PEM to Explore Size, Proportion, & Perspective with Sizing It Up

Jan Dunning, Untitled (Bedroom) 2009. Color pinhole photograph. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Jan Dunning, Untitled (Bedroom) 2009. Color pinhole photograph. Photo courtesy of the artist.

SALEM –  This fall, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) presents Sizing It Up: Scale in Nature and Art, a new interactive exhibition in the museum’s Dotty Brown Art & Nature Center. Featuring 35 contemporary artworks, the exhibition explores visual scale – from the nano-sized to the galactic – to challenge our perception of size, proportion and perspective and prompt new ways of looking at the world. Sizing It Up opens to the public with an all-day festival of art marking, film and artist demonstrations on Saturday, October 10.

Playful and unexpected, the exhibition features miniatures, sculptures, photography and installations loaned from regional, national and international contemporary artists, as well as works from PEM’s collection. “This has been such a fascinating topic to investigate because artists are incorporating aspects of scale in their artwork from so many different areas of interest,” said Jane Winchell, The Sarah Fraser Robbins Director of the Art & Nature Center.  “For centuries, artists have played with extremes of scale to amuse and confuse us.”

One of the most cited examples is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. The story by Lewis Carroll is consistently referenced as an inspiration for artists who recognize that how we perceive the world is often a function of our size in relation to the things around us.

“As Alice shrank and grew in that peculiar world down the rabbit hole, a changing scale presented her with opportunities to observe things that she would not have otherwise seen,” said Winchell. “That’s often the ultimate goal for any artist tweaking scale: When something’s amiss, we start to pay attention.”

Sizing It Up builds on the success of the popular Eye Spy exhibition at PEM in 2010–11, which worked off the fundamental premise that the brain initially processes images at an unconscious level. “In that show, your first reaction to the artwork had nothing to do with your age or how much you knew. The same unconscious processes were happening in the 5-year-old brain and the 85-year-old brain,” said Winchell. “At a certain point, the rational mind would kick in and come up with an explanation. But in that time of not knowing, we were all on the same footing looking at a piece. Our goal with Sizing It Up is to create a similar kind of shared viewing experience.”

On view are a castle etched into a single grain of sand, a painting of a 10-foot-wide hummingbird, a true-to-scale photograph of a 5-week-old humpback whale calf and an origami bird folded from a 5mm square of paper — with wings that actually flap.

Many of the works provide a reference point to help grasp how big or small something actually is. Artist Marilu Swett’s red cast-rubber sculpture is the size of a blue whale’s heart. Once you know an adult human heart is the equivalent of two fists, the 10-foot-tall, 6-foot-wide work prompts new appreciation of the sheer magnitude of the world’s largest mammal.

Others use scale to make a point. Artist Chris Jordan’s digital print looks like a landscape scene of a beach or a desert, until closer inspection reveals the ground is made up entirely of toothpicks — 100 million of them. That’s the number of trees felled each year in the United States just to make junk mail.

Some artists choose to play with scale by working in miniature, like Wensdy Whitehead and her tiny action origami, which has to be seen to be believed. From dollhouse furniture to ship models to portraits, there’s a long tradition of artists intrigued by the possibilities of tiny. The exhibition also features eight miniature books, some smaller than a thimble, including a complete dictionary with magnifying glass and a miniature printing press. 

Much like the author of Gulliver’s Travels and director of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, artist Christopher Boffoli follows in the tradition of altering the scale of people as a storytelling device. In his world, tiny people interact with normal-size food to act out whimsical adventures. A bagel smeared with cream cheese transforms into the perfect ice fishing hole.

“What interests me is how the works offer prompts for creativity,” said Winchell. “All of these artists are looking at things around them and seeing something that the rest of us haven’t yet. By opening that window, all of a sudden we all have access to creativity that we might not have had before.”


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The opening weekend festival will be held on Saturday, October 10, 2015 from 10AM to 4PM. From massive to minuscule, explore art and nature on a vast scale! PEM combines the opening of Sizing It Up and the annual Big Draw Festival for a lively day of art and investigation.


Drop-In Art Making (10AM to 4PM): Explore Marilu Swett’s giant abstract heart and add your own heartbeat drawing to the inside of the sculpture made with a yurt frame. The activity will be held in the museum’s Atrium.


Studio Discovery (10AM to 4PM): Discover why marine microbes are called tiny giants as you investigate live organisms and create your own scale-warping art. A scientist from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and artists from the Art + Bio Collaborative are on hand to share ideas, answer questions and help with your creation. This activity will take place in a the museum’s Create Space. 


Artist Demonstration (10AM to 12:30PM, 1 to 3:15PM) Pick a nail for Nina Park to use as the canvas for one of her mini scenes. Animal face nail stickers are available for younger guests. The demo will take place in the museum’s Atrium. 


Drop-In Art Making (10AM to 4PM): Doodle in 3-D, make a pattern with a pantograph and tinker with tools and techniques for making drawings big and small in the Maker Lounge. 


Mysteries of the Unseen World  (11AM to 4PM): This film will run in the Morse Auditorium every hour. Discover events in nature that are not visible to the human eye. From microscopic creatures to actions that occur in only a millisecond, this film gives us a peek into the unseen. 39 minutes, 2013. Recommended for families with children ages 3 and up.


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When? Opening Weekend Festival on Sat. October 10, 2015 from 10AM to 4PM; Regular Hours are Tuesday-Sunday, 10AM–5PM and the third Thursday of every month until 9PM. Closed Mondays (except holidays), Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day

Where? The Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex Street, Salem, MA

Cost? Adults $18; seniors $15; students $10. Additional admission to Yin Yu Tang: $5. Members, youth 17 and under and residents of Salem are free

For more information about the Peabody Essex Museum, visit Visit their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and SoundCloud accounts for announcements, updates, photos and more.


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The East India Marine Associates of the Peabody Essex Museum and members of the Art & Nature Committee provided support for this exhibition.


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The Dotty Brown Art & Nature Center (ANC) is a dynamic, welcoming space geared toward families. This intergenerational exhibition area integrates works of art and natural history objects within interactive, interdisciplinary displays to highlight vital connections between the realms of art and nature. Activity stations, multimedia elements and a range of programs provide a variety of entry points for investigating the artworks and themes presented.


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PEM LogoThe Peabody Essex Museum is one of the oldest and fastest growing museums in North America. At its heart is a mission to transform people’s lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes and knowledge of themselves and the wider world. PEM celebrates outstanding artistic and cultural creativity through exhibitions, programming and special events that emphasize cross-cultural connections and the vital importance of creative expression. Founded in 1799, the museum’s collection is among the finest of its kind boasting superlative works from around the globe and across time — including American art and architecture, Asian export art, photography, maritime art and history, as well as Native American, Oceanic and African art.

PEM’s campus affords a varied and unique visitor experience with hands-on creativity zones, interactive opportunities, performance spaces and historic properties, including Yin Yu Tang: A Chinese House, a 200-year-old house that is the only example of Chinese domestic architecture on display in the United States.

The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10AM to 5PM and the third Thursday of every month until 9 pm. Closed Mondays (except holidays), Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission varies with adults for $18, seniors for $15, and students for $10. Additional admission to Yin Yu Tang is $5. Members, youth 17 and under and residents of Salem enjoy free general admission and free admission to Yin Yu Tang.

For more information about the Peabody Essex Museum, visit Visit their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and SoundCloud accounts for announcements, updates, photos and more.



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