‘Art can be a source of joy for people, and I like to make those experiences happen’
Rebecca Elliot is one of the creative minds behind the new exhibition Craft in the Laboratory: The Science of Making Things and lead author of the catalogue by the same name.
Rebecca Elliot is the assistant curator of Craft, Design, and Fashion at The Mint Museum. Her journey with art has taken her around the globe, from her student days studying abroad in London and frequenting the British Museum, to her jobs at the Cranbrook Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and finally to the Mint in 2012, where she’s currently the assistant curator of craft, design and fashion. Here, Elliot shares a glimpse into her life inside the museum, from the glamorous (handling 18th-century men’s suits and thrifting with iconic fashion designer Anna Sui) to the decidedly unglamorous (copy editing and emails). — As told to Caroline Portillo. Lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
I grew up in central Ohio in a town called Delaware, Ohio, about 30 or 40 miles north of Columbus. I loved to read fiction and liked writing. I loved art, especially drawing. My sister and I — she’s three years older than me — would have coloring contests. I even tried to design clothes. I would play with my Barbies and have them do fashion shows. For me, it was more about Barbie having a job, a career, and wearing stylish outfits.
For undergrad, I went to Smith College, a women’s college in western Massachusetts. I took art history during my sophomore year, and then I spent my junior year studying abroad at University College London, where I took a lot of art history classes. UCL was close to the British Museum and I would often go after school. In London, I also visited the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Tate Gallery. It was really cool actually seeing the scale of the paintings and what the texture looked like, knowing what it felt like to stand in front of it, and noticing what other people did when they were there. That’s when I first started thinking about working with museums. The interface between the art and the public was interesting to me.
Here’s a snapshot of a recent day in my life. First, I helped Annie [Carlano, the Mint’s senior curator for craft, design, and fashion] lay out the jackets from two 18th-century gentlemen’s suits for a Zoom call with a curator from the V&A in London. Because I’m the copyeditor for all the Mint’s exhibition texts, my afternoon was spent answering emails and reviewing exhibition label proofs. I spent the evening on one of my hobbies: ushering for a show at Actor’s Theater. I enjoy theater, and ushering is a great way to help out and see a show for free.
I love thrifting and actually got to join fashion icon Anna Sui on a thrifting expedition. Anna was in Charlotte in November last year for the opening of The World of Anna Sui at Mint Museum Randolph. After lunch, we ventured to Sleepy Poet Antique Mall. I have admired Anna Sui’s style ever since her clothes started appearing in my favorite ’90s teen magazine, Sassy. I was thrilled when I got to join her entourage and go thrifting in Charlotte. I walked around with Anna and Vogue’s Senior Fashion News Editor Steff Yotka, observing which items they gravitated to and occasionally commenting about things that reminded me of Anna’s style. I was with them as Anna found and inspected a tablecloth — the three of us unfolded it together — and decided it was worth the $20 price. It’s fun to know that I was there when she found a small souvenir to take back and enjoy in her home.
Speaking of Sleepy Poet, I made a point to go there just before they moved out of their old location, knowing there would be bargains. Sure enough, I found a Heywood-Wakefield wood headboard and footboard, possibly mid-century modern, for $25. Whenever I’m thrifting or antiquing, I look for interesting mid-century modern items. I like old stuff, decorative stuff, fashion, and art.
When I’m visiting a museum, I nerd out. I look at the objects and the labels — how are they written? Would I do it the same way? I look at what objects are next to each other, how they play off each other. I look at what’s in the room, how the wall colors are, the pathway.
I love working at a museum because museums give people so many different kinds of experiences. Art can be a source of joy for people, and I like to make those experiences happen. Art can also be something that makes people uncomfortable, that makes them question and think about things they may not have before. We are facing many difficult issues, everything from the environment to social justice to politics. The work I do matters in those areas. We’re not trying to be political, but we are trying to make society better.
Curator’s Pick: Baseball Pitcher by Ott and Brewer
Curator of Decorative Arts Brian Gallagher discusses this modeled sculpture of a baseball pitcher, made at the Trenton, New Jersey ceramics manufactory run by Joseph Ott and John Hart Brewer. In 1873, they hired the Canadian-born sculptor Isaac Broome to create a prototypical American work for their firm to display at the Centennial International Exposition that opened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, May 10, 1876. This sculpture is made of Parian, a type of porcelain that has more feldspar in its body than conventional porcelain and is fired at a lower temperature. These conditions give the Baseball Pitcher its ivory color and smooth, marble-like texture.
Curator’s Pick: Farol by Elaine de Kooning
Jonathan Stuhlman, PhD, senior curator of American Art at The Mint Museum, discusses Farol, Elaine de Kooning’s 1958 painting inspired by bullfights she attended Sunday afternoons in Juarez, Mexico. “Farol” refers to the movement made by bullfighters, sweeping their capes out of the way as the bull charged by. The piece captures the motion, energy, and action of the fight itself. Although long overlooked, the work of de Kooning and her other female Abstract Expressionist colleagues has recently received greater attention thanks in part to exhibitions like Women of Abstract Expressionism hosted at The Mint Museum hosted in 2016.
Curator’s Pick: Figures Eight by Doris Leeper
Jen Sudul Edwards, PhD, chief curator and curator of contemporary art at The Mint Museum, explains the significance of works by mid-century modernist Doris Leeper. Leeper, who worked in painting and sculpture, hints at her interest in the three-dimensional in the painting Figures Eight. Leeper was born in Charlotte in 1929 but moved out of state. She maintained a presence in North Carolina, however, participating in the Mint’s juried competition series Piedmont Exhibition.
Curator’s Pick: Autarchy by Formafantasma
An intriguing installation created by the design group Formafantasma in its studio in the Netherlands, Autarchy explores the idea of how we might make functional vessels for the home from locally sourced, natural materials, while paying homage to the craft of baking and cooking. Autarchy is an outstanding example of the way in which designers and makers think and work like scientists, researching and experimenting with materials and formulas to create, solve problems, and achieve amazing results. This piece was made especially for The Mint Museum with the assistance of Mint staff and is on view in the Craft + Design permanent collection galleries at Mint Museum Uptown in the installation Craft in the Laboratory: The Science of Making Things.
Curators’ Pick: Bracelets by Marcus Amerman
Marcus Amerman, a multimedia artist who is best known for his pictorial beadwork that combines Native American tradition with imagery from contemporary popular culture, designed and created these two cuff bracelets depicting the Dalai Lama and agents Mulder and Scully from the television hit series X Files. Amerman grew up in a family of artists and learned beading at age 10 from his Choctaw aunt who had married into the Hopi tribe. In 1982, he drew upon the multitude of cultural influences he had experienced to create his own style of beadwork.
The bracelets are on view in Craft + Design permanent collection galleries and the Craft in the Laboratory: The Science of Making Things.
Curators’ Pick: Weathervane by Brent Kington
Assistant Curator of Craft, Design, and Fashion, Rebecca Elliot offers insight on the sculpture Weathervane by artist-blacksmith Brent Kington, part of a series of sculptures inspired by the weathervanes of Kington’s youth in Kansas. With nothing but gravity holding the two parts together, Weathervane is able to spin, but also to pitch and roll slightly in a breeze or if touched. While the sculpture is meant to be enjoyed indoors rather than to gauge the wind’s direction on a farm, it alludes to nature with the two differently sized disks representing the sun and moon.
Weathervane is on view in the Craft + Design permanent collection galleries as part of Craft in the Lab: The Science of Making Things.
‘Broken, but in one piece’
Charlotte artist MyLoan Dinh explores the human condition – and the search for home
By Page Leggett
MyLoan (pronounced “mee-LAHN”) Dinh has been working with an unusually delicate medium: eggshells.
The Vietnamese-American artist, who splits her time between Charlotte and Berlin, uses them to encase objects — passports, hammers, boxing gloves. “With boxing gloves, you think of fighting,” she says. “I love the idea of pairing things that are complete opposites. There’s a tension there — a deeper meaning that starts a conversation.”
People might see the eggshell mosaics and think of the destructiveness of violence or the fragility of life. But for life to begin, the egg has to be open, to be broken, Dinh says. And brokenness is part of being human.
“I like creating something whole out of fragments,” she continues. “I like this idea that even though we might be broken, we’re in one piece. We’re going to be OK.”
From coop to kitchen to studio
Working with eggshells is tedious and time-consuming. Dinh starts by procuring eggs. She has to boil the eggs, crack and peel them. Then, she methodically places each tiny piece onto the object with an adhesive. She uses a stick pin or a needle; her fingers are too big for the job. Once the entire object is covered, she fills in with even tinier shell shards. She doesn’t want too much of a gap between fragments.
Each object gets covered in five or six protective layers. Something fragile has been made durable.
Some of the “eggshell art” was featured in Dinh’s installation for Constellation CLT — an exhibition series that spotlights local artists — this spring and summer at Mint Museum Uptown.
“I think it’s wonderful that museums are starting to look for artists in their backyard,” Dinh says. “There’s a lot of talent here. And why not expose the community to those artists? It’s wonderful that part of the community can now see themselves in these spaces.”
The part of the community she’s referring to: Asian-Americans. “When I was growing up, I couldn’t see myself in a museum setting because I didn’t have any role models,” she says. “I couldn’t name a single Asian artist. I saw some Asian art, but it was more like artifacts. So, this Constellations program is really amazing.”
‘A place we can call home’
She and her family were on one of the last ships out of Saigon in 1975. Dinh was 4. She has no memory of her homeland but still feels connected to her culture.
Her story is deeply personal, but there’s a universality to it. “Everyone deserves safety,” she says. “We all deserve the same basic human rights, the opportunity to live in dignity and to somehow find a place we can call home.”
Finding her way to safety was harrowing. For six days, they were forbidden to dock because the ships belonged to the now-defunct South Vietnamese government. “We were stateless,” she says.
The U.S.S. Kirk was the first, and then dozens of former South Vietnamese Navy ships, cargo and fishing boats lowered the Vietnamese flag and raised the American one. That was just the beginning.
Dinh’s family went to three different U.S. refugee camps before a Lutheran church in Boone agreed to sponsor them. “We’re still in touch with the pastor and his wife,” Dinh says. “At the time, there was this — not really, anti-Asian hate — but fear. People were afraid for different reasons: Would we be able to adjust? Were we Communists? Half the congregation wasn’t sure should they take us in. The minister told them, ‘As people of God, we have to.’”
They came to Charlotte because there was a bigger Vietnamese population here and it’s a bigger city. Dinh’s parents wanted to find their community.
Dinh herself has found a large creative community here. She and her husband — Till Schmidt-Rempler, a former dancer and choreographer — frequently host musicians, poets, storytellers and dancers in the 1935 log cabin that’s home to the couple and their teenage daughter. (Their son is working toward a PhD in art history in London.)
Evolution of an artist
Dinh’s work has evolved a lot since she first picked up a paintbrush to create what she calls “representational, figurative work.” It didn’t take long for her to expand her subject matter and media; she experiments to stave off boredom. In recent years, she’s been diving into storytelling.
“I began revisiting stories about what my family faced when I was growing up,” she says. “Much of that stuff, you just push away. You focus on your survival. You don’t want to bring it up because you think: ‘I’m resilient, I need to move on.’ But I felt it was time to pull it out slowly because of this shift in America, this racial reckoning.”
She doesn’t consider herself a political artist, but rather an artist concerned with social justice.
She hopes viewers see that concern in her work. “I think it’s good to let viewers enjoy the pieces for what they are, but I also like the idea of them reading my artist’s statement to understand why I made the piece. My message is that we need to find a way to share space with each other.”
‘My daughter ate it’
Dinh doesn’t always use food in her art — although she has coated everyday objects in candy conversation hearts — but she was inspired to create an installation last year using a ubiquitous Asian dessert.
“I created a fortune cookie installation the day after six Asian women were murdered [in Atlanta],” she says. “I just made it, held it in my hand and photographed it for social media. And, when Jen [Sudul Edwards] said she wanted to show it, I had to tell her: It was a real fortune cookie, and my daughter ate it. But I can get more.”
There are six fortune cookies in that little installation, she says, one for each of the six women murdered. The fortunes have numbers on them, and they are real telephone numbers to an actual hotline, Dinh says.
With her eggshell art, Dinh is a purist. She leaves the shells the colors nature intended. But she wanted dark brown eggs for several pieces — and went searching.
“There’s a chocolate brown egg that comes from a fancy French chicken called the Marans chicken, she says. “I joined a Facebook group of people who raise chickens and asked if anybody had Marans chickens. They were so responsive; I’ve been getting eggshells in the mail. Chicken people are really good people.
“You never know where you’ll find your community. And community is really another word for ‘home’.”
Page Leggett’s writing appears regularly in The Charlotte Observer, Business North Carolina and SouthPark magazine. Besides writing, her other great passions are travel and art collecting. The first art lessons she took were at Mint Museum Randolph.
This story previously published in the Winter 2021 Inspired member magazine.
Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?”
By Rubie Britt-Height, director of community relations at The Mint Museum
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1963) was a major American icon whose life, though cut short far too soon, profoundly impacted the state of our country in the 1950s, 1960s, and today. He was an American clergyman, activist, and leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a federal holiday that marks the birth of this profoundly courageous leader who addressed the challenges existing in the United States relative to poverty, racism, and war.
The Mint observes the official Martin Luther King Jr. holiday throughout the month of January with goals ongoing throughout the year to invoke dialogue and transformative programming, exhibitions, and equity for diverse artists, vendors, and staff. The museum is committed to its mission, vision, and strategic plan, of which diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) are a part.
Throughout 2022, the Mint will provide members and guests opportunities to view and have dialogue about meaningful works of art, attend performing arts programming, read historical nuggets about artists of color, and recount through socially conscious works of art the ongoing challenges identified by Dr. King’s speeches, writings, and sermons that continue to illuminate “the dream still deferred” in many ways.
Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech spoke metaphorically and strategically to an environment that blighted African Americans, with the hope of a transformed country of equity, equality, justice, and fairness.
The Jim Crow Museum notes that “the civil rights movement reached its peak when 250,000 blacks and whites gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which included the demand for passage of meaningful civil rights laws when Dr. King, Jr. delivered his famous speech.” Among those words, throughout his ministry are many other notable quotes that raise our consciousness and speak to courage, community, and commitment to a better America for all.
Here are just a few of his thought-provoking and enlightened perspectives as one influenced by his Christian faith, Ghandi’s non-violence philosophy, and his commitment to balance the scale of humanity in America:
“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”
“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”
“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but it comes through continuous struggle.”
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
“The time is always right to do what is right.”
“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
We invite you view this curator video featuring Senior Curator of American art Jonathan Stuhlman, PhD, about the painting Selma by artist Barbra Pennington that focuses on the events that unfolded 55 years ago in Selma, Alabama.
Curators’ Pick: Untitled by Beauford Delaney
Beauford Delaney was one of the most highly regarded Black artists working with abstraction in the 1940s and ’50s. Senior Curator of American Art at The Mint Museum Jonathan Stuhlman, PhD, discusses Delaney’s captivating untitled painting from 1959. Its energy, life and gorgeous palette of dashingly applied yellows, pinks, blues, and greens, are among key factors that distinguished it from other works by Delaney.