Celebrating art, design, and architecture in Williamsburg

Introduction
Untold stories revealed through artifacts at Jamestown Settlement
Untold stories revealed through artifacts at Jamestown Settlement
Seeing today through yesterday’s eyes at American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
Seeing today through yesterday’s eyes at American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
Exploring the waterfront of Historic Yorktown Village
Discovering folk art at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum
Discovering folk art at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum
Seeing art in design at The Dewitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum
Learning through time travel: Artistry at Colonial Williamsburg
Learning through time travel: Artistry at Colonial Williamsburg
A European-inspired stay at the Wedmore Place
The Wren Building at William & Mary: The oldest academic building in the country
The Wren Building at William & Mary: The oldest academic building in the country
Checking out the latest exhibit at the Muscarelle Museum of Art
Checking out the latest exhibit at the Muscarelle Museum of Art
Conclusion

While I typically gravitate towards the bustling New York City museums and galleries, I am always looking to venture into the unknown, expanding my understanding of what art can be. I was excited to discover firsthand just what folk art was all about in Williamsburg. Almost immediately, I realized that folk art was about the celebration of craft and utility. Known for its vibrant history as the foundation of America, Williamsburg’s stories are told today through immersive experiences, designed objects, and architecture. I hope you’ll enjoy learning a bit more about my discoveries here.

Our first stop was Jamestown Settlement, where we learned about the founding moments of America. Beyond the stories that we read in the history books, the untold stories were even more intriguing. A pile of 220 copper manillas– Spanish for “bangles” – demonstrated the value of an enslaved person’s life. Next to it, a gold ceremonial necklace showcased the richness of African culture in America’s earliest days.

Meanwhile, exploring the outdoor re-creations of old ships, military forts, and the habitats of the Paspahegh Indians that used to live nearby felt almost like time travel. Through the collection of artistic artifacts, architectural recreations, and cinematic experiences, we discovered a wide range of histories reflecting the different cultures and people co-existing in America at the time. That, for me, was perhaps the most moving part: the recognition of America’s founding history as a diverse and culturally vibrant scene. Explore the objects and spaces yourself and discover the stories they reveal.

Exploring the American Revolution Museum at this moment feels strangely timely. As I learned about the military strategies, the power of the press, and the intricacies of diplomacy, I couldn't help but see parallels with today's current events. Learning about the past through the artifacts left behind, I found a strange comfort in knowing that little has changed over time.

One specific work that caught my attention was a portrait of a young Black man named Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a rare example of a person of color who regained his freedom by impressing the Europeans with his intellectual accomplishments and eventually returning home. Amongst the countless European portraits of nobility, this portrait struck me as a powerful example of how curators can bring to light the richness of America's past.

A quick drive from the American Revolution Museum is Historic Yorktown Village, known for its famous battles and waterfront area lined with charming shops and restaurants. I wandered around to discover various monuments and historic sites before finding a spot for some fish and chips and heading home.

Typically composed of everyday objects and materials, folk art celebrates artistry in the world around us. Once again, I was inspired by the artifacts at Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum that demonstrated the richness of cultural diversity and creativity in American history.

A small piece that caught my eye was a face jug attributed to one of the many African Americans that worked at Palmetto Fire brick Works. From carousel figures to ceramics, their forms transcend their functions, becoming art. Moving from room to room, I couldn’t help but wonder if folk art was indeed all around us.

At the Dewitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum our attention shifted to design. Beyond the examples of furniture arranged by period and locations, I was drawn to the samples of fine China. It made me think about the impact of globalization and being Chinese Canadian myself; it allowed me to feel included in the history as well. Seamlessly connected between one another, it seemed like a perfect marriage of art and design and begs the question: are they different, and if so, how? 

More than just a museum, Colonial Williamsburg is home to a community of artisans, historians, and educators. There, we learned firsthand traditional brick making techniques, carpentry, and metalsmithing. Every detail in the process was thought out and planned for carefully. Even with a degree in architecture myself, it was refreshing to be reminded of the techniques and processes that go into building our physical environments.

The skilled tradespeople we met were brimming with passion, knowledge, and kindness. Their ability to co-exist in support of one another, literally building each other's homes, felt reminiscent of the tight-knit communities of America's founding days. We left that day thinking to ourselves how much more there was to see and inspired by the work being done by Colonial Williamsburg to unravel, preserve, and educate about the past.

 

Scenically located within a vineyard and conveniently close to all the nearby attractions, we were honored to call the Wedmore Place home during our inspiring stay in Williamsburg. Reflecting the folk art tradition of the area, many of the furnishings and decorations could’ve been museum objects themselves. Each room is uniquely designed with care to fit a specific theme, with no two pieces of furniture alike in the whole building. Our Italian-themed suite, which reminded me of my days studying in Italy, was dramatic and exuded an air of European adventure.

After learning about bricklaying at Colonial Williamsburg, we saw the building techniques in action at The Wren Building at William and Mary. Built between 1695 and 1700, the building is the College of William and Mary's crown jewel and holds the title of the oldest academic building in the country.

While much of the original structure no longer exists due to several fires over the years, many interiors have been recreated to match their former glory. The intricately carved details, the space's scale, and the building's history were so moving that Cristian and I almost wished we could get married again inside the chapel. 

Our last stop was at William & Mary's Muscarelle Museum of Art. We checked out their recent Degas exhibit, which featured a selection of works from the artist's private collection. It presents a rare look at Degas as a collector while highlighting his personal relationships with other thinkers and creators of the time.

While this exhibition was only on view until the end of May 2022, the museum has a fantastic line-up of new exhibitions that you can check out during your next visit. Free to the public, it was yet another reminder that Williamsburg, through its folk art, craftsmanship, and approach to education, is a champion for art accessibility.

Williamsburg left me with the fondest of memories, and the lessons I learned seeing history through the lens of art, architecture, and design continue to inspire me. From an art perspective, what was most encouraging for me was the organized effort by the curators and staff at every single institution we visited to retell America’s founding history to include the diverse cast of characters who played a role in its success. If America is truly a melting pot of culture, its history starts in Williamsburg. I invite you to go and find your place within it for yourself. 

About Benny:

Bridging the worlds of art, technology, and design, Benny Or's practice centers around the human experience in both physical and digital realms. His work explores the narrative potential of our built environments. Beyond his artistic practice, Or is also internationally recognized for his work using social media to demystify the art world while spotlighting marginalized artists. In 2021, he launched Benny Or Studio to further his artistic mission by collaborating with artists and brands to make art accessible through mainstream culture. Learn more about Benny on his site and via social media.

Show on Press Room: