When he was growing up in Dixon, California—a small town in the northern part of the state—William Simmons was active in the 4-H program, raising sheep, dairy goats, and poultry. In high school, he became a leader in 4-H—the state ambassador—and dreamed of having his own dairy-goat farm.
Flash forward to Harvard, where Simmons is now a junior living in Pforzheimer House, concentrating in the history of art and architecture and in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies. One day he looked up the subject of 4-H on HOLLIS, the online catalog for the Harvard libraries, and discovered the Eloise Saunders Papers at the Schlesinger Library. Saunders participated in 4-H for most of her life, as a member and a leader.
Simmons pored over Saunders’s papers, becoming fascinated with the young Eloise, who grew up in Westerly, Rhode Island, longing to have a pullet farm. He describes the diaries she kept from her 20s till her death: “She has all these loving descriptions of her chickens, and she combines this with deep knowledge of farm operations. She keeps records of laying, production, vaccination, feed, and expenses.”
Wanting to delve more deeply into Saunders’s papers, Simmons applied for and won a Carol K. Pforzheimer Student Fellowship from the library. Now he’s writing an article about her passion for agriculture and community that he hopes to get published. He’s getting help with his project from Jill Lepore, the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History and a Harvard College Professor. “My first hope,” he says, “is that this project will be useful for the 4-H program. I’d like to see local 4-H communities do their own research about their forefathers and foremothers.”
Simmons’s work has already appeared in more than one publication. After he discovered that the Schlesinger has a portion of Judy Chicago’s papers, he dug into them and decided he wanted to interview Chicago about her work. He sent her an email, to which she responded, and the resulting interview was published in the Harvard Independent. A longer version, which includes a personal narrative about his going to see The Dinner Party, Chicago’s signature work, at the Brooklyn Museum, was published in Notes, a magazine of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
“When I entered the large room that housed the famed piece,” he writes, “I understood the incredible potency of experiencing art firsthand. It is in this moment of discovery, of intimacy, that one can become a part of a grander narrative, specifically, the historically mediated connection between the artist and the audience.”
Simmons was so moved by The Dinner Party that he looked for more of Chicago’s work while he was doing research in the summer of 2012 at the University of Cambridge. At the university’s New Hall/Murray Edwards College, Simmons visited the New Hall Art Collection, which consists solely of work by women artists and is the most significant collection of its kind in Europe. When he asked to see their work by Judy Chicago, he was shown a set of prints called Song of Songs.
“Judy juxtaposed a print with text from a new translation of Song of Songs, in which the speakers are given gendered pronouns,” Simmons says. “So one is he talking and one is she talking.” He decided that these prints would provide a good way to discuss how Chicago’s art and the art of her generation have evolved and remain important.
In the fall of 2014, Simmons will curate a show of these prints at the University of Cambridge. Created in the late 1990s, the prints, he says, “show a lot of uncertainty about the labels we assign, like woman, man, gay, and straight.”
Planning beyond the spring of 2014, he hopes to finish his thesis on the photographer Jimmy De Sana (1949–1990)—a member of New York’s punk scene during the 1970s and 1980s—and curate a show of his work. This project has Simmons working with De Sana’s friend Laurie Simmons (no relation), a New York photographer and director who is the executor of De Sana’s estate and the mother of Lena Dunham, producer of and actor in the HBO television series Girls.
How do Eloise Saunders, Judy Chicago, and Jimmy De Sana relate to one another? “They all have potential to transform the way people think about history,” Simmons says.