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PittsburghPart 2: National History Day or My Dorky Origin Story

Blog Author Grace Marston holds up a copy of the books Popism and Andy Warhol: THE Philosophy of Andy Warhol.

Last week, I shared Part 1 of my “dorky origin story” of how my National History Day project sparked my interest in museums and art history. This week, the tale comes full circle. We begin with Lauren Allen, the first student to contact me for help with her National History Day project….

I was delighted to help someone the way Sarah Williams had helped me. Lauren and her mother attended one of my gallery talks and then came downstairs to interview me in the same office in the basement where I had done my National History Day research 11 years ago. I knew Lauren and I would get along when I found out that she made her own Campbell’s Soup Can costume for Halloween. We talked about Warhol in the context of the 2015 NHD theme, Leadership and Legacy. I gave her some feedback on her project and then sent her off with a long list of book and website recommendations. She advanced to the next level of the competition. I was very moved when she told me that she hopes to be a student intern at The Warhol someday—sound familiar?

After my bosses saw how excited I was to help Lauren, they assigned me all the other interview requests from students doing their NHD projects about Warhol. Just a couple weeks after Lauren, I got an email from Kaylen Anderson. Kaylen lives in Wisconsin, so we did the interview over email. She sent me four questions, including, “Did his homosexuality have an impact on his success?” and “What did we take from the things Andy Warhol did in the 70s?” These questions were very open-ended, and I always have a lot to say about Warhol, so I ended up writing 500–700 words for each answer. Lauren advanced to regionals.

A young man from Washington, D.C. contacted me shortly after Kaylen. He was able to visit Pittsburgh with his family and chat with me in the museum during one of my gallery attendant shifts. When I showed him around the 6th floor, I was impressed by his insights about Warhol’s manipulation of mass media imagery. His group later called me for a phone interview wherein we discussed Warhol’s complex relationship with CBS set designer Charles Lisanby and how his commercial advertising career in the 1950s shaped his later fine art practices.

I thought my art history fairy tale had already come full circle when I began working with National History Day students, especially after working with a student who lives near where I grew up. But then I was contacted by Lydia Wei and her group from my own middle school! I wanted to do everything I could for these Eastern Eagles. We conducted the interview via email and they sent sixteen questions, so I tried to keep my answers concise. Lydia and her group made it to regionals. Another local student contacted me next. Joey Perrino came to the museum in February and interviewed me in the museum’s entrance space. We talked about how Warhol’s friendships with pop stars and socialites impacted his legacy.

A couple months later, I worked with a uniquely passionate student named Nicholas Serrambana. Nicholas is a high school student from Connecticut who has been participating in National History Day for many years. He did an individual performance for his project, a one-man show in which he performed monologues as Willem de Kooning, Gerard Malanga, Andy Warhol, and himself. In our phone interview, we talked about the transgressive nature of Warhol’s films and his romance with poet John Giorno. I also helped him edit his truly eloquent script. Nicholas made it to the national competition and earned 12th place in the senior individual performance category.

After the 2015 NHD competition came to an end in June, I figured I wouldn’t be working with more NHD students until late autumn. However, a young lady named Ambika Verma from Las Vegas is getting a head start on the 2016 competition. She emailed me in July and we did a phone interview at the end of August. I told her about the many setbacks Warhol endured throughout his career, including rejection from fine art galleries in the 1950s, police raids of his Factory in the 1960s, and the annual audits conducted by the IRS from 1972 until his death.

This year I hope to see many students apply the Exploration, Exchange, and Encounter theme to Warhol as I did in 2004. I look forward to meeting more students from across the country and sharing my Warhol expertise. Ideally, one day, a new hire will join me at the museum with a dorky NHD origin story of their own.

Lead image: Grace Marston holding copies of books she used for her original research project, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol and Popism: The Warhol Sixties.