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The wonders around us

Sunday, October 3, 2010; R08

We live in a region with hundreds of museums. Art. Firearms. Medicine. Espionage. History. Religion. Foreign cultures. Rocket science. Many of the most valuable artifacts in the world are here. We asked 10 people to go in search of one object that captivated them.

The extinct instrument

If the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is "the nation's attic," then its tucked-away Hall of Musical Instruments is a lost corner of the attic.

The museum's 5,000 instruments -- 99 percent are in storage -- don't have quite the impact of Jefferson's lap desk. Many aren't even American. But for connoisseurs of the obscure, their gallery is a necessary stop.

Some might head to the Stradivarius strings, probably worth more than almost anything in the museum. But I prefer one of their more freakish relations, called a baryton: a cello's second cousin twice removed, you might say, with a weight problem and a strange fashion sense.

The baryton has bowed gut strings, strung over a neck fretted like a guitar's (Audio: Hear the baryton played). Behind those it has a second set of metal strings tuned to single notes, meant to vibrate in sympathy as the front strings are played. They give the instrument a warm, thrumming sound. Players can also pluck those sympathetic strings with their left thumbs to add a charming note of pizzicato. The instrument went extinct in the late 1700s but has been brought back to life in copies, such as the 1986 baryton by Baltimore luthier George Cassis, on indefinite loan.

The baryton's brief and shining moment came around 1770, at the Eszterhazy court in what is now Hungary. Prince Nikolaus Eszterhazy, patron of Joseph Haydn, played the instrument and got Haydn to compose almost 200 pieces for it. The story goes that Haydn thought he'd surprise his employer by learning to play the baryton himself. Nikolaus was not pleased at being one-upped.

-- Blake Gopnik, art critic

The slave's letter

Over 40 years, Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, a Los Angeles couple, have acquired every kind of artifact related to the African American experience. In their collection are rare documents, such as a letter from a Union soldier recounting the 1862 murder of slaves in Tennessee and a parade flag of the Buffalo Soldiers. This important and fragile bounty is moving into the National Museum of American History on Oct. 15 in a series of galleries that are a showcase for the planned National Museum of African American History and Culture, to open in 2015.

One letter, written by slaveholder A.M.F. Crawford in 1854, introduces his slave Frances. The letter is stained, but the messages are clear. She is described as "the finest chamber maid I have ever seen in my life, she is a good washer, but at house cleaning she has perfect slight [sic] of hand." The 17-year-old Frances does not know her fate, but the viewer will probably cry at the clear and attractive handwriting that says "she does not know that she is to be sold." And Crawford boldly lets the potential buyer know he is using the proceeds for a new stable.

-- Jacqueline Trescott, cultural reporter

The tree that goes gray

Of all the evergreens that grow in Washington, none is more beautiful, or less well known, than the lacebark pine.

This conifer grows slowly and inconspicuously at first. After a decade or so, its silver bark begins to take on a mottled appearance. After 20 years, the trunk (or trunks) expresses itself as a mosaic that grows more striking with the passing years. The exfoliating scales of the bark form a patchwork in light and dark green, tan, silver and pink. The effect is breathtaking, particularly in the spareness of winter.

You will find a 60-year-old specimen at the entrance to the walled Morrison Azalea Garden at the National Arboretum. It is a gift to us from an earlier generation of Washingtonians, and its value derives from its age, not money. It is named botanically Pinus bungeana after Alexander von Bunge, the Westerner who found it growing in a Chinese temple garden in the 1830s. Its longevity and pace of ornament, no doubt, teach us about time, and our place in it.

-- Adrian Higgins, gardening columnist

A stroll into the Jurassic age

Before plants evolved flowers as we know them, they inhabited a world that was overwhelmingly green and leafy, where vegetation competed for sunlight with outlandish leaf structures, carved out niches, and reproduced by way of spores and cones. The plants learned to like the wet and misty world that they were themselves perpetuating. This primal jungle was not only successful but attractive, even if there were no humans around at its birth.

The Garden Primeval, though small and narrow, is one of the most captivating of the greenhouses within the Botanic Garden's conservatory at the foot of the Capitol.

Here, the path takes the visitor through a fog of ferns, mosses, tree ferns and palmlike cycads. These wonders are little changed since the Jurassic Period and form a warm and moist retreat when it gets cold and dry out.

-- Adrian Higgins, gardening columnist

The car of horror

Your mother warned you long ago: Never get into a car with a stranger. At the National Museum of Crime & Punishment, which describes its mission as not only preserving the history of law-and-disorder but promoting public safety, the curators want you to remember:

Never -- ever -- get into a car with . . . well, you know.

Not even a handsome, pleasant stranger with a winning smile.

To that end, and in keeping with the museum's vast collection of murderabilia, there's a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle on exhibit. The Bug is tan-colored with a black interior and a few small dents and rust spots on the bumpers and hood. Its Utah vehicle inspection sticker is peeling, yet still stuck to the windshield. And the front passenger seat has been removed. The owner needed the space to hide his dead victims on the floor.

Nearby is an old photo of what police found in the car one August day in 1975 when they stopped it near Salt Lake City: an ice pick, gloves, handcuffs, a flashlight, torn strips of a bedsheet, a crowbar, a ski mask and a mask made from pantyhose. At the time, sheriff's deputies thought they'd nabbed a burglar.

By then, perhaps a dozen women either had been killed in that rattletrap Beetle or transported in it after being murdered as the driver roamed the western United States. Many more would die later, before the owner's life ended Jan. 24, 1989, in Florida's electric chair. His name: Ted Bundy.

-- Paul Duggan, police reporter

The lasting Enigma

Legend has it that in the early 1990s the National Security Agency bought the Colony 7 Motel, just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, after one of its employees, too tired to drive home, discovered his room had a straight line of sight into NSA's super-sensitive communications complex.

Today the erstwhile motel, refurbished as the National Cryptologic Museum, is chocked with the gewgaws and gadgets of electronic eavesdropping and code-breaking. My favorite remains the Nazis' famous Enigma machine, which looks like a very strange old typewriter, but in its day enabled German military units to send and receive completely secure coded messages.

Or that's what they thought. As the world would learn after the war, a team of brilliant Polish mathematicians had duplicated the machine and turned it over to the Allies. In one of the cruelest of wartime ironies, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill could not use what he learned from the German "decrypts," as they're called, to evacuate British subjects from the path of Nazi bombers, lest he tip off the enemy that their codes had been broken.

All of which means that half the allure of the museum's gadgets comes from learning the back story to what they did. But in any event, visitors can make their own codes on the Enigma machine, learning, as they plunk the keys, that nothing stays secret forever.

-- Jeff Stein, Spy Talk blogger, national security reporter

Oldest object on display

In an overlooked gallery in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art sits the oldest object on display in the museum, and one of its finest. The golden chalice of the great Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, crafted near Paris about 1140, is one of the greatest treasures of the Middle Ages. It's also a time machine:

-- It takes us straight back to those years in the 12th century when Suger was flexing his clerical muscles as regent of France while his king was leading a crusade.

Paintings can show us what history might have looked like, but we can always doubt their portrayal. Objects like this chalice transport you right to a person and a moment in the past: You can almost feel the abbot hefting the golden vessel to his lips as he said Mass.

-- The chalice takes us back to ancient Greece and its glories, just as it would have done for Suger. Its gold work is built around an antique cup made from a block of translucent sardonyx, a semiprecious stone, carved about 100 B.C. in Greek-speaking Alexandria. That cup was repurposed by Suger's craftsmen to connect the glories of his rule with the greater glories of antiquity. It might also have transported Suger to Jesus's own time, evoking the classical culture Jesus would have swum in, the chalice that He drank from at his Last Supper and the grail said to have collected His blood -- on view each time red Eucharistic wine was drunk from Suger's cup.

-- It takes us moderns even further back, to geological eras when such stones were being formed and humans weren't even a twinkle in God's eye. Suger was taken back almost as far, or as far back as he could imagine. For scholars of his time, such stones as sardonyx were seen as "petrified water," made solid in the early days of Creation, before the Fall or Flood.

-- And, in some sense, Suger's chalice brings us to our present. The Middle Ages are the oldest piece of European history we can sense as continuous with ours. We feel that we can trace back, almost day by day, from us to George Washington, say, to Queen Elizabeth I, and then back to the abbot himself. Not long before his time, the Dark Ages intervened and cut Europeans off from the classical era that came before.

This chalice points to that breakdown, too: It has some of the last hints of the twisting interlace favored by the barbarian tribesmen who destroyed Rome. They were Suger's ancestors.

-- Blake Gopnik, art critic

Words, art, absurdity

Lawrence Weiner, born in New York in 1940, is almost the epitome of the radical conceptual artist. His most famous works are just words that describe art that might or might not get made. And that's when Weiner is at his most concrete. Sometimes his words describe thoughts that are largely unthinkable.

A Weiner that just went up near the elevators on the third floor of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum establishes that institution as Washington's main home for cutting-edge art -- even if in this case, that edge is more than four decades old.

The piece is titled "A RUBBER BALL THROWN ON THE SEA, Cat. No. 146," and consists of those first seven words, printed onto a wall. It was conceived in 1969, but needs to be remade each time it gets shown.

Right now at the Hirshhorn, its letters have been printed huge, in a sky-blue sans-serif font. (It was Weiner's idea, but he says they could have been any color, any size, any typeface.) The words evoke an absurd image of an absurd act, or at least a very humble one. Why commemorate in art an action that's hardly worth doing, or noting? Earlier in his career, Weiner might have suggested that his artwork was complete only once someone actually carried out the throw it describes. A famous work from 1968, titled "A WALL CRATERED BY A SINGLE SHOTGUN BLAST," blasts a mess into the drywall each time that it's displayed.

But "RUBBER BALL" can exist without anyone doing anything. It's about the gap between words and actions, between objects and the ideas behind them, rather than any effort to bridge the gap by acting or making.

You could say it's almost old-fashioned in its realism: It provides an eminently credible image of the gap it's getting at.

-- Blake Gopnik, art critic

The vampire gun

Let's say you need to kill a vampire -- and heaven knows, they're everywhere these days. The National Firearms Museum has just the thing: the Vampire Hunter's Colt Detective Special. The revolver has a cross engraved on the muzzle, presumably to keep vampires at bay while the vampire hunter takes aim. It spits silver .38-caliber bullets, each of which is sculpted in the form of a vampire's head. And its coffin-shaped box, lined with sanguinary-red velvet, comes with a helpful vial marked "Holy Water."

The Vampire Hunter's Colt Detective Special, which is a silver-plated version of the snub-nosed handgun once prized by Mafia hit men and pulp fiction's world-weary private eyes, is one of the newest additions to the collection of 5,000 firearms. It goes on display Oct. 8 along with 400 newly acquired firearms in the new Robert E. Petersen wing of the museum at the National Rifle Association's headquarters in Fairfax County.

To stroll through its galleries is to reflect on one of the most controversial and fetishized objects in American culture. Beginning with a battered wheel-lock rifle that came to the New World aboard the Mayflower, the museum celebrates firearms and their place in the American imagination, including the Smith & Wesson .44 magnum revolver that made Clint Eastwood's day in the movie "Dirty Harry."

Here is the deadly accurate Kentucky rifle, which helped sharpshooting American colonists secure independence from Britain. Teddy Roosevelt's love affair with big guns and big game is amply related, as is the celebrity of trick shooter Annie Oakley.

There are guns concealed in walking sticks, sniper rifles that can penetrate walls and miniature firearms that allowed apprentice gunsmiths to show their chops. The smallest, at perhaps 1 1/2 inches long, is so tiny that a needle is necessary to work the trigger.

The new Petersen collection includes a Colt New Frontier .45-caliber revolver, embossed with serial number PT109 and the presidential seal, that was commissioned as a gift for President John F. Kennedy. He was assassinated before the gun could be delivered.

-- Fredrick Kunkle, politics reporter

The man in the trunk

A billiard ball. A Turkish coffeepot. The shinbone of a lamb. A dagger. A turtle. A pair of dice. A miniature fighter jet. A portrait of Grandfather in 19th-century Caucasian garb.

How does a man represent himself when he cannot be present? Soviet dissident artist Vladimir Kandelaki's "A Chest" (1985) is a knee-high traveling trunk containing a three-dimensional collage of images and objects that glitter like pirates' booty. Instead of jewels, however, the trunk contains minutiae from the artist's life, with a new item glued in each time he was invited to a show.

During Soviet times Kandelaki, who was born in 1943 in Tbilisi, Georgia, showed his work thoughout the Eastern Bloc. "But if his work went to Sweden or Finland, he wasn't allowed to go because they were afraid he'd skip," said Marc Zuver, director of the Fondo del Sol Visual Arts Center, dedicated to American immigrant art. The museum, in a townhouse off Dupont Circle, is part of the Dupont-Kalorama Museums consortium.

"The trunk was his representative," Zuver said, pointing inside at a small photograph of the artist as a child. "The trunk behaves itself, the trunk doesn't get drunk."

Tucked into one corner is a globe, which, according to Zuver, represents "the world he would like to see but of course was not allowed to see."

Two decades after the Iron Curtain opened, Kandelaki's trunk resembles a dusty antique store, full of mysteries, washed in a warm brown patina. Larger and more crowded than the boxes of Joseph Cornell, it combines found objects with his own creations.

The interior and exterior are plastered with miniature copies of his paintings, including a series, begun in 1986, titled "A House of Cards." It depicts the Soviet Union as a construction site, with cranes assembling giant pyramids made of flimsy playing cards, looking as if the slightest breeze will collapse them.

-- Tara Bahrampour, immigration reporter

Dying for freedom

In the dozen years or so the Newseum has been around, at least 178 U.S. newspapers have died. So it is tempting to take up the museum on its "if you walk fast, you can make it in (about) two hours" advice, grimace at the $19.95-plus-tax ticket, laugh at the institution's self-deprecating humor (the Stephen Colbert clip in News History/Level 5 observes how "construction of this museum fittingly marks the end of the news . . . we don't need it anymore") and treat the Newseum as a $450 million concrete obituary to the glory days of a has-been business.

Don't.

The Newseum's 38,800 historic newspapers, images and cartoons, liberally interspersed with 8,149 artifacts ranging from the sublime to the silly -- from a 1416 letter relaying news of the Battle of Agincourt to the slippers worn by Wonkette's Ana Marie Cox -- are an absorbing and sobering tour de force encompassing five centuries of news.

It might then seem ironic that what brings it all home to me circa 2010 is the one exhibit that will always be firmly rooted in the past: the Journalists Memorial.

To get there, head to Level 3. Walk into World News, with its spectacular wall-to-wall map of the world that shows countries in green, yellow and red based on press freedoms. Pause to examine a ballot box used in the apartheid-ending 1994 South African elections, a bronze life-size reproduction of the Goddess of Democracy statue that lasted five days in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and the homemade, clandestine printing press used by editors in Romania.

Turn the corner from Press Freedoms past the bullet-riddled Chevrolet truck used by Time photographers in the Balkans and gear used by Bob Woodruff and other brave journalists who risked their lives for their stories.

And there you are. The light-filled, soaring dual walls of the Journalists Memorial, honoring those who died in the pursuit of news -- reporters, photographers, broadcasters and executives.

Facing you are Images of the Fallen, a wall of postcard-size photographs -- smiling, earnest, serious -- of some of the 1,900 journalists who died on the job since 1837. Walk up closer and you will read that 30 died on one day-- Nov. 23, 2009 -- in a massacre on Mindanao Island in the Philippines.

Look to your left and, as shafts of light stream down from the windows, crane your neck to read the names etched on glass panes that curve and reach into the skies. If they are hard to read, don't give up. These are men and women who have given all they could so that some of us can count on a free press in a free society.

Pick a name, walk over to the touch screens, pull up the profile and read it. Or pick a year. For 1966, the year I was born, there is just one name: Neil K. Hulbert, a photographer for the Humboldt Standard of Eureka, Calif. Hulbert died in a plane crash on Mount Fuji on his way to Vietnam for an assignment.

Unlike many hushed, dimly lit sections of the Newseum, the Journalists Memorial is full of light. As it should be.

And as you walk out of the Newseum into a world riddled with talk of blogs, search engines, Twitter and social media, hold onto some of those faces and names. It is a fitting reminder that even in a news business where the past is no longer the prologue, what will always endure is the willingness of journalists to risk their lives in the pursuit of news. And if a museum has a power to connect the past to an uncertain future, it is worth the $19.95 plus tax, and then some.

-- Raju Narisetti, managing editor

'May Flowers'

Howard University and the Bank of America have assembled almost 100 works of African American art in an exhibition with the hefty title of "Mixing Metaphors: The Aesthetic, the Social and the Political in African American Art."

The show is a happy melding of three enterprises. Howard University, with an active art gallery since 1930, has been an important laboratory and showcase for art representing all parts of the African diaspora. The Bank of America has been a vigorous supporter of established and emerging artists, as well as arts education programs. The depth of its corporate collection, numbering in the thousands, has created 40 exhibitions. And to curate this show, the two institutions tapped Deborah Willis, art historian and expert on images of black folk.

These selections at Howard, representing 36 artists, are on view through Dec. 17.

Capturing the spirit of special moments in African American life is prize-winning photographer Carrie Mae Weems. "May Flowers" depicts three girls at a dress-up occasion, perhaps a church celebration in spring, perhaps a Mother's Day picnic. Whatever the day's activity, these three, stretched out on the grass, are not happy with their starched dresses. And though they seem to want to talk and gossip, someone has asked them for one last smile. No one complies.

With a focused eye Weems explores race and gender, whether it's modern or historic. Often her work is a deconstruction of stereotypes. This one has the artistic shadows of a Monet moment or the lyricism of the film "Daughters of the Dust." Weems didn't need any smiles to capture an afternoon not of choices, but of commands.

-- Jacqueline Trescott, cultural reporter

An American garden

You find the Hornbeam Ellipse toward the lower fringes of the garden at Dumbarton Oaks after a descent along steep paths and stairs. The landscape's various structures and gardens are steeped in classical and Renaissance iconography, and the ellipse is a key part of this narrative and drama. For all of Dumbarton Oaks' antiquarian Mediterranean references, the 16-acre garden is a singularly American expression of fine landscape design.

The ellipse is known to garden lovers around the world, and its renown elevates the experience of being in it. Peaceful and serene, it is a space that speaks to the heart and the soul.

The double ring of hornbeams form what's called an aerial hedge, an elevated oval of artfully clipped vegetation that is leafy green in summer and twiggy in winter. In a place where art intersects nature, the ellipse is no less attractive in the golden, slanted light of a December afternoon than in the spring.

-- Adrian Higgins, gardening columnist

The eccentric heads

Given that we've all got more or less the same brains, it's a miracle that human cultures can turn out such an absurd range of art. Could the same species really have made the Rothko canvases at the National Gallery, the bronze Buddhas at the Sackler and the Kongo nail-studded statues at African Art?

Or how about, for sheer peculiarity, the Mayan carved-flint figures at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Georgetown? Each one is a single wand of hard stone, maybe 10 inches long, immaculately chipped and flaked to look something like a tree with human heads for limbs. They're called "eccentric flints" because of their unusual shapes, but they deserve the name for their weirdness. No one knows precisely what these exquisite objects were used for -- perhaps finials on scepters. And scholars have yet to discover the source of the fine dark flint.

But we know who their heads belong to: The flaming torch or ax emerging from each figure's brow is an attribute of the lightning god K'awiil. The Mayans thought that flint was caused by lightning strikes, so these objects depict the god, but in some sense have also been made by him.

The arts of Europe do not preserve a memory of times when flaked flints ensured survival. Twelve hundred years ago, in what is now southern Mexico and northern Central America, metals were just coming into use. Maybe the eccentric flints at Dumbarton reflect K'awiil's last stand.

The great museums of the Mall have fine spreads of art from Europe, Asia, the United States and Africa. But to see the art and artifacts of pre-Columbian peoples you have to head to the jewel-box rear wing of Dumbarton Oaks. Its eight round, glass-walled galleries, completed by Philip Johnson in 1963, bring the surrounding gardens inside. That turns looking at the strange art they hold into one of the city's least trumpeted pleasures.

-- Blake Gopnik, art critic

The Nazi freight car

You catch a glimpse of the German freight car before you confront it directly, just after you descend from the third floor of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where you have learned about the rise of Nazism and European Jewry's desperate, unsuccessful search for refuge.

You know it is waiting, an iconic wooden rail car of the type that transported hundreds of thousands to their deaths. The size of a large backyard playhouse, it is a place from which to imagine events so horrifying they don't belong in childhood memories.

But before you come face to face with the freight car, you walk through a corridor filled with photos of ghetto life. This is what was there, the museum is telling you. This is the vitality and humanity the Holocaust destroyed.

Then you are at the open doorway.

You have seen images of these rail cars in Holocaust movies, read descriptions of the stifling conditions as innocent victims were herded inside, told they were bound for resettlement but, in fact, headed for death.

Unlike with many of the museum's other artifacts, there is no protective glass shielding you from the freight car. It is the intent of the museum's designers for visitors to walk right through.

Into the darkness, with only a few shafts of light coming through the small open window. Atop tracks that once led to Treblinka. Surrounded by empty space where there were once so many bodies.

Feeling trapped, as if the doors might close at any moment so the car can carry you away.

-- Debbi Wilgoren, breaking-news reporter

The book of death

How often can you get a look at bags of marijuana, a kilo of cocaine, opium residue, crack vials and a bowl of "trail mix" containing hundreds of prescription narcotic pills?

The Drug Enforcement Administration Museum, nearly hidden in the agency's headquarters across from Pentagon City Mall, is a 5,000-square-foot cautionary tale, one that chronicles the nation's history of addiction and the efforts to fight the black market. Displays include Coca-Cola's early use of cocaine in its secret formula a century ago and graphic images of a crack casualty in the District.

But perhaps most powerful is a small binder just inside the door of the special exhibit "Good Medicine, Bad Behavior: Drug Diversion in America." There are pages and pages of victims of prescription drug abuse, something the DEA considers the country's fastest-growing drug problem.

The faces are those of ordinary people you could know, nothing like the rest of the museum, which features Mafiosi and drug lords. "Stories of Lost Promise" aims to show the effect of abuse on real people. Projected images of the victims fade in and out on the wall above the binder, their haunting smiles and hopes belying their fate.

Amid a few names nearly everyone would recognize -- such as Jimi Hendrix and Judy Garland -- are people such as 21-year-old Shannon Hungerford, who died at 21 of a methadone and Zoloft overdose, and Daniel Katz, 25, who died after taking oxycodone pills and cocaine.

Their faces are joined by the anguished words of their loved ones.

"He wanted to get married, buy a home and have children. His future held great promise," wrote the parents of Austin Barthen, a 24-year-old New Jersey freight dispatcher who died in 2005. "My wonderful, smart, sweet, gentle, kind, handsome son left a huge void in this world when he took OxyContin, fell asleep and never woke up."

The DEA hopes it's a message parents and children will take with them as they walk through the exhibit, which also includes a realistic sheet-covered body on a gurney representing an overdose victim and that "trail mix" bowl of pills representing the risky drug parties that have increased in popularity.

"It is meant to ask the question: What could this person have contributed to society had they not been lost to prescription drugs?" said museum Director Sean Fearns.

"Good Medicine, Bad Behavior" is tentatively scheduled to close at year's end. The DEA next plans to unveil an exhibit about drug interdiction efforts in Afghanistan, where the booming opium trade funds terrorism.

-- Josh White, police and courts reporter

The marvel maker

We think of the Smithsonian's great National Museum of Natural History as being full of facts and objects rather than artworks. But many of the most famous and impressive of the museum's exhibits are really works of art in disguise. Every single "animal" we see in the museum, from the famous bull elephant at its entrance to the right whale that fills its middle, is in fact a lifelike sculpture, made by some of the last sculptors working in the grand realist tradition.

When realism took off five centuries ago, one thing art did was put us right in front of things we had no other contact with -- Jesus, or Mary, or our dear-departed ruler. At Natural History, that's still what we ask art to do, but our dear-almost-departed now have fur and fins and feathers. Despite all the high-tech imagery that's supposed to do the job better, we still respond to visions of actual, physical, handcrafted forms beside us in a space.

I doubt that those stuffed beasts teach us particularly well, though that's what they pretend to be for. What they mostly do is make us marvel -- at the animals in them, but also at the skill that went into making them so lifelike and putting such creatures before us. We'll even marvel at the sculpted image of a white-tailed deer, although many of us can see the real thing as often as we want, eating our rhododendrons.

The artworks at Natural History are not signed, but credit for that deer should go to the artful taxidermist Jean M. Roll of Perry, Mich.

-- Blake Gopnik, art critic

The black art pioneer

Lois Mailou Jones, the artist and professor, tended to bark at her friends and students in a sharp voice that was heavily tinged with a French accent, acquired during her years of inspiration in Haiti, West Africa and France. But as soon as she had made her point, and the visitor turned to the walls in her Northwest home and atelier, the sting was gone.

Mailou Jones's great gift was transporting the viewer into the daily lives of her subjects. Her work was colorful, soaked with the shades of skin, sunshine, textiles, fruit and other objects of art. When she did a mask, the eyes moved with you. When she showed an African American girl cleaning fish, the strokes were rhythmic.

Mailou Jones taught at Howard University for 47 years. She had plenty of lessons to share, not only about technique, but about fighting for acceptance in the white art world. Despite rejections and racism, she pursued her own path and is considered a forerunner of several black art movements. She was the first African American to have a solo show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in 1973. Jones, who died in 1998 at 92, is represented in many major museums and collections.

Her decades of work have been gathered in an exhibit that opens Oct. 9 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. "Lois Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color" includes 70 paintings and other works, representing an output of 75 years.

"Marche, Haiti," a 1963 painting in acrylic, follows the deliberate stroll of market women and shoppers as they fill a twisting street in Haiti. The faces are blank, but Jones has positioned them to show the activity of a typical Haitian market. Mailou Jones paints as if standing on a balcony, looking down on the scene of figures balancing trays and baskets. It's dense, soft and angular, but accurately dynamic.

-- Jacqueline Trescott, cultural reporter

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