writing poems in response to the artworks on display in “In Nature’s Temple.” I also love to collaborate with the Donohue Rare Book Room whenever I can to share rare and artist books related to our exhibits. John Hawk, the Rare Book Librarian, is a wonderful resource.
For me, imagery lives at the heart of all forms of narrative—poetry, fiction and film—so art has played a major roll in my writing. I’ve written a lot about artists. The central poem in my book, Graft, is about Mary Reynolds, a surrealist bookbinder who collaborated with Duchamp and Cocteau and whose work is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was excited to be able to use the image of one of her bindings on the cover of the book.
I’ve also collaborated with musicians and filmmakers, including writing a script and doing voice-over for an experimental film that told the story of Flora Muybridge, assistant and wife to Eadweard Muybridge. In a current fiction project, I’m creating a character who is a museum registrar. This is a draft, so it’s hard to know if this detail will stay.
Q. Do you have specific ideas as to how you might continue to collaborate with the students in the new MA in Museum Studies program?
The gallery calendar is filled with collaborations with the new MA program. I see the program as a major resource for the gallery—and vice versa! The students are not only the gallery’s most obvious audience, but creators of content as well.
This first year, the students in the foundational Museum Studies: History & Theory class will be creating educational content for several shows in the spring. I’m hoping to use this content to experiment with QR codes. I’m also hoping to work with the technology class to explore ways to use the iPad in the gallery. Next year, Kate Lushek’s Curatorial Practice course will curate a spring exhibition, possibly in collaboration with the Rare Book Room. This will probably become an annual program. I’ve hired one graduate student, Leah Belcher, to help as a paid intern as well. (Thanks to all the amazing applicants who applied.) She led her first tour of “In Nature’s Temple” to USF undergrads last week and is hard at work designing an educational piece for school-age students. Volunteers are also very welcome, especially during installations. I’m in the office Monday through Thursday, so never hesitate to stop by!
Q. Can you tell us about the current exhibition, In Nature’s Temple: Early California Art and Ecology?
We’ve now hosted several exhibits that focus on the history of California arts, and they always turn out to be very ambitious. This one is no different. “In Nature’s Temple” tells several stories: the history of California and Yosemite National Park, the biographies of four major players in California history and the arts, the exploration of “wilderness” and spirituality in the American psyche, the beginnings of the environmental movement, and the introduction of landscape photography and painting on the West Coast.
Ultimately, it looks at the shared experiences of naturalist John Muir (1830-1904), photographers Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) and Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), and painter William Keith (1838-1911) in the California landscape. Muir, Watkins and Keith, in particular, traveled together documenting the landscape in their own ways. Their work brought the attention of Yosemite and the Sierra to east coast thinkers (such as Ralph Waldo Emerson), politicians, and the general population (through stereo viewers, the late 19th century’s version of IMAX). We have two available in the gallery to have fun with.
The works focus primarily on the 1870s and 1880s, with a special look at the Yosemite Valley, which became especially timely in light of the recent fires. Muir lived in Yosemite from 1868 through the mid-1870s and served as a guide to artists and naturalists who visited. While John Muir is probably best-known for his spiritual writings and activism around nature, he also studied nature, including the glaciers in Yosemite, with a geologist’s eye. In fact, he established that Yosemite was not created by an earthquake as was previously thought, but by glaciers. This exhibit includes notes he took for an article he wrote fighting the dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. (These are part of the Rare Book Room’s collection!) He and Keith formed a lifelong friendship. Together, they commiserated about the importance of creating an organization that was dedicated to preservation (the Sierra Club) and bantered about Keith’s painting styles.
While Muir is the central force in this exhibit, connecting all of the artists, I always try to introduce visitors to the photographs by Carleton Watkins. He was the first to photograph in Yosemite, and therefore could be considered our first guide to its major sites. His photographs suggested many of the viewpoints we now use when we go to Yosemite. Sadly, he was terrible at business and lost his glass negatives first through debt and then again in the San Francisco earthquake and fires.
Q. If you could take one work in the exhibit home with you, which would it be?
I probably spend about equal time at work as at home, so I’m quite happy to have the work here! Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs are right outside of my office and I catch myself slowing down and admiring them every time I walk by. There’s one that I especially like. The required long exposure has washed out the distant mountain, but its reflection is crystal clear in the river in the foreground, suggesting its stillness.
Q. What have you learned from this exhibit?
Scale is one of the things that struck me right away when I saw all of these works together. With “In Nature’s Temple,” you can get the sense of how small a person would have felt standing on the edge of the valley—no road leading up, no gravel path, no bricked ledge. Add to that, the materials required to create these images: paints, canvases, glass negatives the same size as the images you see on display, a darkroom! It’s the definition of awesome. Not only in regards to the artworks, but also in regards to the nature be represented. It is grand, majestic, all of those things.
In contrast, I was also introduced to an essay by William Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature?” in preparation for two tours with students in a Rhetoric & Composition class. The essay includes a concise history of the way in which nature has been presented in Western culture, contextualizing the artworks in this exhibition perfectly. In the process, it also calls into question Muir’s “worship” of nature. What is lost (farming, traditions) in the act of preservation? What does it take to keep wilderness pristine? Who is forced to leave? (Early on, the U.S. cleared out the Native Americans from Yosemite, yet several of Keith’s paintings depict them there.) How do we frame and experience nature now? I like having this voice in my head presenting another point of view and complicating things.
Q. Tell us about your upcoming programming for this exhibit, as well as future exhibitions this coming year.
I’m really excited that In Nature’s Temple Curator and former director of the gallery, Thomas Lucas, S.J., will be returning to USF to discuss this exhibit with Kevin Starr. Starr is one of USF’s most acclaimed graduates, author of an important historical series on California and is a former State Librarian. The format of the conversation will make the talk dynamic and fun in addition to informative. Monday, October 7, 2:30-3:30 p.m., a reception will follow in the gallery.
We also just opened Paradox: New Ceramics by Arturo Araujo, S.J., on the Kalmanovitz Sculpture Terrace. Araujo, who is a printmaker and sculptor in the Department of Art + Architecture, uses ceramics to explore the contradictions in Psalm 16. We usually see ceramics like the ones in this exhibit twice removed: inside a vitrine, under the roof of a museum. That’s not the case here, and it adds to the experience. The bowls capture water, the raffia blows in the wind. Their fragility, as well as their possible function, is right out there in the open.