Goodbye from the John Rhoden papers team!

Contributed by the John Rhoden papers team, Kelin Baldridge and Jahna Auerbach

John and Richenda Rhoden, Christmas, 1984

This week, our journey with the John Rhoden collection comes to an end. A year of full immersion in the life of John and Richenda Rhoden has resulted in a project that will soon be open to the public, for researchers, the curious, and everyone in between. 

Anyone who works closely with a human subject – archivists, curators, historians, authors, researchers – can relate to the level of attachment that we, the John Rhoden papers team, feel towards John and Richenda Rhoden. 

As sad as we are that our journey with the Rhodens has come to an end, we are immensely grateful to have had the opportunity to work so closely with their remaining legacy. Working with their archives, we get a glimpse of how charming and interesting people they truly were. They both lived fascinating lives together.

The physical remnants of one’s life can be incredibly powerful. Though it will never be the case, we feel we knew them personally after connecting with the records they left behind. From the collection, we have been fortunate enough to learn that John Rhoden was a sharp businessman, resilient, joyful, and aware of how he could use his skills to help others. He created a path and a career for himself in an America that did not lend itself to his success. 

John Rhoden with Drago Trsar, Ljubljana, Slovenia, circa 1958-1959

The documents and the photographic materials come together in this collection to create a full picture of who John Rhoden was. The papers are deeply rooted in his professional life, but photographs of him smiling and of the way he interacted with those around him hint at the kind of man he was. Like many of us, John loved to document his travels by taking photographs. Browsing through the images, one not only gets transported back in time, but also gets to view the world through John’s lens and perspective–underexposed and all.

The records revealed how kind, joyful, and charismatic both John and Richenda were. They seemed to be the type of people who commanded the attention in a room, and whose presence lifted the mood. What seems to have struck people about the couple was their warmth, openness, and generosity. Both were successful artists and professionals, but what seems to have stuck with people most was their character. 

Another notable aspect of this collection is its expanse. Not only does it tell the stories of John and Richenda, it offers a full-color glimpse into the world in the 1950s, it tells the stories of many artists, lost and forgotten to time, it creates connections and networks among people, places, and things that might otherwise have nothing in common. In addition to telling the story of its primary subject, it contains seemingly infinite threads and tangents waiting to be fully explored.

John Rhoden drinking from a porron, France, 1952

As we now open the collection to public use, we wanted to thank the NEH and the incredible support system at PAFA that not only made our work possible, but downright enjoyable, through a global pandemic no less. Furthermore, we want to thank Hoang Tran and Dr. Brittany Webb for being the most incredible collaborators and leaders that two young professionals could ask for. 

Though our official work with the Rhodens is ending, we are looking forward to using Hoang’s Rhoden portal and visiting Brittany’s John Rhoden exhibition many times when it opens! 

John Rhoden and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, 1991-1992

A note from Assistant Archivist, Jahna Auerbach:

The portion of the John Rhoden papers that has had the biggest impact on me is contained in just one box, Richenda Rhoden’s personal papers. From the beginning, I had a personal connection to Richenda because of all of the incredibly endearing photographs of her posing with her various cats. 

Richenda Rhoden, 1930s-1940s

As we started digitizing her records, we discovered that this one box of papers is connected to many different parts of history, as discussed in previous blog posts and on the Rhoden portal. Richenda’s parents met at the Carlisle Indian School and her father was the first Native American judge in the state of Washington. Her first husband, Lawrence Lew Kay, who was tragically killed in WWII, has a rich family history rooted in China, and the Chinese community in Seattle, WA.

Richenda was not just defined by the men in her life. She was an incredible person in her own right. She has been described as head-strong, wanting to do things on her own terms, chic, and striking in beauty. John and Richenda never had children, but they dedicated their lives to the community. They always welcomed people into their house whether it was for an annual Christmas party or for the public to see their studio and art that was constantly on display. 

Richenda Rhoden, circa 1951-1959

Richenda was an artist like her husband. She only showed a few times in her life, but she painted every day.

Richenda’s portion of the archive has made me question a lot about evidence in the archive. What is present, what is missing, and what does that mean? Richenda lived alone at 23 Cranberry Street for almost 15 years, and yet, we have very little of her own records. Despite all of this we have been able to find a rich history of a woman. Without a doubt, Richenda’s presence is evident and her history is recorded throughout the archive, whether it is in photographs, or labels she put on travel slides. 

As Kelin and I wrap up this project, we are floored by the people on our team and members of the community that have helped us. From co-workers, family members translating Mandarin for us, to neighbors of the Rhodens sharing their stories. Lastly, huge thank you to Hoang Tran and Dr. Brittany Webb, who have been helping us and guiding us from day one.

Richenda Rhoden, Indonesia, 1963

This project, Rediscovering John W. Rhoden: Processing, Cataloging, Rehousing, and Digitizing the John W. Rhoden papers, is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.

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 and Richenda Rhoden: Pillars of the Community

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

John Rhoden’s later career was buzzing with artistic activity. From the 1970’s onward, he exhibited extensively and completed several major commissions. He exhibited at the University of Pittsburgh, the Whitney Museum, LACMA, the Birmingham Museum of Art, among many others. He completed Nesaika for the African American Museum in Philadelphia, Mitochondria for the Bellevue Hospital Center, Frederick Douglass for Lincoln University, and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. 

However, despite this later career chock full of high art commitments, John’s main priority seemed to be his community. He worked for the New York Board of Education, taught classes, shared his artistic knowledge, and, along with Richenda, hosted tours of his home and studio, and organized festivals for the community. 

John and Richenda with students from P.S. 8, 1975
Students touring the Rhoden studio and carving pumpkins, 1970s

The Rhodens’ later careers and lives seemed focused on community, friendships, and togetherness. These priorities are a major departure from their early lives as borderline-nomadic jet-setters immersed in the international art scene. 

John’s work as an educator is prominently documented in the John Rhoden papers. He was evidently beloved in the community and school system. He seemed to champion the students often underserved by the education system. Time and time again, he is showered with praise for his contributions: 

John leading a tour of the Rhoden studio for students of the East Harlem Career Academy, 1977

“Your selfless concern for these students is an indication of your professionalism and your obvious commitment to them. You are an outstanding example of the many fine and dedicated teachers in our system.” – Frank Macchiarola, Chancellor of the New York Board of Education, October 28, 1982

A mural by John Rhoden for the East Harlem Career Academy’s Career Day, 1979

“Through your dynamic leadership, each of these students involved in your projects grew tremendously as students and as persons. It has been a pleasure to work with such a renounded individual such as you. Not only have you given insight into your extensive knowledge of the arts, but into your unselfish devotion to the cause of education for minority students.” – Nellie Jordan, Director of East Harlem Career Academy, June 28, 1977

One of the most touching items from John’s work with the community comes in the form of a two-page, handwritten letter from a student moved by John’s contributions and work in 1978. As the student, Frank Conception, points out, Rhoden had already made it in the art world, and as such, his work with the younger generation is a truly selfless act. He wanted only to share his knowledge and help a new generation of artists (and people) rise up.

Outside of their work in education, the Rhodens maintained a prominent community presence with the founding and organization of the Cranberry Street Festival by Richenda. The Cranberry Street Festival was born from Richenda’s craft stands with the intention of celebrating diversity and bringing together the community. In 2015, she explained what she loves about the festival to the Brooklyn Eagle: “getting people to work together…When they put the thing on it gives people the opportunity to meet together. I like it that a lot of different types of people and nationalities get so they can understand each other.”

Contact sheet with scenes from the Cranberry Street Festival, undated

It is so easy to focus on the major moments in an artist’s career at the expense of their daily contributions to the world around them. John and Richenda Rhoden seemed to commit their careers and lives to improving their community, bringing people together, and lifting up those around them. This personal mission is worthy not only of highlighting, but celebrating as one of the Rhodens’ most significant accomplishments.

This project, Rediscovering John W. Rhoden: Processing, Cataloging, Rehousing, and Digitizing the John W. Rhoden papers, is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.

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.

Visual Culture in the John Rhoden papers Part 2: John Rhoden’s Style

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

We recently posted a look into Richenda Rhoden’s personal style. In doing so, we noted that archives have the ability to give greater insight into the visual culture of the past and, more specifically, a realistic view of what people actually wore.

At the airport in Birmingham, AL, 1949

Now, I want to explore John Rhoden’s personal style. It is easy to think that men’s fashion does not change that much over time. A suit is a suit, cuts may vary, but overall it seems that men’s fashion is pretty much linear and homogeneous. However, archives show that is not true. The John Rhoden papers show how much color photography can reveal about men’s personal style from the past, and how much casual wear serves as self expression and a way of breaking out of the suits-only connotation of traditional men’s fashion.

Some of the best examples of John’s fashion come from color slides of him at work. His outfits varied greatly depending on the kind of work he was doing. Smaller-scale sculpting and clay modeling found John wearing smart casual outfits, including the traditional artist’s black turtleneck and beret and patterned collared shirts and hats. For larger scale and monumental sculpting, John wore workmen’s type outfits, such as coveralls and thick durable materials.

The most varied and interesting examples of John’s style come from the collection’s travel slides and photographs. He regularly wore smart suits and comfortable but polished casual wear. He also often incorporated traditional or local styles and items into his ensembles, such as a Russian Ushanka hat and an Indonesian sarong (both pictured below).

The images of John’s go-to outfits for commission unveilings and events show that John seemed to have a personal uniform: he repeatedly wore checked and plaid sports coats with plain slacks, a button down or turtleneck, and occasionally sunglasses. However, his choice of uniform is an expression of personality and charisma. It’s evident that he’s unafraid to stand out in a crowd.

Finally, the way John dressed at home reveals his appreciation for a put-together ensemble and comfortable but rich fabrics.

While John was not the most outlandishly dressed artist in history, the John Rhoden papers show a unique perspective on the personal style of a man in the mid and late 20th century. We see not only his put-together professional looks, but also his working attire, his loungewear, some novelty outfits, and, most importantly, the variety of looks he seemed comfortable in. It is a welcome departure from the lack of fashion diversity we are used to seeing from men of times past.

This project, Rediscovering John W. Rhoden: Processing, Cataloging, Rehousing, and Digitizing the John W. Rhoden papers, is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.

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.

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.  

This project, Rediscovering John W. Rhoden: Processing, Cataloging, Rehousing, and Digitizing the John W. Rhoden papers, is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.

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!

This project, Rediscovering John W. Rhoden: Processing, Cataloging, Rehousing, and Digitizing the John W. Rhoden papers, is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.

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. 

This project, Rediscovering John W. Rhoden: Processing, Cataloging, Rehousing, and Digitizing the John W. Rhoden papers, is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.

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.

This project, Rediscovering John W. Rhoden: Processing, Cataloging, Rehousing, and Digitizing the John W. Rhoden papers, is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.

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.

This project, Rediscovering John W. Rhoden: Processing, Cataloging, Rehousing, and Digitizing the John W. Rhoden papers, is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.

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. 

This project, Rediscovering John W. Rhoden: Processing, Cataloging, Rehousing, and Digitizing the John W. Rhoden papers, is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.

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.