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James Stevenson: Lost and Found Feature Film + Fun/No Fun at Bruce Museum

James Stevenson (American, 1929-2017), A Village Full of Valentines. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1995, pages 38-39. Courtesy of the Estate of James Stevenson. Photo credit: Paul Mutino.

Over the past few years, I’ve had the extraordinary opportunity to work with Josie Merck and the archives of her late husband New Yorker cartoonist, James Stevenson.  Stevenson’s papers have found their home at the Beinecke Library of Yale University, and will, in the not too distant future, be open for researchers and curious minds wishing to learn more about his vast body of work.  Stay tuned, as I will share more when that collection is available to the public.

In the meantime, The Bruce Museum, in Greenwich, CT, has mounted a wonderful show highlighting selections of Jim’s children’s book art, titled Fun / No Fun. This is the first public exhibition showcasing holdings from the archives, so please do pay a visit if you find yourself in the Greenwich area, December 13, 2020 – April 18, 2021. read more

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An Archivist Circles Back to Henry Darger

Manuscripts of Henry Darger, American Folk Art Museum

As an archivist working with artist archives, one of my greatest sensitivities is ensuring that the logic of how an artist maintained his/her studio is recognized and preserved.  Best practices must include maintaining that logic when preparing the materials for transfer to an archival repository, be it a museum, academic institution, or foundation study center. Preserving original order is a basic tenet in archival practice, but not always recognized when an estate is handling an artist’s studio after the artist passes away. Preserving the structure of how an artist used and accessed their resources provides valuable clues to the workflow of the maker.

One such artist whose creative process remains elusive is Henry Darger (1892-1973). Darger, a self-taught artist, worked in a one room apartment/studio. On his deathbed, Darger reportedly told his landlord to dispose of all his work. Thankfully, for those of us who admire and value his art, the work survived his death. Darger, who worked as a janitor, spent his time illustrating and writing a 15,000 page tome – for no one but himself. The quantity and quality of his work is astounding.

When faced with the life’s work of someone who lived reclusively, how exactly does the archivist and/or curator arrange, describe and catalogue this work in a way that researchers and museumgoers can grasp? And, what are the best approaches to working with this material in digital form to allow for others to study that artist’s process ? I had the pleasure of spending an inspiring day at the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) this week, surrounded by the work of Henry Darger, as well as a team of historians, curators, fellow archivists and museum administrators dedicated to the preservation of Darger’s work.

The panel discussion was hosted by fellow archivist, Mimi Lester and AFAM curator Valerie Rousseau, who led us through a lively brainstorming session focused on AFAM’s current NEH grant, supporting the digitization of Darger’s archival material.


A volume of Darger’s The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion

I was involved with the processing of Darger’s extraordinary collection back in 2008 and, as the panel discussion continued, I was reminded of so many of my “notes-to-self” scribbled in my mind during its processing. I couldn’t help but recall my on-going work with self-taught visual and performing artist Christopher Knowles.


Knowles exhibition, 1985, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen

Like, Darger, Knowles often works from photographic prints and news clippings. I’ve always been intrigued and frankly mystified by the ways that Chris keeps his visual data in check when rendering paintings and drawings. I have had the honor of quietly watching Chris from a distance as he works.  It is not unusual for him to work from one lower corner of an image up to the opposing diagonal corner — downloading visual data, so it appears, as the detailed memory of an image is conjured by his hand onto the page or canvas. read more

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The Magical Mystical Archives of Louis Vuitton

The Louis Vuitton exhibition, “Volez, Voguez, Voyagez – Louis Vuitton” installed inside the old American Stock Exchange building in New York City presents an absolutely stellar use of archival material. Leather lined exhibition cases with tiny brass tacks.  Venetian glass chandeliers. Wooden vitrines holding archival documents in sultry-lit environments.  The LVMH family tree elegantly silk screened on wood panels. It made me pine for limitless budgets to create installations for every archival collection on which I’ve worked over the years.  Imagine… with no expense spared.

The installation is tailor-made for a multitude of Instagram moments thanks in addition to an app that is free for download. What better way to market a brand than invite the general public to saunter in and begin snapping away within gorgeous back drops seamlessly perfected for social media documentation. I succumbed to pulling my own camera out in the room designed as a train car, with vintage film footage scrolling by each car window. Honestly, at that point, this archivist nearly passed out from overload.


In the next gallery titled “Heures d’Absence,” a stunning trunk designed to transport a manual typewriter, stationery and writing implements is on view. There is a room dedicated to smaller baubles, including fragrance bottles… a counterpoint to the expansive gallery designed like that of a yacht deck, appearing as if conjured up by theater artist Robert Wilson. The eye is constantly being lured into the next LVMH landscape.

The entire exhibition leads visitors through the history of the LVMH House — from 1854 to the present —  as a thematic journey, exquisitely expressed in designer Robert Carsen’s dynamic scenography.

I started thinking about legacy brand archival collections about seven years ago, after having the opportunity to work extensively with packaging designs of perfume bottles, circa 1920s, in a corporate archives.  It dawned on me that, in the right hands, and with an extraordinary and creative eye, a brand’s own backstory could easily be brought to life in a powerfully alluring way, enticing the viewer to embed his or her own story within the arc of the brand’s history.

Well, here you have it — in aces.

I would love to hear your thoughts after jumping far down into the rabbit hole of “Volez, Voguez, Voyagez.”  And if you need virtual assistance as you tumble deeper, download the app before entering.  Bon voyage!

=&0=&86 Trinity Place, New York, NY 10006
(Admission is free of charge, but you do need to reserve)



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Sharing Wisdom in an Archives, a Strange Kinship

With each archival collection I process, another voice enters my head, along with another piece of wisdom.  Ideas from a long lost soul have landed in my hands, before landing in the hands of countless others.  This is strange kinship seeps into my consciousness.  A voice, a thought, an image from a distant time.

Advice, notes and doodles – written by Laurence W. Benét, uncle of poet Laura Benét, regarding how to manufacture the French-Hotchkiss machine gun. Guide to the Benét Family Papers, Vassar College

Are these errant pieces of mental marginalia I collect beginning to coalesce into one shared memory, hailing from all the collections on which I work.  Could there be such a think as an archival murmuration? A flock of ideas morphing into a particular spectacular pattern?

An “emergence” is a “collective phenomena or behaviors in complex adaptive systems that are not present in their individual parts.” (“Emergence: A unifying theme for 21st century science,” David Pines, Santa Fe Institute).  I think I may, on occasion, experience an emergence when I am driven to make art while processing an archives.

Sometimes the stories begin to overlap, speak to each other, or elaborate further. Common themes are revealed.  The cardio arrhythmia scholar that sees beauty in the darkend streets of Manhattan after dusk.  The cultural anthropologist that recognizes the evolution of humanity as influenced by surrounding visual input.  The poet, haunted by her airy delicate dreams — seen “spilled into the sky.”

Each of these voices appears to me to be reaching for their purest form of thought.  The essence of their own creative arc.

And the tangible result of all of this, for me personally, comes forth in the art I create, images that surface in my mind at the end of any given work day.

artwork by Janine St. Germain

Pity the Moon
by Laura Benet
A withered crone is the moon to-night
Bent, unloved and proud,
Shuffling in the windy light
Through dipping vales of cloud.
Her dreams, her airy, delicate dreams
Are spilled into the sky;
And, failing the touch of their brittle gleams,
Moon will dwindle and die;
Greedy stars clutched them as they fell
From the rim of the white, torn track,
But her yawning pocket holds no spell
To conjure her silver back.



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List-Making – A Reccurring Art Form

List-making: a peculiar yet familiar inhabitant of so many archival collections. Umberto Eco loved list making.  So did Susan Sontag.  It is human nature — to create a list, to make a secret promise.  An inevitable reminder. A curious piece of wisdom requiring documentation.  I once processed the personal papers of a noted professor and pioneer in the field of cardio arrhythmia.  In that particular collection, there was an impressive volume of lists all containing the same repeating reminder: don’t forget to pick up pants.

So, in the spirit of list making, I:

  1. felt compelled to share a few here
  2. rifled around reviewing some of my favorites
  3. selected a sampling that were notable and/or art-worthy, and
  4. now wish to further consider the repeating themes of list-styles I’ve stumbled upon in various archival collections over the years.

(To view these lists in greater detail, simply click on the image.)
















Lists featured in this post can be seen in the personal papers of poet Laura Benet / Guide to The Benet Family Papers at Vassar College, and The Papers of fiction writer Beverly Coyle, also at the Archives and Special Collections Library at Vassar College.


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Using Archival Collections as a Source for Creativity and Inspiration


The night before an impending blizzard landing in Manhattan felt like the perfect time to gather with friends deep in the bowels of New York City’s Municipal Archives.  The goal was to test out a creative writing workshop I’ve been pondering over this past year, which focuses on using archival material as a resource for fiction writing and visual art making. Our host was Sylvia Kollar, Director of the Municipal Archives, who conjured up extraordinary records for us to ponder together as a group.  In particular, we worked with selected Bertillion Cards pulled from a collection of early 20th century mug shots held within the city’s archives.

New York City Municipal Archives, Bertillion Card Collection, 1880-1930.

Over the years I’ve had the chance to process a number of archival collections. I know by now that with each collection I will eventually stumble into a moment when the desire is to stop my efforts and just ponder all of the mark-making, snap shots, coffee-stained lists, stray bits of realia, string-bound letters and collective shards of this lifetime laying before me.

Our exercises at the Municipal Archives focused on conversing with a photograph, document or artifact, and using these records as a writing prompt.  With additional inspiration from Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist, we listened to each other’s writings and lifted elements from each other’s work to further embellish our own short stories.  In another exercise we worked with the concept of Mind Maps, collaboratively creating visual note making, using a variety of pre-selected archival images from collections I’ve worked with in years past.

This test run of the Archives as Idea Palette workshop was a bit of a busman’s holiday for me — one that I intend to repeat and adjust, in an effort to forge an on-going collaborative art-making experience set within a variety of archival collections.  As for next workshop? Perhaps the Samuel Clemens records at New York Public Library … or Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz manuscript at the Ransom Center, or perhaps the Henry Darger Papers at the American Folk Art Museum.  The list goes on…



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My Italian Summer: Tracing a Family Tree in a Sicilian Archive


In the day-to-day work life managing a variety of archives here in the NYC metro area, I recognize how easily I can forget the extraordinary meaning of this work for that occasional end-user who finds him/herself on a mission with passionate meaning. This was the summer my husband and I traveled to Sicily, with an intention to spend time in the homeland of both his parents – a trip that was long in the planning, and short in its hope to locate lost relatives during our brief stay. We were going on very little. A cell phone image texted to us from a Staten Island nephew – a faded image of a house that looked like every other house in Floridia and an image of two small boys standing arm in arm, from the late 1980s. How could this possibly mean anything?


For the most part, when I am elbows-deep in unprocessed papers, hoisting 30+ pound cubic boxes from there to here, tending to errant paper cuts or just contemplating a stray piece of correspondence, I am most often lost in the world of its creator. Who exactly was this person? Institution? Family? And so that invisible conversation begins, and continues on until I finish with the very last box. Less often, until now I suppose, am I pondering the variety of beings who will eventually sit before these meticulously arranged and described boxes, with their own stories laid out like a long shadow at a day’s end.

This summer we found ourselves in the homeland of my husband’s parents. Floridia, a town situated on the southern coast of Sicily, just outside of Siracusa. And thanks to a local tour guide with a great heart, we were gently nudged towards a vibrant posse of aging Italian men holding court in the Piazza de Popolo. Note to self: when searching for answers, start with the elders. This eventually led us into the bowels of the Floridia Municipal Archives, conveniently located directly across the street from the piazza.


After not-so-patiently waiting for a young woman to finish mopping the marble floor of the archives, we were motioned to enter and began a swift and lively back and forth with the archivist, staff members, and a priest from the local church, half in English and half in Italian. Up went a volley of family and street names, dates of births, deaths and journeys to the US. The ledger books came out, and fingers slid down rows and rows of beautifully handwritten text. Eventually, facts began lifting up from each page and were murmured like one long Italian prayer.  A few small puzzle pieces began to fall into place.


Eventually, thanks to a Floridia town archivist, a gentleman from the piazza with a cane and a cellphone who joined our efforts, and our magnificent tour guide Valeria DiMauro, family members were indeed reunited, right there in front of the town hall, in a matter of just a few hours. All recognized, it was meant to be.

Now, settled back into my routine here state side, I find myself thinking about those solitary archivists, making their marks throughout the decades, with pencils and now pixels – perhaps not often thinking much about how far reaching their work will play out centuries later. On our last night in Rome, alongside of that vast scrum of selfie stick wielding tourists, we tossed our coins into Trevi Fountain.  I silently gave a shout out of thanks to all the passionate ones who help others connect the dots of one’s own personal history. Lunga storia di famiglia dal vivo! And, long live the archivist.


A family reunion on the steps of Floridia’s Municipal Archives

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The Mystery of Mahler’s Unfinished Tenth Symphony

Carpenter's Rendition of Mahler's Tenth Symphony, Cubic Footnotes

The itinerant archivist moves from repository to repository, ushering documents of note from states of jetsam/flotsam – often brimming from cardboard boxes once holding bottles of Smirnoff – into a state of order and meaning. Papers are shepherded into acid-free folders and boxes, where even the most cursory “To Do” list, meandering thought, or errant postcard suddenly, and finally, becomes — an objet.

I am continually inspired by this process.

I am inspired both by the physicality of handling the material and providing insight into its contents, as well as, and perhaps in particular, the chance to have yet another conversation with a being who completed an extraordinary life’s work. There is always a curious backstory lurking there, beyond the apparent reason why an individual’s papers are being preserved in perpetuity.

I recall Elizabeth Gilbert sharing that the poet Ruth Stone could feel a poem coming on “… like a thunderous train of air… it would come barreling down at her over the landscape.…”

I wouldn’t say I’ve ever felt a “thunderous train of air” when I crack open that first box of collected documents, but I do most definitely feel the aroma of a secret history that is about to be deciphered. This is an exhilarating feeling.

The backstory I am thinking about at the moment is the life of Clinton A. Carpenter. His papers have been left to Vassar College’s Archives and Special Collections Library. The collection is quite small, just eleven boxes. And the physical contents are really not that unusual: typed manuscripts, correspondence, musical scores, a scrapbook, press clippings….

Clinton Carpenter was a Chicago-based insurance underwriter born in 1921. He also worked in a retail music store in Chicago. The extraordinary element of Carpenter’s life was his unfailing drive to complete Gustav Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony. Many of the notations in the collection are written or typed on the verso of various sheets of insurance company stationery. The mastheads include “Concordia Mutual Life – Serving Lutherans since 1909.”

I am humbled by the story of artists who have stuck with that day job. William Carlos Williams, Charles Ives and Wallace Stevens (curiously, the last two also worked in the insurance field). Carpenter, like these others, came home day after each long day and found respite working with abandon, responding to the muse that “barrels down the landscape.” Carpenter meticulously created notebooks documenting Mahler’s use of tempo and expressive terms.  He studied Mahler’s handwriting, and compared Mahler’s works with contemporaries of his lifetime.

Carpenter, with a dogged drive for facts that I assume drew him into the field of insurance underwriting, was constantly searching for precise answers. Did Mahler ever use the bass clef for a bass clarinet? Did Mahler ever use such a tempo marking as Andante Allegretto? Did Mahler use horns in D? Carpenter persistently chipped away at all of this, I imagine, with every precious free moment at the end of each workday.

I love knowing that Carpenter lived to hear his own beloved rendering of Mahler’s Tenth. The Chicago Civic Orchestra performed his version in 1983. The Philharmonia Hungarica recorded it in 1994, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra performed it in 2001.

Clinton A. Carpenter passed away in December, 2005.   The rest of the story lies within the folders of the Papers of Clinton A. Carpenter at the Vassar College Archives in Poughkeepsie, NY.


As I processed Carpenter’s papers, I often listened to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 10,” as realized by Clinton Carpenter – available on Youtube. Have a listen….

Also, see Mahler’s Unfinished Symphony, by William H. Youngren, The Atlantic, December 1998

Carpenter's Rendition of Mahler's Tenth Symphony, Cubic Footnotes

Images: Papers of Clinton A. Carpenter, Archives and Special Collections Library, Vassar College

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My Psychic Dollhouse: Period Rooms at the Brooklyn Museum

I thought I was just visiting colleague/archivist Deborah Wythe to discuss my on-going work on the Nancy Holt Archives, but then I stumbled into a familiar rabbit hole….

self portrait brooklyn museum

There is something indistinguishable about that very silent corner of the Brooklyn Museum, where with a single turn, one is set adrift into the darkened hallways surrounding the museum’s Decorative Arts/Period Rooms. It may take a year or two, but undoubtedly, no matter what show I come back to see, the siren’s song of those quarters lures me back into the surrounding passageways in that corner of the museum — and again, I am yanked away from time.

Standing before each mise en scene, staring at my own reflection projected onto the space before me, I lull myself into a new chapter describing what has occurred just moments before my arrival. These rooms serve as my psychic dollhouse.

And not unlike the 1961 Diane Arbus print, The House of Horrors, 1961 currently hanging in the Museum’s Coney Island exhibition – this self-induced ride haunts me too, in its own endearing way.  An unsettling journey of my own thought-making.

Diane Arbus, House of Horrors, 1961

Dearest New Museum Director,
Please do not dismantle these curiosities.
For they cure writers block,
calm the senses, induce introspection,
and provide a respite from the hobgoblins of my busy little mind.


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“Remembering The Backstory” – Independent School Magazine

NAIS Independent School Remembering the Backstory

I had the great good fortune of (re)connecting with a number of independent school archivists over these past few months. It all started with a flurry of emails over the summer as I prepared an article for the NAIS Independent School magazine’s 75th Anniversary. And a big clink and happy anniversary to the NAIS Magazine.
There are so many extraordinary hidden stories, astonishing images and curious traditions documented in school archives.  It was great fun catching up with a few colleagues and collecting a few stories for this article.

Just last week, a group of us, representing a number of NYC-based independent school archives, met in the hallowed halls of Collegiate School on the Upper West Side. We spoke at length, sharing insights, thoughts on current projects and hopes for the future regarding our collections.  As the article states, “Our stories matter… they remind us we are part of a great and important continuum.”
Click on the pages below for a larger, readable version of the article.

Janine St Germain for Independent School Backstory


Janine St Germain for Independent School



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