Commentary by Carol Yoho, Topeka, KS:
I had not been to Arkansas since I was very young but, in early October, 2012, took the time to drive to the new Crystal Bridges complex in Bentonville, then continued on to an event at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, in early October, 2012. The weather was mild, and smooth, modern interstate highways got us there safely and quickly.
The main event for traveling-friend Karen and myself was a special symposium on American silent film history and its focus on the Old West. Special guests were two international experts: film historian Kevin Brownlow of London, England, whose career documents the history of the silent film era; and David Shepard, of California, who is internationally recognized for his film restoration and preservation work.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art had been open just less than one year at the time of our visit (opening was November 9, 2011). Architect Moshe Safdie placed the buildings at the bottom of the ravine to take advantage of the water and to preserve the mature trees that grew on the high ground.
Safdie also designed the Yad Vashem Holocaust Center in Jerusalem, Israel.
The $50 million complex was paid for and made available free to the public, a gift of Walton Family Foundation and Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. founder Sam Walton.
Our meeting was held in the Great Hall, an impressive arched-roof building anchored into a lake containing various covered glass bridges and buildings. Our spacious meeting room had shades drawn over what would have been open glass walls. The glass walls slanted outward from floor to roof, and the room was anchored together with screw-joints where the sheets of glass met.
A variety of scholarly panelists talked about Western American history. Speakers included: Crystal Bridges Assistant Curator Manuela Well-Off-Man and Curatorial Assistant Ali Demorotski, Distinguished Professor in History at the University of Arkansas Elliott West, and foremost silent film historian Kevin Brownlow. First topic was the early depictions of native peoples and Western landscape in European and Early American works of art. Topics turned to Western exploration and expansion of European settlers, the "taming" of the west, cultivation of the prairie, a need for herding cows, and the evolution of the role of "cowboy." Some discussion focused on the true role of the Western cowboy, then description of the role of the cowboy and his interaction with natives and the development of law-and-order as towns settled the West.
Some discussion dealt with the thieves and bandits prevalent in the Old West: raids, hold-ups, fights, and legal retribution—all fodder for exciting action and moral summaries in early filmmaking. What was real in the depictions of the Old West and what was glamourized for entertainment value?
Early movie cowboys were actual transplants to film-land from the Western mountains and prairies--like early real-life cowboys turned movie stars G.M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson and William S. Hart. Other film cowboys were manufactured by Hollywood studios—acrobatic film heroes like Tom Mix.
We had a break at lunchtime and were encouraged to go see the American art in the museum galleries of Crystal Bridges, the main focus of the complex (plus, what I heard to be an impressive library about their collection, but did not visit).
The exhibition spaces and art collection were impressive, and include Colonial, 19th Century, Modern, and Contemporary sections. Karen and I enjoyed traveling through rooms of Early American Art on our noon-hour stroll: seeing color lithography and early-era history oil paintings. The collection is rich, and I enjoyed looking at and snapping photos of my favorite work.
I was pleased, once home, to find a web site, not associated with Crystal Bridges, that contains a database of their collection and searchable by artist's name, by the date work was produced, and by the medium used to create the work. Photo identification of the work I share here was made possible by visiting this database.
We shared a wrapped sandwich purchased from a counter in one of several covered bridges with glass walls, similar in construction to the Great Hall, site of our morning meeting. The wrap was tasty. Next, we scurried back for the afternoon presentations at our symposium, again held inside the Great Hall.
First on our agenda for afternoon was a presentation by Historian Robert Myers, who had interviewed a Cherokee bandit, Albert Beck, who claimed to be a part of major bank robberies of the 1930s and knew other cowboy-type bandits involved in various holdups and robberies. He'd spent multiple jail terms, had received a reprieve, and had also acted in the movies. He knew many details about many illegal events, but research showed that he had a good memory for details as he talked with fellow prisoners about their exploits, and had personal dealings in only a fraction of the illicit events he loved to talk about. Albert Beck spent his golden years in a retirement home, where Robert Myers found and interviewed him. Beck is a good example of the glamorization of the outlaw by Hollywood.
David Shepard spoke next about his restoration work of early film. He passed around a horribly-decomposed, wound strip of nitrate film for us to smell (!) and handle (!!) and keep a piece of--if we'd like one. (I tucked away a small piece, that disintegrated in my hand as I tried to unwrap it and slip it into a plastic sleeve I'd dug out of my purse as safe transportation home. I'd hear about the volatile nature of early film, but seeing and touching it solidified the seriousness to me of the need to preserve film BEFORE it is too late. David has had a huge impact on film preservation. The quality of his work has improved over time with the development of electronic digital assistance.
His example was his work with the early silent documentary produced, directed and filmed by Robert J. Flaherty, Nanook of the North.
Early examples of the projected movie show a general grayness of the image. Snow is not white, but a light gray. There are no deep blacks in the movie footage either. Figures do not have the definition of detailing. A second adaptation shows a great improvement in the range of grays shown in the film. Snow is white and the details of the coats and glimpses of faces of the natives are provided. The third set of samples David shared was truly deluxe. He worked with Blue Ray, and his work is not yet available in that format, but should be available for purchase by the end of 2012. The detail in the work was stunning, rich in detail and clear beyond my ability to comprehend, considering the quality I'd seen of the original film.
His message was clear: it is important to preservation to get films and do what can be done with them immediately, before the films decompose. As technology changes ways of bringing out detail, the possibility of saving nearly-lost film improves. Nothing can be done with film we don't have. These films are Art, and David's work in bringing out their visual beauty is proof. Investments in time and technology pay off in saving these classic early films.
Our symposium was over about 3 PM and a number of us traveled to the Museum of Native American History, 202 SW 'O' Street, Bentonville, AR, a privately-owned museum of Native American artifacts. Admission was also free and open to the public. This museum is the project of a retired Walmart executive, and our group had a personal tour of the facility with the owner as guide. His passion in saving these artifacts is impressive.
The museum is small in scale when compared with my favorite, the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Still, its collection of artifacts, the breakdown of Indian culture by time period, and an audio-guided device that can be carried along by each visitor as they tour was impressive. Native eras covered include Paleo, Archaic, Woodland (approximately 1000 BC to 900 AD), Mississippian, Historic (pertains to the period from contact with Europeans), and Pre-Columbian (a survey of cultures through Mexico, Central America, and into South America).
Parts I loved were the collection of edged stone tools and weapons, handmade bone tools, red clay pots, quillwork, beadwork, shields, drumheads, headdresses, photos by Edward S. Curtis, and a trunk of medicines once owned by the medicine man who traveled with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Perhaps the most impressive item in the collection is a bison hide, "Lone Dog's Winter Count," drawn on bison hide, depicting events for the Lakota Sioux in 70 winters of tribal experiences that started when Thomas Jefferson was U.S. President. I also enjoyed the detailed listing of what each symbol represented in the history of the tribe.
I bought a coonskin cap in the museum's gift shop area. The cap itself is manufactured of fake fur, but has a real raccoon's tail...'way nicer than my last coonskin cap, a Walt Disney product from the Davy Crockett days of early television in the 1950s.
Our tour of the Museum of Native American History was over about 4 PM. Karen and I rushed back to Crystal Bridges to look at the rest of the American art collection...1800s, Modern, and Contemporary periods. This more modern work was every bit as impressive as the historical sections of the museum. I recognized many names of artists: Bierstadt, Sargent, Cassatt, Benton, Curry, Rockwell, contemporary artists like Thiebaud, and artists I'm not familiar with, and want to know more about--thus my excitement with the database I found of this work!
On Monday evening, October 1, 2012, we traveled from Bentonville to Fayetteville where we had one last chance to hear Kevin Brownlow speak about silent film history and its connection with the American West. He spoke in the beautifully-restored _____ Hall in Old Main building, also restored to its early 20th Century glory on the University of Arkansas campus. The evening program, shared primarily with university students and a few of us died-hard Brownlow fans, was exciting because Kevin was able to project his talk outline from computer, with samples of specific movies interspersed among the points he was making. Also, friend Jeff Rapsis (although he was hidden for much of the evening behind a heavy stage curtain) played piano accompaniment to the silent sections of film projected. He finally got to come out at the end for his well-deserved bow.
I have been a long-time devotee of the work of Kevin Brownlow and feel lucky to have exchanged correspondence with him as a silent-film fan, visited with him twice in the 1980s in London, and visited in person again, here in Kansas at the 1999 Buster Keaton Celebration (held annually in Iola). He'd come back to Iola for this, the 20th Annual Keaton Celebration, in late September, 2012.
As was pointed out in Fall, 2010, when Brownlow received an Academy Award for his work, he is an international treasure!
Our adventures did not end on Monday evening, but continued as we headed home to Kansas on Tuesday. We pulled off of the interstate highway so Karen, who was familiar with the area, could show me that the winding, up-and-downhill highways of the rural Arkansas I remember from childhood still exist.
We also stopped at U.S. National Park Service's George Washington Carver National Historic Site in rural SW Missouri. I was well-aware of the scientific work Carver had done in studying crops at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, especially uses for the American peanut crop. I was also aware that Carver was born into slavery, was freed in the American Civil War, and attended high school in my mother's hometown of Minneapolis, KS--where I had often eaten lunch at a restaurant named in his honor: the George Washington Carver Inn. I'd also seen displays about Carver and his work at the Ottawa Co. Historical Society in Minneapolis, KS.
I had little knowledge of Carver's earliest years, being raised on the farm of slave-owner Moses Carver in rural Missouri. There was a modern museum built on the farm site, with many interactive displays to keep the many busloads of school-aged children in attendance entertained and learning. Only the foundation of the original log cabin of Moses Carver still exists, but historical displays and environments, voice-recordings, and a bronze bust of George Washington Carver inform and enlighten visitors about a great man who overcame adversity, got a solid education, worked hard, experimented, and shared his work in ways that made great differences in the world of American farming, manufacturing and nutrition.
One final stop, a pit stop at a rest area in SE Kansas, exposed us to end-of-summer roses and an indoor display of historic sites/educational opportunities available to tourists in SE Kansas. A black silhouette cut-out of an American dragoon soldier near the rest stop entrance alludes to a military trail, now represented by the interstate highway, from Ft. Leavenworth to Ft. Scott, and the exciting role the military played in protecting an historic trading post--now a museum—in its role in the long, interesting tales of settlement and civil war of this area.
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