Cultivating Community in the Greer Lankton Archive

Author: Celia Kaine

Cultivating Community in the Greer Lankton Archive

Preserving art as a form of personal history has never been a more essential process. Creation, as a reckoning with the self, brings the intangible realities of life lived to colored actualization. It’s an important aspect of the makeup of cultural history and contributes to a broader, more vibrant understanding of the world. These sentiments are gospel in archival work and have been powerfully reinforced throughout my three months working in the Greer Lankton Archive at the Mattress Factory Museum.

Under the instruction of Archivist Sarah Hallet and the Project Digitization Archivist Sinead Bligh, I’ve gained firsthand experience in physical and digital object management as a part of a more extensive digitization project encompassing a massive collection of artist Greer Lankton’s work and personal objects. In April, the release of an online archival finding aid provided public access to the extensive digital collection for the first time. An intuitive system created with researchers and the general public in mind, the finding aid epitomizes why archivists do what they do and how their work maintains the integrity of history and art for years to come. This resource allows the community to interact with Greer’s art within the different contexts of her life as a Trans female artist at the forefront of the East Village art movement in the 1980s. It also encourages an introspective examination of identity through the lens of an artist who was so uncompromisingly herself. 

During my spring at the Mattress Factory, I primarily focused on the scanning and digital processing of 2D art from Greer Lankton’s life between the years 1975 through 1996. I interacted with portraits, self-portraits, and notebooks that Greer created throughout her career, from ages 17 to 38. I also helped in overseeing final edits of scope and content descriptions for the archival database. At times, it was hard to fathom the purview of the archive, especially when I’d only worked on a small fraction of the thousands of objects, including Greer’s 3D artworks, her infamous dolls, photographs, correspondence, and even personal planners detailing her daily life. What I didn’t expect from my experience was how much the artwork and objects I encountered impacted me. It’s an extremely singular experience to flip through the pages of someone’s life and art, but it’s another thing entirely to be able to help tell their story and shine a light on their extraordinary practice. And that’s what archival work is, story-telling through objective preservation, which is made evident through the archive’s finding aid.

At the end of my semester, I had the incredible opportunity to see the payoff of all the work done in the archive with an event celebrating the release of the online finding aid coinciding with what would’ve been Greer Lankton’s 64th birthday. Along with a few former interns and fellows who had also contributed to the digitization project over the past three years, I was tasked with curating a couple of selected objects from the collection. This allowed me to share how Greer’s artwork had impacted me personally and examine the themes of glamour, gender, sexuality, and self-actualization I find so compelling about her artwork. During this experience, I met members of Greer Lankton’s family who had traveled from Michigan for the event. Talking with them was incredibly moving and solidified for me the significance of taking care in preserving an artist’s story. I’m grateful to have been a part of such an impactful project and look forward to a future in additional artistic stewardship. 

Celia Kaine, Museum Studies intern at the Mattress Factory Museum, Spring 2022

Constellations Group