Saturday Studio: Cryptic Treasures

Naomi Vanderleest, Education Assistant

Artist Dorothy Gillespie lived in New York City during the 1940s-1980s, witnessing the blossoming of the modern art scene. In addition to being an artist, Gillespie wanted to support her colleagues by purchasing their art; an example of this is Louise Nevelson, who Gillespie purchased artwork from in the 1980s.

Louise Nevelson (American, b. Ukraine, 1899-1988). Black Cryptic Series. Wood and acrylic paint, 1984. Loan from the Dorothy M. Gillespie Foundation. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

I like to imagine where Gillespie displayed these in her home, perhaps on a bookshelf? Nevelson is known for her large, monochromatic sculptures with abstracted elements typically organized in compartments, but this work doesn’t quite fit that definition. Here, Nevelson worked on a smaller scale; but many of her stylistic choices remained the same including as the use of the color black (because it encompassed and unified all colors) and a fascination with found objects. Looking closer at the work on the left, what materials, or medium, did she use? 

Louise Nevelson (American, b. Ukraine, 1899-1988). Black Cryptic IV. Wood and acrylic paint, 1984. Loan from the Dorothy M. Gillespie Foundation. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

I see screws and small wooden pieces! What strikes me the most, however, is how this work is arranged, everything connects like a puzzle! Nevelson’s message goes beyond the sculpture’s appearance; these chests belong to a series called Black Cryptic. Cryptic is an adjective meaning mysterious and obscured. What kind of mystery is this art hiding? I believe that Nevelson’s use of black helps convey that mystery, without color many of these objects are difficult to recognize. 

Gillespie called these works her “treasure boxes”, why do you think that is? I think it describes the treasure that Nevelson found to create these sculptures. Look around your home, why do you save certain objects? Maybe this object has a memory attached to it, or it is being saved for later use. Challenge yourself to think like Nevelson and use found objects to create your own mystery treasure box.

You will need:

  • Cardboard (I used a small 7 inch by 7 inch piece of cardboard to work in a limited space like Nevelson but use whatever size is comfortable for you.)
  • Hot glue gun or liquid glue
  • Acrylic paint (use one color of your choosing)
  • Container for paint
  • A large paintbrush
  • A small paintbrush
  • Found objects (such as buttons, plastic pieces, and wood)

Lay all the found objects out and start to arrange them on top of the cardboard. Experiment with different combinations and don’t feel pressured to use everything.

Next, start to attach the objects to the board by applying a line of glue to the bottom of the object and firmly pressing it onto the cardboard. 

I decided to stop gluing my sculpture when it looked like this. Why? I thought it had enough elements without looking overly busy. Choose how much empty space you want in your sculpture to help decide when your work is complete. Once finished, allow the glue to dry completely. Any loose pieces could be lost when you start painting (to test if any pieces are loose, run a dry paintbrush over the board; if the pieces shift use more glue). Now the mystery can begin!

Start to paint over the sculpture with a large brush. To help the paint seep into every crevice, dilute the paint with water. Mix two tablespoons of water to one cup of paint and pour the paint mixture onto the board (TIP: Do this over a sink to prevent a mess!). This may take several coats of paint; let each coat of paint dry completely before the next, otherwise the paint could smudge. Use a small brush to clean up any areas.

What changed with the addition of black paint? I notice the unity of everything; for example, the layering of pieces, like the circular objects in the bottom right corner, become one form. Show your work to a friend and ask them to describe what they see. Do you want to reveal your materials? Nevelson kept hers secret, allowing us to imagine possibilities and create a conversation with others. Invite your friend to create their own Nevelson inspired sculpture! What did you learn about your friend by looking at their work?

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