AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Objects Session, May 11, 2012, Always Becoming, Nora Naranjo-Morse, Gail Joice, Kelly McHugh.

“Always Becoming”, an outdoor sculpture installation at the National Museum of American Indian (NMAI), was the focus of the presentation by Artist Nora Naranjo-Morse, NMAI Collections Manager Gail Joice and NMAI Conservator Kelly McHugh.  Like the work of art “Always Becoming”, this presentation was engaging, thoughtful and inspiring.

Nora Naranjo-Morse, a member of the Tewa tribe, Santa Clara Pueblo, won the NMAI outdoor sculpture competition in 2007.  Nora Naranjo-Morse lives only a few hours from Albuquerque and was a welcome artist addition to the objects conservation talks of the day.  Her creative and welcoming personality was apparent through out the presentation, as it is her artwork.  The outdoor installation “Always Becoming” consists of five ephemeral sculptures made of straw, mud, stone and wood built on a landscaped area near NMAI.  The creation of the sculptures started a ten year project that will continue to grow and transform for years to come.  The design of artwork is based on indigenous architecture and has the ideas of environment, family and culture at its core.

A one hour long documentary movie on this project will be coming out in the summer 2012, and we were lucky enough to see a few clips from it during the presentation.  The movie clips clearly showed how the creation of this artwork was a truly inclusive project with NMAI staff members and interns working along side Nora Naranjo-Morse during the construction and subsequent yearly repairs.  Interviews with passersby, workers and volunteers made it touchingly clear that the whole process was a moving one.  The movie clip stated that the project was “not just a pueblo idea, it was an intertribal idea, it was a people idea” and this feeling of inclusiveness was apparent in the movie interviews as well as in the presentation.  Many NMAI podcasts are available, if you want to see clips of the creative process.

“Always Becoming” is an ever-changing artwork that is intended to melt back into the earth.  The artwork is always deteriorating naturally as it weathers the DC snow and thunderstorms, summer heat and the passage of time.  This is an idea that does not immediately correlate with conservation standards, but it was extremely clear that NMAI has worked through this initial change in conservation practice.  Through continual communication and yearly visits by the artist, the conservation department at NMAI has been able to work past the automatic reaction to preserve and protect.  By allowing the sculptures to change over time they are in fact protecting the original and continual intent of the artist.

Gail Joice is the Collections Manager at the NMAI Museum.  It is her job to monitor the adobe sculptures onsite.  Gail made the enlightening comment about how her work with these artifacts has pushed the bounds of her thoughts on objects care.  Before this project the ideal for a condition report was to be able to state “no change”, a statement that all of the conservators in the audience clearly understand, but to Nora Naranjo-Morse this would be a disappointment.  Change is built into the life of these artifacts.  If a piece falls off of the sculptures, it will be left where it falls without any picking it up, labeling it and placing it in a fragment bag (Obviously a collections managers first impulse!).  The question session after the presentation clarified that these fallen pieces are often reincorporated into the sculpture during the yearly conservation workshop when the artist returns to work on the pieces.

The sculptures have been a welcoming addition to the grounds of NMAI.  Not only do the visitors and passersby appreciate the installation, but red tail hawks, mason bees, spiders, and a mother robin have all made their homes in the sculptures.  One story they told occurred right before President Obama’s inauguration.  The nighttime security at the museum noticed flames coming out from under one of the sculptures and it became quickly apparent that a homeless man had crawled underneath the sculpture and had lit a fire to warm up.  The museum officers responded quickly and the fire was extinguished, but the artist’s and NMAI staffs’ reactions to this are not what the conservation audience would have predicted.  This was not seen as an act of vandalism, but instead it was seen as a man needing to find shelter in the cold and he had found the artwork welcoming and inviting as it was intended.  It was a thoughtful and reflective moment in the audience when this was described.

Kelly McHugh is the NMAI conservator that is involved in Nora Naranjo-Morse’s annual visits and sculpture care workshops with the NMAI conservation interns and fellows.  Kelly was able to sum up all of the main points of the presentation and clearly put them into a conservation context.  As Kelly stated, “Always Becoming” is a contemporary sculpture, a traditional sculpture, a community sculpture and an ephemeral sculpture.  Nora Naranjo-Morse’s intention of inclusiveness, community importance and sculptural interaction with the environment fits perfectly into the framework and mission of NMAI.  Kelly made a comparison between a spider on an outdoor bronze sculpture versus one living on “Always Becoming” that struck home with the conservators in the room.  She said that a spider on a museum bronze sculpture would be seen as an invader and need to be removed, where as a spider coming to live on “Always Becoming” would be welcomed and would have found his home.

The question session after the presentation ran late, but this only served to make it clear how engaged the audience was in the presentation.  The questions clarified further the process that takes place when the artist comes on her annual visits.  Essentially the NMAI staff follows her lead and assists her in ways that she sees fit, whether that is cutting back weakened bamboo to be sent to the horticultural department’s compost or reworking a delaminating section of the sculpture.   Scott Carrlee asked about whether the artwork is accessioned into the NMAI collection and Gail answered that yes each of the sculptures has a number and is accessioned into the collection.  She thought that once the sculpture has returned entirely to the earth that there may be a ceremonial deaccessioning of the piece.  This seems like a very fitting course of action.

I could write pages on this presentation, because it was interesting, informative and thought provoking.  The audience was engaged in each of the speaker’s presentations which all worked together to give a full and clear picture of this project.  As Kelly pointed out, “Always Becoming” continues to inspire them into always becoming something better.  We, the world, and conservation is always changing and the NMAI staff and Artist Nora Naranjo-Morse clearly shared a project that had us all thinking about the ways that our profession has changed and needs to change in order to fit the future.  This was a truly enjoyable and valuable talk.

One thought on “AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Objects Session, May 11, 2012, Always Becoming, Nora Naranjo-Morse, Gail Joice, Kelly McHugh.”

  1. To whom it may concern: The Stagg High Class of 1970, in Stockton CA, is trying to reach a classmate, Gail Joice, for info on upcoming reunions. If this the correct Gail Joice, please have her contact me at the given email address:

    Gail was popular and respected and her classmates would love to see her again!

    Many thanks,

    George Kosich

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