‘Saints and Martyrs’ at the Getty, The Tidings, Sept. 2013

Saint Jerome Extracting a Thorn from a Lion's Paw, cutting from Master of the Murano Gradual, northern Italy, about 1425-50

Saint Jerome Extracting a Thorn from a Lion’s Paw, cutting from Master of the Murano Gradual, northern Italy, about 1425-50

Calm St. Jerome extracting a thorn from the paw of a lion; the miraculous intervention that delayed St. Catherine of Alexandria’s execution by the torturous wheel; the gratefulness of everyday life as witnessed by St. Hedwig — these are just a few of the stories that make up the current exhibition “Miracles and Martyrs: Saints in the Middle Ages” at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Now on display through March 2, 2014, the exhibition features artwork that adorns pages of private prayer books, devotional tracts and even biographies.These images help us better understand how people in medieval times viewed the world around them — and how their connection with saints helped lay the foundation of their faith, says Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator of manuscripts at the Getty who along with Melanie Sympson, staged this exhibition.

When visiting the exhibition, Morrison says, try not to see the saint stories not so much as “historical recounts of actual events,” but rather as lessons on how to live and appreciate life. “They were role models,” she says about the holy men and women who presented images of goodness, piety, sacrifice and even a willingness to suffer torture and death. “These personal stories were meant to resonate with your own life.”

Through the years, devotions and attention to certain saints have waxed and waned. Interest in some saints can be cultural and societal, says Morrison, who points to the example of St. Appolonia who was martyred by having her teeth extracted, and was a very popular devotion for people with teeth problems.

The mediaeval faithful “would ask her intercession because, well, she of all people would understand the pain,” Morrison explains. But with the rise of dentistry, the devotion to St. Appolonia declined.

Still, there are those saints whose stories span centuries. In the exhibit, the rich image of composed St. Jerome tending to the wild lion reinforces the ideal that saints had special connections with not only the spiritual but also the temporal world.

That peaceful composure is also found with St. Catherine of Alexandria who confounded the pagan philosophers of the day with her teachings of Christianity but was still sentenced to death via the “wheel” only to have that miraculously destroyed. But that didn’t save Catherine’s life. She was eventually beheaded, a quicker death than the painful torture of the tortuous wheel instrument.

Saint Catherine, Gualenghi d'Este Hours, Ferrara, Taddeo Crivelli, about 1469

Saint Catherine, Gualenghi d’Este Hours, Ferrara, Taddeo Crivelli, about 1469

Morrison points out all the symbolism that is associated with this image: Catherine keeps her finger in place in a book signifying her great intelligence, the dog at the bottom is a sign of loyalty, the anchor and lilies in the right border may be emblems of her family, other border images of a seahorse and pelican are enduring religious symbols. These short images — Twitter for the Middle Ages? — were included so the viewer could take in the whole meaning with just a glance, explains Morrison.

In addition to the horrific images of martyrdom on display (including St. Sebastian whose death by numerous arrows has captured the attention throughout centuries of retelling), the exhibition features saints celebrating the simple joys of everyday life.  Morrison presents a large biography of St. Hedwig which was commissioned by her descendants years after she was canonized.

After a life as a mother, wife and noblewoman, St. Hedwig — along with her husband — decided to join in a communal life with fellow religious leading a chaste life doing good deeds. “She was a very down-to-earth woman whom you could easily relate to,” she says of St. Hedwig’s small acts of daily devotion.

On the page are images of Hedwig honoring the life in the convent but showing her thanks to the stairs, the choir loft and even the hand towels. “Her humility is what we see as a model of devotion,” says Morrison adding that her image was particularly inspirational since many other female saints were either virgins or martyrs. “She was a role model to mediaeval women leading regular lives to perform small acts of devotion every day.”

“Miracles and Martyrs: Saints in the Middle Ages” will feature new images rotating at various times through the exhibition. Upcoming events related to the exhibition include:
—A panel on “Why Do We Need Saints?” (Oct. 30, 7 p.m.), presented by Zocalo Public Square, discussing saint devotion, how popular and regional movements have created saints, and what saints have offered to those who love them.
—Gallery talks led by curator Elizabeth Morrison (Nov. 19, Jan. 14 and Feb. 11, 2:30 p.m.).
“Miracles and Martyrs” runs concurrently with “Canterbury and St. Albans: Treasures from Church and Cloister,” on view through Feb. 2, 2014 at the Getty Center. This exhibition showcases 12th-century stained glass from Canterbury Cathedral, plus an extraordinary manuscript made in the same period at St. Albans Abbey that features a section focused on the holy individuals associated with each of these two English institutions: St. Thomas Becket of Canterbury and Christina of Markyate at St. Albans.

“Miracles and Martyrs: Saints in the Middle Ages” will be featured through March 2, 2014 at the Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Dr., Brentwood. Information: (310) 440-7330 orgettymuseum@getty.edu.

Galleries of Change, Arroyo Monthly, October 2013


The Autry National Center celebrated its 25th anniversary with a thoughtful remodel that brings two galleries into the 21st century.

By Brenda Rees

You think redesigning your kitchen was a big undertaking? Was your living room remodel more complicated than you originally planned? Did options for updating your home office make your head spin?

Then consider what the folks at the Autry National Center had to contend with during their recent remodel of two galleries — one big, one small — in the Griffith Park Museum of the American West, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Autry officials had long wanted to make significant improvements to their galleries, many of which had become outdated; the opportunity came last year when trustee James R. Parks made a sizable donation that enabled them to finally kick those dreams into high gear.

With more than 150,000 people typically visiting the Autry each year, museum officials exhibiting its priceless art and countless artifacts didn’t want to settle for a simple high-tech update of the traditional gallery spaces; instead, they focused on imagining a richer museum experience, so guests could more easily understand the immense scope of stories of the American West.

That goal set the tone for the gallery remodels Autry officials consider artful yet functional, allowing many aspects of the Western experience to be explored holistically. “Just like when you are redesigning your kitchen, you first have to take a giant step back and say, ‘What’s not working?’ and ‘How can this be improved?’” says Patrick Fredrickson, associate design director, who helped shepherd the remodel from concept to completion.

The two spaces — the Irene Helen Jones Parks Gallery of Art (housing the current exhibition Art of the West) named after the donor’s mother, and the smaller Gamble Firearms Gallery (part of the Western Frontiers: Stories of Fact and Fiction Gallery) — first required numerous consultations with curators, programmers, conservators and even security personnel about the pros and cons of the previous layout, says Frederickson. That research guided him and his team in designing new galleries around themes and related collection pieces to enhance visitors’ experience. To that end, walls were removed, rooms were enlarged, items from other areas of the museum were repurposed, colors and textures were added and lighting was carefully crafted.

In the second-floor Parks Gallery, the changes represented a major break from traditional art gallery design. At just under 4,000 square feet, the space featured art arranged in strict chronological order when it housed the Romance Gallery. That “forced serpentine march” layout was the first thing that had to go, says Amy Scott, the visual arts curator. Scott says the Art of the West exhibition is designed to promote self-directed navigation…you go where you want to, not where you are pointed. Today’s visitors can choose among the gallery’s three themed areas (Religion and Ritual, Land and Landscape, Migration and Movement) as well as two revolving mini galleries. The new configuration is also a boon for programming, tour groups and other museum events, says Frederickson. “The new layout allowed the Land and Landscape area to house 40-plus guests and a speaker for a recent gallery talk,” he notes.

The three themed areas were inspired by the Autry’s massive collection, allowing related elements to be tied together in a coherent way. Classical oil paintings are placed alongside related ethnic tapestries and above photographs; large modern sculptures are positioned near ancient ceremonial artifacts and across from a video installation that projects onto the floor. This eclectic juxtaposition of items highlights the narrative and helps visitors “start a conversation about the cultural forces that shaped the idea and experience,” explains Scott, adding that the media mix has proven more inviting to families with younger children. “We wanted this space to be for all ages to explore, and we see a lot of families lingering in the area.”

Much of the design was shaped by requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, says Frederickson. Not only are the gallery’s walkways wide enough for wheelchairs, but the descriptive panels and typography were chosen for accessibility to all. “Our exhibits are slightly lower than what you would see at other museums,” he says, adding that his design team used a cheat sheet on the average heights of visitors on foot and in wheelchairs. (The latter level is 49 inches, by the way; Autry cases are about 33 inches high, lower than the 36 to 38 inches typical of art museums.)

Museum-goers often complain about feeling uninvolved with the display — the “don’t touch” and “keep your distance” mantra isn’t inviting, says Frederickson. Two strategies in the Art of the West exhibition address that. First, descriptive labels are placed in such a way that you can step back to see the item at a distance and still be able to read about it. Thus visitors are not forced into “doing that little dance, stepping back and forth between both,” says Frederickson. The other change safely brings the public closer to the object: Plexiglas cases allow guests to peruse art and artifacts from different angles, with no risk of damage.

Autry staff designed and built the modular cases in a variety of sizes, using plywood veneers, since oak can corrode art and artifacts. Lighting was another crucial issue for museum designers, who want to illuminate details but must protect the museum’s treasures by limiting light exposure. Objects are carefully monitored for light damage and slated for rotation. Existing halogen lights are used in the Art of the West exhibition, and in the Migration and Movement area, environmentally friendly LED lights are employed, since dimming them doesn’t change an object’s perceived color, explains Frederickson.

Lighting is especially critical in the smaller “jewel box” gallery currently showcasing Ansel Adams’ photography. The low ceiling enhances the intimate feel of the tiny space, drawing visitors even closer to the photographs. “It’s so much easier to control the lighting here,” says Frederickson. The space will house rotating displays of photography, oil paintings, sculptures and video installations.

Modular cases with low lighting illuminate the weaponry in the recently opened Gamble Firearms Gallery. The display of 33 historical firearms replaces a life-size diorama of the shoot-out at the OK Corral, which “lacked historical context,” says Jeffrey Richardson, curator of Western history,  popular culture and firearms. “The gunfight story was so much more than presented; it was social, political, financial; not just good guys versus bad.  But you never got that from the installation.”

A more professional and thoughtful exploration of firearms was made possible with patron George Gamble’s donation of 55 firearms and 25 related artifacts to the Autry two years ago. Twenty-three items from Gamble’s collection are currently on view. In light of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting, Richardson said, it was paramount that the gallery not glorify guns but rather depict how “essential they were on the American frontier”; organizers accomplished that by arranging them by theme — hunting and trapping, the impact of technology on firearms, the conservation movement and the West in popular culture.

For its new gun gallery the museum opted for a straightforward, no-nonsense design. The dark steel-gray colors around the Plexiglas cases complement the multi-colored wood that visually unites the inner gallery with a space across a walkway once separated by a wall. The wood — repurposed from the museum’s former “Back Lot” movie installation — gives the gallery a rustic, cabin-like feel.

In an enlightening juxtaposition, Theodore Roosevelt’s custom-made revolver and carbine are placed alongside his personal holster, spurs and cartridge belt; nearby is a copy of Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1888), written by the president himself and illustrated by Frederic Remington. An original Remington painting featured in the book is also on display here.

Other aspects of guns that Richardson would like to see in the gallery include Native Americans’ use of firearms. “[Weaponry] is a very complex and compelling aspect of our history,” he says. “Our overall goal was how our resources can bring the subject to light.” Indeed, Autry officials say every change they made to the galleries reflected that same goal — telling the saga of the American West clearly and compellingly.

The Autry National Center is located at 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission costs $10 for adults, $6 for students and seniors and $4 for children ages three to 12; free for members and children under three. Call (323) 667-2000 or visit theautry.org 

Critter Migration, Westways Magazine, October 2013


Wildlife is on its migratory voyage during the fall, which makes this an optimal season to catch nature in action. Witness critters on the move and learn about how we can continue to preserve their habitats. —Brenda Rees

Land: Tarantulas
Usually nocturnal, hairy male arachnids leave their underground burrows to search for females during the daytime.

Prime viewing: September through October.

Where: The annual mating season sets tarantulas on the march throughout SoCal grasslands, chaparral, canyons, and deserts. Orange County’s Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park rangers report seeing both brown and gray/black species on their trails. Monthly ranger-led hikes are a good way to see these shy, solitary creatures.

Contact: 30952 Oso Parkway, Coto de Caza. 1-949-923-2265

Air: Vaux’s swifts
These slim, fast-moving birds with their high-pitched, continuous chattering prefer roosting in chimneys.

Prime viewing: September through October.

Where: Vaux’s swifts travel through the Southland from Alaska to warmer winter climates. At peak migration, thousands of Vaux’s swifts can be seen entering chimneys, including those along East Street and Ninth Avenue in San Diego and the top level of Joe’s Auto Park at 440 South Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, where the Audubon Center at Debs Park typically sponsors a viewing party. Check website for details.

Contact: 4700 N. Griffin Avenue, Los Angeles. 1-323-221-2255.

Sea: Pacific gray whales
The barnacle-encrusted, sleek, torpedo-shaped marine creatures have one of the longest migrations of any mammal.

Prime viewing: November through April.

Where: Pacific gray whales travel 10,000 to 12,000 miles round-trip every year from their Arctic feeding grounds to Mexico, where females give birth in the warmer waters. The Aquarium of the Pacific offers daily cruises to search for these gentle giants that swim past Long Beach Harbor’s coastline.

Contact: 100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach. 1-562-590-3100