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Hidden Treasures: My Summer with Penn's Art Collection

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Hidden Treasures: My Summer with Penn's Art Collection

By Andrés De los Rios

Truly, the storage room I found myself in was an amazing treasure trove cursed by its isolated, almost unknown, location. In a way, I had achieved one of the goals I had set for myself for the summer: I was surrounded by the hidden artworks of the university, the vault in which various masters and artists are damned to sit in their shelves until some kind of merciful faculty member invokes their presence once again on the university’s walls. After the reality of the situation settled over me, I ventured forth to look for that specific piece I was asked to retrieve. But this task proved to be harder than I expected it to be thanks to the myriad of curious temptations that filled each wall and cabinet in my sight — each work craving appreciation, for only then would its true nature color the world once again. As a penitent, I lowered my head and avoided their “sight” whilst heading towards my objective. Finally, I found the container that was my objective. After looking at its contents, it dawned on me just how rich the art collection was and how lucky I was to be working there.

Ironically, this wasn’t the first time I had gone into the storage room. No, the feeling of grandeur that I got to experience on this latest occasion was not present the first time I stepped into that cluttered room. Please, don’t get me wrong, the first time was still as memorable to me as the next, but my feelings were a bit different. The first time I was led into the room by those who would become my future bosses (Penn’s curator, Lynn Marsden-Atlass, and collections manager, Heather Gibson Moqtaderi), I was filled with wonder and excitement for the unknown. In a way, I knew that piled in every corner there was SOMETHING of artistic interest, but I couldn’t quite grasp it — I had other important thought wandering around in my head. For you see, at that time I was still a mere freshman being interviewed to perhaps be offered the internship of his dreams. So far, things had gone very smoothly: I had been received by the smiling faces of Lynn and Heather, both of whom proceeded to listen with interest to what I had to say for myself. After the formalities and the questions I was shown around the office and was amused to see Lynn’s curatorial experience kick in when she began explaining the artistic value of the paintings that hung around the small office in 34th and Market St. I remember listening, learning, and wondering at the prospect of a dream coming true: finally a place where enjoying art, history, books, and the like would prove to be useful! The tour continued all the way to the storage room, where Lynn and Heather gave me but a peak of Penn’s hidden art trove. As I left the building I couldn’t help but smile like a happy fool at the experience that awaited me behind those doors if only I were given the chance.

Fast-forward to the month of June. From my very first day I felt as comfortable and happy as you can feel at an office. Sure, the building was close, the chairs were comfy, and the air conditioner cool, but overarching all these things was the overall kindness of the staff. Honest to God, up to this very day I don’t think I have ever seen Heather nor Lynn frown. Nowhere else have I’ve felt so “professionally” welcome, for lack of a better word. As each day goes by, I find myself more grateful for this amazing chance I’ve found myself enjoying, one that has surpassed all the expectation I had imagined months before. So far, I have been able to put my History-major mind to work by researching artworks and artists alike; I’ve taken the office’s camera to go outside and shoot to my heart’s content in order to properly capture Penn’s outdoor art; trying to appease the bookworm in me, I’ve lost myself in the library hoping to find that one bit of information on an artist that will help me write a label for his work; as a sort of amateur Nicholas Cage in the movie National Treasure I’ve inspected up close important etchings, paintings, photographs, and lithographs so as to report their conditions appropriately; and finally, per request of my superiors, I’ve mastered the art of cutting cardboard (hey, someone’s got to do it, right?). But these things are just the tip of the iceberg: beneath lies the achievements, lessons, and memories earned by working here at Penn’s Art Collection.

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So there I was, at the storage room with the open container in my hand. My objective? To find a collection of etchings created by the Mexican Popular Graphics Workshop, dated 1946. Nothing could have prepared me for what I stumbled upon once I opened that orange portfolio: inside lay a beautiful map of my native Mexico. What made it special and different from other maps I had seen of my country were the small figures spread across it, each personifying a rural profession unique to the Mexican indigenous laborer. With my interest ablaze, I turned the page, only to find astonishing, full-size lithographs of said laborers, all working hard on their craft. On those pages I saw a pot maker, drawn with the same delicacy with which he transformed clay into art; I gazed at corn farmers, surrounded by their harvest, as they stored the main ingredient of every Mexican’s diet; I marveled at the authenticity displayed by the various artists who had created this portfolio, each and every one of them successfully projecting the toils, lifestyles, and settings of the Mexican rural population. That day, inside that storage room, somehow I had found my home, in more ways than one.

And so what my dad always used to say resurfaced in my mind: “Andrés, if I’ll be sending you to study at the United States, it’s so that you may one day work on that which you are passionate about, that which will make waking up every Monday a blessing instead of a pain.” Today I am pleased to see myself at the office and to think to myself, “Here I am, I’ve found it Dad.”

Andrés De los Rios is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, planning to double major in History and Classical Studies. He is currently working as an intern at Penn's Art Collection and as a Staff Photographer for the Daily Pennsylvanian. So far his studies have been broad, ranging from Renaissance Spain to Ancient Rome; Medieval China to Revolutionary America. As such, he strives to use the past as a lens to interpret the complexity of today's cultural landscape.

Edited by Kenna O'Rourke.