Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Ken Grant received a Bachelor of Science in Geology from the University of Iowa and then worked as a logging geologist in the oil field for six years. In 1992 he started at the State University of New York College at Buffalo where he later received his Master of Arts in Paper Conservation. He joined the Ransom Center in 1997 and has worked as Assistant Paper Conservator and Paper Conservator, but he now serves as Exhibitions Conservator and Head of Exhibition Services.
The exhibition Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard opens March 7 at The University of Texas at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art. The exhibition features more than 35 photographs exclusively drawn from the Ransom Center’s photography collection and archives of writers from Meatyard’s intellectual circle. The exhibition is organized by Jessica S. McDonald, the Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Curator of Photography at the Harry Ransom Center. The exhibition will be on view through June 21.
Studying the creative process of artists and writers, as well as tracing collaborations and intersections between them, is at the core of research at the Harry Ransom Center. In March 2015, the Ransom Center will highlight the intersection of photography and poetry in its collections, while celebrating creative collaboration across campus, in an exhibition organized with the Blanton Museum of Art. Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard will feature approximately 35 photographs exclusively drawn from the Ransom Center’s photography collection and archives of writers in Meatyard’s intellectual network.
In the late 1950s, Meatyard (1925–1972) began staging elaborate visual dramas enacted by his wife, children, and close friends, and experimenting with multiple exposure, blur, and abstraction to imbue his images with an ambiguous, dreamlike quality. The abandoned farmhouses and densely wooded forests of rural Kentucky served as sets for Meatyard’s symbolic scenes, turning otherwise ordinary family snapshots into unsettling vignettes of life in a deteriorating South. Meatyard called these photographs “Romances,” adopting the definition American satirist Ambrose Bierce provided in his Devil’s Dictionary: “Fiction that owes no allegiance to the God of Things as They Are.”
Groundbreaking in their time and challenging even today, Meatyard’s photographic fictions were embraced by his circle of writers and artists in Lexington, Kentucky. Guy Davenport (1927–2005), a close friend and neighbor, was routinely one of the first to examine Meatyard’s new work and used one of his photographs on the cover of Flowers & Leaves, Davenport’s 1966 long poem. Just after Davenport viewed the last of Meatyard’s photographs in 1972, he wrote to literary scholar Hugh Kenner of the “wildly strange pictures” he had seen. The exhibition will present an intriguing selection of Meatyard’s “Romances” made between 1958 and 1970, including rare variants of published images.
While Meatyard’s “Romances” are familiar to those who study and appreciate photography, his evocative portraits of writers are less well known. Often incorporating the spectral blur and unconventional angles of his primary work, they served as unconventional authors’ portraits for book jackets and promotional materials. Prints were exchanged among Meatyard’s sitters, and many entered the Ransom Center’s collections with their archives. A group of these portraits will be assembled in Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard to highlight the relationships both between these creative figures in Lexington and across the collections at the Ransom Center.
As the Ransom Center continually seeks innovative ways to share its collections, this collaboration with the Blanton Museum of Art will introduce its photography holdings to a new audience and will demonstrate the collective strength of the cultural institutions across The University of Texas at Austin campus.
Sir John Tenniel. Dalí. Yayoi Kusama. What do these artists of vastly different styles, mediums, and artistic movements have in common? Each, along with many other artists, has tried their hand at illustrating Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a tale so whimsical it demands illustrations. Alice appeals to such a broad range of artists because the creative quality of the story gives artists freedom to interpret the look of the story in any way they please, and the book’s quirky sense of fun is irresistible.
The novel’s first illustrator was none other than its author. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—alias Lewis Carroll—created a handwritten manuscript with 37 illustrations for the story’s muse, Alice Liddell, after she asked him to write down the fantastical story he told her one lazy summer afternoon on a boat ride. Although somewhat amateurish, the ink illustrations depict a sweet, pretty Alice, not unlike the famous Tenniel illustrations. Indeed, Tenniel, a famous Victorian political cartoonist, and Dodgson worked closely together in creating the now-classic illustrations for the first published edition.
Tenniel’s classical and rather prim imagining of Alice remained the standard throughout the nineteenth century and still remains the most recognizable Alice illustration today. It was not until the turn of the twentieth century that other illustrators tried their hands at Alice. These illustrations reflect the aesthetic of their time. Mabel Lucie Attwell’s 1910 rendering of Alice and Margaret W. Tarrant’s 1916 version are sweet and feminine and still very much geared toward a young audience.
By the middle of the century, illustrations of Alice became more experimental. German illustrator Wiltraud Jasper’s 1958 version is edgy and minimal, all in black and red. In 1969, iconic surrealist Salvador Dalí put his spin on Carroll’s story, creating a dreamy, abstract, and characteristically melty Wonderland in a melancholy color palate.
More recently, Japanese pop artist Yayoi Kusama has re-imagined Alice in her signature polka dots in a 2012 Penguin publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Kusama steers away from the “classic” scenes of illustrations and instead focuses on details. For instance, the Mad Tea Party chapter features a red-and-black polka-dotted bowler hat instead of the traditional scene of the eccentric cast of characters tucking into high tea at a long table.
At the very onset of her story, Alice muses to herself about the importance of illustrations: “‘And what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without any pictures?’” What use indeed? Would Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland be the classic book and cultural phenomenon that it is without pictures? Likely not—both readers and illustrators alike have fun with the creative freedom offered by the Alice books.
See examples of some of these illustrations in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, on view through July 6. Share with #aliceinaustin.
“It’s always tea time” according to the Mad Hatter. With this in mind, Four Seasons Hotel Austin is pleased to offer a special Alice-themed Mad Hatter Tea in conjunction with the Harry Ransom Center’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition.
Complementing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter Teas take place during the run of the exhibition on February 22, March 29, April 26, May 31, June 28, and July 5, 2015, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Hosted in the Four Seasons Lobby Lounge, the teas feature creative treats, such as “Eat Me” carrot cupcakes, shortbread clock cookies, cheshire macarons, and queen of hearts cakes. Special decor, an “Alice in Wonderland” photobooth, and the classic movie playing on the big screen complete the whimsical event.
The Mad Hatter Teas are $42 per adult and $30 per child. Seats are limited. Reservations are required and can be made by contacting the Four Seasons at 512-478-4500.