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Digitization of Oversized Mark Adams Tapestry "Cartoons"

On Tuesday, November 16th 2010, something very out of the ordinary found its way into the schedule of Stanford’s Digital Production Group. Under the umbrella of Stanford University Library and Academic Information Services (SULAIR), Digital Production Group (DPG) is responsible for many types of digitization projects within Stanford’s Library community – ranging from the digitization of medieval manuscripts to historic panoramas of past graduating classes. It would seem as though it would be challenging to throw a curve ball in this ever-changing routines of such an adaptable team. However, a recent inquiry from Glynn Edwards, Principal Manuscript Processing Librarian with Stanford’s Special Collections, introduced a new element into the DPG’s already challenging workflow, and started a discussion about how best to accomplish her request. Edwards asked DPG if it would be possible to digitally capture several large-scale painted “cartoons” that were made by artist Mark Adams, as part of the planning process for the artist’s elaborately colorful and bold tapestries. The cartoons offer a wonderful glimpse of his artistic process, even showing a couple places where he cut things out and taped them back on as he re-thought his designs. Adams was born in Fort Plain, New York, in 1925, and is best known for both his tapestries and his stained-glass work. He studied at Syracuse University (1943-1945), Hans Hoffman School of Fine Arts, New York (1945-1947), Columbia University (1947) and the École National d'Art Decoratif, France (1955). Adam’s work can be seen though out San Francisco, in such places as Temple Emanu-El, Grace Episcopal Cathedral on Nob Hill, the de Young Museum, and the San Francisco International Airport. The items to be digitized were full-scale mock-ups of the tapestries, which Adams would later produce, some of which currently hang in San Francisco International Airport (SFO).

Large scale floral motifs, with brilliant dahlias and chrysanthemums, a cool blue pond in Golden Gate Park, and mountains against a fiery sunset – the painted cartoons stretched out like vast paint-by-numbers, with codes that signified the exact color of threads the artists would later use for each section. They were painted in thick strokes of gouache paint on large sheets of paper, the largest of which extended to slightly more than thirteen feet long by seven feet wide.   This is where the digitization request became remarkable: D PG was being asked to capture something that was absolutely enormous by our standards. Though we are set up for items in a wide range of sizes, this scale would necessitate finding an alternate location for our photo-shoot. Luckily, there was a space that was currently empty at Stanford’s Conservation and Book Repair facilities a short distance from campus. It was decided that the best way to capture such large scale items would be to lay them flat on the floor, on top of a protective surface, of course, and photograph them looking down from the railing of the walkway above. “The DPG team created a hospitable imaging environment basically out of thin air,” said Conservation Technician Carolee Gilligan Wheeler. After carefully setting up our lights, mounting the camera on the rail, and hooking up the imaging software, we were ready to begin shooting.  Unfortunately, our concerns didn’t end with the sheer size of the painted cartoons. The materials themselves offered their own complications to the digitization process, the media making them tremendously difficult to handle. Because of the size and fragility of the items, it became evident that this would be a special situation requiring close collaboration between DPG and Stanford’s Conservation department. Paper Conservator Debra D. Fox explained, “Gouache doesn’t have the flexibility that other paint layers have…” and because of the large size, the items “…get rolled, and then the damage occurs where the roll collapses.” At some point, the cartoons had been unrolled and then folded for storage, and those folds had become problem areas where we needed to be especially careful. “That’s where the media pops off. First the media goes, then the fibers start to go.” Just as described, when Deb opened the folder containing the first painted cartoon, the places where the paper had been folded looked particularly crumbly and intimidating. For just this reason, we had a crew of seven – four from DPG and three from Conservation – all ready to roll up our sleeves, don conservation-approved Nitrile gloves, and work at the snails’ pace required for such a careful endeavor! 

Digitizing Big Things

Indeed, this time-lapse footage, taken by one of DPG’s Lead Digitization Production Coordinator and Digitization Specialist, Doris Cheung, reflects a good portion of the day’s work. The video shows how carefully choreographed all our movements had to be in order to ensure the safety of the objects. Wayne Vanderkuil, Senior Digitization Specialist with DPG, described the group’s efforts as a “well organized team. Everybody had a role and knew what to do. It was impressive.” Deb Fox was orchestrating our movements as we handled the materials, while Maria Grandinette, Head of Conservation, was offering additional guidance and hands-on support. Conservation’s Carolee Gilligan Wheeler, and DPG’s Digitization Specialists Doris Cheung, Wayne Vanderkuil, and Astrid Smith, rounded out the rest of the helping hands on the ground. Up above, on the second floor walkway, DPG’s Matt Pearson, Image Quality Assurance Specialist, was guiding the team on how to maneuver the items into the locations needed to capture each shot, and doing the actual photography. We worked out a system where Matt would say things like, “Toward El Camino two feet,” or “back towards me,” and then we would use a taped grid that we made on the floor to help position the items accordingly. In total, over 120 shots were captured that day, which will need to be looked at one by one to determine that they perfectly represent the items, and then joined together to reflect each painted cartoon to scale. The resulting image is a high-quality digital reproduction that can be appreciated by users without risk. In cases like this, digitization helps avoid potential damage to fragile items that can become subtly damaged with each handling. The DPG group is not often presented with a situation unusual enough to necessitate a new game plan, but in the case of the Mark Adams painted cartoons it was well worth the extra effort. Getting to work with our other departments to best meet the needs of the item was a great experience for all involved; it was both fun and informative, and we all got a chance to admire the painted cartoons up close. As Carolee Gilligan Wheeler put it, “Personally, I'm always excited to see things from Special Collections that might not make it [to the Conservation Lab] for treatment. Stanford has such an incredibly varied collection, from books to documents to objects to artwork, and I love that we are making it possible for people to see and use so many of them.” Together with Conservation, and at the request of Special Collections, DPG was able to use an unlikely space to capture a series of unique and gigantic items. Truly a team effort, it was certainly a memorable day – with very memorable results.

"Pond in Golden Gate Park," N614
"Firecliff," N612
"Garden San Andreas Valley Number 2," N616 - Part 1
"Garden San Andreas Valley Number 2," N646 - Part 2
"Garden Outside the Gate," N613

All phographs used in this post are by Doris Cheung
For more images, visit DPG on Flickr