Quiltspeak: Stories In The Stitches

Working in a history museum setting it is inevitable that a quilt exhibit will present itself. The first day I worked at the Dallas Historical Society I was called into the interim director’s office and told that I needed to quickly put together a quilt display to open in one month. She felt it would be quick, cheap and require little work. Needless to say, the interim director was not a museum person. Any exhibition – large or small – requires an equal amount of effort, care, and preparation. Fortunately that exhibition calendar quickly fell to the wayside and the misguided quilt display project never happened.

Hanging and flat display of quilts

Fast forward several years to the Colorado History Museum. There I had the pleasure to work with the new Assistant Curator of Decorative and Fine Arts, Alisa Zahler, in organizing Quiltspeak: Stories in the Stitches. It was my third project as the Director of Design & Production. I had previously held Alisa’s position for a year and a half.

Vignette with sewing machine

Quilts at gallery entrance

Alisa selected an encyclopedic array of historic and contemporary quilts, all produced in Colorado. About a third of the show was drawn from the Society’s collections and the rest were lent by artists from around the state. The interpretation for the show focused on the lives the quilters and the stories behind the making of the individual quilts. To unify the complex patterns and many colors of the quilts I painted the galleries and platforms a rich saturated red. The interpretive signage was placed to not detract from the exuberant quilts.

My main challenge was to present a large number of flat three-dimensional objects in a way that was both beautiful, dynamic, and safe yet accessible. I was also dealing with the tactile nature of the medium and the compelling natural desire for visitors to want to touch the textiles.

The gallery for the show consisted of two rectangular rooms separated by a masonry wall with two archways. Utilizing several temporary wall and a series of wide low platforms I created a series of long diagonal vistas through the space, hiding the dividing wall. And while all the quilts were displayed behind plexiglass panels or suspended above the wide platform barriers, an interactive area was created utilizing a quilting frame and chairs where visitors could sit and contentedly stitch. There was also a front porch vignette furnished with rocking chairs and embroidery hoops containing quilt squares to work. In conjunction with the education staff I also incorporated a number of interactive work stations and discovery drawers to expand the interpretive content of the show.

Quilting interactive area with front porch

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Vance Kirkland: A Colorado Painter’s Life

A few blocks east the Colorado History Museum, at the corner of Pearl and 13th Avenue is the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Arts, one of Denver’s hidden treasures. The museum is organized around the collections of Vance Kirkland, an important regional artist and collector of beautiful objects. Kirkland moved to Colorado from Ohio in the 1930s, and subsequently evolved into a prominent modernist painter. Kirkland established the art program at the University of Denver while maintaining his tiny brick studio/home on Pearl Street. In addition to his own monumental output, Kirkland also collected the works of other Colorado artists and a significant array of decorative art objects and furnishings.

Tulips and Rhubarb painting at entrance

Tulip arrangement and Art Deco cartoon at entrance

Today Kirkland’s legacy is promoted through Hugh Grant, the present director of the Kirkland Museum. While I was with the Colorado Historical Society, I was among a small group of CHS staffers Grant took under his wing to introduce to Denver’s cultural life. Part of this education included events at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, behind-the-scenes visits to the studio before the museum was formally established and taking part in chic catered luncheons around Kirkland’s expansive Frank Lloyd Wright dining table served on colorful Russel Wright tableware.

Arts & Crafts in the Early Years

In 2003 the Colorado History Museum and the Kirkland Museum teamed to organize the exhibition Vance Kirkland: A Colorado Painter’s Life. The show was co-curated by Hugh Grant, Judy Steiner, and me. Hugh and Judy immersed themselves in Kirkland’s artwork while I reveled in the furniture and decorative arts elements. The exhibit occupied 5,000 sq. ft. in the Arco/Rotary Galleries on the Colorado History Museum’s main floor. The installation was arranged chronologically and documented the distinct phases of Kirkland’s prolific career.

Oklahoma Land Run cartoon with Arts & Crafts furnishings

Arts & Crafts cabinetry with Tiffany accessories

As Kirkland actively collected cutting edge decorative art objects and furnishings throughout his career, and used them in his daily life, we had a rich trove of objects to accessorize the distinct decades of Kirkland’s career. Beginning with several fine examples of American Arts and Crafts furnishings, copperware and ceramics the installation progressed steadily forward through the Post-Modernist style of the 1980s. I also incorporated several pieces from the CHS collections representing slightly earlier English Arts and Crafts design – to which a local art critic took exception – but which perfectly complemented the comfortable artistic world from which Kirkland evolved.

Moderne salon vignette

A major set piece in the installation was a large undulating platform evoking a stylish moderne interior from the late 1940s – early 1950s. Kirkland and his wife were well-known for their evening salons at the studio. This setting was designed to be a party in progress with the dining room set for a buffet supper and drinks in the living room. The room setting allowed me to show artwork from Kirkland’s collection in a home setting, in addition to utilizing the many decorative arts pieces as they would have originally seen service.

Kirkland's studio equipment

Detail of moderne living room with applewood plywood paneling

One important feature of the installation at the Colorado History Museum was the ability to highlight elements of the Kirkland collection. The Kirkland Museum – and the original studio space – are extremely intimate spaces, and individual objects are often overwhelmed in the abundance of the setting. During our installation several staff members from the Kirkland Museum commented on “seeing” pieces from their holdings for the first time, even though they frequently passed the very same objects on a daily basis.

Exploding universe dot paintings

Hard Edge Abstraction vignette


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Icons and Oddities: 125 Years of Collecting Colorado Colorado History Museum

19th Century decorative arts vignette

Every once and a while an exhibition project comes along that allows me to wear two hats – curator and exhibition designer. Icons and Oddities was one such project. I co-curated the show with Curator of Photography, Eric Paddock. The exhibition served as an anniversary event for the Colorado Historical Society, an institution almost as old as the Centennial State itself. Icons and Oddities was staged in the Arco/Rotary Gallery on the Colorado History Museum’s main level, taking in 5,000 sq. ft.

1930s all-electric kitchen vignette

As its name implies, the show utilized objects that were iconic to the region’s rich history, along with a number of the quirkier objects which normally wouldn’t appear in the galleries. When else would you have the chance to show a barnacle-encrusted porthole cover from the Battleship Maine, memorial wreaths made of human hair or an invitation to a 1930s science fiction convention in Denver?

Southwest fiber arts display

Cowboy culture vignette

As often happens with self-congratulatory exhibitions in the museum world, Icons and Oddities was realized on a very minimal budget, one that compelled Eric and me to be very creative in recycling  existing casework and object mounts, and to utilize a gallery floor plan and color scheme from the previous Vance Kirkland exhibition. The major graphic elements from Kirkland were struck and the applewood paneling in the “salon” gallery was removed, but otherwise the galleries remained very much the same, yet at the same time appeared remarkably different.

It was an exhibition of contrasts – big stories and small stories – told in Eric’s evocative style. I combed the storerooms for objects that would both resonate and intrigue. It was a rare opportunity to bring out a folk art sculpture of Viet Nam War-era field medics and juxtapose it against more readily recognizable objects such as the monumental, sterling silver Moffat loving cup with its dimensional landscape views of the Rocky Mountains. Colorado’s agricultural heritage was told through garishly- illustrated seed packets and sculptural windmill fins, while the region’s cowboy culture took the form of wooly chaps and dime novel covers. With its mix of stately history and slight irreverence the show proved both entertaining and popular.

Moffat loving cup at entrance

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Soldiers on Skis, Colorado History Museum

The U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division is still in existence and active on many fronts, but in the 1940s it was based at Camp Hale, in the Colorado Rockies near the present-day ski mecca of Vail. In fact, former members of the 10th established Vail in the 1960s. It is sited at the former location of a remote farmhouse that served as a beacon when the soldiers of the 10th traveled back and forth to Aspen, Colorado, on leave.

View of Camp Hale interpretation

The soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division were the Special Ops troops of World War II, trained in special alpine and mountain-terrain fighting techniques. The 10th saw action in the Aleutian Islands and in the closing bloody salvos of WWII in the Italian Alps. Today Camp Hale is a vast meadow of crumbling concrete foundations, but it was once an important, specialized, high-altitude training center.

Cold weather equipment developed for the 10th

The Colorado Historical Society and the Denver Public Library today co-manage the 10th Mountain Division Collection, with the Society overseeing the three-dimensional objects and the Library managing the extensive archives and photographic  collections. Veterans of the 10th are very active in both donating materials and documenting the collections.

Touchscreen video kiosk

D-Series display vignette

I had the opportunity to design a long-anticipated exhibition celebrating the sacrifices and accomplishments of the 10th. The exhibit was created in a 1,000 sq. ft. gallery off the main lower lobby of the Colorado History Museum. Though small in size the exhibit packed in a great deal of information, artifacts, and gallery activities. A vignette of special cold weather equipment was displayed in a snowy vignette documenting the D-Series alpine survival training exercise undertaken by the troops in blizzard conditions. Recordings of recollections of the soldiers were incorporated at several listening stations. A special touch-screen video was created especially for the installation and utilized a mock-up of a Camp Hale office.

The Italian Campaign was portrayed through a scorched, bombed-out Italian farmhouse and a compact, sandbag foxhole wired for sound and vibration. A contour map of the Italian Alps and reproduction battlefield maps led visitors through the progression of the Battle of Mount Belvedere and the deadly push toward Lake Como, and the eventual capture of Mussolini’s lake villa.

Battlefield foxhole

Camoflage net with bomb flash strobe effect

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Ancient Voices, Colorado History Museum

Ancient Voices was perhaps the most complicated project I undertook as the exhibition designer with the Colorado Historical Society. It was a large undertaking, produced in about a year’s time, which is very fast for a large museum exhibition. It also required a great deal of logistical planning and coordination – on many fronts.

The exhibition documented the early native inhabitants of the region now known as Colorado. It was the first part of a two-part installation. Phase One focused on the peoples living in the region prior to contact with Europeans in the 17th Century. It spanned a timeframe of about 20,000 years. 

Concept floorplan and support drawings

The installation itself took in a significant footprint on the Colorado History Museum’s lower exhibitions floor. To create the required space necessitated striking three previous permanent exhibitions, establishing a new main gallery entrance and creating a new circulation pattern for the main exhibitions area. The installation was also conceived as Phase One of an even larger redevelopment of the permanent gallery space; a redevelopment that would relocate all of the current interpretive areas and completely reverse the historic timeline configuration of the gallery spaces.

Clearing the gallery

Gallery framing in progress

The exhibitions calendar allotted three months to strike the previous galleries and install the new show. The new installation took in 7,000 sq, ft. and due to the necessity of several built environments, required extensive framing, construction and finish work. I added four temporary employees to my staff and also utilized numerous volunteer hours. I also outsourced production of several key components and worked with vendors to produce the orientation theatre and Paleoindian gallery’s audiovisual components. The new installation also required new casework, object mounts, fiber-optic lighting systems, sound equipment, and a computer mainframe.

Mesa Verde casework under construction

Tempering the tight production calendar of Ancient Voices was the great mix of people contributing to the project and the variety of efforts that went into the final product. It was the first time I was involved in scripting and developing film segments for an installation, and the first time I actively participated in creating a custom soundtrack for an exhibition. We worked with a Grammy Award winning composer to create a unique musical soundtrack providing ambient sound and atmospheric additions to the gallery experience. I also had the opportunity to work with a thoroughly entertaining group of artisans creating the special finishes utilized throughout the galleries.

Painting the fiberglass"stonework"

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Cue the Bison

From the beginning of the interpretive discussions for Ancient Voices it was a given that we needed to explore broader interpretive solutions than a” book on the wall” format. We were telling the story of a world unfamiliar to the majority of our museum visitors. It became clear that very strong visual representations would be required to “transport” our audience.

Our location in the San Luis Valley

We partnered with the talent at Denver Center Media, the film production arm of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. They were the perfect complement to our project as they fully understood the theatrical nature of our project, the storytelling required and the potential of the available technology.

Our frequent production meetings were the source for both inspiration and solutions. An inspired brainstorming session late one Friday afternoon was perhaps the most exciting mental excercise I have ever had. We managed to resolve every problem facing our production and suddenly all the pieces fell into place. I couldn’t wait until Monday to share our breakthrough epiphany with the remainder of the exhibition team.

The field film camp

Our location "set"

That Friday afternoon discussion led to a week-long location shoot in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Led by the vision of our location director, Benjamin F. Phelan, we set about recreating a day-in-the-life of a Paleoindian family group. Our set was grassy knoll on a meandering spring-feed steam below the Great Sand Dunes, in a region dotted with Paleoindian archaeological sites.

Garbed in hide costumes created at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, our marvelous cast of five Ute Indian performers went through their paces in a wild environment. They speared fish, built a fire with friction and plant fiber, cut and dried meat, tanned hides and flintnapped stone tools under the gaze of our cameras.

The Nature Conservancy reserve where we filmed served as home to both a bison and elk herd. During one afternoon’s filming two bison moved closer and closer into our shot, eventually becoming part of the scenery. Completely in character, our matriarch character moved her family group within reach of the nearest bison, performing a purification and honor ceremony. It was mesmerizing!

Our cast relaxing between takes

My birthday that year was celebrated with a posole and dried fruit feast at our location shoot. A cake also mysteriously appeared even though we were miles from civilization. Our matriarch actress presented me with a medicine bag containing a tuft of bison fur from our filming site. That bag now resides in a birch bark box, a cherished momento and talisman from a life-changing experience.

Ancient and modern meet

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Telling the Bigger Story

Assembling the foodways interactive station

The nature and habits of the cultures being interpreted in Ancient Voices presented a problem in that two of the represented cultural groups were nomadic, and therefore there is little extant record of their worlds. The interpretive team faced the challenge of making the few artifacts that we did have represent a much larger story. A single bone needle seemed dwarfed against the vast expanse of the Colorado prairie, yet it represented major technical innovation and cultural development.

Completed foodways interactive station

A number of interactive elements were incorporated into the gallery design to help in both telling and expanding the interpretive story, and to supplement our few artifacts. The filmed segments from our week in the San Luis Valley became glimpses into the distant  past at touch screen “totem” stations in the Paleoindian gallery. Research into the seasonal foodways of the nomadic tribal groups was interpreted through a flip panel station disguised as a stretched elk hide; and the mixed story of ancient tools, stratigraphy and the archaeological process was told through staggered discovery drawers set into a cutbank cliff face.

Roughed-in construction for strata wall

Our student intern and her art teacher

The production of several of the interactive stations I designed was outsourced to John Carr, and the artisans at Atomic Designs in Fort Collins, Colorado. They created the elk hide station, the discovery drawers unit, and an automated timeline “time machine” that chronicled and synchronized world, North American, and regional events in the ancient world. The stratigraphy elements of the discovery drawers station was created by a high school intern from Golden, Colorado.

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The Ongoing Conversation

Creating an exhibition is an evolutionary process with the integration of many ideas. It is an ongoing conversation with input from many sources. For Ancient Voices we began with a general idea of what we were trying to accomplish and then began working toward ways of accomplishing that vision. The original concept went through many revisions and alterations as details were discussed, resources were reviewed, and research was undertaken.

The installation floor plan was revised seven times in six months. The floor plan also served as a roadmap for the project, often leading discussions and directing the exhibition team towards viable solutions.

The exhibit team in the new gallery

The exhibition team was made up of many individuals, however the core team consisted of the project director, the curator of anthropology, an educator and myself as the designer. As our discussions – large and small – occurred over a six-month period the look and feel of the installation changed dramatically. As I personally think very visually, I always had a clear picture in my mind of what the installation would look like at each phase of the discussion. My main challenge was sharing that vision with my colleagues.

Team members reviewing artifacts

As soon as the gallery began taking shape I insisted on walking the full exhibitions team through the space and explaining to them how the floor plan translated into the three-dimensional space. The discussion process also carried into the storerooms as we evaluated collection objects and placed them within the context of the storyline.

Leading tour of the CHS staff

The conversation also extended to the general staff of the Colorado Historical Society. I led several staff tours of the installation while it was underway, explaining what was happening in each space and answering questions. In this way, when the exhibition opened it wasn’t a mystery to the staff and everyone was informed as to its purpose and its importance in a larger exhibitions plan for the institution. It was, after all, phase one of a larger  two-part project.

Explaining the kiva orientation theater to staff

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It’s in the Details

Undertaking an exhibition space that revolves around major built environments necessitates focusing on a great many details – large and small. For several sections of Ancient Voices we replicated large outdoor environments within an interior space, and a great many “natural” objects such as trees, grasses, and rocks came into play. We were also recreating several built environments both as backdrops and as display spaces. They also required very careful consideration and attention to detail.

The landscape crew at work

 One of the major set pieces, representing the third major interpretive section of the exhibition, was a small Puebloan cliff structure with an open plaza and several small living spaces. One of the spaces was utilized to document how Puebloan ceramics were fashioned and fired. Another room  represented how the Pueblo ruins at Mesa Verde appeared when first explored in the late 1890s.

View into the Mesa Verde storeroom

Painted and incised figurative representations were a specialty of the Apishipa people who inhabited southeastern Colorado. A great deal of time was spent researching and reproducing several examples of their work, including an example of how this cultural legacy is defaced by modern vandals. 

Rock art hunting scene



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Creating a Landscape, Colorado History Museum

A major interpretive section in the Ancient Voices installation revolved around the Apishipa culture of  Colorado. These were a semi-nomadic people who also built small, temporary stone structures along the tributaries and cutbanks of the southeastern Colorado prairie. The nomadic nature of their existence meant there were few extant artifacts to document their world, which presented a bit of a challenge for the exhibitions team. Our solution was to recreate a segment of their world as it exists today – as a ruin – in a prairie cutbank environment. We were then able to discuss archaeological processes, environmental issues and the effect of modern vandalism on historic sites.

Scale model of environment

Assembling the blocks

As the gallery layout for Ancient Voices evolved a small working conservation lab that was originally intended as a part of the gallery space was dropped from the design once it became clear funding would not be available. That large section of undeveloped real estate became our cliff environment. It would prove to be the most complicated portion of the installation.

A clay model of the space was created based on photographs of an existing archaeological site. The model was then sectioned into scaled 4′ x 9′ sections which corresponded to the styrofoam building blocks that would be used to create the space. The styrofoam was carved into the landscape forms and then covered with a textured layer of plaster and cement.

The cutbank takes shape

Painting the cliff

After the textured surface dried, painters moved into the space layering transparent washes of color. After the painting was complete, another crew moved into the space to landscape and finish the environment. The finished gallery space included two interactive work stations, a recreation of a ruined Apishipa structure and storage pit, examples of the rock art unique to the culture, a modern vandalism site, an interpretive area and projected “ghosts” silhouetted by a fire.

The finished environment under gallery lighting

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