Today’s post comes from Kristina Arike, Class of 2014 and Art Center Student Docent.

John Biggers (American, 1924–2001). Coming Home from Work. Oil on board. On extended loan from Eric Brecher, class of 1991.

 

Last week’s Artful Dodger featured Tim Koechlin, the Director of Vassar‘s International Studies Program, and a Senior Lecturer in International Studies and Urban Studies. He earned his PhD in economics from UMass Amherst, and economics remains one of his principal interests and the focus of much of his research.

His presentation began with an explanation of how he came to select the painting “Coming Home from Work” (John Biggers, 1944) as the subject of his talk. He said that he kept coming back to this work after walking through the galleries with curator Diane Butler, and he soon realized that this painting reminded him of what initially drew him to the field of economics. How does economics affect other parts of life?

The painting depicts a woman amidst a crowded, somewhat claustrophobic environment. As viewers, we can only see a small section of her face because her back is turned to us. Her expression appears discernibly weary. Her steps seem heavy and difficult; her feet, almost cartoonishly large, seem to anchor her down. We know much more about where she lives than we do about her. Even with such little information about her, there are enough clues in the environment to suggest that this is a poor woman. The painting depicts the moment of transition between work and home, but this woman’s workday is not over. As Professor Koechlin pointed out at the beginning, this scene moved him in part because of his interest in economic inequality and its social impact.

Professor Koechlin also provided a short biography of the artist John Biggers. Biggers is best known for being an African American muralist. He was born in Gastonia, NC in 1924. Interestingly, Biggers was just twenty years old when he painted “Coming Home from Work.” He attended the Hampton Institute, where he met his mentor Viktor Lowenthal. Lowenthal significantly influenced Biggers in part by emphasizing the importance of remembering and reflecting on the suffering of African Americans in the past.

Professor Koechlin provided an account of his own influences. He was raised in Montclair, NJ, by parents who were liberal activists interested in civil rights and fair housing. His course of study at UMass was multidisciplinary, which allowed him to consider the intersections of his academic interests.

Members of the audience pointed out the strangeness of the red earth beneath the woman’s feet, painted in a way that looks like the dirt is flowing down and the woman is climbing uphill. We are forced to consider whether she is moving forward and achieving the climb with dignity or, alternatively, if that reading is a product of the American myth of individual heroism. Adding a personal touch at the end of a lecture laden with economic theory and terminology, Professor Koechlin said that the woman’s pose reminded him of his own father returning from work during a particularly difficult chapter in his career. Drawing from this memory, he interpreted the figure in the painting as one whose spirit was worn down by uncreative labor. Professor Koechlin spoke directly to the students in the audience, suggesting that we make choices of work that fulfill us.

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