University Archives Boasts Bounty of Art

by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer

In addition to being a keeper of Sewanee history, the University of the South Archives and Special Collections is a treasure trove of art.

“You would never think the dissection of a frog would be artistic, but they are absolutely stunning. We’re going to try and build an exhibit around these materials, which are mostly chemistry and biology.”

That’s DebbieLee Landi, director of Archives and Special Collections, talking about hand-painted plaster casts of dissected amphibians that will likely be a part of an exhibit next year related to teaching science at the University.

Art is subjective and there are thousands of items in the Archives that can invoke artistic interpretations, including traditional pieces such as 19th century photographs of Sewanee’s founders or Rembrandt and Goya paintings. Sewanee archivists are also stewards of antique furniture and books, sculptures, silver, medieval manuscripts, prints—and a Spanish fire helmet with a horse’s tail attached.

“I’m not sure where it came from, but it’s a very impressive piece,” said Matt Reynolds, assistant director.

The artwork ranges from the 16th century to present day, a number of the pieces relating to Sewanee or by Sewanee artists, while others are just historical. Many of the Special Collections’ art pieces can be seen in buildings on campus as part of the Archives’ loan program.

“Sewanee has a really impressive art collection, so in order to share that with other people that’s one thing that we’ve done,” Landi said. “There’s probably very few buildings that you could walk into on the campus and find one that does not have art from the Archives.”

The Permanent Collection of Fine & Decorative Arts boasts more than 1,700 items and the Archives also has gallery space for special exhibits. The current exhibit in the gallery is “Communal Spirit: 3,000 Years of Mexican Artistry.” According to the Archives, the exhibit features Mexican folk art and artifacts from 800 B.C. to the 1990s and the display is open to the public through Dec. 16. Laura and Daniel Boeckman (C’82) loaned the items for the exhibit.

Reynolds drove the Communal Spirit items from Dallas, Texas. Working with many priceless, valuable and important works can be challenging.

“I get nervous working with the art,” he said. “Transporting the exhibit was an exercise in controlled terror, because I was driving a very large van and I normally have a tiny car that I drive.”

The archivists stress that they are not gate keepers of the University’s more than 150 years of history and extended art collection, but the Archives is there to benefit the students and public.

“That’s another thing I think people misunderstand a little bit about University Archives and Special Collections,” Reynolds said. “Yes, we collect, yes we preserve and organize, but we don’t just do it for the sake of doing it. Ultimately the work we do should support researchers, both on and off campus, and support the curriculum. We collect it to be used, not just sit on a shelf.”

Joining Reynolds and Landi in preserving Sewanee’s history and art collection are visual resources curator Mary O’Neil, who has been an Archives employee for 27 years, Betsy Grant, head of special collections and manuscripts cataloging, and a variety of Sewanee students.

The vast majority of items in the Archives come from generous donors. For more information or to view art online, visit <library.sewanee.edu/archives>.