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Four Northwestern faculty members win humanities grants

Projects mine cultural caches from Georgia O’Keeffe paintings to Orson Welles audio plays

EVANSTON - Four Northwestern University faculty members have been honored with National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) fellowships.

The NEH recently announced $12.8 million in funding for 253 humanities projects across the nation. Northwestern’s four faculty members are among college and university teachers pursuing advanced research who will receive fellowships to support their work beginning in 2018.

Their work spans a wide array of subjects, including a study of the pre-Civil War origins of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; a digitization project to document stories of Chicago’s Native American community; and tools to better preserve oil paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, and to analyze the recorded radio plays of Orson Welles and other spoken word recordings. 

“The humanities offer us a path toward understanding ourselves, our neighbors, our nation,” said NEH Acting Chairman Jon Parrish Peede. “These new NEH grants exemplify the agency’s commitment to serving American communities through investing in education initiatives, safeguarding cultural treasures and illuminating the history and values that define our shared heritage.”

NEH funding helps preserve important objects and collections representing America’s cultural heritage. Faculty members receiving support include Northwestern’s Marc Walton, who received a $349,988 grant to develop conservation tools to monitor and prevent deterioration of oil paintings, which could potentially have vast applications in the art world.

Marc Walton

Marc Walton
Marc Walton
A research professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, Walton will study Georgia O’Keeffe paintings held by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the effects of a common chemical process linked to oil paints called metal soap formation. He’ll also engineer a new open-source, quantitative imaging tool to improve preservation techniques.

"It has recently come to light that the formation of metal carboxylate soaps is one of the primary agents of decay of painted works of art,” Walton said. “Our research will not only help to identify the underlying mechanisms of soap formation on Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, but will also provide museums with the imaging techniques and software tools necessary to make educated decisions about how to best display and preserve any painting for generations to come."

Metal soaps, similar in makeup to the soaps artists use to wash paint from their hands, is the product of chemical reactions stemming from the paints used in many famous works by artists ranging from Rembrandt to Vincent van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Metal soaps affect the surface of paintings, leaving tiny craters and, in some extreme cases, causing the paint to flake off the canvas. It is estimated that some form of metal soap degradation affects approximately 70 percent of museum collections.

Using 3-D surface shape capture and advanced algorithms for soap protrusion detection and classification, Walton and his team will monitor the effects of different environmental conditions, exhibitions and treatments on the Georgia O’Keeffe paintings over time.

Once developed, the tool would be available to conservators, scholars and scientists who wish to monitor changes in surface topography on oil paintings.

Neil Verma

Neil Verma
Neil Verma
In support of cutting-edge tools in humanities research and innovative digital projects for public audiences, the NEH awarded a $75,000 grant to Verma, associate director of the M.A. program in sound arts and industries and assistant professor of sound studies in the School of Communication. Verma will work with Marit MacArthur at the University of California Davis on the development of two digital tools that work together to align text with audio tracks and measure pitch patterns and timing.

With the help of a network of scientists and humanists, Verma and MacArthur will develop open-source tools for scholars to mine new knowledge from archives of sound recordings, including Orson Welles' radio plays, the 75-year Talking Book collection for the blind and thousands of hours of poets reading their works. 

“Whether he’s playing Dracula, Abraham Lincoln, or The Shadow, Orson Welles’ voice is ever recognizable,” Verma said. “You just know it when you hear it.

“But how did Welles learn to perform that way, what was it about his style of delivery in terms of pitch and timing that made it fit radio in the 1930s?” Verma said. “A tool that can help us explain that could also help explain other ‘types’ of voicing, such as ‘NPR voice’ or ‘poetry voice.’”

The digital tools Verma is working on will be able to read and listen to many thousands of hours of recordings to help answer these and other questions.

Kate Masur

Kate Masur
Kate Masur
Masur, a historian in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, will receive $42,000 for a book-length study of the pre-Civil War origins of the 14th Amendment, which was ratified in 1868 and promised equal protection and due process of law to all persons living in the United States.

The project is titled, “Race, Liberty, and Policing before the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

While the 14th Amendment was passed after the Civil War, its origins lie in antebellum debates about the rights and citizenship status of free African Americans.

“An important question at the time was the extent to which the federal government could step in when states were not protecting citizens’ rights,” Masur said. “We are having similar conversations today; what rights are promised to citizens and non-citizens living in the U.S., and which entities are in charge of protecting those rights?”

Kelly Wisecup

Kelly Wisecup
Kelly Wisecup
An affiliate of Northwestern’s new Center for Native American and Indigenous Research,  Wisecup won a $12,000 grant to collect and digitize photographs, documents and other materials with the American Indian Center of Chicago and undertake a public awareness campaign.

The impetus for the project was a move by the American Indian Center of Chicago -- one of the longest-running organizations of its kind in the U.S. -- out of its home of almost 50 years on Chicago’s North Side, where thousands of Native Americans settled as part of a government relocation program in the 1950s.

“Often, the history of Native people in Chicago ends with Indian removal but one of the things this project does is show that the stories of native people in Chicago are much more than that,” said Wisecup, a professor of Native American literature in Weinberg College. “This project will help envision future stories about Native Americans in Chicago.”

Wisecup will organize three digitization events to collect local history materials and a complementary public outreach symposium focused on Native American history in Chicago. Members of the Native American community who participate will also obtain digitized copies of the materials they wish to preserve.

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