Deep in the inner sanctum of the James A. Michener Art Museum where few are present other than Pam Sergey (Archives/Volunteers) and Birgitta Bond (Library), there is an unusual flurry of activity. Two strangers, who became Michener volunteers about a year ago, have broken through the glass bottom and are making a major contribution. Archival volunteers Phoebe Strome and Charlie Head, along with fellow archival volunteers Sue Collins, Kate Kane, Paul Kramer, Carolina Bromberg and Charlie Woodward, are busy arranging and conserving special archival collections which relate to artists in the Michener’s permanent collection, ultimately making them accessible to outside researchers. Research-rich materials include scrapbooks, personal correspondence, newspaper clippings, photographs and original artwork, along with Michener Art Museum institutional records.
Phoebe Strome working on the William A. Smith archives at the Michener Art Museum
Phoebe is cataloging and preserving personal papers, original sketches and photographs belonging to William A. Smith, a twentieth century painter and illustrator, originally from Toledo, Ohio. She is very excited about her artist, who has received awards too numerous to mention. Encouraged by woodworker, George Nakashima and author, Pearl S. Buck, Smith established a studio in Bucks County and a gallery in New Hope in the 1950s. His work is represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Portrait Gallery (portrait of Carl Sandburg), the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., Syracuse University, and here at the Michener Art Museum (portrait of George Nakashima). Saturday Evening Post, Holiday, Harper’s Bazaar, True, McCalls and Cosmopolitan, blockbuster magazines back in the day, all claimed Smith as illustrator. Coca Cola, Standard Oil and General Electric, giants from the past, owe Smith a debt of gratitude as they put his fine art illustrations to commercial use. (Note the current Coca Cola/Smith archival exhibit) Several of Pearl S. Buck’s children’s books also bore the benefit of his talent as an illustrator. The U.S. Postal Service commissioned several of Smith’s postal stamp designs including those for the Bicentennial series, and for historical figures such as Carl Sandburg (a personal friend) and Sidney Lanier. But, Phoebe’s favorite work by William A. Smith, which she happened upon by happenstance while cataloging, would be the portrait of her own pediatrician which Smith painted during his tenure as portrait artist at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia.
Charlie Head working on the Fern I. Coppedge scrapbooks in the Michener Archives
Charlie started volunteering at the Michener during the Uffizzi Exhibit handing out headsets. It wasn’t long before Pam Sergey swooped down on him and scooped him up for archival work. He is busy pouring over scrapbooks and albums recounting the accomplishments of Pennsylvania Impressionist landscape painter Fern I. Coppedge, gifts of the MacNeil family who were friends of the artist. He is also photocopying old delicate newspaper clippings to preserve their integrity, and tucking acid-free tissue between pages wherever necessary. In general, he is getting things in order to safeguard the archival holdings of this Philadelphia Ten artist for future research. Charlie especially likes the multi colored hues reflected in the Coppedge snowscenes hanging in the Michener Art Museum. Coppedge, according to one account, loved going on sleigh rides with her parents while growing up in Decatur, Illinois. They may have motivated many of the snowscenes she painted directly from nature while wearing a bearskin coat in and around Lumberville, PA.
Aside from his archiving endeavors, Charlie volunteers at the Opera Philadelphia, Woodmere Art Museum and also sits on the Board of Directors at the Ambler Theater. He feels that archiving balances out his mainstream life in public speaking because he can always use it for background material.
These dedicated archival volunteers have much in common. They feel that volunteering is rewarding socially and intellectually. They love the Michener, and their skills as former clinical researchers with pharmaceutical companies, all contribute to a pleasant work environment.
by Connie Wrzesniewski