After touring the Naval Museum and the Infantry Museum, we drove a little in downtown Columbus and stopped at the info center where we picked up an armful of brochures. A visit to the Visitors Center convinced us that there is a lot more to see so we already anticipate a return trip…but for now the Columbus Museum is next to be explored.
The museum opened in 1958 in what had been businessman and philanthropist W.C. Bradley’s home. Today it is hard to discern the portion that was the home since it has been surrounded over the years by significant additions. When we arrived the entire entryway was lined with potted camellias and people were loading plants into their cars. The entrance and the parking lot looked like a nursery.
What timing! We had arrived on opening day of the Chattahoochee Valley Camellia Society’s annual show.
The great hall and its side galleries were lined with tables that were topped with uninterrupted rows of red, pink and white camellia blossoms, each neatly labeled and organized into categories. A committee of judges was milling about, analyzing each blossom based on a roster of criteria: petal, anther and filament colors; vigor, size and growth pattern; and blossom structure. There was such a variety with flowers ranging from flat, bowl-shaped blossoms to semi-double with large outer petals and smaller center cluster to doubles that ranged from peony to anemone to rose forms. This was no simple beauty contest.
When we could finally pull ourselves away from this evocative floral scene, we came to a series of displays that featured chairs. Since I had spent several years selling chairs in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, this exhibit was of particular interest to me and it peaked my curiosity as to why so much museum space was devoted to this subject.
The Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman were displayed with the modern colors that were emerging in the late 1950s. Visitors were invited to sample some of the seating as well as view it.
Photos and paintings drew our attention to the chairs rather than the subjects we would normally be seeking out, but I couldn’t miss James Dean’s photo. Who knew he wore glasses?
It was fun to compare the sculpting and fabric from the Victorian Era and Charles Rohlfs’ unique cutout design from the Arts and Crafts period with the sleek design of Eero Saarinen’s scarlet sculpted wing chair and ottoman.
When I called the museum weeks later during the COVID-19 closures, the phone was answered by the chief of security. He told me that he was the only person in the building and that the museum was “frozen” in time at that moment. He explained that the chairs were not a permanent display and that they would be in place only until the staff was able to safely return. This made me think about the impact of the virus on museum schedules all around the globe and the organization and precision needed to transfer art works between institutions to create these traveling displays. It will be interesting to see how these very creative people deal with yet another challenge in their already demanding work.
The museum’s Legacy Gallery traces the “human story of the lower Chattahoochee River Valley of Georgia and Alabama” beginning with the clash of cultures that began when settlers began moving into the Muskogee homeland. “Creek” was the term that became used for Indians living in the Southern states and the Muskogee were one of the Native American groups within that alliance.
The Native American’s way of life ended with the Creek War (1813-1814) and the Trail of Tears (roughly 1831-35) when over 60,000 men, women and children were forced to march hundreds of miles to reservations in the newly designated “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma. The Columbus Museum has long been involved in helping to preserve the culture of the Muskogee peoples.
The town of Columbus was named after Christopher Columbus and it was planned and established under the auspices of the Georgia legislature in 1828. This is also the year when “Fanny” arrived. She was the first steamboat to venture up the Chattahoochee River to Columbus from the Gulf of Mexico and many more like her were to follow, all eager to gain access to the abundant cotton crop awaiting them on the wharves of the city. The railroad arrived in the 1850s further increasing the vitality of the community.
By 1860 Columbus became known as the “Lowell of the South” because its textile mills had surpassed production of those in Lowell, Massachusetts, which had long been famed for its textile production. The growth of its mills and industry had been helped by the city becoming a transportation hub, making it easy to move manufactured goods to markets both near and far. The demand for cotton was more than local and bales from across the region were transported to Columbus for shipment down river to New Orleans and from there on to New England and Liverpool, England.
The Civil War brought even more industry to the city and Columbus became one of the largest suppliers of more than textiles…it became a center for the manufacturing of cannons and machinery, firearms, swords, bayonets, munitions and other items needed by the Confederacy. In spite of serious shortages of supplies and manpower, the factories in Columbus continued production throughout the war.
On April 16, 1865, after the General Lee had surrendered and President Lincoln had been shot, a Union detachment, unaware that the war had ended, attacked the essentially undefended city and set fire to many of the industrial buildings. This was to be the “Last Land Battle” of the Civil War.
Both Columbus and Phenix, Alabama, located just across the river, quickly began rebuilding and the mills were brought back to life. World War I brought Camp Benning, a U.S. Army training facility to Columbus in 1918. The city was on a growth track that would continue for years.
The Legacy Gallery had provided us with this encapsulated history of Columbus and we were now ready to begin exploring the museum’s broad span of American Art.
One of the first art galleries we entered held unusual works of modern art and glass. This exotic display is difficult to photograph but fun to enjoy in person. Colorful glass fish “swim” in an ocean environment within an elaborately framed gold case.
Another fascinating glass work is Dale Chihuly’s “Boat Installation.” This large scale piece is based on an incident that happened in 1995 when Chihuly was visiting Finland. He tossed some of his blown glass figues in a river and watched them float downstream…later he encountered children playing with their wooden boats, which were now bearing his bright glass works.
I have a special love of textiles and was delighted to find recognition of fiber arts included in several areas, ranging from traditional quilts to pieces in the gallery of Outlier Art (a doll quilt, a friendship piece and a woven sampler). Also included are works in the contemporary realm with an abstract wool rug painting by Anna Betbeze’s titled “All That’ Left.”
Rembrandt Peale’s portraits of George and Marta Washington greeted us in the gallery dedicated to more historic works as did Thomas Moran’s powerful piece “Sunrise at Mid-Ocean.” We especially enjoyed the enviable scene of domestic bliss in Thomas Hovenden’s “Contentment.”
We learned that American Impressionists kept more of the reality of the scene in their works than European artists did. John Henry Twachtman was one of the leaders of the Impressionist movement in this country and I have always been particularly drawn to his pieces, so I was happy to find his painting of “Horseneck Falls” on display.
I also am fascinated to see how artists create works in white. It is amazing how many colors and shades it takes to create the snow in Willard Metcalf’s “The Thawing Brook” and John Grabach’s “Orchard in Snow.”
Other works also raise questions: How does an artist make a piece appear three-dimensional and appear to rise up off the canvas?
Who would think to create a sculpture from just Mylar and glue…and how do you keep it dust-free, even in a glass case?
How does art history influence contemporary artists?
As with all good museums, the Columbus Museum provided images and information…and it gave us much to ponder. We were well satisfied with our visit and it was time to move outside again. Don had caught a glimpse of a garden adjacent to the museum and we needed to satisfy his curiosity.
On our way out of the museum, the camellia judges were still at work studying and evaluating flowers. What pressure they were under to select the blue ribbon winners from among so many exquisite blossoms.
The Bradley Olmsted Garden is an urban jewel that has been sculpted in the steep landscape to one side of the museum. It was designed in the 1920s by the firm of Olmsted and Olmsted. Their design populated the dramatic ravine with massive plantings punctuated with plants that add seasonal colors and textures. We were fortunate to visit during the height of azalea season.
As I mentioned earlier, Columbus and the surrounding area still has much we haven’t seen so I anticipate a return visit this fall when we may make a few stops on the “Cola Trail.” Columbus is the home of both Coca Cola and RC Cola. We also want to spend some time downtown visiting the restored, repurposed and preserved historic brick mills and warehouses that are now becoming shops, galleries and offices…and we need to take a walk on part of the 22-mile Chattahoochee River walk to honor the natural force that contributed so much to Columbus’ vitality over the years.