Students in courses, Sculpture as Space and Themes in Contemporary Sculpture at Auburn University, led by Associate Professor Kristen Tordella-Williams, researched and proposed contemporary monuments in response to the exhibition Monuments and Myths: The America of Sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French. The students researched, proposed, and built maquettes of future monuments that fill in historical gaps and celebrate marginalized communities and spaces.
For the Spring 2023 semester, Auburn University students across four disciplines worked with The Jule to explore themes related to the exhibition Monuments and Myths: The America of Sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French. Throughout the semester, students visited the museum, discussed the exhibition alongside contemporary conversations around monuments, and engaged with curators from Chesterwood and Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park, the historic homes, and studios of French and Saint-Gaudens.
Below are essays from students in one of the courses under the direction of associate professor Elijah Gaddis, Department of History, College of Liberal Arts.
Alabama’s monuments offer ways to remember and pasts to forget. Their origin stories are complex tales of local negotiation, regional trends, and shared national values. But their messages aspire to simplicity. These essays, from the course, Museum Practicum, taught by Associate Professor Elijah Gaddis, are about Alabama monuments and the histories they reveal and conceal. As a compilation, they serve as a selective primer to accompany the Monuments and Myths: The America of Sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French exhibition that will help you explore Alabama’s memorial landscape with new eyes and questions.
—Museum Studies Practicum Students
Dr. Elijah Gaddis
As an academic museum, The Jule offers an opportunity for a deeply connected learning experience that allows students of the university to engage with our exhibitions and collections in a uniquely intimate manner.
However, we believe that it is not only our job to inform the students, but also to learn from them. Their exceptional vision completes the relationship with the art by finalizing the cycle of “Observed” and “Observer.”
Below are poems that were written by Auburn University art students in response to some of the objects featured in our exhibitions. We strive to encourage this level of engagement because it provides an even deeper layer of meaning, of which we can all gain insight from.
by Mary McCartney
after “Tobacco Blues” by Radcliffe Bailey
The picture was taken,
who knows how long ago,
of a tobacco field
in South Carolina, maybe?
The label won’t tell.
Anyway, it was the place
a family found to survive,
where they worked the land
and grew themselves
like vines that have no intention
but to grow.
Even over the image itself
and I wonder what else has been painted over?
Things not worth hanging in a museum,
what are those?
Because even the blueprint houses
have faded and fallen,
or been torn down,
but white peaks through blue paint
like sunlight behind rain-filled clouds,
and it feels like it could have been today.
by Tatyana Hill
the king of the wood granted me an audience.
inspired by lauren woods, “the mythic nature series“
i visited the king again today
and remembered my manners,
careful as i pressed a kiss
to the underside of a leaf,
the back of lady autumn’s hand
to thank her for the blessing
of an evergreen throne room
where the queen doe resides,
dressed prettily in a gown of
skinned meat & spider webbing,
dead – eyed to the curtsy i give
and the compliment i pay
to the wonderful stench of her
perfume, her body swinging
in the direction of her husband,
the saint undying in a crown of
antler & bone, dressed in a wire
of flora with his stomach torn open,
a bloody wound
that keeps my gaze averted
as i lower myself to my knees,
hands together in a prayer.
by Josh Herring
From My Perch
after Carlton Nell’s “After 283”
complemented by The Weeknd’s “The Birds pt. 2”
The fabric of their relationship spread
across the forest floor, mangled
amongst the predacious vines of
ignorance and folly – balancing
their hatred for lies and heartless lust.
Contempt on his tongue slipped –
indulgences of sandpaper kisses, papercut bliss
don’t hem the exposed wound of
She pleaded, hands on the heels
of his feet, bleak streams of beauty
rolling off her chin, that she
Only I and the speckled eyes of God,
bore witness to the limped flight
of another blackened dove.
by Connor Morgan
inspired by “Burnt Books” by Kristen Tordella-Williams
Their letters warped
by heat and hate.
They have taken on the guise
of black leather,
bat’s wings seeking shelter
in the night.
Others curl like the petals
of a black rose,
hiding their truths
from hateful eyes.
Some managed to defy
the purge, their crisped pages still
proudly bearing the ink
that caused their censure.
Having held the line
against the righteous napalm.
What fueled this outrage?
Exposing the cruelties of existence.
Showing the struggles
of the forgotten.
Displaying the horrors of slavery.
The heinous acts of the Holocaust.
Having the temerity
to say that gay people exist.
Challenging your children’s thoughts.
by Kaylee Weeks
inspired by Kristen Tordella-Williams’s “Burnt Books”
and careful consideration of the past, present, and future
Nazi Germany 1933
A fiery address of suppression bisects the cold German night
as students crowd around a fire— Jewish and Western books
as their kindling. They lay exposed and bare as the tendrils
of flames begin to lap at pale pages, their spines failing
to support the knowledge as it fragments to ash. The typeface
merges into a gradient: light brown, charred blacks, and gray.
An attempt at erasure, guided by government officials
and senseless pride. Subversive ideologies kept
from circulating, blacklisted, no longer a hazard to those whose faults
they might unveil. Opposing cultures ascend into clouds of smoke
that block pinprick stars—smoldering into a chilling breeze.
History is but an oath kept solely
by fading memories.
The United States 2022
Students form symmetrical lines with desks. Bound copies
are ripped from their hands and are subject to interrogation,
their composure marring them guilty— disturbing imagery
of genocide in Maus, violence in The Kite Runner, harsh racial
content in To Kill a Mockingbird— sentenced indefinitely
to be boxed out of view.
Officials in power will tell you that our kids
should stay kids. Quietly be led back to homes where
pianos sit on display in the foyer and firearms
untouched in the safe. Shielded from the aspects
of the past and unexposed to reality—
hidden from the poison that trapped so many
others in past lives. But it’s a dangerous growth
without understanding history. A fiery act
concealed by coddled censure.
by Jonathan Seibert
Ashes Leftover from a Blazing Night
after Kristen Tordella-Williams “Burnt Books”
and Ondrej Pazdirek “Landscape from the Fall of Icarus Again Again”
I wasn’t alive when the library of Alexandria
burned—but this isn’t another one
of those poems. This isn’t about fear
or hate this time, I too deleted those lines.
What stood out to me is the scars
your pages now bear, because when I thought about the books
from Alexandria, I assumed their secrets were all scorched to ashes––
their words lost like whispers in a crowd; yet here I am, towering
over a tribe of books unrecognized
by most, their insides damaged by war or a simple accident.
These books are not shy, desperately trying to conceal their wounds––
rather, they pridefully embrace them, spread-eagle
on a blank canvas on display to the world
as if to say, “Here I am. Accept me for what I’ve become.”
I notice couplets of words on one book’s page, faint pictures
from another, only burnt marshmallow gunk
on another. It isn’t all gone after all,
but they’re far from the same. I wonder if the man who risked
his life to save just one book from the roaring
fires of Alexandria ever dared to open the history he had rescued,
or if he was afraid it too had been singed beyond value? Perhaps when the first
neanderthal discovered a Mesopotamian man writing on papyrus
he felt as I do now. Frightened, not of what was being done,
but by the change itself. I wasn’t there when we invented the internet,
and so I never learned what it was like for our ancestors
to pour out their stories on naked paper with pen.
I never learned what it was like to have the one copy
of your life’s work burn in front of you,
as a clone of mine will always live on somewhere in the cloud.
But what I did learn is what it felt like to have the inability
for people to read your most intimate details
known only to you and the page they were imprinted on. I stand here now,
looking over this collection of memories forgotten
and I ask myself: when the sun rose on the Alexandrians,
did they reach for another piece of paper,
sit down just as we do today and say:
Here’s to the blank page.
What family photos from the past are special to you? How can they help us to better understand each other in the present?
Radcliffe Bailey explores American history and familial memory to encourage healing and reflection through art.
In “Tobacco Blues,” Bailey centers a photograph of tobacco plants on his grandfather’s farm in Virginia. He surrounds this image with a patchwork of different shades of blue, arching vines and branches, and drawings of historic African American architecture. He bridges the gap between past and present with the inclusion of words from contemporary African American poetry.
By Christy Barlow
School & Community Programs Senior Manager
Education, Engagement & Learning
“Tobacco Blues,” 2000
Gift of Lynn Barstis Williams Katz to the Imprinting the South Collection
Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University