Ghosts: Selections from the PB Davidson Watermark Collection

ghostsThe Helen E. Copeland Gallery and the School of Art at Montana State University is pleased to announce the opening of Ghosts: Selections from the PB Davidson Watermark Collection  , currently on exhibit currently until Wednesday, July 25th, 2018.

On view will be watermarks, old letters, scientific research papers, and historical documents collected by paper chemist, PB Davidson.

In 2016, while going through the archives that had not been properly scoured since 1986, HECG Gallery Director, Ella Watson, came across an old cardboard box donning decades of dust, full of files with vague labels such as “States,” and “Animals.”  With that, she stepped into the hidden genius of PB Davidson, retired paper chemist and collector. As she spent an afternoon going through watermarks, currency, and old letters, she was stunned by their beauty and historical value.  For the next semester, Watson catalogued the 460+ pieces of paper in the PB Davidson Watermark Collection.  About 100 of those pieces of paper are on view in the HECG.

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The title Ghosts, references several aspects of the exhibit from the lost art of letter writing, to the historical documents, to the dying craft of the watermark. Watermarks themselves were a once celebrated art form that are rarely used in everyday transactions, except for currency.  However, in their heyday, watermarks were once used as a protection against counterfeit money and documents, as well as personal marks of businesses, countries, and families.

PB Davidson himself,  was one of those rare types of human being, in whom science and art merge seamlessly.  His appreciation of his craft and chemical expertise overlapped with his appreciation for a craft that has since begun to die. In his lifetime, he amassed an amazing collection of historical documents, letters, watermarks, and paper—to the extent that his enthusiasm for the material became public knowledge and associates would send him watermarks of their own.PB davidson

The walls of the front gallery of the HECG are adorned with old currency and letters, heralding back to a time when correspondence was an art, before emails urged us towards brevity and shorthand. There are references to the war effort of WWII and the rationing of paper; the invention of neoprene; and even the eerie solace of knowing that the DMV was just as particular in 1941 as it is today.

In glass cases are historical documents: there is an eighteen pence from 1776, printed for New Jersey, while the US was under the rule of King George III; a handwritten letter from 1776 discussing the decision by the Continental Congress to open ports to the international community except those under British Rule; pages from a Mercator Atlas; scientific notes by PB Davidson; confederate money; and a Congressional survey, asking whether or not Hawaii should become a state.

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There are also walls dedicated to the research of PB Davidson, who while receiving the Industrial Research Fellowship at Mellon Institute of Industrial Research, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, funded by the Strathmore Paper Company in late 1920s, developed much of the watercolor paper that is used today.

Finally, suspended like specters of a dying craft, watermarks hang from the ceiling so viewers can gaze at their translucent magnificence.

We cordially invite viewers to take time with this collection: come once, come again.  Bring your tea and savor a time when the written letter was an art form taught from grade school, before emails and “the cloud” forced us to share our deepest sentiments and memories in bytes and pixels. We urge you to take time with this collection as Dr. Davidson did, and readdress the ephemera of your own life, before your computer crashes and all these important pieces of your own life, your own era, get wiped away, vanish, and become Ghosts.

Special thanks to Jane Klockman, daughter of PB Davidson; Kathleen Rabel; and MSU Special Collections, specifically Kim Allen Scott and Heather Hultman, for helping organize this exhibition. 

The Helen E. Copeland Gallery is located on the second floor of Haynes Hall. Please note that the parking passes are required for parking during the business day (6AM – 6PM).

Helen E. Copeland Gallery Hours: Monday – Friday, 9AM – 5PM/ Closed on weekends

For more information on this exhibition, or on the Helen E. Copeland gallery in general, please visit or follow us on Facebook (

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