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.

NEH Grant Project Update

As PAFA remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic impacting America, it is with mixed emotions that we announce the suspension of all work on the NEH Grant Project – Rediscovering John Rhoden.

Project Archivist Kelin Baldridge with help from Assistant Archivist Jahna Auerbach have both been amazing colleagues. It has been a pleasure working alongside them for the past six months. Together, we sifted and explored the treasure trove of materials that help illuminate John Rhoden’s life as an artist, husband, educator, and community anchor.

We cannot provide additional details as to when the project will resume as things are changing daily here in Philadelphia and much of the United States during the pandemic. We want to thank everyone for following us all this time on our social media journey!

See you soon!

Hoang Tran
Project Director for the Rediscovering John Rhoden NEH Grant project.

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.

PAFA will temporarily close to the public beginning Saturday, March 14, until further notice.

The health and safety of our community is, and must be, our highest priority. PAFA will continue to monitor the global and local situation with regard to COVID-19, including advisories from local and national health authorities, while the Museum is closed to the public.

As a result, all research requests have been suspended until further notice. We urge patrons to use our Digital Archives to access historical records and online resources to supplement your research needs for the time being.

Any relevant updates related to PAFA’s museum operations will be posted on our website’s dedicated COVID-19 page. We encourage you to check back often.

An interesting find in the John Rhoden papers!

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

In a folder of unsorted 120mm color slides, we discovered some slides from a trip John and Richenda took out west. They give a glimpse into a 1965 Sullivan Chevrolet car dealership. John must have been fascinated with this building because there are multiple images of the interior, exteriors and the cars inside. At this time, Chevrolet was one of the most popular cars in America – one out of every ten cars sold in America was a Chevrolet. We hope that you find this blast from the past as interesting as we do! 

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.

Update: John Rhoden papers

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

Time has flown by working on the John Rhoden papers, and we are quickly approaching our 5,000 digitized items goal. As such, our work for the last few months has largely consisted of scanning and cataloging – not the most riveting activities to report on.

In the absence of captivating and varied activities, we have provided some photographs from the collection of John Rhoden at work for your viewing pleasure!

Next up, Assistant Archivist Jahna Auerbach will report on an exciting discovery she made this week!

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: Ana Bešlić

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

One thing that has become evident in processing the John Rhoden papers is that Rhoden met a lot of people. Everywhere he traveled, both in America and around the world, John made connections and friendships with many other notable artists.

John Rhoden and Ana Bešlić in Bešlić’s studio on December 6, 1958.

In order to highlight the breadth of his circle, we thought it might be interesting to do a series of introductions to the many people John encountered during his career, as evidenced by the John Rhoden papers.

First up is Serbian sculptor Ana Bešlić. John met Bešlić during his trip to the Soviet Union as an art specialist working with the United States Department of State between 1958 and 1959. In Serbia, John visited artists’ studios, likely at the University of Fine Arts in Belgrade, on December 6, 1958. During this visit, he met notable Yugoslav artists including Bešlić, Sreten Stojanović, Mića Popović, Miodrag B. Protić, Olga Jevrić and Olga Jančić.

Bešlić in her studio in Belgrade surrounded by her sculpture.

Bešlić was born in Bajmok, Serbia in 1912, at which time the town consisted primarily of Hungarians, Bunjevci, and Germans, with a much smaller population of Serbs. Bešlić was of Bunjevci heritage. She was the daughter of Lazo Bešlić, a landowner in Zagreb, Graz, and Vienna. Ana Bešlić attended school in all three of those locations.

Bešlić’s career as an artist did not begin until after she was married. In 1939, she was admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade, though her studies were paused during World War II. She went on to become integral member of a group of artists who, in the 1950’s, served as a pioneering force in contemporary Yugoslav art.

Several sources tie this movement of the 1950’s to a few pivotal moments in Yugoslav culture including Miroslav Krleza’s speech at the Writers’ Congress of Ljubljana in 1952 and Henry Moore’s 1955 exhibition in Belgrade. Krleza argued that Yugoslav Socialist art should be free from constraint and come in an array of styles. This speech made avant-garde, abstract, and modernist art (as opposed to realism and the re-working of traditional Western styles) a matter of patriotism. Moore’s exhibition provided the artistic inspiration for many notable Serbian artists of the time. This movement culminated in the establishment of the Contemporary Art Museum in Belgrade in 1958.

Bešlić with fellow artist and John’s travel companion, William A. Smith.

As noted above, Bešlić was an integral character in this movement and the cultural moments above seem to have had a clear impact on her art. Moore’s influence in particular is evident in Bešlić’s penchant for monumental sculpture and her series of “associative forms,” completed in 1959, which are directly reminiscent of Moore’s numerous connected forms. In addition to outside influences, Bešlić found the whiteness of her sculptures to be deeply important and also referred to her abstract figures as deep studies of the female form.

Bešlić’s associative forms were exhibited at the Rodin Museum in Paris in 1961, the Yugoslav Contemporary Sculpture Exhibition in Paris and Rome in 1961 and 1962, and at a solo exhibition in Belgrade in 1963. She additionally exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1962. She won the October Prize of Belgrade (likely related to the October Salon, Belgrade’s largest contemporary art exhibition) in 1979, the Pro Urbe Prize in 1997, and the Ferenc and Forum Prize of Bodrogvari.

Much of her work now resides in various locations in Subotica, Serbia, including the City Museum of Subotica, Palic Park, and the Subotica Theater.

Bešlić observing a photograph of John Rhoden’s sculpture, Laika (Russian Space Dog).

Check back in for more profiles on the many interesting people in John Rhoden’s circle!

Sources:

  • Örökszárnyaló: Ana Bešlić szabadkai Pro Urbe díjas szobrászművész halálhírére : https://web.archive.org/web/20110714021537/http://archiv.magyarszo.com/arhiva/2008/01/31/main.php?l=b11.htm
  • Designers & Creators Directory: Ana Beslic: https://www.spomenikdatabase.org/ana-beslic
  • Yugoslav Art and Culture: From the Art of a Nation to the Art of a Territory: http://www.yuhistorija.com/culture_religion_txt01.html

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 digitization update: How to digitize books!

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

Jahna and Hoang photographing John Rhoden’s sketchbooks.

Archival collections can range from standard mediums such as papers, photographs, and books to less standard materials like large pieces of art, framed documents, photo albums, etc. Most of the time we are able to digitize items on a flatbed scanner, but other times we need to utilize a copy stand and digital camera setup.

Objects that usually need to be digitized with a camera are bound materials (books). This is because the only way to lay a book flay on a scanner would involve breaking the spine. At PAFA we had to capture John Rhoden’s sketchbooks and exhibition catalogs with a digital camera. 

An example of a book cradle used for digital capture. These cradles can cost thousands of dollars so many archivists figure out alternative processes.  (https://www.digiscribe.info/)

When photographing books, it is important to avoid distortion of the pages, have even lighting, eliminate any shadows that could occur, and ensure everything is in focus. 

To accomplish this, we mounted a digital camera onto a copy stand so that it is oriented straight down. A copy stand is a very sturdy alternative to a tripod. We have lights on either side of the book and include the Kodak Color Control Patches in each frame to standardize proper black and white values. Without a ‘V cradle,’ pages can easily look distorted because the pages have a natural curve. To eliminate distortion we photograph the books with the page we want to capture flat while holding the book at a 90-degree angle. 

Then Hoang, Kelin and I had to work together. I handled the camera settings and focus, Hoang helped keep the pages flat and straight, and Kelin monitored the images in Lightroom.  

(Diagram of Recto and Verso from http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Recto_and_verso)

What may be surprising is that, to save time, we first capture the recto (the front side) of each page, and then the verso (the backside) of each page. In post-production I will have to edit and merge these images so that a viewer can “flip” through the book digitally.

As tedious as photographing can be, it was a fun change of pace to work together, which is something we haven’t been able to do now that we are primarily cataloging and digitizing records on the flatbed scanner. Now, all we have to do is digitally process the images and we have digital images of a book! The finished digital book will be available as a part of the John Rhoden papers, accessible through PAFA’s Digital Archives.

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.

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