There’s an unassuming row of grey filing cabinets along the back wall of the Art Library’s first floor. In their quiet nook beside the scanners, these cabinets house a veritable treasure trove of artifacts.
Packed away, you’ll find the creative detritus of over 7,000 artists – including exhibition invitations, small catalogs, newspaper clippings, and posters. You almost expect to happen upon a lucky shoelace or a tube of Pantone 292.
The collection of ephemera in the artists’ file has been built up over the course of several decades. Most of the materials come to us via UNC’s Ackland Art Museum, but some also come directly from artists themselves and other donors. No matter the source, the file offers the researcher or browser an opportunity to come across unique and unexpected artifacts.
The materials are mostly loose in the file cabinets – no library of congress call numbers to tame the riotous explosions of colorful paper. Every artist with three or more “objects” has been given a file folder with a name label as well as a record in the online catalog. For artists with fewer than three artifacts, each floats freely, filed in alphabetical order by the artist’s last name.
This relative chaos is no tragedy, though; in fact, it derailed my own searching in the best possible way. Having read through the list of all artists represented in the file I thought I knew exactly what I was looking for. But once I dove into the packed cabinets, I quickly stumbled on work by over a dozen artists that weren’t on my list. What follows are some of the highlights.
In a folder containing Christo’s documents, I came across a clipping from Time Magazine, dated February 7, 1969. Reading through, I encountered this little zinger: “Christo – he never uses his surname – knows how to muffle a rampant motorcycle so that it acquires the petrified dynamism of a stuffed buffalo or a blind-folded rhinoceros. He can embalm a slender sapling so that it lies with the mute pathos of Pearl White bound and gagged on the railroad track.”
In case you’re as out of loop as I was, Pearl White was a star of silent movies, known for her sassy stunt work. Included alongside this article was a mailing from an art dealer advertising the sale of a piece entitled “wrapped mirror.” In a humorous twist, the shift of scale from architectural to domestic renders Christo and Jean-Claude’s work almost ordinary, the mirror looking as if it were ready to be loaded onto the U-haul, driven across town, and unwrapped.
UNC’s studio art faculty have some of the more complete files, and it was exciting for me to learn new things about their work. The artists’ book Post Colonial Girl Paper Doll, in elin o’Hara slavick’s file, features a host of colonial outfits that might be “appropriate” for “Priscilla” to wear to some of the darkest events in the history of advanced capitalism. The effect is powerful, poignant, and eerie. Slavick’s file also includes some wonderful volumes of writing and art produced in association with the University Program in Cultural Studies.
Other North Carolina gems include catalogs from various museums and galleries in the state. “Affinity with Water and Fire: ceramics by Wenzhi Zhang and Wenying Xiong,” is a catalog from an exhibition hosted by St. John’s Museum of Art in Wilmington, in 2001. With text in Chinese and English, it not only includes beautiful color reproductions of Wenzhi Zhang’s work, but photographs of her working alongside students and mentors in the studio.
Whether you’re in the mood to browse, or are on the hunt for something quite specific, consider checking out the artists’ file. You might just find what you’re looking for – or something else entirely!
– Madeline Veitch