Friday, January 22, 2010

In the Wax Museum

When I was a little girl, no trip to the Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York would be complete without a walk-by of the portrait of my grandfather hanging with other past directors of the Station, and a visit to the wax model collection. I remember climbing the big stairs to the 2nd floor of Jordan Hall, and getting up on tippy-toes to peer at the life-like fruits and vegetables in the high wood and glass display cases.

Inside was a veritable museum in wax: apples, pears, grapes, peas, beans, and more.

Most looked good enough to eat, except for some strangely deformed specimens. (I would later learn that these represented plants in various stages of insect infestation and fungal disease).

Over the years the stairs got easier to climb, and I made fewer visits. When I did, the collection was beginning to look a little tired. And then it was gone! Deemed old-fashioned, and the space needed for other purposes, the pieces were packed away.

So, two summers ago, when I was asked by the Station Librarian if I wanted to work with the collection, it was like meeting an old friend. And this is how some would say I spent my summer vacation!

In the days before photography, and particularly color photography, wax models were an important teaching tool. They were employed in horticulture and botany classes, and often displayed in libraries, museums and research institutions. These models provided the students of the day with realistic facsimiles of plants, which might be rare, not available locally, or out of season.

James S. Lawson was the chief Preparator of the Geneva Collection. Lawson was born in Ontario, Canada in 1890. As a young man, he had the opportunity to meet, and later work with Mrs. Stanley Potter (Sarah), the resident wax artist at the Ontario Agricultural College. He worked at the Station in Geneva during summers, from 1920 to 1935. Another artist, Clara Barnes, carried on the wax model work at the Station from 1936 to 1942, also on a part time basis. Together these artists created close to 500 wax models of fruit, vegetables and fungi.

The fascinating thing about these wax models is their realism, particularly in color and texture. You might even be tempted to take a bite.

It is reported that Lawson would go to great lengths to achieve this realism. He actually cut pieces of hair from his arms to create fine bristles on raspberry models,

Little is known about how the Geneva specimens were made; but there is documentation on how Sarah Potter worked. And, if indeed Lawson was her student, it would follow that he would employ similar methods. Two representative examples of each fruit or vegetable would be chosen. One would be used to make a plaster mold. The second example was used for coloring guidance. The finished pieces in the Geneva Collection are for the most part mounted with wire on heavy cardstock mounts. The variety, and sometimes further notes, are given in a legend beneath the specimen in letterpress or a stamped format. We know that Lawson learned other skills such as soldering, tin-smithing and printing in order to further enhance his works.

During my time working with the Collection, I kept busy preparing an inventory, organizing storage, conducting some minor conservation, and compiling various finding aids.

Piecing together the story of the Station’s Collection, as well as defining its place in the history of wax model-making, has been fascinating; and is an ongoing project. Wax has been used by artists as a medium for botanical modeling as far back as 15th century Europe. The 19th century found the art of wax modeling introduced as a home recreation for ladies. This was also the time of famous modelers such as the Mintorn Family of England, who fashioned a large scale wax model of the 'Victoria Regia' for Kew Gardens. Even at the World’s Fairs and international agricultural exhibitions it was a common practice to include wax fruit specimens as part of the displays.

What began as a “Tale Of Two Collections” (Geneva and Ontario) is today so much more! My research has uncovered other like collections worldwide: in Buffalo, in Chicago, in Florence and in Sydney, to name just a few. Ironically for me, one of the largest collections is at Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia where I resided for 6 years.

These Collections are treasures. They are important not only for their uniqueness and artistic merit, but for their relevance to the current interest in heritage plants, biodiversity, climate change and food security. One can only imagine what other wonderful undiscovered collections are packed away in the museums of the world.

Waxing Poetic,

(Photos courtesy of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Captain January and the Keepers of the Light

Have you ever read "The Wreck of the Hesperus" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?
It begins:
It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wintry sea:
And the skipper had taken his little daughter,
To bear him company.

Everytime my father would recite this poem to me, I would get the chills. Because I knew that in the end, the child and her father would perish in a shipwreck. Later in the poem, when the little girl said to her father:

”O father! I see a gleaming light, and
Oh say, what may it be?”

I always hoped it was a lighthouse, and that for once, all would be saved. But each time, the unfortunate child, her father and the ship would end up lost on the dreaded reef of Norman’s Woe.

Star Bright, the young heroine of Laura Richards’ book, "Captain January" (1890), met a happier fate. She was rescued from a shipwreck, (that claimed both her parents), by a kindly and crusty lighthouse keeper, named Captain January. Shirley Temple, America’s Sweetheart, sang and danced her way through the film adaptation of "Captain January (1936). Who could forget her rendition of the "Codfish Ball" (click here), one of several musical numbers from the movie!

Summer holidays would find our family happily ensconced by the sea in the Garden Cottage, at Rockport, Massachusetts. Nearby was Loblolly Cove, where the majestic twin lighthouses of Thacher’s Island (built 1861), provided us with a constant sound and light show. Some years later, I happened upon a tiny sketchbook with pencil drawings of the area, including one of the lighthouses, done in 1880.

Driving South from Carmel on California's Coastal Highway 1, you will see in the distance an outcropping jutting into the sea. You could be forgiven for thinking you have been magically transported to Mont St. Michel in France, or Michael’s Mount in Britain. Atop this promontory is a lighthouse known as "Point Sur Lightstation".

An intrepid group of volunteers have undertaken the preservation of the rock, the light and its historic buildings. One recent windy day, we made our way up the the hill on a three-hour guided tour of the old lightstation.

Along the way there are some incredible vistas of the Big Sur Coast, with its rugged rocks and crashing waves. You can see why this coastline has been the location of numerous shipwrecks. From January through May, you might even spy migrating whales.

"Point Sur Lightstation" has been a beacon of hope, and a landmark to mariners for 115 years.

The winding staircase within the tower, resembles the shape of a nautilus shell, and leads upward .

The light, which continues to guide sailors, is now automated.

Preservation of the site continues. A list of local benefactors, includes at least one famous name!

We carefully made a tour around the catwalk

The skeleton of a whale's jaw bone brought up from the beach below.

Families lived here from 1889-1974. Little children, like Star Bright, must have frolicked on the sea beach, climbed the volcanic rocks, and played in the tidal-pools.

Thus ends our visit to the only complete Turn-of-the-Century Lightstation open to the public in California.

God bless all the keepers of the light, ships at sea, and those in peril,

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Dream of a Ming Dynasty Beach House

Last night I dreamed I was walking down the gum tree lane that leads to our Ming Dynasty Beach House in Flinders, Australia.

The two Chinese carved doors still stood sentinel at the entrance, and I was greeted by the sound of temple bells, and the rustling of the young bamboo trees we had just planted.

Inside the door, on an altar table, I found a small wooden shrine with a smiling Buddha, surrounded by green glazed ginger jars.

On the kitchen counter, a ferocious Chinese ceramic dragon, which once decorated a Peking roof, stood guard over our home.

"Shanghai Lil", our vintage VJ sailboat, was safe in its berth high above the lounge room.

Souvenirs of beach-combing, op-shopping and flea-market forays filled the shelves of the antique French curio cabinet.

High above the master bed, a simple bamboo screen floated Zen-like.

A bedside tableau just as I had left it, with a vintage magnolia print, and a red lacquer box.

On the wall in the guest bath, a shell-encrusted mirror by artist, William Walker.

A robe, once worn by a pilgrim in one of the far-flung reaches of China, (only to be bought by another pilgrim (me) at Beijing’s dirt market), adorned the dining room wall.

Light filtered through the shades, and it felt like walking in a bamboo forest.

There, in my office space, was my inspiration board still covered with visual reminders of my many unfinished projects and ideas.

Vintage Chinese tea tins were stacked on top of the Chinoiserie chest in my office.

I traced the names and autographs that our guests had left on the blackboard door of the secret wine cellar. Inside, I found the racks stocked with every fine wine we had ever sampled.

When I awoke, it was a year later, and a world away.

It was a "Dream House". Good fortune smiled on us everyday of the six years that we lived there.

Lucky indeed!