La Calavera Catrina: Mexico’s Eternal Feminine Muse

José Guadalupe Posada, (1852-1913), Mexico City, Mexico; La Calavera Catrina (The Grand Dame of Death), 1913. Etching on zinc. Courtesy of The Mexican Museum, San Francisco, CA.

Written by Susanna Brooks, Director of Learning Innovation, for our exhibition, Images of Resilience: Chicana/o Art & its Mexican Roots

A wide-eyed lady skeleton donning a large, lace brimmed hat festooned with flowers and feathers flashes a broad toothy grin. The smiling dandified dame is La Calavera Catrina, a corpse with a lively aristocratic air and fashionable dress to match. Oblivious to the current state of her demise, she clutches nonchalantly to her long lost human existence. When artist, illustrator, and satirist José Guadalupe Posada (1852 – 1913) created this droll caricature, the Mexican revolution was in full swing. For Posada and his countless disenfranchised countrymen and women, champions of the rebellion, the humorous image of La Calavera Catrina symbolically, and derisively, served as an epitaph for the wealthy privileged classes. Her stylish appearance and amusing, naïve sensibility endeared her to the disgruntled masses, and she quickly became a satirical emblem of the sins of vanity and greed and the folly of government corruption that had long held sway over Mexico’s impoverished, hard-working citizens.

La Calavera Catrina was among the first of many animated skeleton characters Posada created to populate his tongue-in-cheek, pro-revolutionary broadsheet illustrations, and the most popular and enduring. The chic, chapeau-wearing lady skull became a kind of national folk icon. While Posada’s myriad skull figures cleverly and comically mocked the social and political venality of the time, La Calavera Catrina took center stage and led a nationalistic parade celebrating the tiny sliver of thread that holds sway over life and death. With La Calavera Catrina at the helm, Posada’s charming corpses wittily danced and sang their way into the hearts of Mexico’s working-classes, taking a prominent place on altars during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities. It would be popularly understood that these whimsical animated skeletons occupied a surreal space between life and death. Their message espousing that no matter how much wealth and power human beings strive to achieve during their brief worldly existence, all that they chased and acquired was meaningless in the afterlife. Rich or poor, all people meet death equally and alone.

The Origin of La Calavera Catrina
When Posada conceived his elegant skull lady he named her La Calavera Garbancera, a derogatory term for Mexicans who rejected their indigenous roots and passed themselves off as hailing solely from European pedigree. For poor, indigenous Mexicans repressed by President Porfirio Diaz’ regime, La Calavera Garbancera both eased and stirred their disdain for the rampant political greed and oppression that blanketed the working class backbone of the country. Under the prolonged presidency of Porfirio Diaz (1830 – 1915), a term he held for thirty-five years, the Mexican government basked in fields of wealth alongside the privileged landowners they helped grow at the expense of the farmworkers, which delved deeper into poverty and despair. The vast social class divisions and unfair distribution of wealth collided head on, culminating in the 1910 revolution, around the time Posada renamed and published his skull La Calavera Catrina.

The origin of Posada’s skeletal dame is rooted in Aztec mythology. La Calavera Catrina draws inspiration from Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of death and guardian of human remains in the underworld. Centuries ago this goddess presided over annual Aztec festivals honoring the dead, long before Mexico adopted the fanciful calaveras designed by Posada that are ubiquitously attached to Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations.

Learn more about the influence of Posada’s Calavera Catrina on Mexican and Mexican-American artists such as Diego Rivera and Alfredo Arreguín in our Images of Resilience: Chicana/o Art & its Mexican Roots gallery guide, available at the Lightcatcher.

Focus on 50 Celebrates History of Whatcom Community College

Written by Bob Winters, Arts & Humanities Division Chair, Whatcom Community College

The Whatcom Museum is pleased to present Focus on 50, an exhibition dedicated to the 50th anniversary of Whatcom Community College. A stroll through the exhibition on the first floor of Old City Hall tells the story of how the country’s first “college without walls” grew to become a college without limits, now ranked among the top 150 community and technical colleges in the United States.

The exhibit features a photo archive of the college’s experimental roots: classes held in an abandoned supermarket on Marine Drive; a tin shed in Boulevard Park turned “crafts studio” (the current site of Woods Coffee); the “Whatcom on Wheels” bookmobile that toured the county. Included are artifacts from the college’s past: the first computers introduced to the college almost 40 years ago; early examples of Whatcom’s course catalogues and advertising; the original hand-carved wooden signs that identified Whatcom’s rented spaces from Blaine to Bellingham. With its mission to provide access to a college education to everyone in Whatcom County, and its promise to always put the student first, Whatcom Community College evolved from its decentralized “satellite centers” to a beautiful 72-acre campus in Bellingham’s Cordata neighborhood. Come see and hear the stories of the creative educational pioneers whose vision guided the college from a radical concept to a nationally recognized center for innovation in liberal arts, technology, and professional fields.

If you live in Whatcom County, the odds are strong that either you or someone you know has been touched by Whatcom Community College. Whether it was in its experimental “alternative learning” days in the late 1960s and 1970s, or during its consolidation and growth in the ’80s and ’90s, or more recently, as the college is poised to take education into the future through cloud-based, mobile, and online learning—Whatcom has been transforming lives and building our communities for 50 years. Come share the story of the college’s remarkable journey and celebrate a half-century of turning dreams into reality.

The exhibition remains at Old City Hall through May 31. It then moves to Whatcom Community College’s campus. Learn more about WCC’s year-long 50th anniversary celebration at whatcom.edu/50.

5 Women Artists in the Whatcom Museum’s Collection: 5. Sheila Klein

Inspired by the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ challenge, “Can you name five women artists?”, the Whatcom Museum is highlighting five female artists whose artwork is featured in our collection throughout the month of March (Women’s History Month). This is the last one of the series! Follow us on social media and share our post with your followers, or tell us your favorite women artists. Don’t forget to tag your posts #5WomenArtists.

Sheila Klein; Stand, 2000; Nylon, Lycra, spandex and steel, 13 x 13 x 9 ft. Whatcom Museum, gift of the artist.

Artist #5: Sheila Klein

Sheila Klein fearlessly defies prevailing styles and trends. Acclaimed nationally for her public art installations, including Underground Girl (2000, Hollywood-Highland Metro Station, Hollywood, CA) and Comfort Zone (2004, Harborview Medical Center, Seattle, WA), she has devoted her career to transcending the boundaries of art. Her smaller-scaled artworks deserve greater recognition, and the Whatcom Museum’s sculpture, Stand, highlights this other side of the artist’s practice.

Stand was the first artwork to be exhibited in the courtyard of the Whatcom Museum’s new Lightcatcher building as part of the exhibition, Show of Hands: Northwest Women Artists, 1800-2010. Klein’s interactive sculpture, which forms gigantic pairs of men’s stretch pants, invites visitors to explore an unusual portal into space and the artist’s imagination.

Photo by Clara Senger.

Inspired by an experimental approach towards materials and ideas, the artist welcomes the unexpected. Recognizing her unique vision, Klein was recently awarded the 2017 Arts Innovator Award, funded by the Dale and Leslie Chihuly Foundation. The artist has exhibited at a wide range of venues, including  PS 1/Institute for Art and Urban Resources, New York; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; and the Museum of Art and Design, New York.

Born in Pittsburgh, Klein is a self-taught artist who moved to the Skagit Valley in 1976. During the 1980s, she worked in Los Angeles as a member of A2Z, an award-winning, collaborative art and architecture firm. She returned to Washington in 1995 and has since been living on a farm outside the town of Edison with her artist-husband Ries Niemi. Her large studio is a melting pot of ideas for grand projects as well as more intimately-scaled objects.

5 Women Artists in the Whatcom Museum’s Collection: 4. Mary Henry

Mary Henry; Linear Series #5, 1966; Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 72 in. Gift of Suzanne and John Rahn, Whatcom Museum 2010.57.1.

Inspired by the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ challenge, “Can you name five women artists?”, the Whatcom Museum is highlighting five female artists whose artwork is featured in our collection throughout the month of March (Women’s History Month). Follow us on social media and share our posts with your followers, or tell us your favorite women artists. Don’t forget to tag your posts #5WomenArtists.

Artist #4: Mary Henry

Barbara Matilsky, our Curator of Art said, “I sometimes wonder about the kind of recognition the artist Mary Henry (1913-2009) might have received had she chosen a different path at a critical junction in her career.” After studying with the pioneering Bauhaus modernist Lazlo Maholy-Nagy (1895-1946) at Chicago’s Institute of Design in 1945, she was invited to join the faculty, the first women to be so recognized. Instead, she chose to follow her husband and relocate to Arkansas.

Mary Henry, after receiving the Twining Humber Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, 2006. Photo by Alice Wheeler.

Divorced in 1964, Henry returned to her native Northern California, where she painted bold, hard-edge, geometrically constructed compositions inspired by her mentor. She was among a small group of women, including British artist Bridget Riley, who contributed to the movement that came to be known as Op (Optical) Art. For Henry, geometry was not purely aesthetic, but was pursued to invoke the spiritual in art. She excelled in graphically conjuring distinctive patterns in black and white, as in Linear Series #5, as well as brightly colored shapes that often evoke landscape elements.

In 1968,  Henry’s paintings displayed at San Francisco’s Arleigh Gallery were nationally noted in Artforum magazine. She moved to Washington State in 1976 to be near her daughter, and lived on Whidbey Island from 1981 until 2009. The Whatcom Museum organized the first solo museum exhibition of Mary Henry’s artworks, curated by John Olbrantz, in 1988. By the time of the artist’s death at the age of 95, other Pacific Northwest museums had introduced her work to an appreciative public. Her outstanding contribution to abstraction has yet to be nationally acknowledged.

5 Women Artists in the Whatcom Museum’s Collection: 3. Elizabeth Colborne

Inspired by the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ challenge, “Can you name five women artists?”, the Whatcom Museum is highlighting five female artists whose artwork is featured in our collection throughout the month of March (Women’s History Month). Follow us on social media and share our posts with your followers, or tell us your favorite women artists. Don’t forget to tag your posts #5WomenArtists.

Sunset Over the Elizabeth Colborne; Bellingham Bay, c.1930; Color woodcut, 9 x 6.75 in. Gift of the Bellingham Public Library, 1976.62.103.

Artist #3: Elizabeth Colborne

The Whatcom Museum holds the largest collection of work by Elizabeth Colborne (1885 – 1948), heralded as one of  Pacific Northwest’s greatest print makers. This birds-eye view of Bellingham Bay, at its most seductive time of day, directly confronts the duality of nature’s majesty with the economic realities of the logging industry. With smoke stacks rising up in the foreground, the abstract compositional influence of Japanese prints is apparent.

Living alone in a cabin, Colborne studied both man-made and natural landscapes in magnificently detailed drawings. She often poignantly portrays the intrusion of the human footprint by strategically focusing on old growth stumps in the forest. Colborne’s work can be appreciated for both its artistry and as a chronicle of the region’s history.

Elizabeth Colborne at 23 years old, featured in the article, “Women of Genius,” 1908.

Born in South Dakota and orphaned at a young age, she moved to Bellingham to live with her maternal aunt. She lived alone in Whatcom County most of her life, except for attending Pratt Institute and spending part of the year in New York City, which nurtured her career as a graphic artist. Colborne developed a reputation for children’s book illustrations and landscape views that catered to New Yorkers’ interest in the beauty of the Northwest.

Colborne’s work was rescued from oblivion by her sister, who donated a treasure trove of material to the Bellingham Public Library. In 1976, this work was transferred to the Whatcom Museum and supplemented by later Museum purchases and private donations. It was not until 2011 that the Museum featured a retrospective exhibition, Evergreen Muse, The Art of Elizabeth Colborne, curated by David F. Martin, and accompanied by a publication that quickly sold out. National media coverage quickly followed, assuring Colborne’s rightful place in art history. The Whatcom Museum will be lending six fabulous Colborne drawings to the new Cascadia Art Museum in Edmunds for an upcoming exhibition, Botanical Exuberance: Trees and Flowers in Northwest Art.

5 Women Artists in the Whatcom Museum’s Collection: 1. Anne Eisner

Inspired by the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ challenge, “Can you name five women artists?”, the Whatcom Museum is highlighting five female artists whose artwork is featured in our collection throughout the month of March (Women’s History Month). Follow us on social media and share our posts with your followers, or tell us your favorite women artists. Don’t forget to tag your posts #5WomenArtists. We start this challenge on March 8, International Women’s Day, to celebrate the contributions of women in the arts.

Anne Eisner; Two Mbuti Pygmies, 1956; Oil on canvas, 40 x 25 in. Gift of the Estate of William J. Eisner, 1975.110.12.

Artist #1: Anne Eisner

The Whatcom Museum houses several paintings by Anne Eisner (1911-1967), an under-recognized artist who made an important contribution to both art and anthropology.

Anne Eisner Putnam painting in the Congo.

In 1946, Anne Eisner journeyed from New York City to the former Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), where she painted, transcribed more than 200 legends, and maintained ethnographic notes on the Mbuti Pygmies. The first white woman to live in Pygmy camps, Eisner introduced  the anthropologist Colin Turnbull to the people portrayed in his widely-read book, The Forest People (1961). Although he used Eisner’s notes (with her permission), Turnbull rarely mentioned her in his writings. Lost to history, the artist finally came to light in 2006, when Harvard University’s Houghton Library featured 9 years of her work in an exhibition, Images of Congo: The Art and Ethnography of Anne Eisner Putnam, 1946-1958, which was accompanied by a publication.

It is a mystery how the Whatcom Museum received Eisner’s work, which was donated by her father, also an artist. William Eisner was one of the first manufacturers of wax paper and director of New York City’s Art Students League. The Whatcom Museum owns work by Eisner’s father as well as her sister, Dorothy, an accomplished painter in her own right. An added bonus in this bequest was a drawing by Diego Rivera of Two Workers, which was inscribed to Anne Eisner by the artist in 1938. This drawing is featured in the Whatcom Museum’s current exhibition, Images of Resilience: Chicana/o Art and its Mexican Roots.

Vibrant Hues Color the Lightcatcher for One More Week

Katy Stone & Ashley Blalock installations in the Colorfast exhibition. Photo by David Scherrer.

Katy Stone & Ashley Blalock installations in the Colorfast exhibition. Photo by David Scherrer.

Essay excerpted from Colorfast: Vivid Installations Make Their Mark exhibition catalog by guest curator Amy Chaloupka. The exhibition closes Sept. 18, 2016.

Artists Ashley V. Blalock (California), Elizabeth R. Gahan (Washington), Damien Gilley (Oregon), and Katy Stone (Washington) understand the elemental impact of color and wield it in their work with striking effect for the exhibition Colorfast: Vivid Installations Make Their Mark. These artists visited the Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher building throughout the year to develop their design concepts in relationship to the architectural spaces of the building. Using a variety of media and processes, the four artists in this exhibition express how color and improvisation fuse with intuitive response and open space.  Read more

Introducing the Lightcatcher’s Newest Docents

A group of museum docents after training in preparation for touring the Philip McCracken exhibition in the spring 2016.

A group of museum docents after training in preparation for touring the Philip McCracken exhibition in the spring 2016.

If you’ve visited the museum recently you’ve probably noticed some new faces leading gallery tours.  In November seven trainees joined the docent ranks and are eager to share information, ask and answer questions, and provide insights into Lightcatcher exhibitions. These accomplished docents come from diverse backgrounds and careers, from teaching to neuroscience to design work, but the one common interest that drew them was their love of art. Learn a little more about our newest docents:

Phyllis Self says she became a docent to become more deeply involved with the museum and to broaden her understanding of art. Since moving here in 1988 she has assumed many civic roles including chairing the task force for restoring the Mount Baker Theatre together with her husband and serving as a Whatcom Community College trustee and chairing its foundation. She is currently on numerous non-profit boards in the community. Phyllis is an accomplished pastel landscape artist, and she recently received the Mayor’s Arts Award.

Antonella Antonini, PhD, is a retired neuroscientist who worked at the University of Pisa and the University of Verona before coming to the US. At the University of California’s San Francisco Center for Integrative Neuroscience she continued her research until 2003 when she and her husband retired to Bellingham. She has pursued her passion for the arts by completing a Bachelor of Art in Art History at Western Washington University and volunteering at the Western Gallery. For years Antonella has practiced Nui-do, traditional Japanese silk embroidery, and studied pietra dura mosaic techniques in Florence, Italy. Read more

Be My Historic Valentine

Handmade valentine, circa 1870s. Whatcom Museum #1982.20.11. Gift of Mrs. Charles Holston Ludgwig

Handmade valentine, circa 1870s. Whatcom Museum #1982.20.11. Gift of Mrs. Charles Holston Ludgwig

Valentine’s Day is nearing and as we shop for gifts and cards, it’s fun to reflect on the traditions of the past. The custom of making and sending cards for this holiday has been around for more than 150 years. The Museum’s own collection features more than 65 unique handmade and vintage Valentine’s Day cards created and sent around the turn of the century, with the earliest dating back to the 1850s. From cards made out of doilies and lace, to a printed card featuring a duck asking, “Waddle I do to prove my love?” images from this collection can be viewed on our virtual exhibit online.

The History Behind Valentine’s Day
Much legend and lore surrounds the origin of St. Valentine’s Day. Historians generally agree that this celebration of love and devotion borrows elements from both ancient Roman and early Christian traditions. The holiday became popular in the early seventeenth century in Great Britain and is now celebrated in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia.  Read more

Tom Sherwood Tells Us More About His Life & Artwork

The Assistants, 2010; Egg tempera and gold leaf on panel. Collection of Ron and Pam Binns.

The Assistants, 2010; Egg tempera and gold leaf on panel.
Collection of Ron and Pam Binns.

On May 14th, local artist Tom Sherwood spoke about his artwork in a retrospective and walk-through of the exhibition, Tom Sherwood: A Golden Perspective, at the Lightcatcher building. If you missed the chance to participate, here’s another opportunity to learn more about Sherwood, his background, and his artwork.

Whatcom Museum (WM): When and how did you first become interested in creating art?

Tom Sherwood (TS): Like most children—should they be presented with materials and opportunity—I drew at a very early age (starting in the years of the Second World War) and my parents, as parents now and then do, retained some of my childhood drawings. What they kept, they passed on to me and from that record, and from my own professional survey of child art, and I can assure you that I showed no particular talent or aptitude for creating artwork. My parents both had begun their careers as musicians and while they did not forcefully press their musical penchants on me, they did in one way or another encourage my escape into picture-making and other forms of “play acting.” Still, they believed in the doctrines of liberal education and doubted the viability of a solid, middle-class, remunerative career in “the arts.” I suppose, as a youngster, I found “being an artist” was a sort of useful posture and I continued to strike the pose whenever it seemed to set me apart in what I perceived to be some socially or personally advantageous way.

I carried this pose about with me even into graduate school—the “go to” guy for any cartoons or posters about upcoming academic events.  And after I had been admonished by student colleagues that I should get out of academe and “go be an artist” (and after I had done another stint in an art school and returned to graduate school) I was usually called out for advertising purposes or to show others some of the ropes to which I had been pushed in the course of my little “side show.”  It wasn’t until I was fired from my rather more professionally respectable position as a college professor that my wife, of all people, suggested I retreat to my makeshift attic studio on Liberty Street in Bellingham and “create art.” If I have accomplished anything since that moment, it has been born upon the backs of my wife Dorothy’s thrift and patience and the remarkable nonchalance of our sons, Talley & Jud. Read more