Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Asian Art Department Celebrates History of Collection & Members

This year the Asian Art Department marks a milestone for one its dearest and most significant contributors, Bj Averitt.  Bj (pronounced bee'-jay) became a museum member and volunteer in 1963. She served as the volunteer executive board president from 1966 to 1968 and worked as a staff aide in the Asian Art Department beginning in 1976.  After over 40 years of cultivating the museum’s Islamic art collection, she retired in 2007 at the age of 85.

Bj Averitt.

Bj developed an early interest in Islamic art after traveling to Egypt as a child and earned a graduate degree in art history from the University of Colorado, Boulder. For decades her generosity guided the growth of the Islamic art collection at the museum, donating more than 60 objects to the Asian Art Department. She continues to enrich the collection with art objects representing the diversity and depth of Islamic art through the Bj Averitt Islamic Art Fund.

One theme that her acquisitions explore is the movement of people and ideas in Asia, connecting people in the East and West through the civilization of the Muslim world. Traveling along a network of trade routes knows as the Silk Road, iconography, artistic styles, and methods of manufacture were traded and shared among cultures across vast stretches of Asia.

A piece resulting from this exchange is the museum’s Bowl with Dragon, a ceramic piece blending Islamic ceramic traditions with East Asian imagery. Ceramics always have been an important Islamic art form with innovations including lusterware—using a glaze that imitated metal surfaces—and sgraffito, a technique where a lightly colored clay slip is scratched away to reveal a darker surface underneath. Other Muslim developments include using calligraphy as decoration, and the use of cobalt blue glazes that would be adopted in China to become famous on Ming dynasty ceramics hundreds of years later.

With this rich history of ceramics to build upon, Muslim artists began adopting styles from farther east and incorporating them in their local output. From Tang dynasty China (618-907), gold, green, and brown glazes were added to otherwise characteristically Muslim pieces. The Mongol invasions of the 1200s brought significant Eastern influences to Islamic art as well, particularly in ceramics and painting.

In the 1300s, another wave of conquerors descended on Persia, or Iran in present day, under the famous leader Timur, or Tamerlane. By the 1400s, they had taken control of most of Central and Western Asia. Importing fine Chinese ceramics became a fashion in this period, including pieces decorated with the famous cobalt blue originally derived from Persian mines. Local artists soon began adapting the popular Chinese style to their pieces, as demonstrated on the bowl shown here.

Bowl with Dragon. Nishapur, Iran. 1400s (Timurid dynasty). Ceramic with white and blue glaze. Bj Averitt Islamic Art Fund in honor of Ernst J. Grube. .

The bowl has beautiful blue decoration, with a serpentine dragon encircling the vessel.  With its flowing mane, wide eye, and outstretched claws, it is easy to sense the energy in the dragon’s movements. Some suggest that the bush-like cluster before the dragon represents the flaming pearl of Chinese mythology. The dragon motif was a favorite of Timurid rulers, and it appears prominently on other works of the region as an indication of contact with the East. The rim of the bowl is encircled with a woven floral motif, and the well of the bowl is decorated with a Chinese-derived floral pattern.

Currently the bowl can be seen in the Asian Art Department’s exhibition Blue & White: A Ceramic Journey, on view in the William Sharpless Jackson Jr. Gallery on Level 5 of the North Building. The exhibition features over 60 examples of the blue and white ceramic style from around the globe, illustrating how far its manufacture spread in the centuries following its invention through exchange in Asia. Blue & White closes October 14.

Blue & White: A Ceramic Journey.

Additionally, in celebration of Bj Averitt’s 90th birthday this year, the Asian Art Department’s Curator’s Circle welcomes Dr. Eleanor Sims to speak at the Denver Art Museum.  Dr. Sims is a well-respected scholar in Islamic Art and long-time friend of Bj Averitt.  She earned an MA and PhD at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York and worked in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Islamic Art Department.  Since 1980 she has served as vice-president of the East-West Foundation and editor of Islamic Art and has published nearly 70 articles, books, and reviews.  Her July 19 lecture, Collecting Islamic Art for the Denver Art Museum: Gift of Bj Avertitt, will highlight Bj’s contributions and remarkable legacy at the DAM.

Douglas Wagner is the curatorial assistant in the Asian art department. He has worked in various departments at the Denver Art Museum since 1997 and for the Asian art department since 2006.  He recommends that visitors don't miss the Walter + Mona Lutz Gallery, the only one in the United States devoted solely to bamboo art from China, Korea and Japan.