WPI Oral Histories: Preserving Artists’ Legacies through the Spoken Word

What is Oral History?

Oral history is a field of study and method of gathering, preserving, and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants of past events, according to the Oral History Association. This method of historical inquiry involves planned recorded interviews with individuals who have personal experience and knowledge of historically significant events. These recordings offer unique perspectives and accounts that might be absent from traditional historical sources and other written records. While oral traditions predate the written word, oral history as a discipline was established in the 1940s with the initiation of tape recorders and has continued to advance in the 21st century with the use of digital technologies.

The WPI Oral Histories: Fresh insights from the people who make art history

The WPI Oral Histories Project was launched in 2020 to capture firsthand accounts of WPI-affiliated catalogue raisonné researchers and scholars. A catalogue raisonné is a comprehensive art publication that documents an artist’s oeuvre. Scholars use them as critical tools for researching the provenance and attribution of artworks. Each recording in the Oral Histories Project focuses on specific individuals who are relevant to the WPI’s catalogue raisonné projects. Listeners can access the recordings via the WPI’s website and streaming platforms, such as Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

The WPI’s first oral histories, which include the Jasper Johns and Paul Gauguin series, document the insights, experiences, and perspectives of the contributing researchers and scholars with an intention to demystify the intricacies of catalogue raisonné research and celebrate the efforts of those who work on them. 

Roberta Bernstein, author and project director of Jasper Johns: Catalogue Raisonné of Painting and Sculpture (2017), discusses her experience of speaking with Johns about his works from 50 years ago and the benefits of working on the catalogue raisonné with a living artist. 

…And we ended up working very well together. I mean, I have to say, he was so generous with his time. And I really tried very hard to use the time very wisely because I didn’t want to interfere with the work he was doing now. In the present moment… And I think he had the input into the catalogue that I think makes it a very exciting document. I mean, this is what is great about working with a living artist.

— Roberta Bernstein (Excerpt from oral history, 2020)

Bernstein’s reflection highlights the profound authenticity inherent in oral histories, which lies in the direct interaction between individuals, capturing nuances, emotions, and personal perspectives that might be lost in written accounts. Through firsthand accounts like Bernstein’s, oral histories offer a unique and invaluable glimpse into the lived experiences and creative processes of individuals, preserving a more holistic understanding of history and culture.

The WPI Oral Histories have since expanded to include interviews that offer a more personal frame of reference for understanding the work and careers of WPI artists, and now feature interviews with former artist assistants, dealers, collectors, curators, models, and family members

Diedra Harris-Kelley, artist, educator, and co-director of the Romare Bearden Foundation, discusses her impressions of her uncle, Romare Bearden, the acclaimed African-American collagist and painter, and what young artists can learn from studying his work: 

“That kids often get a kick out of knowing Romie – and this is why I show a film of him actually walking, breathing, making art –– because I think they have this idea that artists are these other beings. You know, they hear about Picasso, whatever, whatever education they do get in art. And I like for them to understand that he was the kind of artist that was out in the community. He was real, he would make things, he would take scraps and put them together. I think that’s important for young artists to understand, that art is everywhere and that you can make it, too. And it doesn’t take some special being to, you know, have these visions and make art. And I think that that’s, to me, a lesson that I learned early on, that artists were people.”

— Diedra Harris-Kelley (Excerpt from oral history, 2021)

It is one thing to perceive Bearden through the lens of art historical texts; it is another to hear the experiences and memories from a close family member, such as his niece, whose current role as co-director of the Foundation is to preserve the artist’s public legacy.

Oral History as Primary Source

As primary sources, oral histories are crucial for adding depth and breadth to our understanding of historical and cultural contexts.  Archival records from the WPI Digital Archives are often used in these oral histories as prompts to jog the interviewee’s memories.  For the American Pop artist Tom Wesselmann series, an interview with Carroll Janis, the son of Wesselmann’s long-time gallerist Sidney Janis, provides unique insights into Wesselmann’s stylistic evolution, exhibitions, and broader changes in the art world.  In preparation for this interview, the WPI assisted Janis in choosing a selection of his favorite or otherwise notable Wesselmann artworks to discuss.

Another Wesselmann interview recorded the memories of Monica Serra, a painter, multimedia artist, and singer/songwriter who joined Wesselmann’s studio as a studio assistant and later became the Studio Manager of the Estate of Tom Wesselmann.  Serra collaborated with Wesselmann as a model in the 1980s and appears in over 300 of his works that bear her name and likeness.  Serra’s oral history examines her close working relationship with Wesselmann, the experience of perceiving herself in his works, and themes of gender and representation. 

“But if it didn’t have my name on it, it might be something else. But it does. I mean, my name is there. And what’s interesting to me is, not too many people ask, Who is that Monica character? They don’t. You wonder why, like, when’s the day gonna come when they’re like, Who is she, you know? So it’s — I always find that fascinating, because if I was looking at this body of work and I saw how many Monicas there are, [laughs] I would wonder who she was.”

— Monica Serra (Excerpt from oral history, 2021)

Connie Glenn, an acclaimed art historian, curator, writer, and collector, provides a vivid description of Wesselmann’s Great American Nude #29, 1962. She and her husband, Jack formerly owned the work. 

“But we immediately, within a few months, bought Great American Nude #29, which remains like, an all-time favorite. If I could have one back, I’d take that one… Tom was so interested in stretching his surface edge to edge and making it excruciatingly flat, and he talked about that a lot. And the pink nude in the Robert Mayer is fully contained within the confines of the frame. And the pink nude in its companion, Great American Nude #29, is falling out of the lower surface of the painting, and that was what did draw me to it and still draws me to it. It takes up space that is not its own and it’s such an extension of the canvas itself…”

— Connie Glenn (Excerpt from oral history, 2020)

Glenn’s oral history not only recounts memories of her relationship with Tom and Claire Wesselmann, but also provides significant leads regarding the provenance of Wesselmann’s works.

While the WPI Oral Histories were designed to enhance or complement the catalogues raisonnés’ research processes, they have now become archival materials in and of themselves. They are aural records of the past for future generations.

The Significance of Oral History: Uncovering Personal Narratives and Enriching Historical Understanding

Oral histories enrich our understanding of the past by adding depth and a personal framework to historical narratives, making history more accessible, tangible, and inclusive. They are particularly important in highlighting the experiences of groups that may be either underrepresented or unacknowledged in traditional historical records, such as minorities, women, artists’ assistants, models, or researchers. 

The WPI Oral Histories provide insights into our research and how it connects with the work of other institutions, inviting listeners to explore our digital holdings further.

We plan to continue examining questions of artistic legacy and public memory through a wider variety of voices and perspectives. The WPI is eager to investigate how its oral history series will critically engage with our collections to serve broader constituencies for the present and future. The WPI Oral Histories will periodically release recordings introducing new avenues of inquiry about its artists, including Tom Wesselmann and Romare Bearden.

To listen and explore more, visit the WPI Oral Histories, Spotify, or Apple Podcasts.

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