Connected \\ August 10, 2021

Postcard from Crystal Bridges: Pemcast Episode 23



In this episode of the PEMcast, we go on the road. In May, when vaccinations were finally in full swing, I hopped on a plane for the first time in more than a year and headed to the Ozarks, where I grew up. This also happens to be home to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, our co-organizer for the current special exhibition In American Waters.

A show about marine painting seems so fitting in Salem, where marine painting arrived in America from Europe and was passed down as an artform. Some may question why Crystal Bridges, located in Bentonville, Arkansas, would help organize an exhibition like this.

Bridge may be slippery sign


Until you visit Crystal Bridges and realize that the museum is situated in acres of natural forest and that it’s named after a natural rushing spring that flows right through the property. Nature is everywhere. When I was there, I was captivated yet again by a steel sculpture of a mother spider, Manan by Louise Bourgeois, which rises 30 feet into the air, acting as resident protector.

A glimpse of the property’s resident protector.  Louise Bourgeois (1911 - 2010). 1999.

Louise Bourgeois (1911 - 2010). Manan, 1999. Bronze, stainless steel, and marble. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville.

Though I’ve lived in Massachusetts most of my adult life, I know what it's like to grow up in the middle of the country, landlocked with beach fever. I started out by stopping people walking through the trails to ask about their experience of the sea. They came from Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas, but also from Israel, Ireland and the East Coast. Their experiences were far ranging — from working on a shrimp boat to being a first class passenger on the Queen Mary in a transatlantic crossing.

Flat Creek in the author’s hometown, rushing with spring rains.

Flat Creek in the author’s hometown, rushing with spring rain.

Learning about the rushing water through the property with Grounds Manager Clay Bakker

Learning about the rushing water through the property with Grounds Manager Clay Bakker.


The Ozarks are beautiful and I’m not just biased. Visitors to the museum could not stop marvelling at how gorgeous and green the grounds were. Spring in the Ozarks is made more vibrant by all the rainfall and dramatic thunderstorms. I interviewed Clay Bakker, the grounds manager, who told me about the construction challenges of building the museum in a floodplain. He also spoke of the flora and fauna found on the property, as we visited Crystal Spring, a source of water for the locals back in the 19th century.

The author and Grounds Manager Clay Bakker walking in the woods

The museum, founded by the philanthropist Alice Walton, turns 10 this fall. On the outside, Crystal Bridges might not have much in common with PEM, an institution more than 220 years old. But in addition to sharing architect Moshe Safdie, we are both surprisingly big institutions in smaller communities. I discussed this with Austen Barron Bailly, chief curator at Crystal Bridges and former Curator of American Art at PEM. She compared her urban daily walk to PEM in Salem to her woodsy trek to work in Bentonville.

Chief Curator Austen Barron Bailly

Chief Curator Austen Barron Bailly.

The day we strolled the property and went indoors to see some of the museum’s collection was the exact moment that the paintings from Crystal Bridges for In American Waters were being hung at PEM. Originally from New Orleans, Bailly is keenly interested in American history and how it connects to the waterways of our country.

“One of the things we’re really excited to play up is the way the rivers and the creeks and the waterways in this region all flow into our major rivers like the Mississippi and onto the Gulf, which connects to the sea, which connects to the Atlantic and beyond,” she said.

What she hopes people in Arkansas take away from looking at these paintings, said Bailly, is the connection between them and a place like Salem.

Crystal Bridges Museum

On view at PEM through October 3 and opening at Crystal Bridges on November 6, this exhibition includes some of the great classic scenes of 19th century marine art, such as merchant vessels, yachts and naval vessels, but it reaches well beyond that into parts of American painting that people often don’t associate with seascapes or marine art. The show doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of the nation. It allows us to see through the lens of American painting, experiences of the Middle Passage and the legacies of slavery, what it means to enter this country through steerage or arrive at a new life on Ellis Island.

William Trost Richards. Along the Shore, 1903. Oil on canvas. 39 3/16 × 78 1/2 in. Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2009.1. Photography by Steven Watson. This massive seascape is beloved by visitors to Crystal Bridges, partly because of its ability to transport the viewer, says Austen Barron Bailly.


“I am so fascinated by American history,” said Bailly. “And American art is a way to really grapple with our history, to grapple with the events that have become most well known in our imaginations. And I feel that there are so many ways to enter into the American experience.”

Guest in the gallery In American Waters

Guests in the PEM galleries on opening weekend of In American Waters. Photography by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


Closer to home, we are grateful that we can experience In American Waters one moment and then walk a short distance to actually be in American waters.

To say farewell to a few beloved staff members, in late July PEM’s Marketing Department set sail at sunset on Fame, a replica of a privateer schooner that was active in the War of 1812. Each summer and fall, the sails of Fame can be seen rising into the sky, as it navigates waters steeped in history.

PEM staff enjoy a stunning sunset. Photo by Dinah Cardin

PEM staff enjoy a stunning sunset. Photo by Dinah Cardin.

Glimpsing other local historic boats. Photo by Dinah Cardin.

Glimpsing other local historic boats. Photo by Dinah Cardin.

Staff member Melissa Woods helps the crew hoist the sails. Photo by Kathy Tarantola

Staff member Melissa Woods helps the crew hoist the sails. Photo by Kathy Tarantola.


In American Waters is on view at PEM through October 3, 2021. It then heads west, opening at Crystal Bridges on November 6. We hope you listen to and enjoy this episode of the PEMcast. It was produced for the Peabody Essex Museum by me, Dinah Cardin, and it was edited and mixed by Perry Hallinan. All rain and rushing water was recorded in the Ozarks. Thank you to the staff at Crystal Bridges Museum of Art. The PEMcast is generously supported by The George S. Parker Fund.

Dinah: There is an exhibition coming up here called In American Waters...so my question is what is your experience of the sea?

Man: The sea. S-E-A? 

Man: It’s vast. It’s wavy. It’s just really plays to your mind and your fantieis. Allows your imagination to turn on. 

Dinah (tape) Have you been? 

Man: To the sea, oh, yeah. On both sides of the country. 

Another guy: I don’t have much experience with it, We’re in the middle of nowhere in Arkansas here. 

Dinah: Welcome to the PEMcast, conversations and stories for the culturally curious from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. I’m your host, Dinah Cardin. If you live in Salem, water is everywhere. The sea frames the city. But in this episode, I’m reporting from the road, from Bentonville, Arkansas, home to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, our co-organizer for PEM’s current exhibition In American Waters.

Dinah: There are no wrong answers.

(plane overhead)

Woman: I think the sea is amazing because it has a salt water base. It’s huge with all kinds of aquarian life. When we go to the sea, because I live in South Texas, we go around Galveston, so it’s Galveston Bay that then goes out to the sea.

Group of Ladies: With the sea? With the sea?

Woman: My personal experience with the sea is a year and a half of shrimping on the Gulf of Mexico.

Dinah:  I grew up in the Ozarks on the Missouri and Arkansas border, where the sea is miles and miles away. I happened to be visiting my family there in May, flying on a plane for the first time since the pandemic started. Since I’ve spent a good chunk of my adult life looking out at Salem Harbor and have been working on this exhibition about water, while in the Ozarks, I paid particular attention to the fresh water everywhere around me. And like most spring seasons in the Ozarks, we experienced tremendous rainfall, thunderstorms and flooding. 

[thunder and rushing water]

Dinah: Rendering blankets of fresh grass in shades of blinding green.

 

Little girl: What’s the question?

Dinah: What’s your experience of the sea?

Little girl: Going to the beach and playing in the water and a cool breeze blowing on your face.

Dinah (tape) Where did you do that?

Girl: Pensacola Beach

Boy: I like to go to the beach. Hee. I like to play in the water with the beach ball. But we never bring our beach balls.

Young woman: The sea scares me a little. It’s so big and we don’t know what’s in there. Most of it.

Guy: I’m from Israel, so it’s a different ocean. I used to go to surf almost everyday until I saw this movie with sharks.

Woman: Oh, I love the ocean, I think the ocean is an amazing place. I experience God’s glory just of the vastness and the bigness of the ocean. You don’t see the other side. It’s kind of unending. The peace that you experience and the perspective of how small I am compared to how big God is. I think it’s a spiritual experience for me, for sure. I’m excited to see what that exhibit is all about.

Man: Of the?

 

Woman: Like s-e-a?

Man: sea, go ahead. 

woman: I’ve been in transAtlantic boats, like the Queen Mary when I was a child. It would have been like in the early 50s, we went first class. We had to dress for dinner. Formal attire. I took hat boxes with me to Europe. I was 13.

Dinah (tape) What does it feel like? This is so different for you guys to be here. You are landlocked here. But you have this water and this nature.

Woman: It’s beautiful, just beautiful. I’m thrilled with this walk. I’m thrilled with no skyscrapers.

Dinah: Not only does this area lack skyscrapers. It has bridges that span lots of water.  The museum is situated on 120 acres of Ozark forest, hosting native plants and animals with natural springs and streams.

Clay: These rooms are what we refer to as the bridges of Crystal Bridges. These two go east and south and they cross a really big waterway.

 

Dinah: This is Clay Bakker, the grounds director.

 

Clay: And so the interesting part about this is it is an ongoing waterway. It's part of a floodplain that's known as Town Branch Creek. It was this waterway that our architect...really wanted to, you know, highlight in the building design of this whole complex.

 

Dinah: Crystal Bridges is turning ten this year. 

Clay:  How would we build the museum in a floodplain? For six years they diverted Town Branch Creek underground...under the construction site of Crystal Bridges. Twice during the construction of Crystal Bridges, we had a 100 year flood event.

Dinah: Water everywhere. Water has been a subject that painters return to again and again, which is why this exhibition features both classic 19th century marine art, but also contemporary pieces painted in just the last couple of years. This exhibition was conceived by PEM’s Maritime Curator Dan Finamore and Austen Barron Bailly, former American Art Curator at PEM and now Chief Curator of Crystal Bridges. Between the art historian and the maritime historian mindsets, they were able to craft a new approach to the subject, telling a broader story of America through these paintings. There are 38 lenders to the show, with PEM and Crystal Bridges at the core. In American Waters, a show about marine painting seems so fitting in Salem, where marine painting arrived in America from Europe and was passed down as an artform. Some may question why Crystal Bridges would help organize an exhibition like this. Until you visit Crystal Bridges and realize that the museum is named after a natural rushing spring that flows through the property. When I was there, the team was installing a piece by Yayoi Kusama consisting of silvery metallic reflective spheres floating on the water. There are also colorful glass floats by Chihuly and a beloved bronze and steel sculpture of a mother spider, rising 30 feet and acting as the resident protector.  In addition to natural Arkansas Quartz crystals, you can see artworks situated in nature...colorful birds, the occasional deer and sometimes a snake.

Clay: Well, it's part of being in a forest, right? It’s a full ecosystem. We have.banded water snakes that you'll see swimming in the water occasionally. We have black rat snakes. They can be four to five feet long. They climb trees. Right in front of ya', they'll climb right up a tree and go in a hole. But then we also have copperheads. They're extremely beautiful snakes, but they’re also poisonous. I'd hate to jinx us, but luckily, knock on wood, we, haven't had any bites yet from any poisonous snakes.

Dinah: Any fish?

 

Clay: There's, there's some perch and some bass. I put grass eating carp in, in order to help us with that algae situation. And maybe three days after I put 'em in, a big rainstorm came and about 90 percent of them all just went down stream. Our founder... Alice 

Dinah: That’s Alice Walton of the Wal-Mart family who started the museum.

Clay: She was super enamored with this wonderful forest that she grew up in and wanted to protect it at all costs.

Dinah: The Ozarks are gorgeous. I’m not just being biased here. While interviewing people about their personal experiences of the sea, all they could do was praise the forest around us.

Clay: Birds chirping and bees buzzing. That’s one of the things that we find to be this fascinating interpretation of what we do at CB is really the presentation of art throughout the course of a year outside. That's Crystal Spring , have you ever been back and seen Crystal Spring?

Dinah: Let's go.

Clay: Let’s see it. Beautiful

Dinah: What are the ferns?

Clay: Super lush, these are Christmas fern. Everything is covered in moss and ferns in this ravine that hosts Crystal Spring. It's got its own little microclimate down here. Because that water is 53 degrees all year round. So in the winter, it steams. And so Crystal Springs, that's been called Crystal Spring since the 1800s and one of the original sources of freshwater for the original settlers of Bentonville, Arkanasas. We have pictures of, of, ladies in big hoop dresses getting, uh, you know, urns full of water right here where we're standing.

[Sound of rushing water]

Dinah: Walking over these rushing waters and through this lush forest each morning and evening is Austen, chief curator.

Dinah (tape) You used to walk to work in Salem and now you get to walk to work here and what’s your walk like?

 

Austen:  My walk, um, is about .8 miles. I take this little kind of gravel path up a hillside, across the greenway, past a Robert Tannen, one of our "Grains of Sand" sculptures and enter the neighborhood where I live.

Dinah: Austen is originally from New Orleans, a city known for one of the most classic American waterways, the Mississippi.

Austin: One of the things we’re really excited to play up is the way the rivers and the creeks and the waterways in this region all flow into our major rivers like the Mississippi and onto the Gulf, which connects to the sea, which connects to the Atlantic and beyond. What I really hope is that people will take a pause, and recognize our connectivity to something far away and vast. That maybe through seeing the paintings in this exhibition, and thinking about American art and thinking about American history, they might see that they actually have a connection to a place like Salem through the art.

Dinah: There are similarities between Salem and Bentonville and the museums in these two small communities. Though PEM is more than 200 years old, PEM’s expansion in the early 2000s shares an architect with Crystal Bridges -- Massachusetts based architect Moshie Safdie. Safdie is leading the charge when Crystal Bridges doubles in size next year.

 

Austen: Alice Walton visited Peabody Essex Museum when she was thinking about the architects that she wanted to work with to build Crystal Bridges. And she really responded to how Moshe Safdie was able to bring the contemporary experience of new museum architecture to the historic fabric of Salem in a way that was so sensitive to the place. And the ways in which he understood this landscape, its importance to her and her family and this region, and the way that he envisioned being able to nestle a dramatic and beautiful museum space within this Ozark ravine.

Dinah: But the comparisons don’t end with a shared architect.

Austen:  I think I compare them in the sense that they are a beacon for their respective communities. Crystal Bridges has led to a lot of positive transformation and growth within Bentonville and I think the same way that Peabody Essex Museum has deepened the city's connections to global art and culture. And the positive transformation in Bentonville, I guess I could say is more fundamental because it brought world class architecture and art to community where there's no art museum around for either a two-hour drive in Tulsa, or three hours to Little Rock or three hours to Kansas City. So, when you have that access to the world of art, and ideas, and architecture, and the connections to nature it opens up your world. You know, living in Salem was also extraordinary. The urban fabric and the walks that you have through the City of Salem, past the architecture knowing you're so close to the, uh, coast is amazing. And this is very different, but you're surrounded by forest, you're in and out of ravines. There's so much nature. There's so much water. It's very soothing, you know.

Dinah: Soon, we left the natural beauty of the outdoors to go look at the museum’s collection.

[Door shuts. Computer sounding voice: Temperature is normal]

Austen:  We can walk towards, um, a beautiful, uh, salon style sort of floor to ceiling, wall to wall installation of a lot of works from our late 19th century and early 20 century holdings.

Dinah: As we examined this gorgeous salon style assembly in the gallery, Austen pointed out that paintings were missing from the configuration as there were being hung right in that moment in Salem for the exhibition.

Austen: We have recently reinstalled this entire wall, because one of the previous centerpieces of it was William Trost Richards' "Along the Shore" on the cover of the In American Waters publication used to hang there. And so, we had to kind of, uh, rejigger the puzzle of all of these pictures.

Dinah: One of the most popular paintings at Crystal Bridges is this enormous seascape. It’s a crowd pleaser, says Austen, in Arkansas.

 

Austen: So in a very landlocked region of the country, it is this seascape that is one of the top images, most requested paintings, um, featured on our note cards. And I think it is because it is a perfect seascape in the idea that the seascape should take you beyond where you are. It should transport you. There is a sonic component to it. You can kind of imagine the waves crashing and what that might sound like even if you've never been to the beach. And it is unpeopled. There are no ships. It's just pure sea and sky.

Dinah:  (tape) You could almost be in a dory. The waves feel above you.  Austen: Absolutely. And I think Trost Richards, um, did a terrific job of capturing the power of a curling wave and a, a wave about to crash, and the foam, and the translucency of the light coming through the crest of the wave, the deeper colored water of the wave behind it and, and on and on and on out to the horizon with this kind of moody sky. And I think there's, um, great beauty and great value in those kinds of pictures and how they approximate the experience of being at the ocean and the power of that.

Dinah: One painting in the Crystal Bridges version of the show is one that has often caught my eye when I visit the museum in Bentonville.  It is by Frederic Remington, celebrated artist of the American West.

Austen: You see this beautiful nocturne of a cowboy.

Dinah: Cowpuncher’s Lullaby.

Austen: There's a kind of emerald or teal green sky, and his beautiful tiny dots of gold or cream paint, um, signaling a starry sky, and it's a little bit blurry for that kind of, uh, night time view. There's a cowboy sitting on a horse with his mouth open in song.

Dinah: When I was visiting, the curators were deciding whether or not to include this work in the exhibition.

Austen: It demonstrates the ways in which marine traditions, marine culture moved their way across the continent, and particularly through the songs and oral traditions of sailors who in many instances after experiences at sea, sometimes for many years would come back to shore and as the country grew and moved, and settled westward, they would follow those opportunities, and bring those sea shanty traditions to the plains, to the herding of the cattle and the songs that they would sing out there to lull the cattle to sleep, keep themselves awake, pass the time. So trying to understand the breadth of American experience and expand the more traditional ways of understanding it as beginning on the East Coast and moving to the West, we have to grapple with those narratives.

Dinah: Another work in this show is a giant painting by Amy Sherald, the artist best known for painting the official portrait of Michelle Obama. Precious Jewels by the sea was acquired by Crystal Bridges in 2019. This opportunity came just a few months after Austen arrived at Crystal Bridges.

Austen: And my jaw dropped because I said, "Absolutely." This is 100 percent the kind of contemporary expression of marine themes that we would dream of being able to include by an artist as significant and talented as Amy Sherald. As you will see and visitors to Salem will see its quite monumental in scale over life size.

Dinah: The Amy Sherald painting is massive.

Austen: And so, just has this incredible kind of statuesque, classical expression of these four black teenagers on a beautiful beach on a sparkling, sunny day. And she talks about how the painting is an expression of different kinds of freedom while also being a critique of the kinds of imagery around the beach that haven't included the subjects that she's included in her picture. She makes specific reference to places like Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, which has long had a vacation colony that many, many African Americans have been visiting and vacationing at for well over a century.

Dinah: The excitement around this painting comes at a time when wild swimming in open waters is becoming a trend around the world. A recent article in the Atlantic examines the political nature of bodies of water. The article says: “Our survival depends on it; our bodies are made of it; conflicts are fought over it. Swimming, an act of immersion in this vital medium, forces one to care, intimately, about where the water comes from and where it’s going.”

Austen: Connecting the beauty of what she's representing, the freedom, the pleasure of the beach to something fundamental to a black American experience and one that has shifted from an era of segregated beaches to one of access is really, really important.

Dinah: The exhibition makes the point of how fundamental maritime history was in shaping the early American Republic by including a portrait of George Washington by his main portrait artist, Gilbert Stuart, who painted the portrait on the dollar bill. In the background is a maritime scene of commerce in action. But the show doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of the nation. It allows us to see through the lens of American painting, experiences of the Middle Passage and the legacies of slavery, says Austen. What it means to enter this country through steerage or arrive at a new life on Ellis Island.

Austen: I think when people think about marine painting, the tendency is to imagine ship portraits and to imagine things that are maybe expressly tied to histories of imperialism or exploration or fishing and things like that. But really, so many of our stories about America emerge from the experiences of those who came here of their own volition or forcibly. I am so fascinated by American history. And American art is a way to really grapple with our history, to grapple with the events that have become really formative and most well known in our imaginations and how those have dominated many overlooked histories and stories. And I feel that there are so many ways to enter into the American experience. The debates about who has been considered American, the porousness of our borders, our engagement on the international stage, all of these things are subjects and images that American artists have contended with since the beginning...of our founding. It’s messy, messy histories that keeps me engaged with the field.

 

[Thunder and birdsong and rain]

Lady 1: We’re from New Orleans. We are situated between two bodies of water. Lake Pontratrain and the Mississippi River.

Lady 2: We’re close to the Gulf of Mexico so we’re always aware of the sea. It’s encroaching on the land and eventually our houses will be in the sea.

Lady 3: But when you look at pictures of water it’s serere looking and then it turns on you and the revenge is at it’s worse. If there’s a fear, a fear with me of another hurricane coming and losing my house again.

Lady 1: Water to me is spiritual

Lady: We go to the Gulf all the time and watch it, just watch. The sea is just gorgeous. But so is this.

 

Dinah: That’s our show. Thanks for listening. In American Waters is on view at PEM through October 3, 2021. It then heads west, opening at Crystal Bridges on November 6. To learn more, go to pem.org. This show was produced for the Peabody Essex Museum by me, Dinah Cardin, and it was edited and mixed by Perry Hallinan. All rain and rushing water was recorded in the Ozarks. Thank you to the staff at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The PEMcast is generously supported by The George S. Parker Fund.

 

[waves]

Dinah: We leave you on a ship in Salem Sound where a group of PEM staff are enjoying a summer sail.

Group: Ready on the main. Ready!

Dinah: The Fame is a replica of an 1812 privateer schooner that was active in the War of 1812. Each summer and fall, the sails of the Fame can be seen rising into the sky, as it navigates waters steeped in history. A history told to us here by Captain Ed.

 

Ed: Just a touch more. You can see some of the sailboats out here tonight they have Wednesday night races. Marbleehad rock right over here. Children’s Island...we have all these nice little rocks. That’s why you have to have a captain out here to sail because it is very treacherous at times. Look at this reef right over here. One of the interesting things about this area right here is when the Constitution was re-fit right around the War of 1812, they took off from Boston Harbor heavily laden. They had all their water, all their gunpowder and all their cannons. They didn’t realize the British were out there waiting for them.

 

Girl: 3,2, 1

[Sound of cannon and laughing and cheering]

Ed: Can you imagine if you were in a boat right there and you had that happen? And then you had 25 people come up on the deck. The captain gives us the ship pretty quickly.

 

[sound of waves]

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