"DA Discusses" is a video series where reporters speak with people on campus, in the community or in the state who have influence over decisions that affect students.
Heather Harris is the educational programs manager at the Art Museum of WVU. She spoke with Trenton Straight, video editor, about the museum’s virtual tour options and its newest traveling installation, “Walker Evans American Photographs,” from New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Portions of the following interview have been edited for length and clarity.
Daily Athenaeum: Hello, how are you?
Heather Harris: I'm doing well. Thanks. How are you?
DA: I'm good. For those of you that don't know, I am the video editor at the Daily Athenaeum. My name is Trenton Straight. I'm joined by Heather Harris, who's the educational programs manager at the Art Museum of WVU. Here at the University, she has developed a variety of interactive programs and tours for the community and the state, as a whole. And most recently, she and her department actually implemented a virtual tour program. One specifically, I know, was funded by the Art Bridges Foundation with VR technology. So, that just offers alternative ways for students and community members to join in on the Art Museum and check out the galleries. And she received her bachelor's degree from Hobart and William Smith colleges, her master's degree in educational theater from New York University and her PhD from the University of Illinois in curriculum instruction. So as the educational programs manager, she has worked to develop partnerships with K-12 schools and institutions of higher education throughout the state, as a whole. So Heather, thanks, again for joining today. I guess just to get started, do you mind talking a little bit about the interactive programs you guys have to offer?
HH: I'm in charge of all aspects of education at the museum. And usually, that means K-12, programming, university engagement and public programming for the wider community. Of course, that's looked very different this year. So we've had to rethink exactly how we do that. So for example, part of that grant from Art Bridges and the Bridge Ahead Foundation allowed us to create art kits for every fourth grader in Monongalia and Preston Counties, so almost 2000 watercolor kits, inspired by Blanche Lazzell, who is an artist who is prominent in our collection. We actually have it on display in our lower gallery right now. Virtual tours include things like this, where I zoom into class, or work with teachers synchronously, virtually. But we also got a really cool 3d camera which allows us to do a little bit of VR-type tours, where you really get an immersive three-dimensional experience. And the links to those tours are actually available on the museum’s website. So anyone can access them at any time and see the three exhibitions that we currently have on display.
DA: Could you briefly explain your relationship with the Art Bridges Foundation, maybe just elaborate on what it is for people watching?
HH: So actually, it's kind of linked into where I'm standing today. So we are a partnered museum with the Art Bridges Foundation. And Art Bridges was kind of developed as a way to be a bridge for smaller institutions such as our own and bigger institutions, such as the Museum of Modern Art, who was the original organizer of this exhibition. So you might or might not know that museums are exhibitions, we share them around and we send them on tour just like rock bands go on tour. But in order to bring an exhibition to a museum, you need to pay for insurance, and shipping, and sometimes security and all sorts of things that are sometimes prohibitively expensive when a small museum like our own wants to bring in works by a prominent artist like Walker Evans. So Art Bridges helps to bridge that gap, they help to find some of the funding for some of those elements that otherwise would be unaffordable to us.
DA: Could you provide some background background about Walker Evans exhibition and where it came from?
HH: Walker Evans is perhaps one of the most well-known American photographers of the 20th century. And in 1938, he had an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which was the first solo photographic exhibition in the museum's history. So the Museum of Modern Art is a very large, very prominent museum. And so it was kind of a big deal that they were showing photographs because photography was a relatively new medium and a medium that maybe hadn't been considered an art form or as prestigious an art form as some others. So it was really special and important that they show this work by Walker Evans in 1938.
HH: In 2013 and 14, the Museum of Modern Art launched a 75th anniversary, installation of the exhibition. So that's where Sarah and Tasha and the people that you speak here on this wall text come in. So they were in charge of that reinstallation. And that is really what we have touring here with us today. So 1938, the original installation, 2013 the 75th anniversary. And now we've taken the show on the road. And we are one of the first institutions to have this touring exhibition.
DA: I was more focused specifically on how his work is relevant in Appalachia. And also we've talked a lot about like creators coming in from the outside, giving perspectives about Appalachia, is there any criticism towards his work as an artist because he's from the outside coming into Appalachian regions taking pictures?
HH: Certainly. So a couple of things to say first, he worked in the American South, in Appalachia in the northeast, so his body of work really covers a large geographic landscape. And Appalachia was just a small part of that. But of course, it is an important part, because that is, at least for us, like I said, that connective thread that made us excited to have him here. Anyway, one thing I wanted to show you was another image. I don't know if you can see their Trenton or someone in the audience. But do you see what the text says there behind the two men?
DA: The Bank of Morgantown?
HH: It is the Bank of Morgantown. So these two men are actually in Downtown Morgantown. So some of you all might have spent some Friday and Saturday nights, right in the same place, as these gentlemen as well. You probably have slightly different attire. But they have kind of this young, I would say, tough, very direct look at the camera. And there's also a very different feel. In this image, I would say that the one that we just saw from Scotts Run. So I think it's important to understand that Walker Evans took a ton of pictures. And so there wasn't just one monolithic view of Appalachia or the South or the Great Depression or poverty. There were lots of stories that Walker Evans was trying to tell.
HH: But I'm gonna come over to this section, because these are some pictures that you might be even more familiar with. These are some of his most well-known images, and especially these two at the top, you might have even seen these in like textbooks, art history textbooks, or social studies or history textbooks. So these are actually images of Alabama tenant farmers, again, during the Great Depression. And this wasn’t part of his work for the government. This was actually a commissioned project from Fortune magazine that never got published because it actually ended up becoming a book with an author named James Agee called “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” But that book became quite well known, these images became quite well known and I would say even iconic images of the Great Depression. And you can see why. There's a very direct, very clear kind of feeling almost being in the presence of these people. But I've asked several students when I've given tours here. I've actually, just a couple of days ago gave a tour to a university-level photography class and asked them for some adjectives to describe these people. And if anyone out there in the audience wants to throw some adjectives in the comment box, I'd be really happy to hear that. But one of the things, someone said 'disheveled.' Someone also said 'emaciated.' And whenever I hear those kinds of words, I always want to know why you think that because I want to know what the visual evidence is, especially for that emaciated one, right? DA: So I know the perception of Appalachia is kind of a hot topic right now, and always has been. And artists and writers and creators played a major role in that. So what function has Walker Evans served to the narrative over time? I know you mentioned how a lot of people feel that they were captured in their worst moments, so how do you think that's built on that narrative over time?
HH: Well, and again, like I said, you have to remember the time period, where a lot of these images were made, and that lack of media saturation of images. So a lot of times if you've got a really compelling or powerful image, like the ones that Walker Evans was able to make because of his technical skill and vision as a photographer, then those become kind of the things that get etched in people's brains, because those become the predominant image of the place. So I think that one of the things that has come up, I know and discussions about Appalachian artists and makers recently, is, are there ways that people who are located in these communities can, in some senses, reclaim those narratives or create new narratives so that those that are kind of etched in people's brains of what maybe rural poverty looks like, could be transformed or thought about in a different way? So I think that that is certainly a contemporary project of Appalachian artists, for sure. But I also think it's important to understand the value and the purpose behind how and why these were made when they were.
DA: Is there a takeaway from this exhibition, maybe, is there a particular work, you think that, oh, let's say it's not representative of the entire exhibition. But is there one of his more prominent works that maybe speaks to home like right here in Appalachia?
HH: Yeah, well, like I said, I think that making those ties to the community and to our collection, here at the museum are really important. But I'm also going to show you actually one more on this wall, because this one is actually, you asked about the concept of home. This one is actually called “Interior Detail, West Virginia Coal Miner's House / Coal Miner's House” And I love this one for many reasons, but one of them are all just these tiny details, one of the things that Walker Evans did was worked with what's called large format camera, which means that his camera was, that his film was the same size as the images he was producing. So it wasn't the tiny little 35 millimeter film, they maybe would use to load into a camera. And that allows him to get this very crisp image that you can see really extreme levels of detail. And he was extremely masterful at getting this whole depth of field. And I just think that this image has so much going on, the empty rocking chair, the propped up room. And if you look closely, you can see that the house is wallpapered in cardboard, and you can kind of see that up there. But then some of that extends to these advertisements that to me are so both happy and jolly, but also out of place. And I love that juxtaposition.
HH: And to me, as someone who is raised in Appalachia and left for a while, it is kind of a world of juxtapositions and also a world of stories. And I think this rocking chair would be a great place to tell some stories of Appalachia. So this is maybe not the most well known piece in the exhibition. But when you were focusing on that theme of Appalachia, this is one that speaks to me, as someone from here. And just, we won't spend too much more time because I know that Instagram Live is a form for the brief people, people only come in, or little bits of time. But I did want to point out that, like I said, Walker Evans is working up and down the eastern half of the United States and has some really incredible images of architecture.
DA: So real briefly, I know we're not going to cover this in the tour, but could you maybe briefly, give us an overview of the other exhibit that is set up in conjunction with Walker Evans.
HH: I wanted to make sure that those of you who are on the WVU campus know that we are open to the public. Right now, we're open on Friday, Saturdays and Sundays from 12:30 to 6 p.m, You have to book a reservation online, just so that we can maintain social distancing. But it's totally free. So you just go to our website, click visit and then book a ticket. And so then you can come and really see what we have to offer.
HH: So we have four photographers featured in this exhibition, Matt Eich, whose work you can see here, who really does, you know, you've been really interested in questions of Appalachia. And this is probably the greatest example of that tradition and continuing legacies of imagery and meaning-making around what is going on in this region today. We have Andrea Modica, who has a series where she has captured and documented the January 1 Mummers Parade in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which I encourage you to just look up, because it's quite an interesting event in and of itself. But she uses a lot of the same techniques in terms of the kinds of cameras she uses and the kind of portraiture she's interested in that Walker Evans does. We have Jared Thorne who, as you can see, a lot of these roadways and landscapes that you saw the Walker Evans pieces are echoed here, the kind of American vernacular as it’s called. Roadside signs, the power cables and roads. But this is actually a collection of images of the remaining Planned Parenthood's in the state of Ohio. So he's also thinking about access and equity in terms of healthcare and how he might use art and photography to talk about and think about some of those issues. And then the final photographer featured is Mitch Epstein. This is a really cool piece because it was actually made in West Virginia as well. In Poca, West Virginia. And these are the Poca Dots, the high school football teams called the Poca Dots, but it's part of a series of his called "American Power," which investigates the relationship between the actual making of power so you see that power plant behind, and you know what impact that has on the environment and the kind of current American landscape. But then there's also a more metaphorical sense of power. When we're in high school, or even here at WVU. We often think of the football team as kind of the exemplar of youth and strength and power within that. So he's taking the kind of human and the industrial and merging them in this landscape, which is something that Walker Evans also likes to play with.
DA: So in April, the Walker Evans exhibition along with the one you just showed will be gone. Do you guys have anything else planned for the rest of the semester after that point?
Heather Harris: Yeah, this one will only be here through April 25. The downstairs exhibition will be open through the end of the semester. And then in the summer, we're going to kind of regroup and hopefully be ready to welcome a lot more people back here for a lot more hours. And with a new exhibition in this space, so we'll have a little bit of pause over the summer. But there will be works of art on display here through the end of the semester but you want to catch this photography exhibition. I appreciate you saying that. You do need to get down here before April 25.
DA: Well, that's all we have time for today. Remember, as Heather said, you can book a free visit by registering online at artmuseum.wvu.edu. It's open Friday to Sunday from 12:30 to 6 p.m. And you can also follow us at the DA on Twitter and Instagram @DailyAthenaeum and catch up on the latest news at thedaonline.com. Heather, thanks again for joining us today. And thank you to all our viewers that came out.
HH: Yeah, and also be sure to give the museum a follow as well, because we have done a lot of these artists in this exhibition have actually are giving or have given talks this semester. So if you're interested in this kind of thing, give us a follow and you'll see it posted on our Facebook as well. Thanks for inviting me.
DA: Thanks, Heather. Thank you, everyone.