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An unexpected brush with history

Laura Somenzi
Laura Somenzi, a junior history of art major and Woodrow Wilson Fellow, curated an exhibition at the Evergreen Museum featuring the works of Zelda Fitzgerald. Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

When Laura Somenzi came to The Johns Hopkins University in fall 2009, she had no idea she would continue the university's tangential relationship with one of history's most infamous celebrity couples.

Somenzi, a junior history of art major from Colorado, had never seen the visual art created by Zelda Fitzgerald before arriving at Johns Hopkins. She only knew that as the recipient of a Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship, she would have the opportunity to conduct humanities research that would lead to an exhibition of some sort. The results of her two years of work can be seen in Zelda Fitzgerald: Choreography in Color at Evergreen Museum & Library.

"I really wanted to present Zelda as an independent, artistic entity," Somenzi says of the exhibition she curated, which opened in October and runs through Jan. 29. "I wanted to show how she approached artwork on a theoretical level, and also how she was able to use art to create an independent identity for herself, distinct from her husband."

F. Scott Fitzgerald became a defining Jazz Age figure thanks to his 1920 novel This Side of Paradise and 1925's The Great Gatsby. His wife, Zelda, was a dancer, a painter, and a writer, but her life and identity were intimately wrapped up in his fame, and she has only recently been examined on the merits of her own work.

The Fitzgeralds' initial brush with Johns Hopkins came when Zelda was treated at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic of Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1932. Zelda stayed at the clinic for just a few months, but it's there that she finished her only novel, Save Me the Waltz, which provided Somenzi with a thematic window into her subject's creative world.

In 1971, the university's Department of English acquired seven of Zelda's drawings, six of which hang in Somenzi's exhibition at Evergreen. Also on view are paintings of the artist's borrowed from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Ala.; first editions of Save Me the Waltz; and a film made in the 1950s by friends of Scottie Fitzgerald, the couple's daughter.

"(Somenzi) worked through every aspect of the curatorial process, from research and conceptualization, to loan requests and photo permissions, to crafting the final narrative and writing the text," writes Elizabeth Rodini, director of the Johns Hopkins Program in Museums and Society and Somenzi's advisor, in a publication accompanying the exhibition. "... Observing how something is created can be as valuable as seeing the final, finished product—in exhibitions, as in art."

The Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program provides funding to promising young scholars in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, enabling them to pursue independent research of their own design and work closely with top faculty mentors.

"It's unbelievably satisfying to see one's research evolve into a tangible final project and to be able to share it with others," Somenzi says. "... I started this project with a very rough idea about what to expect or how to go about curating an exhibition. I learned more than I could ever have imagined."

Read more in Johns Hopkins Magazine

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