Visual Culture in the John Rhoden papers Part 1: Richenda Rhoden’s Style

Contributed by Jahna Auerbach, Assistant Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

The John Rhoden papers have not only given us historical insight into John as an artist but great visual insight into American and international culture from the late 1930s through the 1990s as well. I wanted to take the time to highlight one of my favorite aspects of the collection, the clothing and fashion. We’ll start with the best representation of fashion over time in the collection: the outfits of Richenda Rhoden. 

Brooklyn, 1964

I first became interested in Richenda through the many photographs and travel slides in the collection. These images aren’t just fun to view; they also give context for how Richenda expressed herself as a Native American woman during the 20th century. By viewing event photos, candid shots, and hundreds of travel slides, we can see more than ‘Richenda Rhoden the model,’ or ‘Richenda Rhoden, John’s wife.’ Instead, we see a strong and insightful woman, an artist in her own right and a person unwilling to hide her own beauty and style.  

Below, we explore her travels, see her at home, and a personal favorite, in her bikinis and endless leopard print. Instead of looking at the fashion of bygone celebrities or Vogue, archival depiction of fashion reveals how everyday people dressed. It captures the personality and variety in a way that the established fashion resources can’t. Not everyone updates their closet every year or throws out an outfit once it’s out of style, so it’s only natural that the fashion authorities might not have their finger to the pulse of what real people wore.  

When Richenda traveled with John in the ‘50s and ‘60s she wore many classic silhouettes common to the era. Some of her favorite outfits were blouses with a full skirt, often paired with a headscarf and belt. Many of her travel outfits also include fitted blazers and suit sets, as well as full-skirted dresses.

The 1960s fashion was dominated by innovation and bohemian style inspired by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and youth culture. For the most part, Richenda did not follow these trends. However, she did have a few staple outfits that fit the decade in her bathing suits and leopard print outfits. 

Leopard print was made famous by celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. Richenda’s leopard print catsuit reflected real 1960’s fashion, exuding style while still being comfortable.

Indonesia, 1963

Throughout her life, Richenda kept many staples from the 1950s in her wardrobe. For example, Richenda’s swimsuit in Bali is more reminiscent of a 1950’s bikini, with high waisted bikini shorts and a matching bra top. 

Some of Richenda’s best outfits were worn in her own home. She was regularly photographed in the garden, posing with her art, or with the family Christmas tree. Her at-home clothing choices do not reflect a period in fashion. Instead, they show how Richenda expressed herself – primarily in boldly patterned dresses. 

After taking the time to study Richenda’s fashion, I’m left with more questions than answers. I wish more than ever that I could sit down and have a conversation with her. I would gain insight into how she dressed as a Native American, how her travels in Europe and Asia affected her self expression, and how she wanted to present herself as a woman, artist, and partner to John Rhoden.  

ABOUT THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.

John Rhoden’s Workspaces

Contributed by Kelin Baldridge, Project Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

John Rhoden’s studio at 23 Cranberry Street is his most iconic workspace. He worked there almost exclusively for over four decades. The studio space permits and even demands large, physical, and active sculpting. It was filled with tools, planning sketches and models, sculptures in progress, and sometimes even heavy equipment such as scaffolding. It gives a sense of how John worked and the environment he was comfortable in.

However, the John Rhoden papers show that John was adaptable and had many different work spaces during his early career. He did not always have the capacity for the monumental sculptures of his later years. Images in the archives show that John was able to work with and flourish in whatever space he could obtain.

Below is a look at John’s different sculpting studios, as represented in the archives. We will first start with his home-base workshop at 23 Cranberry Street in Brooklyn, N.Y. to get a sense of his personally-curated space, and then get a view of the many places he worked in over the earlier years.

23 Cranberry Street (1960-2001)

John Rhoden in his studio at 23 Cranberry Street, circa 1970s.

23 Cranberry Street in Brooklyn, N.Y. served as Rhoden’s home and studio from 1960 through John’s passing in 2001 and Richenda’s passing in 2016 (with the exception of their stint in Indonesia from 1961-1963). The space was unique in that it was formally a mechanic’s garage equipped with a freight elevator. The home was spacious enough to create large scale sculptures, store works of art, and all the necessary sculpting tools and supplies.

In the images below, one gets a sense of John’s preferred work space. There’s an element of chaos. It feels more like a construction site than the stereotypical artist’s studio.

In this studio is where John was able to really expand the scale of his artworks. His monumental sculpture commissions, such as Mitochondria for the Metropolitan Hospital (lower left) and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (lower right), were all conceived in this space.

Early Spaces (1938-1959)

John Rhoden working in the Baille Studio in New Jersey, 1946.

The archives do not reveal much about John’s early sculpting studios. John’s earliest work was carried out as a student in various schools, most notably Columbia University. It appears that his association with universities and faculty mentors provided him access to larger spaces and a wider variety of tools than would otherwise be possible, as evidenced by the photograph to the right. His first real studio in New York City was shared with Richmond Barthé in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan in 1938.

Italian Work Spaces (1951-1954)

John’s studio at the American Academy in Rome more closely reflected what one might assume an artists’ workspace would look like: blank, open, bright spaces. These studios were sparsely decorated with white walls and little clutter. In this space, John did not create monumental works of art, as evidenced by the modest size and absence of heavy-duty tools and equipment. Coincidentally, immediately following this period we see John’s only documented phase of gallery representation, where he sold modestly-sized pieces to private collectors.

Work Spaces Abroad with the U.S. State Department (1955-1959)

Kenya, circa 1955-1956.

John did not have a formal workshop while on his international tour with the United States Department of State, but that didn’t stop him from creating. In fact, during this period John was able to experiment and learn local techniques, broadening his sculpting knowledge and skills. Many images from this time period show John visiting artist communities to learn and perform demonstrations.

We do not have evidence of any of the sculpture that he created during this time, but it is interesting to note that, wherever he was, John always seemed willing to get his hands dirty, both to teach and to learn.

Above, John is crouched on the ground working on a wood carving with basic tools and materials in Kenya. Given the clothing and setting, this seems to have been an impromptu demonstration.

Philadelphia Work Space (1956-1957)

An outlier in John’s workspaces arose from his sculpture commission for the Philadelphia Sheraton Hotel. Due to the nature of the project, John had to do his work directly in the hotel’s construction site. The space and tools provided by this experience led to one of the first examples of John’s large-scale sculpture, Zodiacal Curved Wall.

Indonesia Work Space (1961-1963)

John spent several years in Indonesia, during which time he occupied one of his two long-term international studios (the other was in Rome). It seems John mostly worked on a patio outside of a home in Bandung.

He was there on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to set up a bronze foundry at the Bandung Institute of Technology. However, due to conflict in Indonesia that arose around the time of his arrival in 1961, John was unable to access any of his sculpting materials. As a result, he had concentrated time to experiment and work with what was available to him – wood. During this time, John made some of his largest and, in my opinion, most captivating wood sculpture.

I hope this serves as an interesting introduction to John’s work spaces over the years and as an example of one of the many ways an archive can be used to gain a better understanding of its subject!

ABOUT THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.