The Chronicle Review

Student Curators Explore the Lives Behind the Art

Courtesy of Franklin & Marshall College

Students in a seminar on curation at Franklin & Marshall College help inventory items for an exhibit on the American artists Marguerite and William Zorach.
October 19, 2011

Marguerite Thompson was 21 when she went to Paris for the first time. A brilliant figure straight out of Henry James, she had left Stanford after being enrolled there for just a few weeks, instead choosing to travel to Europe with an aunt. In Europe, she met her future husband, the artist William Zorach, who was a Lithuanian-born Jewish-American immigrant. The couple returned to New York where they married and embarked on a life of devotion, child-rearing, and art.

Although the Zorachs ran in the circles of Georgia O'Keeffe and the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, they have occupied an unfairly marginal position in the history of the American avant garde. But their work and romance has captivated the imaginations of students at Franklin & Marshall College, who have produced an exhibit, which opens today at the campus's Phillips Museum, entitled "Zorach: Paint and Spirit."

Through a member of the faculty, Cecile Zorach, a professor of German married to the artists' grandson, Jonathan, the students have had unique access to the Zorach material. Over two semesters they have sifted through boxes, conducted interviews with family members including the couple's 94-year-old daughter-in-law, Peggy, and taken notes on their extant artworks.

Engaging with original materials and making discoveries has been an antidote to an educational environment that foregrounds the study of business and science, says Linda Aleci, who runs the "Curatorial Practices" seminar.

"We wanted to introduce them to this couple who had such a deep belief in art and lived during a very, very difficult time in American history. Yet they continued to make art through their impoverished circumstances, raising children, and they produced these amazing works, out of this very pure idealistic belief."

The exhibition showcases 55 items in different media, including a large rug, by Marguerite, with a big black-and-white pig surrounded by a border of flowers and vegetables. There's also a green stone head and stone pendant that William made for his wife. One of the most exciting moments was when the class discovered a drawing done by Marguerite as preparation for a monumental tapestry called "The Family Supper," which was her own favorite work. "I and a student discovered that when we were going through the collection doing basic object reports," Ms. Aleci says. "We saw it and immediately knew what it was."

The domestic nature of much of the artists' work was one of the things that drew the students to it, Ms. Aleci says. The class, which was predominantly made up of women, fell in love with Marguerite for her resourcefulness and creativity—too tired looking after her children to paint, she developed a style of embroidery that she called "tapestry painting"; when the family fell on hard times, she sold those tapestries.

Ferry Foster was a senior last year and is now a graduate student in exhibition design at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. "We spent a lot of time talking about how the Zorachs weren't prototypical hippies," she tells me by e-mail. "They participated in the avant-garde and the salons, but they remained devoted to each other and to their children, which was unusual for artists of the time. With that said," she continues, "they were very much hippies in that Marguerite designed and made all their own clothes, and that they brought students to their house in Maine and ran around naked making art."

Evidence of the Zorachs' poverty appears in the thin paint they used and their habit of covering both front and back of a canvas. "They had very hard lives, they were very poor most of their lives," says Bonnie Halloran, a former student in the class. "They struggled very hard to be artists, and it showed through in their work."

Ms. Halloran, 23, has graduated and is now a postbaccalaureate fellow in art history at Franklin & Marshall. Preparations for the exhibit took place over two semesters, and Ms. Halloran and others from the spring semester mentored the students who followed them. She says she was nervous about teaching her peers, but the experience gave her confidence. "This is really important leadership and teaching experience," she says.

Peer-to-peer learning was central to the success of the course, their professor says. "A different kind of learning process happens," Ms. Aleci explains. "When I stand up and talk to them about exhibition design, that's one thing and it's great. It's different when a peer of theirs steps in and talks to them about what she did, how she approached it, problems that she encountered, how she solved them. It opens up their eyes on so many different levels, to see a peer behaving professionally."

The students are blogging about behind-the-scenes aspects of the exhibition and have set up a Facebook page. "I think it allows them to see that digital media has not only purely social or personal applications, but there are professional applications in how organizations communicate with their audiences," says Maureen Lane, a collections and digital-media manager who has been advising the students. "And," she says, "it's opening them up to maybe new and different uses from how they might have used Facebook or Flickr or a blog in the past."

In our own trying economic times, curating the exhibition brought the Depression a little closer to home. But the vibrancy of two artists committed to their craft and to each other is, for some anyway, the more uplifting take-away, says Ms. Halloran.

"What are the girls attracted to?" she asks. "They're attracted to the love story."

"Zorach: Paint and Spirit" runs from October 20 to December 13 in the Dana Gallery of the Phillips Museum of Art at Franklin & Marshall College.

Frieda Klotz is an Irish-born critic and journalist in New York City. She taught Greek literature and philosophy at King's College London and is co-editor of The Philosopher's Banquet: Plutarch's Table Talk in the Intellectual Culture of the Roman Empire (Oxford University Press), already published in England and scheduled to be released soon in America.