The Walt Reed Archive: A Paper Trail

On November 20, 2013 we celebrated the acquisition of the Walt Reed Illustration Archive by the Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University. The news that Walt Reed had finally passed on at 97 last week (March 18, 2015) reminded me of this event, and these remarks. As part of the celebration of Walt's achievement, I am posting them now. For more direct reflection on the life and work of Walt Reed, please scroll down to my last post, or just click here

Transcript of remarks: 

[I was introduced by Jeffrey Trzeciak, incoming University Librarian. For more on Mr. Trzeciak, scroll to the bottom.] Thanks, Jeffrey, and good evening to you all. We are delighted to welcome everyone to this exciting collaboration between the Sam Fox School and University Libraries. I hope you have all had a chance to view the exhibition at the Kranzberg Library next door. 

A dozen years ago, we were approached about accepting the working materials, business papers and extant original works of an American illustrator named Al Parker, most active between 1935 and 1965. Like many of his most successful peers in the era before television, Parker was a household name. He worked especially for women’s magazines, most memorably the Ladies Home Journal and Cosmopolitan. An alumnus of the School of Art, Parker died in 1984. His youngest son Kit became custodian of his artistic estate at that time, and after fifteen years could no longer properly care for it. 

At the time, Dean Jeff Pike and I went to Anne Posega, Director of Special Collections, and Dean of the Libraries Shirley Baker [then very recently retired], to see if they would consider accepting the material. To our astonishment, they said yes. So did our adventure in the collecting of periodical illustration begin. 

Very briefly, I would like to make several points on that adventure. First, I would like to recognize and celebrate the vision and cultural stewardship, shown by Anne and Shirley. Others have made critical contributions since that time, especially on the Sam Fox side of things Jeff Pike and Carmon Colangelo. The creation of the Modern Graphic History Library in 2007 was a landmark event, cementing our focus on published images and periodical illustration more specifically. Todd Hignite served as the first curator of the MGHL, and was succeeded by Skye Lacerte, whose work has been pivotal in further developing the collection. Likewise I recognize and value the efforts of Nadia Ghasedi in her role as Head of the Visual Media Research Lab. I am personally and professionally grateful to my colleagues in the Library and the Sam Fox School who have played a part in the development of the MGHL. 

I’d like to thank Anne Posega particularly for her decision to pursue the Walt Reed Archive, a two-year process which culminates in today’s celebration. Anne's investment has been critical to our growth. Additionally I’d also like to acknowledge and thank Jaleen Grove for the critical role she has played over these months. 

Second, it’s important to note that the Al Parker experience demonstrated that 12 years ago, there was no institutional context for collecting periodical illustration. Or at least not one beyond the local, the topical or the big-dollar, a la Norman Rockwell. Together we have worked to develop a context for these fascinating examples of modern visual culture. We have come to see the illustrated periodical itself as a meeting ground, and a site of negotiation, between the entrepreneurial, technological, aesthetic, rhetorical and social agendas of diverse parties. As a result of such efforts, we have grown into the natural home for so distinguished a resource as the Walt Reed Archive. 

Third, our fractious national dialogue continues to show that we have lessons to learn from our unattended past. Even the quickest flip through these dense cultural texts–for example, say any issue of Life from the first or second decade of the 20th century–makes plain the casual and comprehensive ugliness of the Jim Crow cultural regime in the American, and African-American, experience. I have come to see these complicated artifacts as opportunities to engage the students, and moreover, the citizens of the 21st century. 

Illustration has often been dismissed by guardians of high visual culture. Its lack of self-sufficiency–or its contingent status in relation to other things–has been used against it. Yet properly understood that very contingency offers much to the curious and the patient student of culture. Here at Washington University, and in the Sam Fox School, and in the American Culture Studies program, we see ourselves as such students.

In such a spirit do we welcome, and pledge to steward, the Reed family’s magnificent work in this rich, complicated field. 

I know that Roger Reed will be setting his father’s career in context for you this evening, and I look forward to his remarks with anticipation. To introduce Roger, permit me to call to the podium my valued colleague Skye Lacerte, the curator of the Modern Graphic History Library...

The MGHL has continued to grow since late 2013. Pending, very exciting acquisitions will be announced here and elsewhere. Jeffrey Trzeciak, the University Librarian who had only just arrived when the Reed collection was wrapped up, has invested significantly in the area. He created the new position of faculty director, which I now hold, and which has assisted in the facilitation of collection development. New Special Collections Head and Associate University Librarian Meredith Evans has likewise been supportive, and we are moving in very positive directions, including academic program development with the Fox School–in no small measure due to the emerging leadership of Heather Corcoran in her new role as Director of the College of Art. Pots a-bubbling!






Front panel, tri-fold brochure design for A Paper Trail, an exhibition of selections from the Walt Reed Illustration Archive, November 2013. Designed by Scott Gericke. Show curated by D.B. Dowd and Skye Lacerte. 

From the brochure copy for the image above: Denman Fink, “An Act of Desertion,” Cream of Wheat advertisement, painted in 1908, copyrighted in 1909. Published Saturday Evening Post, July 13, 1918. The readership of the Post was overwhelmingly white and generally culturally conservative. In that light, this troubling ad raises a great many questions. Three possibly interlocking explanations have been offered in recent discussions: one, the “act of desertion” refers to forsaking the stereotypical “slave treat” of watermelon for healthy Cream of Wheat; two, the same “desertion” makes reference to the Great Migration of Southern blacks to the North after 1900, actively resisted by Southern whites–that is, the poor black boy has been abandoned (presumably) by his father; and three, the image offers a nostalgic take on the old racial order, then collapsing, in part through migration. Two things cannot be disputed: the tenderness of Fink’s treatment of the boy, and the disturbing implicit violence of that knife.