History

I should begin by saying this informal record of Obelisk Art History is likely of little interest to anyone but myself. It's taken me a while to write because it requires that most agonizing of recreations, self-reflection. Why have I worked on this project for nearly ten years? Is it good? Why am I not sick of it? Let's see if we can find out.

V1

The very first version of Obelisk went online late in September of 2011. At the time it was called the Trivium Project, a cryptic nod to medieval education, applied to a small gallery of western artworks in a rickety hand-built Wordpress site. The world was listening to Adele’s 21 and learning what it meant to Occupy Wallstreet, and I was flush with the sense of limitless creative power unique to the newly-minted web designer.

At first Trivium appeared in fragments during late evenings. My day job at a small Minneapolis design studio required me to learn front-end development, and my weekends were spent screen-printing and drinking porch-beers with my friend Rick Love, art professor from my alma mater, University of Northwestern St. Paul. Trivium suited us both—it was a place to iron out my bad javascript and sharpen my design chops, and it was a resource for Rick to use in his classroom. Rick had long lamented the muddy Google Image results that appeared when searching for artwork (search Mona Lisa and tell me which is the real Mona amidst her myriad copies and parodies). Once I got my head around taxonomies and php basics, Trivium quickly grew into a predictable and easy-to-use digital gallery of art. For the time, it was a good-looking site.

Trivium chugged along with Rick and I uploading new artworks, and myself fussing with design and dev until late 2012, when we hit a sort of upper limit for Wordpress's post-handling near 1000 artworks. Perhaps a platform issue or a too-convoluted data structure, but both administrating and viewing the site slowed to a crawl. In January, the design shop I worked at collapsed in a cloud of mismanagement and hidden debt. With new friction and a career to pull from the flames, Trivium went on hiatus.

V2

Summer of 2015 and the one constant in my life was waking at 3am to the roaring horns of the East River ferries. My wife and I, newly married, had moved to Brooklyn to cut our teeth in the New York ad world. Nocturnal and seeking an outlet for stress and weird energy, I checked Trivium's long-forgotten analytics account—and what do you know, people were still using the site. Not many, but every day a few hundred folks from around the globe would stop by and take a few minutes to explore art history. It's wild what a little external validation can do. Late-night wakefulness once again became Trivium-time, as I drafted a ground-up redesign. New platform, new design, and a sexy new logo modeled on the rare Solomonic column.

Rick was on board of course—and Trivium bridged our now cross-country friendship. We talked about how people learn, what art means to culture, and speculated that Trivium 2.0 could be the vanguard of a new form of non-linear textbook. I read articles on Entreprenuer.com and wrote a business plan with SWOT analysis and Keys to Success. I positioned Trivium as a beautiful chimera combining the best of encyclopedias like the Heilbrunn Timeline and guided classes ala Udemy. It was great fun.

Trivium evolved rapidly while I lived in New York. The pressure-cooker of the competitive design scene and constant grind for excellence bled into my side hustle. I redesigned Trivium obsessively, A/B tested new designs every week, cycled through bolder and bolder typefaces, pushed myself to upload more artworks, and wrote a lot of artist biographies probably too quickly. I experimented with face recognition, running a poorly-documented API against my database to match user selfies with portraits to find your historical twin (I canceled the launch of my doppelgänger feature, since it turns out western art features almost exclusively white faces, a lesson Google would learn two years later).

During this time I became acquainted with a pattern that persists to this day in my work on Obelisk. Something triggers excitement—a museum exhibition, new web technology, a trend in design, and off I spin: feverish design, rapid, messy development, a tremendous burst of research and writing, then a month or so of burnout. When I'm at my most professionally busy I'm also at my most generative, hopeful, and dedicated to this strange, Sisyphean side hustle.

...

If you're still reading, you may be feeling some concern for my sanity. I'm concerned too, it all looks a bit obsessive when condensed into a dozen paragraphs. But in moments like this I remind myself that many disciplines require years of intense study and effort. Writing a dissertation might take a year, a book might take ten. In the last decade I've married a brilliant woman (and stayed married), raised a charming and precocious daughter, moved across the country three times, designed my own jewelry, and played far too many video games. Trivium, now Obelisk, is a patient passion that I've carried along the way.

...

Let's fast forward again. May of 2018 and I'm frozen in the near-paralysis required when holding a sleeping baby, typing an artist biography one-handed into a notes doc on my phone. My wife and I had moved to Seattle where I'd taken a job with Google. A new baby plus the chilly local culture meant long stretches of social isolation—ideal conditions for academic pursuits. Since its rebirth, Trivium had matured. I'd shifted gears away from endless redesigns to focus on research and writing, my library of source texts had taken over our guest room, and I went back to the basics studying painting techniques from a makeshift studio in my kitchen.

With Trump in office and education and decency on the defensive, my work on Trivium had also become quietly radicalized. I built new admin tools to let me view Trivium's ratio of male to female artists, and mapped its library by country. I'd always pledged to show the beautiful diversity of art history, but by beginning with the popular canon, Trivium's catalog was still incredibly white and male. With tools to help me interrogate my biases, I began the necessary work of reshaping Trivium to include and feature more stories of women artists, queer artists, black artists, and non-western artists.

Over the years, Rick's contributions to the Trivium library had slowed, and eventually stopped after he stepped into a new role as chair of UNWSP's art department, though we still talked art and history during my lunchtime walks along the Fremont canal. Late in 2018, Rick formally stepped away from Trivium to focus on departmental responsibilities and develop a consulting practice in partnership with long-time friends of Trivium, the San Francisco-based Sartle.com.

Re-defintion

In the summer of 2019 our family moved back east, and I settled into a new routine. Days were spent in the bustle of Google's Chelsea's office and nights in pastoral New Jersey, writing and researching on the train between. With the close of the decade feeling portentous, I decided to finally incorporate Trivium, a formality that Rick and I had always avoided, unable to ever really define ‘what Trivium was’— Classroom tool? Learning management system? Academic journal? Service? Fancy blog? Knowing what you are requires clarity and commitment, and after almost ten years working on Trivium it was time to define it.

Ironically, for all its obscurity, the name ‘Trivium’ turned out to be heavily trademarked in the education sector, so a new name was in order. Obelisk was my first idea, and after a month of exploring hundreds of other options, the first one stuck, as it often does.

A rebrand is a strange thing. I've worked on many new brands for existing companies, but when it's your decade getting a coat of paint it's a shock how genuinely transformative it can be. I incorporated Obelisk Art History in January of 2020, and shortly after rolled out the new brand and began a last, dramatic redesign. It was a hard purge, more like a deep clean than a facelift, stripping out years of abandoned experiments, forgotten infrastructure, unused javascript libraries. I removed the unfinished skeleton of a lesson management system, deleted the now ancient face recognition system, and cut thousands of lines of css. Finally, when I was unable to get formal permission from Rick to use his written contributions, I pulled those down too.

What's left is very simple. Trivium had always been a deeply personal project, whose code, design, and writing evolved in step with my weaknesses, passions, and perspectives. Now, Obelisk is a mirror of my own love for art, my fragmented and imperfect learning, and my heartfelt desire to share a diverse, wild, weird window into human creativity.


Reed Enger,
Founder, Creator, Designer, Writer

Obelisk uses cookies to measure site usage, helping us understand our readers' interests and improve the site. By continuing to browse this site you agree to the use of cookies. Learn more