Sweet Briar exhibit tells College history through 116 artifacts

“116” features 116 years of Sweet Briar history.
“116” features 116 years of Sweet Briar history.

In February 1901, the state of Virginia granted Sweet Briar College’s charter, which turned the former plantation into the women’s college it is today. Now, Sweet Briar is displaying 116 artifacts and artworks selected from its permanent collection, the Sweet Briar Museum and other areas on campus to mark the 116th anniversary of its founding.

“116” opens on Monday, Jan. 30, in Pannell Gallery, and will be on view through March. No reception is planned.

“My idea was to have on view one hundred and sixteen objects that tell the story of the College, and the evolution of the art collection as a mirror of that larger story,” said Sweet Briar galleries and museum director Karol Lawson. “The objects I’ve chosen do not literally march from one year to the next, but commemorate by their physical accumulation the course of time from 1901 to 2017.”

-Martha Penn Taylor, tintype, ca. 1870s, reproduction photo by Paige Critcher, 2012
Martha Penn Taylor, tintype, ca. 1870s, reproduction photo by Paige Critcher, 2012

The College’s history will be laid out from the main entrance of the gallery through the middle of the room, culminating at the very back of the central space, Lawson explained. Displays will move “from the natural and built campus environment through the Fletcher-Williams family [to] the establishment of the school and our collective triumph in 2015,” she added.

Since the College’s near-closure (and subsequent revival) in spring and summer 2015, Lawson has made a point of paying homage to its powerful history and the women who saved it. Shortly after the closing announcement in March 2015, “Landmark, Symbol, and Tradition: An Interactive Installation for the Sweet Briar Community” greeted students as they returned from spring break. The exhibit featured poignant artifacts and invited campus residents to share their thoughts with Sharpie markers on Benedict Gallery’s brown-paper-covered walls.

In fall 2015, “We are Sweet Briar: A Community Rises” highlighted the outcry and protests sparked by the closing announcement through a series of photographs and banners. The following semester, “ ‘Perhaps hereafter it will delight you to remember this’: A Brief Introduction to the History of Sweet Briar College” offered a glimpse into Sweet Briar’s founding years.

“116” takes a multifaceted approach, telling the College’s story through its history as well as its 4,000-piece art collection. Around Pannell Gallery’s exterior wall, visitors will see selections from the permanent collection chosen to “delineate the origins and growth of the collection through the Friends of Art’s focus on the work of major women who in their art grapple with powerful themes such as female empowerment, bigotry, morality and faith,” Lawson said.

The far end of the gallery space will showcase a variety of works focusing on the human face — mostly women and girls — installed in a mosaic effect.

One of the artifacts to be included is a portrait of Martha Penn Taylor, who worked for the Fletcher and Williams families for decades. She is shown in a tintype — an early form of photography — from around 1870.

“Painting in Gold Frame,” Roy Lichtenstein, lithograph, woodcut, serigraph and collage on paper, 46 ¼ x 36 inches, 1983-84. Purchase made possible by the Friends of Art
“Painting in Gold Frame,” Roy Lichtenstein, lithograph, woodcut, serigraph and collage on paper, 46 ¼ x 36 inches, 1983-84. Purchase made possible by the Friends of Art

Taylor came to Sweet Briar, enslaved, in 1854 to work for Elijah Fletcher, remained working for Indiana Fletcher through the Civil War and emancipation, and continued on after Indiana married and started a family. In later years, Taylor married and raised a family in nearby Coolwell.

“Daisy Williams was quite fond of her and mentions her frequently in her extant diaries and letters,” Lawson said.

The familiar, intimate black-and-white photograph stands in stark contrast to another piece in the exhibit: Pop Art icon Roy Lichtenstein’s 1983/84 “Painting in Gold Frame,” which was purchased by the Friends of Art in 1986, just as Pannell Gallery opened in the newly renovated Refectory.

One of the best-known American artists of the 20th century, Lichtenstein is famous for adapting the composition, palette and style of cartoons, newspapers and commercial advertising to question the mechanization of modern life and society’s uncritical consumption of ideas, images and things.

“This work dates from several decades after Lichtenstein’s Pop Art debut and embodies the evolution of his vision away from popular imagery derived from comics and tabloids to one driven by an introspective study of the art-making process itself,” Lawson explained, noting that its acquisition signaled the College’s intent to build a collection that encompasses significant, nationally recognized artists.

Pannell Gallery is open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. For more information, email Lawson at klawson@sbc.edu or call (434) 381-6248.

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