Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Painting Dragons and Performing as Pierrots

Nestled at the top of the Williston & Miles-Smith Library on the 7th floor is the Digital Assets and Preservations Services (DAPS) department. DAPS works in conjunction with Archives & Special Collections (ASC) located on the ground floor of Dwight Hall. This summer I worked in DAPS as the Digital Collections Assistant and have come to see DAPS and ASC as integral parts of the library, framing the present day operations with the past and future. ASC is where the past is housed and accessed – a place to learn about the rich history and great legacies of Mount Holyoke. DAPS works to digitally archive that history and make it accessible online in the present and into the future – for students, researchers, the community and beyond. DAPS is a small space where big things happen.
Mount Holyoke students on May Day,
1929 dressed as Pierrot characters
(Photo by Asa Kinney)
One of the projects I assisted with was the creation of an Omeka site ( to exhibit a digital collection of work dating back to the 1900s. Photographer and former Mount Holyoke Botany professor, Asa Kinney (1873-1961), originally captured the images on glass plates. The heavy, glass plates in negative form were largely inaccessible and relatively unseen, until now. James Gehrt, DAPS Digitization Coordinator, is in the process of making them available through digitization. He found that the images within the plates depicted a wide range of campus life and landscapes, including intriguing terse descriptions of the negatives. These descriptions were similar to those written on the back of a photograph, or more recently, hash-tagged: the occasion, or theme, or perhaps a name or two.
French film actress Sarah Bernhardt as Pierrot,
 1883  (photo by nadar)

I experienced these works as a glimpse into the past, a window into a slice of life on the Mount Holyoke College campus. The collection includes students participating in theatre, clubs, traditions and outdoor games. My contribution to the project consisted primarily of uploading the images and adding tags that would be part of the metadata used for searching the online collection. In working on this collection and identifying the images I had the opportunity to delve into what was sometimes the inspiration or focus of events on campus over 100 years ago. My exploration allowed me to uncover symbolism in the clothes, props and identifiable characters. These themes and symbols informed the process of recognizing with more specificity what was being depicted in the image and what the students were creating and expressing.
"Little's Peerless Pierrots" postcard circa 1928
 (photograph by A.M. Breach ) 

The “May Day” collection includes depictions of a day filled with theatrical performances and elaborate costumes and props. The images capture the process of students preparing and acting out theatrical performances and celebratory events that made up the May Day tradition. One example of this is the image of students dressed as Pierrot figures, which dates back to the early 18th century. The name “Pierrot,” a hypocorism of “Pierre,” was a stock character in an Italian troupe of mimes and players performing in Paris. Pierrot was originally and most often depicted as a sad clown pining for love, strumming a mandolin. With a melancholy expression, whitened face wearing a loose white blouse with large buttons and pantaloons, he is most often a naïve and endearing character.
The photos Asa Kinney captured often included students wearing elaborate costumes. Although we cannot be entirely certain that these students participated as actors in a production on May Day, the details of their costumes appear authentic to that of the beloved Pierrot.
"Ashes to Ashes" 

In the post-Revolution era Pierrot became a symbol of struggle in an imposing world. He has been depicted in many countries and in many artistic expressions, including: operas, plays, pantomimes, circuses, films, television, anime, literature, films, rock music and visual art. Examples of mainstream pop icons portraying Pierrot include David Bowie and Lady Gaga.
Mount Holyoke students working together to paint a
large dragon prop for a 1922 May Day
theatrical performance (photo by Asa Kinney)

Asa Kinney’s photographs often capture the drama club, including their performances and props. This includes posed and candid portraits--both singular and groups, often in character.
Mount Holyoke students using their
self styled dragon prop in a
1922 May Day performance (photo by Asa Kinney)

The Asa Kinney collection includes students depicting a wide array of characters, from plays by Molière to Greek myths of Faeries and Fauna, wearing crowns of flowers and paper wings. When the digital collection is published, 200 of the images will be available for viewing, and the collection can be expected to expand as additional plates are digitized. Every photo gives us a glimpse into the lives of students years ago, and allows us to witness a unique moment of their experience, as they expressed themselves and participated in the rich traditions of Mount Holyoke campus life.

To read more about Asa Kinney:
Asa Kinney Project at Blogspot

Asa Kinney Re-Photography

Asa Kinney Exhibit

To read more about Pierrot:

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