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Art at the ‘cutting’ edge: Cross-section sampling of paintings

Last month, I led a handful of members of the IMA’s Second Century Society through a special behind-the-scenes workshop in my laboratory exploring the practice of cross-section sampling in conservation science. A cross-section is a miniscule sample cut from an artwork so as to contain all the layers of the painting – from the topmost varnish to the lowest preparation layer. When examined under a microscope or probed using micro-analytical techniques, a cross-section tells the story of the artwork’s inception, creation, and aesthetic techniques in a way that no other analysis or connoisseurship can. Although the collection and preparation of these samples can take days, we whisked participants through the many steps of sampling, mounting, and analysis of a cross-section using materials prepared in advance – much like a cooking show – in order to explain this invaluable technique for understanding and interpreting artworks in the collection.

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Figure 1. The horizontal red and white element (#2013.443B) is seen in the foreground.
Roy Lichtenstein, Five Brushstrokes, designed 1983-84, fabricated 2012.
Gift of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation with additional support from the Robert L. and Marjorie J. Mann Fund.
© Roy Lichtenstein Foundation

Recently, we installed Roy Lichtenstein’s Five Brushstrokes on the Sutphin Mall. The extraordinary process of carefully positioning and stacking these monumental artworks – one that involved cranes, work crews, and conservators – was captured on time-lapse photography. The morning after the installation, I found a plastic baggie with two small paint samples on my desk. As I turned the chips over in my hand, it was obvious they told a story of the sculpture’s creation – so I prepared a cross-section to check it out.

The five components of Brushstrokes are made of painted aluminum. One of the samples came from the horizontal red and white brushstroke (Figure 1), and it is obvious from the cross-section (Figure 2) that the white highlights were painted first and then the sculpture was masked off to add the red passages – you see the red layer over top of the white in the cross-section meaning that the red paint had to be the last to be applied. But what is all that thick pink stuff below? An industrial product similar to Bondo! Yes, it is an epoxy version of a fairing compound like that used in bodyshops to level dents and scrapes on your car. When an aluminum sculpture is fabricated, the surface isn’t always smooth, and so an epoxy or polyester filler is troweled on top and sanded smooth to give an even surface that is then painted.

Figure 2. A magnified view of a mounted and polished cross-section from the horizontal red and white element of Five Brushstrokes. 1000 µm = 1 mm.

Figure 2. A magnified view of a mounted and polished cross-section from the horizontal red and white element of Five Brushstrokes. 1000 µm = 1 mm.

This layered structure seems complex, but cross-sections can get much more interesting! Check out this cross-section from a wooden shutter salvaged from a historic property on the Dupont’s Winterthur Estate, Figure 3. Because the building was regularly repainted, the section shows over a dozen different paint schemes. Furthermore, irradiating your sample with ultraviolet light and imaging the visible fluorescence from the paints can help to identify additional layers in what looks like a single, thick white paint coat toward the bottom of the section – the shutter has obviously been touched up with the same color a few times too!

Figure 3. Visible (left) and ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (right, reversed) photomicrographs of a wooden shutter from a building on the Dupont’s Winterthur Estate in Delaware.

Figure 3. Visible (left) and ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (right, reversed) photomicrographs of a wooden shutter from a building on the Dupont’s Winterthur Estate in Delaware.

Cross-section sampling is, by its nature, a destructive technique since a small sample of paint must be sacrificed. However, these samples can be vanishingly small, oftentimes less than the width of a hair, and yet they yield an enormous amount of information about the materials, craftsmanship, and condition of an artwork.

Filed under: Art, Conservation, IMA Staff, Installation

 

Divide and conquer: Creating new queendoms

What’s a beekeeper to do when fall is around the corner, winter mortality is unnervingly high, and you’ve got just one hive? Make new queens, of course! (Right … just like that!)

I’ve been helping Chad Franer, Director of Horticulture, keep bees at the IMA for six years and every season we both learn something new. This year, we tried our hands at splitting the hive – our one and only hive that we purchased in the spring. Did we know what we were doing? Of course not!

Assistant horticulturist Gwyn Rager examines a hive to determine which frame to use when splitting the hive. Photo courtesy IMA Horticulture Department.

Assistant horticulturist Gwyn Rager examines a hive to determine which frame to use when splitting the hive. Photo courtesy IMA Horticulture Department.

Splitting the hive to force the production of queen cells felt a lot like moving from the freshmen level course to somewhere with the upperclassmen. It was one of those moments where we felt the training wheels coming off and it was time to ride or fall. After much instruction from our mentor, Brian Shattuck, we took on the challenge.

A healthy honeybee hive is composed of the queen, worker bees (female), drones (male) and brood (future bees). The queen will lay an average of 1,000 to 1,500 eggs per day, all the while producing a pheromone that communicates to the rest of the hive that she is present and thriving. The daily egg laying, referred to as the brood cycle, ensures a constant and strong colony. When a hive becomes robust, the beekeeper may have the option to split it.

Splitting the hive means moving the queen, along with a few handfuls of workers and brood, to another hive box and leaving the majority of the original hive intact and in need of a queen.

What happens next is pretty fascinating! The colony notices the absence of the queen and begins to prep several of the recently hatched eggs to potentially become the next queen. These select larvae are fed royal jelly and larger cells are constructed for them each to develop within. Then it’s a race to see who will emerge first and survive. A new queen, in her due diligence, will systematically kill off the other potential queens as they emerge. Once her position is secured, she takes her mating flight and returns to the hive to pick up where the last queen left off. Voila! The beekeeper now has two hives!

Laura Dulin, the IMA HortSoc fellow, looks for a new queen in one of the newly split hives. Photo courtesy IMA Horticulture Department.

Laura Dulin, the IMA HortSoc fellow, looks for a new queen in one of the newly split hives. Photo courtesy IMA Horticulture Department.

Brian encouraged us to also create a nuc (short for nucleus) around this time. A nuc is a mini version of an official hive. Midway through the splitting process, we opened up the original hive and removed a frame that contained a few queen cells, dropped it into a nuc box along with a starter kit, frames of honey, brood and room to start laying eggs, for the soon-to-emerge queen. We beekeepers now have three hives!

So, why go through this effort when we’ve got a strong, healthy hive? I guess I could argue that it’s part of proper beekeeping. We’re making certain that we go into winter with more bees and two new, fresh queens. Winters can be long and hard in Indiana and our honeybees need all the resources we can offer to ensure survival – survival into the next spring and for years and generations to come.

The training wheels are long gone and we’re a little bit wiser. Can we claim now that we know what we’re doing? Probably not! I’ll always be a gardener first and beekeeping is a bonus. But I couldn’t be a gardener without the bees. Each day that I work in the gardens of the IMA and I see my tiny worker friends, I thank them for their diligent pollination … and their sweet honey!

Filed under: Art and Nature Park, Greenhouse, Horticulture, IMA Staff

 

100 Acres’ Play Patch

“Let your walks now be a little more adventurous.” – Henry David Thoreau

One thing that the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acres has in abundance is space for exploration. After all, it has a lake, a river AND a canal, wetlands that fill and drain with the seasons, a perfect tadpole pool, dense woods that are like a barricade, open woods that invite a proper game of cops and robbers, a meadow for chasing fireflies, heavy grapevines that resemble something old and gnarled from the Forbidden Forest, and twisty paths that don’t show up on the map but mysteriously disappear over a ridge or around a corner. And that’s just on the nature side of things.

The evolution of 100 Acres and its visitors has been an interesting one, and as we begin to better understand why people come and what they are looking for, we can begin to interpret the natural part of our piece of White River floodplain in a way that the Indianapolis community and beyond can appreciate. There is still quite a bit of “wild” in 100 Acres and, to some degree, we want to keep it that way. What better opportunity for teaching visitors how to respond to and respect the nature they are experiencing? There are many different vines in the park; which ones are okay to touch and which ones will make your skin itch and burn the next day? Oops; that river embankment is too steep to scale and forces you to find a better way back up. Ouch! What makes that specific spot so ideal for that ground bees’ nest? Our goal is to make things accessible without making them too easy, without removing all risk and therefore all opportunities to learn something nature can teach about our place in the environmental community.

play_patchAs a way to address this challenge of cognitive accessibility, a new element was introduced to the park this season: a Play Patch. The idea is a simple one, using all wood materials found onsite to create a creative play area that includes interactive elements that can be moved, manipulated and explored. If the whole of 100 Acres is a bit intimidating, the Play Patch was designed in an effort to ease people into interacting with natural elements that haven’t been shellacked, plasticized or cleaned up. A ring of seats cut from recycled tree trunks, loose branches for building structures, and tree cookies made from cross-sections of smaller branches make up the play pieces within a mulched area in the shape of a tulip poplar leaf – Indiana’s state tree. The educational implications are intentionally subtle; one can count the rings on the seats or tree cookies to discover how old the pieces were when they were cut, use the tree cookies as counters or to visually express mathematical equations, or maybe learn in very basic terms how to engineer a tower of cookies that can stand on its own. Or you can just play. There are natural processes at work that can be observed by way of bugs, fungi, worms and bark that is peeling off the harder, inner wood. Or you can just play.

Tree cookies in the Play Patch.

Tree cookies in the Play Patch.

The point is, playing in this setting, with these elements, can educate someone without them realizing they’re receiving instruction. Early naturalist Henry David Thoreau famously wrote, “I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach …” Beautiful thought, Mr. Thoreau, but I would hedge a bet that even if you don’t go to the woods to live deliberately, you are still likely to learn a thing or two before you come out. Maybe it’s a boost in confidence, or hearing a bird call you don’t recognize. Perhaps it’s as monumental as self-discovery or self-expression, or as mundane as being grossed out by a slug. Whatever you learn, it is important to make connections between oneself and the natural world in order to better understand both.

The Play Patch is a small step to achieving this, and the hope is for other Play Patches to spring up around the park featuring different natural elements, such as stone or grasses. Don’t look for one yet on any map; you’ll just have to come discover where they are hidden, in the woods.

Filed under: Art, Art and Nature Park, Education, IMA Staff

 

Towers of ‘taters!

You say poh-tay-toe and I say poh-tah-toe and, considering the fact that potatoes play a significant role in food supplies worldwide, there are lots of ways to say POTATO in dozens and dozens of languages! Researchers have found that the potato originated from South America. Its stellar ability to be stored long-term allowed it to be a perfect cargo haul for ships. Naturally, the Spanish brought it back to Europe from South America and it quickly became a staple for mariners who, in turn, introduced it to other ports around the world. Now we have French fries, gnocchi, aloo gobi, bangers and mash, tater tots, papa rellena, pierogi – this list could go on and on!

062614_garden_03Prior to commercial farming, homesteads sported their own plot of vegetable gardens and dedicated a portion of it to rows of potatoes. Today’s modern “homestead” does not typically offer the space for rows of potatoes and gardeners are getting creative with making the most of the plot they’ve got. We plugged in the creative juices here at the IMA and decided to try something new. It’s not a novel idea, nor can we take the credit of inventing the “method”, but it saves space, looks kinda shabby-chic, and gets the job done! We’re growing our potatoes this year in Tater Towers.

Our Tater Towers were constructed from repurposed tomato cages, lined with burlap. The burlap holds the soil inside the cage and yet allows moisture and air to move freely. We filled the lined towers with a foot or so of composted leaves. Why compost? Because it’s rich in nutrients, holds moisture, but is “fluffy.” Potato plants are usually started from the “eyes”, or sprouts, of another potato (called a seed potato). We dropped our seed potatoes into the towers and covered them with a slight layer of compost. As the sprouts began to develop leaves, we would add more compost.

We now have about 2 to 2.5 feet of compost in each tower and the plants have continued to grow. Potatoes will develop along the buried stems of the plant, all the while the plant above ground will continue to grow and stretch toward the sun. The Tater Towers offer a two-fold function: the lower half houses the medium for potatoes to form and the upper half confines the stems/leaves to avoid flopping and the hogging of garden space. Later in the summer, the plants will die back and we’ll dismantle the towers to hopefully find a healthy crop of taters.

Since there is more than one way to skin a potato and they’re fairly easy to grow, let’s not call this whole thing off! Find a growing method that works for your homestead (rows, boxes, grow bags, towers) and plant some spuds!

Filed under: Greenhouse, Horticulture, IMA Staff

 

City of Light meets the Circle City

Photo of Zadig Perrot by Eric Lubrick

Photo of Zadig Perrot by Eric Lubrick

Recently, 14-year-old Zadig Perrot, from Paris, France, spent two weeks at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. During his first week he attended the Social Photography summer camp for teens where he learned how to use a camera and Photoshop. You can see some of his photos in the slideshow below.

Zadig’s photos and the works of other Summer Camps participants are on view in the Community Gallery on the first floor of the IMA through August 8.

During his second week at the IMA, Zadig spent his time with the Interpretation, Media and Evaluation department. He helped them with some of their tasks and created this video to showcase what the department does at the IMA.

Thanks for your work, Zadig! We hope you enjoyed your visit with us as much as we enjoyed hosting you!

 

Filed under: Art, Audience Engagement, Education, Guest Bloggers, IMA Staff, Photography

 

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