This post was written by Katherine Blood of the Library of Congress.
Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with as part of your day to day activities.
As the Library’s Curator of Fine Prints, I get to work with students, teachers, scholars, creators, and the general public in exploring our stellar collection of artists’ fine prints. These are generally artworks on paper, including about 100,000 woodcuts, engravings, etchings, lithographs, and screenprints by such celebrated creators as Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Mary Cassatt, James McNeill Whistler, Utagawa Hiroshige, Robert Blackburn, and Ester Hernandez, to name just a few. We share the Library’s visual collections through exhibitions and displays, publications, blog posts, talks, and public programs. In addition to recommending new acquisitions, I work with paper conservators who help keep the collections in good health, and a variety of other colleagues including reference librarians and geographic area studies specialists. It is thrilling to see all of the ways researchers can approach artists’ prints–as visual poetry; as primary documents that uniquely reflect history, culture, and society; for pure appreciation of beauty, technical mastery, or eloquence; and in ways yet to be discovered.
Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collections?
So many! One example is Blanche Lazzell’s 1922 woodcut called June Roses. Beyond its surface beauty are multiple and fascinating stories. The artist is from West Virginia and best known as a member of the Massachusetts artists’ colony called the Provincetown Printers. You can see the influence of Cubism in the fractured, geometrical panes of shape and color Lazzell used in her composition. Japanese woodblock prints (one of my favorite online collections) were another strong influence. But instead of the black “key block” outline traditionally seen in Japanese prints, June Roses showcases the “white line” method where the rose petals, leaves, and other compositional features are outlined by halos of unprinted white paper. This gives her image a luminous quality along with the dapples of paper showing through the printed areas of color ink in the overall image. Later in her career, during the 1930s, Blanche Lazzell worked for the Depression era Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Library preserves a 1938 WPA silkscreen poster announcing an exhibition of work by Lazzell and fellow artist Dorothy Loeb in Boston.
Share a time when an item from the Library’s collections sparked your curiosity.
Thanks to the richness of the Library’s vast, multi-format collections, this tends to be a pretty constant state of affairs in my line of work. For example, the Library’s Harmon Foundation Collection includes some great pictures by Harlem Renaissance photographer James Latimer Allen, showing children working on art projects, including linocut prints, at New York’s Harlem Art Workshop in 1933. Excitingly, we also have examples of many of the original children’s linocut prints that are pictured in Allen’s photographs. Studying these led me to do further research in the Harmon Foundation records in the Library’s Manuscript Division where I found student lesson plans from the Workshop’s director, James Lesesne Wells, along with supply lists and documentation of a related student exhibition. I tend to get very excited about these kinds of interdisciplinary connections that can deepen our understanding of particular, and kindred, collection items. I ended up writing a short article related to this research in a special journal issue describing different kinds of graphic art at the Library of Congress.
Tell us about a memorable interaction with a patron, K-12 teacher, or student.
Let me tell you about the time Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate of the United States from 2015-2017, came to the Prints and Photographs Division as a researcher! An artist and poet himself, he was interested in artists from around the world, including Chicano Movement creators—some of whom were part of his own circle of colleagues and friends. That was an amazing experience which culminated in filmed discussions with Juan Felipe and subject specialists from around the Library, talking about specific collection items he selected by poet Pablo Neruda, folksinger Woody Guthrie, and artist Yolanda M. López, among many others. He wrote original poems responding to his research encounters and made related automatic drawings that he gifted to the Library. He called his project, which included a crowd-sourced epic poem, La Casa de Colores saying: “In this house we will feed the hearth and heart of our communities with creativity and imagination.” This gets to the core of some of the major reasons the Library acquires, preserves, and freely shares its collections. Teachers and K-12 students might also like to read or listen to his crowd-sourced bilingual, illustrated poem created with artist Juana Medina, with contributions from students and teachers: The Technicolor Adventures of Catalina Neon.
What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with, the Library’s collections, or about the Library?
Dive in and dive deep! Nearly all the teachers I meet will tell you that, like literature, poetry, music, and other creative works, visual art can be a rich resource for primary research. I can testify that there remains a huge frontier of possibility. While the Library’s vast collections include well-known, canonical, award-winning, widely-published, and celebrated artists, there are also extraordinary works by lesser-known creators who merit fresh study and recognition. That’s where diving deep can really pay off. To learn more about graphic art at the Library, please either visit us in person or reach out with questions via our Ask a Librarian service.