This is part two of a multi-part series on the CAP, or the Catalog of American Portraits (part 1 is available here). The CAP is a division of the National Portrait Gallery's Center for Electronic Research and Outreach Services. This blog article is by Sue Foster-Garton, currently a database administrator in CEROS but previously a field surveyor for the CAP.
I traveled to Missouri and Arkansas and then all around the West and Pacific Northwest, to Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. I also surveyed many collections in DC, NYC, Chicago, Cincinnati, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. I have 2,657 digital images from these trips, most of which I took myself—at first in black and white (now scanned) and later by digital camera. Some images are not yet digitized, and I also catalogued tons more portraits for which I was not able to get images at all. I guess that I catalogued well over 3,000 portraits in all.
My cataloguing experiences ranged from walking the galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago; to going through stacks of portraits stored everywhere—including the restroom—at the Koshare Indian Museum in La Junta, Colorado; to sitting in portrait-filled living rooms of private collectors in and around DC. I saw every type of portrait from Fekes and Copleys in museums and historic houses to portraits by commissioned artists in state capitol buildings. The Rough Rider Hall of Fame in the North Dakota State Capitol was unusually entertaining as state capitols go: it is filled with colorful portraits of famous North Dakota figures, including Lawrence Welk, Roger Maris, and Angie Dickinson.
I traveled to big cities and small towns. My accommodations ranged from a private club—where a newspaper was delivered to my door in the morning—to a run-down motel with cinder-block walls and a drunken desk attendant. My nicest overall visit was to Kansas, where I loved the fields of sunflowers and afternoon thunderstorms. My most unfortunate trip was to Nebraska, where I hit a December blizzard and had to share the icy highway with huge trucks going 70+ mph . . . and also broke my thumb in a hotel gym using the weight-lifting machines.
One fun experience was in Arkansas. I was able to visit the governor’s mansion in Little Rock just after the Clintons had left for the White House in 1993. I was told that Boots the cat was on the grounds and would join them in DC later. I searched high and low for Boots, hoping to get a picture of him, but never found him. I did, however, get a picture of a large slab of cement, into which a young Chelsea had inscribed “I love you Daddy” before the cement dried. Apparently this artwork hadn’t made the cut on what went to DC. I have a black & white print of this at home but don’t seem to have scanned it—bummer.
Most of my trips to faraway states were two-week adventures where I covered many miles and lived out of a rental car, feeling almost sad when I had to return it. People were very kind to me on the road. I was invited to a pot-luck dinner party for museum staff in Helena, Montana, as well as dinners in the homes of many other charitable souls that I worked with.
I was interviewed for a local public radio station in one of those western states but never heard the piece air, as I left town that day. Several museums featured articles on my project in their newsletters. When I was doing my cataloguing and photography in public spaces, I was stopped constantly by curious folks who were always impressed that I worked for the Smithsonian.