Reflections from the Gallery Floor: Conversation with Derrek Joyce

“Museum guards find the lost, shepherd the confused and save runaway toddlers from impending collisions with immovable sculptures.” — David Wallis, “Varied Duties, and Many Facets, in a Guard’s Life,” New York Times, March 20, 2013

Soon after graduating from UMass Amherst in the spring of 2015, Derrek Joyce began working as an officer for Amherst College Museum Security. With a bachelor’s degree in classics and the goal of starting graduate work in art and museum studies in the next year or two, Derrek currently spends many days and nights (the Mead famously stays open until midnight during the academic year) patrolling the art galleries.

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Derrek Joyce, a security officer at the Mead Art Museum, seated in front of the Mead’s Roman sarcophagus (165–180 CE), a personal favorite. Photo by Maria Stenzel

A handful of major artists started out as museum guards, including Jackson Pollock, Sol LeWitt, and Mel Bochner. While an interest in art is a great asset on the job, it also helps to have good people skills and to enjoy chatting with museum visitors, something Derrek says he loves.

A challenge all museum guards face is anticipating the actions of children in the museum—and making sure there’s ample space between the kids and the art.

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One child can seem like many to a security officer in an art museum. Harold Edgerton (American, 1903–1990), Child Running, 1996.97

Young visitors are always welcome, including large school groups, but sometimes, Derrek says, there’s just no predicting what they’re going to do next. “I watch children like a hawk,” he says, “regardless of how well-behaved they are.” 

Here’s what else we learned from our conversation with Derrek.

The Mead has become my second home because of the welcoming staff and environment and the number of hours I am physically here. 

As an aspiring museum curator, I regard talking with visitors one of the most fascinating parts of the job. On an average day I encounter anywhere from two to two hundred visitors, potentially more if we’re hosting a large event. Each day’s group is new and unpredictable.

For a brief time in 1943, Jackson Pollock worked as a guard at New York’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which later became the Guggenheim. Photo by Hans Namuth

Students typically come to the Mead to study solo or in groups. Others come in on dates.

We occasionally see local celebrities, most notably Amherst College’s own President Biddy Martin and author and illustrator Eric Carle.

the shadow
Andy Warhol famously used diamond dust to add sparkle and glamour to silkscreen prints in the 1980s. It was someone’s job to make the dust. Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987), The Shadow, 1985.71.e

Some visitors enjoy a quasi-celebrity status of their own, such as the woman who happened to come in shortly after Andy Warhol’s print The Shadow went on view and revealed to me that she had spent a period of her career creating diamond dust for Warhol.

My experience watching visitors to the Mead has made me truly see that there is no one style of art that everyone enjoys.

A work on view that I personally love is the Late Classical Roman Relief Fragment with dining hero or god. 

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This late classical sculpture rewards close looking. But a lot of visitors walk past it without so much as a glance. Marble relief fragment with dining hero or god, 380–320 BCE. Asia Minor (perhaps Turkey). S.1937.3. Photo by Maria Stenzel

I could spend hours gushing over how there is so much there in the faded stone, and yet not enough to properly identify the figure. Many visitors walk past it without a glance.

I once turned around just in time to see a child touch [19th-century painting]] The Fawn’s LeapAnother child on a school tour opened a hidden door in the Rotherwas Room, just minutes after explicitly being told not to touch the walls. One even did a dance I can only describe as a crab in a chorus line.




Behind the Camera: Zoe Vayer, Class of 2016

For four years, Amherst student Zoe Vayer has been a mainstay at the Mead, working as a student lobby attendant and often photographing special events. She graduated in May with a degree in Environmental Studies and Art & the History of Art.

A month before graduation, many Mead staff members attended the opening of Zoe’s Studio Art Honors Exhibition at Eli Marsh Gallery. Her photo project, titled “Soil and Salt,” documented Long Island’s North Fork, where she and her family have lived since their move from Manhattan several years ago. Located on the tip of Long Island, this magnificent area is celebrated for its farms, vineyards, and views of Long Island Sound.

Zoe is back on Long Island this summer, studying for the LSAT and working with Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension. Here, she talks with us about photography and Amherst, and shares some stunning examples of her work behind the camera — in locations from Long Island to the Arctic Circle.

Photographers and other artists whose work inspires you: 
Richard Avedon (especially his photographs In the American West), Irving Penn, Ron Jude (his book Lago), Claude Monet
Do you prefer making photographs of people, places, or things? I love taking photographs of people. However, recently I have begun to enjoy landscape photography. Portrait photography has a very different purpose from landscape photography.

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“You can’t tell a goat to stay still.”  Photo by Zoe Vayer. Courtesy Zoe Vayer

I suppose I should add “or animals,” since I saw in your honors exhibition some photos of farm animals, such as goats. What’s different about working with animals as subjects? It’s almost impossible to communicate with animals. You can’t tell a goat to stay still.  Also, if they move a certain way, such as butting heads, or they look in a specific direction, you as the photographer can miss that moment. Then you just have to wait. Hopefully, if they do it again, you and your camera are ready.
Favorite camera: I would say my favorite digital camera is my Nikon D7000. However, I first learned photography using film cameras.
Own any analog film cameras? I have a collection of cameras, but my favorite and most used is my Nikon FE2.
Color or black and white? I like both; each has a time and a place. I prefer to photograph digitally in color. I can always convert images to black and white later.
Where you spent your semester abroad: I studied abroad in Sweden. One of my favorite trips while there was to the Arctic Circle where I met several Sami families. My grandfather was Sami so it was really important to me to understand my family’s history.

“One of my favorite trips [while studying abroad] was to the Arctic Circle.” Photo by Zoe Vayer. Courtesy Zoe Vayer

Best part about working at the Mead: Seeing the new exhibits and watching the changes the museum has been going through. I’ve been particularly excited about the new photography appearing on the walls.

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Zoe Vayer (center) surrounded by Mead staff members at the opening of the Amherst College Studio Honors Exhibition, April 26, 2016. Photo by Vanja Malloy

What you’ll miss most about Amherst: I’ll miss living in a beautiful place with such vast resources.


What Means Your Lordship? Ophelia on View at the Mead

Crowds are flocking to the Mead this month to see First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare, on tour from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Surrounding the 1623 book, which lies open to Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, are two Hamlet-inspired artworks from the Mead’s collection.

One is an oil painting by British artist Thomas Dicksee (1819–1895) depicting Ophelia at the edge of the pool she’s going to drown in, robe torn, eyes mournful, a classic abandoned heroine. Dicksee completed the painting in 1875, just as Henry Clay Folger ’79 was matriculating at Amherst College. Folger went on to a successful career with Standard Oil, and became a renowned collector of Shakespeareana. He founded the Folger Shakespeare Library, currently administered under the auspices of Amherst College.

Thomas Francis Dicksee (British, 1819–1895). Ophelia, 1875. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase, 1961.4

Also on view near the First Folio is Hamlet and Ophelia, a lithograph made in 1996–97 by French-born American artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). It shows Ophelia drowning in Hamlet’s embrace. Is he drowning too? Hard to say. Their figures are melded together, tied by red stripes, as if they’re wearing a single giant red-and-white striped sweater.

Hamlet and Ophelia
Louise Bourgeois (American, 1911–2010). Hamlet and Ophelia, 1996–97. Lithograph. Purchase with William W. Collins (Class of 1953) Print Fund, 2001.570

The two works give us differing interpretations of Ophelia’s role in Hamlet, something readers and critics have been hotly debating for centuries.

A visit to see the First Folio only confirms what a noncommittal mess Hamlet is when it comes to Ophelia. Read a few lines past his famous “To be or not to be?” speech and you come upon the greatest he-said-she-said (what-did-he-say?) in the history of English writing. “I did love you once,” Hamlet says to Ophelia, which he cleverly follows up a few lines later with “I loved you not.”

To quote Ophelia, What means your lordship?

Looking closely at this page in the First Folio may not clear up the confusion about Hamlet’s love for Ophelia, but the works on display around the historic volume give two distinct artistic impressions of the romantic problem at the heart of the play.

Dicksee’s Ophelia is depressed and ready to kill herself.

Bourgeois’s Hamlet and Ophelia are locked in a crazy embrace, a cloudless blue sky overhead.

First Folio! is on view at the Mead through May 31.

—Sheila Flaherty-Jones