Orchids & Artifacts: George Kennedy in New Guinea - Historical Figures In Oceanic Art Orchids & Artifacts: George Kennedy in New Guinea For anyone with more than a passing interest in New Guinea art, it does not take long to come across the name of Dr. George Kennedy. Normally it is in an exhibition catalog listing the provenance for some old and significant figurative sculpture from the Abelam or Karawari River areas. Kennedy was a prominent geophysicist from the University of California at Los Angeles who made a number of collecting trips to New Guinea in the early 1960s and was responsible for bringing out many masterpieces from the Sepik basin. George Clayton Kennedy was born on a ranch near the small city of Dillon, Montana, on September 22, 1919. He is said to have been educated mostly by itinerant teachers—which makes his acceptance at Harvard University at the age of sixteen truly noteworthy. At Harvard, Kennedy earned his B.S. and M.A. degrees and a Ph.D. in mining engineering and was appointed to the College of Fellows. In 1953, he was hired by UCLA to join their geochemistry department—a position he held until his death in 1980. As an experimental scientist, Kennedy made important discoveries concerning the temperatures in the Earth’s outer core, and his research into the relationship between volume change and temperature of melting resulted in what is still known as the Kennedy Law of Melting. He was also instrumental in developing thermoluminescent dating and was a pioneer in the making of artificial diamonds for industrial use. As a geophysicist, Kennedy had an inherent interest in the environment. He rallied against the pollution of California rivers and streams from the runoff of agricultural fertilizers. The fertilizers added phosphates to the water supply that created hyper growth of algae that would eventually deplete the water of oxygen, which in turn caused large-scale die-offs of native animals and plants. Kennedy’s idea was to bring in special algae-eating fish from the Andes Mountains of South America to combat the blooms—an idea that was ultimately nixed by the Department of Fish and Game but was considered revolutionary at the time. In addition to his work as a geophysicist, Kennedy was also a keen collector of pre-Columbian art and orchids. He published papers frequently on the taxonomy of orchids and was an associate editor of The Orchid Digest all the way up until his time of death. Kennedy’s search for orchids took him to Borneo, South America, Madagascar and India—resulting in a collection that was reputed to be the largest private collection in existence. I have not been able to find out whether it was his research in geophysics or his love of orchids that first took George to New Guinea. His late wife, Ruth, mentioned to me years ago that Kennedy’s first trips to New Guinea started in the late 1950s. We do know that he quickly became passionate about the artifacts and by 1963 he was making forays into the more remote regions of the Upper Karawari River and Abelam areas. Kennedy was not a casual private collector. He made successive trips to New Guinea in 1964, 1965 and 1966, amassing large collections of artifacts—both ancient and less so. His enthusiasm for the art must have been infectious, as I have encountered both old neighbors and friends of Kennedy who also assembled significant New Guinea art collections. Kennedy was collecting at a critical time in New Guinea, when the Catholic religion was taking strong hold in the villages in the Sepik River basin. The locals were encouraged to get rid of their “heathen” artifacts and take up the new belief system. Because of this fortunate timing and his innate assertiveness, in just a few short years George Kennedy built a significant collection of New Guinea art of a quality worthy to be exhibited at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (1964/5), St. Louis Art Museum, the Ethnic Arts Galleries of the UCLA Museum (1967), the Art Institute of Chicago (1971), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and twice at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana (1975 & ’79). While Kennedy obviously seemed to love the art for its own sake, he also enjoyed the chase or pursuit of a great object. Once in the Yukon at a sale of Tlingit art, he was having breakfast at a café and struck up a conversation with a local man. Kennedy was commenting on how the quality of art was not what it used to be. His companion agreed, mentioning that his grandfather was once one of the greatest carvers in the area. In fact, he had carved a totem pole that was part of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893—and, sadly, it was never returned to the family. Kennedy quietly took note of this interesting bit of information. Once back in Los Angeles, he started researching the errant totem pole and chased leads that took him from Chicago to New York, where he found out that the carving had been donated to a Boy Scout camp in southern Illinois. Kennedy hopped on a plane to Chicago and drove to the camp to find the totem pole cut in half but in otherwise good condition. He bought the piece on the spot and was able to resell it for a big profit to a collector in the Northwest who also had to ship the pole out of Illinois himself. Dr. George Kennedy battled cancer for more than a year and died on March 18, 1980, at the age of 60. I would like to thank Alan Grinnell for this and other insights into Dr. George Kennedy.