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The Incredible Work Habits of 12 Great Artists

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What does it take to make great art? Work habits and muses may vary.

1. Salvador Dali

Dreams were the greatest muse of the surrealist painter. So Dali concocted a trick to wake him in time to remember these visions. As he drifted off, he'd hold a key, his hang dangling over a metal plate. When slumber made his hand go limp enough to drop the key, its clanging on the plate would rouse him to return to work. Now that's how you power nap!

2. Gerhard Richter

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The German visual artist considers himself a willing slave to routine. Each day begins with a walk at 6:15. After making breakfast for his family, Richter goes to his studio until lunch, which is always the same: yogurt, tomatoes, bread, olive oil and chamomile tea. Then he returns to work until it is time for dinner. The routine has paid off—in February, Richter’s 1986 work “Abstraktes Bild” auctioned for $46.3 million, the highest price ever paid for a living European artist.

3. VINCENT VAN GOGH

Unlike Richter’s limited menu, Van Gogh wasn’t picky. At various times he was known to eat his paints and drink turpentine.

4. Willem de Kooning

The Dutch American abstract expressionist was so dedicated to his work that he and his wife Elaine went back to their easels right after completing their wedding vows. Typically, de Kooning rose late in the day, and worked late into the night fueled by a stream of strong coffee and by untold cigarettes.

5. Andy Warhol

The king of Pop Art was an incorrigible pack rat, who filled his four-story townhouse with an array of knickknacks and junk. But when it came time to work, he'd clean up by shoving anything on his desk into a box, which would likewise be pushed aside. Since his death in 1987, Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum has made it their mission to open and inventory the contents each of the 610 boxes Warhol left behind.

6. Henry Darger

One man's trash is another man's inspiration. This reclusive outsider artist, whose work became famous after his death in 1973, fueled his muse by collecting garbage that stood out to him and regularly attending Catholic masses. Sometimes, he'd go to Mass as many as five times a day.

7. Leonardo da Vinci

Since he was far too busy to waste time sleeping, it's said da Vinci partook in polyphasic sleep. Leonardo would take a 15-to-20-minute nap every four hours, which meant he spent two hours or less sleeping each day.

8. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

He worked hard he played hard. This 16th century Italian painter was notorious for the month-long drunken binges that he'd go on in celebration of completing a piece. Sometimes these bacchanals turned violent thanks to a short temper paired with the sword he carried.

9. J.M.W. Turner

Part of the Romanticism movement of the late 18th century, this English painter brought unexpected elements into his landscapes. He stunned onlookers when he smashed powdered tobacco into a still wet work to better suit the lighting of the Royal Academy. Turner was also rumored to spit on his works as a means of binding the pigments. Plus, he grew one of his nails long, the better to help him scrape away paint to create a signature texture.

10. Michelangelo

The High Renaissance master would sometimes let out his frustrations on his statues, screaming at them and thrashing their stone limbs. Take that, David! Attempting to coach up his works wasn’t Michelangelo’s only quirk. He was an infrequent bather and often slept in his clothes.

11. GEORGIA O’KEEFFE

Unlike Michelangelo, O’Keeffe wasn’t crazy about her clothes. The painter supposedly liked to work in the nude.

12. GRANT WOOD

Wood created his iconic painting American Gothic while living in the attic of a funeral home carriage house. To make the digs even stranger, Wood replaced the door to his place with a coffin lid equipped with a dial that let visitors know if he was sleeping, home, or having a party. This little eccentricity pales in comparison to Wood’s other quirk – the artist was such a sweets junkie that he even dumped sugar on his lettuce.

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© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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Animals
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts Hires Puppy to Sniff Out Art-Munching Bugs
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some dogs are qualified to work at hospitals, fire departments, and airports, but one place you don’t normally see a pooch is in the halls of a fine art museum. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is changing that: As The Boston Globe reports, a young Weimaraner named Riley is the institution’s newest volunteer.

Even without a background in art restoration, Riley will be essential in maintaining the quality of the museum's masterpieces. His job is to sniff out the wood- and canvas-munching pests lurking in the museum’s collection. During the next few months, Riley will be trained to identify the scents of bugs that pose the biggest threat to the museum’s paintings and other artifacts. (Moths, termites, and beetles are some of the worst offenders.)

Some infestations can be spotted with the naked eye, but when that's impossible, the museum staff will rely on Riley to draw attention to the problem after inspecting an object. From there, staff members can examine the piece more closely and pinpoint the source before it spreads.

Riley is just one additional resource for the MFA’s existing pest control program. As far as the museum knows, it's rare for institutions facing similar problems to hire canine help. If the experiment is successful, bug-sniffing dogs may become a common sight in art museums around the world.

[h/t The Boston Globe]

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Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.
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History
Mütter Museum Showcases the Victorian Custom of Making Crafts From Human Hair
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

During the Victorian era, hair wasn’t simply for heads. People wove clipped locks into elaborate accessories, encased them in frames and lockets, and used them to make wreaths, paintings, and other items. "Woven Strands," a new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, explores this historical practice by featuring dozens of intricate works culled from five private collections.

According to Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, hair work—as it’s called today—was common in England and America between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of the practice peaked in the 19th century, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s prolonged public mourning after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. People in both the UK and U.S. responded to her grief, with the latter country also facing staggering death tolls from the Civil War.

With loss of life at the forefront of public consciousness, elaborate mourning customs developed in both nations, and hair work became part of the culture of bereavement. "[The 19th century was] such a sentimental age, and hair is about sentiment," exhibition co-curator Evan Michelson tells Mental Floss. That sentimental quality made hair work fit for both mourning practices as well as for romantic or familiar displays of fondness.

Palette work culled from the collection of Evan Michelson and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Palette work from the collection of Evan Michelson
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Most hair artworks were made by women, and created solely for the domestic sphere or as wearable trinkets. Women relied on multiple techniques to create these objects, fashioning wreaths with hair-wrapped bendable wires—a process called gimp work—and dissolving ground hair into pigments used to paint images of weeping willows, urns, and grave sites. Watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets were woven using an approach called table work, which involved anchoring hair filaments with lead weights onto a table and using tools to twist them into intricate patterns through a hole in the furniture’s surface. Yet another technique, palette work, involved stenciled sheets of hair that were cut into various shapes and patterns.

Hair work remained popular until World War I, according to Michelson, who co-owns New York City's quirky Obscura Antiques and Oddities shop and organized "Woven Strands" along with 19th century decorative arts expert John Whitenight.

“Women hit the workforce, and death occurred on such a huge scale that it really swept away the old way of mourning and the old way of doing things,” Michelson says. By the early 20th century, tastes and aesthetics had also changed, with hair work beginning to be viewed “as something grandma had,” she explains.

The Mütter’s exhibition aside, people typically won’t see hair work in major museums. Being a craft primarily performed by women at home, hair works were usually passed down in families and often viewed as worthless from a financial and artistic perspective.

“A lot of hair work was discarded,” Michelson says. Many owners repurposed the shadowbox frames often used to display hair work by removing and tossing the artworks within. Works stored in basements and attics also frequently succumbed to water damage and insects. Antique dealers today typically only see hair jewelry, which often featured semi-precious materials or was encased in a protective layer.

Sepia dissolved hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Sepia dissolved hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Yet examples of hair wreaths, palette work, and other delicate heirlooms do occasionally surface. They’re prized by a small group of avid collectors, even though other connoisseurs can be grossed out by them.

“People have this visceral reaction to it,” Michelson says. “They either gasp and adore it—like ‘I can’t get over how amazing it is’—or they just back away. There are very few other things where people are repulsed like this … In the 19th century no one batted an eyelash.”

“It’s a personal textile,” Snedden Yates explains. “It’s kind of like bone in that it doesn’t really decompose at the same rate as the rest of our bodies do. It’s not made of tissue, so if you keep it in the right environment it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Table work culled from the collection of Eden Daniels and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Table work from the collection of Eden Daniels
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

“Woven Strands” features examples of gimp work, palette work, table work, and dissolved hair work. It’s often hard to trace these types of artworks back to their original creators—they typically don’t bear signatures—but the curators “really wanted to find hair that you could connect to an actual human being,” Michelson says. “We chose pieces that have provenance. We know where they came from or when it was made, or who actually donated the hair in some cases, or what the family name was. We also picked out things that are unusual, that you don’t see often—oddities, if you will.”

Woven hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Woven hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Displayed in the Mütter Museum’s Thomson Gallery, “Woven Strands” opens on January 19, 2018, and runs through July 12, 2018. On April 7, 2018, master jeweler and art historian Karen Bachmann will lead a 19th century hair art workshop, followed by a day-long historical symposium on the art on Sunday, April 8.

Michelson hopes that “Woven Strands” will teach future generations about hair art, and open their minds to a craft they might have otherwise dismissed as parochial or, well, weird. “We hope that people see it and fall in love with it,” she says.

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