On April 25, 1917, one of the most iconic vocalists of our time was born—Ella Fitzgerald. This year, the world celebrates the centennial of the "First Lady of Song" and the legacy Ella left behind. For the eighth year in a row, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will fill its Kogod Courtyard with a celebration of her music on Saturday, April 29, thanks to the generous support of the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation. The Duke Ellington School of the Arts' New Washingtonians Jazz Ensemble will open the concert at 2 p.m., playing some music by Ella and one of her musical collaborators, Duke Ellington. At 3 p.m., Sharón Clark will take the stage, paying homage to Ella's repertoire.
Clark is a jazz vocalist who performs all over the United States and Europe. She has headlined the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, the Cape May Jazz Festival, and the Savannah Music Festival. She won the Gold Medal at the Savannah Music Festival's American Traditions Competition and took first place in the Billie Holiday Vocal Competition. In preparation for the concert, I asked Sharón a few questions to reflect on the birthday honoree.
Eye Level: How long have you been performing?
Sharón Clark: I started singing at the age of seven at Woodlawn United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia. I continued in elementary through high school. And, I studied classically with Jack Murray and Rosella Homan.
EL: How has Ella Fitzgerald inspired or influenced your artistry?
SC: Ella inspired and influenced me in a personal way. She always had a weight problem and suffered sexism in horrible ways. On her way up, people said some of the cruelest things about her physical appearance. She hurt because of the remarks, but she didn't let it stop her. I took encouragement from that because I've been hurt in the same way. She let her beauty shine through her talent.
EL: What are some of the legacies Ella left behind?
SC: Ella's legacy is her ability to scat sing! To this day, there is no one like her!
EL: What is your favorite Ella song? And what's your favorite Ella song to perform?
SC: My favorite Ella recording is "Mack The Knife." I like the live recording because she screwed up the verses but kept right on going. I love it because I've done the same thing on occasion. It's so HUMAN!
EL: How do you think people will be paying tribute to Ella in the next 100 years?
SC: People will celebrate Ella in the next 100 years just like they celebrate Bach or Beethoven. She was innovative, a creator, and master of jazz vocals. She is and will continue to be my teacher.
SAAM's celebration of Ella Fitzgerald begins Saturday, April 29, at 2 p.m. in the museum's Kogod Courtyard. Admission is free.
As the warm weather rolls into DC, so does our Spring Luce Unplugged Community Showcase. This Friday, April 28, get ready to dance with performances by Coup Sauvage & the Snips and Janel Leppin. Intrigued by Coup Sauvage & the Snips' choreographed moves, glam, and group harmonies, we sat down with the band to learn more about how they create their infectious sound and signature disco moves.
Eye Level: As a group of three vocalists, a bassist, a keyboardist, and a beatsmith, how did you all meet?
Coup Sauvage & the Snips: Many of us have been friends for years before the band. Elizabeth and Jason played in a couple bands before Coup Sauvage & the Snips. Maegan and Kristina were co-founders of the First Ladies DJ Collective. Most of us had worked together on Girls Rock! DC, and way before that Ladyfest DC. Elizabeth is the one who first had the idea we start a project. After playing together for a few months, we realized we needed Snips to make the Haus of Sauvage complete. Crystal was our very first Snip, then the next year Rain Sauvage came onboard.
EL: How did you think of the name, Coup Sauvage & the Snips?
CSS: Elizabeth, the bassist, has a friend who got a 3 a.m. haircut from a gentleman known in his hometown as the "The Wizard of Glastonbury." He had been a hair stylist in London during the swinging '60s and '70s but they were both a little under the influence, so the haircut was probably ill-advised. When she saw her new look in the mirror (poofy mullet), she burst into tears and he shouted, "You don't like this haircut? Everyone had this haircut in the '70s! I gave Bowie this haircut! It's called the COUP SAUVAGE!" Elizabeth always thought it would make a good project name. And just as Gladys has her Pips, we have the Snips. Though in retrospect, we should have picked something easier for people to Google and pronounce. For the record, it's (Koo Soh-VAZH). The "p" is silent, like our mothers' disapproval.
EL: What is it like collaborating together in the District? How does being a band in DC influence your music?
CSS: Four of us are native Wa(r)shingtonians. Of the other two, one is from Baltimore and the other has been here over a decade. We were living and breathing the DMV (DC, Maryland, and Virginia) back before it was even called that. We're Chocolate City natives—the children of Marion Barry, who remember what it was like before urban pioneers came along and decided this was a town of transients, purely designed for their pleasure. We resist this erasure every time we name-check Jim Vance, Captain 20, Petey Greene, or Cool Disco Dan. We resist it every time we call NoMa, "No Ma'am." We have shared memories and a sense of place, and it's all there in the music. And, of course, you can't grow up here and not be steeped in politics. The very make-up of our band—women of color, queer people, and white allies—is political and our songs reflect that.
EL: With infectious sound, choreographed moves, and disco-inspired dance tracks, what messages do you want to communicate to your audience?
CSS: Our shared love of '90s dance music and classic soul brought us together. We love the harmonies, sophistication, and smooth moves of groups like The Shirelles and Gladys Knight and the Pips. But, we are equally obsessed with disco. We believe it's been unfairly maligned and is way more transgressive than it gets credit for. When you look at music like disco, house, and hip-hop, the dance floor has historically been a space for the marginalized to find community and liberation. Dance music is our medium to make protest songs about gentrification and police brutality, but also party songs about being fierce. We want the audience to know we see everything that's going on. We get it. But we're not gonna let it get in the way of our good time. Having a good time is the last thing "they" want you to do. Join us if you dare.
EL: What is your favorite memory together as a band?
CSS: It's hard to narrow this down but here are the top three:
- Our band White House Tour of the West Wing where we got a glimpse of the Obamas' dog, Bo.
- Laser tag with our record label mates, Priests. Crystal and Elizabeth Sauvage got boxed in by some particularly aggressive tweens, but were led to safety by our Hausmates. No Sauvage left behind. Later one of our team took all those kids out and it was extremely satisfying.
- Filming our first video for our song "Sneaks". It was heart-warming to get the kids of DC, a town that was once legendary for its refusal to dance, to do a real Soul Train line. We have so much love and respect for Don Cornelius, RIP.
See Coup Sauvage & the Snips play Friday, April 28, at 7 p.m., following a performance by experimental artist and cellist, Janel Leppin. The Community Showcase, presented in collaboration with Washington City Paper, will include free beer tastings from Port City Brewing Company. Check out more details on Luce's Facebook page. See you Friday!
One of the questions we hear most often from visitors to the Lunder Conservation Center is "where are the conservators?"
Most people imagine an art conservator actively handling and treating objects in the lab, or "doing bench work," as we like to say. This is certainly an important part of conservation, but there are other crucial aspects to the job. One part of a conservator's role, typically taking place behind-the-scenes, is creating narrative and photographic documentation of every aspect of an artwork before and after (and sometimes even during!) treatment. Meticulous records are essential to preservation, as understanding and capturing the changing condition of a piece allows us to understand the object's full history.
Above you can see our Smithsonian Museum Conservation Fellow, Sophie Barbisan, carefully arranging an artwork CHITTEE-YOHOLO. A SEMINOLE CHIEF., from History of the Indian Tribes of North America, a color target, and labels indicating this photographic record was taken before treatment. You can learn more about photographic documentation from the Winterthur Museum.During your next visit to SAAM, come visit us at Lunder. Our main entrance is on the 3rd floor mezzanine, next to our Luce Foundation Center.
At SAAM, Deaf Guides Take the Lead With Art Signs
April 13, 2017
As Emily Blachly leads a group of adults in discussing a 19th-century landscape in SAAM’s galleries, several visitors passing through the second floor hallway pause with interest. Two people stop to join the conversation. This is not an unusual occurrence for anyone who gives tours at SAAM, but Blachly’s gallery talk is especially intriguing for a visitor to encounter — she was speaking with her hands.
Blachly is a guide with SAAM's Art Signs program, which trains Deaf volunteers to lead artwork-based in-gallery discussions in American Sign Language (ASL). Interpreters accompany the guides to voice the conversation for hearing participants, but the primary language of conversation is always ASL, and the Deaf guides take full leadership.
"The ability to communicate in one's natural language is powerful," said Blachly, who also teaches art at Kendall Demonstration Elementary School, a day school in DC for children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. "Growing up, I didn't have enough exposure to the intersection of art and the Deaf community."
Washington, DC has one of the largest Deaf communities in the country, due in large part to the presence of Gallaudet University, the premier university dedicated to serving Deaf students. Before Art Signs launched in 2009, however, there were no art museum programs in Washington designed specifically to engage this significant local population.
Carol Wilson, Lunder Education Chair, explained that while SAAM had previously offered sign language interpreters for tours upon request, she saw an opportunity for a more intentional collaboration when a Gallaudet graduate student took an interest in joining SAAM’s docent program. The museum was not planning to train a new class of docents that year, but the conversation led to the idea of a new program that would train Deaf guides to give tours in ASL.
"I really wanted our Deaf guides to have a leadership role within the museum," said Wilson. "To be doing tours for their Deaf peers in ASL, and have hearing visitors see our Deaf guides in a leadership position within the museum — that, for me, was really important to the genesis of the program."
Eight years later, Art Signs has trained two classes of Deaf guides, expanded online with a series of ASL videos, sparked partnerships with the National Portrait Gallery for Deaf History Month and Deaf Awareness Month that included film screenings and a Deaf Poetry Slam, and even popped up at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, where an Art Signs presenter gave ASL tours of the Zoo's Washed Ashore outdoor sculpture exhibition. And perhaps most significantly, Art Signs has been used as a model for a growing list of museums interested in trying something similar.
"This program is a seed, and I hope all the museums will have something like it one day," said Blachly.
The next Art Signs gallery talk at SAAM is this evening, Thursday, April 13, at 5:30 p.m. See our calendar for other upcoming Art Signs dates.
At first glance, the objects on display at SAAM's Renwick Gallery by June Schwarcz and Peter Voulkos couldn't be more different. Schwarcz's enamel work is precise and almost ethereal, while Voulkos's pots and sculptures are weighty and improvisational. But both artists had a powerful impact in the art world, defying convention and breaking all the rules of their traditional media.
Abraham Thomas, The Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator-in-Charge at the Renwick Gallery, said "Peter Voulkos and June Schwarcz are two mid-century artists who utterly transformed their disciplines, and in turn, modern craft. Both of them exuded a spirit of creative disruption through their groundbreaking experimentation with materials and process and by challenging what a handmade object could be."
Schwarcz was known for her inventive designs and technical innovations in her exploration and "re-mix" of the ancient medium of enamel. She was among the first to marry her art with electroplating and other industrial processes, beginning her pioneering experiments in the 1960s. She used the process to create more varied surfaces, build greater depth and eventually to construct three-dimensional sculptural forms unprecedented in the history of enameling. Her range of influences included Japanese art and design; African, Pre-Columbian, and Oceanic art; Romanesque architecture; and costuming and textiles. These all found expression in her often abstract surfaces and virtuosic use of color and form. June Schwarcz: Invention and Variation is the first retrospective to cover the entirety of her career.
In contrast to the sweep of the Schwarcz presentation, Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years, focuses on the fifteen-year span beginning in the early 1950s when the artist was redefining his craft as well as reshaping the possibilities for the field of ceramics. Voulkos began his career as a traditional potter, but gradually began to experiment with increasingly unconventional techniques, pursuing a range of ideas that were entirely new to the medium. He broke things down into their component parts then reconfigured them in a new visual language of built monumental sculptures. Also included are three paintings that show the influence of Abstract Expressionism on the artist's work, as he developed his ideas concurrently in painting, sculpture, and pottery. His cross-disciplinary approach was ahead of its time, and, in that way, anticipated the habits of many of today's artists.
Schwarcz and Voulkos not only helped to redefine their respective crafts, but were also part of a circle of artists for whom the status quo was meant to be investigated and ultimately broken. Their radical attitudes toward rules and boundaries more than fifty years ago is something that is just as relevant to artists working today.
Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years is on view at the Renwick through August 20, 2017 and June Schwarcz: Invention and Variation through August 27, 2017.