Upcountry History Museum exhibition features work by Clemson faculty, staff, and students
If you travel to the Upcountry History Museum in Greenville, South Carolina, you will find an exciting exhibit featuring the artwork of acclaimed children’s book author, Jan Brett. “The World of Jan Brett” runs through Sunday, January 28.
Dana Thorpe, Chief Executive Officer of the Upcountry History Museum at Furman University, said the exhibit comes to the state courtesy of Oshkosh Public Museum in Wisconsin, and marks the second time the museum has mounted an exhibit in tribute to Brett.
Brett’s work is revered for its detailed artwork and creative re-telling of classic stories in different contexts. Her latest book, The Mermaid, reimagines the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears with a mermaid and three octopi under the sea near Okinawa, Japan.
Duke Energy, sponsor of the exhibit, encouraged the museum to include a hands-on element in addition to the artwork. To make this a reality, the museum reached out to associate professor of theatre Shannon Robert and Clemson Players technical director Matt Leckenbusch in April. The partnership yielded 1,500-square-feet of interactive children’s activities created over the span of three short weeks in July.
Shannon Robert, who designed the exhibit based on a board game activity listed on Brett’s website, was intent on faithfully rendering the author’s world. In preparation, she read all of Brett’s books and studied interactive exhibit designs.
It was challenging to translate such detailed artwork from a two-dimensional page to a three-dimensional interactive space while remaining true to the characters and settings. But, for scenic designers, such is the nature of the job. “Scenic art is about making the final work look like the artist’s vision,” Robert said. Slides with Brett’s original artwork were projected onto canvas, allowing Robert and others to replicate it accurately. Still, she needed to make artistic choices about how to position each character, so not every character image was a direct copy from the books.
Matt Leckenbusch, who was in charge of its construction, said that the exhibit was created in Clemson and transported to Greenville upon completion. Each piece was made with durable wood and had to be durable enough to last the length of the exhibit, similar to the way a touring production’s set is built. The game board’s pathway had to be divided into sections that interlocked like puzzle pieces to prevent the surface from sliding. The exhibit was even “play tested” by his children to see which activities would be most popular.
Ken Scar, a Clemson University public information director, worked on the project in his free time. With a degree in theater from the University of Northern Colorado and numerous professional credits to his name, he jumped at the chance to again be involved with the scenic design process.
“Replicating her work was definitely a challenge,” he said. “Her illustrations are incredibly skilled and detailed, and she has a distinct color palette. I could have spent weeks on every single set piece trying to get them just right, but in projects like this you never have as much time as you want. As scenic artists, we had to find an efficient process to replicate the look and ‘feel’ of the source material. That’s always the fun challenge with projects like this.”
While the exhibit was not part of a formal class, it was a prime learning opportunity for almost two dozen students who were involved. “The students are the reason we do these kinds of projects,” Robert said. “They see what they can do with scenic art outside of the theatre.”
The result is a world in which families travel along the game board fishing with magnetic lures, pulling giant turnips from a garden, playing with oversized dice, and cuddling with furry friends before settling into a cozy ginger bread house at its conclusion to read a selection of Brett’s stories.
“They have captured Brett’s unique style and detailed artwork,” Thorpe said. “Each tale has been brought to life through its own large-scale environment and interactive environment.”
The Upcountry History Museum is located at 540 Buncombe St., in Greenville. Hours of operation are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am – 5 pm; Sunday from 1 – 5 pm. For more information, call 864-467-3100 or visit www.upcountryhistory.org.