Office of the Dead
Ann H. Murray, Professor of Art History and Director, Beard & Weil Galleries
Jocelyn Leary, '99
For two months in the summer of 1997 I collaborated with Jocelyn Leary on research for an exhibition that grew out of my earlier research on Harriet Feigenbaum's reclamation art projects in northeastern Pennsylvania, where I grew up surroundeed by an active coat industry engaged primarily in surface mining. Feigenbaum is well known as a pioneer of outdoor environmental sculpture and reclamation art - a type of environmental art that contributes to the restoration of land and habitats that have been devastated by industry, urbanization or natural causes such as erosion. While organizational work on the exhibition had been underway for two years, a Gebbie Faculty/Student Research Award made it possible for me to collaborate with Jocelyn on an exhibition catalogue.
The exhibition in Beard & Weil Galleries (October 8 - November 7, 1997) comprised a series of five bass wood wall reliefs, collectively titled Office of the Dead, done concurrently with the artist's reclamation projects for outdoor sites. Inspired by the 1977 Surface Mining and Reclamation Act's stipulation that damaged land must be returned to its "approximate and original contour," these relief sculptures were based on topographic maps prepared by the Bureau of Mine Hazards (a subdivision of the Department of Environmental Resources) in Harrisburg. By translating the relief contours of damaged terrain into the vocabulary of relief sculpture Feigenbaum reconstructed the raw topography of strip mined land. She intended the title Office of the Dead to convey several meanings. It was derived from the ritual prayers for the dead practiced by the Romans and Jews, and later adapted by Christians as part of the Book of Hours. It also elicits associations with the Book of the Dead, an ancient Egyptian compendium of prayers, incantations and exorcisms used as a guide for the journey through the underworld.
Lastly, it refers to the Bureau of Mine Hazards, which has jurisdiction over damaged land abandoned after stripping. Also included in the exhibition were two large-scale drawings, photographs documenting strip mine operations and their effect on the land and on communities, and a bronze sculpture of miners dating from 1965, when the artist first visited the anthracite region of Pennsylvania. In conjunction with her exhibition, Feigenbaum created a temporary outdoor piece for Wheaten in the mode of the site-specific landscape sculpture for which she is best known.
Jocelyn Leary was ideally suited to work with me on the catalogue for this exhibition. She had just declared art history as her major and had already taken my course on Art since 1945. At first we envisioned writing separate essays, but after multiple initial drafts of our respective sections our individual efforts evolved into a true collaboration. Instead of my writing comments on Jocelyn's drafts, as a faculty member might do on a student's paper, we began to exchange drafts for comment, and to sit at the computer together making revisions, expanding our ideas, and searching for just the right words. I think we both learned immeasurably from collaborating in this manner. In addition to her work on the catalogue, Jocelyn developed a companion exhibit of documentary materials which further illuminated Feigenbaum's creative process and the environmental issues her art addresses. Jocelyn is currently planning to attend law school and to specialize in art-related issues.