As a genre of art that’s subject to continuous change, the preservation of vernacular art environments poses an array of challenges. The documentation, preservation, and interpretation of sites that are in the process of being created present particularly demanding considerations, including how to “preserve” something that’s alive and growing while respecting an artist’s freedom, and managing relationships between artists, nonprofits, and communities. Moderated by Lisa Stone, this session brought together environment builders, site directors, and a documentary photographer who discussed issues relative to three sites: Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, Dr. Charles Smith’s African-American Heritage Museum + Black Veterans Archive, and the Heidelberg Project.
Lisa Stone is curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection and adjunct associate professor in the Department of art history, theory, and criticism, both at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her research, teaching, writing, and curating concerns artists who work independently from the academic mainstream, particularly environment builders whose work is often home/garden-based, ignoring or dissolving boundaries between home and studio, life, and art. A subtext of her research concerns the relationship of objects to creative practice. She works on a garden/ruin in Spring Lake, WI.
Dr. Charles Smith is an artist who has worked prodigiously since 1986 using his homes, first in Aurora, IL, and currently in Hammond, LA, as stages to express the impact that the entire arc of African American history, from the diaspora to the present, on his psyche and on humanity. Calling both properties the African-American Heritage Museum + Black Veterans Archive, the sites combine(d) home, studio, museum, and archive into powerful visual and experiential works of art as public history. Dr. Smith’s work is fueled by his experiences in the United States Marine Corps, into which he was drafted in 1966, and his combat service in Vietnam. Dr. Smith’s sites express history as a stream of historical moments created from the stuff of everyday life. His Aurora site was purchased in 2000 by Kohler Foundation, Inc., which restored approximately six hundred sculptures and gifted them to museums around the country; a major collection resides in the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI.
Fred Scruton travels extensively throughout the U.S. to document visionary artists and art environments. After receiving an MFA in photography from Pratt Institute in 1982, he worked for twenty years as a freelance photographer of artwork and architecture in New York City, and he is currently a professor of art in northwestern Pennsylvania. Widely exhibited, his work has also been reproduced in numerous books and periodicals, and he has written five articles for Raw Vision magazine. Often befriending the artists, he makes frequent return visits to those who live near his home and yearly road trips to document the evolution of more distant sites.
Jenenne Whitfield, DD, has served as the executive director of the critically acclaimed Heidelberg Project for twenty-three years. In 1993, she took a wrong turn and drove down a polka-dotted street–through a colorful chaos of paint and people–and asked a paint-spattered man, “What is all this?” The man was artist Tyree Guyton, and what he told her sparked an obsession that changed her life forever. Under Whitfield’s direction, the Heidelberg Project (founded by Tyree Guyton) has risen to international status and is currently recognized as one of the most influential art environments in the world. Together, Whitfield and Guyton coined and trademarked the idiom, Heidelberg-ology, defined as the study of discarded materials incorporated into the fabric and structure of an urban community and the effects. In addition to her role as executive director for the Heidelberg Project, Whitfield lectures regularly, has taught courses at Wayne State University and the University of Michigan on art as a social practice, and serves as a mentor to the next generation of art activists. Her favorite pastime is metaphysics, which she has studied for over thirty years. In 2017, Whitfield will lead a new chapter of the Heidelberg Project as the CEO of Heidelberg 3.0.
Emily Smith has worked at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens since 2009 and became executive director in 2014. Since then, she increased visitor attendance by 63 percent, doubled the operating budget, and added ten additional staff members. She has been a speaker at numerous conferences on the topics of engaging millennial audiences, women in leadership, and creating positive work environments. Smith oversees the Gardens’ three-person preservation team, which is responsible for all work on-site and in the community.
Isaiah Zagar is an award-winning mosaic mural artist whose work can be found on hundreds of public walls throughout Philadelphia and the U.S. Born in Philadelphia and raised in Brooklyn, Zagar received his BFA in painting and graphics from Pratt Institute. He has gained recognition through public lectures and is featured in various films and publications. Zagar’s work is included in the collections of numerous art institutions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Zagar is the head caretaker of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.