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Student illuminates print collection that highlights early 20th century New York city life

Abby Mackles '09 with
Abby Mackles '09 with "New York Illuminated," her project for Museum Studies.

A woman on a rooftop under the backdrop of the dark New York skyline gazes toward an open and lit doorway. Three women clad in large feathery hats, long dresses and boots giggle in front of a machine offering risqué pictures for 1 cent.

This is "New York Illuminated," an exhibition of prints from the early 20th century, which Abby Mackles '09 recently created for an independent study in Museum Studies.

Tucked between a computer lab and a printmaking studio in Cummings Arts Center, in a room few people know exists, a row of deep file drawers houses The Fanny Wetmore Print Collection. Stored away are some of Rembrandt's etchings, Durer's woodcuts and engravings, Japanese woodcuts and U.S.A. prints from Frank Stella, John Sloan, Hassam and others.

"I discovered a few key pieces in the collection and then read, researched, and honed in on a theme," Mackles said.

Mackles learned about the collection from Professor of Art History Barbara Zabel. Searching those drawers, the print of the woman in the doorway - Martin Lewis's "The Little Pent House" - first sparked her interest.

"It has a luminous quality," Mackles said. "As this door is opening it pulls you in. It's an unexpected city scene. It's personal."

The print eventually became the cover to the museum booklet she designed for an exhibition and a sweeping study of New York life at the turn of the 20th century: from "gritty" street life to the immensity of oil refineries and the New York skyline - all from the Wetmore collection.

"So many artists were shifting away from traditional landscapes and turning to urbanscapes…Some zoom in on tiny moments, vignettes of city life," she said.

She pointed to a print that focuses on a scene through a window, and another, with immigrants sleeping in rows on a rooftop.

"Many immigrants began their lives in the United State packed into overcrowded tenement buildings," Mackles wrote in the exhibition booklet. The roof, she said, was a place to escape for air, light and space.

Mackles said she enjoyed the many disciplines she needed to explore to complete her project: graphic design, museum studies, art history and writing. Zabel, she said, was particularly helpful when it came to writing the booklet. They worked closely together throughout her time working on the project.

This summer, Mackles will intern at artnet in New York, where she will have the chance to combine her interests in art and business while working for a web-based company devoted to the art market.

- Julie Wernau

May 29, 2009