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.

John Rhoden Papers: Working From Home

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

Now that the John Rhoden papers team is back in the swing of things, I thought we should share a little bit about work from home life as an archivist during a global pandemic.

It is fair to wonder what on earth an archivist, especially a project archivist working with a physical collection, is able to do from home. We have not had access to any of the items in the collection for the past five months (mid-March to mid-August), so it would seem that the project would come to a standstill. Fortunately, due to the nature of the Rhoden project, that is far from the case. 

The NEH grant-funded John Rhoden project requires us to process the John Rhoden papers, digitize a minimum of 5,000 items from the John Rhoden papers, and make both the original physical and newly created digital collections available for use. Before the pandemic changed life as we know it, we were able to process the collection and digitize the required 5,000 items. 

Ever optimistic, in early March I was convinced that the virus would blow over fairly quickly. Hoang, the Project Director, had a better sense of the gravity of the situation and, per his recommendation, we transferred all of our documents, including the catalogs, inventory, and finding aid drafts, to Google Docs. Hoang converted all of our preservation-quality TIFFs to JPEGs and saved them to the archives’ dropbox account. This preparation, along with reaching the digitization goal, made it possible to continue the project when we were able to return to work remotely in July as we have digital access to all of the collection items and working documents. 

What we have been able to do from home given the preparation mentioned above is: 1) finish cataloging all 5,000 digitized items, 2) begin a thorough line-by-line review of the catalog/metadata, 3) begin post-processing on the 5,000 digitized items, 4) continue working on the finding aid, and 5) continue to write blog posts, 6) brainstorm ideas for presenting the digital collection online.

I have spent most of my time completing the catalog and reviewing the catalog with a fine toothed comb. Jahna, equipped with the workstation from PAFA, has been handling all of the post-processing for the TIFFs. 

Kelin’s work from home setup (some of the time).

Now that we have updated you on our progress, Jahna and I wanted to give a glimpse into our work from home setups to hopefully give a better sense of how the Rhoden project is now being carried out.

I am elated at the ability to drink coffee and tea while working! Working in an environment with candles and windows also feels incredibly luxurious. The downside is the fact that I live in an apartment with one small table and two remotely working adults. The peaceful setup seen above is only half the story – the rest of the time I am standing at the kitchen counter or sitting on the floor! 

Jahna’s work from home setup (featuring Soba).

Jahna’s work from home setup consists of the PAFA desktop setup and a new colleague, Soba. Soba’s work ethic is lacking, but she is delightful company!  

Archivists have always had to adapt and be flexible. The ability to work with what we have is a thread that ties us together. Working through a global pandemic is the ultimate test of this ability and I feel very blessed to join the leagues of archivists who are making it work in this unprecedented time. 

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 Papers: Recent Discoveries

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

Hello! This is Jahna Auerbach and I am so excited to be back working on the Rhoden project for the first time since we took a pause in March. In my first week back, I have had great luck in identifying more artists that John Rhoden met during his time in the Soviet Union. 

William Arthur Smith in Saint Petersburg, Russia circa 1958-1959.

One of the biggest breakthroughs was discovering the William A. Smith Archive in the National Gallery of Art (NGA) Image Collections.  William Arthur Smith was an American photographer, illustrator, and painter, who traveled with John Rhoden in the Soviet Union under the auspices of the United States Department of State. 

John’s travel slides include many images of himself and William A. Smith. The John Rhoden papers contain no correspondence between the two men, but it is evident in the images we have that the two were close. 

John Rhoden and Stojan Batic in Ljubljana, Slovenia circa 1958-1959.

The subjects of the images digitized by NGA have all been identified and some of the images that William A. Smith captured mirror the ones in the Rhoden papers. Because of this correlation, we were able to identify artists as Stojan Batic, Lazar Vujaklija, and Martiros Saryan, as well as several works of art in just one day. 

Martiros Saryan in Armenia circa 1958-1959.

Identifying people and places has become one of my favorite parts of being an archivist. I always try to carve out some time to research the unknown in the Rhoden papers. This week’s discovery has lead me to ask, what else can we find in archives? For example, could there be images of John Rhoden that have not been digitized in the William A. Smith Archive at NGA? I also discovered that William Arthur Smith has a large archival collection at the Hobart and William Smith College Archives, which I hope to explore as well. 

These discoveries are one of the many reasons it is so important to digitize archival collections and create finding aids and inventories.

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 papers: Why was John in the Soviet Union?

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

John Rhoden and Drago Tršar in Ljubljana, Slovenia, circa 1958-1959.

One thing that surprised me while processing the John Rhoden papers was that John Rhoden traveled extensively in the Soviet Union during 1958 and 1959. As someone born in the 1990’s, the Cold War is very much history to me. As such, I was utterly unaware that American Citizens were able to enter the Soviet Union during the Cold War era. Because of this, I decided to do a bit of research into how John found himself behind the Iron Curtain for several months in the late 1950s. 

John’s trip to the Soviet Union was the result of a socio-political phenomenon known as the Khrushchev Thaw. In the mid-to-late 1950’s, after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, the tensions of the Cold War came to a temporary decline. This was due in large part to the more relaxed social ideals of the new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, and the joint efforts for peace between Khrushchev and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In this time period, both leaders were more willing to cooperate to find an understanding between America and the Soviet Union. 

John Rhoden and an unidentified man in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, circa 1958-1959

Khrushchev believed that the Soviet Union could match the Western world’s living standards, and as such, permitted exposure to Western culture within the Soviet Union. He allowed a relative amount of freedom in the arts and, most notably for John’s story, allowed Westerners to travel to the Soviet Union and vice versa. 

In 1955, Khrushchev and Eisenhower met and in that same year, they agreed to start exchanging written materials. In 1956, Eisenhower made a speech at the People-to-People conference advocating contact between Soviet and American citizens in the search for a cross-cultural understanding. By 1958, the United States and the Soviet Union came to the United States-Soviet Cultural Exchange Agreement of 1958, also known as the Lacy-Zarubin Agreement. 

The Lacy-Zarubin Agreement permitted cultural, educational, and scientific exchange between the two nations. This agreement opened the doors for John’s work as an art specialist touring the Soviet Union under the auspices of the United States Department of State. 

From left: William A. Smith, John Rhoden, Franklin C. Watkins, and Lamar Dodd arriving in Moscow in 1958.

In the Fall and Winter of 1958-1959, John visited the Soviet Union as a part of a team of artists, including painters William A. Smith, Lamar Dodd, and Franklin C. Watkins. Once in the Soviet Union, Dodd and Watkins followed separate programs, and Rhoden and Smith stayed together as travel companions. 

The pair traveled extensively within the Soviet Union, visiting numerous countries, including Armenia, which, at the time, was not open to Western-visitors. They were granted special permission only after meeting and forming friendships with several Soviet representatives and artists.

During this tour, the pair focused on forming relationships with artists in the Soviet Union. They made the decision not to arrive with examples of their own work, so as not to be presumptuous, but brought slides showing American art. They visited countless art schools, artists’ studios, and museums. John reported that the Soviet artists and citizens were reserved at first, but were ultimately very curious about America and Americans. Overall, it seems that John had an excellent time with his Soviet peers. 

William A. Smith sketching for a crowd in Republic Square in Yerevan, Armenia, circa 1958-1959

The final aspect of John’s work with the Soviet Union, and the culminating point of the efforts for understanding between the U.S. and Soviet Union in this era, was the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. This exhibition was accompanied by a Soviet Exhibition, held in New York in 1959. Both exhibitions displayed the presenting nation’s cultural and scientific innovations in an effort to promote cross-cultural understanding between the nations. Of course, ulterior motives existed. These exhibitions were used as opportunities for covert intelligence collecting through KGB and CIA operatives, posing as members of the exchange groups. Furthermore, they were intended to serve as propaganda for each nation’s way of life and system of government. 

John’s experience in the Soviet Union resulted in him having a minor role in the planning of the exhibition. Due to his experience, the exhibition planners asked him to write a series of questions and answers relating to American sculpture. These questions would be processed into an IBM RAMAC electronic machine and displayed at the exhibition, along with questions and answers about other aspects of American life.

John’s time in the Soviet Union seemed to be the result of a hopeful blip in history. In October of 1964, just five years after John visited the Soviet Union, as an aging Khrushchev grew increasingly erratic and undependable, a conspiratorial plan was carried out by Leonid Brezhnev and the Central Committee to force Khrushchev to resign. Khrushchev’s removal from his position as the leader of the Soviet Union led to the break down of the decreased USSR/US tensions resulting from the Khrushchev Thaw.

This, of course, is a simplified account of a very complex moment in history. However, I hope it serves to provide some context surrounding John’s time in the Soviet Union. John’s small, but not inconsiderable, role in this historical moment is yet another example of his historical and cultural relevance, so it seems both interesting and important to examine the larger picture.

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.


Treasure in the John Rhoden papers

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

Sometimes during the more mundane tasks, archivists have the absolute pleasure of discovering unexpected gems. 

Richenda Rhoden modeling a Hellenistic Gold Diadem in Munich, circa 1954-1957.

While cataloging the other day, I was faced with several images of Richenda Rhoden. These slides had no caption, no contextualizing background, and no corresponding images that could help with identification. When they arrived at PAFA, they were not grouped with other slides that could help with identification either.

For months, as we went through with processing and digitizing the John Rhoden papers, these slides remained entirely enigmatic. We had left them in a “Miscellaneous” folder, just hoping that one day they might make sense. 

That day came last week when I started cataloging the miscellaneous travel slides. As an information professional, it was difficult to simply describe these incredible photos of Richenda as “unidentified”. I did what any archivist would’ve done–I went down a wormhole of Google searches. 

Each time I had approached these images, I had assumed that Richenda was either purchasing jewelry or trying on traditional, but nondescript, pieces during her travels with John. I had not centered my research on the individual pieces of jewelry themselves as I could not fathom that she would be sporting priceless and culturally significant pieces of jewelry. That is where I went wrong. After becoming frustrated, I decided to take a shot in the dark and research the pieces of jewelry themselves. 

Richenda Rhoden modeling a Hellenistic Gold Diadem in Munich, circa 1954-1957.

Upon a quick search of tiaras, which led me more specifically to diadems, I was able to establish that Richenda was, in fact, wearing a significant piece of jewelry. This piece in particular is a Hellenistic Gold Diadem from 250 – 150 B.C. Though it is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich, Germany during the Rhodens’ travels. This discovery both gave us a location and approximate date and made the images that much more special. 

Further research led to the discovery that the ring and cuff bracelet Richanda models in one of the images belonged to Queen Amanishakheto. Amanishakheto was a Kandake (meaning sister of the King of Kush, and due to matrilineal succession, the queen mother) of Kush. As a Kandake, she had a powerful role as regent. Amanishakheto reigned roughly from 10 B.C. to 1 A.D. 

Richenda models pieces from a collection of jewelry found in her pyramid at Meroe (Beg. N6). In 1834, Italian treasure hunter Giuseppe Ferlini ransacked Amanishakheto’s resting place and destroyed her pyramid in search of her burial treasures. The pieces are now in the Egyptian Museums of Berlin and Munich, where Richenda encountered them. 

Richenda Rhoden modeling treasures from the pyramid of Amanishakheto in Munich or Berlin, circa 1954-1957.

It has been a little over a week since this finding and I am still awestruck by the fact that world class European museums were letting Richenda try on ancient and priceless pieces of their collections. It could be a sign of the times and changing reverence for historic objects, or is could be a result of the intoxicating effect she seemed to have on many of the people they met, as evidenced by the many mentions of her in European newspapers. Either way, it is yet another interesting little gem in the Rhoden papers that I am pleased to be able to share. 

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.

A Tale of Perseverence in the John Rhoden papers

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

During our three months away from the John Rhoden papers, we had one brief respite in the form of a Zoom lecture with our education department. During this lecture we spoke about John Rhoden, the John Rhoden papers, and the archive as storytelling. I noted one thing the archives tell us about John Rhoden that I would like to return to and elaborate on. 

From the Rhoden papers, we learn that John was an ambitious businessman, far more so than one might expect from the stereotypical understanding of an artist. He was an active self-promoter and a highly successful networker. 

The point to which I wished to return is that John was also resilient and persistent. He had a highly successful career and was recognized with some of the most notable accolades in the art world. However, he was no stranger to rejection.

John did not seem to be discouraged by rejection. In fact, he seemed to use it as fuel for his fire and an opportunity to improve and prove himself. The John Rhoden papers have several examples of John repeatedly applying to the same thing he was once rejected from, each time accumulating an ever more impressive band of advocates and curating a successful career that was impossible to ignore. 

The best-documented case of John’s resilience in the Rhoden Papers is his journey to earning the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship. In the Rhoden papers, we have evidence that John applied for the Guggenheim fellowship in 1945-1946, 1949-1950, 1954-1956, and in 1959-1961.

John Rhoden’s first rejection letter from the Guggenheim fellowship, 1945.

In 1945-1946, his first time applying to the fellowship, John was a young artist seeking educational support. He had yet to enroll at Columbia University, and his only experience to date was at Talladega College, The New York School of Art, and the New School for Social Research. A rejection letter in the Rhoden papers reveals that  the Guggenheim fellowship was not meant for one “to study art as a pupil.” John simply hadn’t acquired the experience and knowledge to earn the fellowship. 

By the next time he applied in 1949-1950, John was nearing the end of his time at Columbia University and had been awarded a fellowship from the Rosenwald Fund in 1948. He had met many of the people who would serve as references on his behalf and had built a resume to include several first prizes in sculpture at Columbia. His artistic knowledge and experience had advanced and he was once again ready to apply to the Guggenheim fellowship. 

He applied with an impressive round up of references, including Oronzio Maldarelli, William Zorach, Hugo Robus, and Peppino Mangravite, who all taught John at Columbia, Harlem Renaissance greats Richmond Barthé and Alain Locke, and early supporters from Talladega College, Hale Woodruff and Margaret Montgomery. 

We do not have his rejection letter from 1949 to 1950, but it is clear that, while he was on the right path to being qualified, John was still somewhat green in his career. 

By John’s next application in 1954-1956, he had accumulated a Skowhegan School scholarship, a Tiffany Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, and the Prix de Rome. He had studied under many notable people and had begun to travel the world for his artistic endeavors. Oronzio Maldarelli once again served as a reference, and was joined by the likes of curator of paintings at the Met, Robert Beverly Hale, art historian Bernie Weinberg, artists Arthur Osver, Franklin Watkins, and Francis Scott Bradford, the dean of Fine Arts at Columbia, Leopold Arnaud, director of Galleria Schneider, Bob Schneider, and director of the American Academy in Rome Laurance Roberts. 

Despite an impressive resume and a long list of highly regarded references, John, once again, was not awarded the Guggenheim fellowship. It is unclear if this was of his own volition, however, as his travels with the U.S. Department of State were extended through the latter half of the 1950s. 

Finally, in 1959, John Rhoden writes to Dr. Henry Allen Moe of the Guggenheim Foundation, requesting that his application be reopened. At this point, John has received some of the most recognized fellowships and awards in the art world, studied at some of the most highly regarded institutions, and traveled the world serving as a representative of American art, accumulating international knowledge and spreading his passion and talent with every corner of the globe. Though we do not have his final application, it is no mental leap to assume that he had a round up of enthusiastic and recognizable references as well. 

A letter from the Guggenheim Foundation awarding John Rhoden a fellowship in 1961.

On May 22, 1961, John Rhoden was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to cover two periods of time to “devote himself to creative sculpture.” 

John’s journey with the Guggenheim Foundation fellowship is a beautiful story in perseverance and achieving success beyond one’s wildest dreams. Looking at the remaining evidence of this journey, I can’t help but think that each time John must have thought, “what else can I possibly do to be worthy of this?” 

He went from a well-connected young artist with a respectable education to an Ivy League educated and decently recognized young professional to a highly educated, highly rewarded, internationally recognized, artist-representative of the United States. Each phase of his life expanded his world and each ceiling he broke opened new possibilities. When his achievements were not “enough” he kept pushing forward until his career surpassed anything the John that first applied in 1945-1946 could have imagined. 

This story is one that shows both how relatable and how special John was. It is a beautiful lesson in how not to allow rejection defeat you, but rather inspire you to assess where you are, where you could be, and what you could do to get there. 

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.

NEH Grant Project Update

Though the PAFA campus remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are pleased to announce that work on the NEH Project – Rediscovering John Rhoden recommences remotely this week!

Due to the present circumstances, we are operating at a somewhat limited capacity and, after over three months away, we will be taking some time to refamiliarize ourselves with the work at hand. Remotely, we are able to continue cataloging our digitized holdings, writing blog posts, and exploring different approaches for curating and presenting the digitized Rhoden papers.

This time away from the project has given us the opportunity to reflect on our work. The preservation and promotion of the tangible remnants of John Rhoden’s legacy is an important and exciting responsibility. We feel so privileged to be able to continue our work to make this legacy widely accessible. 

We will continue to update you as we learn more about how COVID-19 will impact our ability to return to the physical collection. For now, we will return to regular blog posts and updates on our continued progress. 

Kelin Baldridge
Project Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

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 circle: Ásmundur Sveinsson

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

Next up in our series on John Rhoden’s circle is Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893-1982). John met Sveinsson, an Icelandic sculptor, when he toured Iceland between 1958 and 1959. Many of the color slides in the John Rhoden papers from Iceland are of Ásmundur Sveinsson’s art and studio space. These images capture how happy Sveinsson was to share his home, his studio, and his art. 

Ásmundur Sveinsson was one of Iceland’s leading sculptors. His work is regarded as being some of the most essential “manifestations of the Icelandic narrative tradition, society, and nature in the 20th century.”

Ásmundur Sveinsson with his sculpture titled “Rafmagnið,” which means power or electricity.

His early work consists of abstract figurative sculptures influenced by Icelandic folklore and myths, animals, and nature as well as men and women at work. His works are reminiscent of a simpler time and invoke feelings of tradition and comfort. Later in his career, Sveinsson began to create more abstract artwork and was influenced by the development of technology. 

He lived during a time when science and technology were making huge leaps and bounds. Men were traveling to the moon, the sound barrier had been broken, travel was becoming easier with the help of airplanes, and nuclear power was being developed and used. Sveinsson embraced the modernity of the world he lived in and believed that it would improve people’s lives. These changes in society influenced later works of his, and he started creating more abstract forms and using different materials. 

The change in Sveinsson’s influences is clear when examining the titles of his artwork. Some examples of the titles of his later work, after the 1950s, are “The Future,” “Electricity,” and “Through the Sound Barrier,” titles of his earlier work are “The Washerwoman” and “The Water Carrier.” The Reykjavík Art Museum explains Ásmundur’s work perfectly, “Many of his pieces were conceived as a part of public space, an integral part of the surroundings, or were developed as design and craft works.” 

Exterior shot of Ásmundur Sveinsson’s home and studio in Reykjavík, Iceland. The Water Carrier is in the foreground and in the background, additional buildings are in the process of being built. Taken 1958-1959.

Sveinsson surrounded himself with his art, to the extent that he designed and built his own home and studio. The building took eight years to construct and was finished in 1950. The building’s exterior is white concrete and features geometric shapes, clean lines, slanted walls, and a large circular room with a domed ceiling. The design was inspired by Greek, Egyptian, and Turkish architecture. Ásmundur wanted the architecture of the building to be in harmony with the landscape, which he said was “treeless and naked.” He felt that buildings should complement their surroundings and thought that the stark whiteness of the building and design was perfect for the traditional Icelandic landscape. 

The grounds of his home/studio are filled with large scale sculptures of his own creation, some as tall as the building itself. The combination of the sculptures and the unique architecture of the buildings created a feeling of other-worldliness. 

Ásmundur wanted his art to be accessible not just by society’s elite but by the public as well. Not only are many of his pieces created to be in public spaces, but his home and studio were also donated to the city of Reykjavik after his death in 1983.

Images of Ásmundur Sveinsson with his sculptures from the Rhoden Collection.

For more information on Sveinsson’s early works, visit the Ásmundarsafan website at the following link: https://safneign.listasafnreykjavikur.is/en/%C3%81smundur

Sources

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.

Rhoden papers discovery: Penn Station South development

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

John and Richenda Rhoden’s studio and home at 23 Cranberry Street in Brooklyn, NY played a major role in their artistic and personal lives. It was their home base, as well as their work space. It was where they held social events, community gatherings, and even a wedding. It housed most of their artwork and decades of memories.

Richmond Barthé’s 1952 lease for the apartment he shared with John.

But before the Rhodens settled into their Brooklyn townhome, John and Richenda lived and worked in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. They occupied the fourth floor of 285 8th Avenue in Manhattan, NY. John first moved into this home and studio space in the late 1930s with fellow artist and mentor, Richmond Barthé. 

In 1956, the area surrounding the Rhoden’s home in Chelsea was subjected to Title I of the Housing Act of 1949 – a slum clearance project widely criticized for being discriminatory against minorities. This project, known as Penn Station South, cleared the vast majority of the structures between 8th and 9th Avenues and West 23rd and 29th Streets, displacing around 2,600 families. 

The project for a cooperative housing development was sponsored by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and was first proposed in 1956. The project was endorsed by the state of New York in June of 1956 and was recommended for federal funding by August of that same year. In June of 1959, the New York Times reported that the residents would have to be fully relocated by July 1960. The project came to a total cost of $34,000,000 and $500,000 of the sum was allocated for relocation of the original tenants. Tenants relocating themselves would receive $275 when vacating a 1-3 room unit and up to $500 when vacating a 6+ room unit. 

Many of the original residents of the Penn Station South/Chelsea area organized to protest the I.L.G.W.U. project. The development was slated to displace roughly 7,500 people and the Title I relocation measures were deemed to be inadequate. Many of those subjected to Title I relocation reported that they were relocated to inferior dwellings or that they were relocated to other sites already scheduled for demolition by the Housing Act and were subsequently forced to move again. 

The original Chelsea residents withheld their rents from their new landlord, the I.L.G.W.U. and demanded that the project be halted until enough low-income housing was made for them to relocate to. Despite early success on the part of the residents, which saw the project leaders conceding to the community and agreeing to preserve two (ultimately four) churches that were to be demolished, the community organizations were ultimately unable to stop the project. The Citizens Watchdog Committee was rife with tension and ultimately dissolved and other vocal community supporters were accused of being influenced by communism. 

Draft of John’s letter to David Dubinsky from 1959.

During this time of unrest in the neighborhood, John was travelling the world. As the project was announced, John was just completing a world tour with the State Department, and by the time it was announced that the residents were going to be displaced, he was halfway through a tour of the Soviet Union with the State Department. This worldly perspective led John to advocate for promotion of and assistance for artists. 

Despite facing struggles in finding his own housing to relocate to, in December of 1959, John wrote to David Dubinsky, the president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, requesting that he consider providing housing and workspace for artists in the cooperative development (above). 

John and Richenda received compensation for their relocation due to the Penn Station South project in 1960.

Ultimately, John and Richenda relocated to their forever home at 23 Cranberry Street by 1960 and there is no evidence that Dubinsky ever even acknowledged John’s request for artist housing. Regardless of the role he played, it is interesting to note John’s involvement in these interesting moments in history. We will be sure to highlight more of these connections between John Rhoden and historic moments for your entertainment as we are all laying low during this difficult time. 

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.