Thursday, October 20, 2016

Smithsonian Museum of American History

Last week, I turned over 49 matted drawings, plus an envelope with another couple of dozen small drawings, to the Smithsonian Museum of American History.  Yes, THAT Smithsonian.  The artworks were my "Faces of Afghanistan" series as well as assorted drawings from around Afghanistan and Iraq.

So how did my artworks wind up in the Smithsonian?  Good luck and good timing, I guess.  A while back, a colleague who was a Marine in Afghanistan and is now an artist posted that he was signing over one of his artworks to the Smithsonian.  I thought it was great and asked him how that came about.  Turned out that the museum is building a collection of post-9/11 military-related art.  He knew of my "Faces of Afghanistan" series and introduced me to the curator.  I sent her some images and descriptions of the works, and after a bit of back-and-forth, she said they'd love to have my work in the collection.

Wow.  My work.  In the Smithsonian.  Unbelievable.

Last week, I drove up to DC to deliver them.  Yes, I know, FedEx could have delivered them with no fuss and a lot less cost, but face it, how many times do you get the opportunity to deliver your own stuff to some place like the Smithsonian?  In-person is the only way to do it.  So on Friday, Oct 14, I drove into DC, into the bowels of the American History Museum, and met the curator, Kathy.  I pulled the box of drawings out of the back of the car and handed them over.  Kathy and her collections manager, Estelle, were thrilled.

They weren't half as thrilled as I was, though.  After the turnover, Kathy took me to the room where the military art collection is stored.  Imagine a room about 30 feet square, with one wall taken up with flat files up to 8 feet high.  Each drawer is marked with the contents.  There are hundreds of such drawers.  Open one up at random and you'll see some wonderful work.  I pulled open one of the WWI drawers and examined a gouache work of a soldier going over the top of a trench.  It had amazing energy - the feeling of violence and danger jumped out of the image.  Then Kathy pointed out that the artist's field art box was sitting on the shelf next to me.  On the opposite wall were racks of paintings.  More boxes and containers filled the space in between.  Various military artifacts were casually (but carefully) stored all over the place.  I felt like I was on hallowed ground.

Kathy also pulled out the artworks currently in the post-9/11 collection.  Most of them are by Richard Johnson.  He went to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times for Canadian newspapers.  In fact, he was in Kandahar just a few months before I got there.  Richard was embedded with the Canadian troops, so his artworks focused on the soldiers and their environment.  He draws with a blue pencil and his works are fantastic: full of life, showing the stresses of the environment, and nailing the conditions that the troops lived and worked in.  Take a look at his drawings on his web site:  While you're there, watch his TedEx video.  Powerful stuff.

My drawings are probably stashed in one of those drawers by now.  If you want to know when they'll be exhibited, well, probably never.  The museum has so much stuff that less than one percent is ever on view at any one time.  Exhibitions are scheduled years in advance and are subject to the interests of curators and whims of directors, as well as the willingness of a sponsor to cough up the money to pay for them.  However, most everything is available to anybody doing legitimate research.  So any curator, artist, student, or whatever, who's interested in seeing artworks from Iraq and Afghanistan can make an appointment with the Museum and see my stuff in person.  Yes, you can.  Or the World War I artwork.  Or their collection of posters.  Or any number of subjects.

So although my artworks may never be exhibited as a collection again, I'm happy with where they are.  They'll be available to infinitely more people than they ever would be if they spent their lives on the shelf in my studio.  They're part of America's attic now.  You own them.  Go see your stuff!

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