A Peek into the Conservation Lab

Hello, my name is Stacey Kelly, and I’m the new Paper Conservation Fellow at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Today, I’m going to give you a little behind-the-scenes tour of the conservation lab at the Amon Carter.

The lab houses three of us: Paper Conservator Jodie Utter, Photographs Conservator Fernanda Valverde, and me. We try to get as much natural light as we can in the lab because it is essential for examination and treatment. The windows all face north, which provides the most consistent light throughout the day, great for looking at color in an artwork. We are immensely pleased to have such splendid windows in our workspace, and our colleagues have of course expressed their jealousy and intent to move their desks into our lab.

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A view of the lab showing the worktables, the sink, and the windows!

The main bulk of the lab consists of large worktables for documentation, examination, and treatment. We have a fume hood for treatment involving solvents, a large sink for wet treatment, drawers for the temporary storage of artworks and photographic prints, a paper cutter for cutting board, and different types of materials for packing and storage.

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Temporary storage for works of art in the lab, and our little library for conservation-related information

We also have a wide range of scientific equipment that we use for the examination and documentation of artworks; this is usually done when we are working on a technical study for research, or if we need to look at a particular artwork in greater detail for exhibition or treatment. These tools include UV light to help identify materials, a spectrophotometer that measures material (or image) density (usually employed to examine the levels of fading that have occurred in colored prints and photographs), a stereo microscope to examine and treat artworks under magnification, a handheld X-ray fluorescent analyzer to assist in the identification of inorganic materials, and a polarizing light microscope for pigment and fiber analysis.

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Our handheld X-ray fluorescent analyzer that we use to identify nineteenth-century watercolor pigment samples, as well as other inorganic materials

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Paper Conservator Jodie Utter working under the stereo microscope to consolidate flaking paint on Romare Bearden’s Poseidon, the Sea God–Enemy of Odysseus, 1977

We are actively collecting and building a historical artist pigment reference library as a resource for pigment analysis and identification. Here you can see the wonderful (and steadily growing) assembly of nineteenth-century artist materials we have here in the lab. All these pigments will be sampled, analyzed, and added to our pigment reference library to aid in the current and future research of artworks in our collection.

Images of collected artist materials for analysis and inclusion to the reference library set
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So this ends the really quick tour of the lab! Hope you enjoyed it. If you have any questions, please email me at

Yakima Canutt, Bulldogger De Luxe

Because of the sheer size of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art’s collection and the nature of objects that can deteriorate with exposure to light, such as artworks on paper, only a small portion of the entire collection can be seen at any given time. In addition to artworks, the museum collections include photographic negatives, historical ephemera, library books, and archive materials—hundreds of thousands of individual items, all of which are cataloged and stored for long-term preservation.

As the senior photographer for the museum, I get to see many items that rarely see the light of day. To bring these “dark collections” to light, I’ve been charged with selecting such artworks from our vaults and presenting them on the museum’s Tumblr page—making them available for all to enjoy. Be sure to tune in to our Tumblr page, where there will be a new work presented each week. Here’s a bit of a primer—a couple of items from deep in the vaults that have a connection to each other.

Ralph R. Doubleday (1881-1958), Yakami [sic] Canutt Bulldogger Deluxe, early twentieth century, photographic postcard

The photographic postcard above by rodeo photographer Ralph R. Doubleday shows Yakima Canutt (1895–1986) posing in the rodeo ring. Canutt was known for bulldogging and bronc riding and won the saddle-bronc competition at the Fort Worth rodeo three years in a row from 1921 to 1923, probably around the time this undated photo was taken. He went on to a career as an actor, stuntman, and action film director.

Canutt was hired to ride and act in Hollywood westerns in 1923 and appeared in several silent films. But when the movies transitioned to sound around 1928, Canutt chose to specialize in action and stunt work. He met actor John Wayne while performing as his stunt double in 1932. The two became friends and worked on techniques for stunts and on-screen fighting. Canutt was the inspiration for Wayne's trademark mannerisms, his drawling enunciation, and hip-rolling walk. John Wayne said, "I spent weeks studying the way Yakima Canutt walked and talked. He was a real cowhand."

Both men worked on John Ford's 1939 film Stagecoach, which features Canutt's daring stunt work running across the horses' rigging to jump astride the lead horse and take control of the runaway team.

Screen shot of Yakima doubling John Wayne doing wagon team stunt from John Ford's Stagecoach, 1939

The museum collection includes this screen-printed poster for Stagecoach.

Unknown, Stagecoach, after 1939, screen print

Although Wayne had been acting in Hollywood for ten years, his performance in Stagecoach proved to be his breakthrough role, leading to a legendary career. Stagecoach is considered one of the most influential films ever made. Orson Welles argued that it was a perfect textbook of film-making and claimed to have watched it more than forty times in preparation for the making of Citizen Kane. . . . See you next week on Tumblr!

The Procrastinator’s Halloween Costume Headquarters

In my group of closest friends, I count many overachievers in the crafting and project-realization vein. For a still-life themed Halloween party a few years back, one among this crew sewed her own large clam shell out of shimmering fabric and lined it with an opalescent interior so that she could be an oyster on a half shell. I decided to take an easier route by emulating the trompe l’oeil masters of American painting, Harnett and Peto, with my own half-hearted attempt at their signature style of assembling paper goods on a painted wooden backdrop.

Compare the Amon Carter’s John F. Peto, A Closet Door, 1904-06, with my homage. Of course, my friend the oyster received all the congratulatory remarks.

In keeping with their reputations for preparedness, I suspect that most of the people I know have already assembled their Pinterest boards with costume ideas or have planned to make spooky breadsticks with painted almond fingernails as detached finger treats. For those of you more, shall we say, normal folks…we offer this inspirational guide to last minute Halloween costume ideas inspired by the Amon Carter’s collection. They are vetted by the least crafty among our staff.

Karl Struss, [Barbara Struss in costume], 1925

Putting a bag on your head or cutting eye holes in a sheet are the go-to costumes for uninspired people. In this case, you may put a bag on your head and tell people you are evoking the work of master photographer and cinematographer Karl Struss. Voila!

Supplies: paper bag, markers, scissors

Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939,

There are plenty of costume aficionados out there who will create their own versions of Grant Wood’s iconic painting American Gothic. Dare to be different with your own take on one of Wood’s other iconic works, Parson Weems’ Fable. George Washington’s head here is modeled after Gilbert Stuart’s rendition of the first president. It was once remarked that if George Washington were to come back to life, he better look like Stuart’s painted portrait or else he would go unrecognized!

Supplies: White shirt, blue pants, axe, white hair powder and black ribbon*
*May substitute with handmade George Washington mask using $1 bill and copier

Frederic Remington, The Sergeant, 1904

I personally find those people who paint themselves with metallic paint, stand still in public places, and then scare innocent pedestrians half to death by engaging in sudden movement highly terrifying, so feel free to skip the bronze face paint!

Supplies: floppy hat, neckerchief , fake mustache…if needed

William M. Harnett, Attention Company!, 1878

Though I wouldn’t be able to make an origami crane, I can certainly fold a paper hat. So can you! If you have forgotten how, there are many instructional Youtube videos.

Supplies: newspaper, broom handle, khaki coat, and some origami skills

William J. McCloskey, Wrapped Oranges, 1889

I have been known to call this painted rendition of the tissue paper used to protect oranges as they were shipped across the country “exuberant” for the way the flamboyant crinkled coverings make the oranges festive and celebratory. People will probably assume you are a cross between a pumpkin and a mummy, but you can clarify.

Supplies: orange clothing and tissue paper

If all else fails…might I suggest Thomas Eakins’ Swimming,1885? **

**The costume ideas in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the beliefs and attitudes of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art is not responsible for the legal ramifications of copying dollar bills, nor does it endorse public nudity. This disclaimer is meant with good humor and is in no way legally proper. Happy Halloween!!!

Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator

Plotting the Way Forward


It’s been about three months since my last post. This isn’t because I’ve been waiting around for something to write about, though now that I think about it, that’s kind of what it’s been. I’ve been busy for sure; but more to the point, I’ve been holding off for the approaching landmark stage of sending our big Russell book to press. Yup, more than 400 of Charlie’s watercolors are soon to be replicated with ink onto paper, then bound between two covers into a real book with real pages to turn, stories to read, and beautiful reproductions to study and savor.

As I write this, we’re reviewing what are called “plotters,” or the final page proofs of our book, output by the printer in Shenzhen, China. Put another way: we are in the final stage of review before we green light the printing, and the presses start rolling.

You’ve been here before. Think back to preparing your resume for a big job search. You read and reread the document over and over again, and you employ the eyes of trusted friends and associates to read it as well. You scour it for any mistakes, oversights, or inconsistencies. And finally, having taken due diligence to new extremes, you release it into the world. No going back then. It’s out there.

We’re on the cusp of “no going back” with our Russell book, and we’re super excited about it getting “out there” and into your hands. The plotters look great, which means that if all goes as it should, the finished product is going to look spectacular.


If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know there are two editions of this book forthcoming, both of them short-run publications. The Limited Edition run is only 500 copies; the Collector’s Edition run is only 250 copies, and each of these rare copies will be signed by the authors and numbered, then bound in leather and sheathed in a slipcase.

For more information, or if you have questions, you can email me at And you can follow the project on #CMRussellBook. In the meantime, I’m going to get back to the plotters!

Our First Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon!

What do a lawyer, architect, curator, social worker, librarian, student, gallerist, and a retired English teacher have in common? Each attended the museum’s first Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon, held on Saturday, October 10, in the museum's research library. The Amon Carter joins other museums around the country in realizing the important role the community can play in improving the encyclopedia’s content by helping share the art knowledge available in museums.

With access to one of the most important American art research collections in the country, twelve participants spent the day working under the guidance of a seasoned Wikipedian to either create or improve a diverse list of American art articles. With no promise of a byline and knowing the likelihood that their work would be shaped by future Wikipedia writers, our participants came together in a very altruistic way to share the museum's intellectual assets via this collaborative and cumulative knowledge-sharing platform. A clever Wikipedia reporting tool, Herding Sheep, collects the impressive amount of work that was accomplished that day.

Thanks to all our participants who helped us mobilize our knowledge and stay tuned for details about our next Edit-a-Thon!


A Mystery Bubbles Up

When a song that we’ve heard on the radio gets stuck in our heads and we sing it all day long, we call it an ear worm. Sometimes art historians develop fixations on particular works of art that dwell in our psyches—posing riddles and conundrums. Should we call the phenomenon something more glamorous than a brain or eye worm?

I had the honor of fielding questions on Twitter for #AskaCurator day—an occasion in which curators all over the world respond to queries from the Twitterverse. An exchange with Waco’s Dr. Pepper Museum led to their interest in knowing whether we had any works in our collection featuring Dr. Pepper.

Alas, though Coke advertising figures prominently in city scenes by many of our well-known photographers, Dr. Pepper is not represented in our collection.

I did, however, stumble across this gem, which is the current subject of my fixation:

Artist unknown, Cold Soda Water from the Matthews Apparatus, 1800s, 1969.186

This nineteenth-century lithograph in our collection is emblematic of one of the reasons I love being an art historian. The whole thing seems pretty innocuous on first inspection, right? The ad is meant to communicate that the “Matthews Apparatus” can provide the coldest carbonated water in a highly pressurized tank. What happens when we try to put ourselves in the mindset of its original intended audience?

A little digging reveals that John Matthews (1808–1870) was the man heralded for the popularity of carbonated drinks in America. Known as the “Soda Fountain King,” Matthews patented his “apparatus for charging water with carbon dioxide gas” in 1832. Though others had preceded him, their devices were known to explode. Matthews incorporated a pressure valve that ensured his tanks were the safest. He was responsible for countertop dispensers used in pharmacy counters to provide beverages to the general consumer, water carts, room-sized tanks, bottling tables, the soda fountains themselves, and even the first flavorings. The tank was patented in 1872, and it says so in the print, so we can get a better idea of the date of this object. Barely visible in the jet of water coming from the larger canister is the Matthews company insignia of a cherub using a monkey wrench to defend the soda from a marauding bear. Fascinating!

Here’s what sticks in the art historian’s mind, though. I had the great privilege to study shipwreck imagery as a curatorial sidekick for the exhibition "Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and The Life Line" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A little knowledge turns this innocent ad into something quite scandalous.

A nineteenth-century person lived in fear of shipwreck. The seas were unpredictable, and for much of the century, lifesaving brigades were scarce. The biggest killer was hypothermia from being subjected to the frigid Atlantic. Imagery proliferated with frozen maidens in chemises who had perished from exposure. Shipwreck stories in popular periodicals were the major news stories of disaster of their time.

The one saving grace in the event of a wreck could be a rope shot from a canon-like device called a “Lyle gun” from shore to the sinking ship. The rope was used to bear a rescue mechanism that could ferry passengers one at a time to safety, if all went according to plan.

So, with that background information, can we see where the advertiser has gone wrong? Certainly, to herald the freezing nature of the water was in poor taste. Not to mention that in place of a lifeline shot from a shore crew we have a highly ineffectual pressurized stream of water! I suppose the print boldly conveys the distinctiveness of the Matthews apparatus—but yikes!

This is not the end of my pondering, however. The print in question entered our collection in 1969. I wondered what would have prompted its acquisition. Figuring it was part of a batch of prints purchased as a single lot, I wanted to try to ascertain what treasure our past curators were seeking when this print came aboard as a likely stowaway.

I think I have the answer.

This is our marvelous painting by Carl Wimar, showing the dramatic abduction of Daniel Boone’s daughter.

Carl Wimar (1828–1862), The Abduction of Boone's Daughter by the Indians, 1855–56, oil on canvas, 1965.1

In the same batch of purchases that included the Matthews apparatus picture, we find this advertising gem.

The Father of Waters, after 1855, chromolithograph, 1969.191

It’s a chromolithograph produced by Anheuser Busch in which Boone’s daughter is replaced by beer products. My art historical colleague Mark Thistlethwaite teaches a section of a course on inappropriate advertising in which this print plays a starring role. When I mentioned my shock at the impropriety of our Matthews soda ad, he told me about this Wimar riff. How amazing to discover that this was probably the Holy Grail that our curator sought all along, with the Matthews apparatus an unexpected bonus.

The good news is, now that I have shared all of this with you, I am likely finally ready to move on to the next brain worm…but maybe I’ll drink a refreshing beverage first and raise a grateful glass to Matthews!

Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator

Marvelous Moran

The entry wall to an exhibition can often reveal a curator’s bias. If we are not adhering to a chronological or strict thematic arrangement, the first object you see might simply be a secret personal favorite.

Such is the case with the first wall of Tales from the American West: The Rees-Jones Collection, now on view in the museum’s galleries. The show features a hearty selection of romantic, nostalgic, and virtuosic renditions of artistic imaginings of the mythic West—from bronze wranglers to vibrant oil portraits of Taos denizens.

Maybe it’s because my attempts at watercolor painting look something like this


Maggie Adler, Amateurish Watercolor, 2015

that I have become quite partial to Thomas Moran’s dazzling color combinations in Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1895, which I have placed front and center at the beginning of the exhibition.

Thomas Moran (1837–1926), Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1895, watercolor on paper, Rees-Jones Collection, 2013.15.1

Some passages remain discreet areas of unmixed color, some portions blend and bleed masterfully. Turquoise practically vibrates off the paper, and we have a palpable sense of the sublime vistas that Moran encountered. The scenes he witnessed made it into his sketchbooks as preliminary sketches that he revisited back in his studio, relying on his own sometimes quite poetic color notations as his guide. Nowhere in this work can we find a grungy, muddy soup or over-moistened, rumpled passage of paper—as are always to be found in my own creations.

How is this accomplished? With a great dose of patience. I have recently been educated in the intricacies of making watercolor. Everything plays a role, from the texture of the paper to the brushes used to the manipulation of water to the artist’s instinct to wait for the exact moment in which the paint is just dry enough to apply another layer but not so dry as to prove unmalleable.

While it is true that watercolor can be unforgiving—once the paint is applied it is not easily covered or removed—the virtuoso watercolorist has tricks up a sleeve from sponging to masking to scraping to even using stale bread to absorb excess paint.

As much as Moran intended for us to be in awe of this landscape, I am in awe of the technique that translated his view into the marvelous work on paper we have the privilege to feature in our galleries.

Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator

Laura Wilson, the American West, and That Day

Laura Wilson’s photographs have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers, including The New Yorker, GQ, and Vanity Fair. Her work has been the subject of four books, the latest titled Avedon at Work (2003), which documents one of the twentieth century’s great photographers, Richard Avedon, at work on one of the same century’s great projects, In the American West (1985). Her latest exhibition, That Day: Laura Wilson, was organized by John Rohrbach, senior curator of photographs at the museum, and opens September 5 at the Amon Carter. Wilson recently spoke with us...

How did being such a close student of Avedon’s process and work inform your own? I‘m naturally inclined, as Dick was, to be extremely interested in people and being responsive to their condition, their plight, their wonder. I also think I have an almost unreasonable desire to record what is before me. Dick’s creative process was an enormous influence. It wasn’t that we ever spoke of f-stops or shutter speeds, but we constantly talked about the emotion expressed on a person’s face and the way in which they stood or held themselves. A portrait is a collaboration. A strong portrait, a memorable portrait, isn’t necessarily about an individual’s beauty or handsomeness; it is accomplished when the photographer and subject work together, often without words or direction, to make an image that reveals something truthful about the human condition.

Is it possible to photograph in the American West outside its entrenched and overpowering sense of myth? The challenge is to take this entrenched myth and not be overpowered by it, but to be inspired and to expand upon it. Certainly the photographs of the men on the Y-6 Ranch reinforce the myth, but it is my hope that the portrait of the women and my recollection of their conversations expand the conventional view of ranch life. On another subject, perhaps an attempt to expand the myth is what drew me to fighter pilots in Fallon, Nevada. Are they the contemporary extension of the lone hero, the moral gunfighter? Or I may be working to counter the myth, as in the photographs along the Frontera. Dog fighting and cockfighting certainly rebut the myth of frontier righteousness. It seems critical to me for anyone working in the West to have this most American of myths always in your eye line, to constantly work to counter or extend it.

So often a viewer wonders about a subject in a photograph. This is the case for me with your beautiful image Emma. What can you tell us about her and “that day” you photographed her? Emma was a spirited, beautiful girl with a strong personality who lived, and still does live, in the Montana Hutterite colony in which she was born. She was 16 or 17 the summer afternoon this photograph was taken. I had known her for several years. She stood out among all the other young women in the colony because she was so pretty and lively and humorous. She had finished school by then, as Hutterites do after they complete the eighth grade. The evening I photographed her, she had worked during the day along with the other unmarried girls in the colony vegetable garden and helped prepare meals for the seventy or so colony members. After her chores were completed, the evening was cool and we walked up on a hill above the colony. She stood facing the waning light as the wind caught her dress in the breeze. Emma is married now with children of her own, older than she was when I took this photograph. I haven't seen her for fifteen years.

What is the biggest challenge for the documentary photographer? There is, of course, the question of subject matter. What is fresh? That is the challenge. Have you been astute or lucky enough to find something that's never been photographed before? Or can you bring new insight to a more familiar subject? Then, there is the body of work of the greatest of documentary photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson. His photographs stand like a beacon of accomplishment to all photographers. He spent his life walking and looking and photographing with a little Leica camera and made the most brilliant observations of the geometry and the emotion and the wonder of life. It is his work that we must all measure ourselves against.

Can you tell us about a shot you still regret missing? I was in Kansas City seventeen years ago in a small, dingy room off the main waiting area of the Greyhound Bus Station. A middle-aged woman, neatly dressed, sat at the desk of the station manager. She told him she had no more money for the next leg of her journey. She quietly spoke of her need to get home. Her mother was dying, alone with no one to help. I knew the woman was about to cry. I had to turn away. I couldn't bear to hear the click of the shutter against the profound grief of her voice.

What kind of camera do you use? Until two years ago, I shot everything with film. I used Tri-X rated at 320. I used my Hasselblad for portraits and my Nikon F-5 for reportage. Now, I use a Nikon D-800 with a 24, 35, 85, and 105 lens and then 2 zoom lenses: 14-24 and 24-70. This Nikon is a great camera. It's so smart I could stay home in bed, send the camera out on its own, and it would come back to the studio with great photographs.

In the Salon

What is a “salon hang,” and what is its relevance in our art culture today? These are questions raised by our current one-gallery installation of Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre (1831–33). On the opposite wall from Morse’s painting, which measures seven by nine feet, Maggie Adler, the curator of the space, has displayed a number of related works from our collection in a salon-style hang.

Amon Carter curator Maggie Adler did a salon hang from the collection to coincide with the display of Morse’s painting in the same gallery

A salon-style hang places pictures in groups of different sizes where the works are placed alongside, above, and below each other. The historical narrative is that during the late nineteenth century in France, the idea of hanging art differently became the fashion. The salon hang became the established pattern at the annual Paris Salon, and it suggested a hierarchy. Works by artists of importance were hung lower on the wall, while those by less important artists were hung higher.

While the artists known as the Impressionists recognized the importance of being shown in the annual Salon in order to be validated, they chose a different way to display their art. For them, art was not about “reputation” but rather about “seeing,” and so rather than stacking the art to the ceiling, they hung their works along the same linear line, all on the same level, giving each work ample space to be seen and understood.

Many art historians believe that this action and others by Cassatt, Degas, Pissarro, and the rest of the Impressionists changed the modern art world across the globe. It certainly changed the way art is hung institutionally. Still today, rarely do we see works of art hung in a museum as they are displayed in Morse’s painting. But there seems to be a discernible shift taking place; an Internet search of “salon style hang” offers up plenty of evidence of a trend toward salon hanging, which allows individuals and collectors to maximize their wall space for the display of art. I have also noticed a similar shift in the galleries of living artists, particularly those working outside the art world’s heavily networked centers.

IMG_0167.JPGSalon-style hanging allows individuals and collectors to maximize their wall space for the display of art

Does the salon-style hang in this day actually invert the historical sense of hierarchy present in the nineteenth century? Where artists in a community might come from multiple backgrounds, trained and untrained, the salon style captures a consciousness that is open and inviting. As an artist friend of mine shared recently: “Stand close to just one piece; step back, and with the works around it, the piece becomes part of a collection; one more step back reveals the collective consciousness of the artists of our times and how they are expressing themselves! The entire wall becomes a piece of art.”

Q&A with Esther Pearl Watson

Born in Germany but raised in Texas, Esther Pearl Watson holds an MA from the California Institute of the Arts and teaches at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Her monumental canvas Pasture Cows Crossing Indian Creek is on view in the museum’s Atrium through May 30, 2016. Watson combines memory and imagination in her paintings to tell stories from her childhood. While in Fort Worth for the installation of Pasture Cows, she took time to sit down with us.

Your father spent his life building all manner of spacecraft in the many front yards of your youth, and much of your work includes flying saucers and rockets and other hovering space forms. What compels you to make this aspect of your past such an integral part of your work? Memory painters often paint their memories as ideal. I think it is interesting to disrupt that trope by showing less-than-perfect memories.

The artist speaking with members of the museum inside her studio in L.A.; the painting behind her is Pasture Cows in process

Is your work partly a means for processing through your personal set of childhood memories? No. I’m a skilled painter imitating a de-skilled visual language. I’m more interested in what this painting is doing and not doing. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills resemble a range of photos from B movies but are completely fictitious. While Sherman is in every image, portraying female characters in film, the work is not about her but about the viewer and what we project onto her image. We never really get to know Cindy Sherman, but hopefully we better understand ourselves.

Pasture Cows may feel emotionally real, but it’s a careful construction. It’s true that elements of my biography are found in the painting; my granddad is from Comanche, for example, and my dad built half-finished flying saucers in his garage. But I have no memory of a pink flying saucer sighting, and I never hunted specifically for the Old Civilian Fort. So why does this painting feel real? Whose childhood memories are we processing when we look at Pasture Cows?

My work looks like outsider art, with its blobby figures and pencil smudges; but I’m not an outsider artist. I’m not trying to be mistaken for one, just as Cindy Sherman is not trying to pass as a Hollywood star. I’m more interested in the terms and definitions we use in the art world. What is this painting exactly? Insider art? Faux folk art?

In addition to painting you write and illustrate graphic novels. Where did the idea for your series Unlovable come from? It’s based on a diary I found in a gas station bathroom. I like that the main character makes the same mistakes we all do, but it’s in hindsight that we can laugh about it.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career? Becoming an artist!

Both your husband and daughter are artists. Do you collaborate? Yes. More often, we work side by side. Our home often feels like and artists’ residency.

You often use glitter in your work, including in Pasture Cows. Does it have significance other than an aesthetic one? When my daughter was young she wore a lot of glittery clothing. I use glitter as a reference to her.

Esther in front of her painting shortly after it was installed in the museum's Atrium

Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” Some visitors might look at your painting and think it appears raw or amateurish. What would you say to them? I agree with Picasso. I can paint realistic, but those paintings simply imitate. I’m not interested in reproducing imagery I can capture with my camera. Some people feel a sense of accomplishment when they can render realistic. Some people give up painting when they cannot paint realistic. What I’m doing is purposely making my work look like I can’t paint. It’s not easy to do because if it’s done wrong, then my work will feel insincere. I do leave hints that my work comes from an educated place. You can tell by the content and can see that I’m using balanced compositions and complex color harmonies.

There are several narratives occurring in Pasture Cows. Can you speak to the more significant ones? My granddad working with the fence taught me about the payoff of hard work. The saucer is based on my dad’s dreams of returning to Italy. The pink glitter is a reference to my daughter.

What is the one work of art that everyone should see in person? I’m too humble to assume everyone’s taste is similar to my own. For me, I was wondering around Turin, Italy, with my dad and husband. We walked into the Santuario Basilica La Consolata and found floor-to-ceiling ex-votos [a votive offering to a saint]. They were crudely drawn, life-changing moments in people’s lives: when a mother was hit by a train or a son was shot in war. These were moments when miracles happened. Moments when people felt blessed and watched over.

There’s a dollop of paint in the sky above the flying buzzard in Pasture Cows. It’s intentional, but why? I like what people project onto it. There are lots of blobs in the painting, but when they’re out of place we give them special meaning. That blob shows us that we’re all projecting stories in everything we see.