Author Archive for Emma Silverman

What Can I Do Over a Summer: Surrendering Expertise

Many of my peers in this program are tackling summer projects that are an extension of their academic research, or of long-term passions volunteering in prisons or running educational programs in schools. My project dropped in my lap when my initial proposal for the Public Scholars program fell through—I had never even heard of Pond Farm until several months ago!

Yet, there are some advantages to tackling an entirely new project this summer. For instance, my keen awareness of how little background I have with my community organization makes me predisposed to be humble about how much I will be able to accomplish in the scope of the program. Two months. It is certainly not enough time for me to become an expert in the rich and complex history of this site.

If being a public scholar means surrendering the pretense of mastery, then what do I have to offer? In my last blog post I wrote that I consider my role this summer to be that of a translator and facilitator rather than an expert. With this framing of my duties, I am able to set achievable goals for the summer. I’ll help to translate a handful of people’s life histories into video interviews. I’ll facilitate the creation of a platform for a digital history map, and collect the materials to be showcased in that platform. Finally, and just as importantly, I’ll translate what I have accomplished this summer into an accessible guide for the person who takes up the project after me.

Two months is limiting, but it is enough to make great strides in establishing a public history of Pond Farm, provided that I admit the limits of my knowledge so that I can direct my resources where they will be most effective.

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Amongst the Redwoods: Digital History for Multiple Publics

At Armstrong Redwoods State Park in Guerneville California, tourists crowd a well-marked interpretive nature trail, eagerly marveling at the aged, massive trees. Most are unaware that on the steep hill above them stands a small complex of weathered, wood-paneled buildings. This is Pond Farm, and though it is not as immediately awe-inspiring as the towering redwoods, it is also site of historic significance.

Pond Farm was founded as an artist’s colony in 1949, based on models like the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College. For the first several years, artists taught students in a variety of media, but for most of Pond Farm’s existence—from 1952 to 1980—it was a summer program devoted to ceramics, run by the inimitable Marguerite Wildenhain. A generation of ceramic artists trained with Wildenhain, hiking to the top of the sunny hill and spending seven or eight hours a day at the pottery wheel.

In 1963 the Parks Service bought the land around Pond Farm and struck a deal with Wildenhain—she was allowed to live on the property for the rest of her days, after which time Pond Farm would become part of the State Park. Since Wildenhain passed away in 1985 Pond Farm has lain dormant, and its importance for histories of art, understandings of ceramics, and local culture has not been widely recognized. Thus, the current staff of the Parks Service and the Stewards the Coast and Redwoods are faced with the problem of how to preserve the history of a little-known site that is located far from a mainstream art institution—up a narrow winding road, in the midst of a forest.

This summer I’ll be working with these organizations to develop a digital history map of Pond Farm, which will integrate photographs, documents, and video oral histories. The publics for this project are multiple. Certainly the many tourists who visit the park comprise a public—they may encounter this map on the Armstrong Redwoods State Park website, or in person at the visitor’s center. Therefore, the map must be appealing and straightforward enough to engage the casual viewer. Another public are the artists and scholars who have more than a passing interest in the history of Pond Farm, who might want to understand it within in a larger cultural history. The map must be complex and authoritative enough for them, and link to further resources for study. In addition, funders comprise a third public are funders, who might look at the map to make a decision as to whether or not they want to help to sustain the physical presence of the site. The map needs to persuade them that Pond Farm is worth preserving.

In her book Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics, Zizi Papacharissi describes how social media can sustain an affective connection, “a feeling of being there” (32). Papacharissi is referring to tweets during the Arab Spring, a format that is much more instantaneous and collective than a digital map. However, Papacharissi’s insights about the affective bonds formed through digital technologies are highly relevant. For my publics to care about Pond Farm, a digital map must give them a feeling of “being there” without ever having set foot on the site.

In order for this project to be successful, I take my lead from Steven Lubar’s admonition in Seven Rules for Public Humanists that a scholar must become “a facilitator and translator as well as an expert.” For there do exist excellent scholarly books and essays written on Marguerite Wildenhain and Pond Farm, yet the site remains relatively unknown to a broader public. My task is therefore to translate the existing knowledge into a format that will engage my publics, facilitating the creation of affective bonds between Pond Farm and multiply positioned viewers of the digital history map.

Why I’m Here: Ethics and Ponds

I’m here because I want a place to think about what it means to do publicly engaged scholarship. Because in the competitive, individualist context of academia the Public Scholars program creates a community of peers with whom to think deeply and collaboratively about these issues. Because I want to stay in the university and I’m committed to doing that in the most ethical way possible. Because academia is very good at theorizing politics on an abstract scale, and very bad at addressing the politics of its own institutions. Because I’m an art historian, meaning I’m located in a discipline that commonly addresses a public outside the university—nearly half of Art History PhDs go on to work in museums—yet must always contend with its justifiably elitist reputation. Because in the midst of the “Crisis of the Humanities” art’s excess to function resists the metrics of social utility, while also constituting a crucial facet of human experience.

This summer I’ll be working with the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods to help them preserve the history of Pond Farm in Guerneville, California. The site began as an art colony in the model of Black Mountain College, and later became the studio and teaching space of Marguerite Wildenhain, a Bauhaus-trained potter who fled the Nazis in 1940. The Public Scholars program connected me with this project, which immediately resonated with my identity as a Jewish woman artist and my experiences living on several different art collectives and communes. I believe that it is crucial to support alternative narratives of Art History located outside of the mainstream institutions of urban centers. While I do so indirectly in my own academic research, this project affords me the opportunity to work with a government organization to take concrete steps to ensure Pond Farm’s legacy, and to argue for its relevance to contemporary artists and audiences.