Debut: The Mansion

by societyofsmallness


This is the first in a series of essays featuring venues, artists, curators, and other actors participating in Mini-exhibtiothon ii. Annie Morse is a longtime friend of the Society and was the organizer of the first and only Yard Sale.

“The cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it.”
― Gaston Bachelard

The Mansion: A Bucks County, Pennsylvania House
by Annie Morse

The Mansion needs rehabbing. Its rusting walls and bent floors give evidence of a long life of hard play, rough love, and finally neglect. Yet once it was new: a desired, unblemished, perfect place.

Verdant shrubbery and blooming hyacinth still cling to its foundation, while robust ivies climb its walls. Clad in polychrome field stone and roofed with irregular slate shingles, its datestone links the structure to 1766, a so-called locust year. “In the spring of 1766 they made their appearance in Frederick County Virginia.”[1] Like the locust, the Mansion has returned, its original context now shed like a former skin.

If that date is to be accepted, then the Mansion’s seventeen twelve-paned windows, each flanked by white wooden shutters, must have been part of a more recent remodeling effort, as window glass in the colonial period was, first, an expensive commodity, and its profligate use would have obliged prodigious expense by its owner in heating materials. Significantly, while there is a chimney, none of the rooms in the house contain a fireplace. The largest room on the ground floor suggests a scholar’s life, with sets of bound books and a large portrait of a dark-haired woman and her young son in pride of place on one wall. Yellow painted walls and striped curtains in this room establish a chromal scheme that will reprise in the master bedroom upstairs, where flowered curtains set a feminine tone which is strengthened by a flower painting and another work, now sadly faded, of what appear to be young women in voluminous tulle skirts resting alongside a brook.  The bathroom in the center of the house is a triumph of modern convenience and design, generous in scope, with a capacious medicine cabinet and a bold swan mural painted above the now-absent bathtub. Yet it is the child’s room that dominates the private quarters of the family. It is larger than the other rooms, and generously decorated with figures painted like a fresco on the wall, as well as with framed images.  Rockabye baby nursery rhymes, the legend reads, and here those rhymes are brought to life: in vignettes, the cow jumps over the moon, Little Bo Peep grasps her shepherd’s crook, the cat plays his fiddle and Humpty Dumpty, still entire, sits high on the wall, prefatory to his inevitable fall. A duck singing from a choral score, if musical notes are a reliable indication, has not yet been identified.[2]  Little lambs tread placidly, allowing them to be readily counted as they process along the wall in a frieze set just at a child’s eye-level.

A rocking horse and a stork bearing a newborn grace the front wall; judging from the blue blanket, the infant is a boy. A canine theme emerges on the third wall, with a small dog of indeterminate breed jumping through an unseen trainer’s paper-covered hoop. In a framed picture which might have stood over the crib, a dachshund performs the anatomically improbable feat of sitting up. The blue ribbon around his neck suggests domestication and an indulgent and possibly whimsical owner.

The last figure on the wall is an outsize White Rabbit, who has escaped from Wonderland to keep company with Mother Goose’s cast of characters. His worried expression and umbrella remind us that it may, in fact, rain, although whether he is late in arrival or departure is as yet a matter of conjecture.

In the kitchen below, gamboling vegetables with rudimentary limbs animate the molding at the ceiling. The taste of the family is eccentric but not without charm, as shelves display not only a large Chinese (possibly Jingdezhen) or Willow Ware blue-and-white platter, but also a Homer Laughlin Sunflower Yellow Fiesta Dinnerware pitcher of more contemporary design.

This is the setting for Rehab, the first exhibition in the Mansion.


Seven participating artists have created work that offers us a choice. We can agree that these are very little works of art, in a relatively small house. Alternatively, we can assume monumentality, if we see the work as a miniature, a model for something life-sized. Put another way, is each art work exactly as big as it is, or does it stand in, as does the house, for an imaginative form that is, well, as big as a house?

The houses of our early childhood impress on us expectations and desires that we may negotiate throughout our later lives. Sometimes we work to perfect these spaces, keep them clean, welcoming, and well-lit; sometimes we neglect them as we neglect ourselves, allowing losses, breakage, clutter, chaos, necessitating rehab. If we are lucky, we resolve these desires in adulthood by creating our dream house.

Bachelard, the poet of topoanalysis,[3] confirms this:

“If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”

Annie Morse is Senior Lecturer in Museum Education and liaison to the academic community at the Art Institute of Chicago. As an independent curator, she has worked with the Contemporary Arts Council and the Hyde Park Art Center. A long time friend and collaborator of the Society of Smallness, Annie organized and hosted the SOS’s 36” x 36” Yard Sale in February of 2013.

[1] J. S[tein], A Short History of Locusts of North America, 1824, Accession #9727, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

Accessed 11/21/2013 at University of Virginia Library

[2] It has been suggested that this creature is in fact the eponymous Mother Goose of the nursery rhymes, but this misidentification can be rejected on the grounds that geese are white, not yellow, the traditional color of ducks in juvenile literature and ephemera.

[3] Topoanalysis, articulated by Bachelard in 1958, is the means of understanding the self through the mapping of those places which stand in for the self. (fr. Gr. τόπος, place).

See: The Cultural Studies Reader