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The American flag in all its glory

Sam Bauman
Special to the Nevada Appeal

Many shows have come and gone at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, but the current one will undoubtedly appeal to just about everyone who values the American flag.

The show is called “Long May She Wave: A Graphic History of the American Flag” and it truly makes one aware of how the flag is used, abused, admired and treasured. In the midst of a presidential election, this show could not be more timely. In keeping with the theme of the show, military families will be admitted free.

This is not your usual art show, although there is plenty of art there. There’s wit and humor, historic touches, funny items (the funeral coverage of President William McKinnley is a treasure of error). This time it’s about how the flag and its design are viewed from many points, how it is part of daily life, how business has used it, how it has changed over the centuries.

It hasn’t always been the Stars and Stripes as we know it. No formal specifications were law through much of its lifetime. Everything in the show touches on the flag, from moccasins to jewelry, from the back of a nude model (nothing offensive here) with flags plastered all over her back to a giant pair of photos of a man who torso is decorated with the flag in many forms.

Those who have never been to the museum owe it to themselves to see Reno’s premier art museum doing what it does best: Something different and delightfully original. Kids will love this show, from the flag-decorated toys to the historic flag designs from during the years. Even those who have trashed the flag before will get a kick out of the rare examples of the flag design used as a protest. Military families can take pride in how the flag has weathered so many storms.

The show assembles thousands of American flag-related objects and artifacts from the private collection of Kit Hinrichs, one of the world’s leading graphic designers and a partner in the international design firm, Pentagram.

One of the most recognizable icons in the world today, the American flag has enjoyed a long history of graphic renderings and artistic re-interpretations. Although the Continental Congress agreed in 1777 that the United States flag should be comprised of stars and stripes in red, white, and blue, more than a century passed without formal design regulations – yielding a wealth of exuberant and unbridled creative manifestations of the national banner. Far from being a static symbol, the flag has been the subject of countless graphic interpretations over its 224-year history, each version owing more to the personality of the maker than to established formal conventions.

Themes examined in the exhibition include: the flag in celebration, featuring items such as decorative ornaments, home items, and sports memorabilia; the flag in commerce, as seen on magazine covers, product packaging and advertisements; the flag in art and folk art, with crocheted flags, quilts and artists’ renderings; the flag at play, with wooden blocks, parade parasols, party horns, and various toys; the flag in politics and protest, with posters, buttons and miscellaneous campaign collateral; the flag in Native American art, with woven blankets, beaded coin purses, gloves, and moccasins; and the flag at war, with battle-flown flags from the Civil War and Korean Conflict, as well as war medals and memorabilia ranging from pennants to whiskey flasks.

Hinrichs’ collection of American flags and stars and stripes memorabilia totals nearly 5,000 objects. Hinrichs is co-author of several books, including “Stars and Stripes,” and “Vegetables and Typewise.” His work has been exhibited internationally and is in the permanent collections of the Museums of Modern Art in New York and San Francisco. This exhibition is accompanied by the book “Long May She Wave: A Graphic History of the American Flag,” available for purchase in The Store at the museum.

“Long May She Wave: A Graphic History of the American Flag” is on exhibit through Feb. 22, 2009.

The Nevada Museum of Art is at 160 W. Liberty St. in downtown Reno. The galleries are open Tuesday through Sunday; tickets are $10 adults, $8 students and seniors. Call 329-3333 or visit http://www.nevadaart.org.