Thursday, December 18, 2014

History is Fun; Have Fun with History--Artist Kevin Nordstrom Takes a Shine to the Livingstons

Let's be honest, we're a bunch of history geeks here at Clermont.  I mean, what else would you expect of people who voluntarily (and sometimes volunteer) spend so much of their time in a 270-ish year-old mansion talking about the Livingston family?

The truth is, it's as easy to fall in love with history as it is to fall in love with a TV show.  Our "characters" are real people who's personalities, over time, get fleshed out in the same way the Howard, Lenny, and Sheldon do on "The Big Bang Theory."  Every love letter of Janet Livingston Montgomery's, every neighborhood feud over Alice Livingston's dogs, and every childhood poem written by Honoria Livingston give us another glimpse of who these people really were.

Photo of Kevin as General Montgomery by Valerie Shaff
And then we start to have fun with it, which is how we get to Kevin Nordstrom.  Kevin came to us by luck when his newly-engaged fiance (also a Clermont volunteer) was a model in our 2013 Out of Time Fashion Show.  He soon glided easily into the role of General Richard Montgomery during our Legends by Candlelight Tours--wowing everyone with his endearing portrayal of Chancellor Livingston's brother-in-law, who was killed by a canon ball in one of he first major battles of the American Revolution.

Turns out General Montgomery had an effect on Kevin too.  When the whole story of Richard and his beloved wife Janet came out, Kevin and his now-wife Laura really identified with the couple--all the better since Laura was playing the part of Richard's wife Janet (at left by Valerie Shaff).

Kevin's sense of fun wasn't getting left out of this adventure.  After he finished his performance one night, we found this tacked up on our bulletin board:

Kevin's 1st illustration at Clermont--don't missed the cannon ball headed right for him.
You see, it turns out Kevin is an artist when he's not volunteering at Clermont.  "I'm an illustrator for a custom design company called Stafri Emblems," he informed me.  And there was more!  A visit to his Facebook and Deviant Art pages showed that Kevin is rather a busy artist with a large portfolio of works, most of which hint at his characteristic sense of humor (Depicted at right from his Facebook page, Kevin's wife Laura is also a Clermont volunteer).  Naturally, volunteers and staff alike loved the tongue-in-cheek drawing of "Baby Montgomery" and begged for more.  
"Do the whole cast!" many people cried.

And gradually, it took shape.  Even in the midst of an admittedly heavy holiday season workload, we began to see things like this pop up from Kevin: 

It didn't take much to start recognizing our fellow cast members.  There was Laura at left, playing the wistful Janet Montgomery with a note clutched in her hands, and at right Janet's younger sister Gertrude was unmistakable in her long-beaked mask and black mantle (photo at right by Valerie Shaff).  Captain Kidd was grinning sort of maniacally in the middle.  Even the 1920s serving staff--who are your guides through the ghostly menagerie of Legends by Candlelight Tours--loomed over the background like babysitters.  In the front our "inept medium," who sets the whole ghostly night in motion, waved her hands above her over-sized crystal ball (pictured below as he began inking her).
Kevin was kind enough to keep us updated with each stage as it came along.  Each stage got us a little more excited.  First the inking: 

Then then the color: 

Kevin informed us that, "Probably the most stressful and tedious part of the art is laying in the flat colors because you don't want it to look like a bag of skittles fell onto the page, and you're setting up the base for highlights and shadows to work off of so if your color theory's off the rest of the piece doesn't come together the way it should."
You might think it's a little bit unusual for a museum to go ahead and embrace a portrayal of their hallowed Founding Father as a grumpy toddler in a white wig, but finding ways to make history relevant for the general public is something we all struggle with.  Let's face it, Chancellor Livingston (photographed at left by Valerie Shaff) doesn't have any great catch phrases like "Bazinga!" that we can depend on to make our audience laugh.  Instead we have to ask the public to identify with our heroes by sorting through dense language and distant social customs that, as often as not, can alienate modern people more than bring them closer to our characters.  
And quite simply, if Horrible Histories can help people study for their exams on English Royalty, I don't know why Clermont can't have a bit of fun too.

So our sincere thanks go out to Kevin as we all rub our hands together and prepare to acquire prints that show our allegiance with Clermont and its Livingston history.  

And the finished product?  Well here it is!

From top left: 1920s servants played by Emily Robinson and Kjirsten Gustavson, Janet Livingston Montgomery (Laura Nordstrom), Montgomery Livingston (Hal Smyth and John Bisson), Margaret Beekman Livingston (Jane Miller), Captain Kidd (David Bisson), Chancellor Robert R. Livingston (Geoff Benton), Gertrude Livingston (Rebecca Smyth), Brigadier General Richard Montgomery (Kevin Nordstrom), and The Medium (Jennie Smyth)

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