Beinecke Library in New Haven opens exhibit on ‘Art of Collaboration’
Updated 11:54 am, Thursday, February 1, 2018
There’s an endless discussion on sports radio about the value of top football quarterbacks vs. the team around them: Tom Brady is supreme; Tom Brady needs the great coach and team around him. The answer, of course, is you need both.
Which brings us to the literary and artistic exhibit “+ The Art of Collaboration” at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University through April 15, curated by the Beinecke’s Melissa Barton, Elizabeth Frengel and Nancy Kuhl.
“I am a person deeply fascinated by creativity,” said Kuhl at a recent exhibit preview, “and I’m totally interested in ... how and why things ... are made the way they are.”
Beineke itself is a work of art, as stacks of books sit gloriously waiting for study in a central core of the Gordon Bunshaft-designed building — so many ideas, history and people who made history.
Kuhl said when you look into the archive “and one looks past the kind of mythological, individual genius, into the material of his or her archive, there is often a much more complicated story that involves many other people, or one other person in particular.”
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 121 Wall St., New Haven. Monday 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Tuesday-Thursday 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Friday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday noon-5 p.m.; Sunday noon-4 p.m. 203-432-7325, bit.ly/1kcYSSI
The artistic collaborations are split into three topics, drawn from three of the library’s significant collections (such as the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters) and splayed out in display cases on the lower level and mezzanine that are open to the public. The three areas are the children’s books of the late Russell and Lillian Hoban, of Wilton, author Richard Wright’s “Native Son” on screen and stage (seen recently at Yale Rep) and assorted other studies in creativity.
The Hobans are best known for their Frances the Badger books, including “Bread and Jam for Frances,” which can be seen in first-floor cases of original sketches and finished books. Russell first thought it would be Frances the girl, but Lillian drew Frances as a vole, curator Frengel said. Then Russell collaborated with Ursula Nordstrom, known as “the Kingmaker of Children’s Books” at Harper & Row. She reached out to illustrator Garth Williams, who made Frances a badger.
The husband-and-wife team took over from there, settling into roles as writer and illustrator (Lillian drew a simpler, more stylized Frances), and produced more than 26 books (including “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” which would become a film) before they divorced around 1970.
“The artists’ dummy is really how they worked out how the text and illustrations flow in a book,” Frengel said. “And in children’s books ... that balance is really difficult to strike.”
On the mezzanine is the compelling exhibit about Wright’s 1940 novel turned play and 1951 movie. It’s about Bigger Thomas, a poor, black 19-year-old, and the aftermath of Bigger’s accidental murder of Mary Dalton, a wealthy, white college student.
Curator Barton, a film historian, put together one large curved case on the stage adaptation and another on the film adaptation. “Both of them have something to say about how Wright used collaboration as an avenue around segregation and Jim Crow,” Barton said.
Kuhl produced the jewel-box vitrines (display boxes) on the long sides of the mezzanine that feature 18 instances of American literary and artistic collaboration spanning more than 100 years. These include vaudeville comedian Bert Williams and George Walker; Gertrude Stein and her partner/muse Alice B. Toklas; the Dada-movement parlor game “Exquisite Corpse”; August Wilson and Lloyd Richards; and the Victory Garden Collective, which made for the 2017 Women’s March cheeky sashes meant to evoke beauty queen and suffragette sashes (with sayings such as “Miss Governed” and “Miss Led”).
The vitrines, Kuhl said, “are all ways that I’m thinking about collaboration and how ideas come to take a form on a stage or in a book or in a piece of art.”
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