At the end of this summer, ball-of-fire art historian Connie Kirker is returning home to Philadelphia with her banker husband Tom. What will she do with her vast collections of Asian artefacts? Interviewer Verne Maree found out when she visited their colourful apartment at The Claymore.
These past three years in Singapore are Connie’s second stint: she and Tom came out here for a couple of years in 1980, footloose and fancy-free; their daughter Lindsay and son Scott were born during the family’s ensuing four-year posting to London, another banking hub.
At 67, after 38 years and six mergers, she says, Tom is understandably ready to retire. She most emphatically is not. “My problem is that I intend to work forever and never to retire: I love what I do and always have. My plan was that they’d drag me out of the classroom in a coffin.”
Connie has been teaching art history for 25 years. Back in Penn State Brandywine, a campus of the state university that she likens to a small liberal arts college, she was “the whole department, teaching studio arts, art history, art education, running international programmes and so on”.
What was it like to come back here after 30 years and how have you kept yourself busy?
It’s been so interesting to see how the place has changed and developed. When we came back, I immediately reconnected with Friends of the Museums (FOM); in 1980, I had been in one of their earliest docent (museum guide) training groups. More recently, I’ve been a trainer of docents at the Asian Civilizations Museum; I also trained as a guide at the Peranakan Baba House last summer.
For anyone who likes art or history, FOM is the quickest entry into society here, because it’s not just American – so many nationalities are represented. It would be a pity just to be sidetracked into the American Club, for example, and go no further.
Giving lectures in Asian Art at the NUS and at LaSalle College of Art has been fun, too; in continuing adult education or enrichment programmes there’s no setting or marking of exams, so there’s a whole lot more immediate gratification!
Another thing I like to do is writing research papers, particularly from a pedagogical viewpoint, that is, how to teach. And I enjoy presenting papers at conferences; I aim for four or five of these a year. It keeps me active and busy, always looking for a new angle for study and research. I’m working on at least a dozen projects at any one time.
How does one get invited to speak at conferences?
You have to apply. I keep an eye on the website www.conferencealerts.com, which lists all the conferences coming up throughout the world. You make your choice and submit your 500-word abstract, and it’s free.
It doesn’t usually occur to those who aren’t academics that they could present papers at conferences, and much of the great research work that is done by FOM expats here just goes into a black hole. It’s such a pity.
Academics know that giving a paper is not a big deal: just 10 minutes and you’re done. I don’t care if my papers are published or not. It’s about the experience. They’re almost always at universities, so accommodation is cheap, and you get to meet a very interesting community of people who have chosen their particular area of research and are excited about it. I could continue doing this forever!
I like to tell people: You can’t come away from Singapore with nothing to show for the experience
Tell me about just some of these mind-boggling collections of stuff. Where and why did you acquire them?
You’re not the first to wonder – it’s always been my excuse that I teach with them, that I take them into the classroom.
My graduate work was in Japan, which explains the set of dolls for the Japanese Girls’ Day festival – though they should be displayed only once a year! – and the girls’ kimonos in the guest room; and then in Ghana and Nigeria, which accounts for the masks.
In the powder room you’ll see arrangements of dolls and puppets, including paper ones – a gardener and a maid, for example – to be burnt at a funeral. An odd custom, I agree, but a lot better than making the real people jump on the pyre!
My husband hates my costume jewellery collection the most, and so does Elsie, who comes to clean on Thursdays. When she first looked around, she freaked out and said: I don’t dust! I told her that I don’t either, and I don’t care about dust. Someone who comes to my home and sees dust is probably not going to be a friend of mine.
The tribal belts hanging on the hallway walls come from Hmong in Northern Thailand, and from Cambodia, Turkey, Guatemala and Burma – so, Teacher, why are the patterns so similar?
That’s easily answered: they’re technomorphs, or patterns – for example the Greek key fret – that are derived from the technique of weaving warp and weft together. Every single culture will invent them independently, because the patterns emerge naturally from the process.
That’s fascinating! And why do you collect baskets, particularly?
For my course at NUS on finding traditional arts and crafts at markets throughout Southeast Asia, I did a lot of research into the psychology of shopping.
The first question is why you buy things, why you feel you have to own them. Secondly – and this is what your husband will ask – what are you going to do with them? Are you really buying gifts… really?
Now we ask ourselves: what is the ideal souvenir? If possible, the perfect souvenir should (a) have historic value, (b) have been handcrafted, and well-crafted using traditional methods, and (c) it should reflect the place you’re at and have some credibility.
Baskets are great; so are textiles. What’s more, they’re both light and easy to pack.
Any more tips on shopping for souvenirs?
Oh, yes! In 1995, in 2000 and again in 2005, I taught a Basic Art Appreciation class, based on shopping for souvenirs, to students of a programme called Semester at Sea. It’s run by the University of West Virginia, and participants sail around the world in the course of a three-month semester.
My best advice is to choose one or two types of things and always go for that: for example one perfect basket from each place, or one gorgeous purse, or one exquisite salad plate; or the most gorgeous and fabulous cushion cover you can find, or a piece of textile to make into one. Choose something that’s not too big, doesn’t weigh too much, and that you can actually use.
That’s what I teach in my classes; but as you can see, I can’t manage to do it myself!
I also have a $5 rule: if it’s that cheap, don’t angst over buying it – just do it. And when bargaining, pretend you’re in a role-play. Always remember that the vendor will never let an item go without making a profit.
What’s your latest passion?
Culinary tourism is a hot topic, and I like the idea of studying culinary history. Commensal politics is an anthropology term for the rituals of eating together; it focuses on food rituals that always connect to history and to the environment in a wonderful kind of synergy.
My sister and I are becoming foodies together in the course of researching and writing The Foodie Sisters’ Merit Badge Handbook. We were both Girl Scouts, so this is a tongue-in-cheek project that’s a lot of fun. It comprises 20 assignments of which you have to do 10 to qualify.
This year, I’ve been teaching a course on History and Art of the Americas at the new Culinary Institute of America (CIA) campus here at Temasek Polytech. CIA has a fabulous school in New York, and another in Napa Valley called Greystone. It’s the finest cooking school in the US, and very expensive at US$50K a year. All 40 students of the two-year BA course here are sponsored by the Singapore Government, with the aim of training up a steady stream of outstanding Singaporean chefs. It’s a proper American BA degree that requires credits in an extensive range of subjects, including French language.
I recently invited the whole class to my home for an ordinary American Thanksgiving: a huge turkey from Tiong Bahru food market, served with the canned cranberry sauce, instant mash and instant stuffing that my kids far prefer to anything made from scratch. I also did a casserole of canned green beans with canned mushroom soup, topped with canned fried onions. It was the real deal!
What else will you miss about Singapore?
My calligraphy and art classes. Mr Tan Thye Hock at the Singapore Calligraphy Centre is wonderful, so is Mr Chong Choy, my brush-painting teacher, and their classes are a great way to meet Singaporeans. Both of them have been very patient with me and my requests to do calligraphic “happy birthday” greetings and paint Mandarin ducks for wedding presents! You pay only $140 for ten weeks at the centre, so if you have to travel and miss a couple it doesn’t matter.
What are you looking forward to?
Having lectured on the QE2 28 years ago, I’m keen on getting back into that area.
I’m also looking at a teaching role at Rosemont, a small suburban college for girls. A friend of mine there wants me to teach Indian and Islamic Art – not my main area, but there seems to be a lot of interest in it.
I’m also looking forward to returning to our home in the historic district of Philly; the house dates back to 1764, and once belonged to Benjamin Franklin. This place is very different, but some of the items I’ve collected will work really well there.
It’s going to be lovely to have all my books around me again, too; I was only allowed to bring 17 boxes of them here, which is nothing: it’s one box per shelf, and our Philly home is lined with books from top to bottom.
The Baba House
157 Neil Road
Culinary Institute of America
Geraldene Lowe Tour Guide
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Friends of the Museums (FOM)
NAFA for adult art education
Singapore Calligraphy Centre