Posted by: bkivey | 7 April 2013

The Art of War

Reed College

I ventured out to Reed College to take in an exhibition of Civil War drawings at the school’s Cooley art gallery. Given Reed’s reputation, I expected to see students stumbling around campus in a drug-induced stupor, but everyone I saw looked pretty normal. The exhibition is a collection of some 140 drawings made by ‘Special Artists’ for the illustrated newspapers of the day. The artists were embedded with various units of the Union army, and they were tasked with creating a visual record of the war for popular consumption.

CW drawing 1The gallery was smaller than I expected, but there was enough wall space to allow each drawing enough space to be appreciated, and there was room for informational placards that included the drawings provenance and in most cases, some context. The gallery thoughtfully supplied magnifying glasses at the entrance so visitors could better appreciate the work. The magnifiers also helped overcome the dimmer than expected lighting and my aging eyesight.

The collection features a cross section of drawings, both in content and in execution. Some are rough sketches done on the field in the heat of battle, while others are highly detailed works of art.

Most of the work CW drawing 3displays an astonishing level of detail. Even many of the first drafts are well-detailed.  I had to keep reminding myself that these weren’t copies of photographs; at a time when photography was in it’s infancy, these were the photographs of their day. Besides a trained memory, the artists had some professional tricks to aid them. Some of the drawings are sketches with notations for the artist and engraver, along with keyed numbers scattered around the work with corresponding notations at the bottom. The artist could then go back and flesh out the details.

The care taken with most of the drawings is all the more impressive when you understand that the artists knew that their work would be altered to some degree by the engraver. According to the notes, this was most CW drawing 2prevalent when Black soldiers were portrayed. Several of the drawings featured Black subjects, and their faces would be drawn in a neutral manner. It seems it was the practice of  newspapers at the time to substitute less than flattering features in the final product.

I was very impressed by the use of light and shadow in the drawings of night scenes. The artists effectively conveyed a nighttime feel through the use of negative space, and made the drawings that much more effective. These folks could flat draw.

It was a pleasant surprise to see then – contemporary drawings of Civil War sites I’ve visited. Charleston, Ft. Sumter, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg were all represented. One drawing features a panoramic view of Charleston done on a 10-foot strip of paper. Some of the landmarks then are still there today.

In this age of instant high-quality communication, it’s hard to fathom how important the work of the Special Artists were to the American public, especially those living north of the Mason Dixon line where comparatively little fighting took place. These drawings were the only visual record most of the general public in the North had of the war. The drawings are part of the Becker Collection at Boston College, and well worth seeing.

Reed College

As I alluded above, Reed has a mixed reputation locally. If you mention Reed to most people, the three words that would come to mind would be brains, drugs, and money (four years will blow a big hole in a $250,000 bill). Reedies also have a reputation for living on the far left side of the political bell curve, so I was surprised to see a big American flag on a tall pole at the entrance. Unexpected as that was, it wasn’t as interesting as this:

sticks_in_the_mudYes, those are sticks jutting out of the ground. The ground is firm enough to walk on, yet these dead branches fell from high enough to embed themselves in the dirt. I didn’t tarry long under those potentially lethal trees.

And speaking of dead wood, there is a memorial tree in one of the traffic circles and the plaque says the tree was planted in 1988. But the tree is dead, and from the size of it, died not long after it was planted. It’s possible this is a replacement tree that didn’t do well, but in any case a dead tree hardly makes a fitting memorial.

On The Road

Coming back home, I was passed by a car that had a sign lettered across the rear window. The message? “Let me guess, license and registration”


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